My father died two years ago. He was an atheist. His life had been lived both in open unashamed selfishness and in spectacular generosity done in secret. After his death none of his many rejected women were glad to see the back of him. None of the many men he’d outshone were happy he’d gone.
He lay dying, bit by bit, over too much time, in his sterile bed in a barren, efficient white ward.
Day by day I drove from London to Southampton to be with him. One spring morning, under deadly strip-lighting, we talked for the first and last time about judgement. He asked whether “Do as you would be done by” was an accurate summation of what I believe God expects of us. No, I said, it was more difficult than that; it was “Love one another”. He frowned, nodded. That was the end of that.
He had viewed my faith as something idiotic, impractical and dangerous to the Self; the warping and smothering of personality. But he was non-rigorous in his thinking about this. Like so many hyper-intelligent souls who value the power of their own minds he feared Faith as the surrender of sense. He had mistaken my religion for religiosity and my Faith for religion – and had never adequately listened as I tried to explain the difference.
But there was much we agreed on. He knew his bible well enough to know that the smelly, the odd, the deranged, the shabby, the furious, – and those Christians who must belong bodily together without church-wedding-ratification – are precisely the heavy-laden whom Jesus loves. And so he loathed, (as do I), the huge dishonesty which churches, both local and denominational, can show towards those they choose time and again to marginalise. As an Advertising man, he saw how easily and how well we churches talk the talk; and how seldom we deliver. My father was many difficult things, but he was not a hypocrite.
I was asked to write here my thoughts on “dying well”. I have watched deaths; awful ones and calm ones. But I don’t believe we have the choice to die ‘well’. The phrase is another of our hypocrisies; a dangerously sentimental judgement made by people who yearn to believe we can control what we can’t.
Actually, the phrase has about as much meaning as “being born badly” would have. It suggests an independence, an agency, an autonomy which is not granted us. On Christian lips I have heard it imply that the life we’ve led affects the death we get; as if Death can also be ‘led’.
This is monstrously sloppy thinking. And it is ugly judgement. Taken to its ultimate conclusion it suggests that my father’s slow and dreadful death was simple justice for his selfish/selfless atheistic life. More than that; taken to its nastiest little limit it means that anyone dying brutally, tragically, painfully, deserves all they get. Lord! If this were true, what would it say about Jesus’ death?
One day my body will stop. If I’m lucky, regardless of the life I’ve lived and the good/bad I’ve done, it will stop while I’m sleeping. Failing that I hope it stops quickly. But neither I nor anyone else will be able control, at my end, whether I die in panic or peace.
The rain falls on the just and the unjust*. All we can do is reserve judgement – and love one another.
*Matthew 5: 45
Written for BMS World Mission © Lucy Berry 2012