Thursday, 26 April 2018

The Red Sea Road

There are some days you will remember for the rest of your life.  The 27th February 2018 was a day that will live long in my memory.  Battling through the snow on the M8, after a long day at work, my phone went off.  I remember looking at the dashboard and seeing my sisters name and thinking 'Anna never phones my mobile'.  I should have known it was important.  When she broke the news that she had a tumour on her pancreas there was a sense of unreality.  Its almost like life suddenly stops.  Everything that seemed so important suddenly becomes really insignificant.  The future suddenly becomes a very uncertain and even frightening place.  That feeling hasn't really changed over the last few weeks.  Its hard to get very excited about a whole range of things that used to take up a lot of my time and energy.

There were plenty of tears as we came to terms with the news, not least from me.  This is not the first time we have dealt with the trauma of cancer as a family and in many ways it makes it so much harder.  Trying to be a supportive brother, son, husband and father to 5 boys while coming to terms with an uncertain future is a whole new challenge but it has been an interesting journey over the last few weeks.  Friends and family have rallied round.  The best have grasped the difference between sympathy and empathy.  We don't need silver linings we just need authenticity.

A crisis of this magnitude helps you understand who you can turn to.  Amongst a few awkward moments there have been many remarkable moments of kindness, warmth and love.  My sister's church and Pastor have been everything a Christ centred fellowship should be, and while cancer is a lonely valley, she is surrounded my many loving friends and family.  After all, that is what empathy is, walking with somebody through the pain.  People keep saying to me 'I don't know what to say.'  That's OK - we don't need words at the moment as a family, we just need to know you care, that you are praying and that you are with us wherever we go over the next few months.  
Anna's 50th birthday party last week was a real tonic and Kirsteen did us all proud with the organising.  Having over 100 friends and family there was just wonderful.  It was a celebration of all that Anna loves: good food, the Scottish countryside, good friends and family.  There were a few talented musicians (and me).  We played all Anna's favourites like The Dark Island, Calum's Road and, of course, Wild Mountain Thyme.  Anna's pastor Phil Hair spoke very movingly of the congregations love for Anna and prayed beautifully before everyone sung Anna's favourite Psalm, Psalm 121.  Anna was genuinely overwhelmed with all the cards and presents and would like to say a huge thank you to all of you.  James has written a special piece of music for Anna's 50th entitled 'Anna' - you can enjoy it here.

I'm not a huge fan of contemporary Christian music but I recently listened to Ellie Holcomb's album Red Sea Road. The first track is about finding God in the most unlikely places and is entitled 'Find You Here'.  I guess it sums up the last few weeks pretty well.

We won't bury our hope
Where He leads us to go
There's a red sea road
When we can't see the way
He will part the waves
And we'll never walk alone
Down a red sea road

The last 8 weeks have brought many high and lows.  Initially there was hope that the tumour might be small and removable but sitting in a really bare and stark consultants office in the Royal Infirmary on 13th March we were told that it wasn't.  I guess I wasn't really prepared to hear the stark reality of the diagnosis.  I remember walking out and thinking how brutal it is to receive such life changing news with no support on hand.  Thankfully Anna's treatment has switched to the Western General and the staff at The Maggie's Centre have been amazing.  A friendly face in a non medical environment has been a massive help as we come to terms with the diagnosis.  If you want to do something at the moment please think of donating to a cancer charity but particularity Maggie's.

Just after Anna's diagnosis was confirmed I was preparing to preach on Ruth chapter 2.  For some reason the enormity of the situation hit me while listening to some Christian music and 'emotion flowed'.  I had been preaching a few weeks earlier on Ruth 1 and how Ruth was most likely converted through the quiet dignity of Naomi and how she dealt with the loss of her husband and two sons.  I thought I was very clever in calling my series 'Three Funerals and a Wedding - God's Faithfulness in Testing Times'.  It suddenly struck me like a train that God knew I would be preaching through Ruth when Anna received her diagnosis.  Little did I know that my preaching on God's faithfulness would be tested in real life circumstances.

It's not the news that any of us hoped that we would hear
It's not the road we would have chosen, no

The only thing that we can see is darkness up ahead

But You're asking us to lay our worry down and sing a song instead

And I didn't know I'd find You here

In the middle of my deepest fear, but

You are drawing near

You are overwhelming me, with peace

So I'll lift my voice and sing

You're gonna carry us through everything
You are drawing near
You're overwhelming all my fears, with peace

You say that I should come to You with everything I need
You're asking me to thank You even when the pain is deep
You promise that You'll come and meet us on the road ahead
And no matter what the fear says, You give me a reason to be glad

Sometimes it is in our deepest need and fear that we find God.  Don't we see that so clearly in the book of Ruth?  As Naomi and Ruth dealt with trauma and tragedy we see the theme of God's loving kindness coming through so clearly.  In such a beautiful story of ordinary, country folk, God was weaving an incredible story of redemption.  As Sinclair Ferguson says about the story of Ruth, God was 'quarrying for diamonds' in the midst of trauma and tragedy.  

It's times like this that really test your theology.  As Christians we believe that God not only knows the future but he also foreordains all that comes to pass.  We believe that God is good and that in the middle of our pain, He is working out His purposes for His glory and our good.  We also believe that whatever is ahead of us over the next few months God is faithful and steadfast.  Anna knows that great truth from 2 Corinthians 4 v 16 'So we do not loose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.'  This is the great hope of the Christian, this life is not the end but the beginning of an eternity with Jesus who died to that we might live for ever.

What we need more than anything at the moment as a family is your prayers, your love and some really practical stuff which people have very freely offered.  I guess Anna has supported lots of people over the years and now, to a great or lesser extent, we need to carry her through this experience.  As you probably know with pancreatic cancer, eating is not easy which makes social occasions a challenge.  Please don't bring or send food at the moment.  She also gets tired easily so please understand if she can't respond to all the lovely cards, texts and messages you have sent.  She is incredibly appreciative of them all but simply can't respond to them all.

The road ahead feels daunting.  I am so thankful I/we are not walking along it on our own.  We have a Saviour who has promised to be with us and never forsake us.  In many ways it feels like a 'Red Sea Road'.  God's people have crossed many red sea roads over the last few thousand years and as Elle Holcomb has put it:

We will sing to our souls
We won't bury our hope
Where He leads us to go
There's a red sea road
When we can't see the way
He will part the waves
And we'll never walk alone
Down a red sea road

We are thankful that God's grace helps us to walk roads we thought we could never walk.  He has promised grace for each day.  

Much as I love music I always come back to the Psalms with have been the strength and comfort of God's people through many tragedies and crisis.  Psalm 143 v 6-8 has been a particular comfort at this time.

 6  Lo, I do stretch my hands
       To thee, my help alone;
    For thou well understands
       All my complaint and moan:
    My thirsting soul desires,
       And longeth after thee,
    As thirsty ground requires
       With rain refreshed to be.

 7  Lord, let my pray'r prevail,
       To answer it make speed;
    For, lo, my sp'rit doth fail:
       Hide not thy face in need;
    Lest I be like to those
       That do in darkness sit,
    Or him that downward goes
       Into the dreadful pit.

 8  Because I trust in thee,
       O Lord, cause me to hear
    Thy loving-kindness free,
       When morning doth appear:
    Cause me to know the way
       Wherein my path should be;
    For why, my soul on high
       I do lift up to thee.

Please continue to remember us as a family as we walk through this valley over the next few months.  Anna has started her chomo this week and we are so grateful that everyone has rallied round with lifts.  We are so thankful that as we walk through this particular valley we have the Good Shepherd with us and that goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives.