This month Belgium is considering extending its euthanasia law to children, allowing them to choose to die with their parents’ consent, to “give families an option in a desperately painful situation.” The same bill would offer the right to die to adults with early dementia. According to a recent Associated Press article, some Belgian doctors already kill children “informally”; this law would only make it legal. The article also informs us that in the past year, several Belgians who weren’t terminally ill were euthanized, including a pair of 43-year-old deaf twins who were going blind.
Looking back across my life’s experiences, I am struck by those that were most poignant – the times I experienced Jesus as a reality. They all involved suffering. They were “desperately painful.” And, what’s more, they were the very situations the proposed Belgium law cites as being considered grounds for euthanasia: children with incurable conditions and adults with dementia.
My father died this year at age 86, after suffering from Alzheimer’s for years. As I watched him change from a brilliant, witty man into one devastated by dementia, I had to ask myself: Why would God allow someone to suffer such humiliation? How could it be a blessing for such a rich life to end in this shriveled body and ravaged mind?
I found my answer in the Beatitudes. Just before he spoke these words, Jesus had been announcing that the kingdom of heaven was at hand and was calling for people to repent. In the Beatitudes, Jesus reveals the character of life in that kingdom:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Dad was teaching me what it means to be poor in spirit, meek, and pure in heart. His disease robbed him of his faculties, but his spirit was irrepressible.
Last Christmas was unforgettable. Dad had stopped eating and was waiting to “go.” He lay in his reclining chair looking out our window, eyes shining and hands reaching up as he saw things we could not. We set up a Christmas tree in October for him, not knowing if he would be alive at Christmas. He loved to look at that candle-lit tree. His room was like a magnet, drawing people into an atmosphere of peace, love and joy that radiated from him.
When else have I witnessed these characteristics of God’s kingdom in my life? I think back on the years I cared for my sister Louisa, the one with Down Syndrome. At the time of her birth, her heart condition was inoperable. Louisa’s life was one of intense suffering, increasingly so as she approached her death at the age of 28. But Louisa’s life was also filled with great joy. She loved life. She radiated happiness. She lived fully. And she touched more people with her childlike innocence than many of us whose lives are deemed “worth living.”
Alzheimer’s, genetic deformities, and illnesses (both chronic and terminal) bring suffering – not only to the affected people but to their loved ones. They bring pain and heartache. There’s no doubt about it. But aren’t these situations sent to us by God, to show us the way into his kingdom?