Most of my friends, family and congregational members know I love the television series Grey's Anatomy. When I'm relaxing or working on other things in my home, I replay old episodes of the series. In these past nine seasons, Grey's Anatomy presents a range of ethical dilemmas that many patients and doctors could potentially face. In one episode, a 17-year-old girl who was passionate about her faith refused a porcine valve because the tissue was not kosher. In the same episode, a pregnant woman diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer must choose whether to have an abortion and cancer treatment or keep the pregnancy knowing that her life would be cut short by cancer. From euthanasia to switching clinical trial packets, the show has thoroughly explored the moral code of medicine.
I think that's what I love the most about Grey's Anatomy: story lines that reflect the shades of gray we face when deciding on the most ethical and appropriate treatment plans. We want decisions and choices to be clear-cut, but quite often, they are in gray scale.
What do we think of unconventional treatments, even ones that some in our society and our government deem unethical or illegal? What if someone needed an abortion to save their health or life? What would happen if embryonic stem cells could cure Alzheimer's or Parkinson's? How do we feel about physician-assisted suicide when no other options are available and the patient wants to die? What do we think about the ongoing discussion regarding medical marijuana for chronic or terminal illnesses?
I read stories of children with a rare form of epilepsy called Dravet Syndrome. One article was about a child named Charlotte whose illness had progressed to the point that she could no longer eat, speak or walk and was having 300 grand mal seizures every week. A variety of drug therapies were used, but even with those medications, her condition worsened. The day she started on forms of medical marijuana (with low THC levels), her seizures became rare.
Of course I'm a pastor and not a doctor, so I'm not recommending any particular treatment plans. Also, I'm definitely not advocating using or abusing drugs, prescription or otherwise, for recreational purposes. But I am intrigued in the conversations happening around unconventional medicines and medical treatments as a final option. Which is more important: observing the laws or the rules that society deems appropriate or making sure our loved ones are comfortable or healthy? And how far would we go to find prohibited treatments just so our loved ones could have relief?
The debate over medical ethics can be found in Luke 13:10-17. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. He sees a woman unable to stand up, living life bent over. Jesus calls her over and instantaneously cures her.
As we see throughout the gospels, Jesus is continuously surrounded by people who are sick, and he spends much of his energy healing these sisters and brothers. He had overflowing compassion for those he taught and with those he journeyed. Jesus' great desire was for people to be well and live full lives. So, even without asking, he heals this woman who was probably considered marginalized and had no quality of life.
Some people would question Jesus no matter who he healed and what day of the week he acted. But this was on the Sabbath, so healing was even more taboo.
The healer Jesus broke the rules to make sure that a fellow human would be made healthy and whole. He wasn't going to make her wait one more day for relief. When it came to healing, Jesus appeared to be a firm believer in "the sooner the better."
If one of us were to get sick on our Sabbath, nobody would question the doctors treating us in the hospital, even if that doctor was a person of faith. But back then, any work on the Sabbath, including healing, was as unconventional, stigmatized and edgy as medical marijuana or abortions for health reasons.
Wouldn't it be wonderful to be as bold in one's convictions as Jesus was! Did he worry about what the leaders in the synagogues said? Did he stop and apologize for doing something he believed in? Jesus didn't allow the naysayers to discourage him. Quite the opposite: Jesus reminded them of the ways they were not observing rules. He set a boundary reminding others that his decision to heal wasn't up to them. The curing that happened was between Jesus, who was the healer, the woman and God.
For Jesus, something was greater than following every detail of the law: it was the relationship he had with those who were marginalized and in pain. Seeing so many sick and pain-filled people, compassionate Jesus broke the law for others' salvation and wholeness.
This story in Luke makes me wonder: are we as Christians called to follow the steps of Jesus and advocate for unconventional medical treatments? What does it mean to be a person of faith and someone who thinks alternative healing options should be considered?
Furthermore, this healing story reminds us that God will do whatever God can do to bring about healing in our lives. God does not want us to live in pain or illness. God is with us as we go to doctors, have biopsies and surgeries, and even when we are out of options and end up choosing banned procedures and medications.
It is my belief that God gives us grace when we must choose quality of life instead of laws and ethics. God gives people grace when they must take their own life because the pain will never go away.
Many of life's decisions are in gray areas. But just like Jesus did not always think in absolutes, maybe God is not a God of absolutes and fixed solutions but one of love and grace. And maybe each one of us are called to live in the grace-filled gray area with God and one another.