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Preparing to Die
Atheist Paul Quarrington put time into thinking about his impending death, but he died not knowing where he’d land.

Some folk think that only religious people are concerned about being ready to die, but that’s not the case. Perhaps nowhere is this more eloquently expressed than by the former, self-professed atheist, Paul Quarrington, who died January 21, 2010 at the age of 56.

It’s hard not to admire this man who so thoroughly enjoyed life.

I first encountered Quarrington in a moving article in Maclean’s magazine, written by his long-time friend, Dan Hill.

Though diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and given less than a year to live, Quarrington lived ardently to the last. Remarkably, right to the very end, like the true artist he was, he creatively wrote songs and books, ate and drank with gusto, fished and played, and traveled to see beautiful places. It’s hard not to admire this man who so thoroughly enjoyed life, and who delighted in giving back more than he took out. This well-loved performer, author, and playwright obviously put time into thinking about crossing over the divide of death. And, about ten days before passing, he expressed those thoughts in a song he performed with his friend, Dan Hill, entitled, “Am I ready”?

The first stanza offers these words: “Trying to hold it off, still I know/ It’s like trying to hold back that old freight train/ Coming down on me, still I’m not afraid/ Got this feeling that I can’t explain/ Like I’m falling through the evening rain? Wash me clean, before I make my stand/ Are you ready, am I ready/ I believe I am.”

Quarrington made no claim to be a Christian. How very fascinating that he should choose to use the language of “washing”—because for Christians there is absolutely nothing more crucial than having their souls washed by Christ prior to their meeting God the Father. But, I doubt he had that in mind here.

In his second stanza, Quarrington sings: “…No one can tell me where I’m gonna be, as I sail into this mystery/ I know I’m falling, don’t know where I’m gonna land/ Are you ready, am I ready/ I believe I am.”

In sharp contrast, Christians confidently confess that, yes, we know where we’re going, where we’re going to land. Oddly enough though this song is all about being ready for death, it’s author confesses he’s actually not prepared—for he has no clue where, “he’s gonna land.”

When Quarrington asks, “…am I ready, I believe I am,” it seems to me by the context that he’s actually saying, “I think I am.” In other words there was no certainty. I suspect a huge number of people think like this. My impression is that Quarrington was doing the best he could given the content—or lack of—of his atheistic worldview.

By contrast Christians believe we can be thoroughly ready to ford death’s dark river, indeed that there is such a thing as full assurance, even now in this life. To be sure this is more of a historic Protestant/Evangelical belief than a Catholic one. That said, it’s a widely held Christian view.

No doubt some may view this notion of complete assurance as triumphalistic, or perhaps even arrogant. But Christians understand they are made right with God not on the basis of how much good they have done, or how much evil they have shunned. They are made right by receiving the benefit of Jesus dying on the cross to make cleansing for our sins. In short, by putting faith in Jesus and the meaning of his death, Christians are washed clean, made acceptable to the Father, and are made ready to meet Him without fear. No, this doesn’t mean that good deeds, and virtuous living are unimportant, only that they are not the basis of our ultimate acceptance with God.

Quarrington was a remarkable talent in many ways. And we are poorer for his death. But in the end I’m not sure that the lyrics in his affecting piece give anyone much to hold onto as we all look ahead to our own death. The song seems tentative, uncertain, carries a mixed message, and gives no clue as to where Quarrington himself thought he would land.

A few years ago I spent some hours in hospital at the bedside of a young man who also was dying of lung cancer. At first he was not sure at all where he was “going to land.” But upon embracing the Jesus way, he was brought to remarkable readiness and peace for that dark journey that all of us shall one day face.

Royal Hamel is a former pastor and missionary. At present he is the director of Light the Darkness Ministries, www.lightthedarkness.org. He can be reached at watchman2003@sympatico.ca.

Originally published in the Guelph Mercury, June 25, 2010.

Used with permission. Copyright © 2010 Christianity.ca.  

 

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