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Church has key role to play at life’s end, speakers say

AUSTIN, Texas (BP)–Life and death decisions are best made by Christians in community, said leaders of seminars on bioethical issues at the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission’s annual statewide conference.

Cautious engagement by a caring faith community is the preferred path when scientific advances allow humans to “play God” with life, said Dan McGee, professor of Christian ethics at Baylor University, Waco, Texas, during the Feb. 10-11 conference in Austin.

Some people adopt a “humble stance” of passivity that life and death matters must always be left in God’s hands. Others take a “heroic stance” of activism that calls on humans to take dominion over natural processes. But biblical faith, McGee said, calls Christians to be sober stewards who neither bury their talents nor forget that God retains ownership and ultimate control.

“Go for it, but with caution,” McGee advised.

The church’s task is to “come up with communities of decision-making” guided by compassion and justice, he said, rather than turning the responsibility of life-or-death matters solely to physicians and technicians.

“We must never allow the medical community to become medical popes,” McGee said.

Nor should the “Lone Ranger tradition” of rugged individualism and personal autonomy be elevated, he added.
“My life doesn’t belong just to me,” he said. “The reality is that to be human is to be communal. We never really exist in isolation.”

When it comes to the matter of elective death, churches have a duty to become “communities of moral discourse,” said Tim Madison, director of pastoral services at Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen, Texas, in another seminar.

Unfortunately, churches often are silent on “messy” issues of suffering and death, he said.

“We have more to say on the heaven and hell we have never seen than the death and dying that daily surround us,” Madison said.

Churches must avoid worshiping at the altar of self-determination or viewing the prolonging of life as the ultimate good, he said.

“Human life is not the highest good,” Madison said. “God is the highest good.”

Churches should teach believers not only how to live, but also how to die as Christians, said John P. Andersen, hospice chaplain and pastor of Blue Ridge Church, Marlin, Texas, in another seminar.

Andersen, who also works as coordinator for the Victim/Offender Reconciliation Program of McLennan County, said, “We have a lot of books about how to minister to the dying. We have a lot of books on how to care for the grieving. We have a lot of books on the dying process. But we talk very seldom about whether the dying person has any responsibility.”

The church can help the dying Christian teach others how to “die well” by recognizing his needs and the areas of ministry he can give and receive, Andersen said. They fit into three realms:

— the body. The organic dimension of the Christian life affirms the body as a creation of God and as the temple of the Holy Spirit. It recognizes life as a precious gift from God that is of great value, but it does not treat life as sacred in the same sense that God is sacred, Andersen said. The church can help the dying and the dying can help the church understand that the body should not be denied, nor should it be seen as the ultimate good, he said.

— the community. The social strand of life in Christ recognizes the church as the body of Christ. Responsibilities rising from being in Christ include being a priest, a steward and a servant, Andersen said. As a priest, the dying person can have a ministry of reconciliation, he said, noting, “The dying have the ability to bring people together.”

As a steward and servant, the dying can help prepare surviving relatives and friends for the upcoming death.
“Let them know where your insurance papers are. Get your will together. Get your living will together, if you want one. Get your advance directives together. Show them where they are in the filing cabinet. Give them a key to the safe deposit box. And the church can be the kind of place that facilitates that process,” he said. “That’s only being good stewards. That’s only being responsible.”

— the kingdom. The promise of resurrection and the doctrine of God’s kingdom — in its present and ultimate dimensions — offers hope for the future and a responsibility for the present, Andersen said.

“Out of my convictions and the convictions of my community, I can listen for questions about death, hell, heaven, resurrection and life. I can also put things into perspective about life and death,” he said. “And in the process of listening, I’m learning more than I’m teaching.”

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  • Ken Camp