Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Radiotherapy, Chemo and God

So my treatment has suddenly moved up a gear.

In addition to the hormone therapy I am receiving, I start 5 days of radiotherapy later this week, and chemotherapy next month.  Like other cancer patients, I am going to have destructive beams and chemicals pumped into my body on a regular basis.  Suddenly, it has all become very real.

The hope is that these treatments will kill enough of the cancer cells to keep everything under control. 

The other hope in my life comes from prayer.  Since my last post, I have been overwhelmed by people saying they will be praying for me, and I am acutely aware that hundreds, if not thousands of people are praying for myself and Mel, Isaac and Iona.

I have to say that I have a chequered history with prayer for healing.

In my teens and twenties, I saw some remarkable answers to prayer.  I saw people healed, physically and emotionally.  I saw heroin addicts come off drugs with little or no side effects in response to prayer, when they had tried many times before and given up, because withdrawal was unbearable. 

Yet when my wife was horrifically injured in 2003 with excruciatingly painful and life threatening injuries, I sat by her hospital bed day after day for months, praying for God to ease her pain – all to no effect.

Coming on top of questions about why God let her accident happen, this daily disappointment left my prayer life scarred for years.  I became unable to reach out to others in prayer, and only began to find my own healing last year, for the scars this left on my soul.  (See Healed to Pray for more.)    As a result of that inner healing, I have felt able to pray for others again in the way I used to.  I have not seen dramatic results, but have been aware of God moving in and through those prayers.

When it comes to praying for myself however, the block still remains.  Why would God answer prayers for me, when he wouldn’t answer my prayers for Mel?

So while I have valued all the messages of prayers from friends around the world, I have found it difficult to believe that God would answer.  My name has been added to prayer lists and candles have been lit in all kinds of Christian communities, from Pentecostal intercessory prayer groups, to Convents and Abbeys, and I am deeply grateful.  I just wish I had more faith that God would answer them.

Yet when I visited Southwark Cathedral last week, around the anniversary of my ordination there, I felt drawn to light a candle and much to my surprise, found myself simply praying “Lord, in your mercy, heal me”.

As I reflect on this, it occurs to me that I don’t know how effective my radio and chemo therapy will be, but I am still going ahead with them.  I hope they will have a beneficial outcome and extend my life, but I don’t know how much good they will do.  Similarly with prayer, I don’t know how God will answer the many prayers being offered on my behalf, but why should I be any less hopeful that they will have a positive effect?

I find myself standing alongside a man who brought his child to Jesus to heal him.  When Jesus said to him that everything is possible for one who believes, he replied, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9)

Not that prayer is predictable, of course.  It does not follow clearly defined rules.  It is not like a political petition, where the greater the number of signatures, the better the chance of being noticed.  In the end we are all subject to God’s will, both active and passive.

I am reading ‘Fear No Evil’ by David Watson at the moment.  It is his story of his struggle and death from cancer at the height of his ministry.  He had seen God heal many people at services he led, and hoped for God’s healing for himself, all to no avail.  John Wimber’s story is not dissimilar.  So even if there seems to be no discernible answer to prayer, I feel that I will be in good company (if a little overshadowed!).

All things considered, I am choosing to be hopeful.

Hopeful in the radio and chemo therapies I will soon be receiving, and hopeful in God for the prayers which are being prayed for me.  They are part and parcel of my treatment and I will embrace them both, with a mixture of belief and unbelief, faith and doubt, hope and realism.

So thank you to everyone who is praying for me, and if you have time, please continue to do just that.

Monday, 25 September 2017

The Enemy Within...

I never thought I would get cancer.

Arrogant of course, considering the number of people who suffer from cancer at some point in their lives – but I never thought it would be me.

There is no history of cancer in my family, as far as I am aware. My grandfather had his early adulthood stolen by the horrors of the trenches in the first world war.   He lived a hard life and smoked 40 cigarettes a day for as long as anyone can remember.  He lived until he was 82 when finally a stroke got him.

My father died just over a year ago in his eighties.  He had chronic back problems and heart disease which led to a triple bypass in his early 70’s, but it was post-operative complications which finally finished him off after major abdominal surgery at 84.

My mother developed Alzheimer’s in her early 60’s and over the years which followed she lost all recognition of the world around her, including her family, and yet she still reached her 80’s before finally giving in.

Heart disease I had expected at some point in life, Alzheimer’s I would understand, but cancer?  Never.

So it has come as somewhat of a shock, at the age of 54, to be told that I have Advanced Prostate Cancer.

I had been meaning to go the doctor for a while, as my toilet patterns gradually changed.  I started to think that something was wrong when I started to suffer fatigue – acute tiredness for no apparent reason.  When I finally went, it was after two episodes of debilitating pain in my hip and right leg.

The result of initial tests pointed to Prostate Cancer, and having now had a full suite of scans and biopsies, I know it is Advanced Pc.  For those who know about such things, my Gleason score is 9 and my PSA is in the 300’s.  It has spread to my lymph nodes and my bones.  It is beyond surgery or any other cure.  It is simply a case of ‘managing’ it now.

The irony is that, following my first course of hormone therapy, I felt fine again.  The fatigue subsided, and my hip pains had largely gone (until earlier this month).  Yet now, I know that lurking deep within, many of my cells are slowly mutating against me and there is no way to get rid of it.

Treatment is, of course, improving all the time, and Prostate Cancer UK’s website says that ‘treatments can help to keep it under control, often for several years’ but suddenly life seems different now.  The finite nature of life which we prefer not to think about, has suddenly come into sharp focus.  Long term plans, dreams and expectations suddenly seem obsolete. Retiring to the west coast of Scotland with my wife Mel, buying a RIB, and exploring the beauty of the Inner Hebrides.  All seem like folly now.

I am reminded of the story Jesus told about the successful farmer who built his barns bigger and planned to ‘take life easy’.  That very night, his life comes to an abrupt and untimely end with God’s words “You fool!” ringing in his ears. (Luke 12)

At times like this, people often re-evaluate their lives.  We ask ourselves what is really important in life?  For me, as for so many others, the two things which come to the forefront are family and faith. 

Both, of course, are inexorably intertwined. Since my first visit to the doctor, I have found my most uttered prayer to be,

“Really God? Is this really my time?  Because I don’t think it is!” 

My wife Mel is partially disabled after a road accident and in chronic pain.  For 14 years, I have been her principle carer to a greater or lesser degree.  She isn’t getting any better, and in time may well get worse.  Really God? Is this my time? 

My children at 17 and 19 and will soon be off to University.  I want to see them graduate, perhaps marry and have children.  I want to see them establish their lives and be the wonderful people I know they are, and I want to be there for them when life is not straightforward or easy.  Really God?  Is this my time?!

On the positive side, this makes me want to fight.  To be determined to be alive in several years’ time, whatever the odds may be.  Determined that I will not give up, and will take every opportunity to be there for them, for as long as I possibly can.  To be determined not to go gently into the night.

When it comes to my faith, I know what is waiting for me.  I am not afraid of death because I know what Christ has done for me. I know that one day I will stand before his throne in awe and wonder, not because of anything I have done, but because of Him who died for me and rose again.

That does not mean I don’t have my issues with God, of course.  Sometimes life just doesn’t seem fair, and Mel and I have had our fair share of those times.  Like Jacob, I sometimes wrestle with God and will not give in.  Like Job, I sometime find that God seems far away and oblivious to my petty concerns.  Like Jonah, I sometimes don’t want God anywhere near me, and yet God is there.

Putting all of those together, I press on.  Life is different now.  And I will treat each day, each month, and each year differently, as I join others in living in the paradox of life and death.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Here we go again...

The Church in Wales have vetoed an openly gay priest in a celibate Civil Partnership from being appointed as Bishop of LLandaff.  This is especially shocking as the Church in Wales has been one of the more supportive Anglican provinces towards LGBT people in the past.

According to a letter published by Jeffrey John, whose appointment was blocked, the reason is anti-gay discrimination.  Despite unanimous support for Jeffrey among the appointed representatives for the Diocese of Llandaff, and a reminder by the presiding bishop that being in a Civil Partnership was not a bar to appointment, 2 of the 5 Bishops objected to his appointment on the grounds of his sexuality, effectively blocking his appointment.  In his letter Jeffrey John notes that, “This is the way that anti-gay discrimination always works.”

He should know.  He has been blackballed from the club of Bishops on a regular basis for the last 14 years.

In 2003, Jeffrey John was forced to withdraw from being appointed Bishop of Reading by the then Archbishop of Canterbury because of his sexuality.  The conservative backlash which followed the announcement of his appointment resulted in him being hounded by the press, pilloried by conservatives, and hung out to dry by the church which appointed him.  It all culminated in an ‘invitation’ to Lambeth Palace where he was subjected to several hours of emotional blackmail before finally caving in and withdrawing his acceptance.

At least that was all out in the open.

On numerous occasions since then, he has been shortlisted for posts as a Bishop.  Each time, he has submitted the personal statements required, often been called for interview and then told he was not suitable.   All under the veil of secrecy which shrouds the appointment of Bishops in the Church of England and in Wales.

In 2010, he was shortlisted to be Bishop of Southwark where he was known as a former parish priest, elected member of General Synod, and Canon Chancellor at the Cathedral.  He was well loved by his friends and respected by those who disagreed with him.  It should have been a perfect fit, but the same pattern repeated.  This time, however, substantive leaks followed.  One of the members of the appointing group (the CNC) died the following year, and his daughter made his account of the meeting public.  Jeffrey John’s appointment had been blocked by a ‘bad tempered Archbishop of Canterbury’ who left a number of the members of the CNC in tears.  The Archbishop of York had worked behind the scenes to the same end.  The whole episode had been shameful.

On and on it went, in a pattern which can only be called abuse.

After the appointment of Nicholas Chamberlain as Bishop of Grantham last year, and the subsequent revelation that he was in a long term same sex relationship, it appeared that change had finally come.  Now there was an openly gay Bishop in the CofE.  It appeared that the dam had broken, but there was an important difference.  The fact that Nicholas is gay, and in a long term relationship, was not publicly known before his consecration.  It was privately known, by the current Archbishop of Canterbury amongst others, but it was not in the public domain.  Apparently that still makes a difference.

And so we come to Llandaff.  Here, surely was the appointment that would break the cycle of abuse.  In recent years the Church in Wales has been more supportive of LGBT people in its public statements than its Anglican neighbours in England.  Jeffrey John is Welsh and a fluent Welsh speaker.  The 12 people elected by the diocese to represent the views of the diocese in the appointment unanimously supported him.

But even this was not enough.  After allegedly homophobic comments went unchallenged at the Bench of Bishops meeting, he was blackballed again, along with everyone else who had made the shortlist, just to obfuscate the blatant discrimination at work.

The spiritual and emotional abuse continues.

I talked with Jeffrey John back in 2003 when he was unable to go home because of the press camped out on his doorstep.  He told me of the pressure he was under to withdraw his acceptance to be Bishop of Reading.  I remember encouraging him to stand firm, and said that if he stood down, this opportunity would not come round again for a generation.

Sadly the pressure on him proved too much, and half a generation later, I am increasingly afraid that I might be right.

The irony is that I don’t blame the individuals involved as much as the institution whose culture is characterised by fear more than love or justice.  It was fear that prevented anyone challenging the homophobic statements made at the Board of Bishops.  It was fear that led them to blackball Jeffrey John rather than face any controversy which might follow.  It was fear which paralysed these Christian leaders from exercising true leadership.

The Christian Gospel is not meant to be about fear.  It is supposed to be about justice and love. In fact, the Bible says that perfect love casts out fear.  Perhaps the Bible should have the last word, from 1 John 4:16-18

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.

This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world, we are like Jesus.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

Friday, 17 February 2017

Walsingham Baby

Today, on his birthday, we interred my Father's ashes in Puddletown church yard, alongside my Mum's.

After his death last year, I posted 'Shilvia Shishishons' - a tribute to his calling to ordination.  Today, I would like to post a short joint tribute to him and my Mum, in gratitude for the way in which I came into the world.

It has taught me never to dismiss the faith of others - even when it may seem very different to my own...

"Getting into parish life did nothing to soften my parents’ Anglo-Catholic fervour.

My dad never seemed to be out of his 39 button cassock with biretta on special occasions.  They were both Oblates at CSMV, the convent where mum had been a nun, and they made regular pilgrimages to the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham.

After a second curacy in Doncaster, they moved south to High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, where dad was priest in charge of the church at Downley.  He was responsible for a daughter church of the infamous parish of West Wycombe where Sir Francis Dashwood founded the ‘Hellfire Club’ in 18th century and carved caves out of the chalk beneath the parish church for their hedonistic rituals.

The church of St James the Great at Downley Common was much less salubrious.  The initial builders planned a huge church, but only the Sanctuary was ever built which left one whole side of the building sheeted in wood and corrugated iron as a makeshift wall.  Nevertheless life on the Common was a long way from the industrial north and they embraced this new environment.  Irene took on her role as ‘vicar’s wife’ and David served the village community as priest and kept close to his roots by joining the Labour Party.

There was one thing missing from their lives however.  Irene in particular, longed for a baby – but they tried without success.  Long term medical concerns about the health of her womb did not help and they began to wonder if they would ever have children.

Then in 1962, they made the journey to Walsingham with a special intention.  They drank the water from the sacred well, and lit a candle at the shrine of Our Lady, and asked Mary for her prayers for a child.

The thought of not having children grieved Irene deeply, and I am reminded of Hannah praying for a child in 1 Samuel 1 “in deep anguish… praying in her heart… pouring out her soul to the Lord”.  Hannah made a deal with God that if he heard her prayer and gave her a son, she would dedicate him to God for all the days of his life.  I sometimes wonder if Irene made a similar deal with God.

Whether she did or not, their prayers were answered.  From Walsingham, they went for a short holiday in Dorset, and 9 months later I was born in January 1963 at “The Shrubbery” in High Wycombe – a most peculiar name for a maternity unit.

Just as Hannah named her son Samuel ‘because I asked the Lord for him’, Irene and David named me Benedict which means blessing.  Every year in my childhood, we would make the trip to Walsingham to give thanks at the Shrine of Our Lady.  Often this would be during the big annual pilgrimage in May, and we would join with other pilgrims in the great procession and open-air Mass, singing the Walsingham hymn as we processed past the demonstrators from the Protestant Truth Society who were condemning such idolatry.

As an Evangelical Christian now, I am not sure what I think of such overwhelming devotion to Mary, but I can never forget that I was born after heart-felt prayer at the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham.  Sometimes it feels like a private joke between me and God, when I hear fellow evangelicals being disparaging about a more Catholic spirituality, but it has also taught me an important lesson.  We may not always understand the faith and spirituality of others.  Sometimes we are too eager to dismiss other expressions of faith as mistaken or wrong.  But if God is happy to be at work through those expressions of faith, who are we to dismiss or condemn.

Much later in my teenage years, I remember hearing a South American Pentecostal preacher called Juan Carlos Ortez talking about his children when he returns home from a preaching tour.  His son would come up to him and ask him to play tennis, “Oh dad, I’ve been waiting for you to come back so I can play tennis again.”  Then his daughter would come up to him and ask him to play tennis, “Oh dad, I’ve been waiting for you to come back so I can play tennis again.”   So he would ask them, “Why don’t you play tennis with each other?” and they each had their reasons why they wouldn’t play together; excuses like “He always hits the ball too hard” and “She always loses the balls”.  In the end, he would play tennis with his son and he would play tennis with his daughter – but he also longed for them to play tennis with each other.

Too often that is what we are like as Christians – all wanting to play with God, but full of excuses why we won’t play with each other.  We often separate ourselves from other Christians or other Churches.  We choose who we will play with, work with, pray with – but in the end, we are all children of God.

So in the end, I thank God that I am a Walsingham baby, even if it does not fit my neatly worked out theology.  It reminds me that walking with God is often much messier than our well-ordered categories, and being a Christian is, above all else, about walking with God.