Monday, 18 September 2017

Don't leave it until it's too late

I was brought up in a family of 6 children, and family has always been a really important part of my life.  I am so grateful for the love and nurture which I received in my formative years.  Although, on reflection, I never remember as a child being told verbally by my parents that they loved me, I think that deep down I knew it was so.  Apart from when I was having the occasional childhood tantrum (I vividly remember on one occasion threatening to leave home!), I never felt unloved.  And yet those three significant words, "I love you" were rarely, if ever, spoken.  So does that really matter?

It is sometimes said that when a person becomes a parent, they tend to model the kind of parenting which they themselves experienced.  Having discussed the matter with my wife, Sue, as far as we can recall as young parents we didn't often tell our children that we loved them.   Of course we did (and still do) love them very much, and we hope that they experienced our love, even if we didn't verbalise it.  But maybe we ought to have spoken it out more regularly as an added affirmation.  Certainly, our children regularly speak out words of love to their children, which is wonderful to hear.

I have come to the conclusion that the best way is to both speak the words "I love you" and to demonstrate that love by our actions.  The apostle John makes this clear when he writes, 'Our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action' (1 John 3.8).

When my later brother Phil was diagnosed with terminal cancer, it brought this issue into sharp focus.  I had become more used to sharing the phrase "I love you" with my sisters, but somehow to say it to my brother seemed a bit embarrassing and not quite the manly thing to do (I realise that might sound very strange and perhaps old-fashioned, but that's how I felt).  It dawned on me that there would come a time when it would be too late to say those words to Phil, and so I plucked up the courage, overcame my embarrassment, and spoke out those three small yet powerful words.  

I am so grateful that Phil and I were able to share our love and appreciation for each other while he was alive.  We had that opportunity because we were given notice that Phil's earthly life was drawing to a close.  The last couple of weeks of Phil's earthly life were spent in a hospice in Auckland, a city where he and his family had made their home.  Phil and his immediate family were able to spend time together, and share memories, laughter and tears.  It was a precious time.

What has really come home to me afresh is the realisation that we need to speak out words of love and thankfulness while we still have the opportunity.  Life is very fragile, and none of us know how much longer our earthly lives will last.  Sometimes we have no time to prepare for the death of a loved one.  Those people whom we love and appreciate need to know how much we love and appreciate them.  Don't leave it until it's too late!

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Phil: reflections

If you've read my previous blog, you will be aware that less than a week ago my younger brother Phil passed away.  Though his death was not unexpected, it has still been very hard to accept, and his family and many friends have experience a whole range of very human emotions.  For most of us, those emotions are still raw.

Yesterday I felt that I wanted to sit down and write a poem as a kind of tribute to Phil and an expression of some of the emotions which have been going round in my heart and mind over the past few days.  I make no claim to be a great poet, and it may be that as I reflect further I will want to change some of the words and phrases.  However, I have shown it to some who have expressed the thought that I should put it into the public domain.  My initial intention was to read it aloud via Facebook Live, but in these early days since Phil's death I know that if I tried to do so, the likelihood is that I could find myself being overcome with emotion long before I got to the end.

So here it is, a poem I dedicate to Phil's memory, and also to his wonderful wife, Monika and children Mike and Emily - my love and admiration for you all are without bounds.

Phil: reflection

Is this real, or am I dreaming?
Surely it just can’t be true?
Something so brutal, and with no sense:
It must be a dreadful nightmare,
a ghastly horror show,
from which I long to run,
make my escape into the world of comfort,
where all is calm and as it should be.

The dream says Phil is gone, dead,
his earthly life has ended.
It cannot be!
I will not accept it!
I turn my face away,
For I can take no more
of vile oppression.
Help me to wake and see the light!

Phil, my little brother,
with whom I’ve shared so many precious times.
Two brothers, at one in love of Jesus (and Hull City!)
And now they say you’ve gone,
no breath of life within your mortal body.
No more I’ll see your smile, laugh at your humour,
or know your loving inspiration
in the walk of life.

Oh … this is no dream, no mere imagination.
My heart is broken at the loss.
No, not for you, for you are with the One you loved
and served so faithfully through life.
It is for me I mourn, and for your family,
who will no more see loving dad, or husband;
and for countless folk who called you friend.

I know that God is good, a loving, faithful Father:
‘I’ll never leave you’ is his promise.
I know he is our healer, and we’ve seen his hand in you
through these last years
as cancer sought to take you from us.
Two precious years in which
your witness spoke profoundly to so many.
Lives transformed, hope awakened
Jesus lifted high!

And yet … and yet …
I struggle with that question – why?
For your heart was filled with such great passion,
a love for Jesus which you longed to share
with all those of your new-found country;
a place you loved, its beauty and its people.
A vision drove you on to break through boundaries
and tread in places others feared to go.
A pioneer, breaking new ground, and calling others
to walk those paths along with you.
A vision unfulfilled?

For you are gone;
the flaming torch is one you cannot carry
any longer.
Is that bright flame to fall,
to die, like you … to be extinguished?
A masterpiece to stay unfinished?
A tragedy from glorious ambition?
A dreadful end to life of such great promise?
A great warrior cut down too soon?
The enemy triumphant in the last?

It may seem so …  and yet
as I have read the many, many tributes to your life
which have poured in from all around the globe,
I glimpse a bigger picture.
For everywhere you’ve been you’ve lit a flame
in people’s hearts.
That flame lives on and it will spread.
The seeds you’ve sown they will produce
a kingdom crop of fruitfulness
which none can span but God alone;
all to the glory of your Saviour.

I accept the truth now, Phil,
your race is run, you’ve fought the fight,
you’ve entered your reward -
the joy of heaven, free from all pain and sadness.
“Well done, you good and faithful servant,”
the words which surely greeted you
as you were welcomed by
your Saviour and the heavenly hosts.
The glory of Creator’s presence is now
in your sight.

We feel the sharp, strong pain of loss
and will forever do so,
but as we bear your life in view we are inspired
to carry on the work which God began in you.
You’ve passed the baton on to us, and
now you cheer us on to run the race,
and as we do, we hear your great last message,
But press on to the end,
looking to Jesus, for he will lead you on.”

And so, my brother, friend and inspiration,
I say farewell, with sadness, yet with joy,
and such great thankfulness that I was privileged to 
call you brother.
You leave a hole in all our lives, which never can be 
filled until we meet again.
And yet we know that Jesus, in whose presence you 
now rest, lives in our hearts,
and so do you, dear one.

Friday, 1 September 2017

The saddest day

Today definitely ranks among the saddest days of my life. Only two other days come to mind which were in any way similar.  The first was when, in my childhood, I was informed that my grannie, to whom I was very close, had died.  I vividly remember crying myself to sleep as the stark and awful reality of death hit me for the first time.  The other occasion was when my dad died.  I couldn’t even sing the hymns at his funeral service, such was the depth of emotion which I experienced.  Even though dad died over a quarter of a century ago, there are still times when I really miss him.

Mum and Dad had four daughters in fairly rapid succession.  Though they loved the girls, some years later they decided to give it one last go for a boy, and lo and behold, I appeared on the scene!  Then, six years later (more by accident than by planning), along came our little brother, Phil.  Mum was very poorly during the pregnancy and the doctor told dad that mum might pull through but the chances were that the baby wouldn’t survive.  Despite this bleak prediction, Phil lived to tell the tale, and I had a little brother to play with!

At times, I have felt a bit sorry for Phil, as being by far the youngest member of the family, the chances were that he was likely to have to live through the deaths of his older siblings.  Life doesn’t always turn out as expected, of course, and the whole family were shocked when, about two and a half years ago, Phil was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus and given only a very short time to live.

Much prayer was mobilised, and after being almost at death’s door, Phil’s health rather miraculously began to recover, so much so that the doctors were unable to explain it!  Though taking early retirement on health grounds, Phil (alongside his amazing wife, Monika) continued his ministry and shared a powerful message of God’s love in Christ; many people were profoundly touched by his testimony.  We were privileged to have him speak at two of my churches on separate occasions.

Phil’s ministry as a Church Army Officer took him to Woodlands (Doncaster), Page Moss (Liverpool), and most recently to Auckland, New Zealand, where he was National Director of Church Army New Zealand.  He and Monika, together with their children Mike & Emily, fell in love with the country and were recently made New Zealand citizens.  Phil was a true Pioneer, with a willingness to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.  He wasn’t afraid to step out of the boat and take risks for the sake of the gospel.  He loved Jesus and his greatest desire was to introduce people to Him.

Every day since we learned of Phil’s cancer diagnosis I have prayed for his healing and restoration to full health.  When he made such a great recovery it seemed that our prayers were being answered.  Phil certainly made it clear how much he had appreciated and experienced the power of prayer.  But the cancer doggedly remained.  I know what great vision Phil had for New Zealand; his desire was for everyone in the country to hear the life-saving message of salvation in Jesus.  Indeed, I’ve said more than once that if it had been possible to change places with Phil I would gladly have done so, enabling him to fulfil what he saw as his God-given calling.

I know beyond doubt that it was within God’s power to heal Phil. Many have prayed for and with Phil for the complete healing to come.  I’m struggling to see how it can have been be God’s will for Phil to die of cancer, and I’ll probably never understand.  Yet I rely in the Bible’s promise that God can turn even the worst of times and experiences to good.

Of course, the deepest reality is that for Phil, complete healing has come.  He is in the presence of the one whom he served so faithfully, in the place where God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21.4).  And certainly, Phil’s ministry over the past couple of years has had extra influence and effect because of what he has lived through.  I’m not going to rage at God, even if I do wish things had turned out differently.  I’ll miss Phil terribly, but I know I’ll see him again one day, and I guess that dad will be surprised that Phil was the first of us to join him (our 94-year-old mum is still alive)!

I am so pleased that I got the chance to tell Phil how much his life inspired me and to express my love for him before he died.  The last time he was in the UK, only a few months ago, I asked him to share a brief message at one of my churches.  His message to us was “Don’t Give Up!” and that message will forever remain with me and encourage me.  Thank you, little brother, you gave me far more than I can ever put into words.  I will always love you.  See you again one day.  Desperately sad though this day is, there can be much rejoicing in a life well lived, and a multitude of precious memories.  I can hear the words of Jesus as he greets Phil, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Let me finish this blog by sharing some words which Phil’s wife Monika put on Facebook following Phil’s death:

“In the early hours of this morning this WONDERFUL man of God and hubby of nearly 33 years passed away quietly and peacefully. He made me promise not to say 'he lost the battle with cancer' (because you can't 'battle' cancer) but I will say this: That cancer raging in his body for nearly 2 ½ years did not stop him from serving God and doing incredible ministry, going on some amazing trips, having great adventures and staying true to his positive, faith-filled, visionary, missional, proactive, wickedly humorous, caring and loving self, being the most wonderful husband any woman has ever had! I will miss him so terribly much, but I know I will see him again in heaven, Thank you, Jesus!”