Saturday, November 13, 2010

"If I die before I wake ..."

I just finished reading what may be Jack Spong’s final book, Eternal Life: A New Vision. If you like Spong, you’ll enjoy this one. It’s theology as autobiography and covers familiar Spongian turf.

One chapter that grabbed me was the epilogue, “Defining the Choice to Die.” Spong argues quite convincingly for what he calls “the personal and legal right to determine when and how I die.” (221) Of course, Spong carefully qualifies what he means and responds to several objections from the religious and medical side.

This is a conversation that we do not do well in the church, if it ever even comes up. We don’t do it well in families, either, and many families are unable to follow through on the wishes of dying loved ones. And yet it seems to me, in light of medical science’s ability to prolong life far beyond any kind of quality, that these are conversations we ought to be having.

Several years ago, I read about a pastor who had made a covenant with his wife, that should he develop Alzheimer’s (which, given his family history, was likely) and begin to lose his connection with the everyday world, that he would begin a fast toward death. What moved me most about the account, written by the wife who survived, was the way that decision honored life rather than diminished it. And so I’ve invited my family to make a similar covenant with me, to allow me in the face of an incurable disease, to enter into a holy fast and celebrate life as fully as possible through my last days.

How about you? Where are you and your family on end of life issues? How could the church help in clarifying our approach to the end of life?


  1. Thanks for the post. My wife and I have had a clear dialogue, and are encouraging others in the family to be explicit. I wouldn't presume to tell anyone what to do, but please: I don't want heroic measures prolonguing my life at the end of tubes and wires like some pathetic fly in a spider's web. If I can't live without intervention let God take me. Anything else from my family is possibly cruel and heartless; and who can know what it feels like inside the motionless silent body trapped on the margins of life & death?

  2. I'd say that you can't honor life if you are dead. If I face an incurable disease I would not like to have the option to die (unless I'm 85 or something). I've heard a lot of stories of people who has recovered from incurable diseases and then lived good lives. Even of people who don't recover but finds something meaningful to do. Like this one guy that is totaly paralized, exept for some muscle in his face and he writes books. That is what I call to honor life.

  3. It's certainly a difficult call. My decision is specifically in relation to Alzheimer's and perhaps I should have been clearer about that in the blog. So far as I'm aware, it's incurable and even with the available meds, it takes a pretty predictable path. As a pastor, I've watched too many good folks become walking ghosts, too many spouses overwrought with guilt and hurt--visit or not visit.