Friday, 29 November 2019

Still Quarrying 93 - Telegraphing.

I was once taken to task for reading The Daily Telegraph.  There I was coming from the newsagent, bumped into a lady, not a member of St Paul’s, who after a cheerful ‘Good morning said: ‘Oh you don’t read The Telegraph do you?’  Well yes.  Sometimes.  I don’t like to think that I am so stuck in a particular political or social mindset that I cease to be open to any other views or perspectives.  I find it most alarming when I hear normally sane and intelligent people parroting party lines when a good dose of the BBC’s Reality Check might be more in order.  And anyway should not seriously minded Christians be aware of all strains of thought that are swirling around in the public consciousness in these most confusing times?  I think it was C.H. Spurgeon who in the nineteenth century said:  ‘We have to be aware of all the tunes the Devil is playing.’  

Now that that is off my chest I confess to buying The Telegraph last Saturday and was heartened to discover that its Christmas Charity Appeal is for Leukemia Care, a charity that exists to support sufferers and to raise awareness of this form of blood cancer.   The story of Hannah Mahoney, a 28 year old, who has been receiving treatment over the last year for a particularly aggressive form is highlighted.  One of the welcome aspects of Leukemia Care’s work for her is that it has put her in touch with other sufferers who are blogging or Instagramming.   Their experiences  and the ‘hints and tips’ they share have been a help and encouragement.  She says:  ‘There’s an active cancer community online, but it’s like Hogwarts - people don’t know it’s out there.  When you receive a cancer diagnosis, you can feel alone and isolated, but there are people who have been through something similar, and they are always there to offer tips and encouragement.’  

To an extent I can agree with this.  Myeloma is a relatively rare form of cancer, to some extent I suppose a cousin to leukemia, and to be in touch with other sufferers and to know that this is a shared experience can be an encouragement.  I have to say though that sometimes those experiences can be a bit disheartening when they have a less than positive outcome.  But on balance it’s always good to face the reality of the condition and to know what may be ahead of you.  

By and large I have found contact with other sufferers to be helpful and supportive, especially with those who have successfully come through the stem cell transplant.  There is no getting round it, it is a most demanding experience - nausea, hair-loss, fatigue, weight-loss, openness to infection - but to speak to people who have been there and come through to a good quality of life has given me hope for the future.  One fellow sufferer who is regularly in touch is Father Pat Currie of St Joseph’s in Milngavie.  What are the chances of two clergymen living less than 30 yards from one another sharing the myeloma experience?   Pat has been thorough it, stem cell transplant and all and continues to minister to his people with his innate cheerfulness and deep personal devotion.  His regular visits to Gabrielle and I have been a real spiritual and psychological boost.    It makes me think of the Apostle Paul’s words:

 ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,  who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.  For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.  If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.  And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.’  (2 Corinthians 1: 3-7)

That’s a strain of thought that I hold on to.  I had never heard of myeloma until I was diagnosed.  It’s still not easy to find people who have been through it and there is such a wide spectrum of experience.  I sometimes feel that I am getting off lightly when I meet people whose experience has been catastrophic.  But my prayer is that if it falls in the providence of God that I come through this that I might use the ‘comfort’ I have received to ‘comfort those in any trouble’.   I don’t know if Hannah Maloney has any Christian faith but she has discovered the value of this in her own experience.  So yes I read The Telegraph, not often perhaps, but I am glad I read it last Saturday and discovered a fellow sufferer not out the woods by any means but travelling on with optimism and grateful for what she calls the Hogwarts community she has discovered out there.  Those who have received comfort and now are eager to share it.   

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Still Quarrying 92 - God Of Love?

A meeting with the Consultant on Thursday and it appears things are going in the right direction.  The ‘bad stuff’ in the blood has gone down but not far enough for me to go forward for the stem cell transplant.   So another cycle of chemotherapy is required which will begin on Tuesday.  I was prepared for this but you can’t help having that sinking feeling when you think of more chemo.   The word ‘contentment’ is never far from my mind at present, in particular the apostle Paul’s vision of contentment:

‘ . . . I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.’  (Philippians 4: 11-13)

Contentment is possible when we look to our God for the strength that only He can give.  

Recently I came across a book that I probably haven’t opened in over thirty years.  It’s called Cancer And The God Of Love written by Melvyn Thompson who was Chaplain to the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.  I think it’s fair to say that there is more psychology in the book than theology but it is interesting to see how Thompson has sought to support cancer patients in his ministry and particularly what he perceived to be their immediate needs.  But it’s that title that set my mind working.  There are two things there: on the one hand cancer, on the other, the God of love.  How do we hold them both together?  It’s not easy.  And not just with cancer in mind.  Think of all the other shadows that fall on human experience.  

So where am I today in relation to what is probably the most challenging question for Christian theology?  Thompson’s book was first published in 1976.  I reckon I bought is a couple of years later when I was just beginning my studies for the ministry, eager to be a help to people in trouble and to have answers to the big questions.   The thing is, it didn’t matter  how much I read through the years or how much I listened to people who were going through the cancer experience, I didn’t know what it was like to have cancer.  Until now.   Part of me wishes that it might have come earlier so that I might have had a better understanding and better able to respond appropriately to cancer sufferers.   You could say that it’s not strictly necessary to have the experience in order to be a pastor to those in  need.  But you can’t help the thoughts that cross your mind.  

I doubt that Jesus suffered all the pains and sickness that we are prone to but His sufferings are set before us in Scripture as an assurance that He understands our weakness and is able to give us exactly the right kind of help.  And it’s there that we find the connection between cancer and the God of love.  We are coming near the Season when in the midst of glitter and Santa and reindeer Christians will be seeking some space to reflect on the Incarnation, literally the Enfleshment of God, His coming completely into human experience.  What prompted this monumental event was His love for humanity.  This was the ultimate assurance that He is with us in every experience, good or bad, light or dark, up or down.  One of the names given to the Messiah by the  Hebrew people was ‘Emmanuel’ which translated means ‘God With Us’.  And in the mindset of Paul there is no experience dark enough or painful enough to separate us from His love.  Not even cancer.  (Romans 8: 37-39)

I am aware that none of this will ever convince everyone.  Melvyn Thompson writes:

‘If this balancing of good and evil is a struggle for a person who has settled beliefs before encountering suffering, then the chances of one who has no such beliefs accepting them in the midst of such a dilemma become remote.  If a person appears to have no faith when good comes his way, suffering will scarcely give it to him’.

He is right to raise this.  Even those of us with faith struggle with the balance but the story of Jesus gives us the means to face the reality of suffering in our lives and not to be overwhelmed.  Thompson quotes James Martin in his book Suffering Man, Loving God:

‘The real problem of suffering is not the why but the how of it, not the finding of a satisfactory explanation but the finding of the means to meet it without being crushed.’  

I believe that in Christ we have that means.  We have the promise of His presence in every circumstance; the promise that His love is working in every experience; the promise that His purpose for our lives is never derailed by our pain; the promise that in the coming Kingdom what we see as puzzling reflections in a mirror will be made clear.  

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Still Quarrying 91 - Advent Services.

‘It’s not even Advent but the Christmas season is upon us.’  So writes an English journalist in The Tablet, the Catholic magazine.    Proof of this was the restaurant opposite her office setting up Christmas decorations around Hallowe’en.  Well I can beat that.  A local garden centre was fairly heaving with Santas and reindeer around the middle of September.  It’s true.  It’s getting earlier every year.   The afore mentioned journalist says it’s all down to ‘commercial interests’ and not many of us would disagree.   But interestingly she is not content just to have a moan.  She poses a question: ‘ . . . given the despoliation of Advent  by commercial interests, what can a parish church do?‘   And not content with just posing the question she tells us what her local parish church did.  An evening of Advent silence was held which she describes as ‘intensely contemplative shared silence in a darkened church.‘  This she puts forward as an ‘antidote’.  

It was in this spirit that we started Advent services in St Paul’s.  Every Saturday morning  at 9. 30 am throughout Advent a half-hour service is held in which some of the traditional themes of Advent are explored.  It is often forgotten that at its heart Advent is a time for self-examination and a renewal of our aspiration to walk closer with Christ in our daily lives.  More opportunities for worship are therefore important when we can focus on the Word, pray together and express our faith in praise.  In the busyness and bluster that are often the characteristics of the Season this is our antidote.  

I won’t be involved this year.  At this point I’m not sure at what stage I will be at in my treatment.   But it’s good to know that the services will be continuing and my prayer is that the Christ who was, who is and who is to come will be real to all who attend.  

Friday, 8 November 2019

Still Quarrying 90 - Broken Glass.

You get an inkling that the way you are behaving, the words you are saying, the decisions you are making with someday come back to bite you in a tender area of your psyche - but you go ahead anyway.  And in time it hurts.  In the past I have often described this as being like broken glass in the soul.  And of course you feel it most when all the natural defenses are low.  That’s why being ill can be such a blanket experience.  We can accept all the physical stuff that is going on.  That is being dealt with through treatment or surgery.  But how do you deal with the other stuff.  I have written in a previous ‘quarrying’ about my friend who was seriously ill due to an attack of sepsis but whose main concern was the ‘demons’, the memories that haunted him, the shadows that fell across his inner being.  

In a sense it’s good that we pass through these experiences.  If there is darkness in the depths it is best that it is recognised and dealt with.  But it is never quite as easy as that.  The broken glass has sharp edges and the pain lingers.  Recently I have been a bit sore in the places where I take my daily injections.  Some antiseptic wipes have helped with that.  Is there a spiritual antiseptic that can sort out the soul’s infestations?  

Psychological tricks are sometimes invoked, like that practised by Danny Torrance in Stephen King’s novel now a movie Dr Sleep.  When something dark arises from his past he mentally places it in a box and shuts it away.  That kind of thing never works for me.   What I have found I need is to be reminded that in every circumstance in the past, right or wrong, good or bad, success or failure, God was present.  Nothing has ever separated me from His love as He has promised, that His love has made forgiveness and renewal possible, that while the dark stuff will not just evaporate with no memory lingering it need no longer hurt and His good purpose for my life will not be denied.  

This is where the Scriptures come in.  I think of the monumental figures: Abraham and David, Peter and Paul and I realise that I will always be at home in the Bible.  These boys and others carried some heavy baggage but by the grace of God it never became an impossible burden.  I am grateful that I can keep company with Paul who lived with the memory of having persecuted the Church and was committed to destroying her.  (Galatians 1: 13)  And yet he goes on to express his conviction that he was set apart from birth and called by God ‘to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles.’  ( Galatians 1: 16).  This means that the loving purpose of God for Paul was unfolding even in his moments of deepest moral darkness.   When he persecuted Christians, when he gave approval to Stephen’s stoning, when he made the decision to ask for authorization to arrest Christians in Damascus and bring them to trial in Jerusalem.   God’s loving purpose was still unfolding for Paul and bringing him to that point where he heard the voice of the the Risen and Ascended Jesus and Saul the Pharisee became Paul the Apostle.   The love of God for Paul was not extinguished, His purpose not denied.  

The memories lingered.  It’s interesting that as Paul approached the end of his life he was still conscious of a shameful past.  He was open about this with his close friend Timothy but the sharp edges were taken off when he considered how God was present always and working out His good and loving purpose for His life:

‘I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service.  Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.  Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.‘   (1 Timothy 1: 12-17)

This is what we all need to dwell upon.   The past cannot be changed but neither can the love of God.  He was present in that moment that makes you groan with shame when you remember.   His grace was being abundantly poured out, making faith possible, enabling the love of Jesus to be experienced, opening up the possibility of renewal.    Paul had good reason to think of himself as ‘the worst of sinners’ but it led him to appreciate all the more the vision God had for his life.  Not a psychologically crippled failure but an example of what the Holy Spirit can bring out of the darkness that is so much part of the human condition.  

Bob Dylan once wrote about this:

'In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet floods every newborn seed
There's a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and the morals of despair
Don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment I can see the master's hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand
Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer
The sun beams down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay

I gaze into the doorway of temptation's angry flame
And every time I pass that way I'll always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.'

Friday, 1 November 2019

Still Quarrying 89 - Something Happening.

Robert Harris’ latest book The Second Sleep is set in a time 800 years from a moment of world catastrophe.  Civilisation has returned to conditions close to those of the Middle Ages.  Christians interpret this as a decisive act of judgement brought about because of humankind’s over dependance on science and technology.  History is now moving towards the ultimate healing of the nations.  

Harris was formerly a political journalist and in a recent radio interview was asked for his take on on Brexit and events around it.  He said that he found the present ‘political narrative’ astonishing, implausible and ‘not easy to satirise’.  What interested me more than anything, however, was his comment that something lies behind Brexit that is not clear and that ‘something is coming . . . there is something in the air coming.‘    

People have been experiencing feelings like this forever.  Good and bad have felt on a personal level that they were ‘walking with destiny’.   ‘We can still rise now’ and all that.  Whether speaking out of faith in God or some indefinable, irrational conviction the impression that something is about to happen can be strong.    Within the Church there have always been men and women who have lived in expectation of immanent ‘revival’ or  convinced that the conditions for the return of the Lord have been fulfilled.  

Paul pictured this as a day of radical cosmic cleansing when everything that ever made us cry would be swept away, when the birth pains would cease and a New Creation established.  From the earliest days this has excited Christians  and many have claimed to see signs in their social/political climate that the return of the Lord was immanent.  Even in the first century AD in the Christian community in Thessalonika Christians were preparing for this to the extent that work and family life were being neglected.  In his letters to them Paul emphasised the importance of personal responsibility in all areas of life, living as people of the Kingdom as they waited for the Kingdom to come.  

This does not mean that we should not have our eyes on the end of all things when Jesus will return as Lord of the Universe.  This is where the whole of human history is heading.  But as Jesus Himself has warned it is not for us to know when this will happen.  What is imperative in these waiting times is that we embrace our responsibility to promote and live according to the values that will be established forever when He returns.  We are called to live as people who believe that ‘something is happening’  and the final outcome is in the hands of God.  

John Wesley was once asked what he would do if he knew the Lord was returning tomorrow.  He took out his engagement book, turned up the appropriate page, showed it to his questioner and said: ‘This is what I would do.’  There can be nothing better for us when the Lord returns for him to find us faithfully bearing our witness, carrying out  those things we have been called to do.  

Friday, 25 October 2019

Still Quarrying 88 - Oops.

Another set-back.  The ‘bad stuff’ in my blood is proving stubborn.  The current treatment regime has been judged to have done all it can so I am going back to the original regime beginning on Tuesday.   The ‘bad stuff’ has to be brought down as low as possible in order to ensure the best possible result from a future bone marrow transplant.   

It’s disappointing.  I had hoped I would be through the transplant before Christmas and possibly returning to ministry in the New Year.  That’s not now going to happen.  Moreover the VTD regime (Velcade, Thalidomide and Dexamethasone) is more demanding and going by past experience there may be some low days ahead.   But as a friend has commented, this will take as long as it takes and while there have been difficult days since March I am going forward with confidence in the medical staff, friends and family who care for me and pray for me and in God’s loving and good purpose which I believe unfolds through every experience.  And I mean every experience.

Just this morning I came across a verse in Psalm 112.  It means a lot to me because not long ago I texted it to a friend who was going through the cancer experience and had been told that things were not progressing as hoped.  The Psalmist is painting a picture of the ‘righteous man’ and one of his qualities is given in verse 7:

‘He will have no fear of bad news;
 his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord.’  

Very often that kind of description that we often find in Scripture can make us wilt.  We feel a long way from realising those standards in our lives.  But I believe they are there to give us an aspirational goal.  We may never make it completely this side of eternity but we see the qualities that God is seeking to make flourish in our lives and we are in no doubt what we are called to aim for.  Always remembering that our failures are seen through the eyes of a loving Heavenly Father.  

That comes through in the verse above.  A ‘steadfast’ heart could bring to mind hardness, stubbornness, intractableness.  But then we are told what a ‘steadfast heart’ is in the life of faith.  If we carry this at the centre of our lives we are ‘trusting in the Lord.‘    

I can’t be sure what lies ahead in the next couple of months but I am in no doubt as to my priority and supreme aspiration, to stay close to the God revealed in the life of Jesus and trust in His ways with me.  

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Still Quarrying 87 - The Small Stuff.

Someone once asked me if I was a lark or an owl.   In other words, are you a morning person or do you come alive at 10 pm?   Well, it’s morning for me.  That’s when I do my best thinking.   It was pointed out to me by one of my University tutors that ‘burning the midnight oil’ was ‘unnatural.’  The thing to do is get a good night’s sleep, up early and into the work.  And that has been my general pattern throughout my ministry.    My best hours for prayer,  reflection, preparation for preaching have always been in the morning.

That’s not for everyone of course.  As a friend of mine used to say: ‘We are all beautifully different.’  Many people who heard Martyn Lloyd-Jones have said it was the finest preaching they ever experienced, yet he repeatedly said that morning was not his best time for prayer and reflection.  He was just not made that way.  

I think the message is that we should not get too hung up about the when and where of prayer and reflection.  It’s just that I am better suited physically and mentally for the morning hours and it is helpful to me to think of myself laying a spiritual foundation for the day whatever it may bring.  

The problem with routine is that if anything happens to knock it off you can feel disorientated and ill-fitted for the day ahead.  Since March routine has been difficult for me not least with the side-effects of various drugs.  I just don’t know how I am going to be feeling from day to day.  And even on a ‘good day’ things can get off to a shaky start.  Like the other morning.  I couldn’t find my coffee.  Somebody had tidied it away and I need my Santos and Java first thing.  My rocket-fuel!  Looking for it the door came off a kitchen cabinet.  These things are not meant to happen in a carefully ordered life!   As if I didn’t have enough to contend with!   You know how it goes . . . 

Let’s just leave these two catastrophes for the moment.  What came home to me - again - was how fragile is our inner equilibrium, how easily we can be knocked off balance.   Scripture tells us that we are ‘dust’ and it’s good to be reminded of that from time to time, so easily disturbed by the wind of circumstance.  We like to think of ourselves as strong, at least to be able to ride the waves of lost coffee and dodgy doors, but in the end can we depend on ourselves for the strength that is needed day to day and hour to hour even for the small irritations?  The Psalmist wrote: ‘God is our refuge and our strength.’  

I’ve often said: ‘Give me a crisis and I’ll cope.  It’s the wee things that get me down.’  All the more reason to to be aware that God is in the ‘wee things’ as well as the crises.   I’m reading the reflections of Fr. Daniel O’Leary, a Roman Catholic priest, penned during his cancer experience.  Time and again he focusses on the Incarnation, the wonderful and mysterious truth that God became man in Jesus.  One of the implications of this is that God is involved in every aspect of life.  Not just the Big Stuff but also the small, niggly things that knock you off balance.  If the Small Stuff is bringing you down then you need to remember that God is in amongst it!  

Did Jesus always have a perfect start to the day?  Were His tools always ready to hand?  Was there never an irascible customer to deal with?  Did He never bash His shin on His work-bench or thump His thumb with a hammer?  There is a romantic school of thought that would have Him floating through life never touched by the things that exacerbate us.  But it doesn’t make sense.  Perfect in His humanity he may have been but He was not always entirely in control of the world around Him.  Mind you, is that not what it means to be human? 

Have you heard of that book called Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff?  I haven’t read it but I think it’s one of those pop-psychology, self-help books that seem to be so popular.   The title has something going for it though.   The Small Stuff can make us sweat.  It’s where the darkness can get in to make us feel less than what we aspire to be in Christ.  I need to remember that when coffee can’t be found and doors are in need of a Master carpenter.