Ministering To The Dying An Apologetic for Christianity

We live in a technological society. Within the past 100 years machines and electronic devices have radically altered our lives. They wash and dry our clothes, cook our food and care for it before and after we eat it, entertain us, transport us, and clean us. These machines have also become major fixtures in our health care. They help diagnose what is wrong with us, measure our physical condition, and in some cases take over functions of our bodies for us. In the future it will be more than dialysis or insulin pumps. We can expect mechanical devices to be developed that can assume the function of about every organ in the human body.

No where does this technological invasion of the human body become more obvious than in a person who is about to die. Most of us have been with someone who was near death, but which had been connected to a life support system. In addition to numerous catheters inserted into their veins, there were tubes down their throat to help them breathe, or to feed them or to remove wastes. I remember an elderly woman I visited once who was connected to all of this, but who was fully conscious and lucid. She could not talk, but she obviously wanted to communicate. I got a sheet of paper, wrote letters on it and she pointed to the letters she wanted me to write down. The first 10 letters were, "I want to die." When I realized what she was going to spell, I started trying to reassure her even though I knew she probably was near death. I started to put the paper away, but it was obvious she was not done. She continued to spell out, "but I don't want to die alone."

Our teenagers began a program of sitting with this lady and feeding her. She eventually was able to go home and credited the teens with giving her the opportunity to be back with those she loved. She eventually died at home with familiar surroundings and people she knew.

Can you imagine being in a situation where you realize you are about to die, but there is no one with you that you know. You have hardware in your throat so you cannot talk, and you are in a room full of medical gadgets run by people you have never seen before in your life. Contrast that with the following death scene. "And Jacob called unto his sons and said, Gather yourselves together.... And he charged them....I am to be gathered unto my people: bury me with my fathers.... And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people" (Genesis 49:1 , 29 , 33).

The contrast between Biblical times and today is astounding, but most of that change has taken place in the last 25 years. Dr. Alan Verhey, writing in Christianity Today, June 16, 1997, page 17, said it well: "We die more slowly today. Even worse, we do it in hospitals, surrounded by technology rather than by friends and family." Society's solution to this dilemma seems to be physician assisted suicide (called PAS in the journals). I have heard medical insurance people say that 90% of medical expenditures are spent on people during their last year of life. I do not know whether that statement is factual or not but it shows where the value systems of our culture lie. A recent report showed that 72% of pediatric surgeons felt that babies born with birth defects should be allowed to die by withholding treatment and/or nourishment. Dr. Joanne Lynn (MD) says "right now I can get an elegant $20,000 surgery for a patient at the drop of a hat, but I can't get her lunch (page 20). As pressure grows from our secular society to make suicide legal and as death becomes a more technological event, a ministry which fits the Christian system will become more and more obvious--a ministry to the dying.

Dr. Edmund Pellegrino (MD) writing in Christianity Today, tells a story about a patient that he says is typical. This patient requested that Pellegrino assist him in committing suicide. Pellegrino explains how he addresses such a request:

1) He found a good method of pain control and enabled the patient to self administer the pain medication.

2) He arranged a counselor to address the guilt and depression the patient felt due to his feeling that he was a burden to others.

3) He worked with the patient's family to help them see how their response to the illness was aggravating the man's sense of unworthiness.

Pellegrino says the patient thanked him for not answering the suicide request. "The most valuable days of my life have been the last days I have spent," he said. This is the real answer to Kevorkian and the assisted suicide advocates. Those of us with loved ones facing death or perhaps facing death yourself in the near future need to realize that the three steps Dr. Pellegrino used are available to us all--but it takes an advocate to make sure all the steps are taken. This is a real ministry which is uniquely suited to the Christian system.

Death to the Christian is not an end but a beginning. The best part of our existence lies ahead and the worst is behind. The death process can be terrifying and that is where Christians need to be involved. Each death situation is different, but to have someone who cares right there is something everyone should have.

--John N. Clayton

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