A Theology of Suffering

A Theology of Suffering

Habbakuk

Malcolm Duncan  is one of my favourite N. Ireland Bible teachers. I first heard him live at New Horizon in 2014, a few months after Leah had died. My concentration and attention span were limited but Malcolm’s preaching really held my attention.

Malcolm’s charge at New Horizon in 2014 was to preach each night from the Sermon on the Mount. On the Thursday night Malcolm announced that he felt that God wanted him to depart from what he was scheduled to speak on, in order to talk about suffering and grief in a message entitled His Presence in our pain. It was such a God moment. There were many friends and family there that night who were grieving deeply for Leah. Not to mention the many others in the 2,500 strong crowd who were grieving for loved ones or who were experiencing other kinds of suffering.

Malcolm said that night:

Have you ever cried out to God, “Why?” How can we not be moved when we hear the stories of Christians around the world that are suffering such horrific persecution. At some point in their life, every Christian will go through something that causes them to ask, “Why?” Mary and Martha went through that experience when Lazarus died.

The sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one who you love is sick.” Never think that sickness or death or suffering or unanswered prayer are an indication that God does not love you.  There is a cruel theology in the church that says if you are facing illness or sickness it is because you don’t have enough faith – that is NOT the case.  Suffering does not mean that God is punishing you.

Within weeks of this event, Malcolm Duncan was going to know grief and suffering like he had never known it before. In the months that followed, three members of his close extended family died by suicide, while three other family members – his mother, his wife and his brother, were simultaneously hospitalised in three different hospitals, for very serious illnesses.

Two podcasts that Malcolm subsequently recorded with Dave Criddle, entitled Hard Times and Hard Times Part 2  have been such a blessing to me. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve listened to these podcasts and sat writing notes in my journal.

In these podcasts Malcolm and Dave talk about how they’ve attended church feeling weak and broken and that it’s ok to not be ok. They said that although sometimes they have felt God’s presence in a very real way in their suffering, there have been many other times when they don’t feel God at all, they just continue on because they believe.

Malcolm talks about his faith being less ‘fluffy’ now and about being clearer about the difference between joy and happiness – happiness is fleeting and depends on our circumstances, whereas joy is deeply rooted in something much more meaningful. He says that emotional pain has caused him to dig deeper for meaning , but he also acknowledges that for many people, pain and suffering become the fulcrum on which their lives turn away from God.

How many times I have stood sobbing at Leah’s grave (this past week included), contemplating one of her favourite verses inscribed on the kneeling plate:

kneeling plate

Malcolm’s life has turned further into God, which he describes as ‘a work of grace’. He talks about saying to God “Unless you get me through this, I won’t make it.” Ah, but how those words resonate with my own heart.

He asks “How does one travel with sadness – the absence of a sense of God’s presence -because finding God in the midst of suffering is not a given?” He says “What do we do with a God who doesn’t always heal, One who doesn’t always answer prayer?” Malcolm courageously admits to having thousands of questions. It is like the Balm of Gilead to my soul, to at last encounter a Christian leader who admits to being plagued with many of the same questions that I have wrestled with.  He says that one day God will answer all of our questions, but on that day, the questions won’t matter anyway.

Near the end of the first podcast is my favourite line of all, when Malcolm says that our churches are caught up with thinking about a theology of healing, when perhaps what they/we really need is a THEOLOGY OF SUFFERING!

“Hard Times” with Malcolm Duncan & Dave Criddle

“Hard Times, pt. 2” with Malcolm Duncan & Dave Criddle

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Before we went to Bristol I read the daily devotional Streams in the Desert via an app on my mobile phone. I was being blessed and helped by these devotional readings, which were first published in 1925.

While Leah and I were in Bristol one of the ways in which friends and family from home blessed us was with post – lots of it. We were the envy of the other families staying in Sam’s House because most of the post was for Leah and I.

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Every time Leah moved to a new hospital room, her boyfriend Nic helped to arrange her cards so that she could gaze at them from her bed and receive encouragement from them. During the weeks that Leah and I were able to stay at Sam’s House, her cards adorned our room there too.

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One day in August 2013 a package addressed to me was deliver to Sam’s House. The first thing I always try do is guess who a parcel is from. However the handwriting on this parcel was unfamiliar to me.

When I unwrapped the package there was an array of pocket sized items, thoughtfully chosen for my situation; lovely lip balm, pretty tissues, M&S boiled sweets, scented alcohol hand gel – all such necessary items for the circumstances that I was in at the time. Best of all, there was a beautiful leather bound copy of Streams in the Desert. All of this from a “Bible study friend” at home in N. Ireland.

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This little book, along with my Bible, has been a treasured part of my life since then. I would describe it as the daily devotional that reaches the parts that other devotionals don’t reach. Two and a half years on and it continues to be the gift that keeps on giving. I never cease to be amazed by how relevant it is to how I’m feeling or to what I am going through.

Here is an excerpt from today’s reading:

Streams in the Desert 16 April 16

The Listening Life

The Listening Life

Today when walking down the corridor at work, I bumped into the specialist in paediatric palliative care who was enormously helpful to us in organising Leah’s end of life care.

Straight away I felt the pangs of heartache, as my heart was transported back to the 14th January 2014 in Belfast City Hospital. I silently asked myself “Must it always be this way, will there always be pain triggers waiting round every corner?” Then I remembered hearing recently that every event is actually 20% fact and 80% perception, so I started talking to myself in my head about how blessed we were to have had the support and expertise of this amazing woman and how much her input meant to us at the time. Within minutes I was feeling more positive.

A couple of hours later I was going down the corridor and I met her again. She stopped and asked me how I was. I looked in her eyes to see if she was just being polite or if she really wanted to know. Her facial expression told me that she really cared, so I told her the truth. She also enquired about each family member. I briefly told her about some of the ways in which we are struggling to rebuild our lives while battling the pain of grief and loss.

Then, just like she did in the corridor of the City Hospital 26 months ago, she hugged me and said “Let’s say a wee prayer.” For a few hallowed moments she quietly lifted up each member of my family to God in prayer. I felt God’s peace touch my heart.

She’s a very busy doctor, with a very busy agenda, but somehow in the middle of her very busy day she took the time to minister to my heart. How long did it take? Ten minutes perhaps? Yet it meant so much to me.

I felt blessed and encouraged by her actions, but I also felt challenged. How often am I so caught up with my own agenda – however good and noble that may be – that I allow no time for the unexpected, no time for ‘God’s agenda’?

A few weeks ago I was scrolling through the Facebook page of author Cheri Gregory  when my attention was caught by a quote from a book called The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction by Adam S. Mc Hugh.

The Listening Life 2

I immediately headed over to Amazon, where I read this about The Listening Life:

“Be quick to listen, slow to speak.” James 1:19 How would our lives change if we approached every experience with the intention of listening first? In this noisy, distracting world, it is difficult to truly hear. People talk past each other, eager to be heard but somehow deaf to what is being said. Listening is an essential skill for healthy relationships, both with God and with other people. But it is more than that: listening is a way of life. Adam McHugh places listening at the heart of our spirituality, our relationships and our mission in the world. God himself is the God who hears, and we too can learn to hear what God may be saying through creation, through Scripture, through people. By cultivating a posture of listening, we become more attentive and engaged with those around us. Listening shapes us and equips us to be more attuned to people in pain and more able to minister to those in distress. Our lives are qualitatively different indeed, better when we become listeners. Heed the call to the listening life, and hear what God is doing in you and the world.”

I was ‘hooked’ and ordered it immediately. When the book arrived I started reading with great enthusiasm and got as far as page 50, then unfortunately I got totally distracted by other books that I was reading simultaneously and forgot about The Listening Life. This is by no means a negative reflection on The Listening Life; I regularly have three or four books on the go at any one time and I dip in and out of each of them depending on my mood!

I absolutely love books, I only wish that reading them were as easy as buying them! However, today’s encounter reminded me of why I bought The Listening Life and how important it is to listen – really listen – to God and to each other.

P.S. Click here to read an excerpt from The Listening Life on Emily P. Freeman’s blog.

The Beautiful Peace of God

The Beautiful Peace of God

 

In August 2012 Leah and I went to Coleraine Congregational Church where Catherine Campbell was launching her most recent book: Broken Works Best. Amongst the invited speakers that night were Pat and Andy Cardy. I was familiar with their story as I had heard them being interviewed on the radio several times. The sound of their voices has always reduced me to tears, their story is so heartbreaking.

On the 12th August 1981 Pat and Andy’s nine year old daughter Jennifer left her home in the quiet countryside to cycle to a friend’s house nearby. Jennifer never reached her friend’s house that day. Her bicycle was later found thrown behind a hedge along the road. A week later Jennifer’s body was found, strangled and drowned, in a dam thirteen miles away.

In 2011, Robert Black, who was one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers, was convicted in Armagh Courthouse of the kidnap, sexual assault and murder of nine-year-old Jennifer. Robert Black, who worked as a delivery driver, abducted and assaulted Jennifer before throwing her body in McKee’s Dam, near Hillsborough. Already serving a life sentence at the time of his trial for her murder, he was sentenced to another 25 years and told that he would be 89 before he would be considered for release.

That night when Leah and I heard Andy Cardy interviewed, he spoke with no trace of bitterness or anger. He described how God had ministered to him and his wife over the intervening years, giving them the grace to cope with their situation. He talked about the then recent six week trial and how he had looked into the face of evil – the last face on earth his darling little girl had seen – and how he had felt no hatred.

It had not always been this way, there had been a time when Andy had been angry, very angry, wanting to murder the person who had done this to his daughter. However over the years Andy had learned that hatred is much too costly – he had learned to let God be the judge. Robert Black had stolen the life of his darling daughter and had also destroyed the lives of many others; Andy had decided that he wouldn’t let this man destroy his life as well.

On our way home, Leah said to me “Mummy, you cried through the whole meeting.” This was true, I was so moved by what everyone had shared, but especially the Cardy’s. I had always imagined that losing a child must be the worst pain imaginable, but losing a child in the circumstances in which they lost Jennifer was to me incomprehensible. Yet, they were testifying to the all sufficient grace of God:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 2 Corinthians 12:9 (NIV)

With the recent death of Robert Black on the 12th January 2016 in Maghaberry Prison, the Cardy’s are once again in the news. In this article on the BBC News website the Cardy’s are quoted as saying:

Mrs Cardy told BBC News NI that she feels no bitterness towards her daughter’s murderer and would have liked to have spoken to him before his death in jail in a bid to change his “wasted” life, that was full of “depravity”.

“As Christians, Robert Black could have had what I have and what Andrew has, and our whole family – that is just the beautiful peace of God,” she said.

“I have actually prayed for Robert Black that he could come to this and therefore, his life that produced no good could now begin to change. I would have loved that for Robert Black.”

Mr Cardy said: “I’ve often said that he stole the life from our daughter but we would not allow him to steal our lives. We were determined to live on and live on for the family that we had, but the hurt is still there.

“We miss Jennifer but we have to move on, we have to keep going.”

To me, those are amazing words. The Cardy’s have allowed God’s grace to work in their hearts to such an extent, that even in the most horrendous of circumstances, they experience the peace that passes all understanding.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV)

NOTHING can separate us from HIS Love

NOTHING can separate us from HIS Love

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One of the saddest and loneliest experiences of my life was returning home without Leah from the Children’s Hospice on Thursday the 16th January 2014. As we turned in to our drive I caught sight of our other car – a seven seater family car – and the realisation dawned “our family doesn’t need a car that size anymore”.

It had been twenty days since I had driven away from the house, with our two elder daughters. There had been an air of excitement in the car, as that night we were going to a large family get together – our first since Leah’s bone marrow transplant in August. This was going to be a very special occasion.

The rest, the say, is history.

I was by now totally exhausted, both mentally and physically. I managed a few hours sleep that night. When I got up on the Friday morning, I felt bewildered and disorientated. I had no script for what to do next. Like every other day I snatched a few moments of quietness to spend with my Saviour, reading and praying, in the hope of finding some help and strength. My concentration was very poor and I struggled to focus on the words on the page. My reading for that day in Streams in the Desert‘ was Daniel 6:20:

Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you?”

Daniel had spent the night in the lion’s den as his punishment for praying to the living God. The King had gone there first thing in the morning, hoping that Daniel was still alive, which he was.

The phrase which was highlighted in my reading that morning is that we serve a ‘living God‘, one who is unchanging and who is always there. In the reading George Mueller is quoted as saying:

In the greatest difficulties, in the heaviest trials, in the deepest poverty and necessities, He has never failed me; but because I was enabled by His grace to trust Him, He has always appeared for my help. I delight in speaking well of His name.”

This past two years have been rough, I continually grieve and mourn for Leah. I mourn too for others that I’ve known along the way who, like Leah, have had their lives cut short by illness, by accident or by suicide. I don’t understand why there’s so much suffering in the world, I don’t understand why some seem to experience miraculous healing while others, equally loved and prayed for, die.

Still, I believe that God is a good God and that many things in this life are a mystery and beyond our understanding. I believe that NOTHING can separate us from God’s love which is ours in Christ Jesus. One of the passages of Scripture that Leah and I read together most often during her illness was Romans 8:35 – 39.

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
37 Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. 38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Rend Collective, Leah’s favourite band, have a song based on Romans 8:37 “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” I heard it at New Horizon in Coleraine the Summer after Leah died and I thought the words and tune were really encouraging:

MORE THAN CONQUERORS

We are more than conquerors, through Christ
You have overcome this world, this life
We will not bow to sin or to shame
We are defiant in Your name
You are the fire that cannot be tamed
You are the power in our veins
Our Lord, our God, our Conqueror

I will sing into the night
Christ is risen and on high
Greater is He
Living in me
Than in the world

No surrender, no retreat
We are free and we’re redeemed
We will declare
Over despair
You are the hope 

 

When Holidays Hurt ~ A Book Review

When Holidays Hurt ~ A Book Review

To help me cope with Christmas, and all the emotions that it brings since Leah became ill and died, I treated myself to a new book on the recommendation of another bereaved Mummy.

Actually I love books, so it doesn’t take much to persuade me to buy a new one.

This past year during Lent, our minister suggested that we give up something that we would REALLY miss like Facebook or – horror of horrors – Amazon – I chickened out I’m afraid.

Maybe some day.

Cleaning vs reading

 

My recent purchase is called WHEN HOLIDAYS HURT by Bo SternBo is a Mum of four, whose husband was diagnosed with terminal amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a form of motor neurone disease (MND).

The description of the book immediately drew me in:

Bo Stern has spent the past two Christmases struggling to connect with the joy of the season. As she has watched her husband, Steve, struggle with terminal ALS, Bo has quietly felt her spirit for the season fade and has noticed countless others suffering the same way.

When the book arrived I wasn’t disappointed. It’s hardback, compact and pleasing to the eye. More importantly, the content is ministering to my heart.

Book

Here is what I read today:

Bo doesn’t just cover the Christmas Holidays, she has readings for the New Year, Easter, Weddings and other significant days. At £7.99 Sterling this book would make an excellent gift for any person of faith who has a hurting heart.

If you would like to read Bo’s story and visit her blog, click here. Sadly, her husband Steve left this earth to go to his heavenly home on July 18th, 2015. Read his obituary here.

Blog Quote Bo Stern

United by a Common Bond of Grief and Loss

United by a Common Bond of Grief and Loss

I have recently visited a certain local café on a few occasions. I struck up a friendship with the woman who usually manned the till. Today I was heading for lunch with a friend when he asked “Will we go to this café or to that one?” I instinctively replied “Can we go that one please? The woman on the till is really nice.” He flashed me a look that suggested “Either I’ve misheard you or you’re crazy.”

As a matter of fact, all of the staff in that café are very pleasant and helpful, but most people select a café based on the quality of the food or the value for money, but not solely on the personality of the person who rings in your purchases on the till!

Today however, when I went to pay for my panini, my usual friend was nowhere to be seen and I felt a twinge of disappointment. Mind you, the person who was operating the till turned out to be someone that I knew from a previous job so I had a quick catch up with her instead, which was nice too.

Just after I had finished eating, my lunch companion disappeared to take a phone-call. I looked around to see if there was somebody else to chat to. There in the corner I spied my ‘cash till friend’ (the one I had been hoping to see) sitting at a table having her lunch break. I slid into the empty seat opposite her and said a cheery hello. Her face lit up with a big smile – she had previously told me how much she enjoyed her job and that meeting people was one of the best bits.

I knew from our brief conversations that she had children so I asked how her family were doing. In the course of the ensuing conversation she told me that her oldest boy had died in 1993, aged 14 years. In that precise moment I knew exactly why I had always felt a connection with this woman! I told her about Leah and showed her a photograph. Her eyes misted over.

She told me of the devastatingly tragic circumstances in which her first-born son had died, of their last conversation, of the phone call informing her that something had happened, of the drive to the hospital and of her own intuition that had told her that things were very serious even before she arrived at the hospital.

She also told me a little about some of the very difficult ways in which she and her husband had tried to numb the awful unbearable pain. Then she told me of how she had finally come to a place of peace when she “surrendered her son to God” and accepted that this much loved young boy had only been given to them “on loan.” She told me too about the priest who has supported their family through it all, who never forgets, who still visits them periodically.

She said to me “This conversation is no accident you know.” I nodded in full agreement while blinking back my tears. It was like balm to my soul to be in the presence of someone who truly understood, for whom no explanations were necessary.

She thanked me for speaking to her and we hugged.

There in that cafeteria, two mothers, united by a common bond of grief and loss, sharing each other’s pain, we hugged.

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