Just when we were expecting one thing last Friday at the hospital, it all changed. Having arrived for my “check in” appointment, necessary for the medical team to both see that I was in good condition for treatment and for placing the drug order with the hospital pharmacy, I settled myself down in the FORCE cancer charity’s comfortable lounge for a couple of hours ahead of my first infusion of pembrolizimab. But within an hour, my phone rang.
“Mr Clark, we’re so sorry, but there’s been a problem with the finances surrounding your treatment today. There’s nothing too major, but could you possibly come back to Oncology and we’ll explain more.”
So, back I went, wondering what could have suddenly happened just an hour or so ahead of my treatment.
Soon all become clear. Evidently, one of the pharmacy team picked up on government regulations that state if an individual has been treated with ipilimumab as a first line treatment (as I have been), then they can’t be treated with pembrolizimab directly after (or as a ‘second line) unless the local hospital pays for it. Another drug has to be used first. If that drug proves to be ineffective in stemming the tide, or causes ongoing or bad side effects, then pembro can be deployed as a ‘third line’. My oncology team’s frustration at the system was palpable…plainly, as pembro is such a new drug, there’d been no earlier opportunity for them to discover this.
So….I’m now officially not just an immunotherapy patient, but a chemotherapy one also as I’ve been placed on a cancer drug known as a BRAF inhibitor. Simple to take – just two tablets twice a day – dabrafenib is designed for use in metastatic melanoma to inhibit or switch off the faulty signal from the BRAF protein within the cancer cells, so preventing the cells from proliferating. But it’s generally only effective for a few months, so it’s pretty clear that, all things being equal, I’ll eventually be put onto pembro. With this new chemo drug, there’s the risk of some side effects (including fresh skin cancer) but all of them only affect slightly more than one in ten people. Since starting it on Friday, I’ve had a somewhat ‘heady’ weekend as it’s been kicking in, causing my skull to feel like it’s pulsating and with a mild headache to boot. Despite it, we had a relaxing weekend away near Chichester staying with Catherine’s brother James, our sister-in-law Annabel and their family, and speaking at their church on Sunday night. It was a real privilege to share – even through tears – our story with them and once again it was encouraging to see God using it to connect with people at various points.
In one sense, although it’s a change of treatment and a change of pace, in another way, it’s business as usual but with some added pit stops and additional checks along the way. But along the path, I see God at work in and around us. As I waited at the hospital on Friday, I thought about a recent conversation I had in the barber’s shop. I’d never met Tess before, but as she cut my hair, we talked and the inevitable questions of life and what I was did came up. I figure, at times like this, I can either shrug the question off with a lame “life’s fine, thanks”, or I can see it as a door opening in front of me to walk through and talk about the things that really matter in life, to share with a fellow traveller who lives with the same hopes, fears, and unanswered questions anybody else does, something of our journey, and to point to where hope can be found. She stood, listening quietly, continuing to cut as I told the story of the last twelve months. Then she paused and asked, ‘So with all that, does it make you ever doubt your faith?’ Strangely, again at the hospital this last Friday, one of the medical assistants and I were chatting about my situation. She then asked the same question.
I’m so aware that both these two people gave voice to a question that many others hearing our story have wondered about. And it’s a very natural one because it raises all sorts of questions about God, where He is, why He lets things like this happen, what can we reasonably expect from Him and chiefly perhaps, is there even a ‘god’ at all if things like this happen?
So how do I answer? I need to look back. Right from childhood, I’ve had a ‘sense’ of God. Only when into my adulthood, did I understand that this is likely to have been there because, as the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes puts it, God “has also set eternity in the human heart”…in other words, that He has given each of us, all of us – even the most avowed atheist or humanist – a sense of there being ‘something more’. It’s something that’s been planted deep, deep inside of us all. It’s just that for some, it gets overlaid with all sorts of other things and it’s drowned out.
Still looking back, then when I was in my early twenties, and through a strange set of circumstances, I came to know God in a personal way as I was shown and introduced to Jesus Christ as I’d never been before. My life and priorities were turned on their head, so impressed and taken was I with Him.
So, for me now, living and continuing to face circumstances like this, does it threaten to drown that early sense of God and of the eternal? Does it challenge the faith that then became personal and real from my twenties’?
Well, if my faith was based on feelings, I suppose I’d be something of a wreck by now. Feelings are so fickle, so fleeting, so affected by circumstances, and can spin round like a weather vane. But right from when I first started to organise my life around Jesus, when I first came to really know him in that personal way those thirty years ago, I was and have been so struck how the Christian message is one founded on facts. I think of Dr Luke, writer of the gospel named after him in the New Testament, who states carefully at the beginning of his book,
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
There’s more than a hint of some careful investigation that’s gone on. He’s been seeking to deal only with what’s actually happened. I see the interesting use of the word ‘certainty’…it’s not a popular concept when talking about matters of faith these days.
Along with this, there’s the old question that was asked of me years ago by a family friend bothered that I was getting a ‘bit keen’. “But Jeremy, you can’t believe everything you read”. The context of the conversation was one about the reliability of the bible. It was a question again of facts. Some say that as it’s 2000 years since the events, there’s been so much opportunity for the written words to have been changed, to say nothing of all the changes that might have taken place – the ‘Chinese Whisper’ effect – while it was still being passed down by word of mouth before being actually written down.
That objection doesn’t take into account at least two things of importance.
Firstly, within cultures where the oral tradition was central, the accurate passing on of the stories and sayings from one village and generation to another, was vital. It was unthinkable that they should be changed. We can perhaps insult these cultures with our modern view on how information is transmitted reliably.
Secondly, it doesn’t take into account the vast amount of paper evidence we have of the unaltered words in scripture. The fact that we have an almost embarrassing wealth of ancient manuscripts – copies of the original writings – for the whole of the New Testament from a relatively short time (between 130-350 years) after it was originally written….much, much more than we have for most of the main texts on which we base our knowledge of the ancient world. No classical scholar would doubt the authenticity of Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus or Livy when studying ancient Rome or Greece, yet the earliest copy we have from any of them was written 900 years after the original and with many, many, many fewer manuscripts than we have of the New Testament.
The text has remained largely unchanged. Where there are changes or there’s an uncertain translation, it’s over very minor points and these uncertainties are all acknowledged in the footnotes of our modern translations – no-one’s trying to hide anything. It shows that, contrary to popular thought, the church, its councils, or various individuals with a barrow to push, have not altered it, added to it or changed it to suit whatever purpose they might have had.
Then there’s the reality of changed lives. I often think of the disciples, a rag-tag bunch of fisherman and other sometimes dubious professions of the day. They all fled for their lives at the first hint of trouble when Jesus was arrested. And the one who remained nearby then denied knowing him at the first opportunity. What accounted for their subsequent transformation? What caused them to metamorphose into a posse of individuals who would together and one-by-one be responsible for changing the known world, prepared to face being disowned, abuse, beatings, persecution, imprisonment and death? Something startling in the very least. That ‘something’ is asserted to be the resurrection of Jesus Christ from beyond the grave. Some have claimed the disciples just stole his body and made up the rest. But (apart from the near impossibility of sneaking past a pair of Roman guards on the tomb) would you die for something you knew to be a lie? Some have asserted the Jewish leaders took the body to prevent any stories of a resurrection that Jesus himself had predicted. If this was the case, why then didn’t they produce the body when the disciples started claiming a resurrection had happened? Some have said it was a mass hallucination…they just thought they saw him because they so desperately wanted to. But these guys were robust fishermen and tax collectors. Added to that, Thomas won the prize for doubt…and even he was then finally convinced. As well, the gospels describe how over 500 people on eleven different occasions saw Christ, over a period of forty days. And on one of those occasions, He cooked and served a fish breakfast. Figments of our imaginations or ghosts don’t cook breakfast. Hallucination is a difficult claim to maintain.
And then there’s the evidence of countless millions of ordinary people over two thousand years who’ve had their lives transformed, having believed on Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, many set free from the most appalling backgrounds.
Doubts about Lord Lucan’s life and death might continue to circulate for a very long time, but there’s no doubt in my mind about Lord Jesus.
And if Christ did rise from the dead, it changes everything for everyone, both those who consider themselves ‘religious’ * and those who don’t. Death, the one thing that humankind has never been able to beat, conquer or avoid, Jesus came back from beyond its gates. No one else has done that. No prophet, teacher, sage or wise guy. And if he came back as one who’d conquered it, having said he was the way through it, then none of us can afford to either ignore him or even remain apathetic towards him. We leave ourselves in a dangerous position. In the very least I – we – need to take his words and deeds, what he did on the cross, recorded and passed down by reliable witnesses and writers, with utter seriousness. I place my life and death on these facts. On Him. We can stake our lives on him. And he calls us all to pick up our crosses and follow him, sacrificing our little ambitions and ‘gods’ for a life with guaranteed long-term benefits.
The tough times come and our feelings might spin around. Lydia was on a First Aid course last week, and when it came time to practise CPR, she found herself left with the last of the resuscitation dummies…and it was named ‘Ben’. It was a painful moment, thankfully picked up by a perceptive tutor. It caused a few tears both there and at home for more than just Lydia. Then, only a day after, I walked past Ben’s photo in the hall and seeing him, had to stop and gaze at the picture as I was overcome with a fresh wave of loss, grief and a hundred questions. But then, with no real answers as to why he died when he did, our ‘heads remind our hearts remind our heads’ to rest on Christ, rest on the things we do know, to ‘have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.’ Each of us at home can find peace and a sense of joy and life, despite. If Jesus is the ‘bookends of history’ – the Alpha and the Omega – then whatever comes our way over these weeks and months to come, we can trust Him through them all. There is no greater.
*I’ve often struggled with the word ‘religious’ and my heart often sinks when someone says they or I are ‘very religious’. It’s so often used to describe a life of pious observance of rules and regulations, of austere, lifeless church attending and kill-joy living. It’s also then shorthand for something akin to a hobby that some might have while others have football, knitting or bee-keeping etc. It seems to me that friendship with Jesus and following Him isn’t about any of these things. It’s about ‘Life’ – joyful life, peace-filled life, the life where ultimate meaning and purpose are discovered through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ the one we were made for. And it reaches everything.That without Him, we’ll never know the life in all its fullness that we were designed to have. I’m into LIFE not religion!