Friday, November 13, 2015

What kind of prisoner? A very moo-ving tale!

In the ancient Bible book of Zechariah believers are called "prisoners of hope" (Zech. 9:12). I like that description of those of us who dare to believe that our lives are held in higher hands than our own. In fact, that kind of prisoner is one that would not choose to go completely free!

Near our home in the Channel Islands there is a herd of traditional Guernsey cattle. They are large, intelligent, beautiful creatures who lead the world in the production of golden, creamy milk. Having said that, I would not want to be confronted by a stampeding group of them in a country lane and so I 'm grateful to the microscopic strand of wire that effectively keeps them in the field. Attached to a battery this flimsy barrier is effective because these huge beasts are prisoners of their painful memories. 'Once bitten twice shy' means that they learned very early on not to push past these boundaries. So effective is this that even if the battery was disconnected for long periods, the cattle would still stay in place. The sting of past pain is sufficient to prevent them from going free.

Many of us have been stung in the past and are left as prisoners of pain today. Some might say that we have become mature and discerning by our brushes with pain, but it is hard not to feel like a prisoner when your life is curtailed by things you cannot do and places you cannot go due to the pain or other reminder of life-limiting experience. But with God's help even those of us held captive by pain can become prisoners of hope!

I was, therefore, so helped and challenged this morning by my reading of that Old Testament prophecy and especially the second part of the verse. "Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you". It appears then that God is planning to restore to his people that which they have lost while prisoners of anything less than hope. This is reminiscent of another passage where God promises to restore to us "the years that the locusts have eaten" (Joel 2:25). Now that is good news!

So - what kind of prisoner are you?

Saturday, October 31, 2015

When Understanding Fails

This is not an easy weekend for a number of my close friends- nor for me really - as a young couple that we love set off for distant shores and leave us. It's always tough to say goodbye to people you care about but there's an added dimension here. They came to our church and island home to lead the youth work and serve God among us a couple of years ago and now they are moving on, feeling that God is leading them. Those left behind are struggling with letting their dear friends go and also understanding what God is doing and saying in all this.

Farewells are not the only struggles we face when trying to understand the will of God. Bereavement is heaps more difficult, as are serious long-term ill health or troubles that do not yield to persistent prayer. God knows it's hard enough to go through stuff so surely it would help a lot if we could get some explanations.  That's what is at the heart of the "Why Lord?" kind of praying we all do a lot of these days. But maybe we are not helping ourselves when we demand answers to life's tough dilemmas. Of course we want to know more - that's part of being human and made in the image of God - but the Bible teaches us that this is not helpful reasoning or praying. In the ancient book of Isaiah the Lord says to his people Israel "Do you question who or what I am making? Are you telling me what I can or cannot do? I made Earth and created man and woman to live on it!"

If the "Why Lord?" prayer is proving unhelpful or at least unfruitful, is there any alternative? Well, I was watching a video yesterday by the US Bible teacher Joyce Meyer and she said something I wrote down. "I need to live by your promises Lord and not by your explanations." She went on to argue that in all the circumstances of life God is calling us to trust him more. We need to let him be God and get on with the work of running the universe without having to interpret or explain himself to my couple of kilos of grey matter that is called a brain. If the heavens and the Earth aren't big enough to contain him, why do I think my cranium offers him an alternative!

So in the middle of all the stuff I am facing, as well as the loss of dear friends, I choose to trust God and stand on his promises. My baptismal verse comes back to me with force: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding" (Proverbs 3:3). It would be nice to have explanations, and at the end of the day we will have them, but till then let's take our stand on something more solid and confess "He is Lord".

Friday, October 16, 2015

In God's Waiting Room

Following on from my last post about the timing of God being so different to ours, I am learning so much this week about how hard it is to wait. In fact, despite all the pain and frustration of the last 20 years, this period of waiting is one of the toughest I've been through. In a nutshell, there is an operation being done in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for people with chronic pancreatitis that could really help me. They remove the whole pancreas and spleen, together with part of the stomach and all of the duodenum, and then transplant the bits of the pancreas that produce insulin into the liver so as to avoid the patient becoming a brittle diabetic. It has helped hundreds of patients in the USA and some here in Britain too.

The problem is that the op is not being funded and is any case outside the 'contract area' that my local health authority has with the NHS in the UK. So we are being held up in endless bureaucracy while due process is being gone through to see if I could be funded to have this done. All the medics who care for me are recommending me to get going with this, but it has now become a political and not really just a medical matter and they are being over-ruled. Meanwhile, I am quite unwell again and will have to go back to the London hospital soon to get the stent replaced and the pancreatic duct cleared - a procedure fraught with dangers for someone with my record.

I was comforted and yet challenged this week when someone sent me the verse Micah 7:7 which reads, "But as for me, I watch in hope for the LORD, I wait for God my Saviour; my God will hear me." Yes, - we may be waiting for politicians and bureaucrats, but behind them all God is in charge. He can step in any moment to provide funding some other way, or even to touch my pancreas and heal me. So, we wait, not for men, but for God.

Great! But meanwhile we mortals need some divine help here to enable us to be patient and keep trusting! Thankfully, that's where you guys come in - lifting us up by your prayers and encouragement - and we appreciate all that you have done so far. We are not alone in God's waiting room and his timing is always perfect.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

For when a little while seems a long time!

Every Saturday evening several millions of viewers sit down to watch another edition of the long-running medical soap "Casualty". As one of them from time to time I am amused by the fact that such complex problems are always solved within 50 minutes or at the most a couple of episodes. Great issues of life and death come so neatly packaged that they simply can't be real! Life just isn't like that.

A couple of decades ago Diane and I felt encouraged by a Bible verse which we took as a personal promise from God to us. It's in 1 Peter 5:10 "And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast." We took it then as a sign that my dreadful battle with pain would be time limited - and it will be - but there is a catch, an issue with God's timing. It seems so different to ours. We want the whole problem fixed within an hour at the most, but his "little while" may vary in length greatly.

In John 16 the disciples of Jesus had the same problem as I do. They kept asking each other, "What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying." God's timing seems so different to ours. I was just thinking of this the other day when it came to me just how long some of God's dealing with his people Israel were. They were in slavery in Egypt for 400 years.  That's the same as from the year 1615AD to today! Think of how much has happened in our country and continent in those 400 years. Then when the people were being led by Moses they were turned away from the borders of the promised land because of their unbelief and wandered in the desert for 40 years - a whole generation! When poor old Joseph was put in prison for something he didn't do, he was probably there for 20 years. Yet even after all that he was able to say that God meant it for his good (Genesis 50:20).

So what I am saying is "slow down a bit - God's not in a hurry"! He doles out his plan for us one day at a time, and the timing is OK in his hands. In fact, I prefer it that way, and I want to learn to move through life at his rhythm not mine. I recall the lyrics of that old song "One day at a time, sweet Jesus" and determine that what matters is who is in charge and calling the shots, not how fast my problems can be dealt with. Now, that would probably not make a good story line for Casualty would it?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Small breed big personality!

She may only be tiny - all of 2Kg in weight - but our little Pomeranian dog is a huge personality! She almost dominates our lives with her expectations of walks and outings. Her barking can sometimes drive us to distraction BUT she is so sensitive to my pain. In the last few days it has returned with a bit of a vengeance as I think the latest stent is starting to block, but this little character knows my deepest feelings and whenever I am in pain she nuzzles my hands and asks to come up and sit on me. Sensing even the site of my anguish, if I lie down she curls up on my abdomen (perhaps the softest place around!) and settles down to nap with one eye on my facial expressions! This is a one man dog with a big heart, and we often say that if the Holy Spirit is called "The Comforter" in the Bible, which He is, then this little doggy works for the Holy Spirit!

Isn't it amazing how God puts things and people into our lives just when we need them?  It might be a timely book or article, or even a helpful TV programme.  Mind you, flesh and blood comforters are the very best, so cats and dogs come into that category. They may not be able to speak but the language of their love and understanding has much more than words in its vocabulary.

So, although I would love to be free of this pain today, I count my blessings and give thanks for the small ones that add a ton of value!

Friday, September 18, 2015

You Don't Deserve this!

The migration and refugee crisis currently dominating the news in all of Europe and beyond is unlikely to go away any time soon. Hungary may have sealed its borders for now, but the flow of Syrians and others fleeing war and desperate danger is unstoppable and will find other ways through to the nations of north-western Europe. Listening to a radio interview this morning from within Serbia, a non-EU country along the route being taken by hundreds of thousands of migrants I was struck by one comment the lady speaking made. With a desperate choke in her voice she sobbed "we don't deserve this!" My heart went out to her and her children as they stumble along the harsh highway from hell in the Balkans.

This started me thinking about the apparent unfairness of life generally. It can seem unbearably so sometimes, and must do today to the countless thousands fleeing misery in this way. Maybe you are feeling like this too. I know that I do from time to time, and it doesn't pay to analyse too deeply how others get along and seem to do so well when one's own load is so heavy to bear. If you have time to read Psalm 73 you will see that Bible writers also wrestled with this issue of unfairness and their words can be a help to us when this problem gets us down.

We don't always get what we deserve in this life. In fact, very few do. The creator of the universe surely had a right to be respected and obeyed by the people he had made when he appeared among them, but they crucified him instead. In fact, when all the furor of the first Christmas died down, the Son of God became a refugee in Egypt. He too was hauled along by terrified parents fleeing the screams of bereaved mothers in the Middle Eastern village where their baby had been born. They had been warned by an angel to get going and took to the road with what little possessions they could carry (not much room there for gold, frankincense and myrrh!). Jesus didn't deserve that, and neither did his dear mother, who might well have been interviewed on the road out of Israel if media had been invented then.

And you don't deserve the pain you are feeling today - neither do I. Yet if I am honest, if I got what I really deserved out of life, I might have been in hell today. In some ways then I am relieved not to get my just deserts! When the load seems too heavy to bear, remember the holy family on the road to homelessness in Egypt and thank God that he knows what you are going through. "Lord, I am always with you, you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel and afterwards you will take me into glory... My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever." Psalm 73:23-26.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Book of Life

Have you read any good books lately? Perhaps a summer break has helped you to get turning the pages. I hope so. Recently I have been ploughing my way through the famous Lee Harper's To Kill A Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary Edition because I read somewhere that it was the greatest book of the 20th Century. At about the halfway point I can't see why that would be so, but hey, it's not over yet! On a more serious note, I have been deeply moved by a new book about suffering by Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering and there are some profound insights there into a subject with which I am living daily. If you want a deeper look at the theology of suffering I really rate his book.

I was encouraged this week when two different people told me they had been reading my own books on suffering and found them really helpful. Braving the Storm: Survival Tactics seems to really help folk even though it only covers the first decade of my struggle with chronic pancreatitis. For those who want to think more deeply about a Christian approach to suffering and healing my book Storm Force seems to be hitting the spot. One reviewer on wrote about Storm Force "If you feel disappointed due to unanswered prayer for healing or struggle with why God allows your suffering to continue I highly recommend this book". You can click on the titles of all these books above and get straight to where you can obtain them.

Every day I also read two or three different passages from the Bible. Recently, the book of Jeremiah has been challenging me deeply and helping me through a very dark time. Jeremiah was called by God to preach and prophesy from a very young age, and was very good at it, but he faced great opposition. One day his enemies conspired to get him arrested and thrown into an underground cistern. This vast holding tank usually for thousands of gallons of water was exceptionally dry apart from a deep layer of sticky mud. There was only one opening at the top of the cavern for air, light, or access. Jeremiah would have fallen about ten metres or more into that foul mud and into total darkness as the top was sealed. He must have felt so devastated and frightened. But God saw him there and used a practically unknown man who argued his case before the king, and Jeremiah was eventually rescued, being hauled half dead out of the stinking dungeon. Within a few hours he was taken into the throne room of the king who asked him a loaded question "Is there any word from the Lord?". Transformed from the mud to a throne!

I feel like Jeremiah just now, at least in the muddy bit! My pain is unbearable, requiring huge doses of morphine. I mourn the interruption to my preaching ministry and the two decades spent battling this awful disease. I fail to see the point of it. Next week, after the Bank Holiday, I must fly back to London once again, only a month after the last time, to undergo yet another risky and delicate procedure to clear my pancreatic duct and remove a stent that may be causing this upsurge in pain. With Jeremiah I cry "Why Lord?".  Yet, like him, I also know that in a moment God can use an obscure source to come to my rescue and lift me out of the pit. I love that verse on which famous songs are based: "He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand" (Ps 40:2). Now, that would make a good book eh?