Friday, July 8, 2016

Can we accept death as normal. . .

While reading Louis Bouyer's Memoirs, I came across a couple of his encounters with the dying.  One of them was of a woman to whom he had given viaticum and who then died right away in what Bouyer describes as radiant serenity.  He described this as having a lasting benefit and profound impression upon him, significant for something that occurred at the very beginning of his ministry (when he was a Lutheran pastor).  The second is equally significant but radically different.  He had been asked to visit a sick woman whom he found to be most disagreeable (and her family).  He delayed his visit longer than he ought (his own remembrance) and then found out that the woman had died.  So deeply did this affect Bouyer that he repented of his negligence and resolved never again to postpone his pastoral duty to the sick and dying.

Pastor Bouyer went on to become a profound theologian and liturgiologist of the Roman Catholic Church but in his memoirs these memories deeply informed his pastoral character throughout his lifetime.  It is not strange for such incidents to have a profound impact upon a young cleric.  I resonated with his accounts for they mirrored my own early life as a Lutheran pastor.  I entered post-op when a member's open heart surgery went bad and she was awake only to find out she was dying.  My time in that hospital post-op room, while she was still washed with the yellowish orange of betadine and breathing her last, deeply and profoundly impacted my ministry and my appreciation for life and death.  Her husband's death before I arrived and my vigil with his dead body as I awaited family, coroner, and funeral director also created a deep and profound memory that has accompanied my whole life and ministry.  I am sad to say that there are too many occasions when I failed to honor instinct and visit the sick in hospital or home and therefore failed to be there before death claimed them.  Like Bouyer I have repented of this negligence and struggled to take full advantage of the opportunity to visit the sick before the threat of death.

Death experiences do deeply affect us.  I have watched too many people die, not nearly as many as my wife in her career in the ICU, but plenty enough.  Two of them are my father-in-law and my father -- within three months of each other.  Their last gasping breaths continue to haunt me even though those who were not with them would be tempted to say their death was merciful, even peaceful.  Therein lies the rub.  I find more and more Christians who speak of death as if it were normal, routine, and perhaps even easy and comfortable.  I cannot join them in this judgment.  I do not believe that God can countenance such a description or appreciation for death in this way.

Death is equally horrid when it comes to the physically weak and mentally fragile after eight or nine decades of life as it is when it comes to the infant or newborn who has live only days.  From our perspective we find it less tragic when those at the end of a long life die than when those at the cusp of life have their breath stolen form their bodies.  It is true that death can, indeed, be merciful to those suffering great pain but death itself is always the enemy, the thief who steals the life God gives and the curse born of the sin of Eden that has now passed to all people.  We may make our peace with death but God refuses to make peace with death.  He has done nothing less than send forth His one and only Son into the suffering of the cross and the cold darkness of death for us.  It is not that Jesus' death was merely the consequence of his suffering on the cross but that death was part of the whole salvific event by which we were saved.

I confess that I cannot judge death normal any more than I can accept sin as normal.  These are the corruptions of normal, of our natures, that came as enemies upon us and enemies of God's will and purpose in creation.  Death is never our friend.  God redeemed us from death and it cost Him nothing less than His only Son.  From the vantage point of our redemption, we know that we will not die as those who have no faith.  We are not ignorant of what God has done to transform death into the gate and door through which we pass with Christ and our own joyful resurrection.  But as wonderful as this hope and promise are, we still admit and confess death's reality with the tears of those who remain while those who have gone before now rest from their labors.

God did not create us to die.  God sent forth His Son into death to steal death's sting and to open to us everlasting life.  My great fear is that the way Christians are tempted to treat death as very normal will in effect steal the shine from the gift of the resurrection and the promise of eternal life.  The replacement of the somber tones of the old funeral rites (ashes to ashes, dust to dust) with the casual memories and banter of a typical celebration of life service testifies to me that we have too quickly accepted death as normal and therefore diminished the radical nature of Christ's work and gift of everlasting life.

Honestly, sometimes I think we ought to go back to black as the color of death.  The world has made its peace with death but God has taken death seriously -- so seriously that His Son died for us that we might live.  God refused to make peace with death and killed it for us in Christ.  The least we Christians can do is to give what Christ did some measure of solemnity when we gather to remember the dead before Him and commend them to His mercy in sure and certain hope of eternal life.  Perhaps this is also a consequence of shifting death rituals from the home to the funeral home, making memory more the focus than our hope, and fixing up the body to look as if it were not really dead.  I cannot say but I am uncomfortable when we are ready to claim death as normal and to be content when it waits for a long or full life to steal the breath from our bodies.  Not only does this fail to take death seriously as a real enemy but it also diminishes Christ and His real victory.

Finally I worry when we are tempted to suggest that there are things worse than death -- like living with pain, living with weakness and fragility unable to care for ourselves and dependent upon others, or living without the things we have deemed essential to a full and happy life.  There is a short journey between this kind of thinking and the normalization of suicide for those who have deemed their lives too painful, too hopeless, or too aimless. 


Kirk Skeptic said...

@ Pr P: as a physician I too have witnessed may deaths, but must add that the worst is the death - however easy or agonizing - of a known unbeliever, given what awaits those who thumb their nises at King Jesus.

Anonymous said...

I offer two passages from Scripture on the topic of death.
Isaiah 57: 1 The righteous perish, and no one takes it to heart; the devout are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. 2 Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.
John 14:28 “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.”
Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

James Kellerman said...

It seems that many pastors are uncomfortable with the dying--or even with the merely seriously ill. Last Friday I visited one of my parishioners at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, a nearly 900-bed facility. I visited her again on Sunday after church. In the intervening 48 hours, there were only five other clergy to visit their own parishioners. That is fairly typical in my experience, no matter the day of the week. Two to four clergymen stopping by each day--and few repeat visits.

If half of all the people in ICU are church members, you would expect at least a couple dozen clergy showing up each day for them alone. The most charitable explanation for why that doesn't happen is because the family forgets to notify the pastor because they are so overwhelmed with all that is happening at the moment. Somehow, though, I don't get the impression that that is the real reason.

David Gray said...

How many ICU patients don't have a church?

James Kellerman said...

David, it's difficult to say. Somewhere around slightly half of the US population belongs to a church. In the Midwest it would be higher than in the coasts, and in the South even higher. Since church membership tends to skew older and so does the population of ICU's, one would think that the people in ICU would be more likely than not to have a church. Of course, NWMH is a major trauma unit that takes in a number of the shooting victims on the west and near south sides of the city, which tend to be younger and less likely to be churched. But I've visited just about every hospital in Chicago and the suburbs, most of which do not have trauma units, and the number of clergy visiting parishioners would still be proportionate to what I see at NWMH.

Roman Catholic priests in the Chicago area typically refuse to visit their parishioners in the hospital. Even last rites tend to be given by a hospital chaplain rather than by the parish priest. And given the large Roman Catholic population here, that may account for the dismal numbers of pastoral visits that I've seen. But Protestants don't look as if they are picking up the slack.