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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

23 July 2014

Assisted Dying, Not Assisted Suicide

JCCHS ID Badge I recently began working with the Johnson County Hospice. When first asked to apply, I considered some of the ethical and religious underpinnings of hospice care. I didn’t want to get into something that would compromise my beliefs.

Death as an abstract concept can be studied and debated. Devout Christians argue whether it is blessing or curse. However, most believers are convinced that directly helping someone die, especially allowing the choice of time and means of death, is wrong. This territory already belongs to those who believe in assisted suicide.

Yet even if we don’t provide chemicals or weapons to dying people in order to speed up their deaths, not everyone believes that hospice is a God-pleasing idea. Some think that anything less than an all-out fight to the end is not much better than suicide and that because hospice points people toward tying well, with as much dignity and as little pain as possible, we are enabling suicides.

I just mentioned “death as an abstract” — yet I cannot easily stand back and study it dispassionately. I’ve buried both of my parents and a number of parishioners. Death divides us. It influences our thinking and colors our relationships. While it may release some from suffering it carries a mountain of hurt for the survivors.

Yet hospice care isn’t only for those who are dying. We’re also here to aid and comfort those who live. We encourage and help work toward reconciliation among distant or estranged friends and relatives. We provide or find respite for over-taxed care givers. We offer listening ears, open arms, and shoulders to cry on.

Spiritual care is deemed so important that even the government (Medicare) and private insurance companies include chaplaincy as a necessary part of hospice care. Yet like the parts of the program, patients may accept or reject chaplain visits. Some have good relationships with their own clergy and congregations. Others simply don’t want anything to do with religious beliefs and practices.

If they accept us, we do everything we can to work within patients’ religious beliefs. However, there come times when chaplains cannot do everything they’re asked and maintain clear consciences. This is particularly so in Middle America, where smaller hospices may only have one or two (often part-time) chaplains, most likely Christians. Yet not all who die, even among the cornfields of Missouri, are themselves Christian. Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, and others also place themselves under hospice care.

If such is the case, we chaplains are not required to go beyond our own beliefs. Nor are we allowed to proselytize those who believe differently. If the care and comfort desired extend beyond our own faith, we look to match our patients with those who share their beliefs.

Hospice Prayer All of this, however, revolves around one basic point: We serve people whose doctors have predicted a very short life expectancy. As the nurses and doctors work to alleviate physical pain and suffering, chaplains and social workers address hurts of spirit, crises of conscience, and the doubts and fears that arise.

In so doing, we don’t need to say that death is a wonderful blessing — although it can be. We aren’t tasked with leading patients to embrace a “good death.” We can honestly view death as God’s curse on fallen humanity (cf. Romans 6:23) but still help dying Christians see that this dark woe is also the portal to eternal life for those who believe in Jesus. As Scripture says, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.(1 Thessalonians 4:14 ESV)” For those outside of Christianity, we at least try to bring calm and some measure of peace to patients and households haunted by impending death.

I cannot pretend to have all the answers. I don’t even know if I’ll wage my own fierce battle when told that my death is close and nigh inevitable or if rather I’ll calmly wait for my last day. How can I presume to make end-of-life decisions for others? Yet for those who share my faith in Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life, or for those whose hearts remain open to inquiry, I do know that I will always point to Christ’s crucifixion and His rising on the third day as God’s unbreakable promise that all who die in faith will be raised to everlasting life.

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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, hymn writer, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.

Article first appeared in The Concordian of 23 July AD 2014.


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