Death & Dignity: what’s the point?


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Next week I head to Guatemala for the Lemonade International Blogger’s Trip. Having been introduced to this organization, I’ve been following their blog closely, trying to get to know them more and more.

A couple of days ago, they posted about a tragic loss. A member of their school, Herber Giovanni Sandoval, died a couple of days ago at the age of 17. In the conclusion of their post, they said this:

“We are especially grateful to the youth group at Lifepointe Church in Raleigh, NC for sponsoring him while he was still attending the Limón Academy.”

I immediately had the image of the youth group kids or sunday school class at that church who probably spent years following the story of Herber. I wondered how they would feel and respond to this news. How would the leaders help them process this? Would it impact the kids at all or would they be too removed from it?

Then my mind went to their parents. At first, they were sympathetic images of parents holding and supporting their children as they asked these hard questions. But then, just for a moment, I had a hypothetical parental voice flash through my mind. It’s not a judgment on the people of Lifepointe; this is simply the kind of whisper among “grown-ups” I may have overheard in a hallway at the churches I grew up in:

“Well it’s just a shame that all that money spent was for nothing.”

Though this may sound harsh, you can see where this hypothetical voice is coming from, right? The money spent to sponsor this child who died at 17 could have been used to support a long-term missionary in the area, give many meals to local homeless, or offer financial assistance to a church family in need.

What’s the ultimate point of paying for a child’s education who never really got to “use it” in the real world?

A similar discussion happens in my field. I work with housing the people that are homeless in Philadelphia. We work with those suffering from “long-term, chronic” homelessness. These are people that have been on the street for years, perhaps even decades.

Living on the street for any period of time activates your most basic survival instincts: your adrenaline begins to raise regularly and constantly, your fight or flight mechanisms are run non-stop, you expend more physical resources to be hyper aware of your surroundings, and your body generally learns it has to do much more with much less.

Now this is fine in spurts or short periods, but imagine someone’s brain and body that had to endure this for years or decades. It can ravage you in all sorts of ways mentally, emotionally, neurologically, and physically.

This is why it isn’t at all out of place for older individuals in this situation to die shortly after being housed. Many thousands of dollars are expended to reach out to these people, get them plugged in to social services, and find them independent housing. And once they do, many of their bodies and brains have no idea how to move back to any level of “normalcy” and “rest”, and so they just shut down.

And yet, you know what? Though this is generally common  knowledge among the older guys on the street, I’ve never heard of any of them saying, “don’t find me housing because I’ll die”. In fact, I’ve heard of many guys who say, “please find me housing so I can die somewhere else other than the street.”

So here is the question: for both Herber Sandoval and these individuals experiencing homelessness, are these dollars “wasted” if they die?

No, not at all.

First, on a purely secular level, there is a societal benefit and flourishing from being the kinds of people that would willingly offer dollars that may not have a tangible “return on investment”. Ultimately, though, this reasoning is using other people as the fodder for our own self-congratulation. It’s ultimately narcissism masked as generosity.

There is another reason beyond how it might help us: the dignity of those helped.

This is the belief that humans have an innate value and worth no matter their story, no matter their faults, no matter what you can get out of them, and no matter what you think they “deserve”. They are valuable as ends in and of themselves and not just as means to something else.

Especially for us Christians, the fact that we are still in the Church calendar season of Easter should remind us all the more of God’s commitment to the world in and of itself.

It is popular nowadays, especially in the Neo-“Reformed” circles to obsess over the “Glory of God”. So much stress is put on this Glory, that it turns everything that God has made and loved into a mere means for God to get more Glory. Nothing is valuable in and of itself, but only in so much that it can and does give God Glory. (I even think they would agree with that characterization.)

But the secret of the Gospel, and one of the main sources of our assurance in it, is the fact that in Creating and Incarnating, God has wrapped up the Glory of the created realm with the Glory of His own Name. He has so enmeshed the well-being of the two that the Glory of neither can be distinguished. To pursue and exalt the Glory of the One is to celebrate and Glorify the Other.

And this is what we do by honoring the humanity and dignity of God’s children in our justice efforts. We love and glorify God when we love and exalt our fellow humans.

Even if that means helping them die well in the midst of our exalting and loving them.

Death is no longer the end we once thought it was. As Christians we believe we live in this world not as those hoping to “get to” heaven, but rather we live here and now precisely as current citizens of heaven. And as we live as the citizens we are, we make this world look more and more like the world it will be–the world we call Home.

Part of doing this is treating others as if Death is neither the end of their life nor their “usefulness” to us. When we love, we love the Eternal in us all.

Therefore, when we help house those without a home who then die shortly after getting there, or pay for kids in the largest slum-community in Central America to have a great education they will never use in a job, or, like Lemonade International, start development efforts in the most death-ridden places on earth, we are giving out Future Glory in the Present.

We are literally giving them heaven in the here and now.

If Jesus was raised on Easter Sunday, then this declares an infinite value to our work and our love. It tells us that Death is no longer an abyss, but a Door. No longer an Enemy, but a Friend. As the authors of my new favorite book say:

Perhaps the biggest and most radical change we see when looking at life from within the reality of the resurrection is that death is not really the enemy we had thought. Death is not the end of the road. Much to our surprise (and it is a delightful surprise!), death is the gateway to life itself. It opens more doors than it closes. Death is but one more of God’s beautiful servants….

Because Jesus has freed us from death as a principality we are not only empowered to set others free from its grip, and defend the defenseless against it, we are also free to accept death in its most natural state and befriend it.

Again, what was impossible before the cross, not only becomes possible but normal in the resurrection.

I pray we are able to be encouraged in the here and now, even when it seems that the Kingdom work we do is going nowhere.

Martin Luther was famously asked what he would do if is he found out that Jesus was returning tomorrow. His response was, “I would plant a tree”.

Let us hold fast to our confession that the seeds of dignity and love that we plant now in this world, in our souls, and the souls of others will bloom, even if it is only after we are all through the door of Death.

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3 thoughts on “Death & Dignity: what’s the point?

  1. it kind of reminds me of how Jesus received the spikenard poured at his feet against the protests of the grumbling disciples “that could have been sold and given to the poor!”

    “What you do for the least of these…” right?

    Like

  2. Pingback: As We Lay Dying [Guatemala, Day 2] | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

  3. Pingback: Diving into Death | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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