Everyone dies alone.
Maybe you’ve heard it from the misanthropic Dr. House on the Fox TV show, or maybe you trace it back to French philosopher Blaise Pascal’s “We shall die alone.” There’s an undeniable truth to the maxim: whether a person slips away peacefully surrounded by loving family, dies tragically in a mass disaster, or something in between, each soul does depart this life alone. Regardless of how many people may be nearby, each person’s journey to the other side is an individual path.
However, two buts apply to this saying.
One is that Jesus walks the journey with us. As God who lived as a human, died and is now alive, Jesus is the only one who can walk the path of death with us, knowing the way to the Father that he trod himself. As my pastor said at a recent funeral, “Jesus, stay by me” is a prayer we can pray with certainty in the face of death.
The other but is that we are not merely autonomous souls; we have roles in the lives of others. We are someone’s children, and we may also have children. We may be siblings. We may be spouses. We are teachers and friends. A good death involves these relationships, observes Ray Pennings, executive vice president of the Christian think tank Cardus. Death is not merely a medical event, I heard recently on a podcast; it is a social process. A community loses a member – and this affects not only family members and friends, but also, in the case of those living under medical treatment, the caregivers providing treatment.
Turning to stories
We at the MB Herald are reminded of that as we prepare the obituaries in each issue. Though communicating and preserving historical information is a priority for us, the true privilege and raison d’etre of our obituary section is to tell the life stories of faithful Christians. Some of the stories that move and amaze us are those of leaders – with their lists of degrees earned, churches served, roles played in provincial or national leadership – but many are the ordinary lives of regular people who tended their gardens, baked the best buns, prayed daily for their grandchildren and loved Jesus fiercely in spite of doubt and loss.
Turning to Scripture
The Apostle Paul reminds us that both our lives and our deaths belong to God: “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone” (Romans 14:7).
In this issue, chaplain Lawrence Cheung and care home executive team member Sharon Simpson reflect on the challenges in their roles as they face Canada’s new legislation legalizing medical assistance in dying. They also invite the church, as Pennings does, to be a gospel presence alongside our neighbours in the valley of the shadow.
Turning to the Confession
“We believe that all human life belongs to God,” reads the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith, Article 14: The Sanctity of Life. “Because God is Creator and the Author and Giver of life, we oppose all actions and attitudes that devalue human life…. Christ calls the people of all nations to care for the defenceless.
“Ultimate decisions regarding life and death belong to God,” it goes on, recognizing the complexity of ethical issues in a world with advanced technology. “We esteem the life-sustaining findings of medical science, but recognize that there are limits to the value of seeking to prolong life indefinitely. In all complex ethical decisions regarding life and death, we seek to offer hope, healing, support and counsel in the context of the Christian community.”
The opportunity here is for the church to be a Christian community: to fearlessly talk about the cycles of life and death; to discern together how to handle the decisions that come; to comfort those in pain and infirmity with the affirmation of their worth; and to remind those who are dying, “You are not alone.”