A tough morning…

This morning I preached on trials and temptations from James 1. Three times. By the third I just felt like it was so completely insignificant. When I looked out and could pinpoint the people who I know are REALLY going through it and it felt like all I was saying was ‘it’s ok, because Jesus loves you and he’s with you’.

Of course I know there is so much more to it, and I know “all” I was saying is an amazing truth, but I think by the 3rd time my words just felt so utterly useless, and I just sobbed. I was sharing about a friend who died from cancer and the awful reality of that hideous waste of a life just hit me. 

Sometimes things are just totally shitty aren’t they? and really there isn’t anything you can say other than that. There’s no way to explain – why did she die? Or why are people I know facing awful trials? Or why good people who love the Lord get sick and live with constant pain. Why God? why?

And I’m aware this week particularly, of several people who I need to visit who are going through it; of friends who are facing really difficult stuff; of people asking me to pray for those facing suffering. And it makes me wonder what on earth can I do.

I reflected on Pslam 13 earlier this week, where the Psalmist asks those same questions…

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.

Even when we know the amazing and wonderful truth of who God is, and even when we can feel his presence with us in difficult times, it can still be totally awful. Even tough I know my friend’s life was not really wasted and she inspired so many people with the word of God, it’s still so raw sometimes.

And what is it like then when you are going through something and you are seeking God and you just can’t see him within it?

The Psalmist says ‘but I trust in your unfailing love…’ despite the fact that he can’t find God in his situation. That is amazing faith, amazing hope. And how hard is it to hang on to that…

And that’s the thing, that’s what I can do, what I have to do, what I need to do, in all these things, with the people I need to visit or those I know going through it. All that I can do is bring them before God, trusting in his unfailing love.

Look, I know none of this is about me, what I’m feeling right now is pretty insignificant and really it’s about what God will do with the words I said this morning and now all I can do is hope and pray it spoke to people today. You can read it here if you want. And I stand by everything I said, God is good in all things, he is ALWAYS with us and we have to have hope in him, because what else is there? But flip it’s hard isn’t it?  

just needed to say that I think…

 

 

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Book Review // Songs for Suffering by Simon Stocks


It’s great to be asked to review this book as Simon was my biblical studies tutor at college during my ministerial training. I am a big fan of the Psalms, but I also recognise that they are a bit like marmite, with some people choosing to read them as infrequently as possible. But I would say, don’t let that put you off, this might just be the book that helps you combat that!

Songs for Suffering is a wonderful guide for those in a season of struggling or as Stocks notes ‘for anyone who is going through tough times, whatever form that takes’. And it really is for anyone, written simply and not full of theological jargon, making it hugely accessible, but with a depth of knowledge evident from Stocks’ own academic experience.

Focussing on psalms of lament, the book takes us on a journey. Using personal reflections and stories from peoples lives, the author encourages the reader to deal with questions in their own lives, from personal failure, to issues of identity, and deeper still to despair, grief and personal suffering.

Each chapter guides us though a particular theme, asking questions for the reader to consider and pointing us to specific psalms for individual needs or circumstances. It is written in a very practical way, addressing how we can personally use the words of the psalms to deepen our own prayer life and each chapter finishes with some suggestions for what to do next.

However this is not just a practical guide, but a book filled with the authors own experience of life and pastoral ministry, written with compassion and a deep understanding of what it is to encounter personally, and come alongside those who suffer.

Stocks doesn’t shy away from difficult themes like shame, doubt and anger, but on the contrary embraces them with confidence, bringing a sense of assurance for the reader, encouraging them to engage with the themes for themselves.

Although my sense is that this is a book to work through from start to finish, it could also be something to dip into in particular times of trouble, or in supporting others facing difficult times, and in fact a helpful index at the end points to specific psalms for different circumstances.

Stocks reminds us afresh that The Psalms are a wonderful resource, passed down through the ages and used as the bedrock of Christian prayer for centuries, that are just as useful today, giving us the tools to pray in ‘just about any situation imaginable’ keeping us in touch with God even when pressures threaten to stop us.

The author notes: ‘may you find deeper connection to God, as you do so, even in the toughest of times…’ and this truly is a book that will help you do that.

Songs for Suffering will be published by Hendrickson Publishers Inc in April 2017. and can be pre-ordered at most good book stores online including Eden (priced £12.99) and Amazon (priced £11.99). There is also a website that goes alongside the book and will host other resources linked to lament at: www.cryhard.org

 

Simon Stocks

The Rev’d Dr Simon Stocks teaches Biblical Studies at St Augustine’s College of Theology, England (formerly known as SEITE). He is Chair of the Theological Educators’ Network and also ministers in the Anglican parish of Christ Church, Purley. After a career in civil engineering, he trained for ministry and worked in parish ministry in the Diocese of Southwark, before undertaking doctoral studies. His research interests include the interactions between poetic form and interpretation in Hebrew poetry, and the theology of lament.

‘Still Emily’ book review

StillEmily

I’ve just read ‘Still Emily’ in one sitting, on holiday surrounded by people, and have had to stem the tears pricking my eyes on more than one occasion. Emily’s story touched my heart, not with tears of sympathy but of love, of admiration, and in some sense, of understanding.

Emily began life healthily and despite what could now be seen as warnings, the shock of an NF2 diagnosis at the age of 17 was huge. This condition would go on to rob Emily of her hearing, her balance, ability to walk and more, yet she has refused to give in to the condition, not willing to be defined by it, and continued in her walk with God, perhaps closer than ever might have been.

(Neurofibromatosis Type 2 (NF2) is a disorder that causes tumours to grow on the body and throughout the nervous system. Depending on where they grow they can cause conditions like deafness, severe balance problems, facial nerve paralysis, spinal cord compression and swallowing difficulties.)

‘Still Emily’ is a movingly honest memoir of Emily’s journey with NF2. Of the highs and lows – of which there are many, including the moment at age 17 when Emily’s family said goodbye to her as she lay in a coma, not expected to wake up. Like the times when she has been robbed of her sight for a period as well as hearing, in order to allow her eyes to rest and recover as they work harder than ever. I’m not sure I can begin to image the isolation and fear that must induce.

It is also a story of a family thrown into turmoil, but choosing to respond in love. Choosing to support, choosing to demonstrate the love of God in the face of adversity, united in their faith. Christian faith is of course a theme than runs through the book, not in an ‘in your face’ way, but in a gentle undercurrent, God’s presence and faithfulness the foundation in this inspiring story.

As anyone with a long term condition will know, it can be hard to remain always positive, even with God at your side, and Emily is honest about this, but also reminding herself, and us the readers, to focus on the bit that can be done, not the bit that can’t, as she recalls learning to sit again, able to do 20 mins at first but not the half hour she hoped for. The subtitle to ‘Still Emily’ is ‘seeing rainbows in the silence’ a choice that Emily has made – to always seek the moments of joy: ‘I choose rainbows. Every time. Even when they are invisible, I carry on looking…’

One of the things I love about this book is the truth that we are all worthy, no matter what we can or can’t do. A simple reminder that came to Emily when all she could do to help a fellow patient in hospital was press the ‘call nurse’ button, but in that moment, that was what was needed. This was something I too learned when recovering from back surgery last year, even in the tough times, in suffering and in the moments when we feel useless, helpless and alone, that to God we are perfect and he can use us all, whatever the circumstance.

This is a book about endurance, the faithfulness of God and above all, hope. In endless operations, physio and appointments, in pain, in disappointment, there is still hope.

 

‘Still Emily’ is available now from Malcolm Down Publishing, priced £7.99.

 

Pain, pain and more pain…

painkillersSo I’ve been looking at pain a bit recently as I’ve been suffering from a bad back, and I’ve asked a few people to do some guest posts on this. It’s such an important area of faith, learning to deal with pain and suffering, and how we relate that to our own faith. For many we don’t think about this issue until we are faced with it ourself, which then makes it hard to see with any clarity as we are affected by the pain we are in.

So, the plan is to publish these guest posts over the next few weeks when I’m likely to be more incapacitated than I am at the mo, as I have my back op. I hope it’s going to give some different viewpoints on pain and maybe be a conversation starter, so watch this space…

 

Here’s some other resources on pain and suffering too:

Article by Lee Strobel

Some thoughts from Jen Hatmaker

The Gift of Pain – book by Philip Yancey & Dr Paul Brand

Amazing story of Martin Pistorious

Pain: The Price of Compassion from @DigitalNun at iBenedictines

Talk on personal experience of stillbirth by our Vicar & his wife

 

My previous posts are here:

Beautiful Pain

Seeing God in the Pain

Some more thoughts on being in pain

 

Postscript

I’m now including the guest post links here so they are all together:

Death & Resurrection by Stephen Canning

Even if he Never Tells me Why by Nigel Freestone

Seeing God in the pain…

11/05/15 This post was originally published at my old blog here.

Strength of My Heart
I feel like shit. And I’m not even going to apologise for swearing. It feels like the only word that explains it right now. Worse than ‘I feel terrible’, ‘I am in pain’ or ‘I am fed up’. It’s all of those things and so much more. So, I feel like shit.

I’m in pain, not sure if it’s an old back problem flaring up or something new. I haven’t been able to walk properly for a week and now I can’t even move off this one spot I’m sitting on the floor without being in pain. And I don’t mean an ache or a something akin to a headache, I mean an excruciating, acute, knife in my leg kind of pain, the kind that means if I find a position where the pain is manageable, I ain’t moving. It’s the kind of pain that means weighing up the options on everything I do: how badly do I need the loo? how much do I actually need a drink? do I really want to read that book over there? How long will the laptop (my lifeline at the mo) last without being plugged in? So far the things that have got me moving are: finding the painkillers (and oh how I praise God for painkillers) and getting a cup of tea (well, needs must when you feel like crap and tea helped although it did cost me).

I’m not writing all this to invite sympathy, I’m not good at receiving it anyway, I just want to explain how I’m feeling as a kind of intro to this post. Which I guess is really just some thoughts on pain and how we (well, I) handle it… So here’s some things I’ve journalled in the last few days:

..oo0O0oo..

I made it an hour out of bed this morning before the onslaught began. I thought I can handle this, today is a new day, repeating to myself:

Thou, Lord and God of power, shield and sustain me this day….

I willed myself onwards: I can do this. Get a grip you stupid woman. Don’t let people down. Let yourself down, that’s bad enough but DO NOT let others down. We are a team, we support each other. But not willing to be supported. Everyone who had asked I snapped ‘don’t be nice to me, I’ll cry’. Truth of course, I was only just holding onto my composure by a thread as thin as a cobweb. Even a gentle breeze would destroy it.

And that was it – a simple and sympathetically voiced ‘are you ok?’ from someone who cares. But I had to shut it down, not willing to fall, to break.

But to no avail… I am broken and in pieces anyway.

Sobbing, heaving, sighing. Broken.

Thank God (and I mean that) for a dear friend who came and gently picked up my pieces and didn’t attempt to stick them back together, she just held them and gently gave them back to me.

..oo0O0oo..

As I lay in my little cocoon of self pity all sorts of devil-sent-lies were in my head…

You’ll have to take pain killers for weeks

You’ll be in pain forever more

There will be horrible side effects

You won’t run again that’s for sure. You are useless. You won’t be able to walk, you’ll put on weight and be fat. You’ll have to sit around all day doing nothing…

People will be talking about you – did you see her – what a wreck, she can’t cope

Your team will think you are useless, you never pitch in, how selfish of you

Your family will get fed up with you always needing help

..oo0O0oo..

Well what a difference a few hours makes. Not sure if it’s painkillers, the emptying of tears and snot or just: a few hours.
Now there’s just anger and frustration, oh and the fog of the pills of course. Can’t think straight, can’t read properly, can’t remember anything… There’s the pay off.

..oo0O0oo..

I hate this. I really do. It’s like my boundaries are being reduced each day. First I couldn’t run, then it was walking, then a week off work, then, well then just whatever I can find that is pain free – well it’s not pain free, but managable in the pain is the best I can hope for…

..oo0O0oo..

When will this end?

..oo0O0oo..

I am so frustrated and angry right now. Oh yes I know, I know, God will teach me through this – of course He will, that’s what He does and already is. But I’ve had enough of that at this moment in time. If I’m honest I don’t want to be taught anything right now. I’ve had enough illness and infirmity in the last 7 years to keep me going for a while.

Can’t He see that? I’ve had enough.

..oo0O0oo..

But then…
Then I’m ashamed.
I am so blessed, I have so much more than so many. I am so much better off than so many.

How arrogant am I? To say that I don’t want to learn from the living God? How dare I? How can I rebuff his teaching, his love, his compassion and comfort?

..oo0O0oo..

And yet now I seek, I feel like I’m in a whirlwind, a hazy fog, where is He in all this? I am seeking, looking, not knowing or understanding…

Where are you Lord? what am I not seeing?

That Stephen Fry Interview…

So, This week, Irish TV station RTE, put out a trailer for their Sunday programme ‘The Meaning of Life’, in which Stephen Fry lets loose an angry tirade at God. Pretty good trailer, made me want to watch anyway, although it’s not on until later tonight so I have to admit I haven’t yet seen the whole thing, so my response here is largely based on the 2 min clip posted by RTE on YouTube.

Presenter Gay Byrne asks Fry about what he would say if he approached God, after death, which prompts Fry to respond with, as he says, theodicy, asking God why on earth he allows such terrible evil in the world. And whilst there has been a fair bit of backlash to his comments, let’s face it, it’s a question many of us might like to ask God for ourselves. Let’s not be offended by Fry’s words, as some already are, because the thing is Fry is just venting what many people believe of God today. He is a mean God, who rules with raining fire and fierce judgement, just waiting to catch us out, who delivers us into evil not from it, as Fry says: a capricious, stupid, mean-minded God.

This makes me sad. It really does, because Fry, like many others, has got God so wrong. The God that I know, is a God of love, a God who longs for us to turn to him, to run into his open arms, to hear him pouring out his love for us, to allow him to comfort us when we mourn. He wants to know our every thought, our every plan, the desires of our hearts. The bible tells me this, but not just that, I know it because I have experienced it for myself. And that’s the thing I feel more and more: that we as Christians need to help people to experience God for themselves, truly. It’s all very well encouraging people to read the bible, to come along to a church service or do an Alpha course, but without the experience of meeting God, experiencing him personally, then we run the risk of simply leaving people feeling like Stephen Fry. I don’t know his background but I would not be at all surprised if he had spent time as a child in some sort of religious environment: school chapel, being dragged to church by his parents, that kind of thing. He is an intelligent man, I’m sure he isn’t making these comments without having some basis for them, but like many others he has formed his opinions on God on a half truth, or in fact on a lie. The lie that God is the author of evil, and not of peace and love and truth.

So what do we, as Christians, say to people like Fry? Because I’m pretty sure none of us have the answer to his question – why? It’s a question that has kept theologians and writers in the money for centuries and yet still people ask the same questions – because we cannot answer them. Oh yes we can try, we can come up with all sorts of reasons, but the truth is we don’t really know why this stuff happens. If God is a loving and just God surely he isn’t the one who sends down illness and suffering upon us? but then if he isn’t where does it come from? Oh yes, the Devil, but then that implies God is not sovereign and that he then allows this stuff to happen, but isn’t allowing it as bad as causing it? Oh so he doesn’t allow it, it’s nothing to do with him actually, so he isn’t sovereign then, he can’t stop it? But I thought he created the world from scratch, how can he not be in control….and so on. It’s an argument you can never end. personally I put it in the box marked ‘to do’. One day, I hope, one day I might get the chance to ask God for myself, but in the meantime I don’t allow it to take away from the things I know to be true of God.

So, then what do we say to people like Fry, who think God is an angry, egomaniac? I think, that all we can do is share the love that we know to be the very essence of God. We can tell people how God has impacted our lives, how we know him to be present in the world around us. To show them another truth, the one that lives within our hearts…

Update:
Here are a few more responses to Fry’s interview:


Giles Fraser in The Guardian
Chris Stead at Steadfast Reflections
Krish Kandiah on Christian Today

Losing my marbles…

'Marbles' photo (c) 2010, John Morgan - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

…or not as the case may be…
So I saw my spiritual director this week and had a rather emmotional and revealing chat about various things.
Anyway at the end we had the usual quiet and prayer time. During this I was sat with my hands open on my lap and I had a sense of God putting a bag in my hands. It was an old white drawstring bag, a bit grubby, looked like it was made of linen or muslin, and was tied with a simple bit of string. When I opened it, it contained lots of marbles. Not just normal marbles. These were big and all different colours. They were beautiful with all different designs. As I looked one was put in my hand. It was clear but inside had the most amazing flower, all red and orange. It was stunning. Then the bag was taken away leaving me this one in my hand.

I asked God was this was for and I felt him saying that every marble represents something that has happened in my life, but more than that, each one was a gift, a gift of understanding and wisdom from God, each marble being what I have learned through my life experiences. The one in my hand represented my friend Nix and what I had and am learning through her. I felt God saying that I needed to contemplate it further and I will do.
What I loved about all of this is the idea of the gifts from God, that what we learn through our experiences whether hard, emotional, or less diffciult to bear, are gifts from him. The bible says that God uses all things for good and sometimes its really hard to see good when there is suffering, but I guess then we just need to look a little harder.

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.
Romans 8:26-28 The Message Version

 

I choose to Praise Him in the storm

My Mum reminded me that is a year ago this week, the same day as Nix’s life ended, that my Nan died. My Nan was in her mid 90s, Nix just over 40. My Nan spent the last 10 years of her life in pain, frustration and annoyance and became more and more bitter as time went on. Nix fought to the last, loving all around her and standing on the promises of God.

Either way life is not fair sometimes. If my Nan had passed 10 or 15 years before, she would have ended it in happiness, not just waiting out her days. aAd yet for Nix, she had so much more to give, another 10, 15 years would not have been enough.

I can’t begin to understand all of this. As the book of Job reminds me, I am not God, I wasn’t there when he created the heavens, I can’t possibly expect to know why this happens. I mean He must allow it, otherwise he is not sovereign and all powerful, and yet I am sure that neither of these things were in His plan. That is the tension of faith, holding two extremes in conjunction with each other.

A friend of ours gave a talk at church some weeks back whick looked at this subject, holding things in balance with each other. At a time like this it was and is hugely helpful. If you would like to hear it click on the link. It should open in a new window and play automatically.

Talk 29/04/12

My Nan gave me her daily prayer book when she died and this was the prayer from the day of her death, and also the day Nix left us. I read it at my Nans funeral last year, it just seems perfect for this time.

Our
Father,

Unto
Thee, in the light of our Saviour’s blessed life, we would lift our souls. We
thank thee for that true light shining in our world with still increasing
brightness. We thank thee for all who have walked therein, and especially for
those near to us and dear, in whose lives we have seen this excellent glory and
beauty. May we know that in the body and out of the body they are with Thee, and
that when these earthly days come to an end, it is not that our service of Thee
and of one another may cease, but that it may begin again anew. Make us glad in
all who have peacefully died. Lift us into light and love and purity and
blessedness, and give us at last our portion with those who have trusted in Thee
and sought, in small things as in great, in things temporal and things eternal,
to do Thy Holy Will.

Amen

In all things I will praise you Lord. I choose to praise you in the storm.
You are the same yesterday, today and forever…

Pain & Disappointment

It is with great sadness that I write that lovely Nix passed away on Monday morning. Thanks so much to all who prayed in faith alongside her, even when I know some of you didn’t know her. It’s fair to say we believed for this miracle right up to the last possible moment. And when I say believed, I had so much faith for this, more than for anything ever in my life before. The bible tells us to go and heal the sick and I truly believed that she would not die. Not only that but it felt like this was part of something bigger, that God was stirring in our church and our communities.

So now it hurts.

I am so sad for her family, she left behind a husband and 3 children, all of whom are a total inspiration, just as she was. And on top of that I feel a huge disapointment with God. I am not angry, he is bigger and more powerful and more mysterious than I shall ever know, but I am disappointed. We believed, we prayed, we cried out to God and yet she wasn’t healed.  I know you can say ultimately she received her healing in heaven and I know she is having the most amazing time right now with Jesus, but I don’t and can’t believe this was Gods will for her or her family.

I met Nix 2 years ago when we first came to the church we are at now. At the time she was just at the end of the first course of chemo for breast cancer. I heard her speak at a womens weekend the church had and she was truly inspirational. She talked about how in all the pain, the treatment, the lack of understanding and anger with God, that she knew He was there right with her. She told of amazing ways in which he had spoken to her and blessed her in all of it. How people turned up at exactly the right point, or sent a message at a perfectly opportune time. She spoke of prophecies and pictures that had been given to her. I was in awe of her. And in awe of her faith. About 6 months after that I began to get to know her through a womens group at church and later doing a leadership course. She was always an amazing woman of faith.

Just over a year ago, she discovered the cancer had spread to her spine and then late last year to the liver. There were various treatments but in the end there was nothing more to be done except pray for a miracle.

In the last few months I was able to pray with her and although I went there to pray for her and for her illness, I always came away feeling so blessed. She once told me in an email that she was in awe of me, which was just the kind of thing she would say. I was so in awe in her and yet she would say the same to me. I just knew her for a short time and we were not even that close, but she touched my life as I know she has touched so many.

Right now it is hard to see where God is glorified in all this but I know He is being and will be. Even in her illness and death people are being brought together and raising questions of faith. Some of the local primary school mums even asked for a prayer meeting to be organised for them as they didn’t know how to pray! The last few weeks we have had a 24/7 prayer vigil for her that has brought people together in amazing ways. I feel sure that amazing good will come from this, the bible says that God uses all things for good and I know He can use all the pain, suffering and disappointment for His glory, although we can’t see how at the moment.

I am writing this to honour Nix and our Heavenly Father, so please don’t leave comments of sympathy for me, but if you feel able, then instead please pray for her family.