On Viewing Life From Good Friday

Readers of this blog know that I write from a perspective of faith. It’s how I attempt to make sense of life. But I’m sensitive to the realty that this may not be how you do it. In fact, it may be a turn-off. Christianity has taken a beating lately what with John Ashcroft, Jerry Falwell and Tom DeLay as its most visible public representatives.

It’s been used to sanction war, greed and nationalism. The Jesus who threw the money changers out of the temple, championed the poor, healed the sick and told the rich man it would be easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for him to get to heaven, has been turned into a pale, polite, middle class image of shopping mall capitalism.

It is Good Friday, a day when Christians pray and reflect quietly on life’s meaning in the face of Jesus’ death, anticipating hope for life beyond death. It precedes Easter, the holiest and most celebratory of all Christian sacred days when we claim the promise that life is more than we know in our physical experience. And I’ve been thinking about these things today.

It’s
been a rough time for me the past few days. The memories invoked by the Terri
Schiavo spectacle have cut deeply. I’ve thought about this intensely, prayed
about it, tried to put it in perspective.

Four years ago this July, my
spouse, our daughters and I, sat for three excruciatingly painful weeks at the
bedside of our dying son and brother. It was an experience I would not wish for
anyone to endure.

To be clear, our
circumstances were different from Ms. Schiavo’s. Matt had prepared an advanced
directive. We followed his
wishes.

His condition was different
from Ms. Schiavo’s, but the decision to not intervene with extraordinary
measures is the same emotionally devastating decision, regardless of the unique
circumstances. When Tom DeLay said that withholding a feeding tube was a
barbaric act, it was as if someone put a branding iron to my heart. It was
searingly insensitive and cruel.

I
know that as I write this, parents, husbands, wives and children are sitting in
a hospice, or a hospital room, waiting as we did for a loved one to reach life’s
end.

And they are aware of the
public debate that is raging, hearing the inflammatory rhetoric and perhaps
questioning their own decisions. They will look deeply at their motivations,
painfully evaluate negative characterizations about this most sacred human
experience and struggle with difficult decisions they must make about life
support and palliative care. The kindest, most loving thing they can do may be
to allow their loved one to die naturally without intervening, but DeLay has
framed this as a barbaric act.

They
deserve better. They deserve support, compassion, affirmation and sensitive
listening. They wait in agony, grasping to understand circumstances that none
of us are prepared for, trying to make a loving decision under extraordinarily
difficult conditions.

They face
stress now and they will face it later. Bereavement following the loss of a
child can lead to mental illness, disintegration of marriages, depression and
abuse of alcohol and other drugs, according to a study conducted by the Danish
Epidemiology Science Center and appearing in The New England Journal of
Medicine.

But they are not
receiving compassion from our national leaders and their pandering preachers.
They’re hearing words tossed about such as starvation, barbarism, euthanasia and
assisted suicide. This is more than disgusting, it’s shameful.

No loving parent wants to watch a
child die. It’s not how life is supposed to be. But rail as we might against
the injustice of it all, it happens. And there’s no way out of it but through
it.

For me, it was the most painful,
yet sacred experience I’ve ever been through; and also the most confusing. I
experienced a jumble of emotions so deep that they went to the core of my soul.
It was heartbreaking and spiritually elevating at the same time. I never felt
more alone, nor more connected to and loved by those around
me.

I became afraid of the dark, and
yet I felt as close to the presence of a loving God as I’ve ever been. I read
the scriptures and they came alive in a way I’d never experienced
before.

I’ve not written publicly
about this because it’s been too painful and too private. But I write today
after prayerfully reflecting upon the trauma inflicted by the political
spectacle surrounding Terri Schiavo. It’s been hurtful in more ways than the
politicians will ever understand. Their shamelessness intervention and the
clergy who have given them theological cover is breath-taking for its
insensitivity and lack of
compassion.

Let’s be clear that they
did not have to step into this broken family’s dispute. They made extraordinary
effort to create this trashy spectacle, betraying their own claims about respect
for the sanctity of life and the dignity of all persons. And the clergy could
have spoken of the need to offer pastoral care and counseling to the family, of
the fullness of life under God and the great moral challenges that we face in
circumstances such as this. But that is not the path either group chose.

We need serious discussion about
end of life care, genetic therapy, medical research and access to health care.
If we did have this conversation, we would talk seriously about what makes for a
life of quality. And we would discuss the insight contained in the sacred
writings and holy scriptures of the world’s
religions.

We would talk about our
responsibility to care adequately for citizens with disabilities and ensure
their rights. We would talk about preventive care and guidelines for end of
life intervention. We would talk about adequate funding for all of us to have
access to health care. And we would talk about an holistic life, a life imbued
with the sacred; life as body, spirit and
soul.

We might come to understand
that there are worse things than death, a point made by Rubel Shelly, a doctor
of philosophy at Vanderbilt University. Shelly has written the most cogent and
compassionate words I’ve seen on this issue in an op-ed piece that appeared in
The
Tennessean
, Nashville’s daily newspaper, on March
23.

For
example, if an individual cannot bear to exist in a conscious state because of
excruciating pain is that a life of quality? If a person near the end of life
stops eating, should we force nourishment through a feeding tube? If a person
with a degenerative condition cannot communicate, recognize loved ones, display
cognitive functions, think, is a that a life of
quality?



But we don’t have the kind of moral
leadership today at the national level that can help us to conduct this
important conversation. Even the Vatican let us down on this one. An editorial
in L’Osservatore Romano asks, “Who can judge the dignity and sacredness of the
life of a human being made in the image and likeness of God? Who can decide to
pull the plug as if we were talking about a broken or out-of-order household
appliance?”

Well, unfortunately,
like it or not, someone is confronted with this dilemma everyday. And framing
the question like this does not help them resolve their dilemma, it denigrates
their profoundly moral considerations. It may even lead them to prolong life
that does not “reflect the sacredness of a human being made in the image and
likeness of God.”

So, on this Good
Friday, I’m praying for the Schindlers, Michael Schiavo, and, of course, for
Terri Schiavo. I’m also praying for those sitting at the bedside of a loved one
struggling with painful, weighty decisions. And I say to you, in all humility,
that as crushing as it seems right now, you can get through.

I hope you are inclined to believe
that God is with you, cares about you and embraces you. And I hope you find
support from clergy and friends, and comfort in
scripture.



And, I’m praying that leadership will
arise in this nation that can help us recover compassion and enter into dialogue
that leads us to a more just and caring
society.

And finally, to those who
read this and conclude that I am less than charitable toward the politicians and
clergy who have been most vocal in this spectacle, I hope you understand that
how they have framed this issue is deeply offensive, insulting and denigrating
to me.

My experience with my son
was not barbaric, it was sacred, and for me to remain silent as these people
trash it with intemperate language and political grandstanding seems a betrayal
of my son and the awe-filled experience we shared together as a family at his
passing.

And I will pray for my own
ability to find compassion in my heart for those with whom I disagree so
strongly. I will ask God for the ability to respect them even as I vociferously
reject their actions.

And I will
look hopefully to the sunrise of Easter morning for the renewing presence of a
loving God who calls us to heal the wounded, comfort the afflicted, bring
wholeness to broken and to live a life imbued with sacred value.

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