Mark Ashton was Rector of St Andrew the Great in Cambridge. In 2008 he was diagnosed with cancer and died last year. Here he writes about dealing with death and the hope he had in Jesus.
In spring 2007, while on sabbatical in New Zealand, I first had pains roughly in the area of the gallbladder, which led eventually to going into Addenbrooke’s Hospital in December 2008 to have the gallbladder removed.
But when he went in to do so, the surgeon found cancer which had invaded the liver, originating in the gallbladder. The oncologist estimated I might have 6-9 months to live. I said to the surgeon, when he broke the news, that what he had just told me was, for a Christian believer, not bad news but good; it was not the end of the story, but the beginning. (And I saw an imaginary speech bubble appear above his head, saying, ‘This man is in total denial!’)
Once you have been told you are going to die, the months that follow are a very good time spiritually. The news is a spiritual tonic. ‘The long habit of living indisposeth us for dying’, wrote Sir Thomas Browne; and for me as a Christian that had certainly become true.
In many ways I was more ready to die on 8 February 1968, as a 20-year-old, the day after my conversion, than I was in 2008 forty years later. But the warning I have now received has changed that.
I can now see that much of what I have striven for and much of what I have allowed to fill my life these 40 years have been of dubious value. I am not now going to gain any further reputation or achieve anything more of significance, and I realise how little that matters.
While physical things spoil and go dim, spiritual things grow brighter and clearer. I see my sin very clearly. I see how much it still controls my life. I think how little time I have got left to make further progress against my pride, my irritability, my grumpiness, my selfishness.
I need to keep short accounts now, because I may never have time to make amends or apology in this life. The Bible speaks to me about this with ever greater authority and relevance. Each day as I open it, God speaks straight into my heart by his Word. And it tells me of what lies beyond this life.
I can see the end of life. It looms over the horizon, and I am encouraged to think it will not now be long before I am there.
Opportunities to tell others about Jesus have now also become clearer and more urgent. Our age is so devoid of hope in the face of death that the topic has become unmentionable. But once you have had the news I have had, it rears its head whether you want it to or not.
But people’s dread of death does not mean that they do not need to think about it, and that they are not aware that it is where every life ends. To share the hope of eternal life is a wonderful privilege, particularly when it is apparent to the non-believer that it is a reality to you, the believer.
I have not done well at sharing this hope, but I am so grateful for opportunities to do it a little more boldly as my own death approaches. I have no excuse for not seizing them.
It has been a disappointment to discover how many fellow believers struggle to grasp the strength of our Christian hope. They find it hard to believe that the resurrection to eternal life is a prospect to be welcomed, and, like the pagan world, they assume Christians should dread death and seek to extend life at all costs.
So it is with Christians as well as non-believers that I have tried to share the good news of resurrection. The warning of my death has brought it into much clearer perspective for me and I regret that I have not proclaimed it much more powerfully through the 37 years of my preaching ministry.
No physical pleasures can any longer please as they once did: food, exercise, rest. Loss of appetite, bad digestion, fatigue, incontinence, cramps and the side-effects of steroids have taken their joys away. Weariness rules and physical pleasures flee.
Ecclesiastes 12 is a great reminder to us that this stage of life comes to almost every one: ‘Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, I find no pleasure in them’ (Ecclesiastes 12:1).
All the things of earth will soon be gone for ever and I have a sense of savouring some of them especially because of that.
I realise it may be the last time I watch a fireworks display or see a particular country view. The added poignancy makes me want to thank God even more for them, and makes me sorry that I have so often taken them for granted.
But more than all the rich experience of material things on earth, I realise that it is relationships with people that matter most. In October 2009 a kind cousin suggested that he and I revisit the River Cothi in Carmarthenshire, where our family used to fish for some 25 years.
As it turned out, I was ill on the dates we had planned for the visit and it had to be cancelled. But a visit to those cousins was still possible later, and I realised that I actually wanted to renew my acquaintance with the cousins far more than I wanted to walk again on the banks of that lovely and exciting river, with its magical memories from my youth. People do matter more than things, and it will be leaving people that will hurt most at death.
So, despite the very great strength of human love (Song of Solomon 8:6), it cannot destroy death. There is only one relationship that can do that. And it is the relationship that stands behind all other relationships.
So it is in terms of relating to him that I must understand my death. Jesus will be the same — indeed, he will be more real and more true than he has ever been before. It will be his voice that will call me into his presence (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
He will himself take me to be with him (John 14:3), so that I may be with him for ever (1 Thessalonians 4:17). He is the first and the last (Revelation 1:17-18), the beginning and the end (Revelation 21:6).
It has been said that, for the believer, the end of the world is more of a person than it is an event. That is certainly true of the end of life. My death may be the event with which my physical life on earth ends, but it will also be the moment at which my relationship with Jesus becomes complete.
That relationship is the only thing that has made sense of my physical life, and at my death it will be everything.
The first Christian believers were adamant that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead was God’s reversal of the verdict we humans pass on Jesus — ‘you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him’ (Acts 2:23-24).
It was God’s definitive act to approve Jesus’ life and death. It said to everyone, ‘This man is God’s Son and has done what God sent him to do’.
My death forces me to face the resurrection of Jesus. No longer is it a bald fact of history for me. It is of crucial significance for every person who faces their own death honestly.
Jesus has already risen. If I know him now, I will know him then. He is my assurance in dying, and his resurrection is central to Christianity. That is why it is so important to be realistic and to be biblical about death.
In dying, I want to say to those I have loved and to those who have loved me: ‘Don’t magnify me — remember the reality: I was someone who sometimes got you cross, and irritated you, and let you down, and disappointed you, and hurt you.
‘So please don’t remember an imaginary relationship with me. It was good, but it could have been better. I loved you, but I could have loved you better — just as you loved me, but you could have loved me better.
‘So don’t let’s trust in our love for one another. Let’s trust in God’s love for us, so that the change in our relationship which my death will bring can strengthen each of our relationships with Jesus’.
It is my prayer for my family and friends that my death will be for them all a great strengthening and clarifying of their relationship with Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Mark Ashton went to be with the Lord on Easter Saturday, 3 April 2010. We understand that his last words were: ‘Nearly home!’