Depend On Me: Christian Identity, Community, and Assisted Suicide (a LWML talk)

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When I was younger and “thought like a child,” I felt it was a chore to come to church. When I was in high school, I used to try to sleep in late so that my mom wouldn’t make me go to church. But over time, as I “gave up childish ways,” I gradually recognized all of the gifts I am given in Divine Service and in fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ here at Gloria Dei and across our LCMS family. And I began to look forward to coming to church every week. Now I can’t imagine my life without this beautiful church, this fellowship of believers, but most importantly His gifts of forgiveness and salvation given to me in Divine Service.

Though we’re members of different congregations, we are of the same family of believers, and I love that we come together to share fellowship, support each other, and support this wonderful cause, the LWML. We recognize that this is the Christian life—sharing our joys and our sorrows.

In addition to being a member of Gloria Dei, I have also been a hospice nurse for 8 years, so I have seen many people, Christian and non-Christian, go through a lot of suffering. The dying process is not easy. I have helped people with pain, anxiety, shortness of breath, constipation, delirium, agitation, weakness, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, wounds, and more. I have seen a lot of things as a hospice nurse; I have seen the young and the old die. The dying process is not easy. Even when we’ve accepted our dying, the body sometimes take its time. One of the worst things, though, about dying is that loss of control over one’s own body.

Assisted suicide seems to be the answer to both the suffering and the loss of control. After all, Christians don’t particularly want to suffer either. They also don’t want to be dependent on other people to feed them, help them to the bathroom, or even, towards the end, to change their diapers. It sometimes feels like they have no dignity left. And having control over their own death, dictating when it happens, seems to feel like a restoration of that control and dignity to some people. But does it bring peace? Or is that the devil whispering into our ear, “Did God really say, ‘Thou shalt not murder?’” Recently, I had a patient who died about an hour after I got to his house. He was an older gentleman who had been battling cancer for 16 years; last year he had pneumonia five times, but he was only put on hospice less than 24 hours before he died. A little while after he died, his wife, a Christian, said that she wished that California would pass the assisted suicide legislation because she wouldn’t want anyone to suffer like he did. She said she knew it was a sin but that she felt God was bigger than any sin.

And I thought to myself, yes, God is bigger than any sin, but as St. Paul says, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (romans 6). Here are a couple things to consider:

First, we do not own our bodies. Our culture would say that we can do whatever we like with our own bodies, but that is not the Christian perspective. Paul says in Corinthians, “You are not your own, you were bought with a price.” God not only bought us with the blood of His Son, He has already killed us and brought us back to life, as it says in Romans: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” When we were baptized, we were killed, we were raised again, and our bodies were bought by God, and no longer belongs to us.

Our illusion of independence while we are healthy is just that: an illusion. We are completely dependent on God for everything that we have, including our good health. Though we ask Him to “Give us this day our daily bread,” when we are strong, it is easy to think we can go it alone. But when we are weak, this dependence becomes obvious. We know that Paul was weak too—he asked God three times to be rid of the thorn in his flesh, and God said no each time. God said, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” God wanted Paul to be weak, because He wanted Paul to know that he was not a great apostle on his own merits. Paul suffered, but Paul was also given great gifts through his suffering: most of all, learning complete dependence on God’s grace. So we know that God does not always prevent us from going through suffering. But we also know that He is always present in it, walking alongside us, even carrying us. Jesus did not try to escape the Cross to prevent His own suffering, but, determined, He went right through each Station. He suffered, as Hebrews says, “for the joy that was set before him.” That joy was in our salvation, in seeing us with Him in heaven someday. When we are dependent on others to take care of us, this is when we are most likely to realize that we have been dependent on God for everything that we have every moment of our lives, and that is a great spiritual lesson. Do we want to miss the great gifts that God has in store for us at the end of our lives?

And do we want the people who love us to miss out on serving us and learning the great spiritual lessons that go along with self-sacrifice, with compassion, with dependence on God’s grace? As many of us know, caregiving is exhausting and difficult. But how many people who have taken care of their dying parents, even though exhausted at the time, would trade away any of that special time with them? Dying has a way of bringing families together, of mending old fractures in the family, of making family members confront their sometimes long-forgotten spiritual history. Because we often live cross-country, we don’t come together as families as much anymore except when something like this happens. But it is time spent together that matters, conversations that occur in tender moments, that makes us realize we’ve received far more than we have given.

The second thing to consider is that there is a flip side to every commandment, including the fifth: “Thou shalt not murder.” What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.” We cannot murder ourselves or our neighbor, so what do we do instead? We help him, and we let others help us.

One of the ways we can help is by recommending hospice. Hospice is a medical service that aims to relieve suffering for people who are terminally ill, in any setting in which the dying live: home, nursing home, and assisted living. It is paid for by most private insurances and is 100% covered under Medicare. All patients on hospice have visits from nurses, doctors or nurse practitioners, social workers, and home health aides. Nursing support is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Hospice nurses and doctors are specially trained to be experts in palliative care, or symptom management. Hospice also provides medical equipment and supplies under the hospice benefit. The longer a person is on hospice before he or she dies, the more time the hospice team has to manage or prevent pain and other uncomfortable symptoms. Most people who die on hospice die in comfort and do not want to have assisted suicide. As friends and family members, we can tell people about this service, and we can ask doctors about it for our family members when the time comes.

My time spent working in hospice was very meaningful to me. Usually as an RN, I was focused on relieving my patients’ physical symptoms, but occasionally spiritual matters came up. When they did, God was faithful to me. One time I was admitting an older gentleman to hospice while he was in the hospital. The purpose of having hospice while in the hospital is so that hospice will work with hospital nurses and doctors to help relieve suffering. Also family members can have the benefit of free grief support after their loved one dies. So this gentleman was admitted to hospice with difficulty breathing. His breathing was getting worse, and he didn’t want to be put on a ventilator. I knew, and he knew, that he was going to die very soon. He was not going to church anymore, though he had been a Baptist, and he had sinned in his life. He was feeling his sin, but he didn’t know if God would forgive him. I stepped a bit out of my own comfort zone and taught him the Fourteen Words, a little prayer that Pastor Matt taught us from Luke and Matthew. The Fourteen Words are these: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” “Take heart, child, your sins are forgiven.” Such a simple yet powerful prayer. Through that prayer, my patient was assured that his sins were forgiven. He was calm, and his son-in-law, who was in the room with us, was crying. Sometimes we think that faith is so complicated—yet at the end of our lives, we hold on to the simple things. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” “Take heart, child, your sins are forgiven.”

In addition to hospice, we must continue to be mindful in supporting our brothers and sisters in Christ in our church communities. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his book, Life Together, “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer…” Pastors are very good at visiting the sick and the homebound, but that shouldn’t be just a pastoral job. We can do it too. One thing that I have learned through this call process is that we love our pastors, but sometimes pastors come and go. Still we are Gloria Dei, and we must take care of each other, pastor or not. It is ok to consider our own abilities: some people we know better than others, and sometimes we’re not able to do much other than send a card regularly. But I was surprised to learn recently how much just a regular card meant to one of our homebound parishioners and to her family—even though our ability to deliver the Sacrament to her was disrupted for a bit after our pastor left, she knew because of these cards that she was still remembered and loved. Even the little things matter. Shorter visits are usually better than longer visits, and it’s also nice to check in with the family to see if they need anything the church can help with. The most important thing is that we promote an atmosphere of warmth and love in our congregations, and we let people, especially our weakest, our “least of these,” know that they are loved. As Jesus said, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Our larger church family in the LCMS has been very honorable in speaking up for the “least of these.” I was so proud of the LCMS this year, when during the LCMS Life conference on the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, Concordia Seminary in Fort Wayne awarded Maggie Karner an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters. Maggie had been director of LCMS Life and Health Ministries for ten years, but had to resign recently due to a diagnosis of an aggressive brain cancer called glioblastoma. This is the same brain cancer that Brittany Maynard had. Brittany was the young lady who committed a widely publicized and sensationalized assisted suicide in November. Our Maggie Karner, however, is a beacon of hope and faith in her witness to God’s mercy and grace even while suffering a terminal disease. Maggie wrote a wonderful article pleading with Brittany not to commit suicide, but instead to trust in God. Maggie wrote, “Death sucks. And while this leads many to attempt to calm their fears by grasping for personal control over the situation, as a Christian with a Savior who loves me dearly and who has redeemed me from a dying world, I have a higher calling. God wants me to be comfortable in my dependence on Him and others, to live with Him in peace and comfort no matter what comes my way. As for my cancer journey, circumstances out of my control are not the worst thing that can happen to me. The worst thing would be losing faith, refusing to trust in God’s purpose in my life and trying to grab that control myself.” Maggie Karner is my heroine, and so are all of you—to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves and to have faith in God’s mercy and goodness instead of grasping our own control in the face of suffering is a truly countercultural, truly awesome act of love. God will always carry us through with His perfect love, for as the apostle John wrote, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18a) “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4) God bless you and keep you in His true faith.

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