I was asked this week to make a recorded video talk of around 15 minutes or so on the subject of ‘Suffering and Faith’. These are huge topics and can’t be dealt with in such a short session, but friends of mine were going to curate further discussion in the church group for whom the video was made after they had watched it together. I thought you might like to watch it, bearing in mind that it was made for a specific context.
It’s been a funny old week. I’m just home after a few days in hospital – well in coronary care actually – after a late night dash to the emergency room. I had been having chest pains for a couple of weeks, and they started coming every day, even when I was at rest. It turns out that a ‘stable angina’ situation had suddenly turned ‘unstable’!
It’s quite scary being hurried into ‘Resus’, especially after watching too many episodes of ‘Casualty’ on the BBC. After a long and anxious wait there and many tests later, I was admitted to the coronary care unit in our local hospital. Here, a very worried looking nurse told me that I was on 24 hour watch and was not put a foot to the floor! Tied up to enough technology that looked like it would not be out of place in an aircraft cockpit, and being right in front of the nurse’s station with its bright lights and constant movement and noise, sleep was impossible. I was scared.
Over the next three days the team began to relax and allow me to do the same. A new medication was introduced that should help prevent these episodes, and I was allowed home, fragile but grateful. And in it all, I felt challenged to ‘lean harder’. I realised that I needed to lean on the expertise and care of the cardiologist and his team. I also needed to lean harder on the prayers of those who love me. It’s hard to pray when you’re really unwell and afraid (although the best prayer then is ‘help me Lord!’). Above all, I was learning to lean harder on the love of heavenly Father who has promised never to leave or forsake me.
I read these amazing words in the Bible book of Psalms (91):
Say this: “God, you’re my refuge. I trust in you and I’m safe!” That’s right—he rescues you from hidden traps, shields you from deadly hazards. His huge outstretched arms protect you— under them you’re perfectly safe; his arms fend off all harm.
Kate Bowler has written some amazing resources for when times are tough. She is a Christian lecturer in a US Bible College, a mother and sufferer from stage 4 bowel cancer. I have found her books helpful and challenging in equal measure. Here she offers a prayer of blessing for us when things just don’t go the way we want them to go:
God, I’m fumbling around for answers, reasons, meaning. I can’t find any purpose in this pain. Why me? Why them? Why now?
I don’t know when this is going to get better. Or if I will ever feel relief.
Blessed are we who need to be reminded that there are some things we can fix …and some things we can’t.
Blessed are we who can say: my life isn’t always getting better.
Right in the midst of the pain and fear and uncertainty, may we hunt for beauty and meaning and truth… together.
Not to erase the pain or solve the pain, (though surely that would be nice), but to remind us that beauty and sorrow coexist. And that doesn’t mean we’re broken or have been forgotten.
In our hope. In our disappointment. In our joy. In our pain. God is here and we are never—were never and will be never—alone.
Our island home of Guernsey in the Channel Islands has hit a new milestone this week in the battle against Covid 19. Till the first of July this year our borders were virtually closed and the virus was fairly well controlled – almost eliminated in our group of islands called ‘the Bailiwick’ (led by a Bailiff – a Crown appointment). As a result, we were free of ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions;’ (NPI’s). But, we all knew that this could not last if we were to regain our place in the wider community, and that travel by air and sea could not be put off indefinitely.
This week the Covid cases grew exponentially and the government stepped in to burst our ‘Bailiwick bubble’. Now, we are strongly recommended to wear masks in public spaces, crowds, churches, shops, buses etc. The public are also being instructed to take Lateral flow Tests (LFTs) at least twice a week and to stay at home if they have symptoms.
I know that I am vulnerable due to my surgical history and transplant etc. Yet I feel that the only thing I have to fear is fear itself! I hate the masks that rob little children of their mother’s smile, and their teacher of the means to convey their loving care. I loathe the steamed-up spectacle lenses and mask-inspired headaches. But hey – I don’t have to wear PPE for up to 12 hours daily like the front-line medics do! And we may be masked but we need not be muzzled.
There’s a lot of very lonely and frightened people about. We are called to pray one of another, but also to speak out words of encouragement and generosity of spirit. We don’t have to be silent when we can use social media for good instead of hatred. Our eyes can still reflect our smile, and our kind words bring healing and comfort.
Covid 19 will not win. Spanish flu did not win. The devilish attempts to muzzle us and mask our care must not win either. Yes, we must wear our masks because we care for the well-being of others, but it’s not going to stop us caring and reaching out because at the end of day, Jesus shows us the way – and He will win!
I have always found great comfort from watching the birds feeding in our garden, especially in winter. This is when Robin comes. He is always alone – he seems unable to mix with the other birds. He only ever eats from the table and never swings from the feeders like sparrows do. He appears quite tame and certainly curious, cocking his head to one side as he watches us come and go in ‘his’ garden.
In his aloneness Robin reminds me of my years of pain and isolation from others as a result. Pain and chronic ill health do that to you. They cut you off. They isolate you. They rob you of the comfort of human company – just like this dreadful pandemic. The whole idea of ‘swinging from feeders’ is just not for you!
This Christmas, as so many face the stark reality of isolation in their pain, why not choose my book ‘Through the Storms; a manual for when life hurts’ as a gift for them? If you would like a signed copy, email me at email@example.com. the cost is £8.99 post free in Guernsey or add £1.75 for anywhere in the UK. Invoice to be sent with book for bank transfer. Thanks.
According to recently published research, in total , 45% of adults feel occasionally, sometimes or often lonely in England. This equates to twenty million people. Characteristics of people who are more likely to experience loneliness include: those who are widowed, those with poorer health and those with long-term illness or disability. 43.45% of the group reporting bad or very bad health are often/always lonely. There is no doubt that being chronically unwell isolates people.
I believe that isolation, although sometimes necessary to prevent the spread of disease, is itself a potentially dangerous experience. Solitude is one thing – where one seeks ‘aloneness’ for spiritual or psychological refreshing – but isolation can be a tool in the hand of our enemy and accuser, Satan. It may be forced upon us, but we must take practical steps to try and minimise any damage that may be caused. I speak about this, among many other things, in my book ‘Through the Storms; a manual for when life hurts’.
From the other side of the coin, I try to keep my eyes peeled for folk who may be lonely. A smile, a word of greeting, an offer of practical help, an enquiry if all is well, may each be a way of bridging the gap with someone who is feeling isolated and lonely. High rise blocks of apartments are deadly for this problem, hiding folk away and putting them in files and boxes. When folk do emerge, they are often wary and fearful. We need to find ways of taking an interest in others well-being without overpowering them or disrespecting their personal space. It’s a difficult balance, but the pandemic of loneliness is also deadly and there will be lives lost as a result.
This is where your local church community can be a literal ‘God-send’. Its foodbank, or church cafe, or drop-in centre, offers real hope for lonely people. Our church runs the Alpha Course and it is well attended each time we run it, offering friendship and good food as well as helpful videos. Find out more about Alpha at http://www.alpha.org.uk.
Above all, you may be lonely, but you are not alone. Jesus is the friend who sticks closer than a brother. Hear the words again of Hebrews 13:5 from the Amplified version of the Bible: ‘for He [God] Himself has said, I will not in any way fail you nor give you up nor leave you without support. I will not, I will not, I will not in any degree leave you helpless nor forsake nor let you down (relax My hold on you)! Assuredly not!’
This time tomorrow I will be in prison! Not that I have done anything serious to deserve my incarceration – just having a story to tell. I will go into Guernsey Prison to talk about my experience of pain, critical illness and recovery, as part of their Sunday worship service. I’m told that numbers are quite good at these events as it is one of the few occasions prisoners get out of their cells and blocks.
Chronic ill health is a kind of prison too. You feel that your body – or maybe your mind – is locking you in. Pain yells at you if you step out of line and try to do too much. Life is limited and socialising becomes difficult. Isolation, which is now such a common thing in this pandemic, becomes a tool in the hand of Satan, afflicting you with feelings of worthlessness and rejection. I am so glad that my faith enabled me to break out of that prison long before my body was healed or my pain relieved. Find out how, and what helped me with that, by getting hold of my book Through the Storms. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a signed copy today.
The words of the famous hymn spell out my story. Even if the corona-virus crackdown prevents the singing of this in UK churches – not that many would probably choose this style of musical praise today anyway – it remains one of my favourites.
Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven; To His feet thy tribute bring. Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, Evermore His praises sing:
(Henry Lyte 1834)
In a recent newspaper interview and article I was asked several questions about my experience of chronic pain. Here’s an extract:
If you feel able to, please can you explain for those who may not realise, what is it really like to live with pain every day? The pain of pancreatitis is out of this world. It often meant that I couldn’t breathe freely and had to lie curled up in a foetal position to try and find relief. At times I was carried out of the home by ambulance personnel in that position. Pain made it difficult to concentrate as it is all consuming. It was a daily battle to deal with the depression that comes with chronic pain but is often exasperated by the kind of drugs I was taking. Pain is a slave driver, a hard task master and a thief. It stole so much from me that no insurance policy on earth could ever repay me for the years lost to it.
Now, two and a half years after that drastic and radical transplant surgery, I am free of pain after 22 years of suffering. Can you see why I love that hymn so much? If you would like to know more, email me at email@example.com and I will be glad to arrange to let you have a signed copy of my book.
It is a real pleasure to know that bookshops are reopening around Britain after lockdown. My latest book ‘Through the Storms’ came out just before that period of closure and has been stuck behind locked doors ever since. Thankfully, online stockists like Amazon, Eden and Aslan have continued to make it available. I have also got stock and have been sending them out from home, signed and usually with an invoice for payment by bank transfer. The above copy was pictured in Waterstones in Jersey.
I have a friend in quarantine. He has about a week to go of his 14 day sentence. It’s hard going. Meals put down outside his door. No mixing with hotel staff or anyone else at all. Twenty minutes exercise per day – less than many prison regimes. And his crime? Arriving in Guernsey from the UK to work in our local hospital. Our borders are firmly closed. Anyone arriving in this little group of islands has to isolate for two weeks, or face a fine of up to £10,000. One man was recently fined £6,000 for his first offence!
My experience of chronic pain is that it isolates the sufferer. You can’t go out socialising because you simply don’t feel up to it. Even within families and homes you can’t take the noise and hassle of chatter and being with others. Sadness is compounded by loneliness as you ask yourself ‘Will I ever feel different?’.
Yes, you will. You are not shut up for ever. Try to look beyond the confines of your situation. Even lying in bed you could FaceTime or Skype someone you love. Above all, keep your mind on the fact that you are never truly alone. Jesus said “I will never leave you, I will never forsake you”.
For some of the lessons that I have learned in my many periods of real isolation caused by pain and recurring acute pancreatitis, get hold of my book ‘Through the Storms: a manual for when life hurts‘. And get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org as I would be pleased to hear from you.
My friend will emerge from behind his cage next week. I will be pleased to see him, and I hope he will be even better equipped to understand how people in chronic pain feel.