On the eve of All Saints’ Day I am remembering the saints I have known and been blessed by. The list is long, the memories deep. I feel their presence even now, a sign that the veil between this life and life everlasting is so very thin. As I remember these saints I think of my mother, Rebecca, who journeys closer and closer to the great cloud of witnesses, the communion of the saints all around us. Only God knows when my mother’s journey will be complete, but 20 years of struggling with Alzheimer’s has taken its toll on her mind and her body. I recently shared my mother’s plight and journey with our Clergy Gathering. My sharing came in light of a question about where we stand as United Methodists on the issue of assisted suicide. Secular legal initiatives pertaining to assisted suicide had brought forth the concern.
Since our clergy gathered in mid-September, Governor Jerry Brown has signed a California law that will permit physicians to provide lethal prescriptions to mentally competent adults who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness and whose life expectancy is less than six months. Legislative processes will keep this law from being implemented until January 2016 at the earliest.
Our own annual conference at its June session passed a resolution to petition the General Conference of The United Methodist Church to “…… affirm that one of the greatest gifts God has given us as humans is the freedom to seek to live in dignity according to one’s own beliefs and faith.” The resolution further states that “For many terminally ill persons faced with inevitable and unavoidable death, the growing death with dignity movement now provides such freedom.” Those presenting the approved resolution called local congregations to support existing and newly organized efforts to educate church members and society about end-of-life decisions including all aspects of the death with dignity movement. The complete resolution can be found here (RES 15-12, pg 227).
Both the new California law and the resolution approved by the recent California-Pacific Annual Conference are at odds with the official stand of The United Methodist Church. The official stand of our church states: “The Church opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia.” (Social Principles of The UMC, Paragraph 161, II.N)
Our United Methodist Book of Discipline 2012, “Social Principles: The Nurturing Community, Suicide” and Book of Resolutions 2012, “Faithful Care for Persons Suffering and Dying,” argue that suicide is not the way a human life should end, and oppose the taking of life as an offense against God’s sole dominion over life, and an abandonment of hope and humility before God. Our Church stand acknowledges that suicide may be the result of depression, pain and suffering, and calls the church to assume its obligation to see that all persons have access to pastoral and medical care in such circumstances. If a person does commit suicide, we affirm with the Apostle Paul that nothing can separate us from the love and grace of God (Romans 8:38-39), thus no one should be condemned or stigmatized because of suicide. Those affected by suicide, or attempted suicide, are in need of the love and care of the church.
The General Conference of The United Methodist Church will gather in May 2016 to make decisions about how we are to live out our faith in this day and age, including on the matter of assisted suicide, euthanasia, or what some would prefer to call death with dignity. Needless to say this is a complex matter requiring much prayer, biblical study and theological reflection.
As I consider my own mother I wish I had had this conversation with her when she was still mentally competent. Her decline has come in stages and along the way we have done all we can to take care of her and surround her with love. What I can say about my mother is that we have watched her fight for her life all along the way. She has survived at moments when the doctors prepared us for her imminent death. Every time she has come back able to love and be loved, to laugh and rejoice at the sight of her family around her, enjoy a good meal, sleep deeply, and arise humming and sometimes even singing her beloved hymns of faith. I will never forget when after a particularly dark moment she said to us her children, “I don’t remember your names, but I know you are mine.”
Five years ago my mother lost her ability to walk. In the last few months she has lost her ability to eat and just a few weeks ago it dawned on me that she was losing her ability to speak, though her speaking for some time now has been more babble than words. Every day I pray that God will be merciful towards her. When I last held her hand in mine I did feel a peace within her that brought me peace. For this gift and for sustaining grace I am thankful to God.
Assisting my mother to die to address her suffering has never been part of our thinking as a family, but it has not been easy to see her decline and suffer over these many years. Her suffering has impacted all of our lives. Her suffering has also made us more aware of others who suffer as she has suffered and even suffer in worse ways. Our hearts and prayers go out to these persons and their loved ones.
In the midst of it all what is clear to me is that life is both sacred and fragile, to be treasured and lived as fully and faithfully as possible. Day by day I come to a deeper understanding of what it means to be mortal, and a more profound understanding of our total dependency on God. I also continue to be amazed by God’s mercy, a mercy beyond our understanding yet always present with us. Because I have experienced God’s mercy in the face of great suffering and death, I dare to believe that if our bodies of flesh and bone can go no further, our gracious and merciful God would understand our choosing to go home to God’s holy presence and welcome us to our eternal home among the saints.
May God’s peace and mercy be with us all,
Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño
Los Angeles Area Resident Bishop
The United Methodist Church