Perhaps we’ve all had times in our lives when we would that the calendar could be paused and time’s inexorable march forward halted, or at least paused. It’s what I find myself thinking as 2015 comes to an end. While it remains 2015, I can still say, “I talked with Ben this year, I prayed with him, I walked with him, I laughed with him…I saw him and sat with him, heard his opinion this year”. But 2016 means it’ll be, “Last year Ben and I…”. That’s a more difficult one to swallow. It seems to emphasise his quiet fading into the past. His most recent photos will become those from last year, then another year, and still another. Today as I write, it’s a year to the day since Ben collapsed under a seizure while he and Dabi were out walking with us. It proved to be the start of the journey into the last phase of the illness from which he would never recover.
While 2015 has seen both its profoundly painful times and far-reaching life changes, it’s also seen more than a few gifts from Father’s hand. Among them, a house of our own to live in, a permanent teaching post for Catherine and an awareness of an enormous amount of love and friendship we’re privileged to have surround us. And this last four weeks of December has been a month of precious times within our family circle. Christmas day was an unexpectedly happy and peaceful time as we celebrated in the morning with Joshua’s church family in Honiton, placed flowers on Ben’s grave before midday and then sat to eat and relax with each other – just Catherine, me, Simeon, Tom, Joshua and Lydia – laughing, sharing and reflecting, all the time of course conscious of a large gap. Tom had turned 21 just days before and eleven days before that, Catherine and I had celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary. She and I were treated to a weekend away by both our church and the Hill Church in Swansea, spending two nights on the beautiful Gower Peninsula in Wales. We were then privileged to share our family story and testimony as Robin Vincent, pastor of the Hill Church, interviewed us for half an hour at their main service late on the Sunday afternoon. Sharing it once again made me realise afresh that often we can find and experience more of God’s grace and strength in the dark times, and that we can more profoundly grow in a real understanding of His character as we go through difficult seasons. As I particularly discovered in 2007/08 during an intensely dark and painful time in my life, one caused by my own failure, that rather than these times being occasions that might make us either wonder where God is, if He exists or why He permits suffering, they’re times He allows (or even sometimes causes if he’s disciplining us in His Fatherly love). They’re seasons that can offer profound opportunities to know Him more as our own bag of resources for coping is emptied and He’s all we have left. We discover further depths of His love, His forgiveness, His grace – in more ways than we could if the proverbial sun always shone. They’re times for which we can be thankful and ultimately embrace, if only in hindsight. Days after we came back from the Gower, I read these words in the Old Testament prophet Habakuk…
” Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the sheepfold and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights”
If a man or woman has really gotten to know Him, then even when our soul’s season feels to be winter, you and I can still trust Him by holding onto who we already know Him to be – and that He hasn’t withdrawn or deserted us. They can be times of invitation to come into a deeper experience of trust and fellowship with God, to know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
I’m going to hold onto that as the new year arrives and I face at least three hours of surgery under general anaesthetic on 5th January. The MRI scan results I wrote about in my last blog have led the specialists to recommend removal not only of the increasingly swollen lymph node under my arm, but also two growing and hardening melanoma ‘deposits’, one on my inner thigh and the other on my back. I’ll be in hospital for at least two nights, and then unable to drive for 4-6 weeks. Catherine is understandably anxious about it all as in so many ways she’s often more affected by all the potentials than I am. In myself, I’ll be glad for the surgery because of the discomfort I’ve been increasingly getting. It’s no fun waking up at night finding that the node under my arm has been pressing against nerves and left me with a dead arm. Post surgery, after a few weeks, I’ll be scanned again, at which point a decision will be made about any need for fresh immunotherapy. My ongoing and sometimes intense spells of tiredness make me aware of the ongoing effects of the disease.
As 2015 comes to an end perhaps I don’t wish for time to slow down after all as I remind myself that every hour is an hour closer to that breathtaking time the scriptures plainly promise when, for any of us who in this life have placed the weight of their life’s trust on Jesus Christ, we’ll see Him face to face and “all shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”. There’ll also be lots of smiles of happy recognition and reunion as we see those others who we knew and loved who had also trusted Jesus the saviour in this life, but now there in the bible-promised new creation. Not among the clouds and harps of the caricature cartoons, but in the physical yet spiritual place that the Bible so clearly and repeatedly describes, heaven and earth recreated and combined – with resurrected and perfected bodies like Jesus’ resurrected body, living eternally. It’s a vision of God’s grand future for which I long, yearning for it most of all because of what John saw and recorded in Revelation when he said,
For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
As the calendar flicks over into 2016 and if you’re one for New Year resolutions, Old Testament prophet Jonah gives both an ancient warning and encouragement for 2016 when he says,
Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs (Jonah 2:6)
Whatever that idol might be – something material, some habit or lifestyle, our pride or ego, things which we so easily grasp hold of and pursue – they’re things that ultimately can cause us great harm and loss. Christ, once the baby of Bethlehem but who was to become the game-changer, the death-defeater, the life-giver through his death on the cross, offers us grace – simply meaning his undeserved favour. Rather than the utter horror of hell – the place of God’s and therefore good’s absence, and the place that Jesus described more than he did heaven – it’s now eternal life offered through the blood-bought invitation to you and me to lay those idols down, to profoundly turn and trust, and take hold of the life in Christ. Held out to us is the promise of a place for each in the Kingdom to come, in the Father’s house, around His throne, within the beauty of Eden restored, utter contentment and sheer joy.
I’m so up for that.
I resolve therefore in 2016 to continue to “press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” Following can be tough. It can be inconvenient. It raises questions. It causes others to ‘tut’, to even dislike us. It can be painful. Just look at those faithful Iraqi, Syrian and Egyptian Christians refusing to disown Jesus before numerous ISIS jihadi executioners. But somehow, they knew it was worth it. Because He’s worth it, and with Him, the best is yet to come.
I wish you a great Christmas season and a happy New Year 2016, discovering more of the wonder of God and what He’s ultimately got planned.