My mother-in-law, who turned 95 this past Easter, has dementia. She hasn't recognized anyone, including her children, in years. Seldom does she put three coherent words together. But, physically, she is as healthy as a horse. A year or two ago she broke her hip and fractured her neck in four places. She has fully recovered from both. The last time she had an EKG the medical team immediately repeated the procedure because they could not believe the results - she has the heart of a 50 year old!
About four years ago the reality of her disease hit my wife between the eyes. As she walked up to her mom at the nursing home an aid said, "Look, Irene. Your daughter is here to visit you." Mom's response was frank and final, "That is not my daughter." (Unfortunately, I did not help the matter when, after Monica relayed the story to me, I responded, "That is because you are so old.") Now, when someone whose parent has died says to her, "At least you still have your mother," Monica's reply is, "Actually, I lost my mother years ago."
Her situation begs the question: Is she dead or alive? We hear many conversations these days about 'quality of life' and 'mercy killing.' Ethics conversations include topics such as 'when to pull the plug' and 'the high cost of keeping people alive.' Even life-long Christians ask the question, "What purpose does this life have?"
This past week I brought communion to my mother-in-law. During this monthly service I sing some familiar hymns, go through parts of the liturgy, pray and read scriptures. She generally smiles, and lets me know that the wine tastes good. And, almost every time, she is able to pray the Lord's Prayer with me (or, at least, parts of it). This week she even sang along with the chorus of "Jesus Loves Me'. For me, this frames the questions in the paragraph above, in a whole new light.
You know how Jesus says it. "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?" (John 11.25-26) Yes, mom is alive ... and she will never die again. Death - real death - is in her past, as it is for every baptized believer. "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." (Romans 6.3-4)
The more I think about this whole issue, the more I see how self-centered we are. The 'ethics' questions, whether we care to admit it or not, really center around questions like, "I don't enjoy spending time with people like that - and what's the use, anyway?" Or, "How much of the high cost of my health insurance is going toward keeping these people alive?" Or, "Do I really want to live that way?" Somehow the question of, "What is God possibly up to here?" slips away from us.
I certainly do not know the answers to these challenging, often disturbing, questions ... but I do know the promise: "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me ALL the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." (Psalm 23.6) So, at least for today, I'll just fall back into the words of one of those old and familiar hymns: "I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus, trusting only Thee; Trusting Thee for full salvation, great and free. I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus; Never let me fall. I am trusting thee forever and for all." (LSB 729, vv. 1, 6)