David Goodbourn reflects on what matters when you have months left to live

This article was published in the October 2013 edition of Reform.

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.

A still small voice, the crumbling earth lies silent – a poem after a devastating earthquake.

A still small voice, the crumbling earth lies silent  - a poem after a devastating earthquake. 

A still small voice, the crumbling earth lies silent,
a baby suckled at her mother’s breast,
feels flesh grow cool as she lies quietly dying,
no comfort now, no warmth, no earthly rest.

And where is God amid this dust, these ashes?
Is this God’s plan, this random, rancid death?
Where is the blessing in these crumbling buildings
where silent bodies drew a final breath?

The dust, a pall, obscures the teasing sunrise.
See, dawn’s temptation to arise, to wake.
But this dishonest call is, empty, hollow
to any who’ve survived this this night, this quake.

What now? The still, small voice still quietly questions:
there is no consolation for this pain,
but mid the dust and rubble of this carnage,
humanity might rise in hope again.
©Andrew Pratt 7/2/2023

The day after the earthquakes in Turkey, Syria and the surrounding regions.

The Beatitudes – a hymn – A contradictory blessing

The Beatitudes - A contradictory blessing

The gospel reading appointed for this coming Sunday, Matthew 5:1-12, is known as the Beatitudes. The following hymn was inspired by this passage:

1	A contradictory blessing 
	of those who feel unblessed,
	when life is torn and twisted
	for this to be redressed; 
	a time of reparation 
	and yet a time for grace 
	when those who feel forsaken 
	will meet God face to face.
2	And in that time of meeting, 
	the hurt will find new joy, 
	the poor will welcome riches, 
	more than they could deploy; 
	the mourning will find comfort, 
	the lost will see God's light 
	to bring them to the dawning, 
	beyond their darkest night.
3	The ones who ache with hunger 
	will share a glorious feast,
	and those reviled and hated 
	will find they are released.
	The gentle will inherit 
	the greatest gift of all,
	while rafters ring with laughter
	where crying filled the hall.

Andrew E Pratt (born 1948)
Words © 2015 © Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England copyright@stainer.co.uk . Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.
Metre: 7 6 7 6 D

Remembrance – Once crimson poppies bloomed out in a foreign field

Once crimson poppies bloomed
out in a foreign field,
each memory reminds
where brutal death was sealed.
The crimson petals flutter down,
still hatred forms a thorny crown.

For in this present time
we wait in vain for peace;
each generation cries,
each longing for release,
while war still plagues the human race
and families seek a hiding place.
How long will human life
suffer for human greed?
How long must race or pride,
wealth, nationhood or creed
be reasons justifying death
to suffocate a nation’s breath?
For everyone who dies
we share a quiet grief;
the pain of loss remains,
time rarely brings relief:
and so we will remember them
and heaven sound a loud amen.

Andrew E Pratt (born 1948) Words © 2012 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England, http://www.stainer.co.uk. Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.
Metre: 6 6 6 6 8 8 Tune: LITTLE CORNARD