A Story for Times Like These

Who has not felt tired, battered and broken, these past several days?

War and famine tear at the global community. Death in a high school in Minnesota and inflammatory rhetoric in the halls of government, all leave me yearning for something in which to hope and searching for signs that life can be renewed.

Perhaps this is what the story of Jesus’ resurrection is about–hope and renewal.

It’s interesting that Paul, one who experienced rejection, beatings and imprisonment, and also one of the earliest writers in the Christian community, was explicit about this:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

It is this message that captures the tired spirit and points it toward hope and renewal.

Everything old has passed away; see, everything old has become new, Paul continues. (2 Corinthians 5:17b)

Those who believed that Jesus’ ministry had ended with such finality in his crucifixion and death, report that death is not the end, after all.

There is more. Paul knows it’s unexplainable and beyond proving. To believe that hope is alive and the promise is renewed, requires an act of faith.

If we believe that grief and despair give birth to hope and new life, we act like it. And if we act like it, we discover it is so. Faith is the evidence of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

It’s a story for times like these.

The Red Lake Tragedy

The comments of the leaders of the Red Lake Tribe in Minnesota that their tragedy has not been acknowledged as fully as it should be drew me up short.

They have a point. As the tribe struggles to
come to terms with the shooting and deaths, the recognition of their pain is
certainly as worthy of attention and condolences as the painful events
surrounding Terri Schiavo.

Coming to
an understanding of the terrible actions of one of their own children is a
painful struggle for the whole tribe, and it should matter to the rest of us as
well. Acknowledgment of their struggle is important because it says they matter
and we care.

If we really are
concerned about the sanctity of life–all life in the human community–then we
need to express that concern. It’s one way to indicate that we are committed to
an inclusive community and that we feel a responsibility toward one another when
the community fabric is torn as the Red Lake community has
been.

If we don’t voice our concern,
we relegate some members of the human family to the sidelines, unnoticed,
disregarded and disenfranchised. This is true for communties within the U.S.
and far beyond our borders. All people
matter.

Their point is
well-taken.

Easter Sunday

On Silence

Neither Starvation nor Suffering

I was unaware of this article in this morning’s New York Times as I wrote the post below. It should be reassuring to those making compassionate decisions to not intervene as loved ones face the end of life.

As
the article notes, the use of language frames the debate. It should also be
cautionary for all involved about how words can be emotive and manipulative, as
well as highly inaccurate and misleading. Compassionate people can disagree.
But those who knowingly use words to frame the debate for political advantage
are engaging in an especially cynical abuse of language and of our
goodwill.

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
href="http://www.tennessean.com/opinion/nashville-eye/archives/05/03/67277218.shtml?Element_ID=67277218">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.

Enough Said

Tom DeLay on Terri Schiavo, as reported by Time magazine :

Bill Moyers on politics today :

Save the Soul of Democracy, Save the Courts

Now comes the next step in the politicizing of the tragedy of Terri Schiavo–the battle for judicial nominees who will support the right wing agenda in the courts.

How do
we protect
the soul
of democracy
against bad
theology in
the service
of an imperial
state?
— Bill Moyers

href="http://nytimes.com/2005/03/23/politics/23cong.html">The New York
Times
reports this morning that using this case as pretext
conservatives are preparing for a “bench clearing brawl” in Congress to get
their judicial nominees seated. Not exactly the language one would hope for when
talking about the rule of law.

Ignoring the fact that 19 judges
have adjudicated this case over a period of seven years, several court-appointed
physicians have examined Ms. Schiavo and concluded she is in a persistent
vegetative state, that a cat scan documented two years ago the atrophy of her
cerebral cortex and that her husband has reported she would prefer to be allowed
to die a natural death than linger like this, a conservative spokesperson
denigrates the whole court process because his narrow perspective has not been
upheld.

By any measure the justice
system has served Ms. Schiavo well. But justice was thrown to the wind and
replaced with special legislation that flew under the sanction of the rhetoric
of politicized religion.

This
ideology knows no limits. Bill Moyers, writing recently in href="http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0408&article=040810">Sojourners
about the whole range of issues that reveal religious arrogance,
issues a moving call to reclaim religious faith that is tolerant, prophetic,
seeks justice and, most of all, expresses the healing side of religion.

How do
we nurture
the healingl
side of
religion…?
— Bill Moyers

This
will require mature love which is more than mere sentimentality, he says.
Mature love (in the words of Reinhold Niebuhr) means being responsible; to our
family, toward our civilization and toward the universe of humankind. And such
love, Moyers says, “must lead on to justice.”

We need responsible leaders right now, leaders who express mature love and not political rhetoric. We need to end this political spectacle that is setting us against one another and denigrating to all of us, especially the sacred dignity of Ms. Schiavo.

We need a judicial system that stands straight against the winds of political ideology and does not bend under their pressure.

We
need political and religious leaders who speak and act courageously on behalf of
all of us and don’t seek political advantage in tragedies such as this.

We need justice. The soul of
democracy is at stake.

David Brooks on the Masters of Sleaze

David Brooks writes scathing critique this morning of Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed, among other leading stellar neoconservatives.

While
hoisting the flag for family values and other virtues Brooks says they get rich
by ripping off Indian tribes, lobbying for dictators who engage in cannibalism,
and profiting from their access to the seats of
power.

The sleazo-cons, as Brooks
calls them, also include Michael Scanlon, Tom DeLay’s former spokesman, Ed
Buckham, DeLay’s former chief of staff, and Grover Norquist, who is called the
“architect of the Bush tax policies” in the April issue of href="http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0504&article=050411">Sojourners.

Norquist tells Sojourners, “We are
trying to change the tones in state capitols–and turn them toward bitter
nastiness and
partisanship.”

Connected to Focus on
the Family and the USA Family Network, these operators seem to know no bounds in
their quest for profits under the banner of traditional values. Brooks minces
no words in his critique.

Do They Know What They’re Doing?

The public spectacle of the Terri Schiavo case is deeply painful to me. Anyone who has faced the gut-wrenching decision to intervene with extraordinary measures as a loved one faced the end of life, or to allow natural processes to take their course without such intervention, knows that there are no easy, comfortable answers. It’s the greatest moral dilemma we will ever face in this life.

So,
as I write I’m not insensitive to the powerful emotional issues that are
involved in this case. In fact, I’m moved to write because this great human
dilemma is so personal to all of us. This case is fundamental to our
understanding of life and to our responsibility for each other. It sends a
shudder down my spine when I think of the public spectacle that has
developed.

This a vast gray area in
which, before God and with each other, we struggle with our hopes and fears, our
memories and our dreams, our faith and our doubt, our guilt and our brokenness.

It is deeply personal and
profoundly spiritual territory. It involves a dialogue between our spiritual
selves and the Creator of Life. We work with knowledge that is imperfect and
provisional, as is all human knowledge. And we are impelled to make decisions
that have ultimate consequences that cannot later be reversed or changed. This
is also unfamiliar territory.

We
seek the solace of the Psalms (I will lift up my eyes to the hills–Psalm 121)
and the wisdom of Paul (Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces
character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us–Romans
5). We hear the comforting words of Luke the physician (Do not worry about your
life…consider the lilies, they neither toil nor spin, yet Solomon in all his
glory was not clothed like one of these–Luke 12) and we are plunged into a
conversation with God that cannot be contained by language because it goes
beyond mere words and somehow involves us at the core of our being. It is in
this conversation that we understand the enduring wisdom and intensely relevant
value of holy scripture.

We know
that the Psalmist has experienced the pain we are going through. We hear Paul
expressing our own inarticulate groans before God (We know that the whole
creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation,
but we ourselves–Romans 8). We understand the utter limits of our frailty
when we hear Job cry out to God in frustration (I can’t stand my life. I’m
putting it on the table, all the bitterness of my life–I’m holding back
nothing–Job 10).

When we are
confronted with the limits of our own humanity, we are as close to God as we
will ever be, and the scriptures reveal to us how others before us have come
before God facing the same limits and struggle to understand life’s purpose
before God. In our exposed state God comes to us and holds us in a loving
embrace, telling us that despite the pain, the loss and the sense of isolation,
we are not abandoned, even in times like this (Can a mother forget the infant at
her breast, walk away from the baby she bore? But even mothers forget, I’d
never forget you–never. Look, I’ve written your names on the backs of my
hands–Isaiah 49).

But for us it is
uncharted space and as we enter it we engage our hopes and fears, we remember
life with our loved one at its fullest and most meaningful, and we recall our
unrealized and now-broken dreams. We experience guilt at things done and left
undone, and we struggle with what is right, faithful and true, knowing that even
with the best medical information available, our knowledge is incomplete and
provisional.

Yet, we also sense
that life is more than physical processes and involuntary reflexes. We know that
the physical body of our loved one is just that, the container that once was
animated by spirit and personality that is no more; that, in fact, the spirit
may be seeking release to transition to a plane that we in our limits cannot
know.

The core of Christian teaching
is about the spirit. We speak of the spirit of a person; of the soul, the
afterlife, heaven and the Holy Spirit. We can’t define these, but generations
have sought to understand how life on this side is connected to life on the
other side. Yet, when confronted with the imminence of this transition, we
understandably shrink from it and revert to that which we know, the physical,
even if the physical body before us does not contain the energy, creativity,
personality and intellect that represents the fullness of God’s gift of life
that it once contained.

It takes
courage, respect and utter humility to confront our human limits and act
responsibly in this situation precisely because we are painfully aware of our
own fallibility and limited knowledge. It is this humility, however, that can
help us through an incredibly difficult passage. If we enter into this
terrifying decision respectfully, sensitively, honestly and prayerfully, we can
learn, grow and develop our capacities as a child of God. We can even become
stronger in faith.

Therefore, the
machinations to keep Terri Shcaivo’s body in a persistent vegetative state are
not merely painful to me, I cringe when I see politicians seeking to justify
their involvement in this
situation.

I will go so far as to
say this is shameful, harmful, dangerous and, quite possibly,
sinful.

It is shameful because the
politicians have turned an intensely personal, sacred, private decision about
life and death into a public spectacle. Crowds of strangers who know nothing of
the intricate intimacies of Ms. Schaivo’s medical condition stand curbside at a
hospice chanting “Keep Terri alive” as if this were a highschool pep
rally.

Do these people understand
how supremely arrogant it is to inject themselves into this deeply private
decision? Do they grasp how the circus atmosphere they create violates the very
sacredness of human dignity they purport to uphold? Don’t they get it that
standing on a street corner holding signs and chanting slogans cheapens and
denigrates a decision of such import that it should be considered quietly,
privately and prayerfully?

It’s
harmful because the public case built by right wing politicians from Senator
Bill Frist to Representative Tom DeLay inaccurately states the circumstances.
Surely they know that replacing the feeding tube in Ms. Schiavo is only
preserving her body in a persistent vegetative state, it is not preserving life
as we know life–sentient, expressive and meaningful. They add nothing to our
understanding of meaningful quality of life when they define it in simplistic,
self-serving, politicized sound
bites.

It’s also dangerous for the
precedent it sets; that Congress has the right to intervene in our lives in the
most private decision that we are ever called to make. Who wants Sen. Frist or
Rep. DeLay looking over their shoulder and calling the shots when we must
consider how to care for a critically ill wife or husband, father or mother, son
or daughter? Do we really want government involved in this private family
matter?

I don’t. I want my family,
my physician and my pastor in dialogue with me. I don’t want the county social
worker, the Senator or the Congressperson within a country
mile.

Why is it sinful? Because it
risks idolatry. It idolizes the physical body as an ultimate expression of
life. As creatures of God we are infused with spiritual and physical
properties. When these are in balance our lives are as full and whole as we can
ever be in a physical universe. When they are out of balance we become
distorted and we lose perspective. We risk honoring one above the other.

The scriptures remind us that when
we give ultimate honor to the physical, even if it represents our highest
spiritual aspirations, we risk idolatry. At some point in a tragedy such as
this, we know that we must allow our loved one to move on, even if doing so is
crushingly painful to us.

When we
know that we cannot reasonably expect them to return to a life of quality and
that to prolong a physical process is to prolong suffering, isn’t it time to
say, “enough?’ This is the critical point, and it can’t be decided by strangers
on the curbside or politicians far removed from the
bedside.

The absoluteness of the
political dialogue about Ms. Schiavo in her current condition is, at the very
least, debatable. To take this sacred decision and make it a political issue is
to arrogate the political process to idolatrous result.

I started this essay by saying this
pains me. I end by saying it scares me. These politicians scare me. I can’t
tell if they don’t know the limits of their own knowledge, or if they do know
and they don’t care. Either way, this is dangerous territory we’ve entered.
Making absolute claims for knowledge that is, at best, finite and provisional is
frightening. I don’t know if they are taking political advantage of the tragic
circumstances of a young woman in a persistent vegetative state, as some have
claimed, but if they are, it is beyond conscience and surely justice and
compassion will prevail.

I’d feel
better if I thought they know what they’re doing. I’d feel even more so, if I
saw even a glimmer of humility.

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