light hearted

I am on a waiting list for surgery on my heart. It was something of a surprise when I was told that I needed an operation and, if I’m honest, being on a waiting list has been rather disruptive to my life and work as I have not been able to book things in my diary very far ahead having been told that the surgery would be “soon”: I have discovered that “soon” is a very flexible and indeterminate length of time! I would much rather have the surgery “soon” so that I can get on with getting better but I am having to be patient before I can be a patient.

During the waiting time I have had lots of different tests and conversations with medical staff to prepare me for the operation and have discovered lots of new terminology and seen images and video of bits of me that I never imagined I’d see. The most significant meeting was with the surgeon who will be carrying out the operation. He was really reassuring (I would characterise his attitude to the operation as seeing it as ‘routine but serious’) and was also very honest about what lies ahead of us in terms of the length of time of the operation, length of time in hospital and length of time convalescing and rehabilitating. He also mentioned that, as with all surgery, there are risks – albeit minor – and reassured us that every possible precaution is taken to minimise them.

As I have waited and pondered what lies ahead I have realised how much I take for granted in my life and the people around me. And I think there’s a truism to be found here: we take so much for granted and only notice its significance to us when it is threatened or taken away. Maybe it is only in shadows that we fully appreciate the light: illness sharpens our awareness of what it means to be healthy; sadness and grief poignantly make us hope for joy; poverty and debt heighten our appreciation of wealth; loneliness makes us yearn for companionship; incapacity inspires us to value freedom and mobility.

In one of my favourite films ‘Evan Almighty’ there is a moment when Evan’s wife, Joan, has an encounter with God. God (brilliantly played by Morgan Freeman) serves her in a diner and says: “Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, do you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them opportunities to love each other?”

This is left as an open question in the film but it does make a lot of sense to me. Taking that thought and applying it to what I said earlier, I believe that God uses our shadow experiences to help us appreciate the light. I don’t believe that God causes illness, sadness, grief, poverty, debt, loneliness or incapacity but I do believe that he can speak in and through them and perhaps at those times we are more attuned to listening.

In words that are often read at this time of year in Carol services from the beginning of John’s Gospel we read: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5). For John ‘the light’ is Jesus. But the word we translate as “overcome” can also be translated as “understood”, “seize”, “grasp”, “comprehend”, “overtake”, or “suppress”. Because the irrepressible, inextinguishable light is beyond the experience and comprehension of darkness it stands in stark contrast to it. From an experience of darkness (an absence of light) the light becomes all the more attractive and we begin to appreciate it, realise what it means and move towards it.

If you are in shadow or darkness now, I hope and pray that you will experience light or at least catch a glimpse of it and find that the power and hold the darkness has on you is diminished as a result. If you are in light now, appreciate it and make the most of it – and share that light with those who need it.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

a series of remarkable events

I am incredibly grateful for some chest pain that I experienced recently. Yes, you did read that right. The chest pain turned out not to be heart-related but when you talk to medics about having chest pain the first thing that they want to do is check out your heart to make sure you’re not having a heart attack. I wasn’t. Once the doctors had worked out what was going on and changed some medication I was taking the chest pain went away.

However, because I had seen a doctor in the hospital about this pain they referred me to their chest pain clinic. At the chest pain clinic the nurse practitioner confirmed that none of my symptoms looked heart-related and none of the ECGs I had had showed even the slightest problem with my heart. But in order to be absolutely certain (and maybe also confirm that the other problem had caused the pain) . I was referred for a scan.

About a week later I was sat on a train on my way to attend a meeting in London when my phone rang. A very pleasant lady on the other end of the line told me that she was ringing to make some appointments for me to have some scans and X-rays on my heart. I thought that she must have the wrong patient number and queried this, but she triple-checked and confirmed that yes it was me that needed these tests because of the heart problems that had shown up in the initial scan. At this point she realised that I hadn’t been given the results of my initial scan and said she would ask the doctor to call me later in the day, and she would then call me to make the appointments.

Later in the day the doctor did call and explained that the initial scan had shown some underlying problems in my heart that needed treating and that yes I did need these further tests. He was so reassuring and gave me the confidence that he was on my case.

So within about 10 days I began a series of tests at our local hospital which just happens to be the cardiac centre of excellence for the whole of our county. The tests were fairly unpleasant but were designed to show what was actually going on with my heart. (I did have an allergic reaction to the dye used in one of the tests but even then the doctors I saw were able to resolve the problem after a couple of days).

The following week we met the surgeon who showed us video footage of what was going on inside me (quite a surreal experience) and explained what he needs to do in order to fix this problem. He explained a series of options including one procedure that he thought was most suited to me, and (modestly) said that he was one of only a couple of surgeons in the country who is able to do this procedure.

And the day before the appointment with the surgeon I had had a long-standing appointment with the brain hospital in London that has helped resolve my migraine problem. I mentioned to my neurologist that I was expecting a heart operation and he told me that there were certain things my heart surgeon would need to know and gave me contact details to give him.

So, in the near future (we don’t know when, exactly) I will have an operation performed by this excellent surgeon. It will mean a couple of months’ recovery afterwards but then everything will be back to normal.

I have had to tell people about this because of having to cancel or postpone commitments and I am almost overwhelmed by the kindness, encouragement, love and prayers that people have shown in response. I have been so supported by my colleagues. It’s really humbling. I feel absolutely fine in myself and when I think of that I realise how where I am today is as a result of a series of remarkable events:

I was (and still am) feeling quite healthy, but unknown to me there was a problem with my heart which would have gone undiscovered, so I am really grateful for the non-cardiac chest pain that led to me being seen in hospital (the centre of excellence in our county that is only 15 minutes from home); that led to me being referred for the initial scan and the scan being seen by a doctor who recognised the problem; that led to me having the further tests which clearly showed the problem; which led to me being placed on the list for a surgeon who is one of only a few in the country who is able to perform exactly the operation I need to sort out the problem.

About 4 weeks ago I was blissfully unaware that anything was wrong. I feel incredibly privileged that this series of remarkable events has led me to this place.

The good news for you is that the flow of bloggages may be interrupted for a while. The bad news for you is that once I am feeling up to it I will have a number of days when I will be looking for things to do and writing lots of bloggerel may be one thing I turn to.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

expect the unexpected and other silly things we say

not speakI was listening to the radio recently and the interviewer was asking his expert interviewee about the financial crisis in Greece. He asked the expert what surprises lay in store as the process unfolded.

To be fair the expert was not fazed by such a daft question and pointed out that by their nature surprises were impossible to predict. Then he said that we had to expect the unexpected.

I know that the phrase is used to encourage people to be ready for anything but when you look at the bland meaning of the phrase it’s rather silly isn’t it? Unexpected things are, by their nature, not something we can expect. If we expect them they cease to be unexpected.

We say all sorts of things without thinking them through:

“Don’t come running to me if you fall off and break your leg.”

“Close your mouth when you eat your food.”

And so on…

Sadly we also say hurtful and cruel things without thinking them through. Sometimes, if we speak reactively, we can say things that we instantly regret, but we can’t unsay them. Sometimes we might even intentionally say things that we know will hurt.

And we learn to expect the unexpected. We learn to anticipate that someone will not respond well to a suggestion that we make, so we hit them back first by getting in a pre-emptive strike.

Jesus suggests that what comes out of our mouth is based on our heart (Luke 6):

43 ‘No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. 44 Each tree is recognised by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn-bushes, or grapes from briers. 45 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

So if we want to be more careful about what we say we need to ask for God’s Spirit’s help with our heart, not our mouth. We all need a change of heart.

Be blessed, be a blessing

the heart of the matter

Sorry about the absence of a bloggage on Friday and over the weekend. On Friday I went to visit a church near Southampton as part of my sabbatical studies, and it was so encouraging. Thank you Gordon and your church for the hospitality and sharing.

On Friday evening I stretched out my left arm at about 10pm and felt a twinge. By 3am on Saturday the twinge had become very painful indeed and my left hand was starting to feel a bit numb, so I looked at NHS Direct’s website and entered my symptoms. I was rather surprised that it suggested I should go to hospital immediately.

So I rang NHS Direct instead, and having spoken to two nice people they concluded that I should go to hospital immediately and, before I knew what was happening, an ambulance crew was knocking on the door. They wired me up and did not see anything too alarming but took me to the hospital anyway.

The hospital staff were great (I was feeling silly and a bit of a fraud, especially when the ambulance staff insisted on wheeling me in a wheelchair). They realised quite quickly what I was trying to say all along: that I had strained / torn / tweaked a muscle in my arm.

The problem was that the symptoms were such that it meant that the answers I gave to the person on the phone sounded suspiciously like the symptoms of a heart attack. Let me state here and now, on the record, I did not have a heart attack, I don’t have any heart problems, and other than a very painful left arm I am fine. Any rumours circulating to the contrary are false!

I am glad that our NHS system was so efficient and alert to the possibilities of me having a heart attack. I am grateful to all the staff who made sure that they were happy that I was not going to keel over before releasing me into the wild, rather than just taking my word for it. I am happy to know that my heart is in good condition. Better to be safe than sorry. At the hospital the doctor I saw could tell I was in a lot of pain and prescribed me some heavier duty painkillers for the pain in my arm – unfortunately they also make me feel dopier than usual.

But it did feel like a bit of an over-reaction. I only wanted some advice about what I could do to reduce the pain in my arm and ended up having an ambulance ride and a mini waxing (pulling off the electrode contacts from the ECG machine also removed a few body hairs).

I wonder if sometimes churches are the same. Someone may come to us asking for some help and before they know it they have been presented with a full explanation of the good news about Jesus, enrolled on an Alpha course and provisionally booked for a baptism. When people came to Jesus he was far more generous – he allowed others to set the agenda. He did not have a set routine of questions designed to diagnose their problem or a series of presentations and programmes to make them a Christian. Several times in the gospels he asked people, “What would you like me to do for you?”

That’s an amazing question to ask. It’s a dangerous question, a vulnerable question, and it’s a mission question. It leaves the power with the person who has come to him rather than him assuming control of the situation. It keeps the focus on the individual rather than on what we might think is the answer.

Yet at the same time we often find Jesus answering the wrong question. When four friends lowered their paralysed friend through a hole in the roof to get him in front of Jesus for healing, Jesus told the man that his sins were forgiven! He did not start with the physical healing, he healed the man’s soul. But then, to demonstrate that he had authority to forgive sins, he did the apparently more difficult task of healing the man.

Confusing isn’t it?

Yes and no. Jesus knew what was at the heart of the man’s needs. We may need to spend some time listening to get to the same point. But if Jesus’ mission question is not far from our lips we will be on the way to getting to the heart of the matter.