I sometimes find myself quietly chuckling each time I start to write a fresh blog post, as, for some reason when I’m looking for a way into the first sentence, I easily hear the voice of John-Boy from my favourite childhood TV show, The Waltons. His gentle tone – in reality it was the show’s creator Earl Hamner – providing the opening narration to each episode depicting his memoirs of early family life, seems to have left an impression on me, giving me a sense of tone, pace and pitch as I start each time to write and describe life, not on Walton’s mountain, but in the familiar yet still strange land we as a family inhabit.
But this last ten days it’s been the Waltons come to life around here as my parents, Trish and Nick, my sisters Anna and Julia, and brother Hamish, then later joined by my brother-in-law Simon, have all arrived in from either Christchurch NZ, Melbourne or Vancouver. And that was preceded two weeks before by my other brother-in-law Kelvin coming for a few days from Melbourne to spend some time with me. At one point during last week, if you were here, you would have heard, “Good night, John-Boy”, “Good night, Mary-Ellen”…well, if you know the show, you’ll know the patter.
We had a good time together, with Ma and Pa now staying on for a few weeks. But we all knew why we’d come together, even though we’d done it before shortly after my diagnosis two years ago when we thought I only had a very short time to go, not realising how amazing an effect the new immunotherapy drugs would have in that first year, to say nothing of the chorus of prayer.
This time however, we’ve all sensed that there’s been this fresh line in the sand drawn with not only my brain tumours, but also the increasing appearance of more and more small melanoma tumours just under my skin all over the front of my torso and the fresh increase of the tumour on my neck, all indicators of drug’s lessening effect. That, combined with a conversation Catherine had with a friend very experienced in palliative care, was sobering but really helpful. She indicated that while I seem relatively active and well, she has witnessed some like me suddenly decline rapidly within even a week.
So, rather than dancing round the ‘elephant in the room’ while we were all here in Exeter together, we gathered intentionally on Wednesday morning then again after our meal on Saturday evening to talk about what is going on for each of us as we confront and work through the strong possibility – as painful for us all as that is, including me for them – of my death in the next few months. It was a truly precious time of sharing and being together, enabling me also to say and share something of what I needed them all to know in the clearest terms – that if they were worried for me, they needn’t be as I was feeling so utterly peaceful for myself in the middle of it all, knowing that I have a Saviour who’s taken care of death, beaten it and that I was so aware of His hand on me, and so therefore on all of us, as we walk on. As well, my passion and love for all that the Bible describes of Heaven and my excitement in anticipating it, were as pronounced as ever.So, these times of sharing and being together, along with some great days out – to Looe, to Bath and over to Moorlands College and Christchurch, Dorset – allowed Catherine and Lydia to have a good half term break, and allowed us all to create some precious memories together.
Catherine and I were also blessed to attend a weekend away near Daventry in mid-October with the amazing Care for the Family’s Bereaved Parents Support network. We approached the weekend not sure how it would feel as, to some extent, with the recent news on my cancer spread we realised that we’d subconsciously ‘parked’ our ongoing grief for Ben to one side as we were dealing with our latest news. But going along, helped us reconnect and, I suppose, reintegrate those things as we spent some time with other parents. Truth to tell, it was a weekend with painful depths to confront, but gave much at which to smile, and be both still and thankful.
I’ve been so encouraged by a number of old friends who’ve travelled both from near and far away to see us in recent weeks. They’ve encouraged us and reminded us that we’ve been placed in an amazing family called the body of Christ. Each visit and times spent also with local friends have been heartening and uplifting. Two conversations rate particular mention, both with longstanding friends – Chris Edmondson and Jonny Elvin. Within both, we spoke about God’s grace. At times, to my natural mind, it seems so far fetched – so amazing – that Christ has done all we need as we face life and eternity. My head sometimes says, how so? No good works to earn it? No ‘something else’ to top it up to be forgiven, to be in a right relationship with God ? No heavenly brownie points to gain to be safe and secure with God through life and beyond death? No, no, and no. It’s ‘simply’ repent and believe in Christ who died for you. As I spoke with both about it, I simply said, “Tell me it’s really true”. “It’s true”, both said. Amazing grace. It’s the one thing that truly breaks the old rule that says, “if somethings sounds too good to be true, it probably is”. Not this one.
We’ve also had so much love and care from our local community group at Grace Church with meals, accommodation, lifts and other practical help, which has been immense. One night, the guys from my blokes group, seeing it was a full moon, decided to head up onto Dartmoor, to Hound Tor, where we stayed sheltering next to the Tor, in the dark for an hour or two, having a laugh, sharing communion in the moonlight, praying for each other, worshipping and taking in the vast landscape of Devon in front of us, lit by the moon above and the lights of the villages and towns in the distance.
But among all these activities, Simeon, still on crutches, sat and passed his car driving test. Crazy determination.
Well, as I face my next dose of pembrolizumab (aka Keytruda) this Friday, I’m conscious that the time may be closer when the drug may be withdrawn if it seems it’s still having no effect. In the meantime, I’m starting to feel the effects of some surface tumours, becoming quite sensitive and tender. I’m also finding I’m needing to marshal my speech occasionally – the free flow of words isn’t what it was. The decision about the drug won’t be until we get the result of my next scan due in a couple of weeks. Because of that possibility, I’ve felt that it’s been worth asking whether I should be applying to join in any available drug trials for new release medications. That’ll be a conversation taking place over the next week or so.
In the meantime, in my ongoing daily Bible reading, I found some fresh encouragement from the Old Testament book of Habakkuk. I once heard a seasoned older preacher saying how important it was to make sure you knew at least something of the main message of each book in the Bible, even some of the more obscure ones, like Habakkuk. He said, “Wouldn’t it be awkward, if you were in heaven, and Habakkuk came up to you and asked, “So, how did you enjoy my book?” Wouldn’t it then be just so awkward having to spend eternity trying to avoid him?!
It’s a short book written in the late 7th century BC mainly containing a conversation between God and the prophet Habakkuk regarding Habakkuk’s real disturbance about his nation, about all the unchecked violence, injustices and empty religion he was seeing – things that were happening which seemed so appalling. The conversation develops over the three chapters. And God lays out before Habakkuk what he’s planning on doing. Nothing ever catches Him out or is beyond his ability to sort.
But as this short, three chapter book comes to an end, Habakkuk simply says this –
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. (Habakkuk 3)
It’s really encouraged me, again. The preceding part of book is pretty stark – life will have hassle. Problems come, and problems can remain. The fig tree might not bud, money’s tight, health packs up, friends might let you or I down, dreams we’ve had may be lying in pieces at our feet – or at least they’ve never delivered what we hoped they would. The list can go on.
The world around us looks for ways of taking the problems away, but Father God so often allows that those problems stay and uses them to develop character in us and discover more gold in our relationship with Him. In fact, Jesus says,
‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’ (John 16:33).
That’s a promise we can bank on because He, the Sovereign God, is so much bigger than anything we face. If we can hold onto Christ despite what is happening, Habakkuk describes that we can even be joyful in the face of sufferings and problems…the one who can know an inner strength from God despite what’s happening. We can do it because we know that with Christ in us…the best is yet to come.