As I sat down this morning to begin the task of putting together the slightly late November newsletter for PPL, I received a link to an article about Dr. Peter Rasmussen, a physician and advocate for “physician aid in dying.” Rasmussen was diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor, grade 4 glioblastoma. He chose to end his life on Tuesday, Nov 3rd, “on his own terms”. How incredibly sad that he cut short God’s activity in his own life. The article makes no mention of Rasmussen’s faith or of any hope of life beyond this earth.
His story is jolting against the backdrop of last Sunday’s celebration of the lives of those saints of the church who’ve gone home from our congregations during the past year. Our hearts were full of gratitude for their legacy of faith and that of generations of faithful believers before them. How enriched we are to be mystically bonded to them across the bridge of time and worlds through our common resurrection hope in Jesus Christ! Our joyful celebration of their presence in our community of faith is especially poignant in our local congregation as with fresh joy/grief another dear saint went home to her Savior also on Tuesday. The difference is, Toni went home in the fullness of God’s time for her life. Toni was not ending her life on her own terms, but I am convinced she took the hand of her Lord in complete trust as she stepped joyfully into his presence and joined the saints on the other side.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the church of the Thessalonians about the difference that hope makes when we face our own death or that of a loved one.
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
–I Thessalonians 4:13-18 (NRSV)
The difference that hope in Christ makes at the end of life is evident in the contrast between two individuals with the same diagnosis. Dr. Rasmussen’s chose to die early. His family described his death by lethal dose of medication as “peaceful” but there is no witness to God’s activity in those last hours and days. In contrast, a blogpost by Mary, daughter of Dr. Maggie Karner, also diagnosed with glioblastoma, reveals a woman who chose to live every moment given to her by God to the fullest. Her daughter reports her words, “My brain may be cancerous, but I still have lots to contribute to society as a strong woman, wife and mother while my family can daily learn the value of caring for me in my last days with compassion and dignity.” Karner spent her last months speaking against state legislation allowing physician assisted suicide while Rasmussen worked for approval of PAS. Her daughter tells of the great privilege of serving her mother in her last weeks of life—of laughing, singing, and praying together. God’s activity not only in Maggie Karner, but in her daughters’ lives is witness to the difference hope makes at death’s door.
We all hope for our deaths to be peaceful and without suffering, but God wants us to trust him with all the days and moments he has planned for our lives. In trusting him at the end of our lives we yield to the work he is doing in and through us, believing as Paul encourages us, "He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it." (I Thessalonians 5:24).