Pastor’s Corner: He Gathers & Carries His Lambs: Dignity in Life & Comfort Through Death!
Our society is facing the question of life with suffering is worth it on two fronts: 1) our government introducing new laws that permit doctors to assist in suicides of patients who either have long-term diseases or who are near to death; 2) new and less invasive blood tests for pregnant women to see whether their child has any genetic disorders. Although these tests can alert us to needed help for these children, sadly, 90% of those who discover their child has Down Syndrome, terminate that child’s life with an abortion.
What do these two changes in our society mean? While technology introduces difficult moral questions, the even more important questions are about the place of suffering in our lives. I am well aware that suffering at both the beginning and end of life can be so intense that death is a release. But the question is whether we have the right to say: “Life shouldn’t involve suffering, therefore I chose to actively take life away!” Are we entitled to life without suffering? When it gets intense can we hit the escape button?
The Scriptures teach us that both sickness and death remain a part of the curse that all, even Christians after receiving salvation, must bear with in this broken world until the Kingdom comes in fullness. Suffering during this age is not meaningless and pointless, but as hard as it may get – suffering is the place we most often meet the sustaining grace of Jesus that is sufficient. Suffering is the place we most often truly live by the strengthening hope of the gospel. A society that eliminates suffering because it conflicts with its vision of a life of painless comfort is really saying that earthly creature-comforts are what matters most; not the grace and hope that God works in the midst of suffering!
In my dozen years of pastoral ministry, I’ve sat in my hospital rooms as families wrestled with suffering, living in the reality of this grace and hope. In that wrestling they experienced beautiful things! I’ve walked with those who have chosen to refuse treatments and extraordinary technologies to keep them alive – recognizing and accepting their dying and death. This is the kind of suffering and dying we should be trying to uphold in these days. As Karen Stiller puts it: “Palliative care, done well, leaves no need for doctor assisted suicide.”
Stiller tells the story of Lucetta Howard of Uxbridge, ON. Perched on a wrought iron chair carried by two hardy-looking grandsons, they go through wedding photographs of her granddaughter. Her life was about to end. She was facing bone-cancer at the age of 92, and six weeks after the wedding she died. She had decided to stop all her meds, and not to go to the hospital. She decided to be surrounded by family, as well as the care of doctors, community care workers, and nurses. Her daughter’s prayer was answered: “My prayer had been that she would go gently into the arms of Jesus.” (www.faithtoday.ca Jan/Feb 2016)
The stories don’t all end that way –diseases of the mind and body can so violently and bitterly rob a family member of their dignity. I have helplessly sat by and watched this too. Death for a Christian is a welcome ending of all our suffering. But it must be remembered that neither the suffering in this world, nor death itself, is the worst thing that can happen to us. Some will be sadly mistaken to find that the comfort of this world wasn’t the greatest good to be sought, nor the pain of this world the supreme suffering to be avoided! Suffering and death are earthly realities that should serve as reminders that the supreme pain to be avoided is separation from God, and the supreme comfort to be sought is to be with the Lord, even in and through our suffering. To hold on to Jesus in suffering is to believe in our only comfort in life and in death! I am not certain of all the grey areas that remain with end-of-life issues, nor of beginning-of-life issues – but I am certain that we can face them valuing the life that God gifts to us even when it is life with suffering. And I am even more certain of His promise in Isaiah 40:
“He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” Isaiah 40:11
The first funeral I attended was that of my cousin Ruth. After a stroke in her twenties that caused her accident, she lived the rest of her life paralyzed, often in a hospital or nursing home. I still treasure a booklet of the poetry she wrote. Her suffering became a testimony of God’s grace in our family’s life. Her life shapes us to this day.
The first funeral I officiated was of a blind, physically and mentally challenged daughter of a friend, whom Marianne and I taught with. Though Andrea’s family, church family, and community only got two dozen years to live with her, still through her suffering and through her joy, she beautifully shaped them in ways no one else, and nothing else could. God’s grace in Christ Jesus was through the suffering.
This past week, we celebrated a decade of life with our son Reuben who has Down Syndrome. I can’t say I understand God’s sovereign ways with suffering – but I can trust His wisdom and goodness with us in it.
Let us not be fooled. Tough questions and tough decisions about the beginning and end of life must be faced, but let us neither under-estimate the value of our lives even with suffering, nor the presence of the Lord in intense suffering. Caring for people in their suffering as death or diseases do their worst, doing what we can to alleviate that suffering, is one thing. But to actively terminate their lives along with their suffering is quite another. Let our presence in such times be one that trusts and indeed pleads: Jesus, gather your lambs! Until then, Jesus, carry us in your bosom. Jesus, gently lead us! Come Lord, Jesus.