Wednesday, December 31, 2014
In our saddest moments during 2014 we have not been left alone. God has been with us even though we have not found it easy to discern his presence at times. I have a very close friend, Martyn, whose dear wife Gill died suddenly just over a year ago, and who found great help and comfort in his grief in a song by Fernando Ortega, "Take Heart my Friend" and it has become precious to me also. In the dark nights of pain I have played it often. It has been my encourager as I have sat in my car watching the waves pounding angrily on the sea-shore. As I face tomorrow with its wet sand just waiting to be written upon by whatever God has planned for Diane and me, I do take heart from the fact that we are not alone. Read the lyrics here and see if they help you also.
Take heart my friend, we'll go together
This uncertain road that lies ahead
Our faithful God has always gone before us
And He will lead the way once again
Take heart my friend, we can walk together
And if our burdens become too great
We can hold up and help one another
In God's love, in God's grace
Take heart my friend, the Lord is with us
As He has been all the days of our lives
Our assurance every morning
Our defender in the night
If we should falter when trouble surrounds us
When the wind and the waves are wild and high
We will look away to Him who rules the waters
Who spoke His peace into the angry tide
He is our comfort, our sustainer
He is our help in time of need
And when we wander He is our shepherd
He who watches over us, never sleeps
Take heart my friend, the Lord is with us
As He has been all the days of our lives
Our assurance every morning
Our defender in the night
Take heart my friend, the Lord is with us
As He has been all the days of our lives
Our assurance every morning
Our defender in the night
When the time comes, Diane and I wish you all a very Happy New Year!
Monday, December 22, 2014
But then, like it or not, that's how Christmas started out. We love to idealise the stable scene with its kneeling wise men, adoring shepherds and hushed animals all worshiping the baby in the manger, but the reality included much less savoury facts. The young parents in Bethlehem were very soon to be engulfed with the most appalling sorrow as every child under 2 years of age was put to death by evil King Herod. The young Jesus with his Mum and Dad escaped as refugees like thousands of others in Jordan and Syria today, leaving behind them mourning and crying as the prophet Jeremiah described so powerfully, "Rachel crying for her children and not able to be comforted".
Why is there this dark side to Christmas? Just co-incidence? Maybe if you subscribe to the co-incidence view of history, but I prefer to recognise that the coming of Jesus was the greatest threat to the powers of darkness that they had ever faced, or would ever face. Just as evil King Herod feared that this baby had come to take away his kingdom and power, so there are forces in our world that tremble at the sound of the songs of Christmas. The birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus are the hinges on which the door of human history hangs. As we celebrate his coming this Christmas let's not lose sight of the dark side but rejoice that the light has come! "Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Let Earth receive her king!" Amen to that!
Thursday, December 18, 2014
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
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
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
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.
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
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 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
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.
Saturday, October 25, 2014
As we dodged the teeming crowds around two of the biggest of the capital's hospitals we were struck by the fact that all the wisdom, power and sophistication of man simply cannot clear the streets of the detritus of self-destructive patterns of life. People of all ages sleep in shop doorways while piles of rubbish are picked through regularly by those seeking something to eat, or to sell. Desperately needy people can't get a hospital bed due to overcrowding and everywhere people are gazing into small screens and tapping gadgets rather than speak with one another. Loneliness abounds in the place of such human activity.
In all this it seems that a return to the basics of the gospel is desperately needed. People matter more than political power posturing and personal profiteering. God loves us so much that he gave his only Son for our salvation and to offer each of us a purpose and an eternal home in heaven. May God bless his church in central London and prosper every effort to reach the nation's capital with the message of his love. London needs Jesus - I need Jesus - and thank God he is available for us!
Friday, October 10, 2014
When I can think clearly through the fog of opiates and the sharp sense that there must surely be a spear right through my upper abdomen - and doesn't it stick out at the back too? - I startle myself with a sense of well-being. Before you call the men in white coats there are reasons for this state of calm that are not just drug induced. I have found special help this week in certain obscure (but not pointless!) Bible verses. One is found in Ephesians 4:6 where it says that my God and Father is "over all and through all and in all". I had not considered that before but it has sealed my soul in a firm compost of comfort this week while I try to bear fruit in a barren environment. God is in charge - not the doctors, nor the devil and thankfully not me!
Another came at me sideways from the good old book of Psalms - ancient Israel's national songbook. Reading almost like a medical report it says: "You couldn’t stand the sight of food, so miserable you thought you’d be better off dead.Then you called out to GOD in your desperate condition; he got you out in the nick of time. He spoke the word that healed you, that pulled you back from the brink of death." (Ps 107:18-20 The Message) Wow! Now that gave me hope. Of course I realise that wishful thinking may be at work here, but actually choosing to trust in God's promises and his words is proving to be a powerful steadying force in this trying time.
So although I am messing about with the first line of the old hymn, perhaps the ending can still stand? "The Lord God made them all" And if that's true then I'll be OK, even if the time-bomb does go off.
Saturday, September 27, 2014
I had an MRCP scan at University College Hospital London this week and it revealed an extensive stricture or closing of my pancreatic duct with what appeared to be stones piling up behind it. This accounts for the severe pain I have been in for some time and means that in 3 weeks I will be having a surgical procedure to open this up and clear the duct, similar to one that I had some years ago and put me in ICU for quite a long while! Yet I have peace about this one and trust my loving Lord to watch over me that day. Then I also have to go back to Guys and St Thomas' hospital in London too in order to find out why the spinal neuro-stimulator fitted to relieve the awful pain of pancreatitis has failed - and if it is faulty as suspected I will have to undergo having the operation of last July done again. I am also waiting for all this to be finished so that I can have a routine plumbing operation in my local hospital! Plenty to be getting on with then!
I am still praying for healing and release from this every day, and look forward to the day when I can put all this behind me and press on to new and better things. When a horse is being trained, however, to be useful to its trainer there comes a moment when it is 'broken'. The stubborn will of the creature is won over, and it desires whatever its master wants it to do. Now we are not animals and God treats us very differently, inviting our love and joyful surrender as an expression of our partnership with Him in the redemption and recreation of all living things. But even Jesus went through the experience of 'brokenness' when He submitted to His father's plan for salvation. When we follow His example and allow God to master us and use us in His plan, then much can be achieved in and through us.
Friday, August 22, 2014
Thankfully at my call she stopped, turned and tossed her head as if to say 'I know what I'm doing!' But give her due, she then dashed away from her pathway into nothing and joined me on the high path. You see, it's all about vantage point, vision and clarity. Smells are great but in that kind of landscape you can't beat perspective!
My way is like that just now. I sense that this way or that may be interesting, productive or just pleasant - and we could do with something pleasant after years of suffering. But I need to listen to the call of one who has perspective - height. I am 62 today - and formally retiring from full-time employment due to severe and ongoing ill-health. I will continue to serve Eldad Church until later in the year if I possibly can so that my successor can take up his or her post, though even that is in God's hands not mine. After more than 43 years of leading and serving churches pursuing a call that came to me as a very young man, I still need to hear that voice from above - now more than ever really. To be honest, this path smells pretty naff - stinks really - but what I need at this time and for the future is perspective that comes from height, not smells that come from my own carnal nature or ideas that form in my vivid imagination.
As the writer of Israel's ancient hymn book prayed "LORD, when my heart is overwhelmed within me, lead me to the Rock that is higher than I am".
Monday, June 16, 2014
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
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?
As for me - I'm under the feathers today! It's one of those days!
Sunday, April 20, 2014
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
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
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!