Archive for the 'GOD' Category

Mission of GOD – 9

I suppose at some point Chris Wright has to get round to the new testament. Even if it only is in the last chapter –  GOD in the nations in the New Testament mission.

There is a bit of a change when it comes to the NT – it becomes something we might more recognisably call “missions” – in the sense that we’ve misunderstood it to be.

In the NT we see people going out to the countries and communities around them and living and declaring something – clearly inviting others to be a part of something.

This seems quite different to the often insular appearing nation of Israel – who were no doubt something watched by the nations if not actively pursuing them.

The first radical thing to note in the NT is in the first chapter in Matthew. In the rather odd (to us at least) genealogy we find the names of some rather suspicious characters – not only women but gentile women!

And we see Jesus spending time with gentiles – the pagans we’ve heard so much about. Now it may not be his primary focus but it’s definitely there.

Peter and Philip continue this in Acts with two key events – the Ethiopian eunuch and Cornelius. The mission of GOD appears to be moving outward more and more – as was promised from the very beginning.

Wright spends some time on the servant chapters of Is 40-55. He describes the servant as one who:

seems to oscillate between a corporate embodiment of Israel and its mission, on the one hand, and an individual figure who has a mission to Israel and beyond, on the other.

He identifies the first as something that refers to Jesus as the restorer of Israel and the second as the task now entrusted to the church.

Which is yet another reason transfarmer should read this book so I don’t have to muddle myself poorly answering her rather perceptive and insightful questions on the role of the church and the kingdom in the pub.

The redemption of Israel has begun but it is not yet complete. The kingdom of GOD is here, just not in its final fullness. The eschatological temple is being rebuilt in the new community of GOD’s people.

Wright also points out something I’d never quite grasped before. That it isn’t all about Israel (as important as Israel’s place is in theology) – that GOD is making a community of people that includes both Israel and the nations but not the nations dissolving into Israel. Remember that the covenant promises made to Abraham were before Israel was a twinking in GODs eye (well maybe not but you get what I mean).

GOD is seeking to restore humanity to pre-fall, pre-Babel – the nations gathered together but instead of making towers to their own greatness they live in knowledge and worship of YHWH.

This mission of GOD, his will to be known, to bring order to chaos as Zoomtard put it the other night is GOD’s mission. I forget that too easily. Reading this book has put a number of things right in my thinking.

Mission of GOD – 5

the common opinion that the Bible is a moral code book for Christians falls far short, of course, of the full reality of what the Bible is and does

The Bible is essentially the story of GOD, the earth, and humanity; it is the story of what has gone wrong, what GOD has done to put it right, and what the future holds under the sovereign plan of GOD.

Wright spends a large portion of this chapter addressing the first part of the quote – yes of course the Bible has ethical implications for us, just because it is not it’s sole purpose does not mean that the ethical demands are irrelevant.

There is a big focus on Gen 18:18-19, Wright’s own translation quoted here:

Abraham will indeed become a great and mighty nation, and all nations on earth will find blessing through him. For i have known (chosen) him for the purpose that he will teach his sons and his household after him so they will keep the way of YHWH by doing righteousness and justice, for the purpose that YHWH will bring about for Abraham what he has promised to him.

In this verse Wright finds election, ethics and mission tied together in theological sequence.

And in doing so I find one of the really useful things that this book has reinforced. That the process of GOD’s mission through us did not begin in the great commission at the end of Matthew but that it was always there, right from the beginning. GOD’s plan and mission never changed, it was fulfilled.

The chapter covers a lot more biblical ground in relation to the ethical mandate and commands GOD has given us – with particulat focus on their purpose. That is to declare the character of GOD, for the benefit of the nations.

Again, even through what we see as obscure ritualistic commands we see GOD laying out his purpose of using Israel as a light to the nations (ring any New Testament bells?) for the benefit of the nations. Again and again we see GOD’s mission as being universalistic – GOD’s mission has always been to include the pagan nations.

As usual all the OT background overflows into the writings of the NT with Paul and the apostles, sometimes quoting, often alluding and always referring to how the OT scriptures were understood in their context.

Wright summarises three points about the the ethical life of the people of GOD to close the chapter:

– a people who are a light to the world by their good lives
– a people who are learning obedience and teaching it to the nations
– a people who love one another in order to show who they belong to.

Violent past

I think Sunday afternoons are there for a reason. Sofas and books.

At only 100 pages Living violently in a gentle world is a good afternoon’s read.

Stanley Hauerwas is becoming a firm favourite of mine.

The book covers the work and theology  behind l’Arche communities, largely the work of Jean Vanier.

The basic thrust of their work has been to develop communities of people with and without intellectual disabilities to share a mutuality of care and need.

The attempt has been not to provide service to those with disabilities but to provide a community where both benefit.

All of this is founded on some of the most basic gospel principles – that the gospel breaks down divisions amongst our humanity, and significantly that the gospel inverts the who’s who of our society.

There is a story told in the introduction of a deaf woman who re-tells a dream where she meets the risen Jesus in heaven and the incredible powerful experience it was. But the most exciting comment she made was that she was really excited that Jesus signed exceptionally well.

I have always held the belief that I, in all my functioning physiology am normal. That people with disabilities such as deafness are abnormal. I believe that the gospel tells us that GOD plans to restore us, that he is making all things new and that the state that I know as abnormal will be no more.

But one read of the story that Jesus signed in the dream turned things on its head – who am I to think that I am normal? Who am I to think that when GOD makes someone who is deaf new – that he will make them like me?

Without doubt the new creation will end the negative implications that go along with the term disabled. Partly because I will finally realise my own disabilities.

But if the new creation only has the power to make someone like me then I’m going to be really disappointed.

Hauerwas and Vanier describe people with disabilities as holy because they represent GOD’s character, they represent Jesus. In these people they find the gentleness that comes with powerlessness that the church so desperately needs.

It is a well argued and perspective shifting book.

I’ll end with a prolonged quote from Hauerwas because it’s health care related and states more clearly than I could a lot of what I have been saying about medicine for a number of years.

After all, “progress” we assume means eliminating what threatens to kill us or at least slow us down. You can cure cancer without eliminating the patient. You cannot “cure” the mentally handicapped without eliminating the patient. L’Arche stands as a reminder that “progress” should not mean eliminating all that threatens us.

Modernity gets us caught up in some funny contradictions. For example, in the US we now spend between 15 and 17 percent of the gross national product on crisis-care medicine, which of course has little to do with the health of the population. If we’re interested in the health of the population, the most important things to focus on are windows, sewers and good nutrition. Crisis-care medicine is not going to keep us alive. It may keep someone alive for 6 months but it is not going to improve the health of the population.

This is controversial stuff no doubt. This is writing myself out of a job. I am crisis-care medicine. But my job has little to do with health, little to do with living life dare I say it.

I love my job. I am just sceptical of the role society (and the profession itself) has given it.

Mission of GOD – 1

This has been somewhat of a blogging hiatus. Blame global warming, blame spending my time to and from Maynooth, blame the economic downturn. Whichever way you look at it that trip to Texas was a while ago now.

I have not been inactive. I perhaps have not paused enough to reflect on any of it.

I have been reading this however:

A simply cracking book by a Belfast guy I saw speak about 3 weeks ago.

It is not exactly easy going – not so much big words and lots of Hebrew, more that it has big ideas that need chewed over.

It has reinforced with me how much my understanding of GOD, the church and my relation to it all has changed quite spectacularly (at least from my perspective) over the years.

I am up to chapter 8 (out of 15), so I figure i’ll give you an update on the salient points so far. If i feel particularly enthused I might start a Scott McKnight/Patrick Mitchell walk through each chapter.

To begin:

He uses the word missional a lot. Missional is one of those words that church people throw around. A word that I felt confused by till I realised I’d understood it for years and just never had the word. A bit like church as community having a bit of a revival even though it’s stuff my Dad’s generation had been doing in Muckley for years without the terminology.

To summarise his view on missional:

Israel had a missional role in the midst of the nations – implying that they had an identity and role connected to GOD’s ultimate intention (or mission) of blessing for the nations

In the new testament setting this meant churches with a mission mindset, willing to engage the culture in order that GOD might fulfil his mission through them.

He describes our mission as:

our committed participation as GOD’s people, at GOD’s invitation and command, in GOD’s own mission within the history of GOD’s world for the redemption of GOD’s creation

Wright’s goal is to help us read the Bible with a missional hermeneutic – or in more simple terms (casue i still have to look up words like hermeneutic and soteriology in Wikipedia every time I read them…) – to read the Bible from the perspective of GOD’s mission. And if we do this we will find great reward in understanding the grand, over arching narrative of the Bible.

He also spends some time trying to shift focus away from us in mission and towards GOD:

it is not so much the case that GOD has a mission for the church in the world but that GOD has a church for his mission in the world

He provides a useful framework for understanding what the Bible tells us of the mission of GOD

– the GOD of purpose in creation

– moves on to the conflict and problem generated by human rebellion against that purpose

– spends most of the narrative journey on the story of GOD’s redemptive purposes being worked out on the stage of human history.

– finishes beyond the horizon of it’s own history with the eschatological hope of new creation.

I also love his description of GOD as one who wills to be known to the ends of the earth.

As an old testament scholar Wright spends a lot of time there, examining the statements of mission, perhaps most clearly seen in the words spoken to Abraham in chapter 12 and how these words are continually drawn upon throughout the history, literature and poetry of the people of Israel. And when this is seen it makes much more sense of what Paul was trying to say.

He also describes well both the particularity of GOD’s relationship with Israel as his covenant people but also the overwhelming universality of GOD’s purpose towards humanity – expressed from the earliest to the latest pages of the Bible.

I hate to say that I’m not sure I have heard teaching like this often in the church. If it was spoken then I didn’t actually hear it. I heard a lot about my sin, about grace and faith and lifestyle, and even a lot about telling the story of the gospel. But without this view of what on earth GOD is actually at, it all seems quite narrow.

It has been a huge joy and awakening (over about 3 or 4 years) to realise that there is more to salvation than redemption from sin. Yes GOD does this, but it is almost the tip of the ice berg in terms of what he is doing.

Perfect love, gone wrong

[Some thoughts, only very briefly and incompletely considered.]

There’s this rather uncomfortable bit in Acts 5. Where up to now everyone has been all, “hope, renewal, restoration and the resurrection”. Then we have this slightly jarring bit where the now infamous Ananias and Saphhira hold back some money for themselves and lie about it and next thing you know they’re dead and buried. (Sorry if i paraphrase that too much.)

And it leaves many of us deeply uncomfortable. We’ve just been getting used to this nice, new fluffy god, who seems really quite unlike that wrathful, angry god in the OT (though of course both are just caricatures) – and then this happens.

We are mostly struck by how disproportionate it seems. Yes they fibbed about the money, but being struck dead is perhaps a bit over the top. We are still addicted to our own legalism and sense of justice it seems. Perhaps we’re just too scared for our own skins.

But when you think about it people were probably doing much worse throughout the church at the time and they weren’t dropping dead. So why these two?

Leaving aside, the interesting references to the OT (in the use of the greek nosphizein and perhaps reference to the holiness of the ark), we got into a bit of a discussion this morning on what happened and what the underlying  point (if there was one) was.

Though GOD does seem to punish certain sins in very specific, easily recognisable ways – this is more the exception than the rule. In general we trust (or at least are meant to) GOD for justice, in his time and his way.

We tread on very thin ice when we try to link certain individual happenings to certain individual sins – think of those who feel the holocaust is just punishment for the Jewish people for crucifying JESUS, or those who feel that HIV is a just punishment for homosexuals.

So if they didn’t die for this one particular sin, what what then did Ananias and Sapphira die for? What, almost unforgivable sin had they committed to bring about such a direct and obvious punishment.

And this leaves us with one of those quite basic fundamentals of faith, basic though not exactly simple. That in many ways people get exactly what they want. Like Renton says in trainspotting – choose life , or indeed choose not to choose life.

That at one level we get exactly what we want. Those who choose themselves get just that, they get themselves, shut up and locked inside themselves, like the hell depicted in the great divorce.

And is what happened in Acts 5 just that – the outworkings of choice in someone’s life? The final step and decision of a life that had chosen self over other, self over beauty, and self over all else?

What happens when the heart just stops

30-09-08

So it goes.

I sit in the by window of the bedroom, listening to him breathe. Noisy, rattly breaths. He wakes only occasionally now. To pee. To take a few sips. He knows us. He knows what’s happening. He even makes the odd sarcastic one-worder (not having the energy for a full one liner).

But his voice is slurred and weak and he hasn’t even the energy to get the blankets off him on his own. This is what the sickness does to you. Leaves people the shell of what they used to be. I’ve seen it happen before. Just not to him.

So it goes.

Not like we didn’t know it was coming. Either from 4 months ago or even last year. We’ve thought about this. We’ve talked about this. We’ve planned for this. I don’t mean it makes it easier. I don’t know what it means. I’m not sure I have to.

Slowly (insidious as medics would say) he’s gone down hill. As the cancer grows and robs more of his energy and leaves him with more and more nausea and kinks and twists in his gut. As tiny blood clots lodge in the blood vessels in his lungs. As his poor starved liver stops making protein and all the fluid collects wherever gravity will draw it to. Week by week he could do a bit less.

There was of course the odd notable exception. Like the day they went to Newcastle and he ate a steak sandwich. Or the day the palliative care consultant came to see him and he was outside cleaning the drains. As mum said to the consultant: “this is gonna look bad…” I told dad they’d take his Graseby off him.

We’re grateful for what we had. He was glad to be here and we were glad to have him. I think that’s changed now.

I am remarkably calm. Though that’s not the right word. I’m not freaking out for some reason – I know I have done previously. The whole thing is a decidedly odd (and equisitely painful) experience.

4-10-08

And now he’s gone.

In the same way I’ve watched them all go before. We looked after him at home. We did everything. No nurse cared more than we did (and the nurses were great), rarely have I been so proud of my family, doing what they’ve had no training or experience to do before. I do this for a living in many ways, it is completely foreign to them.

I could watch all the signs that go with the event of dying. All the medicalised aspects of it. Knowing that there wasn’t enough blood and oxygen to his brain to deliver any kind of conscious awareness of what was going on. He was already gone. I knew this, but still… it’s my Da. He looked like all the other poor dying souls I’ve watched, but still… this was my Da.

Watching someone die is a strange and profound enough experience to start with, never mind watching it happen to someone you love dearly. I think this is part of why it has such a profound experience on people, and perhaps why it didn’t have such a big effect on me. His act of dying (the three or so hours form when he wouldn’t wake up until he was gone) wasn’t anything special. It was, as we’ve described it to people: “peaceful”. The bit that gets you is the sheer finality of it all. That the eyes won’t open again. That there’ll not be the sarcastic comments and the steely determination.

Amazing how quick something can go from being someone you have an intimate relationship to an odd looking body that bears little resemblance to the man you once knew.

I don’t understand emotion – I’m a man, none of us do apparently… But I mean on a physiological basis – the constriction at the back of your throat, such that you can’t even swallow, the pain, the sheer physical pain in your chest, the headaches, the inability to complete sentences, the way your face curls up like (to quote dear Ronnie…) “a bulldog chewing a wasp”. Why does loss affect us poor creatures so?

I wouldn’t want to have kept him here. At least not the last week or two, they’ve not been pretty. In some ways there’s this selfish desire just to keep them here, even if it’s only for a smile and a word. But you think about it and then you realise you wouldn’t want to keep them, not like this anyhow.

And then we were sitting there. With all that was left of Da. And what do you do. Where do you start? Simon phoned the doctor and all the important people, I sorted out Dad and all the medical stuff. Mum baked a pie. What else would you do? I was hungry. I don’t know why, but I was hungry. It was the best pie I’ve ever eaten.

The undertaker asked us would the house be “open” or “private” – Though according to Ruth ,when it says “private” in the paper it actually means anyone can come to the house, but if it says “strictly private” then it’s private. That seems perverse. But it is Norn Iron I suppose.

People started to turn up at the house. And then more people, and more people. And here’s the difficult bit…

I am glad that so many people turned up to wish us well and grieve and tell stories. I am truly grateful for the hundreds of cups of tea and buns and sandwhiches. But there were frequent points when I was very close to standing up in the middle of the room swearing loudly “would you *&^%$£$% all go home and just leave us in peace…”

I didn’t.

Instead I went out to the garage to stroke the dog. The dog is therapeutic. Safer and cheaper than drugs and booze. The dog helps us cope. The dog has been walked and stroked within an inch of its life in the past few weeks. The dog is the single most happy and contented thing/creature I have ever met. Like colin the robot in the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy after Ford has rewired its pleasure circuits (for those who’ve read Hitchhiker’s then you’re with me, if not please read it…) Dog’s are good listeners. We could learn a thing or two…

I am sorry for thinking about such thoughts about such dear people who would come only to “pay respects” and encourage. In one of those odd ways I am both glad that you were there while at the same time I wished you weren’t. I think i’m allowed such confusion.

We bury them quick in Ireland. Two days later. I like to think it’s on the third day and all that… I don’t know why we bury them two days later. Makes the whole thing a bit more intense, but I think it’s a good idea none the less. Though how should I know, it’s not like I do this a lot…

We had a short service in the house before the trip to the church. 25 of us – pretty much the whole family, well those of us old enough to know what was going on – packed into the living room. An unbreakable and terrible tension in the room. Me and Simon waited outside for the minister to come. Both of us in our suits, white shirts and ties, greeting mourners as they arrived. I remember thinking we looked like bouncers. Like a skinny, more weedy version of Max and Paddy.

And then we followed the hearse.

To the church, along the road that Dad walked every sunday afternoon when he was a kid, turning just before we passed the house he grew up in, up roads where he walked every sunday morning with the aging BB old boys.

To the church he’d gone to since he was a baby, that both his and mum’s parents had gone to for all the generations we can trace. [And all of a sudden I realise why roots are so important. Da always said, as if stuck on repeat, “who you are, where you are from, to whom you belong…”]

Carried under the flags of the BB he’d been a founding member of, where he’d served for 40 years. Carried down the same aisle that he’d watched mum walk down on their wedding day so many years before. [Funny how funerals are so like, and unlike, weddings…]

To lie in his coffin at the front of the church filled with the 500 or so people who came to say that they knew and loved him.

To listen to the hymns that neither, me, Simy or Liz could even begin to sing without choking up on tears. We just stood as if the sheer volume and meaning from the crowd behind us could hold us up. [“From life’s first cry to final breath..” is always a killer – i have watched lots of “life’s first cry” waiting to resuscitate babies as they come out. I have watched my own Fathers “final breath” – this is a lyric with depth and meaning…]

To listen and watch as Dad’s best friend gave a eulogy where we all got reminded who he was – someone who loved well and was first class when it came to taking the piss out of people. People got insulted – Da would’ve been happy, he wouldn’t have had it any other way…

And then carried. By those who knew and loved him best, by those who were his family, as we walked behind, careful to look only at the coffin and not side to side, knowing that if we made eye contact we’d come to pieces. Odd that – on the one day designed for mourning, you spend the whole day trying to keep it together for the sake of those around you.

Then taken. Out into the pissing rain (good day for a funeral…) And me and Simy take the coffin, down the path to where we’ve buried the rest of his family. And I just repeat over and over in my head “thank you for the life you gave me, thank you for the happiness, thank you for the discipline, thank you for what you made me, thank you for everything… I’m gonna miss you.”

This and the horrible practicality that if I have to walk much further on a slippy path in these shoes then I’m gonna drop the coffin.

I remember my Granda’s funeral, the same grave, 15 years before. When, as they lowered the coffin they struggled to fit the coffin into the hole and I remember it being remarked that it was just “Billy (Da’s Dad) – stubborn to the last…”

Dust to dust, just like every funeral.

[Liz is for being cremated- she says she’s scared of enclosed spaces and scared of being buried alive. I’m being cremated to save space. Or possibly cut up into tiny pieces by inept medical students with my stolen fingers being used in tasteless pranks… I fugure if GOD raises the dead, then the spread of my individual molecules, atoms, protons, electrons and Higgs Bosons throughout the diaspora shouldn’t pose too much of a challenge…]

As we walk away, the BB old boys gather round the grave to do what they always do, to do what I’ve done before, and “bury their own”.

In the hall, there is tea. Cups of tea like you’ve never seen before. Trolleys of buns and huge vats of tea, all arranged and moving with military precision. There is nothing quite like dear church folk doing catering at a funeral.

We took up a position in the corner and waited for the onslaught. Two hours of handshakes, embraces and tears we were still there as the queue slowly diminshed. Most of it was a bit of a blur. People I had never met, hugged me, good country men shook my hand till the bones cracked. Almost everyone called me Simon. I developed a layer of foundation on my shoulder from all the embraces. It was, in the strangest way, enjoyable. Listening to people tell me stories about Da, from long before I was born.

You see, this is what I didn’t get. I considere myself an authority on my own Da. I had reason to think so. But I forgot that Dad had this whole other life before I turned up. He had 20 years before he even met Liz. This life where he met and loved people and did all kinds of stuff that I knew nothing about. People knew Da in all kinds of ways that I didn’t even think were possible. I am humbled.

For most of the time I was OK. I smiled and laughed and joked and practised our “funeral soundbytes” – it is impossible to say something original every time someone asks you a question about it so you come up with a few choice truths which somehow lose their depth of meaning with repitition.

But every now and again someone would appear in the queue who I hadn’t quite expected or someone who didn’t even know Da and had come solely for my benefit – and then I’d begin to wobble a bit. It goes down as one of the strangest experiences yet.

Your wedding day is cool cause you know and love everyone there, your funeral is the same, except you don’t get to be there. Da would’ve enjoyed it. Just shame he wasn’t there.

We only seem to get this many together if someone gets born, married or dies. Odd that. Odd, the traditions we have.

That night we all got letters from him. We knew we were getting letters. And that wasn’t the easiest. To read his handwriting, with all the nice things and him taking the piss (“Andrew, you knew you were always meant to be a girl…” Cheers Da) and at the end he’s signed it and I can’t go downstairs and say thanks. That’s the tricky bit…

Cheers Da.

Ronnie Neill

Born 29-3-48

Died 2-10-08

Things to make and do

This, I think, is the gist of it when it comes to our role in the new creation, what it means for us to be in, and help build the kingdom of GOD:

“Every act of love , gratitude and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of GOD and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings, and for that matter one’s fellow non-human creatures; and of course every prayer, all SPIRIT-led teaching , every deed which spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of JESUS honoured in all the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of GOD, into the new creation which GOD will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of GOD.”

NT Wright
Surprised by Hope

Bad diary days

[Following is some of the stuff I’d been writing over the past 6 weeks or so, leading up to the surgery and finding out the cancer was back. At one point it was titled “the curious incident of the chinese seaweed in the anastamosis” but that was back when I was a bit more optimistic.

This does not make for pretty reading. So it goes. I tend to write only on the bad days. And they are not all bad. GOD is good. I have no doubt. How and why he does this I’m still working out. I will be for a while.]

I don’t seem to have either the grace, strength or understanding to deal with all this. Be it life in general or life in the specifics. I used to think when I was 16 that there was only so much my little mind could take and life continued on as crazy as it seemed then, then my head would explode with overload. I suppose that’s just universal teenage angst and paranoia. But maybe I still think the same. “Life is funny but not ha ha funny, peculiar I guess.”

The older I get the more perplexed and bewildered I seem to become and find myself in frequent awe of the chaos and bitter-sweet experience of life. I cannot handle this, I cannot handle the ups and downs and the continual pressure of a mere 27 years of memories. I’ll never make 50. Unless I get a jacket without sleeves and some valium.

Maybe it’s only today I feel like that. Sitting on a bench on the edge of Craigavon lakes, which on a day like today could be lake Garda it’s that pretty. Post-night shift, of a week where I’ve worried as much as I have done in a long time.

Dad is not well. The past month has not been good. Pain, sickness, loss of appetite, loss of energy. He remains a textbook of cancer diagnosis. This is like watching a tortoise approach you from a mile away through binoculars. Slow, inevitable.

We were never given any guarantees. And seeing as he was so well I took the optimistic side of every piece of clinical info. Not that it matters a jot. Not that there’s a single thing we can do about it. The sheer helplessness and impotence of the situation. Of waiting to be told that this will not end well.

Every day has been a fight to trust that GOD knows what he is doing. To trust that his love is more important and has more of a call on my heart than anything I can cling to. Every day I lose that fight many times over.

My head floods with a hundred images of people I have known or treated. The slow inevitable decay of time as things get worse. I know (as much as one can) what this will be like. Anticipation of the needle is the worst bit I think. When the needle’s in it’s never that bad. Maybe that’s optimistic.

Everyday life goes out the window. I could care less for what happens in anyone else’s life. All I care about is what will happen to our little family unit. Everything changes. Everyone goes eventually.

——

I find myself continually angry. At who or what I do not know. At friends when they ask, at friends when they don’t ask. At mum and dad, at GOD, fate, karma, at whatever I latch onto.

All of life is so desperately fragile. That we live and love, grow attached to each other and learn how to love each other and then we do not know what to do when they are no longer there. We love each other desperately, though I doubt that this is how we’re meant to.

The older we get the more entrenched we get in our own personalities and lives and loves and tendencies. And we do not like change.

All there is left is emptiness and bitterness and long grey silent afternoons staring at the walls with a heavy heart.

All that I devoted and gave myself to goes out the window. The books, the music, living here, working in the hospital, holidays, relationships, commitments. Everything is off the table.

You make plans and say GOD willing, and then he wills otherwise.

Vonnegut said that the reason everyone was so lonely and unhappy was that we had forgotten about extended families and our families were shrinking and becoming more and more separated and independent and all of a sudden when part of family goes then there’s nothing left to fill the gap, and that everyone would be happier if we just had bigger families.

Mum and dad are there to look after me and Simon. And then Simon and Ruth are there to look after each other and when Dad’s not there then me and Mum will look after each other and Simon and Ruth. And Si and Ruth will look after us. Families are there to stop people being alone.

All this gives me a dismal view of love and relationships. If any of us gets sick and dies then we are all affected. We have no choice to be dispassionate about each other’s fate. We are all in this (life that is) together.

Which makes me want to avoid loving anyone. As soon as you love someone you end up in the same shit together. So that whatever happens to them affects you and whatever happens to you affects them. The fact that loving someone hurts so damn much makes me want to sever all ties to anyone who may possibly care for me or who I might possibly care for. Cause that way I can’t hurt them (however unintentionally) and they can’t hurt me.

This is a miserable lonely view of life. As much as it appeals I will have no part of it – though it is a fight to run from it.

——
I don’t plan too far ahead. I say no to every request for appointment, commitment or meeting. Thinking I’m too fed up of letting people down at the last minute. I’ve applied for a job I’m not sure I want any longer and living in a house I’m not sure I’m gonna want to keep and going on trips I’m pretty sure I don’t even want to go on.

I’ve committed myself to a life of bitterness and sadness and holding onto all my grief and resentment as I neglect every opportunity and gift that GOD leads me too.

I’m OK alone. It’s just everyone else I worry about.

——

I’m sitting here in the house with Dad’s medical notes (shh don’t tell anyone) and my computer searching journals, pinning together all the scan results, all the info, putting it altogether to form a “probability judgement”, or in essence an educated guess as to how worried I should be.

I have spent all day fluctuating between optimism and pessimism (always ending up pessimistic of course…) over what might lie ahead. I am no oncologist, indeed I’m not much of anything but I am at least obsessive. There are 6 cases per million people of ampullary cancer. It is not top of our list of differential diagnoses. People say “glad you told me what that was” when I give my little Ronnie spiel. The ampulla of vater is a long forgotten piece of anatomical trivia lost in the memory banks of medical info.

I am somewhat of an (relative) expert. When it comes to Dad then I am the expert. I know all his scan results, all his blood tests, what his scans look like (little pictures in my head), all the procedures he’s had done. I know whose opinion to trust and I know whose to consider lightly (or simply ignore). This is only partly arrogance on my part. Though it may be largely denial.

——

A few days down the line and I “woke up feeling hungover and old” though I am neither. Two weeks of near constant fretting and anxiety, fluctuating between thinking dad is going to die horribly like all the other cancer patients (though they do not all die horribly, that is just how I remember it)- and thinking that he’s gonna be OK (well it’s a relative term). Not that there are ever any guarantees. “Medicine is not nearly as scientific as you think” as I tell all my patients. It’s “complicated, multi factorial and varies from patient to patient” as one of my old registrars told all his.

I had somewhat of a revelation on Friday, when dad told me he’d been vomiting up 2 day old food. All of a sudden light bulb’s pinged on above my head – a gastric outlet obstruction. A narrowing at where the stomach enters the bowel – possibly a complication of all the surgery (and all the associated complications) dad had 10 months ago. And so I descend into a frantic search of medical journals, books and google trying to find reasons to believe he can still be fixed. He went to hospital and they put a tube in his nose into his stomach and drained over 2 litres of green fluid that hadn’t been going anywhere, along with recognisable green Chinese seaweed that he’d eaten almost 3 weeks ago.

One of my Paeds colleagues was chatting the other day about the relation of personalities to doctors choice of profession. That paediatricians choose paeds cause they generally had stable childhoods and find themselves empathetic to kids. Though that got us thinking towards all the screwed up specialities (like EM and ICU) and what that made us. I think I had a pretty stable childhood, yet how come I ended up in the screwed up specialities, lying awake thinking about the continual tragedy and pain of all the people I deal with everyday.

I think I can fix everyone, I think that just given the time and the space and “let me do everything” then I can save everyone. Again and again (and again) I have been proved wrong. Yet the megalomania continues.

and after 10 months we’re back where we started. Waiting on decisions about surgery. Hoping above else that it’s fixable, hoping that this surgery will be the last, that this one will be a bit more straightforward. We try to joke and quip but this is harder. Or at least it seems that way.

——

I’m not sure I’m entirely well. All this thinking has done me no favours, the perpetual worry has changed nothing. I always find myself thinking is it worse or better to know what I know. Tonight it’s worse.

Is this what an “anxiety disorder” feels like? Is this what “not coping” feels like? I am too used to being invincible, I am too used to taking responsibility and bearing burdens and looking out for people. I know how to do that. I think.

My fear, or maybe resigned acceptance, is that maybe this is just life, maybe this is just what loving someone means. That this is just the way it works when you love someone.

I am back to fearing hearing the phone ring. Though he’s so much better now than he was 10 months ago. This is supposed to be easier. It just seems like it isn’t. Or maybe my memory is just that bad that i don’t remember what it was like.

GOD says trust me. I say I’m not so sure I do. Medicine is a losing battle.

——

It is hard to sit there everyday and watch him slowly come to pieces, losing weight, losing energy, losing hope. Or maybe that’s just me. My heart breaks to watch him. Yet I can’t do anything else. It hurts more not to be there. Tonight I’m not hopeful, tonight I’m not optimistic. Tonight I worry. I doubt anyone else’s ability to look after him properly, that each night I leave him, some muppet might screw up or miss something. I want to go on the ward and scream at someone that why don’t you fix him. Though this is all nonsense I know.

I’d be shouting at the wrong person. I was thinking how this would all be so different if he hadn’t got pancreatitis following the surgery. How he’d be so well and have none of the complications. But then I slowly realised the stupidity of the question. It shouldn’t be “why did he have to get pancreatitis?” but “why did he get cancer?” We ask the dumbest questions when it comes to fate and providence.

——

I find myself often as the appointed representative of the medical profession, of health care in general. I find myself standing in defence of all the idiots and all the mistakes that get made when you’re in hospital. I’m not sure quite why I feel the need to defend these people, and above all to defend “the system”. The system sucks. I know that.

I don’t find myself stuck in the middle, I put myself in the middle, defending an inefficient system, defending assholes who don’t seem to have the grace or wit to give patients the dignity they deserve. Maybe I’m just too much of a part of the system to criticize it, that somehow I’d be criticizing myself.

——

when anything happens to Dad, I withdraw. I give up on all the commitments in my life, all the relationships, everything goes on hold, down to all the little random jobs like buying loo roll. Yes of course I want the time and effort to dedicate to those I love the most, but do I occasionally use it as an excuse to simply withdraw into my little isolationist world? Yes I do.

——

Everyday we fail our patients. We get stuff wrong, we forget the dignity and respect that they deserve. We communicate badly, we ignore (instead of respectfully lay aside) their concerns. We blame this on a system which neglects the health of its citizens in pursuit of efficiency and budgets. And we are partly right to do so. But then we fail patients merely because we’re lazy, inconsiderate bastards. There are certain ways that we can’t avoid failing our patients and there are certain ways that we can. I have given up being the appointed representative of the medical profession. Shower of bastards the lot of them…

And so he’s back in the Mater. I’m reminded of John McClane‘s immortal line “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” I try to reassure him that things can’t go as badly wrong as last time. Comforting, encouraging things like “sure you can’t get pancreatitis again, you don’t have a pancreas.” He’d be lost without my words of encouragement.

——

It’s the waiting that’s getting to him. He’s a smart guy. He knows that everything they’ve tried to get him feeding isn’t working. He knows that nothing is getting out of his stomach. He knows he needs an operation – and all that that entails. He just wishes they’d get on with it. I’m talking about Dad but then I think I could just be talking about myself in the third person.

This is unimaginably hard for him. I don’t consider that often enough. I don’t consider how long  day is in hospital. When you’re well enough to cut the lawn (as he is) but tied to a hospital bed by a central line and a tube in your nose. How long a day is when you’re woke at 5.30 from a sleep you only got to at 1am and were woken from once at 3am to check your blood sugar level. How long a day is when all you have to do is think about what lies ahead.

I like working in hospitals. This changes my mind about them.

——

Dad calls it Mater Mk II. I try to make it seem less than that. Though maybe it feels the same. Waiting. So much waiting. Dad has his operation tomorrow. And we’re not sure what that will bring. The fear remains – cancer. The dirty “C” word. If it’s there then we know we’re not going to win this battle. I’m not sure how I’ll be able to take that. I know I feel like I’ll not be able to handle it. Though I also know GOD gives and provides such for situations. Fear is desperately uncomfortable.

What I worry about tonight is that maybe this is the last day that I can think that he doesn’t have cancer, that he isn’t going to die (I mean sooner rather than later), that he’s still “fixable”. That I’m going to have to think seriously about when he’s not there. I just don’t want to have to think about that.

——

and so now I have to think about it. The word inescapable comes to mind. Today Dad his third major operation in 10 months and with the resounding clang of inevitability it appears the cancer has returned. Not that it returned today. The malignant (never a better word was uttered…) cells were there in the mesentery from the time of the first operation if not before. This was always a losing battle. We just didn’t know it was.

And so with one phone call from the surgeon, in the most wonderful and matter of fact medical language I find this out – I would choose no other way. I can no longer pretend that this is not happening. He said that statistically, recurrence of the cancer was what he was likely to find. And I think that maybe I was telling everyone the wrong thing. Maybe it was pure delusion to think that it was a complication of surgery and not the cancer returning.It’s just that living without hope isn’t much of a life. It’s hard to fight when you know you’re not going to win.

Everything changes but nothing changes. We get him home, we get him well. Life is left to be lived and lived well. And our lives on this earth are not to be so precious to us to be dragged out indefinitely, it is more about quality than quantity. “Living well is the best revenge…”

I phoned Simon and told him over the phone, feeling bad that he’s on his own in work. We went into the hospital at visiting time, trying to keep it together but knowing that he can read our faces like an open book. He was doped on morphine and still full of the anaesthetic. He asked had anyone spoken to the surgeon and I told him that the operation went well but that it was cancer that had caused the obstruction. Just like that. I told him. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do (though I have many ahead..) and he just smiles and says that he kind of hoped that it wasn’t going to be cancer.

——

Today he was more awake. To be honest he’d remembered little of yesterday, barely remembered me talking about cancer, lying there in a daze hoping it wasn’t so. But he knows. And he knows what it means. And I haven’t the slightest idea what that must feel like.

Today I am strangely calm. I know how this ends. I have an idea what lies ahead but we deal with that as it comes. None of us doubt that GOD is good. As odd as that sounds. None of us think that GOD has not been paying attention, or worse, that he wasn’t able to do anything about this. There will be anger and bitterness and resentment and questions (there has been already in my own heart), but it is possible to feel two ways at once and hold only one as true.

The nurse in charge of his morphine asking him questions about pain and was he too sore to cough and was he a smoker and he replied no, but he might start soon.

——

first of July and the oddest of days. We went up to visit dad and have a meeting with the surgeon regarding all that’s happened. And it’s not that we didn’t already know that time was short but to have someone, professional explain it to you makes it seem all the more like it’s happening. Lots of answers we knew were coming but still so hard to take all the same. Maybe we hoped someone would tell us that we had a good chance of having a reasonable amount of time. Maybe that was me just deluding myself.

Today was tough. All our eyes are puffy from too many tears and our heads are sore from too much crying. People write sad songs about their girlfriends leaving them or their seventh album only went silver instead of platinum. Maybe that’s only playing at sadness. Maybe that’s why people write far less songs about people dying, cause it hurts so much more.

I think I said before that we’ve in no way been unlucky in our “share” of suffering. But how do people deal and cope with even more than this. I suppose no one “copes” they just keep waking up each day and getting on with life and eventually maybe it doesn’t hurt so bad.

We (I keep writing “we” though it’s not as if anyone but Dad is sick. Though we all feel it. We all hurt.) do not know how much time we have left together. This breaks my heart even to type. But it’s to be spent as well as we can possibly spend it. “Dying well” is something to strive for, as horrible as it sounds.

We brought him home. Not that he’s perhaps medically quite ready for it but nothing we can’t deal with at home. And home has such a powerful pull, a word that seems to have become so much more full of meaning than simply where we lay our heads at night.

I don’t just mean the house and the family, I mean home where/when things will be put right. When all that is wrong is put right, when all will be changed, transformed, renewed, when life in all its fullness really gets going. The way to look at it is not “I’m gonna miss all this” but “I’m looking forward to finally enjoying it”.

So now he’s home I keep saying that we work it out from here. I have no idea what that means.

That’s how I knew this story would break my heart

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.

Sorrowing I shall be in spirit,
Till released from flesh and sin,
Yet from what I do inherit,
Here Thy praises I’ll begin;
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Here by Thy great help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood;
How His kindness yet pursues me
Mortal tongue can never tell,
Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me
I cannot proclaim it well.

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

O that day when freed from sinning,
I shall see Thy lovely face;
Clothed then in blood washed linen
How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace;
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,
Take my ransomed soul away;
Send thine angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless day.

Robert Robinson. 18th Century

[With thank to Sufjan]

Something in my way

“It is by seeing the cross and the community beneath it that me come to believe in GOD.”

The cost of discipleship
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Most (in no way do I qualify that most…) people have a bad view of Christianity because of the Christians. Indeed I often have a bad view of Christians because of the chrisitans. We are indeed a bunch of idiots, making the most horrid misrepresentations of the gospel and the deity we claim allegiance to.

History is littered with evil and injustice done in the name of GOD.

Our major problem in bringing the gospel (and yes this is of course one of many problems, blah, blah etc – I like making bold overstatements, they just read better…) is not GOD but ourselves.

Whenever I have a good old spiritual tete a tete with someone it (almost) always becomes clear to me that I agree with them. That when they say they don’t believe in GOD (or JESUS or Christianity), they really mean they don’t believe in god. And I don’t believe in god either.

god_closer.jpgI find myself in agreement, that I don’t believe in the god they don’t believe in either. Whatever it is the atheist or the agnostic is disbelieving in it tends not to be GOD. It tends to be one of our little pygmy  gods (a Lewisism of course), with long beards and a toga who’s fretfully running around the faring poorly in public debates with Richard Dawkins.

And this is no one’s fault but our own. We have made such a bad show of representing GOD that we somehow lost the capital letters along the way.

It seems true that you cannot see the CHRIST for the Christians.
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It is the community that lives beneath the cross that is making such a fire and a noise with our temple worship and our sacrifices and our feast days that the cross gets somewhat obscured with the smoke.

The glory of GOD had to be veiled with cloud from the Israelites so that they would not perish. We seem to be doing that job perfectly well on our own.

Ballad of a broken man

The older I get the more I worry about who I’m turning into. The more you worry that you’re gonna end up like your parents. Scared that you won’t end up anywhere near as good.

My consciousness of sin and inability to be GOD used to drive me to my knees and to humility, it seems that I used to accept correction. I could learn lessons and take them and rejoice in the fact that “yes I am a *&^%$£@ asshole”, yet gloriously redeemed by GOD’s grace.

But it seems something’s changed (at least for today…) I seem to get only angrier as life goes on. My frustration with my sin and pride, my loneliness, my bitterness. All dealt with with such anger and bitterness in my heart.

It was easier when I was in NZ (that old chestnut), when I wasn’t so connected to everything. When not having to give a shit was an option. When I could fool myself into believing I was a free and easy soul, “we have all the time in the world” to live,  love and be free and rest our minds on the head rests on trains and stare at the country passing us by. When it was all like the movies and I could pretend the fantasy was all real.

Maybe I’m turning into a miserable lonely old bastard, finding redemption in work and escapism in books and music.

Sometimes I think I’m just another post modern hopeless traveller, no idea where I came from and not a clue whereI’m going. I enjoyed Kerouac far too much.

And this is all I contribute. My sin.  My waste and pride, “the shit I walk on comes in with me.” makes me wonder how I ever managed to steal GOD’s glory with a current and back catalogue like this.

Why so downcast o my soul. Rejoice in the lord for I will yet praise him.

Rush hour soul

I suppose it’s bout time I did a wee blog again for the old CE site. They have been sorely lacking of late. Indeed the sheer volume of requests for new blogs has taken me so long to get through (yes Nic I did get your email, consider it answered…) that I’ve simply not had time.

Anyway where did I last leave you – it appears to have been pre-christmas. Pre-the donegl trip, pre-the sufjan Christmas album, pre-the new mac, pre-the 8 hours a day mixing and recording Ferg’s songs, pre-getting a job, pre-a lot of stuff really. But that’s all by and by I suppose.

What looms large in front of me is a full time job, a proper job with regular hours and rotas and that kind of thing. It’s been a while. I fear it’ll come as a bit of a shock to the system. That mid-week trips to the north coast will be off the menu, along with prayer meetings, and friendships and reading books, and church, and meeting people for coffee, and Kids Club, and being slightly less of a horrible person. I come out in a cold sweat come to think of it.

See the last 6 months of enforced waiting/bumming round have been so good for me in so many ways. It’s nice to realize that there’s a life and a world beyond the doors of the hospital (not that I didn’t believe this before I just never took the time to consider it too much. I realize that there’s all kinds of ways to be of use to the Kingdom that don’t involve medicine. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I somehow hadn’t noticed that before.

I have noticed that there are these simply wonderful people around me called friends and family who have been covering my ass and keeping me right for years and whom I have quietly ignored in the pursuit of my own agenda. I’ve noticed that some of them could do with a bit of a hand and some time now and again. When you take your foot off the pedal for a while you begin to notice the scenery a bit more.

Of all the things I’ve learned (correction, in process of beginning to think about and consider learning…) perhaps it is that above all else lies my relationships with CHRIST. That being and appearing busy doing lots of apparently useful and ‘pious’ things bears no relationship to the state of your heart. When I get busy I retreat into a little shell of my own self-importance. GOD goes out the window (I laugh at the impossibilty but you get what I mean), my family, my friends go out the window.

I can do many things badly or I can do a few things well. Less is more or some equally non-sensical paradox.

Some of you need to start saying no to things, to know that being involved in every extra-curricular activity going isn’t always the best plan, that you’re simply using the activity to patch over the holes in your life. Some of you will need to get your asses off the sofa and stop using activity merely as a means of self-promotion and work out what it means to serve each other. Some will have it like Goldilocks and ‘it was just right’. I know I’m not there yet anyhow.

Will you please be there for me

One of the things I’ve got involved with since coming back has been a wee prayer meeting with a few of the lads on a Monday night. It seems to have developed the title of ‘The Likely Lads’ on the summary emails. It may have at one point been called ‘Remaining Men Together’ as an obscure Fight Club reference, but to be honest it was only me pushing that idea.

Prayer remains one of the great mysteries of the faith. I’ve been doing it since I was knee high to a grasshopper. It remains in common usage even amongst non-believers or nominalists. Us evangelicals have by no means full claim on it.

One of my big issues has always been resolving the conflict between ‘faith to move mountains‘ and ‘thy will be done‘. Never being entirely sure how to pray.

One of the great things about prayer is its efficacy. A medic friend told me of medical studies of prayer as complimentary medicine – where one group is randomized to receive conventional treatment and the other to receive treatment plus anonymous prayer. It also seems to work when the prayer is applied in a retrospective way which along with being weird as, is also kind of cool.

Another is how the whole concept works. Of that we’re not told much, and most of it is deduction from what the Bible has to say about it. My favorite Lewis quote on the matter is “prayer doesn’t change GOD, it changes me”.

This is of course hardly the full story (it rarely is) but there is a definite truth in there.

Though it’s a very pragmatic, human view of prayer, one of the cool things that really gets me is that when a group of people sit in a group to pray is that something very rare happens – they all listen to each other without interruption.

On most occasions (depends very much on your tradition), people will pray one at a time, silence filling the rest of the room. There are no interruptions, no points of order, no witty one-liners to cut off the speaker, no Jon Humphrys to catch you out. To again steal from Fight Club, prayer is special because “people really listen to you, instead of waiting for their turn to speak…”

If nothing else then surely prayer will teach us something of what it is to deal with each other with grace and mercy.

Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box

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Such was the view I woke up to this morning. Well that was the view on my left side. On my right was Gaz:

face-project-097.jpg

He must have got out of the wrong side that morning…

And no I have not flipped out and fled the country back to NZ. Such scenes do exist in NI. I tended to block stuff like this out when I was in NZ, how beautiful a country we actually live in. Autumn rules. Though it is a tad on the chilly side. All I have to do is compare the strand in Newcastle:

newcastle.jpg

with Napier:

 

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Though perhaps I’m being unfair.

No, in fact I’m only in sunny Castlewellan castle with a crowd of 170 miscreants from CE. This is fast becoming an annual tradition of dragging a crowd of folk up to the castle and abandoning them in the basement with bunk beds to see if they can find all the hidden passages. There is of course the obligatory trip to Newcastle on the Saturday afternoon to see how slow the dodgems really are and but tubs of ice cream in Mauds and keep up the good Norn Irish tradition of eating ice cream while dressed in 4 layers and walking along a windswept beach.

There was a lot of bant, the craic was good, there was a deficiency of sleep. There was a lot of good teaching, there was a lot of singing, a lot of prayer and many a long, meandering chat on the state of our souls. Good times.

There was a lot of me feeling almost intimidated by large groups of people, most of whom I don’t know. I regret my rather backward social skills, my fear of small talk and my inflated sense of self-importance. I spent a lot of time listening to Gilly tell me their stories and finding myself in rather illustrious company. Somehow it still surprises me that GOD does such work in other people’s lives. I still live in a rather Nelly-centric universe.

library-5382.jpgMore importantly there were 22 people in the Volvo (incidentally you can see in the photo that someone stood on the wiper controls). Though this was underplanned and suffered due to a lack of commitment from the participants – I mean what was all that moaning about needing to breathe all about? I despair for the youth of today…

I think the only way is to get them all lying flat in rows in the back, and possibly consider the removal of a limb or two. I mean two hands is just indulgent…

I think we could make 30.

 

 

 

Last night I nearly died

Below is what I’d been writing about Dad being sick, since all this started back in August:

He’d been itchy for a week. And I’d not really been paying attention. I’m not a good quality of life doctor. All the minor things, that cause disruption to people’s everyday life I’m probably not that good with. If you’ve had a sore toe for 7 years, and you’ve no idea why, then not only do I not care, I won’t have a clue what’s causing it either. If you’re dying, if you’re blood pressure’s disappearing, if you’re heading towards that bright light, then I’m probably your man. (on reflection that sounds like the intro monologue to the A-team, that was not my intention).

So he was itchy, and I didn’t know why, and frankly I didn’t much care.

And then his eyes turned yellow, and he was itchy. And all of a sudden everything changed. When it’s your own father, everything’s different.

Painless jaundice is not a good diagnosis. For a start it’s not even a diagnosis at all. It’s more a sign of something else. But painless jaundice is also not a good sign, because the majority of people with painless jaundice will be dead in a year.

I got him to lie down on the sofa and I examined him, noticing his liver was bigger than it should have been. Noticing that no matter how hard I pushed on his gallbladder he wasn’t sore.

I’d agreed to do a few shifts in Craigavon A&E while I was back in the country. Mostly for social reasons, as working there was a good way to catch up with everyone. But also cause I just missed the place. I noticed dad was yellow at 7pm. I had him in A&E at 9pm. My shift began at 10pm. One of the other docs saw dad, for which I am eternally grateful. I took his blood and ordered the tests, but having someone else ‘in charge’ of your dad’s care makes all the difference even if it was only on paper.

I got offered the night off. I refused. I knew if I went home I would just worry. I was already trying not to worry Dad too much. I stayed and did my night shift, and worked myself into the ground, working as hard and as fast as I possibly could to avoid the thought that kept relentlessly forcing itself upon me. That my Dad probably had some form of horrible widespread cancer and that he’d be dead in six months.

I worked, and worked. I did not stop. I did my best with the lonely, and the suicidal, with the alcoholics, even with the girl who’d waited 3 and a half hours with a sore ear (which I confess I gave antibiotics for, even though she didn’t need them, just cause I felt sorry for her…) and the poor guy who waited 4 hours for me to put one stitch in his chin at 3.30am.

And at 6.30 there was no one left. And I went and sat down in the tea room. And I cried. I got up and went outside. I cried some more. My hands shook. I told the Sister about my Dad. She said did I mean the young, well-looking man she’d seen me with earlier and told me he looked far too well to be dead in 6 months. And for that I am eternally grateful.

I went back and drank tea and stared at the wall till 7.30am when a mum walked in with her ‘packed and ready to depart this world’ 9 month old baby, with patches of the meningitis rash all over it. Baby was awake but crying feebly. Funny how quickly you slip into the ‘calm and in control doctor’ mode. I find this works whether or not I am either calm or in control.

Within 2 minutes of arriving he had a drip and a dose of antibiotics and half a bag of fluid. In 30 minutes he was covered in the rash. By this stage he had 6 doctors huddled round his tiny frame. Within an hour he was on a breathing machine with ever increasing amounts of drugs to keep his blood pressure up. In two hours he was on his way to ICU in Belfast.

I realise I have learnt a few things in the past year. If nothing else how much I love this stuff.

From here it snowballs. Dad gets three different scans in five days – the queen doesn’t get this kind of treatment said the radiologist – and he wasn’t far wrong. For the first three days I cannot get the image of my Dad – my Dad dying – out of my head. I don’t sleep or eat. My stomach feels sick the whole time.

I wrote in my journal – how big is my god? Big enough  for me to realise that no one but him is in charge? To understand that he has not fallen asleep on the job? To come to terms with what it means to follow JESUS CHRIST? Is my god sufficient? Can I love a god this big? On whose terms do I trust GOD?

After three days he gets a CT scan done. And I breathe out a long held breath. That he does not have metastatic cancer. We still don’t know what is causing the obstruction to his liver. For that we must wait another week.

And in the meantime there is my daddy. My poor, itchy, yellow daddy. Who cannot sleep because of the itch, who would take his skin off with a potato peeler given the chance. Who paces the house at night and rubs the tops of his feet off the rims of the carpeted stairs for relief. Whose stomach is sick, because none of the bile can get out of his liver to break down his food.

Me and Dad come back from the CT scan and I tell Mum that it’s not the worst case scenario, that we still don’t know what it is, but that it’s not horrible. And she breaks down, and I suppose we all do. And it’s the first real family release of emotion. We huddle and pray and cry. We can do no other.

Two weeks after I notice he’s yellow, he has a camera test to look at his bile duct and there’s a tumour there. A small one no doubt but it’s there. And now we know. Now we know it’s not good (though could be worse), that I’m going to have to start using the ‘C word’, the word that every patient over the age of 60, admitted to hospital worries about.

I’ve told a few people they have cancer. A universally difficult thing to do. And every time, I know I have to say it. I have to say ‘the biopsy shows that it’s cancer’. I can’t use any nonsense about masses or tumours or growths. Unless I say cancer then no one gets it. It sticks in my throat like a dirty word. Like something in a foreign language that shouldn’t be coming out of my mouth.

I find it hard not to see horrible things round every corner. This is the kind of medicine I practice – and I do mean practice. I am paid to look for the worst diagnoses and test for those and if it’s nothing serious then to be frank – I don’t really care.

And so we leave Dad in hospital and me and Mum go home and watch Hot Fuzz, anything to keep our minds off things. But I can do nothing but picture a lonely future for Mum, watching DVDs of an evening, knowing Dad’s no longer there. Few things upset me more than to see loneliness in people’s lives.

So now we know it’s cancer, a word I find difficult even to type. Now I know he needs an operation, a fairly major one. Where he’ll lose half his pancreas, half his stomach, his gall bladder and a bit of bowel. This is major re-plumbing. This is a big deal. It is not easy to picture your own Dad on an operating table. To picture your own Dad in an ICU, with a line like a zipper across his belly. Through all this I have fluctuated between being glad that I know as much as I do and hating that I know too much.

The Chinese whispers of inter-hospital transfers (Dad needs to go to Belfast for the op), leaves us with possibility he might have the surgery done on Friday, two days after we’ve found out it’s cancer. Everything seems too quick. They talk about stages in acceptance of bad news. And I see now it takes time. The enormity of what is happening to our small family unit is slowly dawning. That from now on everything will be different.

When we leave for Belfast on Thursday I look at my Dad – who apart from looking like Homer with a bad case of fleas – is the picture of health. He is not sick. Now of course I know he’s sick, but he’s not sick in the way I think of sick. And on Thursday I think – is this the last time I’m gonna see my Dad healthy? Thursday is a big deal and there are a lot of tears.

When we get there we realise the operation won’t be until the Monday. A last minute reprieve – in our minds anyhow. Dad rings a guy from church to let him know and gets a ‘oh it’s a voice from beyond the grave’ response.

Of note, we could not get through this without being able to take the piss along the way. Our family exists on banter and sarcasm and taking the hand out of each other. If we could not laugh then it would be a thousand times more difficult.

So we all go home for the weekend. Two days reprieve, two days for the slow dawning of what might lie ahead. I’m so glad he came home. That he didn’t spend a pointless weekend in a Belfast hospital, alone. With half crazy men in the beds beside him and nurses who don’t acknowledge his even existence never mind his pain.

Brief note, we have had almost without exception, fantastic care, from truly dedicated people, just the odd bad apple…

I left mum and dad alone for the weekend and went to Donegal for a weekend with almost 20 of my best mates. To sit in a cottage and play silly games on the beach and sit up till the wee small hours of the morning putting the world to rights. I needed that. I needed their ‘tears and sweet amens‘, I needed to know they were with me.

Me, Mum and Si went up on Monday morning to see Da before the operation. That was not easy. We left before the porter arrived to take him down. There would be no painful family processions behind the bed. As if there was something to be mourned.

When someone has surgery, the relatives are always most concerned and worried while the patient is ‘under the knife‘ so to speak (when in fact the ‘knife‘ is only really used for skin incisions and all the ‘real’ surgery is done with fingers and ‘blunt dissection’). Their biggest concern is that they might die ‘on the table‘. (which is more of a bed anyhow…)

This is another fallacy. People do not die during surgery, well of course some do, people who bleed out for example, but percentage wise it’s tiny. Medically I know this. I know that the worrying time is the time after surgery, not the surgery itself.

I know this. It matters not a jot. I worry I might never see my dad again. I worry that he won’t make it. I can think of nothing else.

We go home (it’s a five hour operation) and try to watch the Two Towers to take our minds off things. Anything except to brood. Where the disaster that is only ‘vaguely possible’, moves to the ‘just might happen’ into the ‘more than likely’ before becoming the ‘almost certain’.

It doesn’t really work but it’s a valiant effort. Dad sleeps through all of this. Some people…

That night we drive up and see him in the intensive care unit. Still regaled in his blue paper gown and with pin point pupils from the morphine, he just keeps telling us again and again how much he loves us and how lucky he’s been to have the life he’s had. And I wish he wouldn’t cause it just makes me cry all the more.

Three days later and he’s in trouble. Cause what was left of his pancreas has rotted and gone gangrenous and then he bled into it. No one expected this. Not even the surgeon who’s been doing these for 15 years. He goes for another major operation.

For the first time I really panic. I really go to pieces. I had this all thought out – I suppose. I’d been through it all with dad and mum, of what might happen of what could go wrong. And I was prepared for that. But not this.

Now watching my dad, now on a ventilator (the fictitiously named ‘life support machine‘ – there being no such thing) with tubes and wires everywhere, with bags of blood and plasma dripping in. With no response from him but a drunken looking grimace on occasion.

People on ventilators generally look like they’re dying. Whether they are or not. I have been working in an intensive care unit for 15 months in a row. I can think of few things worse than seeing my dad on a ventilator with a dropping blood pressure (again why ‘What Sarah said‘ is such a good song) and fighting to believe what I know. That he can get through this. That yes this is a big deal, but he can get through this.

This was all the nightmares I’d had about being on ‘the other side’. The nurses bringing you into the ‘relatives room’ with comforting lighting and the nice sofa. Being the one receiving the bad news.

Not being the doctor that opens the door of the relatives room, introducing himself delicately, politely and gravely. With a family’s collective gaze fixed on every gesture, expression and word that you make. Not being the one that says ‘I can’t begin to imagine how hard this is for you‘, not being the one that says ‘we have to take one day at a time‘. Not being the one that gets to say all the kind, compassionate words of encouragement – sleeping at night only because I get to say them and not receive them.

So this is what it’s like then.

We leave the ICU eventually. When it seems clear he’s ‘stable’. I have seen too many 24hr bedside vigils. With relatives wearing themselves to pieces just to ‘be there‘. Part of me doesn’t want to leave. Part of me has more sense. Another part of me screams ‘give him some norad you fools… can’t you see he needs more fluid… if you lose his kidneys he’s stuffed, can’t you see this…’ but I stifle the screams. This is not my ICU, this is not my job, this is not my patient.
I ring up the next morning at 6am. Dad has been very ‘naughty’ according to his nurse. Having ‘surfaced’ from his sedation at 4am and not liking the breathing tube in his throat, he pulled it out. This is quite impressive. His first words, as they prepare to put him to sleep to put it back in, are ‘it’s good to be back’. In the end they leave him be.

At 6am on the phone I get to speak to him. To hear a weak, slightly horse voice tell me he loves me. Maybe the ‘voice beyond the grave‘ wasn’t such a facile comment after all…

Everything changes. We all smile. We laugh. We make jokes. Clinically, medically, not much has changed. In our lives everything has changed. ‘rollercoaster’ is too twee a word to describe it but it’s the best I have.

Four days later we get the pathology back. This is the results of some tests on what they cut out. Where they make slides of the cancer ’tissue’ and look at them under microscopes, and put funny dye on them to work out which cells are which. I’m glad someone does this job. I’m glad it’s not me.

To know exactly what type of cancer it is is important. People can be cured with certain types of cancer and not with others. They talk of 5 year survival rates. That if you’re still alive five years later then it’s probably not gonna come back and you’re probably ‘cured‘.

Brief note on ‘cured‘. No one is ever cured. Mortality rates among human beings remain rather high at just under 100%, taking into account some rather exceptional circumstances over 2000 years ago. Indeed the ‘human condition’ itself is to die. ‘Please don’t cry, we’re designed to die‘ sings Jeff Tweedy. My boss in NZ describes oxygen as a toxic substance that causes pain, misery, suffering and occasional euphoria, that eventually brings about decay, decline and death over a period of roughly 70 years.

We knew dad had one of two types of cancer: pancreatic or ampullary (an area of the bile duct). The difference was (roughly) 10% versus 70% 5 year survival. So now you see why it matters. The poor wee first year doctor who they dragged down to tell me was smiling (and no this is not darling lorraine) when she came in. I prayed this meant it was good news and not naievity on her part.

When she told me it was ampullary and that there was no spread to the lymph nodes, I could have hugged her, even though I didn’t know her from eve. I told her this, though in the end I still just shook her hand.

I never thought being told your dad had cancer could be such good news. I went back to the bed smiling and told dad it was the cancer we were hoping for. And he prayed and thanked GOD. And we cried. Tears need not always be bitter.

We needed that. Needed to know that the fight was worth winning. When you’ve been through two major operations in a week, lost half your blood volume, lost an organ or two and had your insides replumbed, then you need the prospect of light at the end of the tunnel. When you haven’t slept for weeks thinking that maybe all this is a bit pointless, maybe I’m going through all these horrible things for no good reason. You need a bit of good news.

After two weeks in ICU he got moved to the ward. And the change in him was noticeable. The freedom and independence he now had in being able to get up and walk around himself, the fact that he could finally sleep changed everything. He was weak and tired, but there was joy and hope in his face. That yes we’re going to get through this. He’s gonna come home soon.

Each day seemed busier than the last. With seemingly queues of staff waiting to speak to him each morning. Between surgeons, doctors, nurses, physios, dieticians. A lot of information to take in. And then there was (is) the diabetes to get used to. With no pancreas, Dad has no insulin and therefore has very high sugar levels in his blood. So now he has to poke and inject himself with various needles to keep the sugars under control. He took to it like a duck to water.

On Monday we think we might be getting him home by Friday. On Thursday it turns out it won’t be till Monday. On Friday it turns out it might be six weeks. On Friday it might be not at all.

On Friday he had a scan (an ultrtasound of his heart) to look for an infection and on it they see what is described technically as a ‘vegetation’. A little clump of bacteria and platelets attached to his aortic valve in his heart. This is again, kind of a big deal.

This is like having a knife plunged into your stomach. The rug pulled out from under you. 2 steps forward and 8 back. In my head I know that this is it. That this is not going to end well. All I can picture is poor sweet Herbie, the Maori with the Bono glasses and the exquistie giggle, like he was being tickled, who became our most frequent flyer in ICU till his dialysis line got infected (he’d been through five lines, two of which were mine…) and his heart valves got infected and quickly rotted away. And that was all she wrote. I know too much sometimes.

This feels worse than realising he had cancer. Whether or not it is worse is another question.
I think I’d just got used to the idea of my Dad living through all this. I’d just got used to the idea of him being alive. And then I was thrust back into the awful visions of my Dad lying there, colour fading from his cheeks, his chest no longer rising and falling, the pulse in his neck no longer throbbing. The painful, miserable finality of it all.

Left thinking of funerals and kind words and of the pain and anger I would carry with me and nurture and water until my self-pity is fully grown into bitterness. Till GOD eventually gets fed up with me and takes me home.

Why the up and down? Why bring him this far, why make it so hard, why make it so $%^&*() hard?

I’m just left angry. At what I don’t know, my thoughts aren’t organised to find an appropriate target. Truth will not let me stick it on GOD.

It was a horrible weekend. Waiting for another test on Monday that we all believed was merely to confirm what we already knew. He spiked high temperatures, he felt woeful, his blood pressure dropped. I found it hard to watch my Dad get sicker. To watch and not to do something about it.

Sunday evening I had a quick word with one of the junior docs, desperately not trying to seem to be telling them their job but needing to know that they knew he was getting sick again. It is an awkward position to be in. Doctor’s relatives are often the hardest to treat, I have no desire to be a difficult relative, but when it’s your own Dad then the great Kiwi maxim ‘She’ll be right’ is simply not good enough.

I graduated from baby doctor to grown up doctor (well maybe pre-school doctor…) by getting things wrong, by making bad decisions, by screwing up. Rarely resulting in any significant consequence. Perhaps sailing a little close to the wind is more appropriate. This is how you become a better doctor. By making lots of silly mistakes. It was fine for me but when it’s your own Dad then I’m having none of it. This makes me no more self-centred than the next person, merely someone in a position to do something about it.

At some point in the weekend I let go. Let go of diagnoses and drugs and numbers and survival rates and just repeat ‘Thy will be done’ over and over to myself. I realise that Dad not making it would still be grace – he gets away from sickness and into eternal joy he does not deserve. That the pain we would go through would still be grace – each of us desperate sinners, deserving of punishment for our neglect and rejection of GOD as the whole point of the universe.

As a brief aside I find myself unable to reconcile these two aspects of prayer: 1) thy will be done, and 2) if you have faith as small as a mustard seed… I don’t know which to pray and find myself unable to pray both. Never have I once doubted that GOD could simply and quickly heal him. I have doubted every day whether or not he will. When I first noticed Dad was jaundiced, I knew what that meant. My first thought was not ‘GOD heal him’, but ‘Thy will be done’. I instantly gravitate to 1). Perhaps this makes me fatalistic. I’m not sure that’s a good or a bad thing. When I say ‘thy will be done’ it is with gritted teeth, with a clenched fist.

On Monday, about lunch time, Dad rings. Telling us he’s had the test. Telling us that the doctor told him that they could find no infection on his heart valves and that the ‘vegetation’ on the first test was something called ‘artefact’ (an image on the screen to do with funny reflections of ultrasonic signals). All of a sudden the sun comes out, the room warms up and everything changes. Again.

What this means is the infection is not in his heart but coming from an abscess in his belly. This is wonderful news. In the way that finding out what type of cancer Dad had was good news. Everything is relative.

I sat at my desk and cried, no wept. For a good 15 minutes. Something I haven’t done since all this started.

Thinking about it I’m really not that sure how much more bad news I can take. The thumping of the adrenaline as the phone rings when it’s not meant to, or a blood test or a scan result. Each one like losing him all over again. I’m not sure how much we can take of all this.

And so began the slow windy, hilly road to ‘recovery’, whatever that means. It means eating, and blood sugars, and insulin, and wounds healing, and 5 laps a day round the ward.

It means starting to get on with all the other things in our lives, thinking about jobs and cars and other people. All the people I neglected and turned away from to be with Dad. So it goes. I have no regrets on that.

It means, not worrying about him, not sleeping with the phone beside me so that if it rings with bad news at 3am then mum won’t have to hear it first.

At one point shortly after the operation, the phone kept ringing, good, kind-hearted people ringing to give support and prayers and find out things were going. And I was frequently terse and brief in my replies because I had neither the energy or (to my shame) the inclination to talk to that many people. At the time I came up with the idea of Ronniewatch, a nightly five minute TV program, perhaps just before the ten o-clock news, possibly presented by Huw Edwards or the lovely Sarah Travers. They could have the guy from Big Brother say “Day 7 in the ICU, Ronnie takes his first steps…” and that kind of thing. Just so that everyone would know he was getting better.

And he is getting better, and I know he will. Though I debate in my head whether this is faith in GOD, or faith in modern medicine, or (much more likely) faith in the fact that there comes a point when human beings will just get better, no matter what you do or how you feel about it.

But oh what it would mean to get him home. Days become weeks and all of a sudden 2 months have passed. The word home comes out of my mouth with a tremble and a sigh, my lungs emptied so I need to breathe before I can make another sentence. Like it does when Luke Skywalker says, “but that will lead them straight… home” in the first Star Wars, just after they find the slaughtered Jawas in the desert. Home in the way Sam means when he says, “well, I’m back” at the end of the Lord of the Rings. Home in the way Paul Simon meant when he sang, “I’m sittin in a railway station, got a ticket for a destination… I wish I was homeward bound…

Common People

So I was having this discussion (in a taxi headed downtown…) in a coffee shop with a friend, Mostly about Christianity. All the things that piss us off about ourselves and the church and the world we live in. We end up talking about the gap there appears to be between the type of Christianity we see in our church – Bible centred, mostly cerebral, a lot of consideration and understanding, by a mostly highly educated group of people. Contrasted with the normal everyday society of a working class housing estate – educated as little as possible, where books, never mind the Bible have any role, where reaction is more important than consideration, who dance and drink and screw, casue there’s nothing else to do.

This begs two questions.

1) is the Christianity I describe what should be called ‘compulsory’? Is a love of study and theology and a grasp of the finer aspects of the five points of Calvinism what we need to be looking for in a believer?

2) if not, what type of church do we end up with and how should we do it? Together or separate? And how does this affect how we reach all the people in the working class housing estates.

Now there is enough in the two paragraphs (in which I have made huge generalisations and ignored many important points) preceding to spark all types of debate and controversy. That even may be the point. But I will try to explain a few things.

I grew up in a pleasant, safe (though not leafy) housing estate on the outskirts of town. Born to two first generation professionals, one of whom even had some form of degree, well a teaching certificate at least, and Da had 3 O-levels and some gnarly side burns so all’s fair there….

I was loved and nurtured and educated, both at home and in school. I was amply provided for and raised in a stable, loving and caring environment. Churched from a young age and taught the value of hard work, honesty, integrity and what would have been called moral values. Though perhaps I was just indoctrinated by a bunch of fundamentalists and projected some horrible Oedipus complex. I’m not sure. You choose.

I have been educated to a tertiary level and am a qualified professional in a very well paid and respected job with career possibilities coming out of every orifice. I am, by any stretch of the imagination, a golden child, one of the luckiest people on the planet.

There are now over 6 billion people on this planet. Most of whom without a toilet or running water, many of whom who die before the age of 5 from (what would be in our society) entirely preventable diseases. Many go hungry. Many can’t read. Few drive a car. Few have electricity to their home. Even fewer have used the internet or listened to a CD or read a book. Even fewer have been on an airplane to another country.

In terms of standards (education, finance, health, opportunities, safety) I’m somewhere in the top oh… 0.001% of the population of this planet. The white, middle class, Protestant male is the top of the food chain. Mostly by clambering on top of everyone else to get there, but I have no time for history.

If you are reading this then you are a) probably lost, b) full of perseverance to make it this far down and c) probably in the top few percentage points along with me.

On the other hand if I was born in a sink estate in Belfast, or in any city of any industrialised nation, I could well be an unwanted child of a teenage parent, with no father present. With an unstable family upbringing, few opportunities, an early entrance to anti-social and criminal behaviour, becoming heavily involved in alcohol and recreational drug abuse as a way to escape the awful pain of being alive and falling just short of the higher percentage points of human existence.

I draw generalisations to make a point. We are exceptional. Not in the BUPA advert type of a way, but that life is, in general, for the majority of the population on this planet and in this country, in this town, a conveyor belt of fear, pain, misery and death. I got lucky, though I in no way I believe I ended up with who I am by luck but you know what I mean.

I am a thinking Christian. I read books, I have vague notions of artistic appreciation and creativity. I need to understand my faith. To understand something of what expiation, imputation and sanctification mean. I need to question what my faith means, not even always finding satisfactory answers. I need to understand why I am what I am, why I do what I do.

Does this make me a better a follower of JESUS CHRIST?

The question I think should be this: does this make me a better follower of JESUS CHRIST?

It is subjective. Surely it must be. It would be anathema that GOD would create a faith accessible only to the top 0.001% of the population. Aren’t we to become like children in our faith? Heaven will be largely full of people who never learnt to read (assuming this whole shambles of a universe is called to a close sooner rather than later).

The gospel message is simple enough for a child to grasp and believe. Yet complex and deep and meaty enough to dedicate many of the finest minds of humanity into dedicating their lives into its understanding and unpacking.

So it seems clear that I’m not right about everything. A shock to us all I know…

I mean that how I relate to GOD will be different from how you will relate to GOD. That somehow GOD is glorified even in the variety of our personalities and our intellects. That the faith of a peasant believer in India (note how he is not simply a believer but a ‘peasant believer’, because I believe a delusion that my circumstances are normal, and his are in someway exceptional and deserve the preceding adjective) brings equal, if not greater glory to GOD. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

So perhaps that’s question 1) dealt with, in the smallest and most superficial form of course.

As for what our churches should look like then I have only begun to scratch the surface in my own mind. For now I’m more concerned with how that affects our evangelism.

Most of us are strategic about our evangelism. Trying to get the best understanding of the culture to which we are preaching the gospel. As a simple example, when I was in Malawi a few years back, we had to do some ‘preaching’ in church on a Sunday morning. Often it consisted of little thoughts from the psalms. In a burst of enthusiasm I got our translator to translate my psalm to English from his Chichewa (the language not the Wookie from Star Wars) Bible. I soon realised that there are no deer in Malawi and therefore my psalm had been modified to ‘As the giraffe pants for the water’. There are cultural barriers to be crossed. Most much more complex than this.

This town is divided by all kinds of barriers. Most obviously by that which cost the lives of 3000 people in the past 30 years. I rarely call myself a Protestant (though I indeed sign up to the doctrinal statements) but a Christian. But I can’t ignore the fact that I am a Protestant and the person I am speaking to is a Catholic. I cannot close my eyes and pretend the issue is not there. It is. I need to busy myself with dealing with it.

I have a secure and well-paid job. You are on income support, with no qualification and indeed no motivation to work. The simple and inevitable conclusion is that if you sign up to what I preach then you will become like me. Though the even scarier conclusion is that you need to be like me to sign up to what I preach. I cannot ignore this.

It is vital that we understand the significance of the barriers (and sometimes opportunities) that stand between human cultures. CHRIST was undeniably Jewish and preached to an almost exclusively Jewish audience. Paul spent his time with gentiles on his journeys, indeed in Athens he grasped and understood the culture of debate and pantheism that surrounded him. The consequences of the tower of Babel did much more than simply separate us in terms of language.

A ‘one size fits all’ Christianity does not work. The world is not full of Christians like us. I in no way want to come across as a lefty universalist, let’s just all hold hands and praise the Lord – that type of thing. It matters who you think the Lord is. It matters how you get to know him. It matters how you relate to him. Doctrine matters. Do not doubt me on that.

But what we are so often trying to do is make more people like us (by which I mean more people who are like us, not simply make people think we’re fun to be around). One of my biggest fears about church is that we are simply dividing along the secondary issues. That all we will be left with are groups of people united not by their love for JESUS CHRIST, but their taste in music, their age, their personality or the style of the sermon. But don’t get me started.

GOD wants disciples, wants people who love and treasure him for who and what he is. He does not want us to be making Presbyterians (though this may end up being the case) out of people. He does not want us to make Protestants (most Protestants know nothing about the reformation or have read any of Luther or what he fought against, most Protestants in this country are Protestants because it simply means they are not Catholics) out of people. He does not want us to make white, middle-class males, lovers of CS Lewis and a good self-deprecating lyric. He does not want me to make people just like me. He wants to make people, to remake people, to make them what they were meant to be. He is into making them like himself.

Don’t change your plans for me

I haven’t gone away you know. I mean I haven’t gone back to NZ. Or maybe you’ve not noticed. Or maybe you already know.

At lunch time on Sunday past, a tannoy voice in Belfast city airport called ‘passenger Neill’ to proceed to the gate. And someone boarding the air New Zealand flight to Auckland that evening would be pleased to find the seat beside them empty. At Napier airport there would be no bleary eyed member of the walking dead greeting the ‘sky blue sky’ of Hawke’s bay and rejoicing in his first decent cup of the black stuff in 6 weeks.

And there would have been none of the desperate regret and tearing, the bitter separation of leaving where I am now (and all that that means) behind.

To be brief – and I intend to be lengthy at some point, if I ever find words (or indeed the guts) to describe the past month – my Dad got sick.

And I would be nowhere else but here at this time. Walking away (when I saw the heat around the corner..) from NZ was as easy as two, admittedly rather emotional phone calls to my boss and my best mate out there.

In the midst of two weeks of hospital visits, on the other side of the fence, I’m lying in the greenhouse, tacked onto to the toilet of our house (it is more elegant than it sounds) listening to Pedro the Lion and reading CS Lewis essays (proof that indeed this literary/cultural nonsense I indulge in is actually solid ground beneath my feet and not mere entertainment to make the slow road to the promised land pass a bit more tolerable, which is why I mean it when I say I’ve come to like only the music that makes me feel like crying) – and somewhere between keep swinging and start with me I’m back in Napier. Running (indeed a distant memory, perhaps even fantasy) round the estuary in the twilight, dreaming of home and the dear souls who dwell there, and in the near dark catching my breath. Passing the fish and chip shop, looking forward to a shower and the endorphins.

NZ was something that happened a million years ago, somewhere else, to someone who looked a bit like me and just perhaps may have been somewhat like me, but it did not happen to me. At least that’s how it feels.

I’d already decided not to stay. The plan was always to have been back in NI by Christmas. But I had goodbyes planned. Or at least planned that I’d plan my goodbyes. There’d be a farewell meals with lots of different people, there’d be more helicopter rides and resus calls, and central lines, and speaking to relatives (for good or ill), and cups of coffee with the staff.

I wanted to leave NZ. Though this was not how I pictured saying goodbye to the place.

Of minor prophets and their prostitute wives

I tend to have about 3 or 4 books on the go at any one time. I tend to start with good intentions, to read one book thoroughly cover to cover, to persevere through the boring bits before beginning another one. Kind of like when you feel guilty for skipping past track 5 (I never knew what it was…) on Astral Weeks, just to get to Madame George. (NB if none of you have experienced such ‘artist loyalty’ guilt, then do not panic. You are indeed one of the sane ones and should get a certificate or a stamp to prove it for future reference).

But I always fail and end up giving up on such fine and virtuous books such as Paradise Lost in favour of the new Harry Potter or another sustained attempt at the first chapter of Mere Christianity. And so I end up with 4 books on the go, and always one as the runt of the group, at the bottom of the pile and neglected. Only read in moments of true virtue and commitment, ‘one chapter I suppose…’

I’ve started a new phase of buying second hand books. For lots of reasons, but mostly by necessity of books being hard to get and expensive in NZ. For the bargain price of 12 bucks I got an original Mark Twain book (the innocents abroad) published in 1869 and looking for all the world like a church of Ireland prayer book. From an age when all books looked like the church of Ireland prayer book. This has been the runt of the pile for 6 weeks or so now.

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Anyhow, it’s basically a travel book. Like a Bill Bryson or something. I thought sarcasm and irony were purely 20th century inventions, but it appears they were alive and well in the 19th. However it was a slightly different age of travel, when a European excursion was a 6 month affair, involving your own ship and available only to the well-to-do of the population.

What is remarkable is how little anything seems to have changed. Now I know reading 19th century travel books is hardly keeping up with the times, but it seems even then people were visiting the tower of Pisa and being accosted by gypsies on the way back to town (as happened to me in 2000). That people still visited Paris and the Louvre (without the funny glass pyramid or the Da Vinci Code associations). That guides still hoisted themselves on poor unsuspecting tourists and told lies about common attractions in poor quality English (and of course Americans still pay heftily for the privilege…) That people still visited Rome and marvelled at how man is so keen to preserve legacy and prestige while the beggars lined the gates to the churches.

All this as a build up to two quotations, just cause they made me laugh out loud by myself – a thoroughly pleasant experience and recommended to all.

On visiting the ruins of ancient Pompeii and seeing the frozen figure of a Roman soldier still at his post, unflinching at the onslaught of the lava:

“Let us remember that he was a soldier – not a policeman – and so praise him. Being a soldier, he stayed – because the warrior instinct forbade him to fly. Had he been a policeman he would have stayed also – because he would have been asleep.”

And the following reflection on Rome and history:

“After browsing among the stately ruins of Rome, of Pompeii, and after glancing down the long rows of battered and nameless imperial heads that stretch down the corridors of the Vatican, one thing strikes me with force as it never had before: the unlasting, unsubstantial character of fame.

Well twenty centuries later and what is left of these things? A crazy inscription on a block of stone, which stuffy antiquaries bother over and tangle up and get a bare name (that they spell wrong). What may be left of the great General Grant’s (American Civil War leader and 18th president of the US) name in 5868 AD, possibly:

Uriah S Graunt – popular poet of ancient times in the Aztec provinces of the United States of British America. Some authors say he flourished about AD 743, but some say he was a contemporary of Scharkspyre, the English poet and flourished about AD 1328 – some three centuries after the Trojan War, instead of before it. He was famous for writing, “Rock me to sleep Mother”.

These thoughts sadden me. I will to bed.”

Woodsy tells me one day everything will be recorded, (with advances in technology), every conversation and action, not for any nefarious purpose but simply because we can. And that the record of all our lives will be held on something the size of a grain of sand. Something like that anyway, I wasn’t really listening…

Though, despite the internet and the digital camera and the proliferation in media and storage and the simple availability of recorded history and culture, despite all this I’m not sure we’ve learnt too many lessons, we’ve still got beggars on the streets, humanity obsessed with power, money and prestige and we’ll probably still have “another century spent pointing guns at anything that moves” and post-modernity has grown up and given birth to a generation with this question on their lips:

“and each morning she wakes with a dream to describe
something lovely that bloomed in her beautiful mind
i say, “I’ll trade you one for two nightmares of mine,
I have somewhere I die, I have somewhere we all die

but then night rolls around and it all starts making sense
there is no right way or wrong way, you just have to live
and so I do what I do, and at least I exist
what could mean more than this?
what would mean more, mean more?”

Conor Oberst – Bright Eyes

These thoughts sadden me. I will to bed. Make your own mind up whether they’ve got it right.

I’ll leave you with some Pedro just to point you in the right direction (Hint it’s all in the title of the song, know your Bibles people…)

“all the time you were burning my letters
you were only acting the part
you think without me you’ll get on much better
but you don’t even know your own heart
come home, darling
come home quickly
come home, darling
all is forgiven, so come home quickly

i treated you as if you were a princess
you treated me like a cop
i gave you boundaries to save you from certain death
dangling from the end of the rope

come home, darling
come home quickly
come home, darling
all is forgiven, so come home quickly

but you’re still playing for a love you’ll never find
outside of these arms of mine

the whole town is one step behind you
with the hang man on call
they’ve got the judge and you’re convicted without a plea
darling, they will listen to me
darling, they will listen to me
darling, they will listen to me”

Pedro The Lion – Of Minor Prophets and their prostitute wives

Bad things to such good people

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This is a kind of ‘you had to be there’ blog. For those of you who were, then it was both an honour and a privilege to be there with you. But I guess you had to be there.

In a normal situation I would have had a good (or probably bad) 4 blogs done in the past week. By normal situation I mean living in NZ without all these terribly bothersome human beings getting in the way.

Instead I’ve spent a week with people, in fact I’ve spent barely an hour away from people since I got back. Indeed the one hour I did spend alone, I got a bit twitchy and unsettled that there was no one there.

Finished is my 12th year at New Horizon. Gained is a head full of songs, theology, conversations, meaning, hope and tears. I have spent time listening to the people of GOD singing, standing with my eyes closed to hide the fact that I’m crying, so full of joy that I am closer to home than I have been in my whole life.

And home is not Norn Iron, and not even, dare I say it Porteedown, but home is somewhere between ‘final breath’ and revelation 21. Home is not so far away from hope. Home is in fact, only 3 letters away from hope. Certain words acquire depth and meat and meaning after a week or so on them.

Being here has been taking my head out of the sand – for indeed in some aspects, NZ has been a long ‘time out’ and sticking my head in the sand and pretending that bad things do not happen to such good people as those I love so dearly.

In other aspects I wish I hadn’t been away. That when I left, I missed out on people’s lives, that when I left I kind of withdrew support that should have been given. I regret not being there – if not when I should have been, then at least when I could have been.

I have loved just sitting in the courtyard in Agherton, playing Woodsy’s detuned guitar and drinking coffee from my orange mug sitting on the windowsill and people watching. Getting 34 headers first time with Skeeno when it took us 3 hours in the dark last week to get 20. With the sweet hum of the Nerf over head and the constant stream of mini buses coming and going.

Before I indulge any further then I will tell you that there’s a Ben Folds line that goes ‘kids these days… they get nostalgic about the last 10 years before the last 10 years are past’.

I have had 100 conversations with people I haven’t seen in a year or longer. I even knew some of their names.

I have had countless chats with folk in the big tent as my eyes drift from focus on who I’m talking to, to who I may possibly talk to next. This is pretty universal, the sheer number of people leads to such distracted conversations. I briefly attempted to hold conversations where I never broke eye contact but found this hugely unnatural and rather freaky. I resorted to looking at my feet. It annoys me that despite the fact that I want to give someone my full attention – as politeness and love would dictate – I cannot avert my eyes from the possible next social engagement.

I suspect I have blanked people, people who know me, a few who have even said ‘hi Andy’ to which my body as replied with a ‘blank’ and an inward – ‘I have no idea who you are, what your name is or even why I should know you’.

Surprisingly I am not yet fed up with my ‘if I was a friendless orphan I would move to NZ’ conversation yet, though I suspect a lot of you are. I remain joyously, neither of the above.

Where the sharks breed

When I woke in Hicksville, I mean hick’s bay sorry… it wasn’t as wet. Though still cloudy. I didn’t hang around. The road from the east cape to the bay of plenty is long and a tad windy, lots of it being one lane hugging cliff faces. Nice scenery but a lack of cafes for brekkie. I found one by 11am that turned out to be lovely, so nice I had two coffees.

Windswept bay after dramatic windswept bay, and no where was there even a road down to the beach front. The one beach I could get down had a pretty scary looking swell and in the surf guide it said it was a shark breeding ground. I avoided that. Presumably the sharks breed here and then go to Australia or South Africa to eat Australians or South Africans. I’m pretty sure they don’t attack people here.

Just outside Opotiki there was finally a decent beach and lo and behold (what I thought was a mirage) a van selling coffees (proper espresso stuff none of your filter muck). A combination made in heaven. The sun even came out so I sat on the car with my latte reading ‘the poisonwood bible’ and getting very angry at the power of a story.

Well not the power of story itself just the power to denounce something (say biblical Christianity) with a stroke of character and narrative. I find myself getting angry both at the characters and the simplistic conclusions drawn on occasions. Though not a complaint really, if it makes me think a bit then it’s something, as long as I remember to think.

It is an immense book, I would recommend it to all, says a lot about the terrible things man has done in the name of GOD. Gives you a wonderful perspective on points of view. We have so little idea about how the religious appears to the irreligious.

Sorry, spiel on literature over (for now…)

From Opotiki I drove to Whakatane, which sounds quite rude if you pronounce it the proper Maori way. It’s actually a lovely wee place with a few decent cafes – in fact I judge towns solely on whether or not they’ve got nice cafes so that’s unfair. I found a wee secluded spot down the beach front and took the board out again.

Waves that look quite impressive from shore can be pretty pitiful when you’re out on them. These were just waves that tended to break on themselves and had no actual forward motion so I spent a lot of time just standing and quickly sinking. I gave up after 20 mins.

The other good thing about Whakatane is that it is a cinema. So I watched the 5pm showing of Pirates of the Caribbean with all the kiddies screaming laughing and talking all the way through it.

And yes I loved it. I will love it no matter what they do with it. Even if I found myself rather lost on occasion trying to work out who was betraying who at any given time. I just love pirate stories. The older I get the more I seem to like fantasy and sci-fi (though you’ll not see me at a star-trek convention). I imagine (cynically of course) that my childhood imagination is failing me and I’m just buying into someone else’s imagination. Like the bit in ‘Life after God’ with the guy in his twenties who despairs for life cause he’s scared there’ll be no new experiences in life. That makes me sad.

I got out of the cinema about 8pm and with nothing else to fill the evening (i could write a ‘things to do in whakatane when you’re dead’ couldn’t I?) I bought a sandwich and went straight back into the cinema to watch ‘Hot Fuzz’

Now the Irish may have all the best music but there’s little argument that the English have all the best comedians. I’m a huge ‘spaced’ fan (the tv show where simon pegg/nick frost/edgar wright made their name – if not their money) and it’s just pop culture/parody/reptitive comedy motifs at its very best.

There were a grand total of 4 of us in the cinema. Me and three hoodied (though i’m sure they didn’t see the irony) teenagers.

It made me laugh, made me laugh out loud, it made me feel smug cause I thought I spotted lots of the references to other films and TV shows. But I’m not sure if it was of any ‘value’ in any way. By which I mean it didn’t inspire me to question or affirm what I hold dear, I could see no higher purpose in me watching it. Save for entertainment and endorphins. Not that I’m saying that’s a bad thing in and of itself. I dunno what do you think? I have no snappy answer, even to whether it matters or not.

Movies, songs, books, tv shows are all deeply ingrained within me. Most of the time they just go in there and sit in the memory bank, to be brought up again in pub quizzes or the eternal ‘cartoons were better in my day’ debate. In recent years I’ve taken to analysing it all.

Everything I watch, read or lets just say ‘consume’ gets interrogated as to what it’s saying and whether or not what it says holds up as truth. I’m so passionate about truth that I want to sit down and have a chat with all the lyricists and novelists (with coffee of course) and debate what they were talking about. You’ll never find out where people are coming from if you don’t listen to what they say.

Which is why I have difficulty in categorising something like hot fuzz. In a lot of parody and satire it’s hard to find an agenda. And if there is one it’s mostly deflating something full of it’s own hot air. And so I’m comfortable with it – there is really so much hot air about and it’s hard to think of many things that couldn’t do with being taken down a peg or two (and please oh please start with me…)


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July 2020
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