Tuesday 10 October 2023

Still Quarrying: When The Bell Rings.

Over the last few years, I’ve spent a bit of time in the Beatson cafeteria.  It’s a good place to have coffee, read, and await my chauffeuse to bear me home in her motor car.  (I’m not driving at present.  Concentration a bit suspect.)   From time to time, you hear a bell ringing.   Installed for those who have completed their treatment it sends out a message:


Ring This Bell 

Three Times well.

My treatment’s done,

This course is run,



The cafeteria is usually crowded so the sound of the bell is greeted with applause, cheers and hugs.  And a wide smile, and sometimes tears, from the patient looking forward to better days.


I heard the bell a week past on Monday and it occurred to me, nor for the first time, that as things stand, I will never ring that bell.  There is no absolute cure for Multiple Myeloma although in in my case I have been assured that as long as I continue with the chemotherapy and other medication the disease can be considered to be under control.  


It sounds a bit morbid, but it is not unusual for people to have medical conditions that require them to be on life-long treatment.  My mother was diagnosed with angina in her mid-fifties which remained with her until her death at age 88.  As with many things what matters is how we respond to the challenges that fall to us, making adjustments to lifestyle and aspiring to be content. 


When the bell rings I’m reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Christians in Rome.   After a heavy theological discourse Paul shows us how it must all be put into practise.  In the midst of a scattergun list of practical application he writes:


‘Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.’  (Romans 12: 15)


I suppose there was a time when I would have thought it more difficult to mourn with those who mourn.   But experience has taught me that it can be more difficult to rejoice with those who rejoice.  When someone is being blessed in a way that is eluding you  it can be very difficult to connect with their spirit of rejoicing.  But like so many things when it comes to a Biblical quality of life, we are persistently called to aspire to those things that are best for us and for those around us.  That needs help as Paul learned when he prayed continually for healing from pain and did not appear to be receiving an answer.  God’s word to him was:


‘My grace is made suffient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  (2 Corinthians 12: 8)


The bell may never ring but the Gospel rings our with promises that will never fade.  


Sunday 1 October 2023

Still Quarrying: Fresh, Green, Proclaiming.

 Here’s a thing.  What is the connection between Hercule Poirot and Psalm 92? 


Yesterday one of my morning psalms was Psalm 92, a song of praise to God for His love and faithfulness, His creative power and His sovereignty in a world where wickedness seems to have the upper hand.  The psalm ends with an assurance that those who are faithful to God will show signs of His rule in the here and now:


‘The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,

they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon;

planted in the house of the Lord,

they will flourish in the courts of our God.

They will still bear fruit in old age,

they will stay fresh and green,

proclaiming ‘The Lord is upright,

He is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in Him.’ (vv. 12-15) 


What caught my attention particularly was vv. 14-15:


‘They will still bear fruit in old age,

they will stay fresh and green,

proclaiming ‘The Lord is upright,

He is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in Him.’


I had a birthday the other day which brings me within one year of the biblical ‘three score years and ten’.  So, it was good to read that as far as God is concerned we are never over the hill, passed it, burned out.  To the end of our lives, we ‘bear fruit’, we stay ‘fresh and green’, we continue to serve by proclaiming the great truths concerning God and His ways. 


These assurances were still glowing within when we went to see the new Poirot movie, ‘A Haunting In Venice.’  (Kenneth Branagh as Poirot will never surpass David Suchet in my eyes but it’s always good to have your prejudices challenged.). Poirot has retired and is living very privately in Venice.  He has taken great steps to avoid being drawn into further detective work even to the extent of hiring a bodyguard to keep people and their problems at a distance.   But there would not be a movie if this remained the state of affairs and very soon we see Poirot drawn into the work that has made him world-famous.  


That’s the only spoiler you will get.  But it was good Saturday afternoon entertainment and remarkable to me that there was a connection with Psalm 92.  In the end Poirot bears fruit in old age, shows himself to be fresh and green, and is ultimately fulfilled in the work he was destined to do.  


There have been a few challenges for me in retirement, not least the continuing treatment that leaves me below par for half the week.  But more that anything is the absence of preaching.  It is not something that can readily be put into words, but colleagues will know what I mean when I say that you are never more fulfilled when out of your reflection on God’s Word a message emerges which you are called to deliver to God’s people.  This is not to say that it comes easy.  There are battles to be fought in the preparation and in the very act of delivery but the fulfilment in the end is beyond anything else in human experience. 


When this is no longer a regular part of your life there is a sense of incompleteness at the centre of your inner being.  So, it has been a blessing recently to have the opportunity to preach in our parish church, Renfrew Trinity, and a few weeks ago in St. Andrew’s Trinity in Johnstone.  And I am looking forward to the couple of gigs I have in the diary.  It’s good to be still involved even if in a limited way.  And to do so in the assurances that come from Psalm 92 that I can bear fruit in old age, stay fresh and green and proclaim what I know to be true concerning the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  

Tuesday 22 August 2023

Still Quarrying: Broken Trust: 'The Devil Amongst Us'?

When you are facing long-term medical treatment there are certain qualities that you have to learn to develop: patience, resilience, contentment.    But chief among these qualities is trust.  I’ve heard myself say to people throughout my time under treatment that you have to come to the place where you are content to let people do things to you in the faith that this is the best way forward for you.    Demanding scans, needles, cannulas, drugs that take the feet away from you.  But all prescribed and given in the confidence that this is for the good.  And we are called upon to accept the judgement of the medics.  The responsibility they carry is monumental.  They may be prescribing treatment that will initially make us feel worse, but the intention is that ultimately it will at least improve our quality of life or, indeed, cure.  And we trust them.


It's with this mind, that I am most disturbed by the Lucy Letby case.  Surely it is the biggest challenge in the whole area of trust to place the life of your baby in the hands of another.  If it’s difficult enough to place your own life in the hands of another, how much more when it is your baby?  And Lucy Letby continually reassured parents with the words: ‘Trust me I am a nurse.’  When something good is twisted and made to become an opportunity for evil then spiritually this is one of the worst things.  


Jesus was once accused of driving out demons by the power of Beelzebul.  He responded by saying that anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit is beyond forgiveness.  (Matthew 12: 32) Once you say God is bad the pathway to Him is blocked off.  What Lucy Letby did was to distort something that is good, trust, and make it the gateway for abuse and death.  


And what of Lucy Letby?  She has received the most severe custodial sentence since the abolition of capital punishment.  She will spend the rest of her life in jail.  Added to her crimes has been her refusal to attend court to hear the Judge’s remarks and the experiences of the parents whose lives she has affected irrevocably.  A last demonstration of control which seems to be part of her mindset.  


But what of her now?  I caught sight of a tabloid headline yesterday which topped a photograph of Lucy Letby with the words: ‘Proof That The Devil Is Amongst Us.’ 

She is deemed to be beyond normal human society and few would argue with that.  But in her lifetime as it stretches out before her is there no hope that there could be repentance?  Is it the case that the road to God is eternally blocked off to her?  I recent sang in Church Frances Crosby’s hymn with the verse:


O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,

To every believer the promise of God;

The vilest offender who truly believes.

That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.’


In the latest revision of the Church of Scotland hymnbook that third line has been changed to ‘for every offender who truly believes/ that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.’  An updating of language?  Or a call to recognise that that there is no category of sinners - and we are all sinners - which is uniquely beyond the mercy of God?  


We need to pray for great humility when it comes to speculating on the eternal souls of others.  My overriding thought at this moment is that in prison Lucy Letby will come into touch with some Christian influence, a Chaplain, another prisoner, who will be used to bring about that radical change Paul spoke of when he said that those who are in Christ are a ‘new creation.’  


Final word.  Confronted with the worst in human conduct it is never inappropriate to look to ourselves for those times when we have hurt others or burned against them inwardly and stood in need of the mercy of God.   

Monday 31 July 2023

Still Quarrying: Monday Memory.

 My treatment schedule has me at the Beatson for chemotherapy for three consecutive weeks, then a week’s break before it starts over again.  Each session can be for around two and a half hours but sometimes longer.   A lot depends on how busy the staff are or how soon the chemotherapy is sent up from the Pharmacy.   Usually, it doesn’t matter too much.  As long as I have a book I’m fine.  And the nurses pop in from time to time to see how things are and sometimes just for a chat.  Last Monday I was discussing tattoos with one.  


Round about 10. 30 am a lady or gent from the Beatson Charity will come round with tea, coffee and biscuits.  They are always welcome in their bright, yellow t-shirts and eagerness to serve.  Those I have got to know have had relatives who were treated at the Beatson, and this voluntary work is a gesture of thanks.  Having had my daily rocket fuel, ie. espresso, I usually have tea and can be persuaded to have a biscuit.  Not that I needed much persuasion last Monday because there on top of the biscuit tray was a Waggon Wheel!  That kick-started a memory.  My first day at school.  My play piece was a Waggon Wheel.  The lady smiled indulgently when I imparted this vital information.  I suppose she is used to old guys and their memories.  


It made me think of the power of physical objects to take you to another place, another time, a life-changing event.  Jesus understood that when on his final night on earth and surrounded by his friends He took a piece of bread and when He had given thanks said: ‘This is my body which is for you.  Do this in memory of me.’.’  And later He took a cup of wine and said: ‘This cup is God’s new covenant sealed in my blood.  Whenever you drink it do so in memory of me.’  


The significance of the bread and wine was changed.  No longer the food and drink of every day, so familiar to the disciples.  In future, the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine would be an opening up to Jesus, all that He was, all that He gave for them, all that He promised them in this life and the next.  They would never have understood  the Lord’s Supper as ‘just a memorial’.   The Holy Spirit was present as real as the bread and wine they touched and tasted.  And as they touched and tasted they renewed their relationship with Jesus, received anew His promises to them, and were encouraged by the assurance of their future place in His Kingdom.  All of this refreshing their inner being, strengthening faith, and renewing hope.  


It is almost a year now since I led a congregation in a celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  It is one of the many things I miss.  It could be quite overwhelming to think that in doing this we are connecting with generations of Christians going back to Jesus Himself.  The one act of worship that He has commanded us to do.  I sit in a pew now to receive the bread and wine and Covid has changed the way we do this.  But as long as the bread and wine are there Jesus and His promises are present and there is nothing better to provide ‘strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.’  


Lord Jesus,


As physical objects unlock the past, enrich the present, and bring hope for the future,

May the Lord’s Supper be a continuing source of grace as we seek to be faithful witnesses to your love.  Amen.  

Tuesday 25 July 2023

Still Quarrying: George Alagiah.

 During my personal cancer experience there have been many people who have been an encouragement and an inspiration.   Those I have been privileged to support through their own cancer experience and others I have never met but have got to know through my reading and listening to media broadcasts, chief among the latter was George Alagiah.  Diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer in 2014, and later having to deal with the Coronavirus during the pandemic, he was possessed of a cheerful optimism and carried on with his work, when able, with warmth and empathy.  


It was said of a well-known presenter lately that despite his popularity he couldn’t read an auto-cue.  That could never be said of George.  He seemed to reach out from the screen and not only touched us but gave us to believe that we were touching him.   He knew humanity’s problems; he was shaken by humanitarian crises; and as he engaged with various horrendous circumstances as a Foreign Correspondent you had the impression that he felt called to respond.   His journalist friend Allan Little said in his recent tribute that in George people saw ‘the outstretched hand of a shared humanity and a solidarity.’ 


In all his interviews about his cancer experience I found so much to relate to.  He spoke of finding something positive in his illness, of becoming more empathetic to others in their troubles, of the necessity of finding ‘a place of contentment’, of being grateful for what he had experienced in the past and what he had in the present, and of focussing on what might be in the future.  God has not been mentioned.  But I thank God for the gift of his life and how he lived his dying. 

Thursday 22 June 2023

Still Quarrying: I Don't Like Wednesdays!

It’s very much an oldie now but you still hear people humming, whistling, mumbling the Boomtown Rats song: ‘I Don’t Like Mondays.’
  Bob Geldof wrote it after hearing about a shooting in an elementary school in San Diego USA.  A sixteen-year-old woman, Brenda Anne Spencer, fired at children in the school playground killing two adults and injuring eight children and one police officer.   Her explanation for her crime was: ‘I don’t like Mondays.  This livens up the day.’  


No one would want to endorse such an extreme and horrific reaction but if we take the title of the song, it captures what many of us feel.  That’s why people still hum it, whistle it, and mumble it.    After a pleasant weekend it’s back to work, school, college and sometimes that involves a big psychological push.  For me, Monday is the day when I receive chemotherapy at the Beatson which also involves taking steroids.  I’m left a bit wobbly and that continues into Tuesday.  It’s on Wednesday that I experience the crash.  I’m told it has to do with the steroids.  They give you a bit of a lift and then let you down, sometimes quite dramatically.   So, for me it’s not Mondays that are the problem, it’s Wednesdays.  I don’t like them.  


It's not easy to describe what it’s like.  The nearest I can get to it is ‘Space Dust’.  If you are of my generation, you may remember it from the penny tray in the sweetie shop.  You could say it was a more dynamic version of sherbet.  When it went into your mouth it sparked and fizzed and bubbled, and all in all it was good fun.  The more exhibitionist among us kept our mouths open when the sparking and fizzing and bubbling was going on.  Well, it’s good to share the best of yourself.  Wednesday is like having Space Dust sprinkled on my brain and it’s not such good fun.  You feel you are not part of this world, you slow down, concentration is low, you sometimes have to think carefully before you speak.  


I don’t like Wednesdays, but they are opportunities to focus on 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).’  


So how do we take this forward?  It’s not just about relaxation techniques and trying to be calm.  It’s not just about gritting your teeth and being determined that you will not be overwhelmed by this experience.  It’s not even about focussing on your favourite Bible verses – although of the three options opened up here that is obviously the best.  What is needed is the conviction that no matter how you may feel the God revealed in the Scriptures and supremely in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is present in the midst of the Space Dust.  It’s a challenge.  But to say anything else is to say there are some areas of life that God has abandoned.  That there are some areas of life that are too dark, too painful, too perplexing for Him to dwell in.  


A seventeenth century frier Brother Lawrence wrote a devotional book called The Practice Of The Presence Of God which has at its heart the conviction that we are never out of the presence of God whether engaged in the most menial tasks or struggling to make sense of the darkest circumstances.  God is present.  Nothing will ever separate us from His love.  His good purpose for His people will never be sabotaged by the worst of times.  We need to pray out of this conviction even when it doesn’t feel true.


Many years ago, a friend of mine told me that he wasn’t convinced that you can pray anywhere and at any time.  You need time set apart, and a special place.   Certainly, you can point to Jesus and His frequent ‘drawing apart’, to be alone with His heavenly Father.  But He also prayed on the cross when He no longer felt the presence of God and considered Himself abandoned.  He continued to practice the Presence when to paraphrase the hymn he felt the Father had turned His face away.  


It is this perseverance with the God revealed to us in Scripture and in the life and ministry of Jesus that opens us up to the strength experienced by Paul and leads us to that contentment that can be hours even in the days we don’t like.  

Tuesday 13 June 2023

Still Quarrying: 'The Perfect Golden Circle.'

 It’s always good to discover new writers and even more so when they have something to offer.  This one came with no personal recommendation but was a pick-up in the local library.  It was the unusual story that grabbed me.  In 1989 England two friends set out in a rundown campervan to create crop-circles, so intricate that they are soon attracting not merely national but international attention.  


Along the way the connection with mankind and the ‘land’ is explored along with commercialisation, the power of money and status, the mystery and power of art.  Sounds a bit heavy when I put it down like that, but the writing has a light touch, and the most engaging aspect of the book is the two main characters Calvert and Redbone.  


Calvert is an ex-SAS Falklands veteran and is carrying many traumatic experiences.  It is never stated but regular flashbacks would indicate Post-            Traumatic Stress Syndrome.  For him the creation of crop circles - the organisation, the purpose, the achievement - is therapy.  


Redbone is an aging punk band member who receives mystical visions and has a strong connection to the ‘land’, to the ancient people who lived on it and the wisdom that guided them.  He lives in a campervan.  


An unlikely couple.  We never learn how they met but there is a deep friendship which in the main does not require too much conversation to survive the demands of their work and their sometime disappointments and setbacks.  Not much good stuff is written about male-friendship but this falls into that category. 


It’s difficult to go into the plot too much. I’m sensitive to throwing out too many ‘spoilers'. But along the way there are challenges human, technological and personal that threaten to throw them off course.  At one point Calvert and Redbone have a discussion about ‘the perfect golden circle’.  Redbone doubts it could ever exist: ‘I don’t believe anything man-made can ever be perfect.'  Even if a machine is employed to make the perfect golden circle will incorporate man’s imperfection at some level.  In the end Redbone concedes, reluctantly, that the perfect golden circle still exists in our minds.  And it is this which in the end drives forward their Great Project.  


In there is an acknowledgement in the two men that they are being driven by ‘something’ outside themselves.  Redbone is influenced by Buddhist and Hindu thought, Calvert driven by the power of ‘truth and beauty.’  How it all works out in the end is deeply moving. And reminds Christians that there many discussions out there with broken but commendable people in which to engage.