Two people. Two hours apart. Two people face to face with death. The first has decided to forgo cancer treatment. Too much for her weary body. And the chances of improvement are next to nil. Treatment would not do much to slow the disease, and would drastically diminish this person's quality of life. (Note: I'm a real advocate for proper treatment, under proper medical care . . . so don't interpret this as a post advocating avoidance of treatment).
"My friends think I'm giving up," she tells me. "But far from it. I'm taking a different path. I am actively and creatively surrendering to God. I am bringing an inner vitality to my encounter with cancer. People around me may not understand this, but it's what I must do."
Many won't understand. But I do. After two decades of ministry among the dying, I've come to recognize this kind of decision as an act of dignity and self-determination, a witness to a deep and vibrant inner faith experience. And I've witnessed the way it brings new strength and an inner freedom to a person, even when they are outwardly captive.
The second person exemplifies this.
He stopped treatment months ago. He cannot leave his bed. His wife gently feeds him ice chips to bring relief to his parched lips. He's eager for death. It cannot come soon enough. "What would you like God to do for you?" I ask. "Take me . . . soon." There's no fear. No unfinished business. No anxious brooding of the family, trying to hold off death. Just surrender.
"Then I'll pray for you. But if you die soon, don't tell anyone I prayed for you," I tell him. I don't want them to think I have special powers. They might call me Pastor Kevorkian." I wink at the family. He grins.
Dying like this is an art. And it's beautiful.
I'm glad for these two witnesses who, by their art, show me a different path. And it's not passive at all. Rather, at the end of life, here's the most robust, creative encounter with the forces of death I can imagine.
I leave these two visits blessed and mumbling to myself, "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15.55).
I hope I'll practice this sacred art . . . when the time comes.