(Photo: Paul de Vries)
Grace Sung Eun Lee is a 28-year-old terminally ill brain-cancer patient in New York City. She is on mechanical life-support, without which she would die. She has been a church leader, especially among the youth, and her father, the Rev. Manho Lee, who is the pastor, is intensely concerned for his daughter and for the examples being set by all. When medical doctors tried removing her breathing tube, she was not able to breathe on her own. She needs the ventilator in order to live – perhaps a few more days or weeks.
As an adult and in sound mind, at one point Ms. Lee wanted the ventilator disconnected so that she could die naturally, but her parents went to court to become her medical guardians to stop her. They even consider refusing medical care to be a kind of suicide, punishable in Hell. When her parents failed in court and she retained her adult right to choose her own medical care, Ms. Lee wisely chose to retain the ventilator assistance in order to further work on her relationship with her parents and her Lord. Definitely, this is a wise choice for now.
Very seriously, we adults make precarious life and death decisions every day. It is not only in those moments of major medical crises that we consider life and death. We consider the death-related decisions every time we eat, climb stairs, hear a good sermon, choose to ride with a friend, read the front page story of violent crimes, check the obituaries, watch the news from a war-front, or just cross the street. My father once quipped that walking across a street in Manhattan brought new meaning to the Old English expression, "the quick and the dead."
We all make potential "end of life decisions" several times a day – usually unconsciously, but always quite seriously. We all tend to be pro-life and risk averse in our choices, unless we are insane. When sick, we struggle for life and health. When healthy, we seek to avoid behaviors that would make us sick. We cannot avoid these omnipresent choices. (And just staying in bed is deathly risky, too. You could get pneumonia from lack of exercise, choke on food trying to swallow in a prone position, and break your back when your land-lord kicks you out for non-payment of rent!) Life is a choice we make many times a day.
Personal question: Do you have working smoke detectors and carbon-monoxide detectors in your home and your place of work? Either way, you have already placed a cash value on your life and the lives of those who live with you. Have you checked recently to confirm that the smoke detector is working? How much is life worth to you, for Heaven sakes? Did you overtly evaluate the safety record of the car you last bought – or in which you last rode? What is your value on life?
Death is ever-present. Whether we talk about it or not, our temporal lives are like a danger-filled dance with death – which is why we call our lives "temporal" in the first place. We buy a smaller car to save money, when we know that a larger car could provide twice the protection from highway death for us and for our loved ones. We caution our children to look twice, both ways, when crossing the street, and then we warn them repeatedly about deadly risks when we teach them how to drive a car. We all encourage one another to be careful, to smell the roses, to eat right, to stop smoking, to exercise more, to see the doctor, to get some rest, to "take care of yourself." Each of us thinks about death several times a day – when we eat, cross the street, reminisce about those who have passed away, advise our children, speak with our parents, trust food given by another, make plans for the future. We are born with a will to live, because death lurks close at hand, seen or not.
Nevertheless, some "end of life" decisions especially draw our attention. Your mother may be on mechanical life-support – a true miracle in modern medicine – and her will to live and your will for her to live is strong. Love desires the best, and sustaining our earthly relationships with loved-ones matters to us. Yet we are all aware that the temporal death rate remains 100%. And the Bible teaches us that while a relationship with the Lord makes this temporal life "more abundant," the gift of eternal life in that amazing, grace-filled relationship with the Lord is so very much greater, fuller, richer.
What would it mean to us and to God if we spent every desire and consumed every dime to avoid that splendid gift of the eternal? Must our treasures on earth dominate our decisions more than our treasures in Heaven? If a second (and third) expert opinion confirms no medical hope, what is it worth to extend the pain and distress another week? Or another month? What is the fear of ultimately putting our lives and our loved ones lives in God's hands? Do we trust the Lord and his healing powers less by rejecting a further extension of expensive mechanical support? Does devotion to a loved one require any of us to spend every dime – hers, or our own, or the government's?
But, can it really be about those dimes? No and yes. No, it is about relationships with our precious loved ones, and with God. Are we listening to the dying? Are we reading the Scripture and praying with the dying? Are we also listening to God? Sustained and improved relationships, all around, matter both to you and to the dying. However, yes, the quality of every relationship always affects how we use our own dimes and the wallets of others. No love requires foolish spending. What if the decision is a life-life decision, not a life-death decision?
Prayer: May the God of all healing restore the health of Grace Sung Eun Lee. May the God of all peace still give her parents, her family and her other loved ones deep peace if Ms. Lee later chooses, with prayer and peace with God, that her artificial ventilator is no longer wanted.