Archive for October, 2014

You Cannot Die with Dignity

October 24, 2014

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My girlfriend moved in with Chris in the fall of 1999. Chris was dying of cancer. And she decided to live out her days at home. In addition to the nursing care that she was receiving, she wanted the regular company of someone she knew well that could also help her take care of day-to-day things. Jennie, who is now my wife, was that person. She had known Chris all of her life.

One night that fall, I was staying over. I was drunk. Sick drunk. As the evening’s mistakes were launching from my guts, I heard what I thought was an echo. But I soon realized that it was Chris in another restroom. She was throwing up too but for a very different reason.

The next morning, I felt awful. I went into the kitchen to get some coffee and was greeted by Chris with a smile and an embrace. “It’s nice to see you. I’m so glad you are here.” I have to admit that the first thought that went through my mind was unkind – what the hell is wrong with this woman? How could she be so pleasant when she is so sick?

Two months later Chris was dead. In spite of the pain, the loss, and the concern for those who would remain – she lived with dignity until her last breath. Her faith in God not only survived the attack of her illness, it strengthened. Her kindness not only endured but seemed to emanate effortlessly. She did not grow bitter. And she also did not become fake. She had an infant grandson and it grieved her deeply that she would miss so much and that Lucas would live without personally knowing his grandmother.

When I heard the story of Brittany Maynard’s decision to end her life on November 1st, 2014 and her decision to leverage this choice to champion the ‘dying with dignity’ cause, my thoughts immediately went to Chris and my heart sunk. What if she had decided to end her life earlier? What if she had concluded that her sickness and pain would so diminish her dignity that dying would be preferable? It’s hard to say, of course, but I’m certain the impact that she had on me and many of others would not have been so complete.

In the video that Brittany and her family posted on YouTube, her mother describes Brittany as “a very autonomous, bright, well-read, well-traveled person who loves adventure.” The implication of this phrase is that as Brittany’s cancer robs her of these attributes, it will also steal her dignity. And so the appeal is made to allow anyone in her situation the right to die with as many ‘dignified’ attributes as possible.

Since Brittany moved to Oregon, she has the opportunity to legally carry out her intentions. The video is a promotion to raise awareness and funds so that more states will adopt similar ‘dying with dignity’ laws. The thing is: you cannot die with dignity by hastening your demise to avoid losing attributes that never determined your dignity in the first place.

Human dignity is not contingent on health, self-reliance, intelligence, or beauty. It does not fly away in the face of pain or loss. Dignity is an intrinsic part of what it means to be a human being. And it is arguably the most important aspect of our humanity. It is not self-generated. Dignity is 100% a gift from God. Our task in life is to embrace our deep value, to live fully with our dignity, and to bring honor to the one who gave us this precious, unmerited gift.

Brittany’s choice is not merely personal. Her well-produced video has been viewed millions of times. The video promotes a view of human dignity to which I am adamantly opposed. It is simply those views that I stand against – not Brittany or her family. I pray for peace and comfort for all of them. But I do hope that she changes her mind and receives the palliative care that she needs as she lives out the wealth of her days with dignity.

The illusion of autonomy (or ‘self-law’) has so permeated our psyche that we have become ashamed of our weakness, embarrassed of our humanity. And so we pretend – to be stronger than we are, to not need God. This pretense is not serving us well. And it is grossly undermining our efforts to serve one another. We look down on the dependent, the dim-witted, and the fearful, believing that these attributes have made them less valuable and unworthy. But our intrinsic value, our dignity, was granted us when God chose to create us in his image. Though tarnished by sin, our dignity can never be fully erased and should always be protected.

The way Chris lived her last days changed my life. By the time she died, I was sober and a small ember of faith was kindling in my heart. And it wasn’t just me. Everyone that came into contact with Chris during her life, all of it, was deeply impacted. And many of us were particularly humbled by the way Chris lived during her last months.

Chris accepted that her life had value, a value that transcended her circumstances. I am deeply grateful that she taught me how to live with dignity. And I pray that her story and the millions of others who have made similar choices for similar reasons will prove to be a convincing testament that you can live with dignity through the most harrowing of circumstances. And that this will provide the hope necessary for Brittany and others in her situation to choose to live out the full extent of their days.

Phil Hissom

Phil Hissom is the Founder of the POLIS Insitute and the primary author of Dignity Serves. He can be reached at phil@polisinstitute.org.

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-lesson course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.

How the Church’s Charity Became Toxic

October 8, 2014

Who needs mercy?
The Church’s charity became toxic through a fundamental misunderstanding of the world’s most famous story about helping others – the “Parable of the Good Samaritan.” The prevailing summary of the story recorded in Luke 10:25-37 is “be helpful to people in need, like the Good Samaritan.” While the parable does teach that, this is absolutely not the central lesson that Jesus sought to convey. Making this lesser point the main point has placed its hearers in the role of being or becoming a hero – the ugly seed of our toxicity.***

Interpreting parables is aided by emplacing the initial audience in the story. Who are they? What happens to them? What should be learned from their experience? Answers to these questions tell us what the parable is fundamentally about and how to apply its teaching to our lives.

The initial audience was a lawyer who wanted to justify himself. Jesus would not have taught him anything had he simply said, “be nice to strangers.” This man’s specialty was Jewish law. He knew that one already. And Jesus was smarter than that.

The hero of the story that Jesus tells happens to be a Samaritan. If Jesus wanted to emplace the lawyer in the story as the Samaritan, it would have stretched the lawyer some. Generally speaking, first century Jews hated Samaritans and vice versa. But, at least he would have been the hero in the story. Certainly that would have softened the blow a little.

But the lawyer is not the Samaritan. Jesus tells the parable in response to the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” And after Jesus tells the story, he repeats the lawyer’s question but he flips it around by asking, “So who was a neighbor to the man?” This is the key to understanding the parable.

The lawyer answered that the one who showed him mercy was his neighbor. This answer reveals who the lawyer is in the story and unveils its central teaching. He’s the battered traveler lying by the side of the road half dead. He’s not the Samaritan. He’s the guy the Samaritan helps. He’s not the hero. He’s not the one who has it all together and is able to show mercy. He’s the one who needs mercy.

The central teaching of the parable is, “You need mercy, brother. You are lying half dead by the side of the road. But God, in his mercy, will send you some help. You just may not like who he sends your way.”

The battered traveler gets the help he needs. And the help that God provides is through the efforts and means of someone the lawyer surely looked down on. While it might be difficult to give help to someone you look down on, that can also just reinforce the sense of superiority. It’s an entirely different experience altogether to receive help from those you look down on. No greater path to humility has ever been laid out. And it sets the stage for us to embrace the deepest implication of the story.

Jesus is the Good Samaritan. He’s the hero. Which means we don’t get to be the hero. Ever. Our over zealous applications of the Good Samaritan parable have led the Church to embrace the role of hero. We have played God for others and encouraged a type of dependence on us that should be reserved for God alone. We have refused to receive help and learn from those in distress, trumping their skills and hopes with our resources and plans. Our efforts have led to a toxic codependence which has resulted in tragic cases of burnout, resentment, and shame.

We like to play God. We like to be the hero. But Jesus came saying, “Good news: You can stop playing God. It’s killing you. I AM HERE. I will pick you up off the side of the road and take care of you. I am the hero.” We killed him for that. Now we just ignore him. And we do so at our peril. For he alone can meet our deepest need.

None of us want to need mercy. But we do. We all desperately need mercy. Whatever has you half dead, don’t let it stop you from accepting the mercies of Christ and the help of those he sends to be a neighbor to you.

[***The term “Toxic Charity” comes from a book by Bob Lupton. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s time. It’ll help you understand this phenomenon more broadly. This post outlines what I believe to be the source of the problem in the Christian Church – arguably the world’s most charitable organization.]

Phil Hissom

Phil Hissom is the Founder of the POLIS Insitute and the primary author of Dignity Serves. He can be reached at phil@polisinstitute.org.

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-lesson course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.