David Goodbourn reflects on what matters when you have months left to live
Be careful what you preach! It was the first Sunday in Lent this year, and I spoke about entering the wilderness with Jesus. There, I said, we have nowhere to hide. We have to face up to our own mortality, and strip away the myths we develop to present our chosen face to ourselves and to the world and ask who we really are.
Two weeks later I was in hospital, absorbing the news that there was a 50% chance I would be dead within six months, and having busily to cancel all the activities that buttressed my own chosen identity. Three months and an unsuccessful major operation later, I now knew I was terminally ill. I have a life expectancy, even with good palliative care, of less than a year. I’m in God’s waiting room, and moving steadily closer to the door.
My Lenten sermon had said that, when everything else was stripped away, one thing remained: we are people who are loved. My experience confirms that message. And for me, God’s love has often been mediated through the love of others: my wife Lynn, who with Aberdonian toughness fights my corner; my children; my friends and colleagues. I have been overwhelmed by the scores of people who with carefully chosen words have written to me or visited.
It is the response of these folk that has led to the reflections I want to share here. Some clearly found it difficult to talk to me, feeling they ought to have words to say but not knowing what they were. Most identified things they had appreciated about me, carefully ignoring my faults and the ways I had driven them up the wall! If Vespasian on his death bed quipped: “Oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god”, reading these messages made me respond: “Oh dear, I think I’m becoming a saint.” But reassurance that I and my work had been valued really made a difference, and I’m truly grateful.
Three theological issues were raised by the messages I received. First, some suggested it was somehow not fair that I should die 15 years before the average life expectancy of a man of my age and background. They felt God owed me a long retirement, or were kind enough to suggest that God was scoring an own goal by taking me away too soon. These are feelings I don’t share. Stuff happens, often randomly. I am, of course, deeply disappointed to be leaving life sooner than envisaged. I have young grandchildren, and I wanted to see them grow up. I have a wife, and we wanted to explore the world together. But my illness is simply the luck of the draw. It’s Sod’s Law, not God’s Law. I don’t believe God willed it. What God wills is that, faced with it, I should use it with God’s help to spin meaning, creativity and love.
Second, most said they were praying for me. What are we looking for when we say that? I know someone who died of cancer at my age. She believed that, if she had enough faith she would be cured, and died feeling guilty because of her lack of faith. The view of prayer she had been taught creates misery rather than hope. I don’t expect prayer to cure me; the cancer will take its natural course. But I do believe in the connectedness of all things, since it is in the one God that we live and move and have our being. Mind and body are connected. Mind and mind are connected – I am who I am only in relationship with others. So another person’s prayer may help me be stronger to face my illness, and more fully alive in the time left to me.
Third, a few spoke of my future in heaven. It is interesting how seldom one hears sermons about what happens after death, and strange how even those who have a clear belief in paradise seldom seem in a hurry to get there.
My problem is that, although I hear in the Christian tradition a clear invitation to believe in a life to come, I do not find it possible in any conventional sense. I’m cheered by the knowledge that most of the Bible was written by people who also had no belief in it. The sheol of the Hebrew Scriptures was not a place of conscious existence; it involved a kind of shadow of the person. Most of the New Testament writers most of the time held that the dead were dead; God could recreate them in a resurrection at the last day, but until then they had no conscious existence. Only the Johannine writings and the later Paul moved consistently beyond that to insist that resurrection began here and now, and so continued after death. I rejoice in the here-and-now resurrection, but cannot share the picture of a life that continues beyond the grave. Like most of these biblical writers, I don’t understand myself as having a body, I am a body. When the body goes, I go.
This does not mean that life is thrown away and lost forever. Because I understand God as the deeply personal environment in which all space and time exist, every moment is “now” to God. To the God of eternity, my childhood is “now”, my adulthood is “now”, my death is “now”. Outside time, God’s relationship with me simply is. I used to be attracted to the idea of life as a vale of soul-making, a kind of adventure training ground where we grew and developed as persons over time, but that idea cannot cope with dementia, or with the simple fact that most of us were in our prime – physically, mentally, spiritually, ethically – in the midst of life, not at the end of it. But to see the whole of my life as “now” to God means God in eternity knows me always at my best as well as at my worst. This is reflected in one of the hymns I have chosen for my funeral, Colin Gibson’s beautiful “Nothing is lost on the breath of God.” In God’s project for time-and-space, my life has its part.
But if God from outside time knows me eternally, I as a creature of time experience life as having a beginning and an end. Just as I had no existence in time before 1948, so I have no existence in time after my death. Some may reply that in the afterlife we are outside time and space, but if so this is no longer human existence in any real sense. To be human is to exist in time, to have a narrative, to live in a world of consequences. Without that, the discontinuity with my earthly life is too great for me to still be me.
We find the idea of non-existence difficult. Many cultures posit a pre-existence in a process of reincarnation, and most of us as children imagined ourselves as having existed somewhere waiting to be allocated to a family (I used to pride myself on having chosen well). To imagine our non-existence after death is even more difficult. The title of Damien Hirst’s shark-in-formaldehyde, The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living, captures that nicely. If I try to imagine non-existence, somehow I always end up seeing a shadow of myself in the picture, consciously observing and experiencing my own oblivion! But finding an idea difficult doesn’t make it untrue. If I’m wrong, and find myself after death confronted by a chorus of more orthodox friends singing: “I told you so,” I will, I think, be delighted. But I don’t expect it.
I’m living now in a strange time. I don’t feel or look ill any longer, yet the cancer that will kill me is busily growing. I don’t feel I am engaged in a “battle” with it, despite the cliché that always accompanies the news of another death. It is more a kind of peaceful coexistence; we are dancing awkwardly together, and the end of the dance will be the death of us both. It has brought pluses as well as minuses. In weakening the mechanisms I have erected to keep my emotions in check, it has enabled me to feel them as never before. That’s true whether it is love for my wife and family or for my God; I often now find the words of hymns hitting home afresh and reducing me to tears. Moreover, a period to prepare for death has been a gift both to me and my family that the victims of sudden death are denied. And my fear of long years fading away with dementia has been removed. I can’t yet celebrate with St Francis “thou most kind and gentle death”, but at least the grim reaper is growing a little less grim.
Dr David Goodbourn was a former general secretary of Churches in Britain and Ireland, and a former president of Luther King House. He died in November 2014.
This article was published in the October 2013 edition of Reform.