End of Life Issues: A Christian Perspective

Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby, on her deathbed
End of Life Issues: A Christian Perspective
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Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

The Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes is the Minister of Maple Grove United Church, and is a member of the Interfaith Councill of Halton. A chatty extrovert with a conversational preaching style, a multi-tasker who is a “multi-worrier” when it comes to caring about people’s problems, and a leader who treasures teaming with the lay people in her church, Morar says that at Maple Grove she has experienced “a deeper level of ministry than I thought possible.” Anyone who has personally received Morar’s deeply compassionate caring and wise counsel will testify to what an inspirational, healing and encouraging ministry it is.

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A Frenchman fought as a sniper in Afghanistan for three years. He was very good at his job, making 72 ‘hits’ including men, women and even children used as covers and messengers by the Taliban.

He was decorated as a war hero by the US/UK/French allies. Back in France, his 87 year old aunt, in the late stages of ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease, begged him to help her to die peacefully. He did what she asked. A nurse reported him and he was charged with the equivalent of second degree murder. A month later, he was found dead in his jail cell with a note that said, “I cannot be two people in one: a hero and a criminal at the same time.”

There are some issues that we humans have not been very good at figuring out and issues surrounding death are among our most challenging.

I have suggested recently in this column that it is possible to bring any issue into dialogue with scripture and find one’s perspective transformed by God’s grace, and some issues are just so important that we need to bring them into dialogue with God and not pick an opinion and hold to it ‘religiously’.

Let’s test this out on the thorny issue of … well, what to call it? These are some of the descriptions I’ve read:

  • right to die,
  • physician assisted suicide,
  • doctor-assisted suicide,
  • medically assisted suicide,
  • assisted dying,
  • therapeutic homicide,
  • medical aid in dying,
  • end of life care, and
  • euthanasia

It has been in the public conscious a lot in recent months.

  • Quebec’s a law on Medically Assisted Suicide.
  • The Canadian Medical Association’s decision to “support the right of all physicians, within the bounds of existing legislation, to follow their conscience when deciding whether to provide medical aid in dying.”
  • The Supreme Court will be hearing a new case in October.

But end of life issues are always a reality of my ministry and that of my colleagues. Ministers are at the front line of this issue as we pray with family forced to make decisions to remove life support and increase sedation.

I think back to my days studying and working with Dr. Cecily Saunders, founder of the palliative care or hospice movement. In caring for the dying, she was loathe to use anything that one would later have to decide whether to take out. There were no tubes, no ‘life support’ equipment in her hospice. All her energy was devoted to comfort, quality of life, removal of pain and spiritual care. She was adamantly opposed to hastening the end of life for any of her dying patients, but neither did she promote the extension of life. Her total focus was on the removal of pain and discomfort, the provision of caring, compassion and the gift of faith. The Canadian Medical Association decries the lack of even minimal palliative care available to Canadians: only 16% of Canadians have access to any palliative care. Even at its best, the palliative care available to us is pretty minimal compared to Cecily Saunder’s standards.

My husband’s step father, a pathologist in California, where hospice care was available at home, stockpiled morphine as his cancer progressed. He and his wife told their children, who visited, called and wrote to say ‘goodbye’, and then took a dose that put him in a coma. The hospice team caring for him at home said, “we can’t give him more to push him over the edge, but we can give him morphine for ‘the pain’.” And so he left us a few weeks after we adopted our first baby. It was a conflicted time: we had waited so long to have the experience of new life in our family, and when it finally came, we were finding ourselves forced to let go of a life.

Around that time, the case of Terry Schaivo was in the news, a woman whose husband sought to remove her feeding tube as she was in a vegetative state. After 15 years, he was granted that right.. Alan’s mother was a proponent of euthanasia. I think she thought dementia was really a failure of will, and her will was very powerful. Shortly after her husband’s death, my mother in law started having strokes, that eventually took her brilliant and inquiring mind from us.

During that time she was aware of her memory slipping away, we wondered whether she too would want out, but she never once expressed a wish to die, instead holding on for dear life to her home, her car, her operas, her learning and her travelling long after she was truly capable and then holding on to life itself..

Let’s take our dilemma to the text. What grace is there for us in the text?Matthew 21.23-32

Two sons, one who says, “No! I’m not going to do the dishes! But later thinks about it and changes his mind. The other says, “sure, I’ll clean the kitchen,” but the next thing you see is his backside as he leaves to meet his friends.

While the situations couldn’t be more different, there are some eerie similarities especially between my mother in law’s strongly held and vociferously argued position for euthanasia and her attitudes and decisions around her own life.

But these sons teach us a lot about God — God knows our conflictedness — is prepared for us to vacillate — knows that we have difficulty figuring out what God’s will is in every situation in our lives. By agreeing with the disciples that the son who said no and then changed his mind, Jesus gives us wiggle room to work through thorny issues, confident that God will hang in on the judgment end until we get through to a decision.

The other son is insincere — that is his sin. Peace at all costs, tell them what they want to hear.

He is very much like the priests and the pharisees in the prelude to the story Jesus tells.

The ministers of the day come to Jesus distressed about the effect he is having on the people. They are supposed to be in charge — both to keep the peace for the Roman occupiers, and because they are used to defining what is God’s will. So they accost Jesus and ask him who put him in charge?”


He answers their question with a question: Do you remember John the Baptist, that celebrity prophet that you killed? Who gave him authority to baptize all those thousands of people who followed him?”

They were non-plussed, speechless. If they answered that God gave him the power, then why did they kill him? And if it was human authority, well, those same people who gave John authority over their lives hung around with Jesus, and they might just kill those priests and pharisees!

So they answer with the answer many a son or daughter uses when they know they are in trouble: “I don’t know.”

And Jesus leaves them in that dilemma: he won’t tell them where his power comes from.

And in the situation, we are left asking the question, how do we weigh the authority of differing voices? resources that are offered around these difficult life and death questions?

I keep coming back to:
“I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 7:23)
Covenant, in this sacred sense, refers to the binding together of people in mutual trust and loyalty
with God and within the community of faith.

This summer this issue wasn’t just a news item for me.

As my own parents rage against the dying of the light, this issue haunts me.

Almost daily, my mother expresses a wish to be free of pain and fear. Yet, when surrounded by folk who really care about her, her quick wit and ready laugh express pure joy in life.

And this summer my dad’s latest best friend died. He didn’t meet my dad for his weekly Saturday morning coffee date. After several hours, he was found in his room, dead at his own hand, though the death certificate read ‘heart attack’ and there were no family to raise questions. I fear this might be described as suicide aided by emotional neglect.
A little counselling, a visit from someone who cared — and this death might have been avoided — and the spillage from it would not have caught my dad up in its grip.

“I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 7:23)
the binding together of people in mutual trust and loyalty
with God and within the community of faith.

God doesn’t have the same attitude toward life and death that we do. But life is dear to God. Christ is the best example of that. Like my mother, he worried about the issues to hand — whether people had enough lunch to eat that day of the five thousand, whether a woman had menstruated for 12 years without ceasing, whether someone could see or walk, or was plagued by mental illness. Jesus took care of what was in the moment. And Jesus took care of the future. His teachings about heaven weren’t always comprehensible to the disciples, and we can join them in the mistiness of our vision of the afterlife, but Jesus was willing to give all for the promise of a place in heaven for each of us.

The message of grace in the midst of our confusion about this thorny issue?

The tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; we can believe his promises too.

“I will be your God, and you shall be my people.”

God’s people know that God has been with them from the beginning to the end — whatever that end looks like.

In the words of the psalmist, “I come to the end—I am still with you.” (Psalm 139)


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Readers Comments (1)

  1. jan says:

    Thanks for this Morar.

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