On my way to heaven
When the surgeon first broke the news to Mark Ashton that he had inoperable gallbladder cancer, Mark’s response was that, as a Christian believer, this was not bad news but good; it was not the end of the story but the beginning!
We all live our lives, consciously or unconsciously, in the shadow of death. Through one man and his disobedience death has come to us all. For the most part, for most people, death is the ‘d’ to be avoided in polite conversation. It’s the ultimate statistic but it’s what we least want to think about.
Jesus, though, is the great light that has dawned on those living in the shadow of death (Is. 9:2). By His death He has destroyed him who holds the power of death to free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15). And of course three days after His death He rose again, and that changes everything. Christians can now face up to the reality of death and approach it with confidence.
Mark was vicar of St Andrews the Great in Cambridge for twenty-three years, but in December 2008, when he was sixty-years-old, he was diagnosed with cancer. On My Way to Heaven is a short booklet (twenty-five pages) written by him during the next fifteen months before his death in April 2010. This is what it looks like, or can look like, for a Christian facing his imminent death.
A number of things are worth commenting on: his assurance that it will be the voice of the risen Christ calling him into His presence, that his physical death would be the moment at which his 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.’ Towards the end, when his speech was restricted he repeatedly said the words, ‘soon home’.
He expresses concern that Christians often struggle to grasp the strength of our Christian hope, and how small a part the resurrection plays in contemporary gospel proclamation, compared to the apostles’ sermons.
He recounts his appreciation of God’s kind providence in the timing and manner of his death:
My main reaction was then, and remains now, one of gratitude. God has done all things well, and I believe he is doing this thing well too. He is taking me back to himself when I have all my faculties… when my family have reached independence with their own spouses and careers, and when my wife still has the energy and vitality to face a new life-stage.
But this is no tale of triumphalism; his confidence is accompanied by healthy honesty about his concerns over the family, and financial provision for them, that he leaves behind. He saw his approaching death as a ‘spiritual tonic’: ‘I can now see that much of what I have strived for and much of what I have allowed to fill my life these 40 years has been of dubious value.’ Awareness of his own sin and spiritual frailty became clearer: ‘it is reassuring to know that… I have less and less chance to betray our calling in some way.’ His concern for any eulogies was that they would be honest about the bad and not magnify the good, so that Christ is made more glorious.
And there are little touches of humour too, like the description of his hairdresser’s reaction after she asked him how he was! Opportunities to tell others about Jesus became clearer and more urgent, but he learnt to do this gently.
We bought twenty copies of this booklet and gave them away in our church. We need to buy some more. Mark quotes Sir Thomas Browne who wrote: ‘The long habit of living indisposeth us for dying.’ May this booklet be a wake up call to us, so that we may not only live well but also die well.
John Richards is a pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Mold.