Thursday, 30 May 2019

Still Quarrying 59 - Waiting.

A friend once shared on Facebook her experience of a three hour wait at a clinic made worse because she was without a book.  This prompted another friend to respond: ‘What is this ‘without a book’ of which you speak?‘   I actually laughed out loud at that.  Unthinkable that anyone should face any stretch of time without the ‘blessed companion’ that is a book.  

This came to mind yesterday during the two and a half hours I spent at the Eye Clinic at Gartnavel General ‘without a book’.   I should say that I had the blessed companionship of my wife but after a while the sighs become a bit more frequent, the backs and lower regions begin to protest and you begin to wonder if somehow we have been forgotten.  When eventually your name is called it’s not so much relief as surprise.

But why the Eye Clinic?   For the last two weeks or so I’ve been suffering from conjunctivitis along with sties and it was thought that further investigation was in order.  Any infection in a cancer patient has to be treated seriously.   In the end it appears my presently dodgy immune system is at the heart of the problem.  However with antibiotics and appropriate eye drops things are definitely improving.  

But to get back to this waiting business.  You have to get used to it as a cancer patient.   By and large it  is understandable.  You are not the only patient in the world, you are by no means the most catastrophic patient, the medical staff have a great many unforeseen challenges that arise, you have to accept that waiting patiently is all part of the cancer experience.  

‘Waiting patiently‘ is another of those themes you come up against in the Psalms.   In Psalm 37 David calls upon the ‘righteous’ to stand against what seems to be the relentless advance of the ‘wicked’.  In the face of this David’s counsel is:

‘Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
 do not fret when men succeed in their ways,
 when they carry out their wicked schemes.’  (verse 7)

Those of us with a practical turn of mind might wonder how we can cultivate this stillness, this waiting patiently.  Can we expect the Holy Spirit to zap us with these qualities so that patience is as familiar to us as breathing and fretting a distant memory?   My experience and that of many other Christians is different.   None other than John Newton shared his experience in a poem I Asked The Lord That I Might Grow:

‘I asked the Lord that I might grow
 In faith, and love, and every grace;
 Might more of his salvation know,
 And seek, more earnestly, His face.’

The answer he received was not what he anticipated.  He wished for the subduing of his sins and rest.  But:

‘Instead of this, He made me feel 
 The hidden evils of my heart;
 And let the angry pow’rs of hell
 Assault my soul in every part.’  

This almost drives him to despair until he realises that this is the way God answers ‘prayer for grace and faith’.  He places His people in circumstances where they need to depend upon His grace alone and exercise faith in Him alone:

‘These inward trials I employ,
 From self, and pride, to set thee free;
 And break thy schemes of earthly joy, 
 That thou may’st find thy all in Me.’  

The message is: ‘You want to be more patient?  Well, here are a really irritating set of circumstances.  Be patient.‘   Sounds harsh but as David sees it we are still ‘before the Lord’, we wait patiently for Him.   In the poverty of our inner resources we turn to the Heavenly Father from whom comes the strength and the peace that are proof against every challenge.  

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Still Quarrying 58 - Unfailing Love.

There are something like 26 references in the Psalms to the ‘unfailing love’ of God.   Whatever the circumstances, however he feels, the Psalmist is convinced that he is enfolded in the love of God.  No anxiety is strong enough, no pain sharp enough, no shadow deep enough to separate him from the unfailing love of his God.   And this was not wishful thinking or a leap into the dark.  He could turn his mind to the history of his people where that love had been demonstrated.   Before God delivered the Law to Moses He declared:

‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.’  (Exodus 19: 4).

God comparing His love for His people to the enveloping love of a mother eagle for her young.   A love that would be engrossed in the Law that was destined to shape the life of the nation of Israel:

‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’  (Exodus 20: 2)

There can be no doubt that Saul the Pharisee would often reflect upon these words and seek to experience more of the love of God in his life.   He would carry this into his new life as Paul the Apostle but now he had more than the Exodus for his faith to feed upon.  You cannot read his letters without being struck by the centrality of the Cross to his faith and preaching.  He was well aware how much of a problem the Cross was to Jew and Gentile but still Paul persisted for here was the ultimate assurance of the love of God for humankind.  That it was shown in the midst of such suffering led Paul to make what is surely one of his boldest declarations:

‘I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’  (Romans 8: 38)

The greatest aspiration of my life must be sharing that rock-solid conviction of the Apostle.  There is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  

Friday, 24 May 2019

Still Quarrying 57 - Change.

In the midst of so much political uncertainty, speculation as to who will be the next Prime Minister and in the wake of the European election it was reassuring to read Psalm 33: 10-12:

The LORD foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations. Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people he chose for his inheritance.

Whatever the plans of governments they will always be subject to the purpose of God as it unfolds through the generations.  And ultimately a nation is judged not by its economic strength or how it is regarded in the wider world but where it stands with God.   It is yet another reminder of the limitations of political power.   Governments will always point to what has changed for the better in their time but how deep does that change go?  

Hilary Clinton”s book What Happened is an account of the Presidential election which she lost to Donald Trump.   Various factors are cited:  the FBI investigation into her personal email account, the probability of Russian interference, the fact that she is a woman and a distorted media presentation of her message.   

There are also moments of impressive candour.  She is quite clear that one reason for her failure is quite simply that people do not like her.  That reminded me of a comment Neil Kinnock made when he lost his second General Election as Leader of the Labour Party.  He said, ‘I have to face the fact that I am a political and personal failure.‘    

It is always an impressive moment when people face the reality of themselves and realise that there are aspects of their personality that come between themselves and others.  That takes honesty and humility.  But it is what happens next that is of supreme importance.  Will there be a shrug of the shoulders and a resigned ‘You can’t win them all.’  Or will there be a commitment to change?  

When I read the writings of the apostles in the New Testament I am challenged never to accept the way I am.   These men who were close to Jesus are constantly encouraging me to practise personal values that will not just be life-changing for me but also for the world.   Paul wrote to an early Christian community:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.  (Colossians 3: 12-14)

When Paul writes this he must believe that this is possible, that people can reach towards these values and make them part of their lives.   As a former persecutor of the Church he knew what personal change was all about.  It was so radical that he could call himself a ‘new creation.’  Of course a ‘new creation’ needs a creator and Paul’s change came about because of an encounter with the Risen Christ and His vision of how Paul’s life would unfold from that moment.  The past with its failure was behind him, the future with Christ held the promise of change not merely for himself but for the world.  

Woody Allen once said: ‘My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.’   Well, Christian faith does not make you someone else but it presents the possibility that we can show in our lives the qualities of Someone else.   Jesus says:  ‘I am the vine; you are the branches.  Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit.‘   (John 15: 5)   It is where a nation stands in relation to this promise that lies its ultimate health and strength.  

Monday, 20 May 2019

Still Quarrying 56 - Restoration

Usually when I go into a charity shop it’s to have a look at the books.   On this occasion though something on the clothes rack caught my eye.  I think it was the colour.  A striking blue going on turquoise.  I had never seen jeans quite like that and they were brand new, with labels attached, right size and only £6. 75.  So the books were forgotten.   The brand wasn’t one I was familiar with so a look online and the discovery that if I were to buy the jeans on the high street they would cost me £110.  Well, that’s the kind of charity shop you get in North Berwick.  

Needless to say this story has been told quite a few times but not as much as the jeans have been worn.  You might say they are my favourite.  Sadly they are beginning to show the passage of the years.  The colour has faded and wear and tear is evident.  (Getting to the ‘fonti’ stage ie. fonti bits.)   They’ve been sewn and patched but it looks as if the future is recycling.   No matter how attached we get to ‘stuff’ the day comes when we have to let go.   

Some people have happier stories to tell of stuff that has seen better days being repaired.  BBC’s The Repair Shop has a group of expert craftsmen who use their skills to restore treasured antiques  and heirlooms.  It’s often very moving to see the impact of the restored item on the owner.  Many other tv programs have restoration as their theme: gardens, rooms, buildings.  There is obviously an enormous appeal in seeing something that seems to have come to the end being given a new lease of life.   It remains a repair job however and could very easily slip back into a less than happy state.  

This is very different from the restoration that we are promised in Christ.  Beyond the experience of death we are promised renewal of body, mind and spirit.  Paul turned to nature to find an adequate image that would throw light on this.  In 1 Corinthians 15: 42-44 he speaks of the body as a seed:

‘The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable;  it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;  it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.’

Something completely new emerges from the old, battered, worn-out personality that is ours, equipping us for life in the Eternal World.  Another image from nature not used by Paul but surely helpful is of the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis.  Leaving behind the dried-up husk and taking flight into a new experience of life.  

Jesus Himself is the proto-type of this restored life.  When he appeared to His followers after the Resurrection he was not immediately recognisable.  He was somehow changed.  He seemed to appear and disappear in a mysterious way.   Locked doors and walls appeared to be no barrier to him.   He was in possession of the body raised imperishable, raised in glory, raised in power, a spiritual body geared for life in the Eternal World.   And this is what we are promised.  Paul speaks of Jesus as ‘the firstborn among many brothers’ (Romans 8: 29).  The Risen Lord is presented to us as our destiny in the life to come.  

It’s not easy for us to conceive of a life without weakness, pain, disease or sin but this is what is involved in the Church’s faith in the resurrection of the body.   I was working on a sermon on this theme some years ago when a friend who had been unwell phoned.  ‘Have you got anything to say to me about the resurrection of the body,’ I said.  He replied: ‘Only that I’m longing for it.‘   That’ll do me for the time being.  

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Still Quarrying 55 - Hard To Be Humble.

Slowly reading through Luke’s Gospel you can’t help feel that the stories in Chapters 1 and 2 are out of sync with the time of year.  That’s a fairly modern problem since Luke never envisaged a set Christian Year or lectionaries.   He would have been bewildered at the suggestion that any part of his Gospel should be tied to a particular time of the year.  So today I try to empty my mind of any seasonal associations and read of Gabriel’s visit to Mary and his announcement:

‘Greetings you who are highly favoured!  The Lord is with you.’  (Luke 1: 28)

It’s Mary’s response that is often said to take us to the heart of her being: 

‘Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.’  (Luke 1: 29)

For some people Gabriel’s greeting may just have been confirmation of something they had always suspected.   We laugh when Mac Davis sings: ‘O Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way . . .’  but there is more than just a squeak of that in our souls.  But look at Mary’s response.  She was ‘greatly troubled’.  What Gabriel was saying did not fit with her image of herself - if she had an image of herself.   This is what we call humility.  

We are constantly reminded that humility is at the heart of the Christian life.  Jesus impressed it upon His disciples.  Paul pronounced it as part of the fruit of the Spirit.  And yet the moment we become conscious of it we have mangled it.  There were two congregations in a village.  One was large and flourishing, the other was small and struggling.  The minister of the latter said to his people:  ‘Never mind what’s going on down the road.  For humility we’ve got them licked!‘  

We tend to think of humility as something to be shown in our personal relationships but Mary’s story reminds us that first and foremost humility is our default position before God.   She could not fathom the significance  she was being given and her place in God’s plan but she was willing to go with it.  And not blindly and unthinking.  She said: ‘I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me as you have said.‘  (Luke 1: 38)  She knew her God and trusted Him.  

I was once told a story about John Stott when he was going through a period of illness.  He was being visited by a friend and before he left John asked him to pray: ‘Pray that I may have the humility to accept this time.‘   Mary was able to cope with the greatest challenge of her life because of the room she had in her life for God and His ways.  This is what John aspired to in his weakness.   The way forward is to go with David when he says: ‘I have set the Lord always before me . . . ‘  (Psalm 16: 7)  When He is ‘set’ before us we have a proper perspective on ourselves.  

Friday, 17 May 2019

Still Quarrying 54 - Scaling A Wall.

We attended the Bone Marrow Transplant Clinic this week.  I’m not sure when it’s going to happen but stem cell transplantation will take place at the end of the present treatment regimen and will probably involve about two weeks in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.  The outlook at present is good but it is sobering to remember that even if all goes well we will not be seeing a ‘cure’.    There is no definite cure for Multiple Myeloma.  Even if the treatment brings the best of outcomes there will always be the possibility of the disease becoming active again.

It is intimidating when you hear it or see it written: incurable.   But there are many Myeloma people who having undergone treatment are now getting on with their lives.   (I suppose, however, that to some extent it is a different life they are leading.  You can’t go through a treatment regimen like this and remain unchanged.)   So what we are working towards is the day when I can say: ‘They’ve dealt with the level of nasty stuff in my blood but they’ll still be keeping an eye on me.’  It’s then down to me to live as well as I can just as so many do who carry medical problems.   A major part of this will be following the Psalmist who in seeking a way out of circumstances that threatened to overwhelm him called to mind the being of God and His strength:

‘You, LORD, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light.  
With your help I can advance against a troop; 
with my God I can scale a wall.’  (Psalm 18: 28-29)

These are the kind of words to put mettle in your soul.  But a question arises.  How seriously do I take this vision of God as the One who gives His people resources to overcome?  I was once part of a gathering of ministers who were told by the speaker, the Canadian theologian Don Carson, that we were all basically ‘functional atheists’.  We believe in God but do we really believe He can make a difference in our lives and the lives of communities?

We need to be delivered from a God who merely exists on a page and brought closer to the One who holds the Universe together, is even now renewing Creation according to His purpose and has a place for a renewed people in that renewed Creation.  Years ago J.B.Phillips wrote a book entitled Your God Is Too Small.  It’s a problem we all have but with our resources, Scripture, worship, prayer, we can expand our vision and deepen our experience.  

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Still Quarrying 53 - Fear No Evil.

Radio 4’s Open Book has a regular feature called The Book I’d Never Lend in which reasonably well known personalities talk about a book that means so much they would never part with it.  I’ve often wondered what I would choose if put on the spot.  Too many to mention perhaps.  Near the top of the list though would be two books by David Watson: I Believe In The Church and Discipleship.  The former explores the importance of the people of God in the purpose of God and the latter what it really means to be a follower of Jesus, seeking to apply His teaching to our daily lives.  Both had a considerable impact on me and over the years I’ve returned to them time and again as the well-worn nature of my copies testify.  

You don’t hear much about David Watson these days but there was a time in the seventies and eighties when he was one of the best known Christians in the UK.  An Anglican vicar, he was given leeway to develop an evangelistic ministry which took him all over the world.  He gathered a team of actors and musicians whose gifts were a support to his powerful preaching.  

It was when he was preparing for a major teaching and preaching tour of America in 1983 that he was diagnosed with cancer of the bowel.  Subsequent surgery revealed that the disease had already spread to his liver.  Eleven months later he was dead at age 51.  

During his illness he wrote a book entitled Fear No Evil in which he tells his story but also explores the issues that confront Christians when faced with personal suffering.  It is very honest about the struggles he is undergoing particularly as he is part of the Charismatic tendency in the Church which would see healing as part of the everyday experience of Christians.  This is summed up in a telephone conversation David had with his friend John Wimber, the American evangelist.  He said: ‘I don’t accept this cancer and I believe that God wants to heal you.’  Whatever you make of this time went on and healing was not happening.  David was therefore faced with the challenge of suffering in the purpose of God.   How can He allow this?  What possible good can come of this?   Doesn’t God heal now as he did in the early days of the Church?

Reading the book again as a fellow cancer sufferer there is so much I can connect with not least the emotional turmoil that often has to be worked through.  One particular burden David carried as time went on was the awareness of hurt he had caused other people in the past and hurt he himself had received which had made for uneasy relationships.  He made reconciliation a priority as far as he was able.  This leads him into some areas that I personally would not be entirely comfortable with but his commitment to be at peace with those with whom he had been at odds is inspiring.  

For a long time I have thought of broken relationships as being part of the spectrum of suffering that we all have to endure.  In the same way that physical and mental disorder are experiences we have to accept and might never be resolved so broken relationships might never be resolved this side of eternity.   Think of David and Saul.  1 Samuel 24 tells of their encounter in which David tries to be reconciled to Saul.  Saul confesses that he has treated David badly and reveals his awareness that David will one day be King.  It is a powerful moment and yet in the end the two go their separate ways and there is no reconciliation.   David is still on the run and Saul ploughs his desperate furrow to the end.  

Sometimes we have to accept that broken relationships are part of human experience and like other manifestations of suffering may never be resolved.   That does not mean that we cool on our commitment to ‘live at peace with everyone.‘   Paul says: ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.’  (Romans 12: 18)  Things can go wrong but make sure you are not the cause.  

I believe this ‘inner healing’ became more of a priority for David Watson than physical healing as the end drew near.   In the final pages of Fear No Evil he writes:

‘(God) showed me that all my preaching, writing and other ministry was absolutely nothing compared to my love-relationship with Him . . . God also showed me that any ‘love’ for him meant nothing unless I was truly able to love from my heart my brother or sister in Christ.’  

This is the double thrust of Christian teaching that will enable us in whatever circumstances to fear no evil.  

Friday, 10 May 2019

Still Quarrying 52 - Thoughts.

Over the years you gather what can only be described as cancer ‘lore’.    ‘Everyone is different’, ‘Most people are cured’, ‘The cure is worse than the cancer.‘   It’s that last one that is hitting me hard at present.   No pain, no nausea, no hair-loss but the tiredness is intense and the disorientation alarming.  It is sometimes hard to gather thought and concentrate on much for any length of time.  And my face is bloated.  My brother was quite taken aback at my appearance yesterday when he called.  Brothers don’t hold back!  That’s the steroids.  Part of the cure.  

There’s not a lot can be done about any of this.  Like many of life’s most difficult experiences it’s something you go through drawing on whatever resources you have around you and within you.  The support of family and friends continues to be a major source of strength.  There can be no greater privilege than knowing you are being upheld in prayer.   Also I have never been more convinced of the power of God’s Word to establish something within than goes deeper than psychological contentment.   I’ve taken to ‘quarrying‘ a verse from my daily readings, writing it out on a card, memorising it, and bringing it to mind at various points through the rest of the day, especially when things are hard.  I like to think that in this way eternal truth is being woven into my inner being and proof against anything that would obscure my knowledge of God’s love and goodness.  So yesterday it was Psalm 16: 7-8:

‘I have set the Lord always before me.
 Because he is at my right hand
 I shall not be shaken.’  

Simple words but could there be anything more profound?  To remember who God is in all His creative and redemptive power.  To realise that He is as close to you as the friend who grasps your hand.  To know that from Him comes the strength that is needed for every challenge that threatens to bring you to the end of yourself.   

It is truths like these that bring the assurance that even the darkest experiences that fall to us in the providense of God have a purpose.  I know many people find that hard to live with but it is something I continually come up against in my ‘quarrying’ and my praying.  The biggest tragedy of this time for me would be to come out of it and be no closer to Christ and no more established in His ways.  I suppose in the end that will not be for me to judge but I believe that at some point I will look back on these days with thanksgiving.   Peter was talking about persecution but there is surely something here for all our darkest days:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.  In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.  Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy,  for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.  (1 Peter 1: 3-9)

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Still Quarrying 51 - Psalm 13

It’s not always easy to place a psalm in David’s life-line but Psalm 13 has obviously emerged from  time when he has come near the end of his spiritual resources: 

‘How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?’  (verses 1-2)

Reference to an ‘enemy’ may be taking us to that period when David was on the run from King Saul but  he is certainly under pressure and needing to know a strength beyond his own strength.  He finds this as he turns his mind towards his past experience of his God.  Despite the pressure, the pain and the inner turmoil he can meditate on the ways God has shown His love and goodness in his life.  In movingly simple words he writes:

‘I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.  I will sing the LORD’s praise, for he has been good to me.’ (verses 5-6)

Only a man who knows his God and has experienced all that flows from Him could write this.  In the outworking of God’s will it has fallen to David to go through a challenging time but this is not an indication of God’s absence.  The God who brought obvious blessings in the past is with him to take him forward in His loving and good will.   For some reason those mono-syllabic words ‘he has been good to me’ resonate powerfully with me this morning.  Sometimes counting your blessings as the old hymn exhorts us doesn’t work as well as we would like.  The problem is getting it all from the head to the heart.  There are days when nothing seems to work to take us forward with hope.  This is when we need to focus on the supreme expression of God’s goodness to us, the ultimate blessing.   I believe Paul in the midst of his many pressures would do this.   Conscious of the broken world in which he lives and how that brokenness often touches individual lives he writes:

‘What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’  (Romans 8: 31-32)

This is where another old hymn comes to mind:

‘Oh, make me understand it,
Help me to take it in,
What it meant to Thee, the Holy One,
To bear away my sin.’

To focus on the extent of God’s love for us as individuals that He would not hold back His most precious possession for our good is the way forward for us and the way out of the days of disappointment, disorientation and despair.  It needs to be taken in until it becomes part of our spiritual DNA.  I was reminded this morning in one of Sinclair Ferguson’s books of Polycarp, a second century Christian martyr.  Aged 83 he was brought before the Proconsul of Smyrna and called upon to recant his faith.  He replied:

‘Since you are vainly urgent that, as you say, I should swear by the fortune of of Caesar, and pretend not to know who I am and what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn what the doctrines of Christianity are, appoint me a day and you shall hear them.’  

These are the words of a man who has ‘taken it in.’  The truth of who Jesus is and what He has accomplished for Polycarp is as much part of him as his own personal identity and cannot be denied.  Now what do I do with this example?  Do I sigh, put it down to an exceptional individual, think how wonderful it must be to this kind of person?  Actually I believe this faith is God’s will for us all.  Does He really want us paddling in the shallows of His revelation to us in Christ?  Paul speaks of Christians being given ‘fulness in Christ’ (Colossians 2: 10).  It is out of this fulness that we are called to think and speak and act so that our very lives are witness to what God has done for us in Christ.  The word ‘martyr’ means ‘witness.‘   

In many ways we are better placed than David.  We have the full story of God’s revelation to humankind as it climaxed in Jesus.  We cannot allow ourselves to be levered away from that.   As David might say that must be our song even in the darkest days: 

‘I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.  I will sing the LORD’s praise, for he has been good to me.’ (verses 5-6)

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Still Quarrying 50 - C Word.

It’s not hard to find cancer stories these days.  I’ve mentioned a few in past blogs: John Diamond, Colm Toibin, Clive James.  Recently the broadcaster George Alagiah has opened up about his bowel cancer and his struggle to find ‘a place of contentment’.  Just last night on The One Show the actress Laurie Brett spoke about her mother’s breast cancer and comedian Joe Pasquale about his father’s fatal prostate cancer.   It wasn’t always like this.  Cancer was the great unmentionable. I remember my mother speaking  of someone who had a ‘lump’.  Which didn’t convey a great deal until the woman in question underwent serious surgery and follow-up treatment.   Even medical people could be coy in their use of the word.  Years ago I was speaking to a retired Nursing Sister who mentioned a man who was unwell.  She said: ‘I think it’s . . . (and here she mimed the word ‘cancer’.)  

Things seemed to change in the late 1990s.  The journalist Ruth Picardie wrote in The Observer of her breast cancer cancer experience which would eventually  lead to her death at age 33.  And then there was John Diamond who wrote a column in the The Times.  He was diagnosed with a neck cancer in 1997 which was then discovered in his throat and tongue.  Most of the latter was removed and eventually his condition was deemed inoperable.   Through all of this John wrote about his experiences in a way that moved and inspired many people although there were some who deplored this modern tendency to wallow in misery.   In line with the honesty that would later run through his book he probes his initial motive for writing:

‘What I was trying to do was looking for a way to make cancer acceptable, to be the man who had discovered chic cancer.  I wasn’t doing this for the greater good of cancer patients everywhere, for all that cancer patients everywhere wrote to me to thank me for the favour.  I was doing it as a form of very public denial therapy . . . I was trying to change the problem from one of pain and physical constraint and possibly impending death into one of best journalistic practice . . . how to make a momentary thought a greater philosophical reflection.  And in doing so I wasn’t, of course, unconscious of the times when I was putting a jaunty spin on something depressing, when I was feigning bravery or indifference.’  

As he goes through treatment and surgery he works out any notion of ‘chic cancer’ from his system but his self-analysis is powerful.  I went through something like this when I began these blogs and to some extent continue to do so.  Why am I writing?   On a practical level I am keeping in touch with congregations and friends, people who want to know how things are progressing.  And yes, it is good therapy for me.  I feel more like myself.  If I can’t preach then I can write.  The worst thing is that niggle that I am jumping on that cancer band-wagon that could lead to self-indulgence.  

As far as I know my own heart, however, the decisive weight that tips the balance is the knowledge that whatever the questions that arise and the struggles that threaten to overwhelm the God who is revealed in the mission of Jesus Christ is involved and that is a truth worth bearing witness to.  And not because I must stoically screw up my inner resources to believe.  By the grace of God I stand with Paul when he says:

‘I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’  (Romans 8: 38-39)

It is  hard to grasp this when you consider the depth of pain endured by individuals and the extent of suffering in the world at large but listening to the ancient voices of faith in Scripture is to hear a people who knew their God and were convinced of His presence, love and purpose even in their worst of times.  The supreme assurance of this flows from the crucified Christ.  It has never been easy for Christians to live with the truth that the supreme expression of God’s love is seen in the tortured body and derelict soul of Jesus.  But that cannot be expunged from the story.  It is the story.  

Going back to John Diamond.  In his book C because cowards get cancer too he declares himself ambivalent about religion.  He was brought up as a ‘secular Jew’.  But there are moments when it seems that he is being touched by something beyond himself, however he might disagree.  Having gone through severe treatment and horrendous surgery and about a year before he was finally overwhelmed by the cancer he describes spending some time alone with his wife (Nigella Lawson).  For no apparent reason he begins to smile and says:

‘It’s a strange time . . . I’ve never felt more love for you than I have in the past year, that I’ve never appreciated you as much, nor the children.  In a way I feel guilty that it should have taken this to do it, I suppose.  But it is strange, isn’t it.’

He goes on:

‘For the first time I found myself talking like this without resenting that it had taken the cancer to teach me the basics, without resenting that there was part of me capable of talking like a 50s women’s magazine article without blushing.

‘I still don’t believe that there is any sense in which the cancer has been a good thing but, well, it is strange, isn’t it?’  

It may be that something beyond even the most precious human relationships is happening here.  Intimation that the outflow of God’s love and purpose in the world is working for good, shaping our lives for the best,  even in the worst of times.  Even the worst of all, death itself, powerfully described by Shakespeare as the ‘undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’ has been transformed to the way to life irradiated by the presence of the One who did return and guides His people to that place He has promised to prepare for them.  

Monday, 6 May 2019

Still Quarrying 49 - Deliverance.

A young man in a Superman hoodie is not uncommon but when he sitting in the Beatson Cafe it has a certain impact.  I wondered if he was making a statement.  Whatever the problem that had brought him here it’s not going to take him down?  He is  flexing whatever inner resources he needs to see him through?  Your imagination tends to reach for the stratosphere when you are passing the time before a clinic.  Inevitably you weave stories around the people you see.  

There is another way of looking at this.  The Superman story is essentially one of deliverance.  Some people are a bit sniffy about comic book heroes but they actually connect with something deep within ourselves.  Superman comes to Earth from a distant planet and with the help of his powers delivers humankind from all manner of disasters.   That’s the template for most of the super-heroes that continue to pack out our cinemas.  We just love to see someone sorting out the problems that are beyond us.  

Harmless fun.  But like every other instinct that bubbles up from time to time we have to keep it in check.  It’s one thing to long for a solution to our problems it’s quite another to have those longings focussed on one particular individual.  That way dictatorship lies and it it is astonishing how many intelligent and sophisticated people have found themselves on that particular slippery slope.  The thing is, when all else fails you are more inclined to go for the option you might never have considered before.  

This is why perspective is so important and this is what my faith provides for me.   A political party, no matter how clear its objectives and passionate its members, can never address the core problem of humankind.  And when I set it down I am aware how out of touch it may seem to many people.  But it’s this: we have turned our backs on God and refuse to live according to His ways.  We have been created to enjoy the closest of relationships with God.  When that is disrupted there are consequences that bring pain and suffering and death.   So much of humankind’s resources are focussed on leading us out of these dark shadows of experience but there is no solution within ourselves.  That touches the soul only when we catch the vision of the apostle John:

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’  (John 1: 1-5)

We need a Deliverer who can lead us out of the darkness through forgiveness, renewal and the promise of a future Kingdom founded upon eternal truth.   This is transformation in the depths and is the gift of the One who promises a birth in His Spirit.   Not something that can be planned, worked up, manipulated but only received in faith.   Jesus said:  

‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’  (John 3: 14-15)

It’s strange how your thoughts can be led by the sight of something as commonplace as a Superman hoodie.  But the young man wearing it is not commonplace.  Known by God, loved by God, his need open to God.  I hope he becomes deeply aware of all this and finds in Jesus the resources he needs for this time.  

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Still Quarrying 48 - A Place.

Thursday was a chemotherapy day and it came with a new experience.    I didn’t realise that on the fourth floor of the Beatson where I check in there is a ‘hub’ provided by the Beatson Cancer Charity with tea and coffee, recliner chairs, newspapers and magazines and a lovely view over Hyndland.   Avril Paton’s ‘Windows In The West’ came to mind.   I was a bit early arriving and was directed there by one of the nurses.  Just one more way the Beatson works to make patients feel as much as ease as they can be.  You never know how long you may have to wait and to do so in such comfort makes a difference.  It really did feel that a place had been specially set for you.  

The night before Jesus was crucified he promised his disciples that he was going to prepare ‘a place’ for them.  (John 14: 2).  That first made an impact on me in the early days of my ministry.  As assistant at Glasgow Cathedral I was Chaplain to two schools for children with special needs.   In one of those a fourteen year old girl died and a memorial service was held.  John 14: 1-4 was read with that promise of ‘a place’.  It wasn’t a profound mystical experience but I had a firm impression of a typical young person’s room all ready to receive her.  After a short and challenging life of physical disability everything was now provided to make her fully herself.  

That is what is involved in the ‘place’ that is promised to each one of us in the Eternal Kingdom.  We are set free from the brokenness of this imperfect existence to serve in Christ-like completeness.  Although committed to the work that had fallen to him as an apostle Paul still looked forward to this.  ‘For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.’  (Philippians 1: 21)

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Still Quarrying 47 - Lost And Found.

You probably know that feeling.  Something you thought you had lost, maybe you turned the house upside down looking for it, maybe you have gone the length of buying a replacement and then it turns up.   Well if you haven’t had that feeling - and on reflection I suppose most sensible people haven’t - let me tell you it’s not like the story Jesus told when the woman finds her lost coin and throws a party to celebrate.  Actually it would have been better if the thing had stayed lost.  I mean, you have paid for a replacement!  And when you have calmed down a bit you are hit with the realisation that if you had remembered where you put the original in the first place then your pockets would not be so light.  So in the end it’s all your fault.  And that’s never easy to live with.  (You’ll notice I have not declared what the lost item was.  I am not keen to be a complete laughing stock.)

There are of course times when the joy of finding something that was lost is uncomplicated.  In my early days in  the Preshal Trust, having been given a lift to Govan I came home to discover I had lost my keys, house and car.  We drove back and asked in the Preshal building and rooted around the pavement on Govan Road.  Nothing.  My friend thought it might be worth asking in a nearby newsagent.   Yes!  Someone had found them and handed them in on the off-chance that the poor soul who couldn’t get into his car or house might come looking.  Now it’s then that you know something of the joy of the angels when the sinner’s heart turns to God.  The joy that what was lost has been found.   

It is always good to return to those stories in Luke 15 just to remind ourselves of the impact that is made on the Eternal Kingdom when a man or woman turns to Christ.  We are not spiritual scalps, pew-fillers, names on the Roll, but individuals who having heard the story of Jesus and through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling are eternally connected to the Heavenly Father and His purpose.  We belong to the Eternal Kingdom and the angels rejoice to see that Kingdom expand.  

I wonder if we can take this further.  We don’t always have that warm glow of belonging.  We don’t always have that awareness of being ‘found’.  We sometimes might even wonder if we are truly part of the Kingdom.  The light has grown dim.  When we find our way through that spiritual disorientation is it too much to expect that once again the angels rejoice over us?  If they are aware of our home-coming they must surely be aware when the light flares once again and we are assured that we had never really wandered.  We were always within God’s loving focus.  What was needed was for us to remember the price that was paid for our home-coming.  I feel this more and more during this time of ill-health and treatment.  In the darkest days it is so vital to remember quite simply how much we are loved by God, even to the extent of the giving of His only Son.   Whatever falls to us, light or dark, up or down, pleasing or painful is surrounded with His love and nothing will ever be powerful enough to separate us from this love.  We are eternally ‘found’, part of the Kingdom, what God has started in our lives will be completed.

Some hymns of a bygone age have fallen out of favour because of their emphasis on the Cross but many are the product of intense reflection on the meaning of Jesus death for individual men and women.   I don’t know anything about K.A.M. Kelly (1869 - 1942) but I know I need to embrace his words more firmly:

‘Was it the nails, O Savior,
That bound Thee to the tree?
Nay, ’twas Thine everlasting love,

Thy love for me, for me.’