The Importance of Seniors….
One of the interesting realities that sociologists are reporting is that there is a growing interest in spiritual things in our wider communities. People are looking for something more. People are even looking for God, but that does not translate into an interest in church. As we were talking last week we have a huge issue with the institution, and a feeling that church will suck life out of me rather than helping me find life. I think people have a fear they’ll be required to believe certain things like gays are going to hell. They fear that if you set foot in a church you’ll be hit up for money or put on a committee. They wonder if time is so precious why bother with church. You’ll have to give up enjoying life and conform. We have plenty of work to do to be a community that promotes life as Jesus intended!
However I remain interested in the reality that people who have been hooked into consumerism and materialism are searching for something more because these religions don’t offer life. I think the image of Zacchaeus is an important one for us. Zacchaeus was a rather unpopular fellow who had become an outsider within his community because he had grown rich at others expense. He was a lonely man despite his wealth and he was someone who recognised a hole inside. There was a hunger for something more, a gnawing sense that something wasn’t right, peaceful. People were talking about Jesus and he hid up a tree to catch a glimpse of him as he passed through Jericho. He wanted to engage but actually he didn’t feel comfortable facing Jesus, so he watched from a distance – hidden and unnoticed. But he was noticed by the one who valued all people. Even hidden in the tree Jesus noticed him and said ‘let’s have a talk’. Over a coffee and lunch they engaged in conversation and Zacchaeus decided to become a Jesus follower in his life. I wonder….. are there Zacchaeus’s out there in our wider society? Are there people who have some sense of hole, some sense that maybe they are missing something… some sense that church isn’t all bad and might just be a place where they could find life. How might we engage them in conversation? Who might engage them in conversation?
I want to dig a little. One of the things I’ve discovered as I’ve looked at the future is that there is a very interesting change occurring in our demographics. In line with most western countries Christchurch is seeing the effects of the growth in numbers of older adults. In the past century the number of adults over the age of 65 has increased by about 10 times. People are living longer and we are feeling the effects of the boom in population post the Second World War. That’s the group that is called the boomers. Those born between about 1945-1964. In Christchurch in the year 2000 the median age was 35. Half the people were under 35 and half the population over 35. By 2043 this is projected by Statistics NZ to have climbed to 43. That’s a very significant increase. The 65+ age group used to be the smallest grouping but now it’s climbing fast. In fact the numbers in this age grouping are going to almost double in the next 20 or so years. The next most significant increase is the 40-64years age group.
What does this mean for us?
As we have more people in the older age groups, or another way of saying this is people who are entering the third phase of life, this will present challenges and opportunities for churches. While the knee jerk reaction in many traditional congregations is to say we need to focus energy on developing our youth ministry so we get more young people, a better reaction may be to say we need to have a focus on our ministry to older people. This is where we currently have ‘strength’ and it is where we are most likely to connect with others. It is also a growth market as the projections above indicate. If we do want to focus energy on families and younger people (and hopefully we do) we probably need to do this with a new and different discipleship and worship format.
People who are entering the third phase of life were traditionally called the retirees. The generation before the boomers were a generation who looked forward to hanging up their boots, but boomers want to keep active in some fashion after they retire. They have better health prospects and many will have part time jobs. Actually many boomers want to work at things that they have a personal interest in, and where they feel they can make a difference in society. Having worked for the past 40 years in a defined job they see the so called retired years as a chance to live out their inner dream in the third phase of life. This is not a time to hang up boots but potentially is the time to make a difference. Often they are financially secure and have skills of influence. They may want the flexibility to travel, spend time with family, take time for leisure, but many are wanting to give something back. One of the drivers for boomers is that they are searching for purpose. They want their lives to be productive and meaningful, and rather than seeing life slowing down they see the third phase of life as holding exciting possibilities. Some at least are looking for a spiritual ‘beyond me’ dimension. Some are looking to serving their community in some way.
It’s probably helpful to divide the third phase into two areas. I hesitate to put any age onto these areas as exceptions abound. Malaysia has just elected a 92 year old Prime Minister! But seniors are generally in the 80+ age group. They may no longer be driving but they have wisdom and can offer great encouragement and prayer. They know death is just around the corner because constantly those around are dying. They are often isolated and lonely. As a church we have a responsibility to care and to speak often of the enduring love of God. Around Christchurch I see a number of churches running short midweek services for people sometimes with a simple meal and other activities attached. Maybe a sit and keep fit class, maybe a game of cards. Human interaction is vital. I see such groups develop a strong sense of companionship. Stories are told, pictures shared of grandchildren and great grandchildren. Memories are valued. There is an underlying message that lives are valued. I see real potential to develop our Homeshare Plus or as we now are calling it South Elder Care programme. I wonder what it would look like if we employed someone to run it and develop it, not just for those with dementia or other issues but for all the 80 pluses?
The 60-80 year olds have more energy. They are changing focus. They are discovering life outside of work and outside of having kids at home. There may be a new focus on grandchildren, and elderly parents, but there is often a looking at life as an opportunity to do the things that are really important to me. There is an opportunity to engage with the God dream or soul within. So for example we could encourage groups that engage the physical, mental, relational, and spiritual. We have a waking group, but what about a tramping group, a book/movie group, a travel group, a men’s shed, a mission group, an art group, a singing group. But what is essential is to keep a spiritual focus and to keep asking questions about listening to one’s soul, discovering the God dream, serving with purpose to shape a better world. Some mentioned in our little survey last week of the desire to have a discussion group. What is the Bible about, what does retirement look like for a Christian, how do we invest wisely, and other ethical issues. A mission group could be a regular trip to Vanuatu to undertake an activity that builds bonds with locals but also offers assistance. Along the way there would be a bike trip to have some fun. A mission group could have a creation focus eg caring for a stretch of the Heathcote, providing assistance with low cost housing and teaching skills of gardening. Groups begin with conversations about dreams and passions of God. Remember back to the story of Pentecost and the observation that a little flame came upon every person. There is a God given passion or flame within each of us. A God dream within each of us. Sadly those flames are usually starved of oxygen and never get beyond a gentle smoulder as we wait for someone else to do something. Again a major stumbling block always seems to be leadership and maybe we simply need to employ someone to lead, or maybe we start with more conversations about our passions and God dreams. What is does our unique flame look like?
There aren’t too many big sycamore trees around our area thank goodness where people like Zacchaeus may be hiding, but there are people like Zacchaeus who are hearing God whispering into their lives. Plenty of those people are over 60…. Plenty of those people are hungering for community not only with God but with others. Our church, you and I surely have to speak and invite those people into conversation and connection.
Dugald Wilson 20 May 2018
Category Archives: Sermons
The Importance of Seniors….
Things have changed. Back in the 1950’s when the current St Martins church building was built the vision was that there would be a Presbyterian Church within 15-20 minutes walk of everyone in Christchurch. Congregations were neighbourhood churches, serving the needs of the people of the suburb they were in. St Martins Presbyterian church was to serve the people of St Martins suburb. St Peter’s in Ferry Road served Woolston, St David’s served Sydenham, St James served Spreydon. A key function of the parish church was to provide a worship event to which people would come to worship and nurture faith, to teach children about Jesus and the Christian faith, and to provide pastoral care in the parish, the neighbourhood near to the church. People learned the basics of faith and how to be good people and citizens in Sunday School and the faithful then received regular top ups at weekly worship..
This model is now no longer operative. More than two thirds of us here live outside the St Martins suburb. Most of us now drive a vehicle to worship. The area we now draw from includes Woolston, Opawa, Waltham, Spreydon, Somerfield, Sydenham, Beckenham, Hoon Hay, and further afield to Lyttelton, Westmorland etc. The reality is that we are a gathered church that happens to have our focal building and base in the suburb of St Martins. We are clearly no longer the parish church of St Martins although of course our church building is located in St Martins.
But there are other changes too. We no longer have a thriving Sunday School and our means of growing new disciples in faith are broken. Actually they’ve been broken a long time. The wider community now places little value in our pastoral care. If you have a crisis in your life it’s not a minister you’ll think of seeing but a counsellor, and with all due respect to my older ministerial colleagues that’s actually not a bad thing. Many funerals, weddings, and naming of children are now secular affairs and the church is seen to be largely irrelevant in offering meaning and ritual to mark key transitions in life. The Christian worldview is now one of many with the dominant religion now consumerism or materialism. Christian ethics and morals are often considered outdated and the church’s voice on questions and issues facing society outmoded. Christians are a dwindling small minority group. Sociologists tell us we now live in a post Christian world. Things have changed. Our context has changed.
I believe we have something of great value to offer. I believe God’s mission to bring true life into the world is as valid as ever. Last week I defined this in a sentence. Our church community exists to discern, model, and teach what makes for true aliveness.
One of the exercises our Mission Discernment Group engaged in is to prayerfully discern what we notice in the neighbourhoods we represent. What might God be saying to us about this patch of city we live in. It will come as no surprise to you that one thing we noticed was lonely people. Mums walking by the church. Donald an older fellow who is an alcoholic. Older folk walking by a number of times a day heading to the local shopping mall. Fences and empty streets apart from cars. A lack of human chatter. The lack of the sound of play on the streets.
There are lots of cars moving about but where is the genuine human interaction. There are some warm spots in local cafes and other places.
I asked the question last week what is one thing you really want our congregation to be known for. Our responses were thoughtful. A clear response is that we want this congregation to be known for its inclusive caring friendliness and compassion. We didn’t have time to unpack that but I take that to mean we want to be known for the quality of human connection. Genuine community is important to us. We know that genuine community brings life. In study after study genuine community is shown to have positive health effects, and provides a seedbed for individuals to flourish. I hear stories here of how important small groups are here like the walking group, homeshare, the foot clinic team, or fireside. We start to really get to know each other and care for each other when we go walking together each week and we have honest conversations. I came across a quote this week: God’s basic method of communicating God’s self is not the saved individual, but the journey and bonding process that God initiates through community. Connecting in a smaller group does take time but literally it gives life. One of the questions is how to keep growing these sort of groups because invariably each small group reaches a maximum size. We need small groups of all sorts, we need people to step up and initiate small groups that become places of human interaction, caring, learning and serving. In the new context small groups are going to be vital, especially groups as the MDG has discovered that try and nurture a spiritual component along with the outward service to others component.
What has also become critical in our new context is the importance of the teaching ministry that will take the Christian message into the community. Jesus spent most of his time teaching because people need to catch hold on different ideas and different ways of seeing. Traditional teaching was coming to church on Sunday to listen to the minister, but we have to experiment with new ways. In the new context people don’t come to church and people don’t sit passively and listen to learn. Gathered times of teaching and nurturing are really important but they need to be interactive and visual. Learning by experimenting and reflecting together is better learning. Conversations, questions, and sharing experience. I’ve said before and I’ll say again church of the future is circles not straight lines, and while we have begun this journey we have a way to go. But there is something more. Just like the early church we are reliant on members taking Christian messages out into their little sphere of influence, their workplace, their rotary club, their friendship circle. Our traditional church has not equipped its members to do this and instead has relied heavily on the minister as the teacher. Our church culture needs to change. Like the early church we now live in a society that knows very little about the Christian faith and church members need to be equipped and encouraged to have conversations about their faith in the real world in which they live. If Jesus is going to have a voice in our wider community we need to be that voice. Why is it important to treat others with respect? Why is greed not a good basis for community? Why is it important to forgive? Why is poverty such a disaster and a lack of equality in resources so evil? If we want to grow the influence of Jesus it has to happen in conversations out there as well as in here.
There is something else about our new context that we need to understand. I was talking to someone this week about the use of our refurbished church building. We were actually standing inside our church talking about the need for the building to be inconstant use and not sitting idle. How the building serve our aim to bring aliveness into our community. An obvious answer is that it becomes a community connecting point. A place that is a spiritual connecting point but also a place a human connection. The person I was talking to was raised a good Catholic, but no longer practices. He told me as I talked about possible activities we could bring into the building that there was something I needed to understand. I didn’t really understand how difficult it is for non churched people to connect with church. There is a large group of people who are turned off by church. Some remember going to church in days gone by and it was boring and over their head. Others have been hurt by churches.. They’ve seen hypocrisy, they have heard Christians pontificate in judgmental ways that appal them, they have felt judged. I’m sorry Mr Folau but I wish you would keep your twitters to yourself. There is a deep distrust of institutions. You and I may experience church as a safe place of warmth and friendship, but for many church doesn’t feel a good place or a safe place. I pondered. I know there are places I don’t feel comfortable in. Walk into a country pub where everyone knows each other and the place goes quiet as heads turn to look at you. I remember wandering into a TAB shop and feeling completely at sea. What do you do, how do you even place a bet. I had no idea. I do know that when they began a new style of church called BATCH (Breakfast at The Coronation Hall) in the Maori Hill parish they actually chose to hire the community hall over the road from the church because it was neutral ground and not contaminated by images and memories of traditional institutional church. And it worked…Strange eh?…
People have to build a relationship of trust before they’ll set foot inside a church. They have to get to know a human face and feel they will be honoured and listened to and not seen as another recruit for the envelope system before they’ll dare risk coming through a door.
The context has changed.
Circles instead of lines.
Conversations instead of monologues.
A focus on what makes for aliveness.
Church will be different!
Dugald Wilson 13 May 2018
What would be the focus of a small group you would like to be involved with at church?
What hinders you from inviting a friend to participate in an activity of the St Martins Presbyterian Church?
Why does St Martins Presbyterian Church Exist? John 15:1-17
Over the past few months a small group (called the Mission Discernment Group MDG) has been meeting to try and clarify our mission as a community of Christians. Often it seems we assume we all know why our church exists, but actually when asked many are unsure. Maybe it’s just too big a question, or maybe we haven’t really thought about that. Church is just church and it’s always just been there. It is a big question and however good your answer may be it misses something. On the other hand however if we don’t have some sort of picture of why we are here it can mean that we get a little lost and forget what we are really on about.
Anthony de Mello a Jesuit priest and story teller tells this story: On a rocky seacoast , where shipwrecks were frequent there was once a ramshackle little life-saving station. It was no more than a hut and there was only one boat, but the few people who manned the station were an amazing group who kept constant watch over the sea and went fearlessly out in a storm if they had any evidence that there had been a shipwreck somewhere. Many lives were saved and the station became famous.
As the fame of the station grew, so did the desire of people in the neighbourhood to become associated with its excellent work. They generously offered of their time and money so new members were enrolled, new boats bought and new crews trained. The hut too was replaced by a larger building in which saved people could be dried and warmed. And, of course, since shipwrecks do not occur every day, it became a popular gathering place-a sort of local club.
As time passed the members became so engaged in socializing and running their club that they seemed to forget about life-saving. In fact, when some people were actually rescued from the sea, it was always such a nuisance because they were dirty and wet and soiled the carpeting and the furniture.
The social activities of the club became numerous and the life-saving activities few. But there was a showdown at a club meeting with some members insisting that they return to their original purpose and activity. A vote was taken and these troublemakers, who proved to be a small minority, were invited to leave the club and start another.
Which is precisely what they did-a little further down the coast, with such selflessness and daring that, after a while, their heroism made them famous. Whereupon their membership was enlarged, their hut was reconstructed.. and their idealism – smothered….. and you get the idea!
There is a constant need for us to ask the question ‘what are we here for?’
As the workgroup has wrestled with this question one theme that has seemed important to us is that St Martins Presbyterian Church exists to help people find ‘life’. ‘True life’. Our reading this morning uses an image of the vine and the branches. The vine exists to bring life to the branches. Branches aren’t much good unless they are connected to the vine where the life giving sap is transmitted from the roots. Jesus’ stories and his teaching assume that to find life we need to centre our lives in God. We need to orientate our lives in something bigger than us. Often this happens when people recognise they are not as complete as they might think. It’s when something breaks, or we face the reality that not all is well with us that God gets a look in. I think this is why healing was such an important part of Jesus’ ministry.
But it’s not just something for individuals. Some in the MDG also pointed out Jesus taught us guidelines or morals for living together in community. This is also part of finding life. Just as we need road rules to guide us to all drive safely we need ways of seeing and habits that enable us to live together in healthy communities. No killing even with words, forgive forgive forgive, be kind and generous, put away your swords….The teachings of Jesus provides a God inspired framework that enhances the life of community and enables us to live in harmony with the whole earth. They are about finding life. Jesus summed up this framework as “love one another.” Love is at the heart of it all or if you like the sap that flows through the Jesus vine. Sadly it is often the case that blind following of the rules and habits without love can actually destroy life.
Finding health and life is not just about our relationships with each other and the earth we live on, but is also about our relationship with our self and looking at what motivates and drives us. Jesus taught us to be humble. That doesn’t mean demeaning self, but it does mean examining our motives and looking at what we are really seeking. Jesus also recognised that many people are motivated by a need to bolster themselves in front of others. He stresses over and over that we find our true value in God. Our value is not based on achievement and worldly success, the exterior image, but simply is – a gift of God. This relationship with God provides life. God is a life giving God. Again we often picture God as policeman, as judge, as a stern old man, but we do well to picture God as midwife, as potter with clay, a life giving sap, giving rise to life.
There is an interesting term that John uses a number of times in his gospel. ‘eternal life’. Jesus brings eternal life. Sadly many people have thought of this as life after death. Literally the Greek term means life of the ages as opposed to life in this contemporary culture or life in this economy. Eternal life is not a good translation. John simply assumes there is a fuller life, a true life that can be found by drawing close to Jesus. I would be thrilled to hear people saying, “I go to church because I find true life there”, or “I look forward to going to church because the sap of life is set free in my veins.” Actually I do hear people saying these sort of things!
A few other points…. Jesus didn’t force this life on others. We have to find it. He told stories, he modelled actions so that people could see this life in action. This is in turn the work of the Church. To tell stories, to model actions, to teach.
Jesus assumed it was a personal thing but also a corporate and community thing which he named as a new society, a new community he called the ‘kingdom of God’ or the ‘kingdom of heaven’. For some reason Paul never took up those names, and he called this new way of life ‘God’s new creation’. Paul talks of a ‘new fullness’, ‘freedom’, ‘new life’, ‘life in the Spirt’ and ‘life in Christ’. We have to discern what these things mean in our time.
I have to say the MDG didn’t find all this easy to sum up. We struggled to formulate a simple statement of what we are on about. But my take on what we were saying as we struggled was that our mission is to promote this life centred in God that was seen in and taught by Jesus. If I am to reduce this one sentence it is simply this: Our church community exists to discern, model, and teach what makes for true aliveness.
Dugald Wilson 6 May 2018
The True and False Self – Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 12:20-26
It’s amazing but the outer layer of our skin gets replaced every few weeks. The dead skin cells continually slough off and mix with the secretions of the sweat and sebaceous glands to form an interesting layer the surface of your skin. It just happens…well sort of. If not rubbed off into our clothing or washed away, the slurry of sweat and sebaceous secretions mixed with dirt and dead skin is decomposed by bacterial flora, producing a foul smell. Teenage boys often need to learn this truth. But it’s an amazing reality that bits of us are constantly dying to be replaced by new life. We are in a constant state of dying and renewal.
Death is part of life. It’s a truth that is happening all around us. It’s not going to be long now before trees start turning colour and leaves begin to fall. If we were Americans we would refer to the season we are now in as Fall. The leaves of deciduous trees die and fall to the ground to create nutritious leaf litter while the tree is left bare till spring comes around and there is an awakening of life again. In fact everywhere we look there are things dying and there is new life emerging, and Jesus proclaimed this was how life should be for us. In a famous passage he tells his disciples that if we want to follow him there needs to be death for us to find the way of life. There is according to Jesus something within us that needs to die so that new life can be born. What’s going on here?
I was talking to someone last week about someone else and I noticed we were having a put down session. We were enjoying pulling them to pieces like a couple of vultures around a corpse. What felt good was that this person was someone who in the eyes of the world was quite successful…. Maybe more successful and popular than we were. What was going on here? Why were we so destructive and why did it feel good? What was motivating our destructive behavior? When I reflected on my behavior I thought something needs to die here. There’s something within me that isn’t right and good.
Psychologists tell us that there are three things that we long for in our lives. We long for security, affections, and power and control. These are not bad things to hanker after. Without security life can become full of anxieties that cripple us, without affection we literally shrivel up like a prune, and without some sense of control life becomes meaningless as we take no responsibility for shaping anything. The problem is that from an early age the way we usually go about fulfilling these desires in unhealthy ways. As a baby we smile and it causes people around us to take notice. So we smile again. We quickly learn that we can manipulate others to get attention and affirmation. We start playing little games and we start manipulating an image of ourselves that pleases others and draws affection. Some may adopt quite destructive patterns to get the attention they crave. Whatever the result is that by the time we reach adulthood we are often skilled practitioners and have developed a well honed mask or persona that is good at getting security, affection and power. But what others see isn’t the real us. One of my first learnings as a minister came as I visited a church family one hot Saturday afternoon. In those days you often visited uninvited and as I reached the front door I could see everyone sitting around enjoying a beer together, What the family didn’t realise was that there was a side window open and I heard clearly the registration of shock as they realized the minister was visiting. Quick hide the beer the minister is here was heard clearly, and sure enough by the time I was ushered into the room there was not a sign of any alcohol and their reputation and standing in my eyes had not been dented. On another weekend I went to the local races and discovered several parishioners doing their best to hide from me and not wanting to be noticed. Why do we put on such masks in front of each other? Why do we promote false images to impress others? What drives that?
Psychologists talk of the development of a false self. This false self loves to compare with others, and seeks others it can look down on. It finds value and worth in proving it is a cut above someone else. I was with a couple a while ago and just about everything he said, she corrected him. I felt like saying ‘whoa there do you realize what you’re doing’. She had to get the last word in there. If he said there were five people in the room she would say, “actually dear there were six – you forgot to count yourself.” What was driving that? Why did she have to have the last word, and why did she always have to have a dig at him?
Maybe you notice how we like others to know about our achievements and how we like to build ourselves up in front of others. Do you ever find yourself telling a story in a particular way that makes you look better? Like you emphasize certain things that will twist the story in your favour and make you more of a hero than is really the case. You know add a little extra drama or drop the name of someone you know who is important. Why do we do it? What is driving this?
Jesus tells us something has to die. We need to start living from a different center, we need to change the default driver. We need to be born with a new heart says Jeremiah.
Something has to die….
That part that wants more in bank just in case
That part that is looking for others we can look down on.
That part that always has to be right
That part that always has to look good
The part that wants the biggest bit of cake for me
The part that’s always comparing ourselves with others
The part that wants to tell our friends about our children’s achievements because it proves what a great person I am
That part that craves for the affirmation of others.
That part that wants things my way
That part that has to cultivate the image of knowing it all.
When was the last time you put on the mask that that said I‘ve got it all together when underneath things were a mess?
When was the last time you did something just to impress someone else?
When was the last time you were anxious because what will others think of you?
When was the last time you rejoiced in someone else falling flat on their face?
When was the last time you took the secure road instead of risking generously?
There is something inside us all that has to die if we are going to truly live isn’t there?
There’s something inside us that has to die if we are going to be the wonderful, unique person God desires.
There’s something inside that has to die if we are to discover the eternal life – the life of integrity – the life of authenticity, Jesus wants for us.
Jesus said, “those that want to save their life will loose it”. Anyone who follows me must leave self behind. He also said, “do not worry about your life and what you will eat; don’t worry about your body and what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the birds; they don’t sow or reap, they have no store-room or barn; and yet God feeds them. How much more valuable each one of you is than the birds. Don’t worry – it won’t add a single hour to your life. Don’t be afraid.”
You see according to Jesus that part of us that has to die –the false self – is fed by fear.
The part of us that is eternal and good – our true self – is fed by love.
Our true self emerges when we trust God, know our security lies in God, the God who is known as unconditional love.
It’s a strange paradox that to find life we have to let something die. And as with our skin we have to keep letting it die. This death doesn’t just happen, although growing older often helps. Then we know as we get closer to the end that masks aren’t needed any more. We know we can’t take the props with us. We learn hopefully that we are cracked and imperfect but that doesn’t really matter. In fact as Leonard Cohen told us that the cracks are how the light gets in.
We aren’t perfect, we aren’t all powerful, and we can’t build an impenetrable fortress that is our life. The admiration of others is fickle and flawed because they don’t really know us. We have to let go, and the invitation is to find our security, our affection, our power, in God. The invitation is to learn to live in relationship with God who is bigger than us. According to Jesus this God is pure grace and love and that’s where we find our true security, the unconditional affection, and the power to stand tall and live authentically and courageously. The invitation is to let go and trust.
Dugald Wilson 18 March 2018
Euthanasia – Gen 1:26-31, Luke 12:6-7, Eph2:10
Tom was a lovely old guy. I met him first when he was in his late 80’s. He had finally retired from his farm and moved into Ashburton. He had been a good farmer and had done well, but the last few years of his life had been hard. First his wife had died and then his only child, a daughter, had died in tragic circumstances in a fire on the farm. Now he was left alone without close relatives. Some four or five years after I first met Tom I was visiting him in hospital. He had an oxygen mask on and was finding it hard going to get enough oxygen into his lungs which were full of fluid. He had pneumonia.
We talked as best we could. It wasn’t easy with the mask and the shortness of breath and there were plenty of shared silences, but I could sense Tom was not at ease. When the nursing staff came by with the antibiotics I could see Tom wince. I simply said to him, “Tom you would like to be left to die wouldn’t you?” With a weak nod of a head he whispered “yes”. I went further, “Would you like me to talk to the medical staff about stopping the treatment?” Again he nodded with a feeble “yes”. We prayed together, and I asked God to take good care of Tom in his journey beyond us, and blessed him. I sensed a peace in him that was not there before our conversation. I sought out the doctor and shared my observations. He in turn promised to talk with Tom. Treatment was stopped and not so many hours later I got a call to say Tom had peacefully died.
I believe this was the right course of action to take. Tom had lived a good life but now it was time to die. He was ready to die, the question of whether to prolong his life was a question that needed to be asked. I didn’t believe Tom was depressed. He had simply come to the point where it was time to call it quits. I felt the peace of God in what was being proposed, and in what eventuated. We were walking on sacred ground and I was thankful the medical team were able to switch focus from life-saving to making Tom comfortable in his final hours. If you want to be a little more technical what happened might be called passive euthanasia. Treatment was withheld that could have prolonged Tom’s life, and the process of death was allowed to proceed unhindered. I find this a different scenario to asking the doctor to give Tom an injection to end his life – process called active euthanasia. Active euthanasia I believe raises all sorts of other questions some of which we’ll explore today.
End of life issues like these are becoming more pressing as we face the reality that people are living longer and we can treat all sorts of illnesses that used to end things for us. Many older people feel useless and a burden and wonder why they keep going. Wouldn’t it be better to have a choice to end things when life for us seem to have no purpose anymore and we are just a burden? On a wider scale, as more people get older and put pressure on our health system wouldn’t it be an honourable thing to have an easy way to end things rather than keeping aged populations going, many of whom suffer physically crippling conditions and dementia. Wouldn’t it be better to facilitate death on demand?
Some of these issues have been highlighted by several cases in recent years of people being hauled before the courts for assisting loved ones to die. You may remember the case of Ian Bubbins here in Christchurch back in 2001 who in the words of the press rotted to death with cancer. More recently there was Lucretia Seales who wished to have the choice of assisted dying in Wellington. All they wished for was the right to end things when they wanted. There was also the case of Greg Nesbit who became a tetraplegic and his best mate Warren Ruscoe who helped him end things. Warren was originally charged with murder, a charge I believe was quite out of order. Yet I am also aware of risks. People who work in the hospice movement will tell us that most requests for euthanasia do not come from the dying individual, but from families. Just what is motivating these requests will vary from deep compassion to outright callousness and a desire to get the will enacted as soon as possible. Things are often not as straight forward as they seem on the surface.
These are real and difficult questions that that take us back to core questions of life. As a Christian I need to engage my faith, and for me one of the central tenets is the sacredness of human life. A fundamental idea in our way of looking at things is that life is somehow called into being by God, and human life in particular is sacred. The stories of creation found at the beginning of our scriptures underline this.
“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them”. …..”and God saw what was made and pronounced it wonderfully good.”
Life is God breathed to draw from the older creation story. We are not here just because of the chance meeting of our father’s sperm and mother’s egg, but there is something more to our being. We have a God dream within each of us that I call soul. I am created and God is my creator. I can no more create myself than I can create a rose or a daffodil. This way of looking at life leads me to see life is a gift. It is not my property to do with as I wish. It belongs to God and when I die it returns to God. The ending of life is not simply a human decision.
My life belongs to God and as such is sacred. Jesus seems to emphasise this way of seeing in many of his teachings. The number of hairs on our heads is known to God…. “See these sparrows – God cares for each of them”, he said, “but how much more God cares for you.” Stories of looking for the lost sheep or coin emphasise the value of every ‘one’. The apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians that every one of us is a fabulous piece of artwork.
This of course in the end is a matter of faith. I can’t prove this is true, but I believe this way of looking at life has shaped our society and the values of caring for others, especially those who may not be complete or who struggle in some way. At its best this way of seeing has produced people like Mother Teresa who reached out to the most hopeless useless cast offs of Calcutta and offered them care in their last days on earth. Most people of whatever religion recognise her work as revealing something of true life. What is it that touches us and says this is so right to care for the most wretched of life? Why is it that I suspect we would react with horror at the image of Mother Teresa going around with a drink of strong barbiturate to end things? We value life not because it has use in our eyes, but simply because life is sacred. A gift.
I hear the cries of a small group who say but what of the suffering some endure in death. This is hard ground to walk on. However there are alternatives. Cicely Saunders had an unhappy childhood in the UK but found her purpose in life when she fell in love with a dying man. Her eyes were opened to the need to care for those dying in a new way. She was told that if she wanted to put her views into practice she would need to train to become a doctor and so she did. Greatly encouraged by a Bible verse that had literally leapt off the page to her from Psalm 37 which said, “commit thy way unto the Lord, trust also in him; and he will bring it to pass”, she set about convincing people in high places that the care of those dying needed to be greatly improved. Firm in the belief that the final stages of life can be some of the richest and meaningful, she worked with others to develop new methods of pain control could allow a very different journey in the final stages and began what is now known as the hospice movement. This seeks to provide care for body, mind and spirit, not only for the dying individual but also for the wider family. Instead of finding an easy way out she steered a new direction that sought to enhance and value more deeply the process of dying and those going through it. The time of dying can be a good time to complete the journey of life and for those with faith to trust the deep love of God together.
When it comes to enacting laws like the current “End of Life Choices Bill” before our Parliament, I know I’m part of a small minority of about 20% who do not support it. I am happy to let the status quo remain. I know I could not administer the injection to end a life, and I wouldn’t put that responsibility on another. I uphold a belief that our lives are not ours to end, and that ending life is not purely a matter of individual choice. I don’t believe this means we should engage in heroics or endless treatment when it seems the end has come and I am comfortable withholding treatment or withdrawing life support. I find it helpful to make a distinction between passive and active euthanasia. I am however uncomfortable with the proposal that we would give responsibility to our medical practitioners to decide when someone should die and then administer appropriate medication to make this happen. I don’t think the roof will fall in if the Right To Die legislation currently before parliament is passed into law but I do see it as another step down a slippery slope towards a society where compassion and human life is less valued. I’m interested that some in the Netherlands, where similar legislation was introduced in 2002 and has had a chance to bed in, are now uncomfortable with the reality that euthanasia is becoming much more widespread with currently about 5% of deaths occurring through assisted means. I think our own legislation will be passed and it will be interesting to see how terms like a grievous and irremediable illness will be interpreted as a condition for allowing euthanasia.
In the meantime I believe our Christian faith must continue to shine a light of compassion and a light that values every person as a sacred child of God.
Dugald Wilson 29 April 2018