Terminal

When I was in elementary school, my pediatrician advised my parents that she thought that I might have an illness that required special expertise beyond her own to treat. I was good enough at masking my symptoms, though, that my need for a specialist didn’t become imperative until I was in high school.

This illness has caused me immense suffering – suffering that for long stretches of my life has felt unbearable. I have a chemical deficiency that, if death certificates were filled out more honestly, would be listed as a secondary cause of death for many. I don’t think it would be going too far to call it a terminal illness for some – and you can very seldom tell who the terminal cases are until it is time for a post-mortem.

A member of my extended family told me that I had this illness because I didn’t have enough faith – that clearly I had not prayed about it, or it would no longer be a problem for me. I don’t suppose she would have said that if I had leukemia. Instead, I suffer from chronic depression. It is indeed “all in my head” (or at least mostly in my head) – “but only if by that you mean that your brain is in your head,” as a doctor of mine once put it. “Your head is still a part of your body, you know.”

There are many ways in which chronic depression contributes to the deaths of individuals – depression makes it very difficult to care adequately for one’s body (which can lead to malnutrition, obesity, substance abuse, and more), and makes some sufferers careless and inattentive (which can lead to otherwise avoidable accidents – some fatal.) But the cause of death most linked with depression in most people’s minds is suicide.

Many people who suffer from depression never make a “serious attempt” at ending their lives, but almost anyone who has suffered from depression has, from time to time, seen suicide’s appeal. You see, depression doesn’t just make a person feel sort of vaguely sad. The emotion goes beyond sad — depending on the person and the stage of the illness, it can range from intense bursts of the deepest sadness and alienation you have ever felt, to the inability to feel any kind of pleasure for weeks on end. It can make a person exhausted. It affects a person’s abilities to imprint memories. It can make ordinary activities seem impossible to achieve. It can even make a person’s body ache, physically. And worst of all, it feels like it will never end.

Some people find the right meds, and get better – some of these people get better forever, and others get better for a little while at least. Other people get better without medication at all. Still others go from medication to medication, and from therapist to therapist, with seemingly no end in sight. I cannot imagine how excruciating that must be.

I have been fortunate, after a fashion. Over the years, I have found treatments that have brought me into remission, sometimes for as much as 2 years at a time. Other treatments have taken away the worst of the symptoms, and left me with a low level pain that has allowed me to function for many years at a stretch. And I have lived with the illness long enough to recognize now when I am starting to slide towards the bottom – to go get help for myself before I am so far gone that I need someone else to get help for me.

But this place I am in now – this ability to recognize and manage my illness – is one that took three decades to reach. And I didn’t reach this place on my own – it took a great deal of willing and competent assistance. If, in the first fifteen years of dealing with this illness, a doctor had suggested that it was perfectly acceptable to opt out of intolerable suffering with their help – if, in other words, euthanasia had been offered by a trusted authority figure – by some expert who decided to share with me that some people never find a successful treatment – on a vulnerable enough day, I wonder if I might not have taken them up on it.

Of course, doctors don’t offer suicide as a solution to people with depression. In fact, in the United States, any kind of suicide is essentially illegal in most states, and any person with a mental illness who is judged to be “a danger to themselves” (who is credibly at risk of killing themselves) will be held against their will in a psychiatric facility. They may even be escorted to said facility by a policeman armed (oh irony!) with a deadly weapon. There they will be rehabilitated to the limits of the law and insurance, and released when they feel merely terrible again. This is not a great solution, but it could be much worse.

The Netherlands has had an assisted suicide law in place since 2002. In that country, an individual can go to their doctor and get their help in order to die quickly, painlessly, and reliably. At first this was only available to a person if they were “suffering unbearable pain with no hope for a cure.” Any kind of unbearable, incurable pain, that is, besides the pain that accompanies mental illness. Until they did start including some mental illnesses, as well as dementia. And now they’re looking to extend it to folks who are simply old and feel that they have “completed life.” How much longer until people like me, chronic depression sufferers, are included in the list of people whom it is acceptable for doctors to kill, with the state’s blessing, in the Netherlands? (UPDATE 10/14/2016: So, apparently it is not a question of “how much longer until…?” A friend on Facebook pointed out to me that it is happening already.)

Of course, as a Christian, euthanasia troubles me. From the very beginning, Christians have asserted that every life is of value – beginning with decrying the Roman practice of abandoning unwanted infants to die, and establishing hospitals, for instance. Killing those who do not fit into our plans for a tidy, shiny happy society is unacceptable. Instead, what is called for is increased support, and improved and attentive pain management when all else fails. (Shout out to Hospice – I will be forever grateful for how they helped to manage my father’s last weeks on earth.)

But it is also true that, as someone who has lived a long time under the cloud of depression, euthanasia troubles me. I am profoundly grateful for all of the many people over the years who told me, in one way or another, “No matter how much you may feel that your life is not worthwhile, your life IS worthwhile. No matter how much you may wish to die, I want you to do your best to LIVE.”

At my lowest points, it has been just as helpful (and sometimes even more so) when a person has said, “I totally get that you want to die. After all, you are in a lot of pain. But I’m asking you to wait until next week, and see if it still makes sense to you then.” And so on, from week to week.

Depression is exhausting for the folks who live around it. From time to time, some folks have had to withdraw – have not had the energy to be cheerleaders for life in the midst of the thunderstorm I was letting loose on them. They did what they needed to do to take good care of themselves.

Once or twice, an exasperated individual did lose patience with me and say, “Go ahead and die then, if you’re so set on it.” But never once has anyone (ANYone! Much less my own trusted doctor) said to me, “Not only do I believe that you are miserable, but I believe that you are right to be thinking about ending your life. Let me help you with that!”

Thank God.

I am not one who believes that a person who commits suicide places themselves outside of God’s providential care. God’s love dwarfs any meager emotion I or any other creature can muster. I myself have so much love, and no condemnation, for those who do end up taking their own lives – who cannot find any hope or reason to go on living. Nevertheless, the loss of life in this way grieves me deeply – it is deeply sad anytime a person is stretched beyond their endurance.

But giving doctors the authority to help someone end their own life is dangerous and unconscionable. The longer a person endures their suffering, the more opportunities they are given to find moments of joy and reconciliation in the days that they gain, the more opportunities their community is given to care for them, the more opportunities God is given to speak through that person’s life.

These days, almost 4% of all deaths in the Netherlands are by means of assisted suicide. Who knows how many of these people would have found that they had not yet reached the limits of their endurance, if there had not been so many people willing to release them from a burden that was not yet more than they could bear?

Many thanks to Rev. Kara Slade, who brought The Telegraph’s article on euthanasia in The Netherlands to my attention.

Extraordinary Love

For more than a decade, the “treasure in clay jars” passage has been one of my favorites. (See the quote in the sidebar on the righthand side of your screen.) But I haven’t made a clear connection between this passage and the theme of my blog (“blessed by the kindness of my fellow travelers.”)

As I was reading through some earlier articles of mine, I came across this Bible study that I wrote for the Virginia Advocate on the passage assigned by the International Lesson Series for March 29, 2009: Ezekiel 36:22-32. Since I know not all of you are going to click through on the scripture link 😉 here are verses 22-24 to give you an idea of how this passage relates to the passage from 2 Corinthians:

Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.

The paragraphs below appear by permission, printed just as they were published in the March 2009 issue of the Virginia Advocate. They recount an experience from when I served as one of several teaching assistants to Dr. J. Kameron Carter. Among other duties, we each led at least one section of students in an hour long seminar to complement Dr. Carter’s lectures in Christian Theology at Duke Divinity School.

In class one day, one of the students was unable to contain himself. “I don’t think that we take suffering seriously at all. We are too busy. We always want to move on too quickly, and get on with the ‘more important’ things.”

“You’re right,” I agreed. “Other people’s suffering makes us uncomfortable, and often seems like an interruption. As Christians we are called to be present with others in their suffering. Unfortunately we have a lot of ground to cover today,” and then, with an ironic smile, I added, “So – moving on…”

The class burst into laughter and we did indeed move on. But the student’s anguished plea stayed with me in the days that followed. If I wasn’t willing to dwell with the pain of the students in the learning process, then I was failing to adequately proclaim the gospel in my teaching. Then it came to me – I had often asserted that every theological question we ask is at bottom a pastoral question – here was an opportunity to demonstrate that as a way of attending to my students’ needs.

When the day came for us to meet together as a class again, I was so excited! I was looking forward to what our time together might hold. And then the thought came to me: “Now everyone will see what a wonderful teacher I am.”

Right away I had to laugh at myself. What a sad little clay jar I was, wanting to make it all about me. But, as Paul reminds us, “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord… this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” (2 Cor, 4:4, NRSV)

The lesson in the end was not a demonstration of my (imagined) extraordinary power, but of God’s: God who inspired the student to care enough to interrupt the lesson, God who kept the student’s complaint ever before me in the days that followed, and God who opened the hearts of all the students to participate in the exercises I prepared with trust and hopefulness. Above all, the lesson focused on the extraordinary power of God’s love for us.

Sometimes the exhilaration of bringing the good news to others can tempt us to forget that the good news is not about us and how wonderful we are – it is about God’s wonderful love for all people.

I am grateful to have been a witness to God at work in and through ordinary events and broken individuals of mixed motives – demonstrations of a tireless love that are not for any one person’s sake, nor even for the sake of any one faith or nation, but for every living creature.  How wonderful!  How extraordinary!

The beam in my eye

Every parent has their own discipline strategies. When I was growing up, my father’s approach was to quote scripture. Let me assure you, when you hear “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God has given you,” coming out of the mouth of your own Dad, it sounds more like a threat than a promise!
Dad had a scripture for almost every occasion (that I could not hate my brother or sister and love God was particularly unnerving), though he was not above using Dr. Seuss when an appropriate Biblical text could not be found. His real go-to passage was the Sermon on the Mount. I remember many times being told that I wasn’t adding an inch to my height by worrying, or (when I was gloating over my good behavior) that I shouldn’t let my right hand know what the left was doing. The one that really stuck with me, though, and became foundational for my spiritual growth, was the ready proof text against tattling – the admonition to first take the beam out of my own eye before taking the mote out of my sister or brother’s eye. (“What’s a mote, Dad?” “Don’t talk back! Honor your father…” Yikes!)
While I have not been using scripture in this way with my own daughter, there is something to be said for growing up hearing these verses every day:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matt. 7:1-5, RSV)

The result for myself – and I think for my sister and brother as well, has been to live lives of introspection – so that, when we find ourselves judging another, we are conditioned to stop and instead take stock of ourselves. No matter how long we have walked with God, Teresa of Avila asserted, we can always find fresh insights in the first room of the Interior Castle – the room of self-examination.
So, after years of doing my inadequate best to live by the rule of Matthew 7:1-5, it has been a great surprise to discover a way to read the passage anew. For this I have to thank Dr. J. Kameron Carter of Duke Divinity School, who recently blogged about Haiti and the theodicy question. I encourage you to read it yourselves! As I read it, and considered his suggestion that we often frame the question of “Why does God let suffering occur?,” as a way of avoiding our own culpability, it occurred to me that Carter was providing us with a reread of Matthew. In these instances, when we judge God, we are plucking a supposed speck out of God’s eye, blinded by the log that is in our own. Which takes the defense of God from an abstract “who can see well enough to judge God?,” instead concretizing the question to one of self-examination – “Have I lived in such a way to enable my faith community to embody Christ in the world well? How have we failed to embody Christ for others?” It is not piety to turn our eyes to God in order to take the attention off our own destructive behavior. In fact, it is downright unscriptural.
This idea of Dr. Carter’s and my reflection upon it has inspired me to take a totally different direction with Sunday school this Lent than I had intended. Lent is traditionally a time for confession – that is, for self-examination – in the Church year. We will be focusing on how we as Church embody Christ, and how we fail to embody Christ – how do we cause, prevent, alleviate, or exacerbate the suffering in the world? I hope that, if you find yourself in Durham, you will be able to join us one Sunday morning at 10am in the parlor of Trinity UMC, as we reframe the “problem of suffering” question in light of our identities as members of the Body of Christ.