Life, Death, and the Illusion of Autonomy

We are fast approaching the date of November 1st. While it is celebrated in the Christian Church as All Saints’ Day, the day will have a darker event this year for which the world wants to celebrate. It is the day that 29-year-old Brittany Maynard has chosen to end her life as opposed to suffer the effects of terminal cancer. While the news cycle has died and other stories have taken precedence in our minds, I would like to bring the story back to the forefront of our minds. If you need refreshing, here is the article.

Between when this story broke and now, I have read numerous articles that speak to the subject of suicide, physician-assisted suicide, Christian responses to suicide, etc. While many of the articles have good information, many of them miss the point. They miss the point because they start from the wrong point. Many of the articles debate whether or not her choice is the right choice. However, the distinct teaching of Christianity is that this decision does not belong to Brittany. At the risk of sounding like a raving jerk-face, let me state that again: Biblical Christianity does not give Brittany the choice to end her life in a God-pleasing way. Therefore, Christians should consider this topic with extreme care. As Christians, there are basically two responses to this story, and they both have to do with the subject of autonomy.


For those that are unclear:


1.  the quality or state of being self-governing; especially the right of self-government

2. self-directing freedom and especially moral independence

3. a self-governing state

So, in response to this story, the Christian has two proper responses to this subject. The first response is to ask if Brittany Maynard is a Christian. If she is not a Christian and can appeal to no higher code of morality, her morality becomes subjective or, at the very most, collective. Subjective morality dictates that the idea of specific morals falls within the autonomous decision of each individual. In this case, one must tip their hat to Brittany and wish her “Bon voyage!” A collective morality would dictate that specific morals fall within the concept of “greater good” for humanity as a collective. In this case, once again, we must tip our hat to Brittany. What good is there to watching a loved-one suffer from a devastating disease? How does this benefit morality as a whole? One could very easily defend Mrs. Maynard’s position from collective morality.

However, what if Brittany Maynard is a Christian? It would follow that she believes in a deity that created her, loves her, and cares for her. She would also believe in a God who is always good. Always right. Always in control. The Bible (i.e. God’s revelation to us and the source and norm for the faith and doctrine of the historic Christian Church) is very clear that only One has the right to be in control of life and death. The One who made us. Even in the midst of this sinful world and the evils therein (i.e. cancer), God is still in control and working for His people. It may not seem fair. It may not seem right. But (here comes raving jerk-face again) that is inconsequential. What we think is fair or right does not matter. WE ARE NOT AUTONOMOUS!!!! God is. We are His creation. We do not get to pick and choose the parts of God that we like or understand. That is not how Christianity works!

And before you ask it, the question is NOT how could a good God allow this? The proper Biblical question, answer, and hope is: What is God doing through this? The answer is that God has not changed. God is working through the exact same means that He has always worked. He works through His Word to bring comfort, hope and direction to our lives. He comes to kill us with His Law and resurrect us with the Gospel. He comes in Holy Communion to cleanse of us of our sins, and strengthen us in our lives of faith. He uses His people of every time and place to provide the healing salve of comfort, the bright ray of perseverance, and the everlasting hope of a new heaven and a new earth where there is no more cancer or illness or death. The comfort of faith does not come through the hope that God will heal someone who is terminally ill. The comfort of faith comes through the promise that God will endure with us through every challenge with the same Means of His Grace that have functioned our entire lives. Life and death are not ours to control. That is not the fruit we should eat, if you will. Autonomy is only an illusion on which we, as American Christians, have gorged ourselves. God is in control. He is good. He loves us so much that there is life that awaits us beyond cancer, hospital, and grave.

All Saints' DayAs you gather with the saints of God in worship this Sunday and as you celebrate All Saints’ Day, remember the life and reunion that awaits. Partake of the means by which God gives you the strength to endure. Put your trust in Him who has the whole world in His hands.

*Definition taken from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary


The Christian and the World: Silencing the Cacophony of Voices


This was my inner monologue as I perused social media last night. As I read article after article about the recent death of Robin Williams, my agitation was at a pretty high level. The reason for agitation was the dialogue that I was witnessing across the Twitterverse, FaceNation, and the interwebs. It went something like this (these are paraphrases, of course):

So sad to hear of the passing of Robin Williams.


I hope shines light upon the need to care for those who suffer from depression.


So sad that we lost one of the great actors.


Why are we focusing so much on this one man? People die everyday without the fanfare.


As a Christian, I appreciate the talent of Robin Williams, and I pray that He looked to Jesus in His final moments.


We lose our minds over the loss of a comedian, and we are silent while many Christians are killed for their faith in Iraq. #MessedUpPriorities


As Christians, why should we care so much about a man who killed himself and showed no evidence of faith in his life?


How dare all of you self-righteous haters cast derision at such a beautiful soul?

And it went on. And on. And on. And on. And on. I was dangerously close to having my head explode right there on the couch. That would be a horrible mess for my wife to clean up, so I had pity on her. I put down my phone. I did dishes. I went for a walk. I pondered.

I found myself conflicted. Did I mourn the loss of Robin Williams? I really did. As an avid observer of pop-culture, many of his movies were very close to my heart as I grew up, came of age, and continued into adulthood. I owe part of  my love of literature and writing to Dead Poet’s Society. I owe part of my compassion for the lost to Good Will Hunting. And even though it was an extreme aberration of theology, I owe part of my imagining of heaven to the cinematic masterpiece, What Dreams May Come. This says nothing of Good Morning Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Fisher King, or Hook. So… did I mourn the loss of Robin Williams? Do I still have the picture of Aladdin hugging Genie as my Facebook cover photo? Do I hope against hope that he had some faith at his death so I can have the hope of seeing him again one day? Yes. Yes. And yes.

However, was his death tragic? Yes. Was it abominable? Yes. Is suicide sinful? Yes. Does it damn him to hell for eternity? No. Does it bring up the topic of suicide, depression and mental illness? Yes. Do we need to have those discussions, and do we need to be careful how we portray suicide in a culture that is fascinated with freedom through death? Yes. And OF COURSE, we need to be concerned about the Christians being martyred in Iraq and other places. However, it is still ok to mourn the loss of a person who had such an impact on pop-culture… EVEN and ESPECIALLY if there was not faith present. He becomes one for whom we should truly mourn.

So, if you feel yourself conflicted, as I did.

Mourn the loss of Robin Williams. Thank the Lord for the talent and joy that he brought to people while he was alive. These are good things. Say a prayer for his family and friends that they might find hope in Christ amidst their loss.

Continue to pray for those who are persecuted in the world. Continue to pray for those who are struggling with addiction and depression.

Continue to pray that God’s will would be done in the world and that all people would be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.

May God grant you the peace that transcends all human understanding… the peace that causes you to turn off your phones, shut your computers, and silence the cacophony of voices that surround us.

Punishment, Providence, and Pentecost

And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

Throughout the course of your life, have you ever had those things – events – happenstances that you are warned about over and over again but, for one reason or another, you never heeded the warnings? Have you ever had those diabolical situations that you have to learn for yourself? You have to explain the broken window because you were using the real baseball that is never supposed to be used in the back yard. The black eye that you have to live with because you smarted off to a guy who was bigger than you.

Our lives are full of the repercussions of our actions. The child who sneaks a cigarette from his uncle’s pack and gets sick after smoking it. The one who imbibes too much alcohol and pays the awful consequences the next day. The one who crosses to the other side for greener grass only to find that the grass is greener but only because the manure is deeper. We have stories that could fill embarrassing volume after embarrassing volume of “America’s Funniest Fails”. When we are honest with ourselves, however, these things are often not funny. These repercussions… these punishments often wound our pride, affect our attitude, and can even leave us angry and bitter that no one stepped in to bail us out. What hurts even more is that, if we really take a look at the events that fill the volumes of the library of our life, the fateful pages hurt us because the pain and anguish suffered therein are much our own doing. We have been warned. We have been shown the consequences of sin.

In our Old Testament lesson for today, we have a sobering example of the arrogance and stiff-neckedness of God’s people. God had done so much for the people of Israel already and yet they complained. They wanted out of Egypt so God led them out with His mighty arm. They had to get away from Pharaoh so God parted the Red Sea for them. They were thirsty so God gave them water from a rock. They were hungry so God gave them manna to eat. And still in the section before our passage for today, we read that they complained.

“Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

The people wanted meat. They got meat, and God gave them something more. They also received the Word of God for the betterment of their souls. Instead of giving thanks and treasuring this benevolent act of God, they wanted it stopped. “Moses, stop them!” Joshua cries. “Its not their job! We shouldn’t have to listen to them! We don’t even like listening to you!” The gift of the Spirit is a great gift for God’s people. It is the Spirit that allows them to see God’s providence even in the midst of sin and punishment. It is the Spirit that allows them to understand the will of God and heed His Word, and, yet, they reject it. Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit on them! This was the wish of Moses. That all would understand. In short, Moses is wishing that the Spirit’s work would happen in everyone’s life… that all would be called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified. But they turned it away. They denied the Word and ate their quail and the Lord’s anger was kindled. They rejected their Lord. Israel had ceased to live as His people, and just like He promised on Sinai, God stopped treating them as His people. A plague wiped out a good many of them, as Numbers 11:33 states, “while the meat was still in-between their teeth”. I wonder if Joshua would recall that day in the near future when He would take over for Moses and address the people of Israel.

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

The people of Israel, even though they saw mighty acts of God after mighty acts of God, still had to be reminded not to reject the same life-giving acts of God. It seems that even the people of God are slow learners.

The same kind of response is given in our reading from Acts for this morning. The Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples with the sound of a rushing wind. The gathered travelers making their pilgrimages to Jerusalem began to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ in their own language. People believed, but many were skeptical. The most cynical of the responses doubted the disciples’ sobriety. However, Peter responds that there was no drunkenness at fault here. This is the work of the Spirit. People believed and were saved. The church began to grow throughout the world from that point forward. Yet there were still people who doubted. There were those who didn’t want to hear the words of the Spirit. They didn’t want to know the Word of the Lord. I guess it seems that the people of God have always been slow learners.

The Lord constantly puts the same thing before us each and every day. The same Spirit that fell upon the Moses, the seventy elders, Eldad, and Medad is the same Spirit that is given us in our Baptisms. The same Word of God that caused the manna to appear, the quail to come, and the providential care of God for His people is the same Word of God that comes to us in Scriptures, in worship, in preaching… it is the same Word of God that is taught in Bible classes, Sunday school, and in our grade school. The same life, forgiveness, and faith-sustaining care is given to us in the safety of our homes in books that are barely opened. It is given to us through the mouths of faithful preachers, teachers, patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith that are ignored, silenced, or pushed to the periphery of our lives. It is given to us in the words of the liturgy, hymns, font, and table as we gather united by the Spirit in this place but only when it is convenient, when it doesn’t cramp our schedule too much, or as long as we have nothing else at all to do because then, I guess, we might as well show up and get some Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, I regret to inform you that this beautiful house of God often reeks of the stench of the death that we often choose instead of choosing life. Our sinful nature distracts us, deceives us, and disillusions us. It decries the Word of God in our midst. It hates the words of the Spirit. Our sinful nature hates the words of the Spirit because they mean death for our sinful nature. The daily drowning of our Old Adam that happens through God’s Word and Spirit. Our sinful nature tries to convince us that this place is not worth our time and effort, because this is the very place where our sinful nature is drowned time and time again this side of eternity. Martin Luther speaks this way in the Small Catechism. When speaking about the baptized life of God’s people, he says,

What does such baptising with water indicate?

It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Where is this written?

St Paul writes in Romans chapter six: “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

We have been raised to new life in Christ. The gift of the Spirit in our lives through Baptism, God’s Word, the Lord’s Supper, the forgiveness of sins, the strengthening of our faith in Christ. These are real gifts. They have real power, and no matter how many times we have forsaken them in the past, Christ is here with them for you again today. All of the forgiveness you need… all of the faith you desire… all of the hope that you long for is here as your God, once again, visits you with life and salvation. Through the wondrous acts of our loving God… every week… every day, the stench of death is taken away. The Holy Spirit continues to make Himself present for us. That is the beauty of God’s providence and care for you. He does not only take care of your physical needs, but He takes care of your soul also. That’s the beauty of Pentecost. God does not just restrict the Spirit to 70 elders or just the disciples. In Pentecost and in every day since, we witness the wish of Moses realized. The people of God are called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified through the work of the same Holy Spirit. You are God’s people called by the Gospel, enlightened with His gifts, sanctified and kept in the true faith. We do not treat God’s Word with the disdain or indifference as the world because God’s Word, spoken, read, and received, is the very gift that gets us past this life to life everlasting. May God who has begun this good work in us, bring it to completion in the day of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Current Affairs: Hunger Games and Jesus? Yeah… this is going to be fun…

Now, there is no doubt in the mind of this pastor that Christian themes and motifs can be seen in secular movies, music, and media. It is important as Christians that we are always looking for illustrations that can aid us in explaining the Gospel to our culture. The illustrations never replace the Gospel, but they can aid in understanding. So this recent article by Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio (an ordained Episcopal priest) peaked my interest. She writes about The Hunger Games and more specifically the movie based on the first book of the trilogy. This trilogy has taken the culture by storm. I am almost done with the third book and eagerly await being able to see the movie. Truly, there are Christological implications that could be made out of the story whether the author intended them or not. However, Tumminio takes an angle that I found to be a fascinating failure.

She starts off the article really well. She makes the connection between the Capitol and modern American society. An adequate connection for sure. She then flips the script and starts to talk about how we are as bad as the Capitol audiences watching the blood bath in the Hunger Games when we sit in the movie seat. She then makes the connection to Jesus in this section.

Does that mean those of us who buy advanced tickets to “The Hunger Games” — in record numbers — are so immune to the horrors of murder that we are merely voyeurs, watching the ill-timed termination of life with the same salaciousness of those who watched the Paris Hilton sex video?

For Christians, this issue of watching is complicated further. Christians are nearing Holy Week, the most sacred time of the church year, in which the faithful commemorate the death and resurrection of the Messiah.

On the Thursday of Holy Week, Christians keep a symbolic vigil with Jesus, watching with him during his final night in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he asks God to rescue him from fate. On Good Friday, we relive Jesus’ crucifixion by hearing the story of the Messiah’s death or sometimes, even, by watching re-enactments. What would Good Friday be like if once, just once, Christians stopped their church services in protest or stopped a re-enactment of Jesus’ death and took him down from the cross just in time?

Christians don’t do that, of course, because they are remembering an event whose course cannot be altered: Jesus suffered. Jesus died. The only thing that can be done is for Christians to voluntarily bear witness to that reality and to be disgusted by it, so that its carnage motivates them to protest violence.

In that way, watching for Christians on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday serves a purpose: It empowers them to take on Jesus’ ministry as a servant, to become people who protest against injustices in the hopes of transforming them.

As in Christianity, violence in “The Hunger Games” also serves a purpose: It is not gratuitous. It is not voyeuristic. But there’s a difference as well: We the viewers are not witnessing a past event. We feel like we are seeing the Games in real time, that we are part of Panem and, by virtue of sitting in the audience, part of its dysfunction.

This is the point in which I threw my head through my computer screen, and had to find somewhere else to finish this blog post. Read that section again. Better yet, let me highlight a certain section for a second time.

On the Thursday of Holy Week, Christians keep a symbolic vigil with Jesus, watching with him during his final night in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he asks God to rescue him from fate. On Good Friday, we relive Jesus’ crucifixion by hearing the story of the Messiah’s death or sometimes, even, by watching re-enactments. What would Good Friday be like if once, just once, Christians stopped their church services in protest or stopped a re-enactment of Jesus’ death and took him down from the cross just in time?

Christians don’t do that, of course, because they are remembering an event whose course cannot be altered: Jesus suffered. Jesus died. The only thing that can be done is for Christians to voluntarily bear witness to that reality and to be disgusted by it, so that its carnage motivates them to protest violence.

I realize that I am Lutheran so I have certain theological lenses and sensitivities. This offends them all. By making Christ’s work (which is celebrated during Holy Week) about inspiring us to do something, she has robbed Good Friday of all that makes it “good”. We do not remember Good Friday because Jesus inspires us to protest violence. That is absurd. We celebrate Good Friday because that is where Christ forgave our sins and cleansed us from all unrighteousness. It is the place where our sins are crucified with Christ and taken to the grave. They are removed from us. It has nothing to do with cultural activism. Now, as a Christian do I care about others? Yes. Do I care about things like the environment, the end of racism, and religious liberty? Yes. But they are not the reason for Good Friday. The salvation of the world is the reason for Good Friday. The hope of the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting is the reason we gather with the body of Christ during Holy Week. That’s what I have think. What say you?

Manic Mondays: Oh, come on!!! Have a Heart!

There was so much to talk about on Monday that it had to wait until Tuesday… so here we go.

The topic for today is this article written by Art Caplan (a Ph. D. and bioethicist) were Dr. Caplan makes the assertion that it was unethical for former Vice President, Dick Cheney, to receive a heart transplant because he is 71-years old.  The article screams for there to be an investigation into any unfair preference given to Cheney because of his status in our nation. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the article:

It is concerning that a 71-year-old got a transplant. Many of those who manage to even make the waiting list for hearts die without getting one. More than 3,100 Americans are currently on the national waiting list for a heart transplant. Just over 2,300 heart transplants were performed last year, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. And 330 people died while waiting.

You can hear the cry of foul play. And just in case, you thought that this article was concerned about fairness, Caplan continues:

Cheney is not the first person over 70 to get a heart transplant.  He is, however, in a small group of people who have gotten one. Why did he?

Cheney has an advantage over others. It is not fame or his political prominence. It is money and top health insurance.

Heart transplants produce bills in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The drugs needed to keep these transplants working cost tens of thousands of dollars every year. Organ donations are sought from the rich and poor alike. But, if you do not have health insurance you are far less likely to be able to get evaluated for a heart transplant much less actually get a transplant.

The timing of Cheney’s transplant is ethically ironic given that the battle over extending health insurance to all Americans reaches the Supreme Court this week.

If the President’s health reform bill is deemed unconstitutional, those who are wealthy or who can easily raise money will continue to have greater access to heart, liver and other forms of transplantation than the uninsured and underinsured.

It is possible that Cheney was the only person waiting for a heart who was a good match in terms of the donor’s size, blood type and other biological and geographical factors. If not, then some tough ethical questions need to be asked.

When all are asked to be organ donors, both rich and poor, shouldn’t each one of us have a fair shot at getting a heart? And in a system in which donor hearts are very scarce, shouldn’t the young, who are more likely to benefit both in terms of survival and years of life added, take precedence over the old?

Let’s hope we get some answers to these tough questions as we watch both Cheney’s recovery and the fate of health care legislation that is intended to minimize the advantages that the rich now have over the poor when it comes to proven life-saving treatments.

Really??? We are going to make this a political piece? Here we see another chance to make a wealthy member of our society into a scape-goat to show that we really need the government to make all of the decisions in our life. They even need to determine who has a good enough quality of life to live and who just needs to die. A poor 35-year-old with a bad heart deserves to live while a 71-year-old with a bad heart just needs to go quietly into the night. This is outrageous and a very dangerous way of thinking. No one should decide who lives and who dies besides the one who actually has control over that… God.

I totally understand the need to have an order and a way of doing things so that the process is not abused. However, the questions raised in this article are incredibly presumptive. The appeal to President Obama’s healthcare reform is partisan, and it weakens Caplan’s argument from an ethics perspective. He tries to cover his tracks by saying there is a “chance” that Cheney was the next in line and the proper type, etc. However, I would think that should be assumed. I would trust that the doctors would have followed the procedures that are in place. I do not understand why someone should be punished just because they have the means to get to a transplant center that has the appropriate organ. It seems as though that is part of Caplan’s argument. To make statements like “And in a system in which donor hearts are very scarce, shouldn’t the young, who are more likely to benefit both in terms of survival and years of life added, take precedence over the old?” is not only inappropriate, but it provides the same assault on fairness that Caplan is railing against. That’s what I think. What say you?