Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pre-Christmas Exhaustion and its Cure!

A mum was out Christmas shopping with her two children. After many hours of looking at row after row of toys and everything else imaginable; and hearing both her children asking for everything they saw on the shelves, she finally made it to the lift to leave the store. She rubbed her weary eyes with a hand weighed down with three loaded carrier bags and sighed as she waited for the lift to come to her floor, the kids pulling constantly on her coat sleeves and screeching in tired frustration. She was feeling what so many of us feel during this time of the year. Overwhelming pressure! Pressure to go to every party, or get the kids to theirs, taste all the holiday food and treats, get that perfect gift for every single person on our shopping list, not forgetting anyone on our card list, and the pressure of making sure that Christmas is altogether 'magical'.

Finally the lift doors opened and there was already a crowd inside. She pushed her way into the lift and dragged her two kids in with her and all the bags of stuff. When the doors closed she couldn't take it anymore and muttered with bitter resignation, "Whoever started this whole Christmas thing should be found, strung up and shot." From the back of the lift everyone heard a quiet calm voice respond, "Don't worry, we already did that - we crucified Him." For the rest of the trip down the lift was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.

It can be so hard to keep our heads above water at this time of the year and find space to maintain our own peace, and especially our walk with God.  I don't think Jesus invented the modern Christmas and must be feeling pretty left out of it all anyway. But I came across a really helpful translation of a passage in the ancient gospel of Matthew that just about sums up what Jesus might say to us if we had a minute for him. "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly." (Matthew 11:28 – 30 from The Message).

If Christmas feels "heavy or ill-fitting" we can be pretty sure Jesus didn't lay it on us, and maybe we should spend a few moments tuning his way at a time supposed to be all about him? Give it a go anyway and see if you can get through this season "freely and lightly".



Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fragile but Precious

When people ask me how I am now in the aftermath of recent medical intervention I usually reply 'Doing well - but fragile!'. This got me thinking about fragility generally and especially as we start receiving parcels marked 'FRAGILE' in advance of Christmas. What does it mean and what do I mean when I use it to describe my state of health? The dictionary offers two meanings for the word - "able to be broken easily" and "in a weakened physical state" and so it's the latter sense that I am using. But there is another aspect of the word that takes my interest - the fact that so many precious things are fragile. Glass ornaments, prized artefacts, antiques, sensitive technical equipment, medical kit - all these important and valuable things may be described as 'fragile'.

When faith is fragile it is sometimes open to criticism, especially from those whose faith is robust and strong. Like the man who used to get sand kicked in his face in the advert for muscle-building products, Christians can feel intimidated at times when their faith is fragile. Perhaps in the aftermath of trauma or bereavement, or the barren wasteland of loss and disappointment, faith can be especially fragile as we travel the journey of our lives. Yet this fragility itself speaks to us of the precious nature of the cargo. Our faith - whether fledgling faith like that of Jesus' disciples or bruised faith like that of those of us who have suffered long and hard - is of immense value to God.

You see, just a little faith placed in a mighty God can achieve amazing things! A small and faltering step taken on a strong bridge will get us so much further than confident stamping on a shaky artificial temporary walkway! When we see that someone else's faith is fragile, let's not be too quick to criticise. In fact, when illustrating the power of faith placed in God, Jesus took the smallest of all the seeds in a Middle-Eastern garden, the mustard seed, to show how precious such faith can be. So instead, maybe we need to back off and pray that their small and fragile faith may be placed in a powerful and loving God and so bring forth the fruit that it is capable of producing in the long run.

Till then, I'm doing OK thanks, but fragile!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Doing it Afraid - Again!

It's never easy to face surgery again. I say again because of the number of times I have been through this before. Going into the theatre and lying down for this particular procedure on the table, waiting for them to put me out, is a very lonely place to be. It's always very cold due to the extreme air-conditioning and the fact that the poor patient is virtually naked under a thin surgical gown.  As each of the people present introduce themselves to me one by one their names go immediately out of my mind because I am TERRIFIED! I smile politely at each of them a bit like Mary Queen of Scots is said to have tipped her executioner so that he would make a good job of it with his axe. I am always reminded of the old gospel song that goes "You've got to walk that lonesome valley, You gotta walk there by yourself.  And no-one else can go there for you, You gotta go there by yourself!"

Yet I am not alone, not really alone. Once a long time ago, when one of these very same ops had put me into Intensive Care for several weeks, and I came very near to death (another reason why I get so scared!!), I felt the presence of Jesus very real with me indeed. In the midst of my terrifying ordeal, and very near the end, I felt him come to me and imagined that I could feel him sitting on the bed. You may think it was the drugs that caused all that but I know differently. There was something supernatural about the calm that came into my fevered mind and my pain-wracked body at that moment.  I wrote about it in my book Braving the Storm. It changed my whole life at that time and it still has an effect today.  Because on Monday, when I lie down on that table and they are inserting tubes and lines into all manner of orifices and veins, I will hush my heart with the image of the face of Christ, and remind myself of his words 'Lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age'.

And I will get through it.  Not without fear. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the will to go through despite one's fear. As Joyce Meyer says often in her television broadcasts, I will be 'doing it afraid'. And that's the only way to do it really. Honestly!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Growing through Storms

When storms come they usually leave a mess behind. Some well built structures get thrown around and carefully constructed items can lose their shape and purpose completely. How we deal with the shock, sadness and disappointment caused by all this determines whether we grow through the storm or are diminished by it. Certainly the equivalent of surges and storm force weather in my life have recently caused me quite a lot of pain and not a little disappointment too. The amazing pain control system placed surgically within my spine nearly four years ago and then renewed this July has lost its effectiveness completely. I am being told stuff about the nerves of the body growing tolerant or getting scarred so that they no longer pass the pain-relieving current as they did at first.

A month ago I had a stent fitted to my pancreatic duct to try and bridge a stricture and relieve the pressure and pain. There followed two or three weeks of relative calm.  I really thought this was it!  They have cracked it at last! Then the symptoms returned big time. Now it appears that the stent is blocked and so I must return to UCLH in London to have it removed and replaced with a larger one. The disarray in my life is great though not complete. My carefully constructed plans are once again thrown into a mess. I have to cancel a visit to the Lake District next week to attend a writer's retreat and put off a friend who was coming to eat with us over this weekend.  Grrrr!  Frustration and pain.

But it is so good to know that I have a shelter in these storms, in fact, in every kind of upheaval that life throws at us. Peace in a time of storm, hope when despair threatens, the assurance of eternal life in Christ, the comfort given by knowing that I am loved, the constant reassurance I find in my precious wife and her amazing support of me, the fellowship of praying friends - WOW! Like mid-Western Americans slowly climbing out of their hurricane shelters to witness the devastation that the storm has brought, I am saddened and shocked - but I know this damage is only temporary.  It will be repaired because ultimately my life is not a series of accidents and storms, but is held by a hand greater than my own. You can read more about this in my first book Braving the Storm.

I recall that, whilst gazing on desolation in the deserted streets of the destroyed city of Jerusalem a few hundred years ago, Jeremiah the prophet wrote "Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." (Lamentations 3:22-23). That perspective gives me hope. God is not finished with me yet. His mercies are new each morning and He still has a plan for my life. Well, maybe we'll get this mess cleared up soon eh?

Friday, November 07, 2014

Terrifying Period of Flashes and Bangs

It has been a tough few days for our little dog! She is normally very peaceful and spends quite a bit of time asleep, but bonfire night seems to just keep on going - terrifying her out of her already limited wits!  Just when she is about to go outside and do what comes naturally there is another almighty bang or screech and flash from the sky and she scoots inside again. Often she bounds into my arms and presses her head into my chest in an attempt to escape "the terror that flies by night". This is her first November with us and we were not looking forward to the 5th, pretty certain that she would find it hard, but now it seems to be every evening this week is the same. Hopefully this weekend will see the end of it at least for another year.

This little character is very affectionate and trusting but she does get very scared when at home. She seems to regard every passing vehicle a threat to our household security and each person walking away from the shop an agent of some terrible enemy!  Mysty is wrong, of course, but we can't get the message through to her yet that there really is nothing to be scared of in even the most appalling banging and screeching from nearby fireworks.

All this has got me thinking again about fear and how paralysing it can be. There is so often no link in reality between the veracity of the threat and the level of our fears. We can be intimidated by things that will never actually hurt us, but the fear itself is enough to cause us real distress. I find it helpful to remember that the New Testament tells us to 'fear not' 366 times - one for every day and one for a leap year also. Of course education and awareness helps to subdue our fears, as we become aware of the actual threats that we face in life.  That's why this month of November being designated as pancreatic disease awareness month is important for me.  But beyond that, and far more important really, we need to learn to really trust in the One who does have the power to disarm enemies and protect his own. "Just like the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord's love surrounds those who trust in him, to deliver them."

So when life disrupts my peace with its threatening and noisy displays I must try to focus on God's promises and presence with me in the storm. Like Mysty I must run into his arms by faith and find the comfort of pressing into his heart and hearing his reassuring words of comfort to settle me and deliver from every fear.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Pancreatitis Awareness Month

The pancreas is a long and slender gland shaped roughly like an ox-tongue, about 6-8 inches long, sitting in the top of your abdomen. It normally does two things: firstly in an exocrine function it produces enzymes that dissolve meat and fat in your gut.  Secondly, in its endocrine function it makes hormones like the insulin that controls and regulates the levels of glucose (sugar) in your blood. These hormones are produced by tiny cells known as the islets of Langerhan after a German doctor who first spotted them.

Pancreatitis happens when stones, strictures or other blockages cause the enzymes that usually go into the digestive system where they are activated and work on what you eat, to get stuck inside the pancreas.  Unable to do their usual digestive work there these enzymes start devouring the flesh around them, producing terrible inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).  In some extreme cases, like mine, this can become life-threatening, even long after the original cause of the blockage has been removed (in my case gall-stones but often the overuse of alcohol) and can result in hemorrhaging pancreatitis with massive internal bleeding, or necrotising pancreatitis where gangrene sets in within the pancreas, both of which have happened to me over the years and require long-term stays in hospital, often in Intensive Care Units. The long term effects of such attacks of acute pancreatitis can occasionally produce chronic pancreatitis which is the breakdown of the flesh of the organ, producing overwhelming pain and digestive problems. In fact, the dreadful pain of pancreatitis has been described as 'one of the worst pains known to man' and also as being 'like the pain of a heart-attack only it just doesn't stop'. This means that sufferers of this debilitating disease are often in and out of hospital and may need opiates (morphine etc) for pain management.

There is not enough research and funding being put into these diseases and so the month of November 2014 has been designated in the USA as pancreatitis awareness month.  Please pray for those who are searching out treatments and support mechanisms for those suffering from pancreatitis and cancer of the pancreas. In the UK there is a very good support line for pancreatic cancer at Pancreatic Cancer UK and there is also help and information for those struggling with various forms of pancreatitis at the Pancreatitis Supporters' Network where folk who have walked the pathway before us share their wisdom and experience. Let's pray for breakthrough and ask the Lord Jesus Christ, who is described as 'the Great Physician' to grant his comfort and healing to anyone reading this post who suffers from this pernicious illness. Thanks!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

What are you Wearing Today?

My wife tells me that changing seasons are a real nightmare for a lady! Getting the right clothes for the new weather patterns can be very challenging especially when, as at present in the UK, the seasons are sort of blending into one. As for me I don't worry at all about seasons and my decisions on what I wear each day are largely made on whatever is nearest to the wardrobe door! I seldom think about what to wear and certainly don't spend long choosing - well there's not a lot to choose from for us blokes, is there?

In my Bible reading today I found a real challenge to think more deeply about what to put on today. Colossians chapter 3 describes some of the ways in which First Century Christians lived before they started following Christ and how that changed once their faith started affecting the things they "put on" daily. "But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices." (Col. 3:8-9) That is a wardrobe of clothes as ugly as the bottom of an eagle's nest after dinner time! Those are the old tattered garments of a life lived without Christ and with no concern for others or their feelings.

Within a few lines, though, the author of the New Testament letter shows the contrasting outfit that Christian believers are invited to "put on" each day. "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 whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity". (Col. 3:12-14). Now that really would bring about a new season in my dress code!

So as we face the world today, let's choose what we will wear from the wardrobe of faith and peace that Jesus holds open before us. It will lead to peace in our hearts (vs 15), unity in local churches, and a powerful sense of Christ's lingering presence in the world reflected in the lives of his modern day disciples.