The memory is such a powerful thing, with both unfathomable depths and an ability to take us back especially if its connected via an emotion or music to moments in time both precious and painful. As I write, I’m on a train listening to Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Beethoven’s ‘Kyrie’ from his magnum “Missa Solemnis’, both profoundly sublime and powerful works. They immediately transport me back to my late teenage years, to my time as part of the Royal Christchurch Musical Society choir, when we performed them with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bob Field-Dodgson. Also my music master at Christ’s College, he was a man who had a profound influence on me, and through his mentoring and music unknowingly prepared the ground for a growing encounter with Christ only a short time later. But listening now to these works re-connects me and takes me on a journey into the heart where I find a wistfulness for those times, but a deep sense of gratitude for them at the same time nonetheless. The train I’m on is heading to Manchester and onwards into the Peak District to spend a few days with Rob and Di Shimwell. Rob was my senior colleague from the late 1990s at St Mary’s Upton on the Wirral. My memories of the years spent working with them are equally significant because of the influence they had on my life. From them I understood both the challenge of avoiding superficiality in my ministry and the all-sufficiency of the all-surpassing and boundless work of Christ for the depths of our situations and lives, of the importance of addressing Him to the places in the heart, mind and will from where we make our decisions and live our lives. But they also encouraged me in my ministry to know where to stop and let the Holy Spirit take over – that He is the ‘deal clincher’ and only He could ultimately cause people to drink from Christ’s well. Only He also could do the ultimate work in the hearts, minds and lives of those to whom I was ministering whether through preaching or pastoral work. I’m so thankful for the Shimwells.
My visit to them follows a 50th anniversary celebration ten days ago at the church Catherine and I were a part of in the late 1980s/ early 90s in Hawkwell, Essex. Its then rector Tony Higton, and his wife Patricia with the church family, gave us a great vision as to what a New Testament church could be like. Returning after so many years was both wonderful and strange, taking me back in my mind to a kind of age of ‘Eden’ when it was just newly wedded Catherine and me, before the particular joys and usual struggles of parenthood, but also the pain of loss. It was grand to connect with so many precious old friends.
But the memories are heightened in another way at the moment as we approach the first anniversary of Ben’s death on Thursday next week. We meet it with such a mixture of feelings. His headstone was finally installed two weeks ago after some weeks of planning and design. It marked the end of the formalities and signals a new phase of settling into the calm depths of loss, with its sometimes warm, sometimes cold currents. The anniversary for us as a couple looms with a heaviness. For each of us, for all us, there are different reasons. Perhaps hard to describe, I find myself with a temptation to guilt that Ben, whilst he’s always at the very forefront of our minds, no longer features in our practical plans and everyday considerations as a family and won’t ever again, that we’re moving on to fill in gaps, that he doesn’t feature when I sign cards or letters from the family…it’s now just “Jeremy, Catherine, Simeon, Thomas, Joshua and Lydia”. It’s less painful to just say “from us all”. As with the year rounding from 2015 into 2016, I think the most painful part is to feel that he therefore slips further away from us as the first anniversary approaches…the photos hold him in time, but time itself is moving so inexorably on.
But then hope’s whisper is heard. We had inscribed on Ben’s headstone words of Jesus from John’s gospel that I spoke at his burial, words that remind us that what might seem like ‘lost’ is simply, because of Ben’s faith in Christ, lost for the time, from sight. As Jesus uttered them, he finished with a simple but profound question –
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
We can stand there and, even through tears, say, ’Yes’.
But as we live with grief, I realise the importance of something that has been largely lost to the church…the place of lament. So quickly do we want to rush into fixing painful things, praying for light and victory, affirming (often with a lot of truth to back it all up) what’s true for the present and the future, that we miss the moment, the seasons when God meets us in the darkness. Over the last few months, we’ve sat with friends pained by infertility, others having lost a precious spouse, still others facing terminal illnesses. While of course there’s a place for words, particularly prayers of comfort and help, there’s also more than a valuable place for times of silence, of wordlessness. Old Testament Job’s friends were arguably at their best when they sat in silence with him regarding his tragic situation for seven days. It’s only as they opened their mouths and started to speak that they laid themselves open to God’s ultimate rebuke, despite often sound theology on their part. But where words can be used, there’s the place for the shaking a fist in the way the writer of Psalms sometimes did. There I can find a wide range of emotions used that allow us to express, in those times of hardship and suffering, our own desolate feelings, a place that provides words to my complaints and questions to the Lord. Psalm 13 powerfully expresses so much for me…
“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?”
I hold onto the fact that, more often that not, my encounters with God in the dark places have ultimately produced more fruit in my life than when the sun is always shining and the sky always blue.
And so we’ve continued to walk on. Catherine and I have had some particularly special times in recent weeks speaking, recounting our story publicly with the church families at Riverside Church and St Thomas’ Baptist in Exeter, then just last weekend at Silverton Evangelical Church north of the city. As it seems to minister to people, sometimes through our tears, so the Lord also seems to encourage us as we recount the pain but also His constancy, even with the unanswered questions of these last eighteen months.
But we walk on into what seem to be fresh challenges for me health wise. The cancer is plainly on the move again. The Dabrafenib medication I previously described has been very effective in shrinking the newer tumours on my neck and upper body. And news that the original tumour on my lung has now shrunk so significantly as a result of last year’s Ipilimumab treatment and that it’s being described as effectively inactive, have been so encouraging. But in the last two weeks, the tumour on my neck has started to increase by small degrees again. It’s no surprise in many ways as the Dabrafenib is known to be effective only for a few months. I’m booked in for a fresh PET scan this Friday, and see “Dr Optimistic and Encouraging” (aka Ayman Nassar) on the day of Ben’s anniversary next week for results. He’s expecting to start my previously delayed Pembrolizimab treatment in May. All this of course starts to ramp up the tension levels in the family. Last week, when with friends, I felt Catherine’s hand quietly reach out for mine. I knew what was going on. Growing tension. No need even to turn my head. There was a quiet understanding.
In the meantime though, I’m feeling as well as ever and it was great to celebrate Catherine’s 50th birthday last week and I look forward to joining her in age on Bastille Day.
As ever, we covet your prayer, and thank you so much for it.
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”