Friday, December 5, 2014

Walking with the Dying

SCRIPTURE: Job 7:13-16
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: December 5th, 2014

13When I think my bed will comfort me and my couch will ease my complaint, 14even then you frighten me with dreams and terrify me with visions, 15so that I prefer strangling and death, rather than this body of mine. 16I despise my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone; my days have no meaning. (Job 7:13-16)

Synopsis: We have often heard and read about people wanting the right to die. What about the right to live? Caught between the rock and a hard place, how do we walk with people who are dying? In this article, I will argue that it is not what we say or do, but how much love and care we put into being present. 

A) The Right to Die

Death is that inevitable end to a human being's time on earth. Dying is the lonely journey to that end. Put together the two and we will have a potent mixture for fear. How do we walk with the dying? What if the dying want to be assisted to die? Recently, a couple of stories hit the mainstream media. One of them is Brittany Maynard's widely publicized decision to die at an appointed time of her choice.  At 29, Brittany was already suffering from splitting headaches. Married just over a year, she and her husband had been hoping to start a family. Until the headaches got the better of her. Her doctors gave her the bad news: Brain cancer. Not only that, due to the aggressive nature of the cancer she had, doctors estimated she had only six months more to live. Not wanting to let her family see her suffer through palliative care, and knowing that there was medically no chance of survival, she set off for Oregon, the state that allows patient assisted dying under the "Death with Dignity" provision by the state. She planned her final day to be November 1st, 2014.  She explained her painful decision on video and news of her decision to die triggered many responses from both pro-life as well as advocates for mercy dying.  One notable response was a letter by Kara Tippetts, who was also dying of cancer. In that moving open letter, Tippetts bared out her soul with the words that deeply reflect how she felt:
"Suffering is not the absence of goodness, it is not the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known. In your choosing your own death, you are robbing those that love you with the such tenderness, the opportunity of meeting you in your last moments and extending your love in your last breaths. As I sat on the bed of my young daughter praying for you, I wondered over the impossibility of understanding that one day the story of my young daughter will be made beautiful in her living because she witnessed my dying. That last kiss, that last warm touch, that last breath, matters — but it was never intended for us to decide when that last breath is breathed."

Those who choose to die at their own appointed time had decided it is far better to die. For Tippetts, the right to die was not ours in the first place. Two different views. Two different approaches. Both clearly understood the difficult choices whether to choose to live or to die.

B) The Right To Live

I am not going to judge either persons about their choices. It is a very personal decision. After all, who am I to tell others how to live or how to die. Surely, various individuals are responsible to decide upon their lives, just as I am responsible with mine. That said, what about the questions raised with regards to our decisions? What about the depressed who feels there is no reason to continue living? What about the people who believed medical sciences so much that they exclude any possibility of divine intervention? What if the patient can live far longer than the doctor's prognosis? Predetermined deaths will render these questions forever unanswered. Hope will be deliberately erased from mind.

I think about the words "the right to die" and wonder about the other phrase, "the right to live." Surely, if we want to be fair, we need to give the latter an equal hearing. For if life is precious, why short-circuit its value by a quick and early death?

Job's suffering is well known. Whenever we talk about pain and disaster, death and dying, Christians gravitate toward this Old Testament book. In his reply to Eliphaz, who gave him some bad advice, all Job could do was to aim his anger and grief back at God. Verse after verse, he released his negativity and pain with powerful rhetoric that reflects exactly how he felt. He despises his own life. He feels hemmed in by the nightmares when sleeping and horrific memories when awake. He bemoans his own conditions, and life itself. Given a choice, he would choose death.

We ask: Why didn't Job choose death? He could have simply ended his own life without any more suffering. Yet, though Job talked about death and dying, he never actually took that path. For he is God-fearing. He is aware of the limits of man. He understands the value of life. The reason he grieves is simply because he feels the pain of it all. Job as a righteous and God-fearing man, chose to endure the pain and suffering all the way. It makes me wonder. Job had understood that life or death is not his choice: It's God's.

C) God's Right, Not Man's

Human rights have been much talked about from the United Nations to individual countries. Though most countries agree in public about the importance of human rights, they differ in terms of how they practice it. For me, I find it unhelpful to talk about rights, especially as a Christian. The Scriptures remind us that we have been saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8); we have been bought with a price so we're not our own (1 Cor 6:19); without Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5). Even if we claim to have some kind of rights, placed next to what God had done, we are nothing. Jesus had every right to stay in heaven and not come down to earth. Yet, he made the choice to come down. Willingly without complaining. He gave up his "rights" so as to restore dignity to the human race, by dying for us on the cross. That is why we can shout out like Paul,

"Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Cor 15:55)

I know. It's easy for us to say this when things are quiet and calm. It's no problem to blurt out the nice words of God when in a comfortable place. What about times of suffering and pain? What about the people who are in deep anguish like Brittany Maynard and Kara Tippetts? As people looking in from the outside and wanting to help, we can pray. We can speak words of kindness. We can walk with them. The Bengali author and playwright, Rabindranath Tagore puts it so well what it live without fear.

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless in facing them. Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain but for the heart to conquer it. Let me not look for allies in life's battlefield but to my own strength. Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved but hope for the patience to win my freedom. Grant that I may not be a coward, feeling Your mercy in my success alone; But let me find the grasp of Your hand in my failure.  
(Rabindranath Tagore, 1861-1941)
Walking with the dying is aptly described by the mother of four, Kara Tippetts in her book, "The Hardest Peace." It is hard because suffering and pain is hard. The path of dying is hard. The cancer treatment for Tippets is very hard. Yet, there is that sense of peace amid all the gloom. This peace is beyond understanding. One key thing is to learn to take oneself out of the story and to see how one can bless others. Like Tippetts who writes:

"Cancer has given me the freedom to see my story with me utterly not in it. Sans Kara. I saw the grace of care and community when I could not reciprocate my love to the givers. Cancer showed me the beautiful community that could be built into a church that didn’t have me doing anything. Cancer showed me the gift and strength of weakness, that in the place of utter inability, Jesus was able. The beauty of the broken was the gift cancer gave to our family. Suffering taught us a new song of what ministry could be." (Kara Tippetts, The Hardest Peace, Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2014, p147-14)

Beloved, we may not agree with the people who have made a choice to live or to die. What we can do is to walk with them and to be a witness of love and care. We may not talk during the walk. We may not even have a clue of what to do. Don't fret. Your presence as God's channel of love will bring calm. Your listening will be like healing balm.

THOUGHT: Witnessing to people in pain is not about trying to be God's spokesperson to explain why this or why that. Witnessing in these times simply means showing love and care to the ones suffering. Whatever we say or do, ensure we give them the maximum amount of dignity they need.


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