I’ve been thinking about death some – how it happens, what people think.
My clinic recently faced tragedy. Dr. Jerry Umanos was shot and killed at a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan. He had worked for the past 25 years as pediatrician at Lawndale Christian Health Center (located in inner-city Chicago), and for the past 10 years, had been volunteering part of his time training pediatric residents in Kabul. He had gone, against all warning, to seek the poorest of the poor, and the neediest of the needy. LCHC saw him last this past January, when he gave a testimony before our whole staff about his work, and explained why he was going back once again to that war-torn land.
Keep Dr. Umanos in mind for a moment and consider end-of-life care in America. Most Americans will die a slow death, maybe brought on by cancer, maybe brought on by organ failure. There are two options when you are faced with a diagnosis that signals the end: aggressive (often experimental) treatment that probably won’t work and if it does, will leave you barely alive; or hospice, where physicians ease the pain for those who’ve already accepted death (hospice can occur either at home or in hospital). According to articles like this one, more Americans are opting for the former, and saving the latter for when the former has failed. Interestingly, Christians (or those who identify as more religious) are even more likely to pursue aggressive end-of-life treatments. Simply put, our healthcare system (and our society) is teeming with people eeking out nanodrops of life with every last effort and dollar. We are hanging onto life with the very tip of our nails.
I hope the juxtaposition is as jarring to you as it as to me. On one hand is a man who shuns his life (perhaps even foolishly so) to serve in Afghanistan, and on the other hand are people (especially religious people) trying to live some more.
Obviously, end-of-life situations are incredibly complex, and it’s difficult to know what to do in the mire of emotions, tensions, and false hopes. I don’t pretend to know how to navigate through those situations, so this article won’t be about the ethics of end-of-life care. Instead, I want to point out how much the death of Dr. Umanos and the deaths of others in the American healthcare system reveal a sad truth about Americans: we are not ready to die.
This is bad news, at least for Christians, because death is one of the biggest things Christ stresses to his fledgling disciples: ‘You must pick up your cross daily and follow me’; ‘Whoever wants to save their life will lose it; whoever loses his life for me will find it.’ If they didn’t understand when he was speaking this to them in person, then surely they understood when their Lord hung before them on the cross, shamefully bloodied and scarred.
Paul eventually reiterates this theme in his epistles, telling the Philippian church, for example, that ‘to die is gain, and to live is Christ. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!’ Only a man who dies daily could utter such words.
I think what Jesus (and Paul) was trying to point out is that life is a gift, not an ultimate good that should be pursued at all costs. And of course, this goes against everything in the dominant narrative in America. Lacking greater purpose, we live to feel alive: to travel and see the world, to engorge food with our bodies and take pictures of them on our phones, to drink and be merry with loud music beating in our ears, to pursue power and influence, to be intoxicated in love. I am not saying we should not enjoy these things. I am only saying that it becomes dangerous when these things mark life itself – when we jump from thrill to thrill seeking ways to adorn an otherwise vapid and listless trajectory.
If we do not die now, it will be too late when death really comes. Death should catch us in the act of dying, not in the act of living. Christ’s call to the cross is a very serious charge, and we would do well to pray over His words daily and to search the ways He is urging us to die today.