Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Faith Works 8-29

Faith Works 8-29-09

Jeff Gill

Dissecting Death Panels and Other Mythical Creatures


One more "Faith Works" column on health care and your beliefs as a
religious person . . . and then I promise to move on to a different
subject, at least for a while.

This is the topic that seems to be occupying a spot right next to the
coffee pot after most worship services, so I trust offering a little
grist for the mill is welcome. If not, well, there's always the
Sports section, with high school football back in view!

Generally, I'm neither here nor there with the propriety of folks
talking about "death panels." On the one hand, politically, there's
the opinion that it's a lie, there's no such thing in any proposed
legislation, and the phrase is being used by those opposed to any of
the plans in principle. All true, I'd say from my reading.

On the other hand, there is great concern about costs that don't look
like they will be managed, only assumed by the federal government,
hence leading to increased rationing (since we all know there is a
form of rationing going on right now); and a very sincere anxiety on
the part of pro-life/anti-abortion groups that the Democratic
majority in Congress and the Obama administration is committed to
increasing access to abortion and funding of it through public means.
For that side of the debate, "death panels" becomes a short-hand for
a complex but very concrete group of issues that don't lend
themselves to sound bites.

(Note to Democrats – if you want people to stop talking about "death
panels," don't send Peter Singer of Princeton out to allay fears. Bad
choice, that.)

What everyone is working their way to understanding is how we can
care for the vulnerable and helpless, and at the same time recognize
limits on what can be done. Some say "what are the limits of what
makes a meaningful life?" Others ask "what are the limits of freedom
when life itself is endangered?" These are both discussions where our
faith perspectives necessarily play a role in where we come down on
drawing the lines that connect or divide policy considerations.

As a Christian, I accept taxation from a duly constituted government
as one of the "delegated" authorities that Romans 13 and elsewhere
discuss, as part of caring for the wider society; as an American
citizen, I have some opinions about what percentage of my household
income should come off the top for civic purposes.

But I'll admit that I saw a disturbing trend begin when a few decades
back, a denomination I'm often involved with received a bequest. That
isn't too unusual, but the news around the gift surely was. An
elderly couple, not gravely ill or in pain, but experiencing limits
and frailties, decided to end their lives so as not to "be a burden
or spend down their assets," and left their estate to the church.

My first thought – naively, perhaps – was that the denomination would
quietly but firmly turn down the gift. What would accepting such an
inheritance say to generations still living, or yet unborn?

They did not. There were words about how the couple might have not
been quite prudent about hastening their end, but much more about how
thoughtful their concern for the poor and needy was in their final

As you can tell, this decision still bothers me. The decision to die,
to kill one's own self in order to make resources available for other
purposes, was in error. Sorry, but it was. And the decision to accept
the outcome of that error was, in my theological opinion, a
compounding of that error.

Or perhaps we should end the parable of the Prodigal Son at Luke
15:12 and call it a happy ending right there.

We do not have "death panels" in any of the health care legislation
under current consideration, but somewhere between outright denial of
dying and human limits, and the very beneficial ministry that is
hospice and palliative care, there are less formal but no less
concrete places where people are deciding who should live, and who
should die. Sometimes, it's simply when a person looks in the mirror
at themselves around 3 am.

There will soon be some form of civic involvement, in providing more
aid than is currently available for medical care. That is necessary,
and just, and surely even Christian. What no legislation can replace
is our need to speak clearly and honestly about what we believe
begins life, and when it rightly ends, and how. Most of us will have
to make some kind of choices about the pace and manner of dying, our
own if not also for others near to us.

It's a harder conversation than politics, and much more necessary.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around
central Ohio; tell him about your experience of end of life decision
making at


Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, on MSNBC's MorningJoe this am has the word, and the word is "Shakespearean."

That's a fair summary of Teddy Kennedy's life. It's not a word that any of us should want to have applied to our lives, but Edward Kennedy, liberal lion of the senate and man who would be president, wore it like a suit of rusty but well-fitting armor.

His life followed an arc suitable for a Richard II, a Hamlet, even a haunted Macbeth, or a triumphant Henry IV -- Tragedy, comedy, self-inflicted tragedy, then redemption unearned and renewal hard-earned . . . a festive, placidly married & politically frenetic fourth act, and then a poetic, poignant reversal of expectations in the fifth with a new young prince embodying long-faded hopes under his wing, exeunt laughing.

We should not forget Mary Jo Kopechne, or the still living and painfully struggling Joan Bennett Kennedy, cast aside in the wake of her bearing the pain, in her admitted alcoholism, that Teddy tried to push past; likewise we must remember his realization of limits that led to more bipartisan work than almost any senator in American history since Henry Clay or Daniel Webster. His aims and intentions became purer and more honorable through the years -- even if i might disagree with the means he chose to legislate, that much seemed clear -- and if his weekday Mass attendance began as an affectation as he tried to live out a repentance that his other actions rarely demonstrated, it seems beyond doubt that the act began to influence the intention, and many conservatives in Washington DC today are quietly noting that they often shared a pew with Teddy on a Tuesday or Wednesday, where he was more regular in attendance than they.

His biography, if done in full and unvarnished, will be an epic and a must read tale of temptation and power and chastening. I look forward to reading one like that, and saying one more time -- Godspeed, Teddy.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Notes From My Knapsack 8-27

Notes From My Knapsack 8-27-09

Jeff Gill

Remembering Bill Laidlaw


When I wrote this column two weeks ago, it was actually four weeks
ago, and my family was getting ready to leave on vacation. I'd been
thinking about the state budget situation, the programs that I work
around in particular, that serve the most vulnerable in society, and
how to balance those needs in a time of crisis against the needs of
historic preservation & interpretation.

My thought was to ask you all to think out loud with me on what has
to be done, what we can do, and how it will get done. Then we got
back from vacation to learn that the executive director of the Ohio
Historical Society, Bill Laidlaw (a man I'd come both to respect, and
to enjoy speaking with, in person and by e-mail), and who was
scheduled to retire at the end of this year, had died while on
vacation himself, with his family during that very same week.

So my topic has to change a bit, because even though losing hours or
access to a historical site or library is a dilemma, as the old
saying goes, every time a person dies, it's like a library burning down.

And some libraries are larger than others.

So I wrote the following immediately after hearing about Bill's death:

There's one approach to history that focuses on "great men," and a
contrasting understanding that says "trends and movements" are the
real hinge of historical developments.

When people look back in years to come on this era for the Ohio
Historical Society, they will surely see the broader influences of
significant economic shifts in the state, with budget cuts defining
much of the story, but they will unavoidably notice a particular
person who stands at the heart of the turmoil and trials of this time
– William Laidlaw.

Bill may not have liked the label "great man," but his influence has
been great, even if in humble and unassuming ways. Bill's greatness
has been in good humor, by bringing a cheerful spirit and
constructive attitude into tense meetings and challenging situations,
with a smile and a raised eyebrow where others might raise voices and
offer a scowl. That was not a look you saw often, if ever, from Bill

With a background in management and academia, he chose to take on a
radically new challenge at a point in his life and career when many
men simply look for a capstone achievement, one ideally well within
their comfort zone. Instead, Bill took on the task of helping
reformulate a not-quite-state-agency that was already known to be in
not-quite-good if not outright difficult financial straits. Not long
after he got his pencils sharpened on his desk blotter, the state
budget forecasts turned dark and got progressively stormier than
anyone could have forecast -- but Bill stayed the happy warrior and
gracious civic servant right through his latest rounds of statehouse
lobbying and public advocacy, last May and June.

And as he worked with his staff to shape the statewide picture as
much as circumstances allowed, he continued to communicate with
individuals and families about the joys of history and the excitement
of sharing knowledge. Here in Licking County, a mom down the street
came by this afternoon to ask if it was true what she heard "about
that smiling nice man with the white hair," who had e-mailed her back
after a chance encounter about places she and her four children would
find interesting and accessible. She couldn't quite recall his name,
but she knew that "the boss" of the state historical society had
taken the time to do personally what so many in his position would
have quietly handed off to a junior staffer. Plus, she remembered
the smile, and the interest in her kids.

In the next few months and years, historic sites and cultural
landmarks in Ohio will be getting formal recognition from the United
Nations of their unique significance, their greatness in a global
context. Bill Laidlaw would be quick to point out that the major
work, the detail work, the groundwork was all done by others. But
for those of us who will be honored to see that day come when Ohio
has sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List, we will all know when
that day comes that it was the cheerfully persistent leadership that
Bill brought to OHS that was crucial to making it happen.

Was Bill Laidlaw a great man, or the right man at a time when
greatness was called for? The right answer, many of us suspect, is

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around
central Ohio; you're invited to add your stories of Bill to http://