Inspirational

Present at a Birth, by Stephanie Gray

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     I couldn’t have known when I said yes to a speaking commitment 8 months ago, that it would allow for a Divine Appointment that would make one of my dreams come true—a dream I had been waiting for since 2006.  On April 28, 2018, twelve years after writing my dream list in which number 37 was “be present at a birth,” I was the unexpected support person for my friend’s out-of-town—and emergency—caesarean section.  As a quote attributed to Paul Carvel says, “To witness the birth of a child is our best opportunity to experience the meaning of the word miracle.”

     Last August, I agreed to speak in Michigan this past April 24.  Being so close to Windsor, after the event I drove across the border to visit some of my Ontario friends.  As it should happen, my friend’s cousin, also a friend of mine, planned to join us for my last weekend there.  Angie came with her 4 born daughters and her 37-week baby girl in-utero.  She brought her family’s only vehicle, leaving behind in her small town her husband and 4 sons.  The plan was to go to a banquet dinner Friday night and have a girls shopping day Saturday.  But when Angie started having contractions soon after arriving, it seemed like the weekend was not going to go exactly as planned.

     First there was the hospital visit to be checked out.  Then there was the hospital admission.  Then there was the 4am assessment from the doctor that that baby needed to come out, that morning, and by C-section. 

“This is my body given for you” -Luke 22:19

     Journeying with Angie through the process reminded me of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemani.  Hers was a real suffering: She was in pain; her husband was not there; she wasn’t where she lived; her own doctor was not present; she didn’t want to be cut open; she wanted to try a VBAC.   It wasn’t supposed to happen at this time, in this way.  The prayer of Jesus became her lived experience: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).  So surgery would happen.  After Angie was prepped, I was brought into the operating room to sit next to her, and for those unaware of how a C-section works, the mother’s arms are stretched out like she’s on a cross.  As she lay there, riddled with anxiety about being aware while being cut open, her experience was once again like Christ’s: “This is my body given for you.”  Angie would do what motherhood has continually called her to do—to be other-focused, to lay down her life.  In short, to love.  But with the impending arrival of her baby, soon a resurrection would follow this type of crucifixion.

     I don’t know what was going through the mind of the Ob/Gyn and his resident as they performed surgery, but if I could have selected a “soundtrack” for them as they cut into the person of Angie to retrieve the person of Mackenzie, it would be these words of Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty:

     “The most important person on earth is a mother.  She cannot claim the honor of having built Notre Dame Cathedral.  She need not.  She has built something more magnificent than any cathedral—a dwelling for an immortal soul, the tiny perfection of her baby's body.  The Angels have not been blessed with such a grace.  They cannot share in God's Creative miracle to bring new Saints to Heaven.  Only a human mother can.  Mothers are closer to God the Creator than any other creatures.  God joins forces with mothers in performing this act of creation.  What on God's good earth is more glorious than this: To be a mother?”

“It’s like watching fire.”

     After I got to cut the cord, I held 6 pounds and 3 ounces of pure goodness up to Angie so she could see her little one.  While the doctors were still working on Angie’s abdomen, she did what she could from her awkward angle to plant tender kisses on Mackenzie and we both just stared in awe.  Then Angie said, “It’s like watching fire.”  Having just come out of a long winter where I had sat in the presence of more fires than usual, I thought about how fire draws one in.  Fire captivates.  It hushes people to silence.  It comforts.  It leaves you in wonder.  On a cold winter evening, in the presence of a fireplace, you’re drawn into the present moment, into what is in front of you, and everything else fades away.  That’s what this silent, tiny, vulnerable little baby did for us.

Reverent Silence

     As the doctors were finishing sewing Angie up, a nurse asked me to bring baby Mackenzie and follow her to the recovery room.  After she helped me get the surgical gown off, she walked away, leaving sweet one and me alone for about 15 minutes.  Blown away with incredulity of all that had just happened, I was tempted to immediately text my 3 best friends from childhood, all of whom are doctors and have regularly experienced what was a first time for me.  But then I thought, “No, the time for communicating with others is for later.  Now is the time to just be with Mackenzie and revel in the gift of her life, in the gift of her presence.”  And so together we simply were.  Me cradling innocence and beauty.  Someone who was unrepeatable and irreplaceable.  Never was before.  Never would be again.  Perfectly unique. 

     Robert Cardinal Sarah once wrote, “Through silence, we return to our heavenly origin, where there is nothing but calm, peace, repose, silent contemplation, and adoration of the radiant face of God.”

     Was this what it was like for Mary cradling baby Jesus?

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     Mackenzie breathed gently.  Her one eye opened while the other was sealed shut by the vernix yet to be cleaned off.  At one point she rooted (“Sorry, baby girl, on that front I can’t help you!  Momma’s coming soon!”). 

     As we waited, I prayed. Tracing the sign of the cross on her forehead, praying over her future… that she would always love the Lord… that she would resist temptation to sin… that she would run to the mercy of Christ when she failed…that her earthly journey would ultimately take her to her Heavenly home.

     And then music came to my heart, and so I sang: “Oh Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the works Thy hands have made…Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee, how great Thou art, how great Thou art.”

Love Doesn’t Divide.  It Multiplies.

     My flight to Vancouver was scheduled for that afternoon, and so a few hours later I found myself on a plane home.  Mackenzie’s birth was to finish my two week work trip which began with debating an abortionist at the University of California, Berkeley, in front of 200 of his students.  As I thought about how my trip began—and how it ended—I wished that those students could experience what I just had, that they could know intimately, personally, the pure gift of life, that they could experience the awe and wonder that comes with pregnancy and birth—if we allow ourselves to see it.  That they could understand that new life isn’t to be feared but instead to be revered.  That they could believe that when a woman becomes a mother she isn’t reduced to the status of slave but is instead lifted to new heights of love. 

     My wish for the students is that they could come to know what Angie texted me today: “Being open to life and being gifted all these babies, I believe is a testament to how God’s love multiplies. When you have one kid, you can’t fathom having enough love for another one—but you do.  And so it is with each subsequent child.  It makes it easy to understand how much God loves me!!! (And you) :).”

     Amen.

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What Will Make Christians Care About Abortion? by Stephanie Gray

 Irena Sendler

Irena Sendler

     Last week I spoke at Church of the Resurrection, a thriving Anglican church in Wheaton, IL, with a fantastic shepherd, Bishop Stewart Ruch.  During Q and A, I was asked about how people can appeal to their fellow Christians to take abortion more seriously; in particular, I was asked what influences Christians to respond adequately to the plight of pre-born children.  I believe there are three factors in particular:

1.      Conviction,

2.      Education, and

3.      Courage

     Conviction is a strong persuasion or belief.  It is deeper than intellectual assent.  It involves capturing the heart.  And in the context of Christianity, it's not simply knowing about Jesus, or about His commands; it requires a personal relationship with Him, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  This way, just as we care about the things that people we care about, care about, a personal relationship with Jesus will naturally draw forth from us a deep concern for what concerns Him.  As the song “Hosanna” by Hillsong United declares, “Break my heart for what breaks yours.”  Abortion destroys God's creation that is more than good--it is "very good" (Genesis 1:31); it destroys life made in His image (Genesis 1:26); it destroys the result of His command to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28).

     I am reminded of an allegory I once heard about two people who recited Psalm 23.  The first was a professional orator who declared “The Lord is my shepherd…” with drama and exaggeration.  When he finished, the crowd jumped to its feet and clapped with much enthusiasm.  Then a humble pastor got up.  He lowered his gaze and bowed his head; then he slowly and reverently prayed, “The Lord is my shepherd…”  When he was finished the crowd was struck with silence—the only sounds being gentle weeping from a people profoundly moved.  The conclusion?  The orator knew the psalm but the pastor knew the shepherd.

     It’s like the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10: When the priest and Levite saw a half-dead robbed victim on the road to Jericho they passed by on the other side.  The Samaritan man, however, was moved with compassion and cared for the wounded soul.  It was as though the priest and the Levite knew the law, but the Samaritan knew the law-giver.  We need to foster more than simply knowing about Jesus, but actually being in relationship with Him so that the cry of our hearts becomes the cry of the blind man Bartimaeus to Jesus: “Lord that I may see” (Mark 10:51).

     Just as the Good Samaritan “saw” with his eyes, and his heart, the plight of his neighbor, we should pray “that we may see” the plight of our pre-born neighbors just as Jesus sees it.  We should allow ourselves to come face-to-face with their broken bodies and allow their dismembered limbs to communicate to us what their silent screams could not.  We should pray to “see” their beauty and fragility, and the corresponding destruction of what abortion did to them, so as to respond with the broken heart that God Himself responds with.

     Following conviction, there can arise within us a fear of how people will respond if we act on such conviction, which is why education is so necessary.  The more people are equipped to “give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15) the more readily people will share.  We need to help people gain confidence in their beliefs, helping them both understand and articulate the rationale behind the pro-life claims.  The better prepared people are to rebut objections, to explain things clearly and persuasively, the more they will increase in confidence, which means they will naturally decrease in fear.

     But fear won’t necessarily be entirely eliminated.  Which is why we need courage too.  I once heard it said that “courage is not the absence of fear, but a will to do what is right in spite of your fears.”  How do we instill courage?  I firmly believe we are more likely to be courageous when we surround ourselves by people who are.  There is something inspiring about the example of people who are other-oriented, especially when there’s personal cost involved.  The courage of others is magnetic, and draws that same virtue out of those who are exposed to it.

     That’s why I encourage communities of believers to immerse themselves in the inspiring examples of heroes and role models who responded to injustice in their midst and advocated for the vulnerable.  Movies like Schindler’s List, Gandhi, Sophie Scholl, Beyond the Gates, The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, and Eyes on the Prize are not about abortion, but they are about good people responding to injustice.  That’s what we need in response to abortion, and watching these examples and then discussing how the past can relate to our present, will instill the courage Christians need to make a better future.

Thankful for Fertility? by Stephanie Gray

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     It was shortly after 10pm on a summer night and I was texting with my sister.  As a mother of 5 under 11, her days are long and full.  And in our brief exchange she conveyed that she was so very tired.  Having visited her earlier in the day I saw that her house was a total disaster.  When I walked in she announced, “This is what a house with 5 children looks like.”  It made sense that she’d be exhausted.  At one point in our text exchange I messaged her, “5 things you’re grateful for?  First 5 that come to your mind.”  When she responded I was struck by the final item on her list:

     5. Fertility

     Her answer provoked me to pause because amidst challenge she could see gift, and because we are living in a culture where the default is not my sister’s answer; instead, it is to suppress fertility.  Actually, our culture’s default is more than to suppress fertility, it is to be downright hostile toward it.  I have spoken to so many abortion supporters who hate that fertility is a part of sexuality.  But what could be more incredible than being so intimate with one human soul that in doing so you produce another human soul who had never before existed?  One plus one equaling three in a way that defies math.

     It doesn’t mean fertility is always easy.  I lived with my sister and her family for a season and I saw the toll that pregnancy takes on the body, let alone the challenges of forming and rearing (several!) little human beings.  But I think it’s helpful to step back and think about what the word “toll” means.  It’s a charge for use or access to something (think bridge toll).  We pay the toll because the benefits outweigh the cost.  And we recognize the greater the value of something, the greater the price. 

     The same day I visited my sister, I drove out to see my parents and to help my dad weed his magnificent garden.  In reflecting on my time rummaging through dirt and in-between flowers and bushes, I was reminded again of the gift of fertility—the fertility of the soil, of the flowers that bloom each year—of new life, which brings an array of colors, types, sizes, and smells.  And it’s the beauty and diversity of fertility that makes the garden so awe-inspiring.

     But the oasis of my Dad’s garden did not happen overnight.  It took years of careful cultivation.  It took work.  It took weeding, watering, digging, and pruning.  It still does.  It took, and takes, a toll.  But it’s more than worth it.

     Mother Teresa once declared, “How can there be too many children?  That is like saying there are too many flowers.”

     So should we be thankful for fertility?  It is fertility that resulted in a sweet 1-year-old nephew nuzzling into my shoulder as I lifted his sleepy body out of the van.  It is fertility that resulted in my delightful 4-year-old niece giving me a long hug before saying goodbye.  It is fertility that has given me a 6-year-old nephew whose sensitive spirit teaches me to go gently with people.  It is fertility that has given me an 8-year-old nephew who loves to challenge my competitive spirit with his own over a game of checkers.  It is fertility that has given me an 11-year-old niece who is learning to play the ukulele with me.  It is fertility that has given me a sister I cherish as a best friend.  It is fertility that has given me my parents and their combined 17 siblings.  It is fertility that has given me a brother-in-law, cousins, and friends around the world. 

     When I logged onto Facebook recently I noticed a friend made this post: “I have made a million mistakes in 14 years of parenting... but one thing I know for sure we did right was being open to life and giving our children siblings. That in itself has not been easy, but we are blessed by it every day.”

     Thankful for fertility?  Yes.

 

 

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An Encounter with Grace, by Stephanie Gray

“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love.” –Mother Teresa

     It was Lent three years ago when a 19-year-old old Canadian teenager set off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land—well, that’s how she described her plan to her friends.  But where she was going was not the traditional Holy Land of Israel where Christ once walked; instead, her Holy Land would take her to India where Christ still walked—in the suffering human souls she would serve.  “We all have the desire to help somebody, to do something good,” Grace, one of my recent audience members, said, “but for me it was more that I wanted to meet Christ and have an encounter with him and I knew that’s what Mother Teresa and her sisters found in the poor.”

The Face of Christ

     It was the most solemn day of the Christian calendar—Good Friday, the day where Christ-followers around the world remember the sacrifice of Jesus laying down His life on the cross.  For the volunteers at the Missionaries of Charity’s home for the dying, this is a day off to enter into prayer and reflection.  Grace, however, felt compelled to ask for a special exception: Since the sisters had to serve the sick that day anyway, could she help them as long as she did so slowly and in a spirit of prayer?  They said yes, providing an opportunity for Grace to enter deeply into the “Stations of the Cross” in a way more real than ever before. 

     When one reads of Christ’s torture, we see how some close to him betrayed and abandoned him.  But then there were the others—those like Simon of Cyrene and Mary His mother—who stood by His side and by their presence were a comfort.  This was the example Grace knew to follow.  At one point she found herself kneeling beside the bed of a dying man, slowly and patiently administrating hydration through a dropper; it was then where the words of Christ played over in her mind: “I thirst.”  As she was reminded of Christ dying on the cross with a crucifix on the wall, she knew she was also encountering Christ in the individual lying in the bed before her.  While incapable of eliminating suffering, she did what she could to alleviate it.

     These moments taught that loving glances, hand-holding, sitting with, and gentle patience can bring much peace to those who are suffering.  As Grace remarked, “Regardless of what life experiences a person has had before death, when they go through such great suffering it has a transformative power—when the person allows himself to be loved and cared for by others there’s such a deep and beautiful reflection of God’s love between the sufferer and the one who is suffering with.”

     Some people who arrived at Mother Teresa’s home were extremely sick and expected to die, but with good care they were restored to health.  Others, however, had their last breath—not on a dirty street ignored by passersby, but in a home surrounded by people caring for them.  Grace told me that the few deaths she saw were incredibly peaceful: “I think it’s because the patients knew they were loved.”

     She shared another story about a man who had a severe facial cancer and most of his face was distorted or missing as a result—his jaw was gone, even some of his neck, so that it was just his eyes, the bridge of his nose, and then the rest was bandaged off.  “I had the honor of being able to be with him the last half an hour before he died,” Grace shared (although she didn’t know at the time he was so close to death).  “I remember making eye contact with him across the room for the first time and then going to see him and greet him and that was the moment that bound my heart to Christ, and the dying, and the home for the dying.  She didn’t see the grotesqueness of what cancer had done to his face; instead, she told me that she peered deep into his eyes and was captivated by the beauty of his soul.

Dignity

     We prove that a sick, fragile human being has dignity by how we treat him.  Grace explained how this was upheld at the home for the dying: she and the others would help patients brush their teeth, assist men with shaving, and brush women’s hair.  The fact that the individuals were dying did not mean such basic grooming should be withheld.  Far from it, to do such simple acts was to stress the dignity of the person—to acknowledge that they were worth caring for regardless of their condition.

     I’ve therefore been mystified by the notion of euthanasia advocates that to be denied assisted suicide is to be denied a death with “dignity.” The not-so-subtle implication is that if one dies naturally, entirely dependent on others to feed him, change him, or wipe his drool, that he has somehow lost his dignity.

     A simple dictionary definition of dignity is this: “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.”  A sick person cannot lose her dignity because she is—in other words, by her existence she ought to be honored, respected, and cared for. 

     Consider that when something is valuable in and of itself we act differently around it—we treat it as its nature demands.  Consider an expensive, one-of-a-kind painting: a museum curator is going to make sure the valuable artwork is “handled with care.”  Or consider a sleeping newborn baby: parents will walk quietly and gently into the bedroom to check on the child, avoiding making startling noises.  When a painting is covered with dust or a baby soils her diaper we do not say these have lost their dignity—rather, we respond in such a way (by dusting the painting and changing the child) as to acknowledge the dignity that lies within.

     So ought our response be to those who are dying—not hastening death, not eliminating the person, but instead being present and caring for the individual with the gentleness and reverence that their dignity inspires.

The Gift of Presence

     When I think of Grace’s experience caring for the dying, I am reminded of a powerful reflection by author and blogger Ann Voskamp, who wrote about her friend Kara Tippetts story of dying from cancer.  Ann wrote,

All the faces of humanity carry the image of God.

What if deciding to end a human life is somehow the desecration of God’s image?

What if a human life is not only a gift of grace right till the end – but is a reflection of God’s face right till the end?

What if we are not at liberty to end or destroy human life, no matter how noble the motive, because all of life is impressed with the noble image of God? 

***

Kara taught us that:

In our efforts to terminate suffering — too often we can be forced to terminate the sufferer — when we were meant to liberate the aloneness of the sufferer, by choosing to participate in the sufferings — choosing to stand with the suffering, stay with the suffering, let the suffering be shaped into meaning that transcends the suffering.

 ***

 The word “suffer,” it comes from the Latin that literally means to ‘bear under’ — suffering is an act of surrender, to bear under that which is not under our control — but beyond our control.

That is why suffering is an affront to an autonomous society:

Suffering asks us to ultimately bear under that which is ultimately not under our control — which proves we are ultimately not the ones in control.

***

She chose to bear under the suffering — because she humbly chose to bear depending on others…. being a community, being a body, being human beings who belong to each other and will carry each other as much as humanly possible.

If suffering is about bearing under — suffering is a call for us all to be a community to stand together and carry the weight of bearing under — only to find that we are all being carried by a Greater Love.

Suffering is a call to come, to show up, to be there. Suffering can be a gift because it’s a call for presence; it’s a call for us to be present. 

      So whether it’s a young mom like Kara dying in Colorado, an old man dying in India, or a suffering soul right in the midst of our own backyard, each of us has the capacity to respond to our neighbor’s suffering as Grace did, with the gift of our presence.

Note: A beautiful book about achieving a good death in the face of suffering is The Measure of My Days.

Comfortable in His Skin, by Stephanie Gray

     It was an encounter science predicted would never happen.   As I sat sipping coffee, my interviewee, a 30-year-old teacher, enjoyed a Root Beer, masking the reality that he normally consumed nutrition by a feeding tube.  But I guess Root Beer isn’t really nutritious.  I suppose if you’re going to ingest it, you may as well let it serve its only purpose—to treat the taste buds.

     Moe Tapp was “supposed” to be dead 28 years ago.  But sometimes people defy the odds.  I learned about his condition two years before learning about him.  Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB) is something I tell my audiences about when I speak on assisted suicide and suffering.  I tell the story of Jonathan Pitre, a 16-year old who lives with this excruciatingly painful condition, and talk about how killing people ought not be the solution when we need to kill pain.

     And then, one day recently, a person with EB showed up in my audience: Moe was grateful someone was telling others about “the worst disease you’ve never heard of,” as an EB research association describes it.

     When we subsequently met at an A&W in downtown Vancouver for him to tell me his story, I reacted the way most do when they encounter someone whose skin is as fragile as a butterfly’s wings, whose painful blisters cover a majority of his bandaged body: “Is it okay to hug you?” I cautiously asked.

     “Yes,” he said.  “Don’t worry.  If it would hurt me, trust me, I wouldn’t let you.”  He does, though, have a fear of falling and typically needs assistance walking down stairs to ensure he doesn’t fall—because he has, and there aren’t words to describe the searing pain of blistered skin slamming against hard floor.

     It has been said that “Two people can look at the exact same thing and see something totally different,” which demonstrates that “Perspective is everything.” That is certainly true when considering Moe’s story.

     One could focus on Moe’s bedtime routine: How he connects his feeding tube so liquid nutrients can be slowly dripped into him while he sleeps. 

     But better would be to focus on what Moe wakes up for: his employment at a high school where he works with students from grades 8-12 who have learning issues of all kinds, whether ADHD, dyslexia, autism, etc.  His own experience of suffering, and rising above it, gives him profound compassion.  He is fulfilled in being needed by his students, who are fulfilled by him connecting with them, by his belief in them and their ability to achieve.

     Moe could be frustrated by the stares and questions he gets about why he looks different, and whether or not he was burned in a fire or car crash.

     But instead he seizes the inquiries as opportunities to raise awareness about EB.  As Moe said, “We won’t find a cure if people don’t care, and people won’t care if people don’t know.”  Moe confidently initiates discussion of his condition every year with a new crop of students.  He encourages their inquisitiveness.  In doing so, he not only teaches them about his condition, he teaches them how to be accepting of one’s difference.

     One could focus on the brief period of anger Moe went through in his mid-twenties.  Blisters in his throat caused such severe pain he couldn’t eat at all by mouth.  He realized then that he would never be able to be spontaneous and just go travelling without doing weeks of research to make sure all he needed could be addressed in a new environment.

     But better would be to focus on the camp he went to in Minnesota where anyone in the world who has a skin disease gathered.  He first went as an attendee and then returned as a volunteer.  Knowing he was part of a broader community of people whose shared experience enabled them to readily empathize with each other gave him encouragement.  Attendees cheered each other on with this philosophy: “If you can do this, if you can overcome, so can I.” 

     One could spend time dwelling on the burden and pain of baths and dressing changes every 2-3 days that cost $1,000/month—and the infections and exhaustion that come along with living with EB.

     But better would be to reflect on how his Catholic faith has sustained him (and become more personal and real for him in adulthood), and how his family and friends have rallied around him and stood by his side.  Moe is a gamer.  He also loves watching wrestling (and dreams of being a commentator for pro-wrestling).  Old school Rock and Roll is his music genre of choice and reading is also on his list of enjoyable activities.

     Moe has never thought of suicide.  But on that topic, and its close relative euthanasia, he said he does understand why people would consider them due to pain—not that he supports them; in fact, he views both as wrong and would instead focus on pain relief and comfort.  He noted that he got swayed against euthanasia when he heard a compelling pro-life presentation; moreover, he realized that to say someone like him should be allowed assisted suicide, but others should not, is to make the judgment that his life is somehow less valuable than someone who is 100% capable.  He said if someone wanted to end their life he would ask why, then see what their life was like at home, at school, etc., and then work to make that person’s life better. 

     “There’s hope, always hope,” he declared.  “I know it sounds corny, but it’s true.  People will always be around you that care.”

     Of course, if such people are lacking, it would be better to introduce supportive people rather than eliminate a suffering person.  Moe himself has reached out to families whose babies are diagnosed with EB.  They first connect over the condition, but remain friends because of a familial bond that forms.

     At the beginning of the interview I asked Moe how he would describe himself.  “Good natured,” he said.   “[A] good dude, pretty chill.”  That definitely captures my observation of him; and when I think of that, plus the full and satisfying life he leads, even with—and perhaps because of—such a debilitating condition, I think about how, in a paradoxical way, Moe Tapp is comfortable in his skin.

Watch Moe's story here:

Watch a commercial about EB:

The Impact of Choices, by Stephanie Gray

 Photo Credit: Nyx Sanguino, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zuly_Sanguino_is_an_environmental_lover.jpg

Photo Credit: Nyx Sanguino, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zuly_Sanguino_is_an_environmental_lover.jpg

     At a recent presentation I gave on euthanasia and assisted suicide, an audience member asked about how to respond to people who say that ultimately the debate is about “choice” and if someone wants to choose to end their own life, it’s their body and their choice; it doesn’t affect anyone else so we should allow assisted suicide.

     I’ve already written here about “our” lives and the responsibility we have toward being good stewards of these gifts.  Now I’d like to reflect on the concept of choice and whether any one person’s choice is really independent of, and without effect on, the other.

     In my first year English class at UBC we were assigned to read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.  His magnificent writing moved me deeply and so many of his statements became quotable quotes for me; in particular I was struck by these words:

     “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

     Choices we make, big or small, positive or negative—these have a permeating influence.  They don’t just affect us.  Like a drop of food coloring in a glass of water, they diffuse into the surrounding area and impact people who, upon being touched, make other choices that in turn affect others.

     Consider smoking.  Besides the obvious impact on others being second-hand smoke, if someone only ever smoked in isolation, the effects on his body because of smoking would still impact others: subsequent lung disease would create a use of the medical system, which would impact society.  If he died early as a result and never accomplished things he would have if he had remained healthy—that would impact society too.

     The interconnectedness of our choices to other peoples’ lives can be seen in a delightfully simple illustration: Several years ago in Newington, Connecticut, a customer at a coffee shop decided to pay the order of the patron behind him.  That led to a chain reaction so that the next one thousand customers paid for the order of the person behind them.

     How true it is that we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

     Or consider Zuly Sanguino, a Colombian woman who has overcome profound suffering: She was born without arms and legs.  Her father committed suicide when she was two.  She was raped when she was seven.  She was bullied as a child and almost attempted suicide at 15.  Now, however, she is an artist and motivational speaker who lives an incredibly full and rewarding life. 

     She said, “It gives me so much happiness to know I'm helping people. One boy was about to take his own life with a gun when he saw a TV show I was on. He realized he had to be brave and decided not to take his life. He wrote to me and we're now really good friends. I get letters from lots of people who say I've helped them through difficult situations.”

     How many peoples’ lives are better because of Zuly’s witness?  Correspondingly, had she committed suicide (on her own or with assistance) how many peoples’ lives would be worse (and even over) because of her absence from this world? 

     How true it is: We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

     Our choices impact people for better—or for worse.  Consider the story of Will, a young man who was killed via the death penalty.  His lawyer, David Dow, recounts Will’s story in a TED Talk: Will’s dad left his mom while she was pregnant with Will.  Will’s mom, afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia, tried to kill Will with a butcher knife when he was 5 years old.  Will was taken into the care of his brother until that brother committed suicide.  By age 9, Will was living on his own.  He eventually joined a gang and committed murder.

     The choices of Will’s father, mother, and brother undoubtedly impacted Will.  There is simply no denying that we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

     So the next time someone supports euthanasia or assisted suicide because such a choice “only affects the people who want to die” we can use the above stories as analogies to show that that simply isn’t true.  Involving medical professionals in Person A’s assisted suicide means Person B may no longer trust her health care provider to properly care for her life.  Person A’s assisted suicide will impact the disposition of the individual who supplies the life-ending drugs or injects the deadly poison because you cannot kill another human being without that leaving a mark on your mind, your emotions, and your interactions with others.  Person A’s legally endorsed assisted suicide will create a climate where Person B asks for assisted suicide too—not because she truly wants it, but because she feels guilted into it by a culture that embraces it and makes her feel like a useless burden.  Person A’s assisted suicide will influence others to respond to their own suffering and obstacles by giving up instead of turning them into opportunities (as Zuly did).  How do I know this?  Because as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has said, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

A Resolution for the New Year: In the Face of Suffering, Unleash Love, by Stephanie Gray

     I was speaking with a woman recently who asked me, “Do humans always have value? When do they lose their dignity?”  I told her I believed our human value is inherent to our being, so that our value cannot be lost or lessened“But,” she interjected, “What about the dementia patient who sits by herself all day?”

     I acknowledged that that is a problem; however, I pointed out that the solution is not to say she has lost her value or dignity, but rather for people like you and me to affirm her value and dignity: to slow down our busy lives and, to borrow a phrase from the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, to “Celebrate Being” with such an individual.  We could visit that lonely person, I said.  We could hold her hand.  Humans are made for relationship—for connection.  We could foster that.  We could listen to music with her.  We could sing to, and even with, her.  I talked about the proven effectiveness of music therapy.

     The woman, ever the “Negative Nelly,” asked me to think about all the dementia patients in a hospital ward and how it would be impossible to have individualized music styles for each person.

     I find it fascinating how, when some people see the largeness of a problem they so easily reject any solution.  Maybe we can’t help everyone, but how is that an excuse not to help someone?  We would do well to remember a paraphrase of the words of Edward Everett Hale: “I am only one, but still I am one.  I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.  And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

     With that in mind, on the last day of 2016, I spoke about euthanasia to over 100 university students in a workshop at the CCO Rise Up Conference.  After equipping the students about what to say regarding euthanasia and assisted suicide, I ended with what they could do about it.  I told them that if the law is followed then no one should be euthanized who does not ask for it.  So our job is to make sure no one asks for it.  And we do that by intentionally spending time with the sick and lonely.  I left the students with a 2017 New Year’s Resolution that I’d like to challenge all readers to do:

     Make a commitment to visit a sick, disabled, elderly, and/or lonely person one day/week in one of these ways:

      1)      In your own family, or neighborhood, regularly visit a lonely person.

     2)      Contact your church and ask if there is a member of the church who is a shut-in and who would benefit from a visitor.

     3)      Sign up at a local hospital or elderly care home to volunteer by visiting patients.

     Are there more people than you alone can help?  Yes.  Does each individual person ideally need more time than you can give?  Yes.  But remember this: doing something is better than doing nothing.  Starting is better than staying still.  As Anne Frank once said, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

     Will this work?  Consider these stories:

     My friend Kathleen LeBlanc shared this experience she had a few months ago: “Every Friday morning, I've been spending an hour playing Scrabble with a lovely 93 year old lady at a local care home. It's my simple way of helping the elderly find joy in their daily life. I'm always praying for opportunities to talk to her about God, or to simply show her that she is loved. Today, that opportunity came in full force.

     “After our game, she outright asked me, ‘What do you think of doctor-assisted suicide?’ and pointed to an article from the paper on the topic. I told her that I felt it was very sad that anyone should feel the need to take their life, and it's our failure as a society when anyone is left feeling this way. After some time discussing this, she expressed to me that she can sympathize with people who don't feel they have a reason to live in their suffering, as she too, often wonders why God still has her ‘stuck in this wheelchair.’

     “With tears in my eyes, I was able to tell her what a joy she is to me, and that I look forward to visiting her every week. She teared up as well, shock in her eyes, and said, ‘Really? Is that true?’ I nodded, unable to get more words out. ‘Well then, perhaps there is reason enough for me to be here.’

     Or take another friend of mine, a nursing student.  She saw on a patient’s chart that the patient had made an inquiry about euthanasia.  My friend intentionally visited that patient more than others.  She never discussed euthanasia, but she did spend time getting to know the woman.  She became interested in her life; she connected over common interests and common backgrounds; she smiled and was joyful; she engaged the patient in conversation.  In short, she poured love out on her.  A few weeks later when my friend checked the patient’s record, there was a note indicating the patient was no longer interested in euthanasia.

     So please, make 2017 different.  Make it better.  To borrow a concept from St. John Paul II, resolve to respond to someone’s suffering by unleashing your love.

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Finding Meaning in Suffering, by Stephanie Gray

 Image Source: Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely, Viktor-Frankl-Archiv, Wikimedia Commons

Image Source: Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely, Viktor-Frankl-Archiv, Wikimedia Commons

     When acceptance of assisted suicide was written into Canadian law earlier this year, one of the criteria for it became this: that the person “have a grievous and irremediable medical condition” which is defined, in part, as an “illness, disease or disability or …state of decline [that] causes them enduring physical or psychological suffering that is intolerable to them and that cannot be relieved under conditions that they consider acceptable.

     Everyone suffers at some point or another, but most do not select suicide.   So to suffer so much that one chooses death over life is to suffer to the point of despair.  Rather than assisting with a despairing person’s suicide, we ought to instead consider the insight of psychiatrist and Holocaust-survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl.  In this interview he talks about the following mathematical equation his observations and lived experiences caused him to create:

     D = S – M  

     He explains it as follows: Despair equals Suffering without Meaning.  Some people get cancer.  Others get hurt in car accidents.  These are very real cases of suffering—not to be minimized.  But whether someone despairs in light of these experiences is in direct proportion to whether they find meaning in the situation or not.

     Dr. Frankl cites a teenager in Texas who became a quadriplegic—undoubtedly, an experience of suffering.  And yet she did not despair as others in her situation have.  What set this young woman apart was not her experience of suffering but her response to it: She spent her days reading newspapers and watching the news for an important purpose—whenever there was a story about someone experiencing difficult and challenging times, she would ask that a stick be placed in her mouth so she could use it to press keys to type out letters of encouragement, consolation, and hope to the people she read about.  Dr. Frankl said, “She’s full of confidence.  She has a strong sense of abundant meaning in her life.”  She turned her experience of suffering into a springboard to reach out to others; it enabled her to have empathy and share hope.  In short, she found meaning.

     Or take another person with quadriplegia, a young man who became paralyzed at 17 years old.  Dr. Frankl received a letter from him: “I broke my neck but it did not break me.  I am at present helpless and this handicap will remain with myself apparently forever.”  Why, like the aforementioned young woman, did this man not despair?  Because he found meaning in his situation: “I want to become a psychologist to help others,” he said in explaining his decision to pursue post-secondary education. “And I’m sure that my suffering will add an essential contribution to my ability to understand others and to help other people.” 

     When speaking of individuals like the two mentioned, Dr. Frankl noted, “They can mold their predicament into an accomplishment on the human level; they can turn their tragedies into a personal triumph.  But they must know for what—what should I do with it?”

     The brilliance of this philosophy is that it empowers everyone.  While we cannot necessarily escape suffering, we can escape despair, and we can escape it in direct proportion to the meaning we allow ourselves to find in a situation.  In other words, when circumstances prevent us from eliminating suffering, perspective allows us to add meaning, and that, in turn, helps alleviate the suffering itself.

     This can happen in profound ways.  Dr. Frankl told a story about a man who was electrocuted and all four of his limbs had to be amputated.  That patient wrote, “Before this terrible accident I was bored, always bored, and always drunk.  And since my accident I know what it means to be happy.”

     This is proof that happiness is not determined by physical wellbeing but by an attitude of the mind.  So if someone is struggling in this area and requests assisted suicide, it’s our job—not to facilitate their despair—but to facilitate their search for meaning.

     If a Holocaust survivor, amputee, and quadriplegics can do this, why can’t we all?

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The Circle of Life, by Stephanie Gray

mecarl.jpg

     As my family gathered to celebrate my mom’s 75th birthday, I sat at the table cuddling the latest addition to our family: my 3-month old nephew.  As I cradled Carl, my mind wandered, prompted by the increasing temperature of the blanket on my lap that swaddled his body: “Did he pee through his diaper?” I wondered, “Or is that just warmth from body heat?”  Thankfully it was the latter, but it caused my mind to reflect on the total dependency of Carl on other people.  And then my mind wandered to the elderly, some of whom are just as dependent on others as babies are.  And with society’s increasing acceptance of euthanasia, a topic of late that I have been giving presentations about, a thought came to mind:

     “What if the world treated Carl like it sometimes treats the elderly?”

     Would we leave him in his crib alone all day, turn the TV on for distraction but otherwise have minimal interaction with him?  Would we scurry about to do lots of things but never take time to simply be with him? Would we possibly consider ending his life because, “What’s the point anyways?  He can’t do much.”

     Now some might say that Carl, as opposed to an individual at the end of her life, will one day be a “contributing” member to society, and his is a life we shouldn’t end.  In other words, we would preserve Carl’s life for what might be, but we would end a dying person’s life for what is no more.  But what if Carl never matured enough to do what most adults do?  What if he only lived for the next 6 months—knowing that, would we kill him now or would we savor and celebrate the little time we have left?

     And so, as I thought further, it occurred to me that our world would be a better place if we asked a different question: “What if we treated the elderly the way we treat Carl?”

     If that were the case, we would sing and play music.  We would smile, laugh, and engage.  We would soothe during seasons of sadness.  We would hug.  We would look at the other and simply delight in them.

     As I have watched my four other nieces and nephews interact with their littlest brother, I’ve noticed something: When vulnerable, needy people are in our midst, it can bring out the softer, gentler, more caring sides of us.

     I think about my 7-year-old strong-willed nephew who demonstrates such reverence for his little brother, delighting in holding him and sweetly kissing his cheeks.  I think about my 5-year-old nephew, a very sensitive child, who held his crying baby brother and repeatedly said “shh-shh-shh” until he had shh-ed him to sleep just like he observed his mom has done.

     I think of my 3-year-old niece who loves to sing, dance, and be loud but who, when I arrived one day, crawled out from under the kitchen table and said “Boo” in the quietest of whispers because Carl was nearby sleeping.  I think of my 9-year-old niece who’s like a second mother, carrying her baby brother around like a doll and who is so good at comforting him.

     Far from being a burden, the presence of Carl draws virtue out of us.  His need becomes an opportunity for our kindness.  The same is true of the elderly—if we let that be the case.

     A couple years ago my sister texted me a story from her evening: She was trying to put her then-youngest baby, my niece Cecilia, to sleep and promised her oldest daughter, Monica, that she would come to her room later and read to her.  But it took so long to put Cecilia down that by the time she got to Monica’s room my eldest niece had fallen asleep—with the unread book in hand.  My sister texted me a photo explaining what happened with the caption, “MOM GUILT!”  So I texted back, “You’ve given Monica something better than a bedtime story—you’ve given her a sister.”   She excitedly responded, “RIGHT! Perspective! Perspective! It’s all about perspective!”

     I realize not everyone can give their child a sibling, but everyone can give their child, and themselves, encounters with those who are needy and vulnerable, be it the elderly or someone else.  Perspective teaches that far from such encounters being burdensome, they can become moments to make life richer by being opportunities to enter into the human experience of love.

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Beauty from Ashes, by Stephanie Gray

     “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” –Helen Keller

     Two and a half years ago, back when I lived in Brampton, Ontario, I watched my then-parish burn to the ground.  Having since moved home to Vancouver, the last time I “saw” St. Elias it was ashes scattered upon sacred ground.  But last week, 31 months later, I visited Ontario and became witness to charred remains replaced by a new—and dare I say even better—towering place of worship, with copper domes reflecting the afternoon sunlight, set amidst a soft blue sky, standing majestic and tall.  Beauty from ashes. 

     I remember the sobs and devastation produced as the fiery inferno took over the building and crushed spirits, but I also saw a community rise from this loss with a conviction that it would overcome and rebuild—and it did.  This trial, and ultimate triumph, has become a metaphor for my own times of difficulty, remembering, as blind and deaf woman Helen Keller once remarked, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”  Beauty from ashes.

     Those words would be brought to life again only a few days later when, after visiting the new St. Elias, I flew to Guatemala to speak at the World Pro-Life Congress.  In the course of my 5-day visit I continually encountered beauty from ashes in the lived experiences of the people I met.

     Within an hour of my plane landing, one of my new Guatemalan friends, Gabby, took me on an unexpected and amazing adventure.  When I happened to ask her if she heard of Fr. Michael who ran Valley of the Angels Orphanage, a ministry I had only been told about days before while speaking in Ontario, she excitedly responded that she knew him and would take me there.  Thirty minutes later she was driving me up a winding mountain to meet a joyful Franciscan priest who authentically lives spiritual fatherhood by feeding, housing, and educating poor children—over 200, in fact!  Yes, there is poverty in Guatemala, but I also saw the overcoming of it.

     Then there was Gabby, the woman who picked me up at the airport.  She spends her time helping women in crisis, not only through volunteering at a counselling center, but also connecting women to a home for pregnant girls should they need material support to carry through with their pregnancies.  Suffering yes—but again, the overcoming of it.

     The next day I gave a presentation to 75 young volunteers of the Congress alongside another woman, Lianna Rebolledo.  Unlike me, Lianna can speak Spanish so her presentation to the bilingual audience was not understood by me.  But that evening we shared dinner together in our hotel’s restaurant and I was profoundly touched as I learned this inspiring and resilient woman’s journey first-hand.  Lianna and I are one year apart in age but she already has a 25-year-old daughter.  How could this be if 25 years ago we were 12 and 11 years old, respectively?  I then learned Lianna’s story—she was kidnapped at age 12, raped, and became pregnant.  As it says on her website,

     “She never thought about aborting her daughter. Lianna is survivor of 3 suicide attempts and is now a Defender of Life, with a specific mission: to inspire the world…She not only shares a testimony, but also a message of hope for many people, especially women all over the world who are in high-risk situations to love life grounded in faith.  ‘After my pregnancy due to rape, two lives were saved; I saved my daughter’s life and she saved mine.’”

     Suffering.  And the overcoming of it.

     The next day I met another presenter who is exactly my age, Patricia Sandoval.  We quickly connected and excitedly talked about our lives of travelling and speaking.  She had just heard me present to a panel so she told me why she was there to present: She had 3 abortions, used to work at Planned Parenthood, and for 3 years became a drug addict living on the streets.  Now she travels the world to tell others of God’s mercy.  Particularly poignant was when she told me this (which is also posted on her website in more detail here):

     “One day, my drug-addicted boyfriend and I got into an argument, and he kicked me out. I was left completely alone and abandoned, without food, water, friends, family, or drugs. I sat for hours on the sidewalk, curled into a fetal position, sobbing. I had nothing. I had sunk to the lowest level of my life.

      “It was then that I experienced the presence of God watching me. I lifted up my head and crying, I said to Him: ‘You are all that I have. I don't know how I got to this point. I thank you for my beautiful childhood and family, which You gave to me. I'm so sorry!’ I had barely finished speaking when a young woman my age, twenty-two, named Bonnie, knelt down, embraced me from behind, and said, ‘Jesus loves you.’ I looked up at her confused, and she smiled back and said, ‘I am the waitress at the restaurant across the street. I was working when God said to me: 'Put down your notepad, look out that window, and tell that young lady who is sitting on the curb that even if her mother or father should abandon her, I will never abandon or forsake her. I will be with her until the end of time.’ I couldn't believe that God had responded to my prayer so immediately! Bonnie took me into her restaurant and with a sweet smile, asked me what I'd like to eat. Then she drove me home.”

     Suffering. And the overcoming of it.

     Over the past 9 days, the people I met and the encounters I experienced have been nothing short of inspiring.  As I reflect on it all, I am reminded of the words of Anne Frank, a girl whose young life would be extinguished by the horror of the Holocaust but whose legacy has survived for decades since:

     “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”  Indeed, Anne, we all can make beauty from ashes.