About 12 years ago I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. I thought that, with surgery, I would probably live. However, there was always the possibility that it had spread further than the doctors realised. In fact, I had to have more surgery a year after the first operation, but I pulled through. It all made me think about death.
Thousands are dying, and everyone seems to assume that death is the absolute end for them. No one is speaking up much for life beyond death, and fear of death is widespread. There is a strange silence about life beyond death from church leaders. I want to challenge the fear of death and the assumption that death is the absolute end, though I am not in denial about the tragedy of the loss of human life.
The conclusion I reached is that what matters is what you do with your life, for whatever span you have, rather than how long it goes on for. Longevity is not the most important thing about life. If you live a long time the quality of life inevitably deteriorates at some point. Living as long as possible doesn’t seem to be the most important objective.
St Paul’s dictum, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14.8) made a deep impression on me. Since then, I have been sympathetic to carefully managed euthanasia. There was also a time in my life when I contemplated suicide with relative equanimity, even though my spiritual director seemed to see it as his job to keep me alive.
Actually, a lot of people think there that is some kind of life beyond death, even though it is a point of view that is being heard in the present crisis. It is intriguing that survey research both in the UK and USA shows that the number of people who believe in some kind of existence for departed souls has been increasing in recent decades, even while belief in God has been declining.
The phrase that has lodged in my mind in this crisis comes from the poet, Evangeline Patterson. It is “the irrelevance of death”, and it comes from her poem, Deathbed, which connects the musings of a dying person with the risen Jesus.
Back from the tomb,
Who built fires, ate fish,
Spoke with friends, and walked
A dusty road at evening.
Here, in this room, in
This stark and timeless moment,
We hear those footsteps
With suddenly lifted hearts
The irrelevance of death.
We turn…to the Son of Man,