Thursday, 23 June 2022

Still Quarrying: Ouch!

 I cannot say that I revere Robert Burns to the extent that many do.  He got it right, however, when he declared toothache to be ‘the hell o’ a’ diseases.’   There were stories during lockdown of poor souls who were pulled into this hell and were driven to hair-raising cures because no appointment was possible with their dentist.   Last week I could sympathise.  The pain came and went but when it came it went completely up the left side of my face and rendered me more doolally than normal.  I once heard someone say that when you have it you are completely turned in on yourself.  You are thinking only of two people: yourself and the dentist.  Thankfully appointments were available and relief eventually came.

It has been one of the blessings of the last two years that while there have been some low days I have never actually experienced any significant pain.  But it has been known for multiple myeloma sufferers to have problems with their teeth so the imagination goes into overdrive.  As with anything to do with illness, however, perspective is important.  The pain came in waves.  It was not constant.  So I could get  on with things that needed to be done.   Furthermore, I knew that the problem would be solved.  My dentist is one of many carers whose interest and expertise has been a blessing over the last two years.  

It was just another indication of how vulnerable, fragile and unreliable is the human body.  We take great care clothing it, shaping it and protecting it from mishap but its destiny through the years  is diminution and ultimately death.  No one was more conscious of this that Paul.  It would appear from his letters that he was not physically strong.   There are various theories as to what was his particular problem but there are enough references to indicate occasional weakness.  In his letter to the churches in Galatia he expresses appreciation of the care he received when he came among them not in the best of health.  In his second letter to the Christians in Corinth he refers to what seems be be a continuing problem which he refers to as ‘a thorn in my flesh.’  (2 Corinthians 12: 7)

It’s no wonder that he took great comfort and encouragement from the hope that flowed from the Resurrection of Jesus and the promise of complete renewal in body, mind and spirit.  In 2 Corinthians 4 he paints a picture of the Christian as a jar of clay which nonetheless holds a ‘treasure’ which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  A jar of clay is fragile and such is every Christian but in that Paul sees a purpose.  Our fragility highlights the fact that any power seen in our lives is by the grace of God.  The weaker we are the stronger is the power of God in our lives.  

This comes through in Paul’s teaching time and again.  There is no reason to lose heart when our physical strength is stripped back because God is still working in our lives and can reveal His glory.  How often have we seen this in lives that have been physical compromised or diminished and yet have remained a powerful witness.  

But Paul’s eyes are not just on faithful service here and now.  He writes;

‘For we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’  (2 Corinthians 4: 18)

He see the human body as a tent which is subject to destruction but ‘we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.’  (2 Corinthians 5: 1)  It is not easy inhabiting the ‘tent’.   Says Paul: ‘we groan and are burdened’ but we have this hope that ‘what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.’  (2 Corinthians 5: 4).  Our mortal bodies are destined to be renewed according to the guarantee we receive in the resurrected body of Jesus.  

A friend of mine with history of health problems phoned one Saturday morning.  I was working on a sermon which was majoring on the resurrection of the body.  ‘Any thoughts on the resurrection of the body?’ I asked.   He replied: ‘Only that I am longing for it.’  Paul would sympathise but in the meantime his attitude was that as long as he was the ‘earthly tent’ he would make it his goal to serve to his utmost in anticipation of the ‘eternal house in heaven.’  At our best or worst we continue to serve while holding in our hearts the fulfilment of all His promises to us.  

Monday, 6 June 2022

Still Quarrying: Open Book.

 ‘How terribly strange to be seventy,’ sang Paul Simon.  I’ve got a couple of years to go yet but I am approaching retirement and finding is ‘terribly strange.’  I’ll probably write more about this in the coming months.  While being minister of the linked charge of Baldernock and St Paul’s in recent years, I have been minister of St Paul’s and part of the community of Milngavie for 34 years.   It will undoubtedly be a huge challenge to leave, settle in another community and become a member of another congregation.

One question on many lips has been: ‘What are you going to do with all your books?’  That has not been fully worked out at the time of writing, but it is undoubtedly a chore I cannot ignore for much longer.   The problem with folk like me is that quite a lot of our book accumulation over the years has been aspirational rather than realistic.  You buy a book in case it goes out of print.  You buy a book because it deals with something you feel you should know about.  You buy a book knowing you won’t crack it open in the short-term but one of those days . . .  If you are not guilty of any of this at least you can be sympathetic.  


The result is there is a substantial amount of stuff that never gets read and possibly never will be.   Just last week, however, I came across Henri Nouwen’s The Return Of The Prodigal Son.  It was published in 1992 and more than likely I bought it close to that date.  Nouwen was appreciated by many Christians as a devotional writer, and this is an extended meditation on a painting by Rembrandt which had a profound effect upon him.   It depicts the reconciliation of the lost son with the forgiving father in Luke 15: 11-13.


For some reason I never got round to reading it although it is regarded as one of Nouwen’s best.  I’m happy to say, however, that that is currently being rectified and is proving to be a great blessing.  You know a book is making an impact when you feel you are keeping company with the author, hearing a voice beneath the text.   It may have lain for thirty years unread, but it is now living in the moment.  Maybe it was for such a time as this that it was bought.

The books of the Bible are much older, and some are better known to us than others.  Perhaps some have in a sense been sealed to us.  But we should never lose the faith that the Holy Spirit is the inspirer of the Scriptures and is seeking to reveal God and His love for each one of us.   To open a book of the Bible is to seek the company of God, to know Him and to know His ways.  To open a book of the Bible is to experience the love that Jesus spoke of in the story of the forgiving father.  Love which inspired a seventeenth century artist, a twentieth century writer, and a twenty-first century Presbyterian minister approaching retirement.   That’s how it works.  We don’t call it the living Word for nothing.  Maybe unread but always waiting the moment of revelation.  

Friday, 20 May 2022

Still Quarrying: Incurable.

I recently heard of an eminent cancer specialist who did not like to use the word ‘terminal’ in relation to a patient’s condition.
  He preferred to say she might not survive.  It’s a lesson in the power of words and how they impact on people lives.  Some have resonances which can have a negative psychological effect.  That was something the specialist wanted to avoid.  An important factor in how a cancer sufferer copes is positivity.  Some words carry a weight that can be oppressive and undermine hope.  

So what about this word ‘incurable’?   It’s actually not as bad as it sounds.  People can live with incurable conditions to a great age.  It’s when you couple ‘incurable’ with cancer that it opens up a less than promising prospect.   Multiple myeloma is at present an incurable cancer which means that every day that remains to me I will be carrying this disease.   Even if this regimen of treatment I am presently following is deemed successful I will probably need to continue with some form of treatment that will keep the cancer at bay.  

It must be said that many people who are in this position can live a good quality of life.  I have previously blogged about Todd Billings book Rejoicing In Lament: living with incurable cancer.   He is  a multiple myeloma sufferer who despite challenges and set-backs continues to write and teach in a Seminary in the USA.  I know others closer to home who continue to work and maintain a positive attitude to the future.    It is something you can live with.  And, who knows, there may be a cure some day.  It was in 2009 that an abnormality was discovered in my blood and since then there have been great advances in the treatment of multiple myeloma.   But, still, for the moment it remains ‘incurable’.  

In a sense we all live with an incurable condition.  Our spiritual DNA holds a powerful tendency to live against God and His ways.  The Psalmist lays out the reality of this in a way that many might feel shocking: 

‘Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.’  (Psalm 51: 5)

Paul knew the truth of this as he reflects on the civil war going on inside himself.  He writes of being conflicted in desiring to do good but in reality continuing to do what he knows is evil.  His tendency to go against God takes over and there is nothing he can do about it on his own.   He is a man who needs a Saviour who can forgive, renew and establish him more fully in the ways of God.  We feel his joy when he praises God that all of this is possible in his relationship with Jesus Christ.  (Romans 7: 14-25)

I have heard people say that living with the need of a Saviour is psychologically debilitating.  We should not be looking beyond ourselves for help but looking within ourselves for the resources to overcome our challenges.  That is the way to personal growth.   It’s an appealing argument but we also need to listen to those who found a way out of self-destructive patterns of behaviour - some of them who would not profess faith in God - and were able to do so because help was at hand.  What friends, family, and therapists were able to do was a gift that far from diminishing their lives enhanced it.   They live with the realisation that they were valued in the eyes of others and were counted worthy of what it was possible for them to give.  Daren McGarvey, author of Poverty Safari,  writes this of his emergence from a life of addiction: ‘I couldn’t have done it without help.’   He lives with the realisation that the gifts of friends and counsellors, and the resources of various institutions brought him through to a healthier lifestyle.  

Take this to the deeper level where Paul struggled.  We all have this incurable condition which is sin, the tendency to shut out God and live apart from His ways.  There is no way out of this apart from the intervention of Jesus.  His death has paid the price for our sin,  and has opened up the way for forgiveness and renewal to take place.  We still feel the power of our broken human nature, overwhelming our thoughts and our actions.  But though we fall He raises us up to begin again.  

When the breakthrough comes and we realise the need a Saviour, this is surely life-enhancing not life-diminishing.  We have been embraced in the love of God reaching out to the incurable to show that the ‘disease’ does not have the final word.  In Christ it can never be said we are terminal.  

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Still Quarrying: The Sharp End.

We have seen another side to television journalists since the beginning of the Ukraine war.  Normally in well-appointed studios and stylishly dressed we have seen them trail through rubble often in military style kit.  In the past there have been journalists wounded or killed as they have tried in the midst of conflict to keep us informed and perhaps to bring greater understanding.

I was concerned, though, when I saw that Fergal Keane was in Ukraine in the beginning of the troubles.  The last I had heard he had taken time off as he struggled to cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the result of his exposure to war in various parts of the world.   His book All Of These People tells of the horrific conditions he experienced in Rwanda which have played on his mind as powerful flash-backs.  So what was he doing in Ukraine?  

Fergal Keane: Living with PTSD, a documentary screened last night (9 May 2022) on BBC 2 gave us some insight.  He described his ‘addiction’ to the tragic areas of the world, his compulsion to be there, and the irresistible impulse to make them known to the rest of the world.  It’s not an enticing prospect for those of us who appreciate their comfort zone thank you very much and are happiest making pronouncements from the comfort of our armchairs.  But Fergal was brave enough to open himself up and show us some of the darkness within.  

Sadly it is this darkness that led to an alcohol problem which seems now to behind him.  But the flash-backs remain which can come in disturbing dreams or even in the course of every-day tasks.  Most of us know the effect of past events weighing heavily on our inner being but PTSD is serious mental disturbance which can often have physical consequences.  

The documentary ended on a note of hope.  Fergal quotes a Van Morrison song: ‘Baby, ain't it all worthwhile when the healing has begun?’   A voice off camera asks: ‘Do you believe the healing has begun?’   With a genuine smile Fergal says ‘Yes.’   Specialised counselling has helped but more than anything else has been the encouragement received  from contact with other PTSD sufferers.  His final words are to others like him who need to know that there are others out there who understand and keeping company with them healing can begin.  

Faith is never mentioned.  I’m not sure where Fergal stands in relation to Christianity these days.  But I would be interested to know how he responds to a Suffering Saviour, particularly with regard to the inner turmoil that Jesus experienced.   This was stirred by the sight of the suffering around Him.  He had an extreme reaction as He stood at the tomb of Lazarus.  In Gethsemene His whole inner life threatened to come apart completely.   The Cross brought not only physical torture but spiritual dereliction.   

Jesus knew traumatic stress and with the Ascension we are soon to observe in the Christian Year we can say that this is now part of the Godhead.  Jesus has taken this into the very being of God.  This assures us of God’s presence in the worst of inner turmoil and assures us of a way through.  This may not be fully realised in the brokenness of this world but having a Divine Companion who empathises has made a difference to many bruised and battered souls.  And this is leading to the transformed existence that is promised in Christ.  The traumatised Jesus of Good Friday was presented to the world on Easter morning renewed and resurrected as God’s will for the whole humankind.   

The night before he was crucified Jesus shared this promise with His friends:

‘And if I go to prepare a place for you I will come back and take you to be with me so that you also may be where I am.’  (John 14: 3)

This is when the healing begun on the Cross will be complete in resurrection power.  

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Still Quarrying: Work Done!

When you are in a treatment programme you have to learn what it is to be passive, to be content to have things done to you. 
Someone puts in a cannula, connects you to the infusion, you settle in until it empties itself, and then someone disconnects you.  Really, you have done nothing through the whole process except receive.  And it goes against the grain.  You would be far more comfortable making a more obvious contribution.  

Certainly, you follow all the supplementary advise to keep eating sensibly, exercise if you are up to it, and try as far as possible to follow your usual routine of work, rest and recreation.   But in the end that doesn’t seem to amount to very much.  The real work is what is done to you, what you receive.

That is always a major break-through on a spiritual level.  We find it so difficult to believe that, as Paul teaches, ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’  (Romans 5: 8).   We do nothing to deserve God’s love and what he has done for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Nothing we can do raises our moral profile in the eye of God.  We can never have sufficient moral heft to barge through the door to the Kingdom.  The Gospel tells us that we are loved despite our brokenness and not because of our ‘achievements’ in our own or the world’s eyes.  

In the end, Good wants us to grasp that each of us is worth the death of His Son and to respond to this by making Him the focus and the aspiration of our lives.  

Sometimes the old ones are the best.  Writing in the eighteenth century Augustus Montague Toplady wrote a hymn that would be sung through the centuries with these words:

‘Nothing in my ands I bring

 Simply to thy cross I cling;

 Naked, come to thee for dress;

 Helpless, look to thee for grace;

 Foul, I too the fountain fly;

 Wash me Saviour or I die.’

It’s the work done that counts!  

Saturday, 30 April 2022

Still Quarrying 195: 'Be Still . . .'

 You try hard not to let the word ‘incurable’ get to you but that is the reality for anyone suffering from Multiple Myeloma.   There is no cure but the condition can be managed through observation and medication.   So after chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant it was necessary for me to attend clinics at the Beatson where blood levels would be monitored.  The pandemic brought this to an end and contact was reduced to telephone calls.  It worked very well and in the early days the news seemed always to be encouraging.  But a phone call in August last year informed me that the ‘bad stuff’ in my blood was on the rise again and I would need to return to 'face to face’ clinics.   It became clear that further ‘maintenance’ treatment would be required sooner rather than later.

It was disappointing given that I was less than two years from the stem cell transplant.  I know another Myeloma sufferer who had ten years before further treatment was required.  But you can’t argue with the test results and the only response is to prepare yourself psychologically and spiritually.   Some verses from the Psalms have been close to me over the past few years:

‘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.’  (Psalm 37: 7)

The challenge there is to respond in faith when circumstances seem to be getting out of control and there is disturbance within.  The problem for me is that I am not naturally a ‘still’ person.  Some people would regard that as a badge of honour.  ‘None of this sitting about, wasting time, staring into space for me!  I need to be up and doing!’   But what lies behind that?  What motivates the ‘up and doing’?  Someone was once described to me as ‘working on her nerves.’    What might seem to be boundless energy may be the result of some inner disturbance.  Anxiety,  fear, guilt, obsession, jealousy.  These and other impulses can play their part in what the Psalmist calls ‘fretting.’  And it is the opposite of being ’still.’   

I have had to work at it, to practise stillness even when it goes against the spiritual grain.  Like the other day.  Getting ready for the hospital meant remembering to take my pre-treatment medication, making sure my ‘man bag’ had everything I need to pass the time, final conversation with Gabrielle about what to expect from the day.  Then in the treatment room I sit for an hour and nothing is happening.  That is not a complaint.  It’s a busy place and the staff are stretched to keep on top of things.  And they do so with such grace.  So it falls to we patients to wait.  And as I wait I try to practise the presence of God.  

Earlier in the waiting area I had met a fellow patient who was quite agitated.   It was a bad news day for him and he had waited a long time for a vacant treatment room.   At times like this you wonder if you should reach out.  Would a word be welcome?   I thought I would risk it.  And in the end I think he appreciated the contact.  We found ourselves reflecting on the appropriateness of being called a ‘patient’.   Illness is a time when the quality of patience has to be exercised more than any other.   It turned out that this man’s working life had demanded a great deal of patience but in this moment of health crisis he found it to be in diminishing supply.  

I can sympathise.  I cannot honestly say that every set-back and disappointment has been met with serene acceptance.  But the Psalmist does not merely recommend ‘stillness’, he instructs it.   That verse from Psalm 37 gripped me so tightly years ago that I was sure it was something that needed to be part of my spiritual DNA.  It was even accompanied by a tune!  Now there’s a thing.  I may have a facility with words but music?  Obviously this needed to sink deep.  A constant reminder that there is a way through fret, that stillness is possible ‘before the Lord, that we can wait for Him, that His good and loving purpose continues to unfold even through the worst of inner turmoil.   This is not achievable through technique but through remembrance of the God revealed in Jesus, the realisation that we are ‘before’ Him, the ‘bearer of our flesh and frailness’, whose Cross proclaims the value God places on each human soul.   

I find the way forward in an old hymn ‘O sing a a song of Bethlehem’ in which we are encouraged to focus on scenes from Jesus’ life for our inner strength.  

‘O sing a song of Galilee,

Of lake and woods and hill,

Of him who walked upon the sea,

And bade its waves be still:

For though like waves on Galilee,

Dark seas of trouble roll,

When faith has heard the Master’s word,

Falls peace upon the soul.’  

Monday, 6 December 2021

Christmas Baggage.

I can’t remember when Gabrielle and I last went shopping together in the city centre.  But this we did the other day.
  After a while we temporarily split up to pursue our own interests and inevitably I ended up in Fopp.  I used to call it my cultural Bermuda Triangle.  Whenever I went there all my money seemed to disappear.  All these CDs and DVDs and books and you just know you have to have this one or that one or your life will be seriously diminished.  

Amazingly I didn’t buy anything but I came away with something else.   The sound system was playing ‘Tiger Feet’ by Mud circa. 1974.  And I was away to discos long ago not least the annual Christmas Dance at school.  

Mud were one of those groups that teenage sophisticates felt obliged to despise.  Teenyboppers peddling bubble-gum music to the less enlightened.  But deep down we knew that at the Annual Christmas Dance we couldn’t have done with Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.  Come in Mud!  And Sweet!  And Slade!  And even the Rubettes!   This was their night.  

And there I was the other day in Fopp on a cold, grey, miserable Glasgow day deliberately lingering among the displays of CDs, DVDs and books until the fade out in ‘Tiger Feet.’  If it hadn’t been for my mask a co-shopper would have seen me mouthing the words while in my head I was going through all the dance floor moves that once dazzled my contemporaries. Transported I was to the days of feather-cuts, flairs, tank-tops and platform shoes.    All of which scandalised my parents and made the wearing all the sweeter.   Ah the seventies . . .

Maybe it was the Season that did it.  We all carry some Christmas baggage and sometimes it drops, bursts open and out flies the memories whether delightful or painful.   Over the years I suppose I’ve tended to de-sentimentalise Christmas.  I’ve been involved with too many people who at so many levels find it a very painful experience.  Organised fun, nostalgic music and sugary movies are just too much to bear when going through your worst of times.  

On the other hand, it’s hard to think of the birth of a baby born in difficult circumstances , as Jesus was, and not feel something.  The recent cases of horrific child-abuse that have been at the top of our news bulletins recently have been greeted with understandable outrage.   And many a tear has been shed as the stories unfold.  Nothing stirs the emotions so much as crimes against the vulnerable.  Jesus was not abused as a baby or as child growing up.  But in these states He was vulnerable and the wonder is that this is how God chose to reveal Himself to humankind.  There is a place for the loving gaze on the manger but also for the sense of awe that Almighty God is as close to us as any child we have known and loved.  The carols that spill out from shopping mall sound systems have an unfathomable theology: 

‘Lo! within a manger lies

 He who built the starry skies.’

‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;

 Hail the Incarnate Deity . . .’  

It is said that the original purpose of the Christmas crib was to enable us to reach into those depths of God’s coming amongst us.  It is attributed to Francis of Assisi.  This was never intended to be a Christmas decoration but a focus for people’s thoughts that they might grasp something of the depths of God’s love for us ‘thus to come from highest bliss/ Down to such a world as this.’    

This is something that can unite us all whether we delight in Christmas or dread it.   John Betjeman’s poem is so often quoted because it sums up what Christmas is for those who believe:

’The maker of the stars and sea

 Became a child on earth for me.’  

However we feel about Christmas 2021 we can find hope in a God who is on our side.