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Embracing a pro-death gospel?

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I suppose it’s a matter of perspective.

Take modern medicine for instance. The good news is that today’s medical sciences enable more and more Canadians to live longer, healthier lives. In fact, the 2010 Report on the State of Public Health in Canada noted that people who turned 65 in 2008 can expect to live longer – women averaging an additional 21 years, men 18 years. Never before has an entire population expected to live for decades as an “old person.”

The bad news is that modern medicine can make the road in the shadow of death even more thorny to navigate. Dying now takes a long time. The majority of Canadians (roughly 90 percent) experience an extended decline as a result of disease, chronic illness, organ failure, or cancer.

Fortunately, more hospices are being built and palliative care is increasingly available to the elderly and dying. And studies indicate that with the help of effective drugs, pain can often be managed and suffering reduced, allowing the final years to be some of the most valuable in life for many Canadians.

On the other hand, experts worry that an already overloaded palliative health care system will be unprepared to handle the surge of aging baby boomers. By 2035, death statistics in Canada will rise to about 450,000 per year, up from the current average rate of 235,000.

Because we’ve confined the sights and sounds of death to hospitals and funeral homes, and because people avoid the topic of death as a rule, many Canadians are woefully ignorant about palliative care. The result? They’re quick to assume euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are the only options for dying with dignity.

A beautiful injury

You’d think the church would have a different perspective when it comes to dying. As Rob Moll explains in The Art of Dying, Christians have rightly seen death as “the horrible rending of a person from her body, from loved ones, from the ability to be fully in God’s image.” At the same time, Christians have regarded the deathbed as a place to rest in Christ – dying is the final affliction in life’s miseries, and the entrance to life with God.

Furthermore, Christians have traditionally believed that dying is to be shared by the Christian community. Moll notes that when death is public, it’s harder for the rest of us to be afraid of it. When we’ve seen a loved one die, it’s easier to learn to die. And by coming to grips with our mortality, we live better lives with eternity in mind. We are more compassionate, more peaceful, more hopeful.

In God’s hands, the ugly, horrible injury of death can give birth to beauty.

Creating a resurrection culture

Unfortunately, the North American church exhibits symptoms of vision loss. Many churches are confused about death, Moll observes, and lack the ability to help us die well. Some Christians pursue aggressive medical care to such an extent that they forgo time with loved ones, and miss out on opportunities to mend relationships, or prepare their hearts to joyfully greet the Friend who will meet them in death (John 14:3).

Meanwhile, Moll notes, congregations overly focused on attracting younger members shortchange themselves. The old and the dying can show the younger saints how to live faithfully and how to die well. Funerals teach us that those laid to rest in Christ are merely asleep (1 Corinthians 15:51–57).

Ironically, being too pro-life leaves us under-prepared to meet our Maker!

Of course, all is not lost. The church has a marvellous opportunity to reclaim its tradition and present a resurrection culture to a death-denying world. For example, as the ranks of the elderly and dying grow, the availability of family to care for them shrinks, and the health care system finds itself increasingly stressed, patients and caregivers who fear a lonely or medicalized death may be more open to the gospel if they’re supported by the church. This was the earliest model of church growth. Care for the sick and dying attracted multitudes into the new Christian community.

Early Christians also lived out their faith in the fullness of their years, actively teaching and admonishing the younger saints (1 Timothy 5:9–10; Titus 2:3–5). By taking care to perform their dying faithfully, Christians declare that God has significant plans for our lives even as we approach death.

Which brings us back to where we started. What’s your perspective when it comes to living and dying? Is yours a pro-death gospel?

—J Janzen

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