Faith, Frailty, and Loss: Reflections from Christian Medical Professionals

doctor

Recently, we were asked to help lead a discussion with a group of Christian healthcare professionals using the book Reclaiming the Body by Brian Volck MD and Joel Shuman. Among the wisdom we gleaned from this inspiring read was the concept of frailty, grief, and loss through the lens of healthcare and faith.

As the discussion progressed, each healthcare professional recounted moments when they experienced loss in their respective fields. Discussing the idea of mortality amongst healthcare professionals can be uncomfortable and often avoided. But, as Christians we are not only called to consider our mortality, but also to live out the hope of Christ in the face of such reality.

“For the truth of Christianity is not ultimately an idea or a set of propositions to be assented to, but a life to be lived…it is a life that must be lived in constancy in the face of unanswered questions and in spite of sometimes significant uncertainty, and it is a life about which the full truth cannot be known until it is ended” (Shuman & Volk, 2006, P.123).

Medicine and the interventions of medicine are often unquestioned by patients, especially in the United States. Accepting our mortality should not be a difficult philosophical step for Christians, “for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

Yet the language of our faith belies a quiet allegiance to a culture of curative medicine. We sing hymns ascribing the sovereignty of God on Sunday, and anxiously await a doctors’ prognosis in hopes of a cure on Monday.

It’s not that cures cannot or should not be sought, but the base anxiety that underlies so many of those conversations often pose unnecessary problems. This anxiety is born out of the ultimate failure of medicine to conquer death.

Despite the fact that many are living longer lives because of medical interventions, our science and research has yet to discover immorality. In conversations around medicine we procrastinate death. “We fear dying, to be sure, but we also prefer not to be present to death, to be reminded of the inevitability of death, or even to talk about death, for such reminders are offenses to our unspoken hope that, with the help of an increasingly able medicine, we might be able to avoid death—at least for a long, long time” (Shuman & Volk, 2006, P.124).

One of the commandments in the bible that is repeated more than any other is “do not fear.” As Christians, we know that we are not spared from death on this earth, but we are told that the sting of death is gone and resurrection is guaranteed through the redemption given to us by Jesus.

If the promise of Christ is true, which it is, then how we treat the dying process should be a direct reflection of this promise. Even though grief and frailty may be ever present, God has overcome true demise through the gift of hope. “Hope suggests that our grief is temporary and this offers us the possibility of being free to live and to die and to care for each other as we face dying, even though we are not in control” (Shuman & Volk, 2006, P.133).

We work in hospice care and we have had the privilege of being present with others at the last moments of their lives. The most beautiful moments have been when a patient has come to a moment of acceptance and hope in the process of dying. Individuals who once resisted care from others, embrace love and nurturing from their community.

As Christ draws His people together and encourages us to live life in community, how then should we help incorporate community into the death and dying process? “It requires faithful participation in the practices of the gathered body of Christ, and the help of the entire Christian community, both to help us discern what to do in particular situations and, just as important, to make possible by our life together, appropriate and possibly atypical ways of caring for one another as we approach life’s end” (Shuman & Volk, 2006, P.126).

The Church at large would be served well to engage in an honest conversation about the inevitability of death and the limitations of medicine; engaging people who work in healthcare industries, and those who care for people at different life stages in other industries.

As we engage this conversation with the community of faith we believe that Christ will transform latent anxieties deeply felt in our culture through the power of His Spirit and the love of His people. The peace that passes all understanding offers our world something that no medical intervention can, and that is a hope worth pointing people towards.

 

Matt Carpenter works as a congregational pastor at Calvin Presbyterian Church as well as a full time hospice care chaplain at Evergreen Medical Center in Kirkland, WA. Matt received his Masters of Arts in Theology at Fuller Seminary in Seattle, WA and completed his undergraduate degree at Corbin University in Salem, Oregon. As part of his ministry, Matt helps organize small group bible studies and gives sermons as an honorary pastor at local churches. In his spare time, Matt enjoys outdoor activities with his family such as hiking, biking, skiing, running, and fishing.

Lea Carpenter works as a nurse dividing her time between hospice care and wound care at Evergreen Hospital. Lea graduated from Northwest University in 2003 with a Bachelors of Science in Nursing and attended University of Washington for her certificate in advanced wound care. Lea is currently enrolled at Boise State University in an Advanced Nurse Practitioner program and hopes to maintain a practice in the Pacific Northwest in the future. She also enjoys her time in the great outdoors with Matt and their two labrador retrievers.

Matt and Lea have been married for 9 years and currently reside in Kirkland, WA.

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