“The Suicide Tourist”

The other night, I watched a documentary on PBS’ Frontline program.  The show was called “Suicide Tourist”.  It portrayed the struggle of Craig Ewert, a middle-aged man that contracted ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).  His disease progressed rapidly, as ALS is wont to do.  In three months he was already on a ventilator.  For those of you that do not know what ALS is, it is the wasting away of the muscles in the body.  This includes all muscles, the heart, the lungs everything- but your mind remains intact.  Its not uncommon for people to end up on machines, not even able to blink their eyes, but be literally trapped in a shell of a body.

Mr. Ewert chose to go to Switzerland, helped by an organization called Dignitas, to assist in ending his life.  The documentary followed his decision, how his family reacted, and the eventual ending of his life.

To preface, I watched this while my mother, who was dying of disease very similar to ALS, was still living.  I watched it again on Tuesday night.    Though I recommend this program as a naked examination of the process someone goes through to get to this decision, I don’t recommend it if you are not able to handle it.  It does show Mr. Ewert die.

So after the program I ventured online to read the comments on PBS.org’s site dedicated to this program.  The comments, overall, were better thought out than most that I see on websites that welcome comments.  But there was much about the program and the people’s reaction to it that disturbed me.

Let me state at the outset that I am not in favor of or believe in suicide as a solution to anything.  As a Christian, I believe it is a sin to take out of the hands of God the decision of when you are to die.  But I am not a hyprocrite.  I do know that I daily take out of the hands of God things I should not.  So I don’t believe I am somehow more righteous than others because I don’t believe in suicide.  Sin is sin, not matter if its gossiping, taking the Lord’s name in vain or taking ones own life.

However, what disturbed me was the way that Mr. Ewerts family seemed to easily allow him to do what he wished without even suggesting alternatives.   He was a former college professor who had decided to live abroad after he retired, his wife in tow, who was getting her PHD late in life as well, was an agnostic and obviously well educated.  But, as with many in our society that rise to the level of “education” that he had achieved, they think that their lives end at our last breath and that he is in control of everything.  When he lost that control, it was easier to say adieu.  I am speaking as one that watched a loved one die of a disease very similar to this one.  In the documentary, his wife didn’t say once that she didn’t want him to do this, even when he said he was scared.  When he said he didn’t want his children present, because he would continue to talk to them and not want to go through with it, didn’t the children say, ok then I will come, because I want you to live longer?

I can hear the shieks now.  That would be for them, not him!  He is dying a horrible death and in his own words ” I have the choice of death or suffering and death.  I choose the former.”  I talked to my mother about this documentary after I watched it during one of our many heart felt talks those last months.  She said she found it selfish and could never do such a thing.  This was a woman who needed help to facilitate her bowel movements and couldn’t swallow without choking.  This was a woman who had taken “mustard” (the stuff the nazis gassed the Jews with in the camps) in liquid form through the veins in her feet as a cancer treatment.  If anyone was ready to die many times, I’m sure it would have been her.

As I watched it again, post her death, I felt sadness for Mr. Ewert that only someone who has been on the front lines of these diseases will ever know.  I knew why he was doing it.  Any rational person would choose it.  But when something like this happens to you, rational isn’t enough.  There is more to us than a body with a disease.  We have souls-something Mr. Ewert flatly said he didn’t believe.  I was sorry for him because of that, not just his ALS.    Just because you didn’t believe it, sir, doesn’t make it false.  He said he would hope for the best, if he was wrong.  Isn’t that something we shouldn’t leave up to chance?

Then there were the comments.  So many people were angry at those that didn’t support his right to choose this.  Unfortunately, there are those in power in this world, that would love to Euthanise those that are considered a “burden” on society.  The mentally infirm, the physically ill.  This is why many are so upset about the health care debate.  You’ve heard of the “death panels”?  If it were up to the government to decide who gets care and who doesn’t depending on a line on a graph, my mother would have died years ago.  So when I see people commenting that everyone should have that right, and we should have it legal here,   I wonder if they really think these things through.

I could go on and on, but I won’t.  I get why Mr. Ewert did what he did.  But as he sipped the medication that was going to end his life to the strains of Beethoven and his wife patting his hand, I felt a little sick.  Sick that he had to go through it and sick that he felt he needed to do it.

And I wept.

Walking Through the Valley: Dealing with Trials and Thorns as a Christian

As a Christian, we hear about “valley” and “mountaintop” experiences quite a bit.  It has been written about recently in Christian publications, spoken about on Christian radio and extolled forever on social media.  What does this mean, really?

I’m not a theologian, but I can give you my own experience about “valley” and “mountaintop” experiences.    I am personally going through a very deep “valley” experience.   The list of things that have happened is pretty long in such a short time.   My  99 year old Aunt, who I am at least partial caregiver for, fell and fractured her pelvis, my kitty -which was more my baby than pet, died, I was diagnosed with Papillary Thyroid Cancer and my father’s last sibling, a very dear woman, my Aunt died last Thursday.  All this has happened since the beginning of April.  On top of the autoimmune liver disease I suffer of, this has been quite a bit.    If I were a superstitious person, I would think that I had walked under too many ladders.  But as a Christian, I am told that I am in a “season of trials”.

Let’s look first at the difference between a “season” and a “thorn in the flesh”, as stated by Paul the apostle.  Paul asked God to remove his thorn several times but realized it was something he was going to have to learn to live with.  My liver disease is an example of a thorn.  But, most theologians would agree that what has been happening to me lately is a “season of trials.”

When you are in the middle of things like this, you feel like it will never end.  There are some good steps to go through when you feel this way.  These are good things to remember if you are a Christian or not.  However, as a non-believer, you may find it more difficult to find the joy in the situation.

1.    This too shall pass.  With a few exceptions of course, most seasons of trial will eventually pass.  Will health problems not resolve and the person die?  Yes, that sometimes happens.  Sometimes healing will not come on this side of eternity.  Will bad things go on for a considerable amount of time?  Yes.  But except for a few extreme  circumstances, things will usually resolve.

2.   Accepting the New Normal.      Things may eventually pass, but sometimes what happened will cause what is normal in your life to change.  A significant health issue may cause you to now have to take certain medications, go to the doctor more, etc.  A financial set-back may make you reassess your lifestyle.  A death will cause your life to be irrevocably changed.  Don’t fight it and say “I just wish everything would go back to the way it was!”  It is counter productive and will do nothing but make you hurt.

3.   Remember what God did for you last time.  If you aren’t a believer, this may make this step difficult.  Remember how God got you through bad times in the past.  It may not be exactly what happened this time, but God uses trials and bad events to grow us.  If you have never had a person close to you die, it may be the worst thing to ever happen to you.  But when it happens again, and it will, you will be more prepared to deal with the onslaught of emotions.  If you aren’t a believer, what coping mechanisms did you use last time?  Were they productive or destructive?

4.  Don’t confuse a trial for a thorn.  There may be thorns lurking in that trial that will become permanant.  That is part of the new normal and applies to number 2.   If you are diagnosed with a chronic disease, God may wanting to work through you to help others, perhaps he wants to make sure you realize you have to depend on Him.

5.  Its ok to be mad at God.  Don’t gasp, yeah it is.  He has big shoulders.  This is ok as long as it isn’t permanant.  God doesn’t inflict pain on purpose, but he can use it.

6.  Don’t confuse a trial with a consequence.  A lot of that stuff we deal with is because we made bad choices, plain and simple.  You bought a house that was more than you can afford and you can’t make the payments.  Consequence.  You borrowed too much money for school for an underwater basket weaving degree and you can’t get a job.  Consequence.  You’re child gets leukemia.  Trial.    I could get into the sins of the father here, but I won’t.  Don’t think the sky is falling and God is putting you through something that you caused.  Can he use it and get you out of it?  Oh yeah.  Will you still have to suffer through it.  Most definitely.

7.  Don’t make more of a situation than it deserves.  What if thinking will kill you when you are going through a trial.  Don’t look too far ahead and don’t take small things and turn them into catastrophes before you know what is going on.  I am terrible at this one.  I’m a planner.  It helps me in my job and makes me a good administrator, but not good at coping with stress.

You aren’t going to get these right every time.  There are going to be times when you feel like you can’t put one foot in front of another.  This is especially true if you have suffered a death, or you have a health problem.  I speak from experience, it is hard.  But if you trust in the Lord and use good coping mechanisms you will survive it.

Life Together: What we can learn from Dietrich Bonhoeffer about Christian Fellowship

Christian fellowship has come to mean different things to different people.  To some, its a Sunday afternoon pot-luck, with rows of casserole dishes and pies made by silver haired ladies and busy Moms.  To others, its a Bible study at someone’s home.  To others it may be getting together with a good Christian friend.  We, as American Christians, have done what most Americans do to everything.  We have taken something from the Bible and made it fit into our lives and culture.

There is nothing wrong with making things fit within your cultural norms.  But with Christian fellowship, according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book “Life Together:  A discussion of Christian Fellowship”, there is everything wrong with this.  For those you do not know, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor during Hitler’s Germany.  He was executed at Flossenburg concentration camp, April 9, 1945.  The following is from the foreword of Bonhoeffer’s book:

“For innumerable Christians in Germany, on the Continent, England and in America, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death has been a contemporary confirmation of Tertullian’s dictum,  The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church; for his life and death and his writings, which throb with the simple, downright faith of one who has met Jesus Christ and accepted the ultimate consequences of that encounter in the World (which he defined as the sphere of the concrete responsibility given to us by and in Jesus Christ)–these are still a living witness in the ecumenical church in which he served.”

There is much that can be read on Bonhoeffer’s life online or in many biographies.  I highly recommend you pick one up and read.  Not only does he speak truth on Christianity, but also his words resonate in today’s world events like few others do.

Back to Christian fellowship.  Bonehoeffer says in his book that there is a difference between true Christian fellowship, that is where we are brought to community by Christ and Human Fellowship, which is where we are brought together by ourselves.  Something really struck me about the following passage:

“One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood.  He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere;  he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood.  Just at this point Christian brotherhood is threatened most often at the very start by the greatest danger of all, the danger of being poisoned at its root, the danger of confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful idea of religious fellowship, of confounding the natural desire of the devout heart for community with the spiritual reality of Christian brotherhood.  In Christian brotherhood everything depends upon its being clear right from the beginning, first, that Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality.  Second, that Christian brotherhood is a spiritual and not a human reality.”

Now granted, this is only on page 26 of a 115 page book, but what he is saying struck me as the antithesis of everything most modern American churches stand for.  According to Bonhoeffer, we have taken the truth of true fellowship, with Christ as our only mediator, and turned it into a dream world of human community.  He does state later on that there is a place for both and we can’t make everything spiritual, but if what he is saying is true, we have lost the point of being with other Christians.  That would explain why to many people they see no difference in the churches they visit than they do with people in the world.  Christians sagely say that it is because Christians aren’t perfect and we are just sinners saved by grace.  We are human, so we will act like humans.  There is truth to this, of course.  But what really is happening is that we have taken something that is spiritual and tried to bring it down to our level, instead of trying to elevate ourselves.

Not only do we begin to be annoyed by those around us and question their faith, we begin to elevate ourselves to the place of their judge.  Bonhoeffer states:

“Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes.  This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ.  Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become.  It takes the life of the other person into its own hands.  Spiritual love recognizes that true image of the other person which has received from Jesus Christ; the image of Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.”

Now, to clarify, there are all stages of Christian, and non-Christian, attending our churches today.  They may not be the level that Bonhoeffer states above.  However, that isn’t who I am referring to.  It is the mature Christians, regardless of chronological age, the leaders, the teachers, the Pastors, that have fed into this idea Church may be one great big pot-luck.  Our programs, our youth groups, everything fosters the idea of community.  That’s fine, as long as its a Christ centered community, not a group of Christian humans getting together and calling it a Christian community.

I am not a deep theological thinker like Bonehoeffer, but I can see this in congregations.  A few weeks ago, I posted on divorce in the church, how sometimes it was better just to part ways.  Bonhoeffer also states that this is true.  To paraphrase, he states that if as a community you have deluded yourselves to believe that church is a social hour, that all your human support and love comes from your fellow church members, or your Pastor, you should probably just walk away.  Our support, our love, and our help comes from Christ and Christ alone.  It is by his grace and that grace alone that we are allowed to have the community of other Christians.

“Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.  No Christian community is more or less than this.  Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this.  We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.”

So when you are having strife in your church or with a Christian brother, remember this.  If your community has tried to become anything more or less than this, perhaps the potlucks are all you have left.  Christ left the building a long time ago.