Monday, June 16, 2014

Living Hope


Near our home in Guernsey is a concrete disaster. Not one of those monstrous office buildings erected in postmodern style all glass and girders, but an underground hospital left over from the Second World War. Built, or rather excavated, by the German occupying forces, it was in its day the largest underground concrete structure in Europe.  This subterranean hospital briefly received wounded troops from nearby France after D-Day until the Allied advance liberated Normandy and cut off these islands until the end of the war. I shall never forget my first visit to the eerie structure as a child because it caused me to shrink in sadness at the thought of anybody being taken down there already unwell or badly hurt.  It never really worked as a hospital because it robbed its patients of something that is so badly needed in recovery - sunshine. They might as well have inscribed over the entrance the famous words from Dante's vision of hell 'Abandon Hope all who Enter Here!'

Hope is vital to recovery - and I don't mean just the vague feeling that things might improve either.  Christian hope is based on the character of God and his great love for us. It works like sunshine on our life systems and gives us something to hold on to in the darkest times. This kind of hope is the confident assurance that God is good and that he has good things planned for those who love him.  But the abandonment of hope is the opposite of that and is called despair. Several young people visited Guernsey over this weekend who know what real despair is like.  They have known the degrading power of drug and alcohol addiction in their lives that has led in similar cases to prostitution, imprisonment and premature death.  Now following their rehabilitation through one of the UK's Teen Challenge centres they sing together in a remarkable girls' band called Living Hope and tour prisons, churches and schools telling their own stories of hope restored. We are so privileged to have received them in our home island and heard their amazing stories of God's hope - a living hope that changed their lives!

"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." (Romans 15:13)





Friday, May 30, 2014

Learning to Lean

I was reading in the book of Psalms the other day and came upon this comment 'He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield' (Psalm 91:4).  It is a passage from the Bible that I have preached about (and Diane has too quite recently) but it is probably one of the hardest things to keep in mind when things are tough.  For me, the blinding, searing, literally sickening pain of chronic pancreatitis together with the thick fog caused by morphine, combine to make it hard to hold on to this image.  This picture taken from a friend's Facebook wall is a real help in the this process of visualisation.

A great deal is said today about 'mindfulness' - a meditation programme or technique that does have some very helpful insights and advice but is also limited (in my opinion) due to the overwhelming intrusion of severe pain or emotional trauma many suffer.  'When my heart is overwhelmed lead me to the rock than is higher than I am!' I want something more than simply being mindful of the present and my surroundings - I want to know the presence of One who shelters, who cares, and who has a plan despite the disappointments.  The writer of Psalm 91 had found someone like this in his or her faith in God.  I have too, but it is a daily discipline to call these truths to mind - a mindfulness of a different kind perhaps?

So, whether in pain, trauma or in just the humdrum of daily life - I offer you Psalm 91 to be what Diane recently described as 'God's duvet'!

As for me - I'm under the feathers today!  It's one of those days!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

That's a Relief!

At last - a few days of pain relief after months of the most appalling pancreatic agony!  Diane and I travelled last week to University College London Hospital for a procedure called a 'coeliac plexus block' which is done under heavy sedation in the endoscopy unit there. A large amount of steroids and narcotics are injected directly into a bundle of nerves right near the pancreas in an attempt to interrupt the pain - and voila - a pain free Easter pour moi!

Years ago I had a series of six such blocks and they gave me varying degrees of effect, ranging from nothing at all (twice) to six weeks of glorious freedom. I don't know how long this one will last, but it is such a pleasure to experience life like so many do without the nerve tearing, burning, intensity of pancreatic pain.

In all these 18 years of battling this condition we have found it essential to take hold of something someone reminded us of in church this morning. Jenny stood at the front of the building and said that she has come to understand, through her many years of sorrow and struggle in different ways to mine, that our sufferings are there for a reason. 'They are', she said, 'allowed by God so as to make us more Christ-like'. Now I wish that God had other ways to make more Christ-like - in fact I'll bet Jesus Himself would have preferred other methods to that when he heaved the cross to his shoulder that first Easter, but he knew I needed him so he went to an unimaginable place of pain for me (and for you).

Jenny was right.  The bible actually says so. There may be many other reasons why we battle, some our own fault and some the fault of others, but God has not finished with us yet and we need to trust him even when we cannot trace his ways.

Meanwhile I'll just be grateful for a few days off and pray it lasts a long long time!

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Are You Driven or Being Led?

When our son was small he used to get so excited whenever the cartoon programme Road Runner was on TV. I must confess that I loved it too - all that mad dashing around by the tragic character of Coyote (left) who was constantly trying to figure out ways to entrap and possibly cook and eat the serene escapee Road Runner with his familiar call 'Beep Beep!' The shows were produced by Warner Brothers between 1948 and 1960 but were then carried by TV stations for years afterwards both in the UK and the US. Poor old Coyote used to get so upset and even poured out great drops of sweat as he laboured on his latest idea usually assisted by props made by some company called ACME, but he always failed and usually got killed in the attempt - only to rise again miraculously to have another go next week!

Meanwhile the frustratingly smug road runner appeared to sail effortlessly through life chanting his call and overcoming every scheme of the wicked one! As I reflect on my life I can identify so much more with the scheming, worrying, driven Coyote than I can with the untroubled bird that floated over all of life's obstructions.  Most of my days - and nights - have been consumed with working out new strategies to succeed in my mission, whatever it has been at different times. Sometimes it has been to lead a struggling church into growth, or to serve a large and busy fellowship as it's senior leader.  At other times the struggle has been to learn a new language and fit into a new culture so as to serve alongside a national group of churches overseas.  And still other challenges have had to with fighting pain and discouragement, like now, in my long war with serious ill health. But in every situation I have had to learn to be led and not driven.  Being led by the Spirit of God is what children of God are supposed to experience (Romans 8:14) and not being driven by inner needs or the expectations of others.

Coyote never found the key to being led and was driven to despair. I want to be led by the sweet Spirit of God, not driven by ambition, the needs of my body or selfish desires, or the demands of others around me. 'Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path, for there are many enemies'.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Surprised by Pain

Dr Paul Brand and well-known author Philip Yancey wrote a book some years ago called Pain – The Gift Nobody Wants (London: Marshall Pickering, 1997). In it they suggest that pain is a very important gift from our creator and is vital to staying alive! They recognised the part that pain plays in our early training - teaching us the boundaries of safety and survival. They also found that the absence of the ability to feel pain is at the root of some of mankind's worst diseases - leprosy for instance. Their theory was that the lack of pain transmitting nerves in the extremities of sufferers leads to them being burned and disfigured by the absence of the warning stimuli that otherwise would protect them.

I can see their point, and in pain-free times I even agree with them, but pain has the power to throw a fuse in our rational mind and black-out the ability to appreciate the finer points in the work of creation.  Last weekend pain did that for me. Again.

The pain of pancreatitis is one of the worst known to man. It is not really understood why this should be, but the proximity of the pancreas to bunches of pain-carrying nerves seems to be involved. Pancreatic pain cuts through you like a sabre heated to glowing red in the campfire of your worst enemy. There was another man with this condition admitted to hospital the same time as I was.  He was in a side room and I was on the main ward, but I heard him retching and screaming like a woman in labour as he begged for relief. When this happens to me the wonderful spinal neuro stimulator that I had fitted to deal with the pain of chronic pancreatitis gets overwhelmed by the awesome surge of acute agony, and once again relief has to come from various forms of morphine and rest. I suppose my greater sorrow was at finding myself in this condition again after recent treatment had given me hope of a much longer period free from acute attacks - but that does not seem to be in the plan for me!

If intelligent design means anything, it surely means that pain is not meaningless. So I'm back to trying to thank God for the gift nobody wants and asking for the grace to cope with its consequences. And this I am glad about - the one who made me can mend me, and knows every nerve and sinew in my body. After all, Psalm 139 says that I am "fearfully and wonderfully made" and that includes my pain-carrying nervous system!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Making a New Start!

I love New Year! It's a great opportunity every year to draw a line under all that is past and start again. For me, 2013 has been a very difficult year marked by pain, the loss of dear friends, disappointment in others, family sadness at watching our only grandchild struggle her way through the challenging early months of her life, and the uphill task of trying to walk the journey of faith in a hostile culture. Yet, New Year brings with it a burst of hope, optimism and cheer that heartens me greatly and causes me to thank God that he is the God who describes himself with the words 'behold I am making all things new!'.

Far more significant than the date on the calendar, though, is the assurance within that God is still in charge - not man, not the doctors, nor the politicians and thankfully not me! He has not vacated the throne of the universe as so many want us to believe, but instead is working out his sovereign purposes for his glory and our eternal good. Romans 8:28 is still in my bible - "and we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." (ESV)

During the Christmas period I have been encouraged by the writing of Ian Coffey whom I look forward to welcoming to Guernsey and to Eldad Church in January.  In his book Shock and Awe (BRF, Abingdon, 2009) he quotes a prayer for today: "God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose years never fail and whose mercies are new each returning day: let the radiance of your Spirit renew our lives, warming our hearts and giving light to our minds: that we may pass the coming year in joyful obedience and firm faith; through him who is the beginning and the end, your Son Christ our Lord. Amen"

Saturday, December 14, 2013

As we enter the busy Christmas season it can be hard to keep our focus on the central facts of Christ's coming but we need to do so to avoid being swept up in trivia. Perhaps the passing of Nelson Mandela at this time of the year has helped to give pause to the annual headlong rush to accumulate trinkets and spend shed-loads of money, but only just. His noble legacy of grace, diplomacy and the victory of forgiveness over resentment have all merited airtime recently and may just serve to bring a dash of sanity to this recurring manic phase of capitalist splurging on non-essentials. At least I hope so.

I really am doing my best to avoid the 'humbug' scowl of the Charles Dickens character Scrooge because I simply don't feel like that. I can still remember my first Christmas as a Christian, savouring the wonder of Christ's coming to save the likes of me! I also love the fact that here in the West we get a festival of lights and feasting in our dark mid-winter, but I hope for better things than many people seem to experience at this time.  Is it too much to want real peace and joy instead of debt and domestic conflict? I don't think so and yet for too many homes the bills piling up will only add pressure to the tinder keg of strained relationships.  Sadly the experience of counselling organisations in the aftermath of Christmas each year testifies to this.

So how can we make a difference this Christmas? There have been lots of sensible tips given by folk as far apart as the Archbishop of Canterbury and various television budget advisers, but I want to say let's try to get behind the hype and discover the real Jesus this year. Let's take time to listen to the words of the traditional carols, like 'O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel' and 'be born in us today'. The real Jesus impacted our world far more powerfully than Nelson Mandela did, setting people free, not just from racism or political injustice, but from the chains that bind us within.  After all, racism and hatred are symptoms of a much deeper problem that requires a more radical solution than free and fair elections. Only a change of heart will do - and that's what I pray for you this Christmas.