Sunday, July 15, 2012

Aussie Girl Guides & The Last Week of Life

Two seemingly unrelated items on the news from a few mornings ago throw into sharp relief the parts of Christian faith that I believe will spell its doom -- or prove its salvation.

Exhibit One: The Girl Guides in Australia have changed their oath so that they no longer promise their allegiance to God and Queen. (They now promise is to serve their community, Australia, and "to be true to myself and develop my beliefs.")

Exhibit Two: Research on the quality of life for cancer patients in their last week of life finds that two aspects of religious practice significantly improve their quality of life: A.) Having some practice of prayer or meditation and B.) Care from a chaplain, priest, or other spiritually-oriented person.

As a preamble, I need to turn the pages of the calendar back to March, when the vicar for our benefice penned the priests' column at the front of our monthly parish magazine. The Rev Jane Twitty wrote:
As I write this, there have been recent judgements in the courts that may be seen to marginalise Christianity. Bideford Council have been told they cannot start their council meetings with prayer; a husband & wife who, because of their Christian beliefs, refused to let a homosexual couples[sic] share a room in their B&B, have been fined. There is a feeling that Christians have, if not been persecuted, been marginalised.
Rev Twitty offers encouragement to Christians who are are dejected by these incidents by citing people who had recently spoken up for Christianity, including George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury; "Lady Warsi (herself a Muslim);" and the Queen. She concludes her editorial by saying:
We mustn't hide away. Just as the Olympics will be staged in full view of the spectators, both those present in person and those watching on TV throughout the world, so Christians must be prepared to be visible. We mustn't say, as Alistair Campbell did of Tony Blair 'We don't do God'. We need to support each other as the world, and our country, becomes more secular.
I think this is the most public statement our benefice clergy have yet published revealing what I see as anxious, "groupist" Christian defensiveness--"Circle the wagons, we're under attack!"
I felt moved to respond, and sent the following letter to the editor of the magazine:
I am neither vicar nor rector; curate nor reader. But I do consider myself a Christian, and in response to the February Roundabout’s urging from the Team Vicar, to “be visible,” in my faith, I would like to comment on, and politely take exception to the column.
Rev. Twitty said Christians feel marginalized, if not persecuted, by a ruling that prayers before the Bideford Council’s meetings may not be part of the official agenda. Her other example of marginalization is a court’s fining of a couple who would not accommodate homosexuals in their B&B. 
I would disagree that all Christians felt marginalized by these decisions. I personally felt they were a sign that Jesus’ values --including love of God and neighbor-- are soaking into the fabric of secular British life and government.
When Jesus prayed, he wasn’t in-your-face about it. He prayed alone in the wilderness or the Garden of Gethsemane, for example. He prayed in the temple. He gave his disciples the Lord’s Prayer only after they asked Him how to pray. There are no signs Jesus insisted government assemblies or people of other faiths pray in his way – or pray at all, for that matter. 
The Bible in general, and Jesus in particular, never utter the word “homosexuality.” But Jesus does say to love our neighbor—specifically our enemies and those who cannot return our hospitality. He makes a point of extending his love to outcasts, harlots, adulterers, hated tax collectors—even his betrayer, Judas. 
In this light, I see laws against discrimination as signs that Jesus’ acceptance is becoming the standard for our society. And I doubt that Jesus would regret that prayers for the Bideford Council are now spoken in the private, sincere temple of the human heart, rather than on invidious Council agendas.
Like Rev. Twitty, I see signs that organized religion is being marginalized. But my evidence would be decline in attendance at our churches; the advancing average age of congregations; and general disparagement of the church's preoccupation with issues like these.
If the church feels marginalized by matters like these, there is little chance it can rise to the real challenges that Jesus gave us, such as caring for the lost and least. Perhaps, as the Easter cover of Newsweek proclaimed, it is indeed time to “Forget the Church. Follow Jesus,” or as the Bishop of Buckingham blogged, not bail-out but “reboot” the church. 
I sent my letter to the editor. I phoned her to be sure she had it. She said it would be in the next issue. It wasn't. I phoned her to find out what happened. She'd misplaced it. I sent another copy; she said it would be in the next issue. It wasn't. I phoned and asked why -- she'd forgotten. At this point I gave up. Clearly the parish magazine is not going to be the place where anyone other than the clergy are allowed to "be visible" with their beliefs.

When the story about the Australian Girl Guides came over the airwaves, I listened with Rev Twitty's ears and could just imagine her knickers twisting with every word. Another example of the marginalization of Christianity -- that's what I expect she'd hear.

The explanation for the change in the oath is that it was meant to make the Guides feel like a welcoming place for girls from all different backgrounds. Hopefully more girls would thereby join and  find friends, fun, and people to help them grow into good citizens. Those strike me as the important things -- not mouthing allegiance to God and Queen.

Is secularization a bad thing when it's just removing the religious "branding" from things the church actually endorses -- if it encourages a wider range of people to open the package?  Wouldn't the Christian God prefer having more people follow Christ's behavior in deed, even if it meant dispensing with the religious packaging? And why do some people feel such secularization is a threat? How could true, deep faith rely on Girl Guides, or City Councils, or B&B owners saying, praying, or banning gays staying? Surely real faith lies in the stirrings of each human heart.

Turn with me now to Exhibit Two. --a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine this month (July 2012) of 396 advanced cancer patients and their caregivers. The objective of the study was to identify factors affecting the quality of life (QOL) of patients in their final week of life.

The study found that patients who were very worried and anxious about the future during their 45-minute "baseline" interviews had a worse quality of life in their last week compared to people with a sense of inner peace. Even having a panicked caregiver worsened the quality of the patient's end-of-life. Patients who said they prayed or meditated had a better quality of life at the end. Those who had pastoral care  at their hospital or clinic had significantly better quality of life in the last week. The study's authors write,
"Those whose religious beliefs or activities helped them cope with their illness and who participated in private religious activities before receiving their cancer diagnosis and at baseline had much better QOL at the EOL. "
Overall, the effects weren't huge. By stringing together all of the factors that had an impact on the quality of patients' lives, the researchers  could only account for around 20% of the differences in the quality of peoples' experiences. The strongest factor lowering the quality of life was going into an intensive care unit in the last week of life -- this explained 4.4% of the variance. Similarly, dying in the hospital (rather than in a hospice, for example) lowered the quality of of the end-of-life.

The next most important factor lowering the quality of the end of life was being worried during the baseline interview. This explained 2.7% of the variance. The strongest positive factor improving the quality of life was having a practice of prayer or meditation. This accounted for 2.5% of the variance. 

The setting where patients received their cancer care and the use of a feeding tube in the last week of life were the next most important factors, followed by receiving pastoral care. This accounted for 1% of the variance--a stronger factor than the negative force of having chemotherapy in the last week, or the benefits of having a "therapeutic alliance" between patient and doctor at baseline, which explained 0.7% of the variance.

The researchers arrive at important conclusions, including the recommendation that care providers NOT engage in intensive, intrusive life-prolonging medical procedures, such as chemotherapy or a feeding tube, as the end draws close. Care in a hospice or at home, rather than in a hospital ICU,  offers better quality of life then.

The researchers stress that "terminally ill patients who participate in religious/spiritual activities privately and within the medical setting have better QOL near death than those who do not."

This seems to me like the most ringing endorsement you could hope for when it comes to the genuine core of faith. Meditate. Pray. Talk to a chaplain or your pastor. It works. It makes a real difference at a time when every moment counts.

Church ministers should take note, as should all who feel marginalized by society's rejection of religious packaging, public oaths and prayers, or noisy assertion of your right to wear a cross at work or proclaim "No Gays, Please--We're Christian(TM):  If the church is in peril, as I believe it is, it is urgent that you stop wasting your time, energy, and last bits of credibility on issues that further imperil it. This truly could spell the EOL for the church as congregations dwindle and general confidence in the church/organized religion plummets.  

There are much more important things you should be doing. Visit the sick. Get back to your daily offices and practices of prayer. Help anyone who's interested discover prayer. And if they can't accept prayer due to negative associations, personally or historically inflicted, help them discover meditation or mindfulness. Your faith practices -- are really needed.  They make a difference in people's lives. This is what Jesus said "believing" in him really meant-- trying to do what he did. It's what will save the faith. Stop fretting about the trivia and get out there and do what he said.

Blogger and Methodist minister Dan R. Dick was grumbling about pastors who measure their success by "buns on seats" when he wrote his blog (Methodeviations) for July 8 entitled "Childish Church:"
"Numbers games are for losers.  . .   we take Jesus seriously, we focus on discipleship, we expect people to actually shape their lives by their faith, we hold one another accountable, and our most effective churches will be measured in the dozens rather than the thousands.  The institution collapses and the church emerges."
Coming from this different angle, Dan (sorry, just can't bring myself to write "Rev Dick") basically arrives at the same destination. The church needs to do or die. Or maybe do AND die.

1 comment:

  1. Really thought-provoking, Cecie, and very well expressed.