Archive for the ‘suffering’ Tag

WRITER’S BLOCK!

It was the late 1980s. Film-makers Joel and Ethan Coen were in the midst of writing the ingenious gangster movie Millers Crossing when they got stuck. For one of the only times in their prolific career they had that most feared affliction, Writer’s Block (or Writers’ Block – there are two of them – Punctuation Ed.). Unable to figure a way to complete the flick, they hit upon an innovative solution. Putting the existing script aside for now, they instead began penning the story of a writer who indeed suffers from Writer’s Block – depicting his quandary as a kind of purgatory lived out in a festering 1940s hotel representative of his state of mind. The result of this approach? Instead of one critically acclaimed film, the Coens ended up with two. Barton Fink – the eponymous tale of the struggling scriptwriter – won the 1991 Palme D’Or at Cannes and was nominated for three Oscars, whilst the completed Millers Crossing is regarded as a genre classic still.

The point of all this? Well I have Writer’s Block and, by waffling on about the fact, I am rather hoping to shift the blockage, Coen-style. Neither is it just my blog that is suffering from a lack of inspiration. I may even be suffering from the rather over-dramatic sounding affliction of ‘burn-out’. I have given my all in coping and assisting with my wife’s recent operation and rather gruelling aftermath (although she is out of hospital as of this weekend. Yay!). However, in doing so I seem to have rather drained my appetite for everything else. When not attending to her, informing others about it or maintaining the flat and cat in her absence, I seem to have been left something of a tired and hollow shell, rather prone to aimless inaction (not that I’ve had much time to pursue this noble (in)activity). My usual default setting is to have too many things I want to do. However, over the past two weeks I have had literally no appetite for reading, writing, running, listening, working, playing (anything from online chess to PS3 football!), movie/TV-watching or thinking. I feel like some part of me is hibernating.

Regarding my Christian walk, the effect of this is interesting. I have maintained quiet times, but more out of a sense of responsibility – a head-awareness that this is when I need God most and that it’s certainly when I most need daily prayer for my wife. However, just as when I struggled to listen to the sermon last Sunday, my heart feels like it’s otherwise engaged. And yet in this I see a development of sorts. I used to be very susceptible to the ‘ups and downs’ of the Christian life – a period such as this would have left me worrisome and guilty… and would probably have seen me seeking to justify sinful indulgence. Not so much now… I know God is unchanging. I know I am saved. I know I am loved by a Father who holds all situations in His hands. I know that none of this is dependent on my present emotions. I know His care and design through the love of our church which has sustained me so. Perhaps above all, I know the hand of God in the wonderfully Spirit-filled response of my wife in these early days of a difficult recovery.

Having made this up as I go along I’m not quite sure of a conclusion… I think it’s probably this: In a time of great spiritual blessing (in the build up to the operation) I wanted to write (two posts ago) and say I know God is good and sovereign. Now, in a time of some stress, tiredness and spiritual difficulty, I want again to say I KNOW God is good and sovereign. And quite how the Coen Brothers fit into that I’m not sure! I’m not sure this post is going to win any awards, but it has led to a certain lightening of my soul…

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THOUGHTS FROM THE HOSPITAL

1. The Mundanity of everyday life

Most days we talk about unimportant things as if they were the be all and end all. There’s nothing essentially wrong with that I guess – if not done all the time and if not without self-awareness… but hospital does at least lend a sense of perspective. Hang around the Neuro Intensive Care unit for long enough and you will become accustomed to conversations of great significance – staged in the most ordinary tones. Instead of hearing people leave or enter a room complaining that they wore the wrong shoes… or that Franz Ferdinand’s latest work just doesn’t match their early promise, you’ll hear them commenting that “she can’t use her arm or leg” or that “he remembers nothing from the past four days”. Everything that goes on in that room is really very life-changingly important to those in and around the beds.

I’m not sure I have a readymade point here linking this to the Christian life. Other than to say that we shouldn’t get too accustomed to trivialities. Particularly as most of those forced to face their own mortality do so without any assurance of salvation – something we must attempt to address in those we love before they take their turn. 

2. Death is real and not all that distant

Sorry to be morbid. But why should I apologise? It’s because death is seen as rude and inappropriate for polite conversation. It’s not the done thing to remind people. However, it’s one of the few certainties that await us. We all know this in an abstract way, but enough time at the business end of a hospital will bring the point home. I was listening yesterday to a couple of nurses. One enquired as to why an expected patient hadn’t arrived to claim her bed. The other replied that it was an ‘unsuccessful cardio’ and that she should therefore be crossed off the list. This was the end of someone’s life! The nurses weren’t being crass or unfeeling. It’s just that they see it all the time… Be ready! We are not immune! Have your death insurance in place… Jesus has picked up the bill! 

3. We really are made in God’s image. Or at least doctors are…

It’s not always easy to see man as God’s own image. However, in doctors we seem to get closest. He (or she, but he in our case this week) spares life and declares death. Every patient and every underling awaits the moment of his visit, his appraisal and his judgement. From him we crave attention; from him we expect an absolute assessment – based on a brief scan of surely incomprehensible notes… We scrutinise his body language when examining those we love; we hang on his every word; and we experience bitter disappointment when he moves on to the next hopeful patient – nothing having changed for us from before.

Only God knows. Only God can give or take life. He has imparted much skill and responsibility upon these medical magicians, but perhaps it’s because I know so many of them that I try to remind myself they too are deeply fallible! They, like the rest of us, are making up half of their job as they go along – hoping the rest of us won’t notice. I won’t buy into this idolatry, but it’s tempting! (Thank you God for doctors…) 

4. The Stuff of Beauty

It’s faintly obscene that the glamour mags – whether those aimed at women or the fuller-bosomed lads’ versions – are sold on site in a hospital. Digitally altered images of perfect skin and smiles? In this place? It’s so incongruous. After all, it is mightily refreshing that this is where society’s beauty flies out the window and yet a far greater beauty takes its place. Patients shuffle like the living dead – they are bandaged, swollen, unkempt and bemused. Doctors and nurses play along by shrouding themselves in shapeless sheets, their make-up selflessly sacrificed. Relatives yawn and sag – cheeks puffed and reddened by unashamed weeping. Respecting the tone, all on-site shops seem obliged to hire only the least employable or presentable staff London has to offer. Cosmopolitan it ain’t, but it’s more and better. This is where people love one another – full-time, and at cost to themselves. You’ll never see more heartfelt embraces nor greater appreciation between families and friends. You’ll never again see people give up day after boring day just to have someone know they are far from alone. So many bedsides tell a story of relationships touched by common grace. (And some bedsides are never visited at all – another challenge to consider…)

There should surely be more of the hospital and less of the Cosmo in our everyday dealings – interactions characterised not by the superficial and worldly, but more by the messy, tiring love of Christ – inconvenient beyond all reasonableness but beautiful beyond all doubt.

PS How did the op go? The op went well – the after-effects tough, ongoing but, God willing, temporary I’m sure…

DURING THE OPERATION…

My wife is currently in surgery having her tumour removed. I have fulfilled my pledge not to blog about her condition prior to the operation. However, I feel it’s important to make clear how powerfully God has been at work during this time. I want to do it now because I don’t know the outcome of the operation currently ongoing. I have every expectation, and would do with all good reason even if I had no trust in God, that things will go fine and that full recovery will ensue. However, I don’t want what I write to be perceived as coloured by the knowledge of a happy ending, or otherwise.

The fact is, to this point, my wife and I (I may just call her N for this post! I don’t want to use her name, despite the fact most readers will know her, as she has nothing to do with the blog and deserves her cybersphere anonymity until she chooses otherwise!) have seen such great growth and so many blessings. I know I have touched upon it before, but it really bears repeating. This has truly been a humbling season and one that I think will have greatly strengthened our continuing witness and testimony.

Blessings of Support

Let me make absolutely clear that the church doesn’t have a monopoly on compassion or practical love. To pretend otherwise would be to insult the cards, texts, chats, offers of food and, well, the love of our many non-Christian mates, family members, colleagues and, in N’s case, the brilliant community she shares in at the gym (crazily fit career women who each set their alarms before 6 every morning in order to make the same classes – it forges a strong common bond!). Had we never been to church we would still have appreciated a great deal of great support.

Even so, this is the time to be part of a church! Particularly a good one. A lot of atheist websites, often tarnished by personal experience for which some professed Christians should be highly ashamed, work from the starting point that church is a negative, tedious, grasping, judgmental, hypocritical body at every level – something they are doing a good service by liberating people from. To them I would cry out that on every level, in every way, you would do the cruellest and most brutal thing to take this community from N and I! Where to start? 

·        There’s the weekly comfort, prayers, encouragement and hugs from open, compassionate, honest people who care.

·        There’s the food rota that sees me fed for the next two weeks!

·        There’s the pair of absolute legends who have given up days to free us from DIY hell and get the kitchen sorted for Nina’s convalescence (the bathroom and bedroom are next in their sights!)

·        There’s the whole group of church elders who packed into our tiny lounge – sitting on the floor and allowing the cat to walk all over them – as they prayed together with N

·        There’s N’s prayer triplet in which she can confide and confess

·        There’s our small study group who have prayed, planned and done much to build N up via study of God’s Word

·        There was dinner at Perks’ house and the amazing e-mail he sent just prior to the op. Very precious to N I know – this is a pastor who truly gets involved (and Pete – if you’re reading – you guys have been absolute stars too)

·        There’s the church member working at the hospital who spent time with N outside of visiting hours both last thing last night and first thing this morning. And another training at the hospital who just now texted offering to provide N with any supplies she needs!

·        There’s the almost ridiculous number of texts, cards, letters, gifts etc we have both received – sometimes from people we barely know!

This is not just nice people being nice out of a sense of duty. Every part of this points to Christ and affirms the love of God. The kindest thing of all has been the sharing of Bible verses and insights that N spent last night looking over and feeling powerfully protected. These are people changed and motivated by the gospel. These are people committed to counter-cultural servant-heartedness. And they have served as wings to carry us through a difficult time.

Blessings of growth

There is more to write about this later. I will be less forthcoming as some of it is private. But let me just say that N has changed. So many prayers have been answered. She has such a love of her fellow Christians. She is so outward-looking and keen to serve others as she has been served. She is so hungry for the Bible. She is so confident in the Lord’s protection – all the way into theatre. She has always been a naturally stressed and anxious person. The good night’s sleep she got last night, her calmness approaching general anaesthetic and brain surgery… even the grateful heart she has having lost half of her hearing for good; it would all have been impossible to comprehend before the incredible journey of the past few months.

As Reformed (repressed?) Evangelical types, we are often accused of underplaying the role of the Spirit (laughably by some of not even ‘having’ the Spirit!) but let me make this clear – N may not prophesy in tongues or swing from the rafters in church, but she could not be more clearly Spirit-filled if indeed she had a halo of flame! Overnight there is a completely new fluency and familiarity in prayer. Overnight there is a desire to smash idols and share the gospel. God changes lives – and His plans are better than ours.

And finally…I sat next to a man at the London Mens’ Convention. He asked me to pray for his wife and I asked him to pray for mine. He spoke of his wife’s deep depression. It all began with a medical ailment that she suffered last year… and it caused her to lose hope – to abandon hope in a situation she considered beyond the pale. That grieves me. It has bugged me ever since. It was so different to my account. That woman needs someone, wherever she is, to grab a hold of her and to turn her around. The practical love of Christians should point to the Jesus of the Bible. Jesus points us to assurance, victory and life everlasting, even as he himself bleeds and dies in fearful agony. This life can be tough. And painful. And lonely. And frightening. But, as Christians we are enabled by the Spirit to be those who show ‘patience in the face of suffering’ because we can see that ‘the Lord is full of compassion and mercy’ (James 5) and that our eternal blessings are assured. This is our greatest witness, and it’s a witness that has been powerfully noted anew by many people around us in the weeks of preparation for this operation. God is truly good and to be trusted.

 

 I’ll let you know how the op goes…

HOLDING MY TONGUE

Openness has always been my thing. A perusal of this blog should confirm that I rarely hold much in reserve. However, I’m now changing that habit of a lifetime. On all matters tumour-related I am going to keep shtum for a while following this.

I have been advised to do so by those wiser than me who have earned the right to be listened to.  It has been suggested to me that I might come to regret splurging my thoughts to an audience of, well, anyone when it comes to the difficult times ahead. It is, after all, my wife rather than I who has to endure the brunt of this journey and she doesn’t even read the blog (she gets enough of my self-analysis at home!), less still chooses what to divulge. Furthermore, it may appear exploitative to treat these happenings as an opportunity to produce material… and somewhat false – to be constantly striving to present a reasonably stated trust in God’s purposes, however true, whilst neglecting to represent that private part of me that screams panic!

So, as a final word on the matter. the appointment with the neuro-surgeon made clear that things were worse and more pressing than imagined (although not immediately life-threateningly so). Major brain surgery almost certainly awaits in the next few months and where that takes us… well I’ll write all about it with hindsight I’m sure. For now, your well-wishes are much appreciated – keep praying and supporting and I’ll continue writing, albeit on matters of slightly less immediate significance!

ABOUT A TUMOUR

Well I’d better substantiate that title eh? The tumour is real, not metaphorical. The tumour is in my wife’s head. The tumour is the size of a cherry. The tumour is, thank God, benign. The tumour is on her right auditory nerve. The tumour is resting against her brain. If it grows any bigger it will exert pressure to the brain and will have to be removed, at considerable risk to her facial and balance nerves. Even if not removed, the tumour has accounted for the hearing in her right ear. We learned of the tumour on my 30th birthday earlier this week. She can feel it in her head. She is constantly aware of it. The tumour is making its presence felt. This is not good… although it could certainly be worse (a great word, ‘benign’!).

A couple of things to say. First, if you’re reading this and you know her, please don’t be silent about it around her. This is not a taboo subject. It’s very much the big news of the week, she’s trying to get used to the idea, and she wants to talk about it and to be supported by church and friends. Second, as with all I write about, I want to relate the above to my walk with God, particularly as regards the whole idea of ‘bad things’ happening.

I’ve recently been faced, on a number of occasions, with the age-old question, ‘how can a good God (or indeed a God who actually exists at all) allow suffering to occur?’. It’s sometimes asked with smugness, sometimes with hurt and anger. My answer is this. No part of the Bible, or of the teaching or experiences I’ve undergone, lead me to expect an easy life devoid of tough times. If God’s word did actually promise health and good fortune then perhaps I’d have greater cause to curse him when this failed to materialise. However, as it is, Hebrews 12 tells me to ‘endure hardship as discipline’, Romans 5 tells me that ‘suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character’ and Ecclesiastes 3 assures me there is ‘a time to weep’. We are told to focus upon life after death, on a better world to come, and to store our riches there, whilst not investing too much in this mortal coil. We are told that man is fallen on account of sinful rebellion, and that creation with him ‘groans’. We know that we are subject, for now, to the curse of suffering and eventual death. God sent His son to share in our sufferings, to die within our broken world that we might know something better and everlasting. It would be illogical, stupid even, to then turn on Him and spurn the everlasting gift on account of the short-term brokenness He came to fix.

So let me make this clear. However this plays out, and as I come to terms with my wife having this unwanted and potentially damaging intruder inside her skull, I will whole-heartedly praise God. I would do so if the tumour had been malignant. I will praise Him because he acted in mercy to save us from a world of sin, of tumours and of difficult choices that we now face.