Aug 21, 2016 By Norris Burkes Excerpt from Norris’ upcoming book, “Thriving Beyond Surviving.”
Three weeks ago, I began a series highlighting four essential elements of faith: worship, gratitude, prayer and afterlife. This week, I’m writing about the last and most controversial of the four – afterlife.
I hear a lot of talk about afterlife in my job as a healthcare chaplain. Most patients speak in glowing terms about their concept of heaven in the afterlife. Funny thing though, I’ve not heard a single patient excited enough about heaven to ask doctors to dispatch them on the fastest route. Most of us work hard to postpone our celestial welcoming party as long as possible.
Take for instance the 82-year-old farmer who came to our ER with a failing heart. Doctors twice restarted his heart and sent him to our ICU on a breathing machine. After a few days, doctors saw little hope and asked if they might disconnect the machines so the old man could meet his maker in peace.
“No,” the family said. “You must do everything possible.”
In the next few moments, our staff made a concerted effort to define “everything.” We explained that if his heart stopped again, “everything” would involve nurses straddling his chest to do compressions, likely breaking more ribs. If we did restart his breathing, we’d reinsert the breathing tube through an incision in his windpipe and put a feeding tube through his stomach.
They didn’t seem to consider the indignity of all that when they said, “Just do it. We’re leaving the results in God’s hands.”
I hear that answer enough to recognize that it’s often an expression of procrastination rather than faith. The saying conveys a fear that God can’t answer the tough questions. It’s more like a religious coin toss between denial and faith.
But worst of all, it highlights a contradiction: if the family is really “leaving it up to God,” why are they playing tug-of-war with the patient’s soul?
Contrast the farmer’s story with the octogenarian patient I met who expressed his faith in the afterlife to the very end. A member of the greatest generation, this Navy vet was lucid enough to see the battle that lay ahead.
After our doctors told him death was imminent, he invited his children to his hospital bed to sing hymns. As one began humming a favored family hymn, the rest joined in to fill the sacred space with music. Their lyrics spilled into the open hallway and our staff gathered for the moment we knew was coming.
“Some glad morning when this life is o’er,
I’ll fly away;
To a home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away.”
A slanted smile broke through the man’s pained expressions as he joined the chorus.
“I’ll fly away, Oh Glory
I’ll fly away;
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I’ll fly away.”
More humming. More quiet and then a request.
“Will you say a prayer, chaplain?” asked his daughter.
My prayer, recalled the words of the psalmist, assuring this family that there was no place their dad could go without the comforting presence of God:
“Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there.”
At the end of the day, the difference between these two families was how they expressed their view of the word “everything.”
The first family wanted doctors to do “everything” medically possible while the second family wanted God to do “everything” spiritually possible. The first man suffered two more days before he died. The second man died as he had lived – with friends, family and faith.
And that, my friends, is my definition of living a life that is truly “everything.”
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