A Practical Approach to End-of-Life Issues: Introduction

Close up hands of helping hands elderly home care. Mother and daughter. Mental health and elderly care concept

Presented by Rev. Robert F. Fleischmann, National Director, Christian Life Resources

In the early 1980s, I ran across an editorial cartoon depicting a minister standing in the pulpit of the Church of the Lukewarm. The caption read, “There is no the Christian position, there are Christian positions.” The cartoon was a sad commentary on the perception that even within the confines of the Christian faith there are no absolutes.

Those of us who have studied church history have seen countless examples of religious institutions that have watered down the truths of God’s Word and exchanged them for what men’s itching ears want to hear. And for those of us who have followed the path of life issues, this axiom holds ever as true.

Organizations like the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights have facilitated this confusion. Boasting the subscribing memberships of the United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church USA, Girl Scouts, and Young Women’s Christian Association, this agency has further confused the absolutes of God on beginning-of-life issues.

As would be expected the same has happened regarding end-of-life issues. The shyness of orthodox Christianity to speak up on such issues combined with liberal bias in the media has led to the erosion of any perception that there are absolutes at the end-of-life as well. For example, how many of you know the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod has a formal statement denouncing euthanasia? It received little if any public attention.

Nevertheless, when Jack Kevorkian assisted Janet Adkins in committing suicide on June 4, 1990, in the back of his Volkswagen van it appears the orthodox Christian community was silent. Yet, the national press and local papers were quick to note that the Unitarian Universalist Church meeting for its national convention in Milwaukee praised the work of Mr. Kevorkian and endorsed the autonomous right of Janet Adkins to make her decision. The testimony of the Church is further clouded.

While right-to-die advocacy groups are largely made up of Unitarians, the picture continues to blur when one notes that a past president of the Hemlock Society was a Presbyterian minister. It would appear that the atheistic leadership of the pro-euthanasia movement has a clearer perception of how their movement is contrary to long-standing Christian principles. In his book, Final Exit, Hemlock Society founder, Derek Humphry, wrote: “If you consider God the master of your fate, then read no further. Seek the best pain management available and arrange hospice care.” [Humphry, Derek, “Final Exit – The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Suicide for the Dying,” The Hemlock Society, 1991].

As a final illustration of this continued blurring, consider the case of Richard and Helen Brown. On December 15, 1994, the Mizpah United Chruch of Christ in Hopkins, Minnesota, held a memorial service for Richard and his wife. They were found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning in their Cadillac Eldorado parked in the garage of their Fort Lauderdale home. [From a story released by the Associated Press news service dated December 12, 1994. I saw the story first published in the December 12, 1994, issue of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.]

On December 6th, the day their bodies were found, friends received a letter from the Browns in which they stated:

“…We have the means to afford the best doctors, hospitals and around-the-clock home care to the end of our lives, but neither of us wants that kind of life…It would also consume a substantial part of our money, which through our will and through the mission work of our church is destined to help many young people throughout the world who may one day be able to help many more. We have no immediate family or heirs. In a sense, this legacy represents the final purpose of our lives.”

Richard Brown was 79-year-old and had to use a wheelchair because of arthritis and asthma. His wife, Helen, was 76-years-old and was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. They founded the American Institute of the Air which later became known as the Brown Institute, a school of broadcasting, which they later sold. Upon their death, Richard and Helen Brown left their wealth in excess of $10 million to the charitable work of the United Church of Christ (UCC).

Their former pastor said the Browns were “taking the high road to death,” and though he did not know they would commit suicide, he could not fault them for doing so. Another UCC pastor who conducted the memorial service said that their religion teaches against passing judgment on people who commit suicide — “Our job is to remember the good.”

Like the Browns, there seems to be a growing number of Christians who walk through the valley of the shadow of death not only without fear but in pursuit of death. Some, believing that death brings eternal life in heaven, take action to shorten their lives. Some, like the Browns, do it for philanthropic reasons so that their assets are not consumed in medical care but can be shared with heirs and others. Others, fearing the pain that may lie ahead, will opt to take that big step into the next life by their own decision.

The Browns and the UCC pastors are not unique in their confusion concerning authorship over life and death. As many of you know, there is often more than a little confusion. My intent, therefore, is to provide you with some Biblical principles and suggestions for the practical applications of those principles as you help your members face end-of-life issues.

The above article is the introduction to Rev. Fleischmann’s 10-part paper. Click here to view the complete outline.


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