Saturday, 21 April 2018

Ghost Boy

I have just finished reading a most remarkable autobiographical book, ‘Ghost Boy’, by Martin Pistorius.   

He grew up an ordinary, healthy boy in a loving family environment.  At the age of 12 his body started to shut down.  He stopped eating, his muscles weakened and eventually he stopped moving, and even thinking, altogether.  His parents were told that their son was “a vegetable”, that he had lost all intelligence, and that they should simply wait for him to die. 

Time passed by until, at the age of 16, he slowly began to regain consciousness.  However, he was still completely paralysed apart from his eyes, and there seemed no way to communicate the fact that he was conscious.  The experience caused tremendous stress and heartache for his family, with his mother reaching such a state that she told him at one point, “I hope you die”, not realising that her son could hear every word she spoke.

It is impossible to imagine what the experience must have been for Martin Pistorius (though he gives some graphic insight in his book).  For years he was desperate to let people know that inside his paralysed body his mind was alert and active.  What’s more, he was at times abused by those who were supposed to be looking after him.  No-one understood his desperate plight, apart from one of his caregivers, a lady called Virna.  She noticed that his eyes seemed to respond to her words.  Through her persistence, Martin was send for some tests which revealed that he was conscious and aware of his surroundings.

This led to his parents giving him a speech computer, and he began slowly regaining some upper body functions. In 2008 he met his wife Joanna, and in 2009 they married. He has regained some control over his head and arms but still needs his speech computer to communicate with others.  He now lives in the UK with his wife and works as a web designer.

Martin Pistorius describes with vivid detail the feelings of desolation and loneliness during the long years of being unable to communicate.  At times he felt that to die would be a release from his torturous life.  I have been really challenged and inspired by the book, but perhaps by one short section in particular.  One might feel that Martin Pistorius had every right to cry out to God, ‘why have you forsaken me?’ Yet he writes:

“The one person I talked to was God … He was real to me, a presence inside and around that calmed and reassured me … I spoke to God as I tried to make sense of what had happened to me and asked him to protect me from harm.  God and I didn’t talk about the big things in life – we didn’t engage in philosophical debates or argue about religion – but I talked to him endlessly because I knew we shared something important.  I didn’t have proof that he existed but I believed in him anyway because I knew he was real.  God did the same for me.  Unlike people, he didn’t need proof that I existed – he knew I did.”


Sunday, 8 April 2018

So am I

One of the realities of being a Methodist Minister is that on occasions I have to conduct funeral services of church members.  It is never an easy thing to do, especially as over time one can build up close relationships and friendships with members of the church family.  On Wednesday of this week I took a service of thanksgiving for a lady called Pearl, who had for many years been a really important figure in the life of one of my churches (now that she is no longer around, we are fully realising how much she actually did do in the life of the church!)

The service was one in which we could express our natural sadness at the passing of a friend, but it was also a service of celebration and thanksgiving, as we remembered Pearl's life and also gave thanks for her deep Christian faith.

During the service I told of an occasion some months ago when I was preaching at the church.  I had told the congregation about a close friend of ours, named Andrew, who we knew many years ago when we lived in Norwich.  Andrew had come to faith through a Billy Graham rally at Carrow Road, Norwich (someone had handed him a ticket in the street).  Andrew became a much-loved member of our church, and joined one of the home fellowship groups.  At one home group meeting the discussion had centred on the promise we have of eternal life through faith in Christ.  Jesus has conquered death, and so all who trust in him know that death is not the end, but merely the doorway into a new life in the presence of God, a life free from tears, sadness, pain and death. Andrew responded to the discussion by saying that he wasn't afraid of death, and that if he happened to die the following day he was sure of his eternal destiny.  The following day, as Andrew drove to work, he was involved in a car accident and killed outright.

When I had originally told that story in the church service a few months ago, I went on to say that if something happened to me the next day and I died, I was ready.  After the service Pearl came up to me and quietly said, "So am I!"  Even though Pearl was given a terminal cancer diagnosis a while ago, her faith held very strong.  She experienced the presence and peace of God even in recent tough times; she knew where her eternal destiny lay.

How wonderful it is to have that assurance.  How amazing it is to place our lives into God's hands and to know that nothing can separate us from his love in Christ Jesus.  Though we will greatly miss our friend, we rejoice that she is in the loving care of the One she served so faithfully.

This week saw also the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King.  He had been threatened many times for his stance against discrimination and injustice.  But a recording of the final part of a message given by him on the night before he died shows that he, too, had complete confidence in God that his eternal future was secure (to watch click here).

In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This Cornerstone, this solid Ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My Comforter, my All in All,
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

From hero to zero

Although I live on the outskirts of Leicester, I don’t often venture into the city.  If I do go into the city centre it is almost always with a specific purpose in mind.  I usually park the car about half a mile or so from the city and walk the rest of the way.  When I do, I pass a large mural which was painted onto the gable end of a property.  It appeared there a couple of years ago.

It is the face of former Leicester City FC manager, Claudio Ranieri, who famously and (some would say) miraculously led the team to the Premiership title in the 2015/16 season.  He is depicted as a Roman Emperor, with the words, “Veni, Vidi, Vice” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) inscribed underneath.  Ranieri was lauded as a conquering hero, and when he and the team paraded through the city in their open topped buses they were cheered by many thousands.  The scene was joyous, celebratory and enthralling!

My mind went back to that momentous occasion, as I prepared for today’s Palm Sunday services.  If we were able to travel back in time around 2,000 years to the outskirts of Jerusalem, we would witness another large, excited and noisy crowd of people.  This time they were not waving flags but palm branches (a symbol of victory), as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Many believed that he was the promised Messiah, who would rid the nation of the hated Roman occupiers.  And so they celebrated, danced and shouted for joy!

Just months after Ranieri and his team were feted by the massive crowd, he was unceremoniously sacked from his role as manager.  From hero to zero.  Just a few days after Jesus rode into Jerusalem in triumphant procession, another crowd cried out: “crucify him, crucify him”.  Jesus was not the kind of hero they hoped he would be; he was not the kind of king to lead an earthly army.

Of course, we must not push the parallel too far.  When Jesus rode into Jerusalem to the acclamation of the crowd he was under no illusion as to what lay ahead of him; he had spoken to his disciples of his forthcoming suffering and death.  His journey into Jerusalem on this occasion was the culmination of a long journey which would lead to the cross.

Jesus was not an earthly king, but a heavenly king; not a warrior who would destroy the Romans, but a warrior who would destroy death; a Messiah who would suffer for the sins of all people.   He was and is the sacrificial lamb.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Faith is not a feeling

Sue and I have recently been away for several days, firstly attending the New Wine Leadership Conference in Harrogate, then on holiday in Scarborough.  The break from the fairly pressurised regular routine of life and ministry was much appreciated.  Contrary to what some might think, human beings are created with a need to have times of rest.  For example, in Mark's gospel we can read of a time when Jesus and the disciples were experiencing a particularly demanding period, and Jesus says to them, 'Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest' (Mark 6.31).  I still think back to the old Mars bar advert which encouraged us to "work, rest and play!" We were in great need of a break, and I'm sure it has done us the world of good, even if I have arrived back to a mountain of matters which require my attention!

One aspect of times away which I particularly appreciate is the opportunity to do some reading.  Our recent break coincided with the arrival of the so-called "Beast from the East", which brought with it some heavy snowfalls and strong, icy winds.  This provided an added incentive to stay inside in the warmth, and how better to spend the time than curled up with a good book?  One of the books which I read during our holiday (which I found in a charity shop in Scarborough) was a book written by a lady called Ney Bailey, titled, "Faith is Not a Feeling."

An underlying premise of the book is that feelings make very bad masters: if we live our lives purely based on our feelings then we are going to really struggle; it is a dangerous path to tread.  Now, of course, feelings are not bad in themselves; we were created as beings with feelings.  Jesus himself is described as feeling compassionate, angry, frustrated, tearful, anguished and tired, for example.  We are wired to have feelings, but we must not let them take control of our lives.

Sue and I have been married for just over 40 years.  Often during that period I have felt deeply in love, but not always.  If I had only acted in a loving way towards my wife during the times when I felt in love, there would be something very wrong in our marriage.

In her book, Ney Bailey writes of a time when she was really struggling with her job and with life in general, and her feelings told her that she was nothing but a failure.  Indeed, she felt that her life was worthless and even contemplated suicide.  In the event she was encouraged to trust in the promises of God in the Bible.  She writes, "As strong and as fluctuating as [my] feelings are, God's word is truer than anything I feel, truer than anything I experience, truer than any circumstance I will ever face, truer than anything in the world."

A fruitful and contented life requires a firm foundation.  Feelings of themselves can never give us such a foundation.  But we are called to trust in and act on God's promises as contained in his word, the Bible, even when our feelings are pulling us in a different direction.

'The grass withers and the flowers fall,    but the word of our God endures forever' (Isaiah 40.8)

Monday, 12 February 2018

Two imperfect people

In less than a week's time Sue and I, God-willing, will reach our 40th wedding anniversary - who said the days of miracles has passed?  Sue tells me (though I don't remember it) that before we were married I predicted that ours would be the first perfect marriage.  Well if I did say that, I was a very long way off the mark!  I have been tremendously blessed to have been married to Sue for all those years; I struggle to see how I could have survived without her unstinting love and support.  Yet at the same time I would be lying if I said that married life had always been easy - far from it.

For much of the past 40 years we have had a wonderful marriage, and I feel a deeper love for Sue now that I have ever done.  Yet there have been some times over the years when it seemed like our marriage was hanging by the thinnest of threads, when even when we tried to communicate we seemed to be talking a completely different language from each other.  Perhaps it was only the fact that we are Christians and both want God to be at the centre of our relationship that has given us the strength to survive the really difficult periods of our marriage.  After all, marriage is God's idea in the first place. We find this in the beginning of the Bible, in the book of Genesis, a fact reinforced by Jesus himself in conversation with some religious leaders:

'Don’t you read the Scriptures?  In them it is written that at the beginning God created man and woman, and that a man should leave his father and mother, and be forever united to his wife. The two shall become one - no longer two, but one!'  Matthew 19.4-6.

But any married person understands that for a marriage to work it needs a real commitment from both parties, a recognition of one another's weaknesses and a willingness to forgive often.  I like a quote which I came across recently, "A true relationship is two imperfect people who refuse to give up on each other."  Sue and I, through long experience, have learned all about each other's imperfections.  Sometimes she drives me nuts and I'm sure the feeling is mutual, but I know that when I finally persuaded Sue to marry me (after many failed attempts!) it was one of my greatest achievements.

God has so clearly had his hand on both our lives both before and during our marriage and we owe so much to him.  We have let him down on many occasions, yet he has never given up on us.  As the song goes, "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end."  In his strength our marriage and family life will continue to prosper, whatever the future may hold.  To God be the glory!

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Don't be strong, be weak

Two or three months ago, Sky Sports and former Blue Peter presenter Simon Thomas suffered the tragedy of the sudden death of his much-loved wife, Gemma.  Simon and his young son have naturally been devastated by the loss.  He has bravely shared many of his thoughts and feelings on social media, and has received an overwhelming response.  Many have tried to offer him comfort and support.  Of course, it’s not always easy to know how best to offer support to someone who has lost a loved one, or to know what words to offer.

In a recent blog, Simon wrote of how “the recurring message has been ‘be strong.’”   Although those who advised him to “be strong” were no doubt speaking out of genuine concern, Simon found the advice less than helpful.  Indeed, he has not been at all afraid to admit his weakness and vulnerability since his wife’s death.  He is struggling to sleep, and to come to terms with thinking about a future without Gemma, not to mention having to be there for his son who has lost his mum.

Simon goes on to write in his blog:

“A wonderful Christian man called Pete Grieg posted this on social media yesterday and I was really struck by it, because in every way it speaks powerfully to me where I’m at now – “When life is tough they tell you to be strong. Don’t be strong. Be weak. Unclench your fists. Dare to be vulnerable. Honest weakness takes courage. It affirms our common humanity, deepens friendship and elicits grace.” This is me. This is why I think my story has touched people in a way I never intended or expected, I have dared to be vulnerable, I have dared to admit I feel weak, and particularly for a bloke this isn’t something we do very well, if at all, but for me, I can’t be any other way.  When people ask me how I’m doing, I long for the day I can say with authenticity that I am OK; but right now, I can’t say anything other than I’m not OK, I’m really struggling.

I find that kind of honesty so refreshing.  Sadly, we have at times in the Church seemed to give the impression that to admit weakness, or to say that we’re struggling in any way, is wrong, and will open ourselves to the judgment of others who might think that our faith is weak or that we’re not a “proper” follower of Jesus.

The truth of the matter is that until we come to the point of brokenness before God, and recognise our need of him, we can’t fully embrace the gospel of grace.  The apostle Paul wrote of a time of struggle in his own life, and God’s word to him was ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Paul continues, ‘Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me … For when I am weak, then I am strong.’ (2 Corinthians 12.9&10).

Jesus himself confessed to his own struggles.  In the garden of Gethsemane, as he looked to his arrest and suffering, he cried out, ‘My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death’ (Matthew 26.38).  Don’t try to hide your struggles and weaknesses.  Be honest and open about them, to God and to those who will be able to come alongside you in your time of need.