Yesterday, I visited my parents. It was a good opportunity to see how Mum was getting on since we heard she (thankfully) had TB, not cancer. Dad has since been prescribed antidepressants: the strain of this episode, preceded by Mum’s fall last Christmas, and the prolonged saga of the house move last year have taken their toll on an eighty-one-year-old.
They treated me to an excellent lunch at a favourite pub. Then we returned to their flat for conversation, before tiredness meant they needed a rest and I made an earlier than expected departure.
During that chat, I mentioned a story from the other day. Rebekah had been looking at some coins and had noticed the date. This had fascinated her, especially a twenty pence piece from a galaxy far, far away known as 1982.
Dad got up and went out of the living room. I thought nothing of it. However, he returned with a bag. It was a collection of coins, many of them specially minted for state occasions and still in their presentation sleeves. There were crowns to mark the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 and Charles and Diana’s wedding in 1981. There were two wallets of Britain’s first decimal coinage. Then there were assorted loose coins, including some old sixpences. One of these came from the reign of King George V in 1922.
Dad explained that he wanted them handed down the generations of the family. He asked me to keep them safe for our children. While they would be worth more than their face value, they would not be especially valuable, because many of them had deteriorated. However, they would be a fascinating and educational possession. I was delighted, and locked them out of sight in the car boot when I drove home.
It was a joy to come home and tell the children I had a present for them from Grand-dad. In the short time before bath-time, it was impossible to explain the significance and context of these coins to Rebekah and Mark. How on earth will I explain pre-decimal currency to them? I was only a fortnight shy of my eleventh birthday when Britain was decimalised.
And if Rebekah finds 1982 hard enough to comprehend, what price 1922? George V is three monarchs before the current long-reigning Queen (I’m including Edward VIII, even though he was never crowned).
Pounds, shillings and pence and early twentieth century kings will take a lot of patient dialogue and explanation. There are so many foreign concepts to go through in order to make sense of Grand-dad’s gift.
Is it not similar in evangelism today? With, say, three largely ‘unchurched’ generations there is a huge gulf between the Christian community and most of society. (And that gulf may go some way to explaining the misrepresentations of our faith in the media – it isn’t all wilful, much is a genuine lack of understanding.) Evangelism is about being in for the long haul to explain the faith in a context of dialogue. I see the point of those who say that a contemporary repeat of Billy Graham’s Harringay crusades in the 1950s with their remarkable levels of conversionss most likely would not happen today. It isn’t that I think God is incapable of it – of course the Holy Spirit could – but it is to recognise that Graham was able to appeal to a residual faith and call people back to it. There is hardly any such residual faith today.
Our faith is like a 1922 George V sixpence. To most people it appears not to be legal tender. It looks battered, but it is valuable. Nevertheless, to explain the significance takes time.
But the investment of time into relationships as we gossip the Gospel is immensely worthwhile. We are sharing treasure with people.
Chris Chesterton tells a great story in his book ‘77 Talks For 21st Century Kids‘. When Captain James Cook and his expeditionary force landed in Australia, they started to learn the Aborigine language. In particular, they asked the Aborigines what the strange jumping animals were. ‘Kangaroo,’ they replied. But ‘kangaroo’ wasn’t the name: it was their word for ‘don’t know’!
He links this with the story of the manna in the wilderness. When the people first see it, they wonder what it is. They call it ‘manna’, which is effectively Hebrew for ‘wotsit’. It’s another ‘don’t know’ moment. God has done something, but they are reduced to the language of ‘don’t know’ or ‘wotsit’.
I think we’ve just been through a ‘don’t know’ episode with God as a family. I’ve been blogging lately about my Mum. We now know that (a) she doesn’t have secondary cancers in her lung and (b) neither does she have lung cancer. But what does she have? We don’t know. The hospital, including the eminent consultant cardiothoracic surgeon, don’t know. One nurse said the lesion was probably just a ‘medical anomaly’.
So there was just a concern about a temperature Mum kept having since last Friday’s surgery. However, yesterday they put it down to haematoma near the site of the one drain that was still attached, and today she is being discharged.
We had a problem about transport for the discharge, but again, God has been up to things. My Dad, at eighty-one, didn’t want to drive into central London to pick Mum up. (And if he did, we’d have vetoed it.) I couldn’t make it. All along, my brother-in-law was on standby to do so. However, he has been suffering from a chest infection. What to do?
Well … on Wednesday, two retired friends from my parents’ last church, Colin and Ella, turned up to visit. They said that if Mum were discharged any day between yesterday (Thursday) and tomorrow (Saturday), they would happily oblige. They live the wrong side of London for the hospital and for where my parents now live in Hampshire. But nothing is too much trouble for them. It is a lovely act of Christian kindness. Mum’s only disappointment is that they will chauffeur her home in their ‘ordinary’ car, a Skoda Octavia, rather than Colin’s beloved classic car, a gorgeous white 1960s Jaguar! But who’s complaining?
Yes, this has been our kangaroo experience as a family. We’re not claiming a miraculous healing, because there was never a firm diagnosis of cancer that has been rescinded. But God has been up to his ‘don’t know’ work, doing ‘wotsit’ ministry with us. It leaves God at the level of mystery, as One who – however truly he has revealed himself in the Gospel – is nevertheless above and beyond our puny human comprehension. And that is all the more reason for thanksgiving and praise.
UPDATE, 8:40 PM: Well, tonight it doesn’t seem quite so ‘wotsit’ or ‘don’t know’ as it seemed earlier! Mum has got home safely, but told us that the consultant said today he was terribly sorry, he’d forgotten to tell her the diagnosis! It’s TB. That sounds dreadful to some and of course it has been making a comeback in recent years. However, it seems Mum has probably had it in her system since her youth and the trauma of last December’s fall left her stressed and run down, thus vulnerable to a recurrence. And at least these days it is a treatable condition. So although we’re looking at another six months under a local consultant and her GP, we’re not shocked by the news.
Mum does not have lung cancer. I heard that a few minutes ago from my sister, who is at the hospital with her today. The consultant visited her in the recovery suite after this morning’s surgery to say that the lesion he removed was not cancerous. This is an astonishing piece of news, given that he had written to the GP and another consultant, saying he was fairly sure that not only was it lung cancer, but a specific type in particular.
As yet, we do not know exactly what the diagnosis is. For that, we await the next ward round, either this evening or tomorrow morning. Next suspect on the list was TB, followed by a list of obscure conditions.
My sister and I had so prepared ourselves for bad news, that Wednesday’s results (no secondaries) and today’s are astounding. Much as I believe in the healing ministry, I have hardly dared pray for healing. Terrible confession, I know, but true. There is no way I wish my dear mother dead, but knowing she is seventy-eight, I had begun to prepare myself some time ago for the thought that one day bad news will come and it will be the beginning of the end, and I would then have to wait for the outworking of our Christian hope to see again. My faith has risen since Wednesday’s news, but this is amazing.
The feeling of relief is almost indescribable, except to say that in my case it is so strong it has left me feeling weak and dizzy. Somehow, in the next few minutes I have to cook dinner for the children and then go out to give a Boys’ Brigade devotional. I’m not sure my mind will quite be on the job – in the nicest possible way!
Thank you to everyone who has prayed. Of course, the family wouldn’t turn down more prayers …
I saw Mum at the hospital today. While I was there, the consultant reported the result of yesterday’s bronchoscopy. They found no evidence of secondary cancers, so the worst scenario appears to be crossed off the list.
Next up is surgery on Friday. They will remove the lesion from her lung. While she remains under general anaesthetic, the lab will perform a biopsy and report the result to the operating theatre. If it is cancerous, they will then remove that section of her lung and presumably prescribe some precautionary radiotherapy as follow-up. It would most likely be a stage 1 cancer, caught early.
There is a small possibility it might not even be cancerous – say, TB. If so, then appropriate treatment will be prescribed.
Thanks to everyone who is praying – if you can continue to pray, I’ll be grateful.
It was the eminent American theologian Tom Petty who once sang that ‘The waiting is the hardest part.’ We, like millions of other families, are currently waiting. We are waiting for next week, when Mum enters the Brompton Hospital for her investigations. Admission is Monday, procedure is Tuesday, we are told the results Wednesday, and if surgery is feasible, that happens Friday.
Meanwhile, even a short wait from Monday last week when the consultant broke the potential news, feels like it is dragging. If it feels like that to me, I don’t know what it is like for Mum or Dad.
And there are others who wait much longer. In Scipture, waiting is often for years, decades, even centuries – for the hope of the Messiah to ease the pain of God’s people (and even then he wasn’t in the form they expected).
Yet one thing I must recognise is that God uses waiting positively. ‘Waiting’ and ‘hoping’ are interchangeable English translations of Hebrew, if I recall correctly. (Compare different English versions of Isaiah 40:31). I believe God can use the waiting period to shape us. George Carey once said to me at Trinity College, Bristol that theological training wasn’t simply about information, it was about formation. And isn’t that true of the whole Christian life? God is forming us. One means he uses is waiting. As we pray, struggle, wrestle and argue, God forms us more into the image of Christ.
I pray that God is doing that for us as a family right now. If you are waiting, is he doing it for you?
When the singer Sam Phillips was operating on the Contemporary Christian Music scene under the name Leslie Phillips, she wrote a song that I imagine her paymasters didn’t like. It was called ‘Answers Don’t Come Easy’, and it returns to me at times like this. She sang:
I can wait
It’s enough to know you can hear me now
I can wait
It’s enough to feel you near me now
And when answers don’t come easy
I can wait
I think she was wise.
On Monday, a consultant told my Mum she almost certainly has cancer. It could just be something else, and it’s subject to a test in a fortnight. As you can imagine, I haven’t concentrated too well on work. My mind keeps drifting, and all sorts of feelings wash over my from out of nowhere. The unfeeling logical side of me reminds me that Mum is a good age. I have known for a long time that she and Dad are in that age range where my sister and I can reasonably expect something to come along and potentially take them from us. Logic, however, doesn’t comfort. It’s the lesson Job’s friends never learned. It’s the lesson too many Christians don’t learn, with their instant lectures on how God must have a purpose, or even offering hotline-to-God explanations. It’s been instructive to have the book of Job as my daily Bible reading lately.
As a minister, this is parallel to the times when I enter into similar experiences my congregation. As a family, we now face the issues for which I offer comfort to them. I feel like the way I cope may be a matter of public display. That isn’t all negative. It’s true of all Christians in the world. It tests the depths of my faith.
I won’t be able to get away from certain reminders – like yesterday, when I buried someone’s ashes. But even then, I’m not unique. My sister is an Occupational Therapist working in a hospice – she will be reminded every working day.
Blogging, of course, will be less frequent. I have one or two posts planned, but when they get written – well, naturally they’re not too important right now.
Please pray for us. Thanks.