12 September 2004
A Public Announcement !
As some of you will already know I received some bad news last week. After informing my family I have gradually been telling my story to some of you, and after today it will be public knowledge.
The news is that I have been diagnosed with cancer of the colon - well actually it is
'recto sigmoid junction carcinoma' hope you're impressed with the pronunciation and let me off Ollie's banns later.!
This week has probably not been the most difficult of my life; it has not been the most dreadful week of my life; but it has been the most serious week of my life.
I know it's serious, because Lin ironed my only pair of pyjamas & then bought a new pair & I don't wear panamas!!
Obviously there have been things I have needed to wrestle with. And in a new way I have had to struggle with God and to understand my feelings. And so this morning I'm asking you to share in my journey.
It's important for me that you are able to bare with me today as I do this - I'm not asking you not to weep, I'm not asking you not to laugh, I'm not asking that you 'don't be you'. I am in a way testing out with you all that I have been teaching you in my time here, and if it is all true then this is my testing time, to stand and live what I have preached.
I am a little afraid that you may find yourselves judging me to be wrong, theologically skewed, or self indulgent.. and if you do I accept you in that. But for me I am most serious and being totally honest.
My feelings come in waves, as I'm sure some of you with different personal experiences of loss & shock will appreciate.
So although I hope to complete this journey this morning with you, if I can't then Mike has kindly offered to take over from me - so don't panic if it happens - you can still remain seated.!!
Introduction verse from Rom 8 vs 1-2
The war in my body became real on Thursday 2nd September
It was the same week that over 350 people, mostly children died in a siege in the little town of BESLAN .
I then heard on Radio 4 that Putin had asked the nation to pray.. I thought that was amazing and then wondered what is it that they should pray for. What do you pray for when some horrendous terror strikes you?
I wondered what I should pray for my self, and what do I say to people when they say they will remember me in their prayers..?
With the news of hundreds of children killed I was freshly aware of the randomness of mortality, like it was on 11 th September 2001. and then personally aware of an end to breathing.
In contrast to those innocent children dying, it had only been the day before that I had taken the funeral of Elsie Stoney aged 83; we celebrated her life, which seemed to be filled with fun, irreverence, and deep simple faith.
And last week, little James Bartlett, suffering again, crying, wanting to be without pain and his parents exhausted, and yet still caring. Now that is unconditional love. And David Evans -we've prayed for him for months
And I began again the struggle to try and understand what was going on, what sort of world do I inhabit and what about the God I worship, whom I trust enough to want to obey.
Does he really just allow such injustice?
Why is it that God allows one person to outlive their usefulness and another cut off in their prime?
And what about those who care nothing for my Lord Jesus Christ and perhaps not much for those around them.. and live their full life span; and others who have devoted their lives to God and His work are suddenly separated by death with years of good still to be done?
It seems that one of the uncomfortable things about Christianity is that it is NOT an inoculation against road accidents, cancers, persecution, terrorism and death.
And as much as I want and desire God to interfere, to put it all right, solve the problems, I am aware that when I pray that God will remove the cancer, heal James, or make everyone get on with each other with out quarrelling and being hurt; actually God doesn't and seems to treat Christian equally with the most hideous of people
But I guess I'm just being self indulgent here, I want God to do for me and mine when I know full well, as I read my Bible, that God is not an interventionist, that is, problem solving at every sign of pain or injustice.
After all the Bible has scarcely got into it's stride when Cain kills his brother Abel whom God really liked.
And Samson a wise judge who discovering a particularly brutal murder of father & daughter, sought justice, but his friends betrayed him and his eyes were gouged out and then dies in the prime of life; and lovely King David looses his baby and then his older son, how awful.
And Stephen becomes a Christian and within his first year is stoned to death.
It is clear that Christians are treated the same as everyone else when it comes to death and danger.
Jesus Christ is not a plc., not an insurance policy, not an ethereal safety net to catch us from falling off a cliff or our perches or under the wheels of a bus..
So where does this get me.. what does it mean to be Christian when disaster strikes?
What am I supposed to do when I feel so scared of leaving Lin and loosing special people who are so precious to me?
I feel that on the edge of my awareness, like a small cloud of unknowing, that I just might die. And I feel this for the first time, but I have always known that I shall die .. one day. That feels strange.
The phrase I've adopted for this is "an elephant on the horizon", because if death should arrive soon then it may be far bigger than I can handle.
So what should I feel, How to behave, what should I pray, what should I say?
I haven't an answer or even the beginnings of an answer.
But it seems that suffering or sickness or untimely death is an unfathomable mystery.
I guess that's a bit obvious, but it is now real for me.
So how do I deal with it?
Well there are two perspectives
First Mine and then those who love me.
I feel quite peaceful quite comfortable at the moment. I know that God is really in charge of this situation, that's not to say I'm fatalistic & have given up.
I do have times of panic and confusion, of tears, of heart tearing fear, of awful loss, sleepless nights and loads of laughter. And I feel a shamed too because it can make others feel embarrassed and I'm sorry for doing that to you, and if I can I shall do something about that.
But actually the FEELINGS I have are not much different from experiences I have already had in ..
childhood loss, of sleeping on a front door mat hoping my mother would come back; of being lost in a big shop, of fear of the dark & new experiences, of divorce, & separation & on .
It's almost as if I have been prepared for this time..
except that this time I do not know just how serious it is
All I know is that it is serious. And that's where I am .
So what about others, what of their reactions?
I think that some anger might be appropriate , after all if we love someone and they suddenly die, killed or diagnosed with a fatal disease we may feel aggrieved, angry at the injustice, or frightened by looking into an empty future.
I think to put on a mask of false piety would be damaging ( piety =unthinking reverence)
It is perfectly Ok to be angry, to complain to God, to ask why. I think we should not be afraid to do that.
God is not some fragile doll who will fall off His perch if we get angry with God or raise a voice of protest.
God has never struck anyone down for expressing their true feelings
If God did then Jeremiah would been struck down along with Jonah and Moses. And a third of the Psalms would have mysteriously disappeared for scripture.
And what about Jesus, supposing he had no time for those who complained and got angry?
When Mary got really angry with Jesus when Lazarus died. What did he do?
Well he listened to her anguish, her pain, sorrow, her anger, sat with her as she cried and then ..
And it is this kind of Godly humanity which attracted people to Jesus, not as God, but that He entered into peoples emotional lives, and He showed compassion, justice and Love and then He had to point the people to God the Father
It seems to me that God can actually enter into whatever emotion we agree to share with Him
You know when one of the kids, or your partner has a serious problem, if they do not share it with you, you cannot enter into their pain or loss or even be there for them.
You cannot share it because you are being kept out. So I believe it is with God, he is polite enough to wait to be invited in.
So I have decided, that I shall not to refuse to grieve when I need to, nor suppress anger, nor avoid shouting at heaven. I shall not muffle my laughter or stifle the joke.
For to deny these very real feelings is to keep God out of our lives..
Expressing our feelings honestly and appropriately is to let God in..
A second thought I am wrestling with is the idea of the mystery . Death & Life
Remember Job? An amazing book of suffering and redemption.. but the bottom line is that when there seemed to be no rhyme nor reason, no sin or logic to his suffering God does not give him an answer but rather asks Job questions! .
Where does light come from?
Can you make the dawn break?
Do you know how the world was created?
What do you really know about the formation of the sun, stars and moon?
Suddenly Job is aware of mystery and no answers and God in charge.
And it seems to me that the mystery of suffering is only understood in the mystery of creation.
It seems that Death is no more a mystery than birth
And suffering no more a mystery than love.
Isn't the cross about such a mystery?
There is Jesus Christ God made flesh
strung up for doing good
persecuted & executed in his prime at 33
And how utterly, utterly wrong.. and why?
What's the answer.. I hear Jesus crying out why.. "Why have you forsaken me" and God does not supply any answers but somehow reveals the mystery of the love in that while we hated God He loved us & suffered, unjustly, for us & with us.
But what does this mean?
In my confusion I wrestle to the conclusion that, I trust God now more than any other time in my life, I'm also aware of his compassion (the word means to suffer with) and somehow it is so much like your mum being with you when you go to the dentist, or to the new school, I feel safe.
But I do not want to be left nor leave
Now clearly it not God actually walking with me talking listening crying & laughing..
But it is Lin
It is Tom and Mike and Barbara or Ernest or Paul or Jill or Walter It is God very present in you , God somehow being allowed in by you, comforts me. And for many the only face of God they will ever meet will be YOU
For me, undeserved pain can now be put along side unmerited love, which I receive from God via Lin & you all that offer it genuinely
To borrow a phrase from George McLeod from Iona
It is distinctly Christian to live as those who have already been measured for their shrouds, and who are not worried about when the undertaker will come
And I feel comfortable in saying that If I were to die soon I do not know of anything I need to change. No regrets
I would like to encourage you all;
You and I belong to Jesus Christ who though he is God, ... died
And He died so that whoever believes in Him should know that they shall also die
And then He rose and He danced in the morning and He will lead us all on wherever we may be ,
( never really noted that phrase before) so that we may know that when we draw our last breath we shall not remain still for long, but will dance, for He is the resurrection and the life
God has already taken care of the suffering and the death process;
it's all in His hands, thank God.