Thursday, 13 March 2014

Pick Up The Shovel

It's been a long while since I gave an update on our family, and I appreciate that many folks have emailed or texted to say that they've been continuing to pray for Heidi. Let me get you up-to-date.

She finished her 3 months of AC chemotherapy on February 18th, just three days before her 40th birthday, so she spent that day feeling her age. She is now officially over the hill, but we couldn't really celebrate at her expense for another week until she finally felt good enough to party. But we are thankful that she was able to make it through that last cycle without having to go to the hospital. On the 11th of March she began her second regime of chemotherapy on a different drug named Taxol, and she has a dose every Tuesday for 12 weeks. She will have her last chemo treatment on May 27th, so you can imagine she's looking forward to that. Although this new drug won't knock her immune system around as much, they told her that one side effect is that she will get grouchy toward her husband. Personally I think the doctor was trying to give her a medical pass on being irritable, but my objection was soundly overruled. Fortunately, I have recently acquired a 12-week supply of Valium, so I am ready for whatever comes...

Heidi has a remarkable resiliance, and has kept such a sweet spirit in spite of the way she feels. I always expect to find her being moody or with a bad attitude, because that's how I would be if it was me. But she seldom does, and continues to focus her heart on her children and walking with the Lord. So I can say that I'm blessed! For the most part she feels pretty good, although weak and tired. But we trust that she will be able to start building her strength again even during this new chemo treatment.

Life for our family was suddenly and radically diverted, and no doubt that many of you have experienced this due to illness in your own lives. I was thinking about this the other day as I read through the life of Noah.

Let me make a statement to begin here. I believe every thing that God teaches us in the Bible. The stories are true, not hyperboles or clever illustrations. Unless it is clearly figurative, I believe it to be literal. Having said that, the story of Noah is one of the more bizarre stories in all of the Word of God.

Consider Noah, this preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5). He was an ordinary guy with a family. Mrs. Noah isn't described to us, but I could presume she was busy picking up Shem's socks and trying to keep Ham and Japheth from breaking the furniture. And it was surely a bit stressful being the wife of an outspoken preacher in an ungodly society. Her husband wasn't winning any popularity contests, and she no doubt copped some persecution, especially after he started cutting timber.

Although we can imagine they didn't have an "easy" life as faithful followers of God, we can presume they lived a stable and somewhat ordinary existence. At least until the day Noah came home and told his wife about his day:

He: "Had an interesting conversation with someone today."
She: "Oh yeah? Who?"
He: "Um, God."
She: "No way! What did you do now?"
He: "Knock it off. [pause] Um, have you ever wanted to take a cruise?"

God intervened in the ordinary life of one of His children, and started him down a journey that took more than 75 years. You know the story, right? He built the ark, God filled it with animals, and then God told Noah to get inside. There was nothing "normal" about their lives for nearly 100 years.

Fast forward a few years, and we see Noah put the finishing touches on the ark. He tosses an extra couple of coconuts over the top, ties a volleyball to the bow, and says to the family, "load up." The Bible then tells us, "and the Lord shut him in." (Gen 7:16) For the next year, old Noah is in this boat, and throughout my entire life I've had this "Sunday School" mentality about that trip. We see the illustrations of his journey, Noah bravely facing the daunting waves ahead, standing strong in the bow of the ship, a smiling giraffe on one side, a happy hippo on the other. But when you think about it, the reality of his cruise was about as opposite as you can get.

For about a year, Noah floated inside of this boat. He couldn't get out, no casual stroll on the top deck, or lounging with Mrs. Noah in the pool. There was a window, which may have been a skylight, but if it wasn't dark and stormy, the only thing visible was water. I wonder how many times Noah paced the decks? How many times did he wander past the sheep pens, the lemurs or the hyenas and wonder when this was going to end? How many time did he have to shovel out the horse stalls, and feed the rhinos, and wonder what was going to happen in his future? How many ladders did he climb, how many times did he take the kangaroos down to the middle deck for an afternoon hop, and say "Lord, is there any word?" I realize it's all speculation, but I see these truths in the story:

1. God shut him in the boat, it wasn't Noah's idea.
2. God told Noah it would rain for 40 days and 40 nights (Gen 7:4), but when it stopped raining, the waters kept rising. Wonder if Noah was thinking, "Did I misunderstand what God said to me? The water is still rising!"
3. For 150 days the waters prevailed (Gen 7:24), and there is no record that God was talking to Noah during this time. As a matter of fact, God didn't speak to Noah again until the journey was over; an entire year!

Now when I consider this story, I see the parallels in my life. It was God who shut us in, if you will. In the circumstances of our lives, it was the Lord who both commanded it and sealed the door when we got inside. It wasn't up to us, it was up to Him!

Although there is comfort in knowing that your life's situation was orchestrated by God, after awhile you wonder how long you're going to be floating around. Every day becomes the same as the one before it. The duties of life have changed dramatically, but they still have to be done and there is very little that is different. You've stepped onto the merry-go-round and you can't get off.

On top of it all, the Lord isn't saying much! I know He's not angry, He's just not talking much. And as the days go by, it's still stormy outside, the duties of the day still beckon, the family still needs to be cared for, the future is unclear.

Where will we set down, and when? And after that, what then?

Have you ever been there? As I relate this to you, it seems to me to be a complaint, but it is not. It's merely a statement of fact about our life that I hope resonates in yours.

If you are in a situation that God has designed, and it forces a major change to every part of your life, then you need to let go of former things and embrace what God has placed in front of you.

If your lifestyle and responsibilities have changed dramatically due to this change, do not fight the change. Engage in your new duties and remember that God gave them to you.

If you can't see much ahead, if it seems dark and stormy no matter which window you're looking through, don't fret, and don't spend your time looking out the window. Keep your head down and fulfill your duties.

If you haven't heard from God in awhile, don't give up and faint in your mind. Don't think you "missed it." Don't think He's mad at you. Just remember that God is your Commander-in-Chief, and your only duty is to obey your last order: GET IN THE BOAT.

And never forget, at the end of this journey will be a new beginning. God is preparing you as well as your environment, and when the two meet, you'll see how wonderful the future can be. After all, it has been designed by a loving and gracious Father, whose ways are still past finding out.

So go pick up that shovel and head down to "B" Deck; the zebras left you a little surprise.

Nahum 1:7 "The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble;
and he knoweth them that trust in him."

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

From our heart

It's 11:45 p.m. at our house, and the family has gone to bed for the night. Things here at home are quiet now, with only the occasional sound of cockroaches rummaging through the fridge in the next room. Outside, the crickets annoy me through the brick and mortar, and the smell of curry annoys me as it lingers from the previous tenants. But these things don't move me tonight, these little annoyances. Not even the yowling of my stupid cat can get me down. You see, even though I sit alone tonight, sweltering in the humidity of my lounge room, I am keenly aware of so much to be thankful for in my life. I'm feeling appreciative.

The past couple of weeks have been the normal roller coaster of chemotherapy for my wife. She really has felt good for the most part, but her neutrophils got down to zero again, she developed a mild infection and fever, so back to the hospital we went. She spent the first night in a room with three other women, her immediate neighbor being a somewhat large Indian woman who spoke no English, had both hygiene and hearing issues, and answered every phone call on speaker. After a good dose of culture, the nursing staff moved Heidi into a private room, which turns out to be the same one she was imprisoned in the last visit. She threatened to carve her name into the nurse before she left, but I suggested she carve it into the wall instead. She was only in for two days before they let her out on good behaviour, so we praise the Lord for the short stay. If chemo was a boxing match, the score would be 2-0, chemo is out in front.

Today she went back in for her third round of chemo. As I mentioned previously, she is to have four cycles of these more heavy drugs, and then will begin a weekly dose of another drug that will go on for three months. So we passed the 75% mark for the "hard stuff" today. The only difference today was that her white cell count was still quite low when she showed up, so they gave her the chemo but also sent her home with a nasty little shot that she has to self-administer tomorrow. This drug is meant to boost her white cell count, but apparently is a mean little bugger, so they've warned her that she'll feel reasonably horrible for several days afterward. She's a trooper though, and I think she would rather have a shot and stay home than risk getting sick again and being incarcerated in a public hospital. That's the brief update on where she's at for now.

I understand from Google analytics that my blog has a total readership of 4, so I must apologize to my fan base for the delay in posting these past couple of weeks. Sometimes, when I have time, I have no energy or mental space to sit and write, but I do feel badly, especially since there are folks out there who are genuinely concerned and prayerful for my wife.

Coming back to my previous thought, I have found myself more and more appreciative of things as these past weeks have unfolded, and I wanted to take the time to share it with you.

I appreciate our church family. Each of you have been gracious and kind to us these past months. I appreciate your concern for my wife, and the genuine love you have shown her in various ways. I know she is grateful as well, and we thank the Lord for your compassion and love. There have been a few men that have shown a concern for our personal finances during this time, and I am deeply grateful. We appreciate the flowers, the meals, and the time you are giving us as a family to deal with our lives right now. Things have changed, and they will continue to change as we wait on the Father to continue to unfold His plan in our lives. But we as a family sure do appreciate our church family.

I appreciate some dear friends, both here in Australia and back in America, who continue to be a strength to me. I confess that I have often taken friendship for granted, but as I began to face a trial in my own life, God has reminded me of the value of good friends. Thank you for your email and texts. Though you may not hear back from me, please know that I read each one, and often find myself brushing away tears of gratitude when I read "a word spoken in due season." (Prov 15:23) I pray that I might be able to repay your kindness in the coming years in some way.

I appreciate other friends in the ministry here in Australia. Even some church families that we do not know well have reached out to us with letters, cards, flowers, and expressions of prayerful concern. We are deeply thankful to the Lord Jesus for you; you have encouraged our hearts greatly.

I appreciate our families back in the United States as well. It's got to be difficult to watch this from a distance, and I know you do not have the time or resources to come this way. But you encourage us in your way, and we know that you pray constantly for each of us. That is enough. We do trust that we will be united again and enjoy a renewed fellowship together, but all in the Lord's good timing.

I appreciate my children! Wow, what great kids we have. They have stepped up and become a great help and blessing in our home since this all started. We try to talk to them, to encourage them, and to reassure them as the days go by, and we are so thankful that God has extended His grace to them in these early days.

Let me also say how much I appreciate my wife. She lies in bed tonight, pale, sick, weak, wearing her cute little blue beanie to cover her bald head. In the morning hours as the sun begins to shine through the blinds, she pulls her little hat down over her eyes and goes back to sleep. One of the many advantages of having no hair, apparently, not to mention the amount of money I'm saving on shampoo and conditioner. But I love her more now than ever I did. It's funny what disease does. She remarked to me the other day that she was thinking about how good our relationship is. While I think we would both say that our relationship has not been bad, it is certainly stronger and at a deeper level than ever before. I appreciate that she is faithful to the Lord. She reads His Word every day, she spends time in prayer and fellowship with Him, even when she doesn't feel good. I believe this is and will continue to be the foundation for her emotional stability. And the more I see her walk with God, the more I love her. She will be the wife I need her to be as she walks closely with the Lord, and the same is true with me. Heidi just has a great spirit, even when she doesn't feel good. She doesn't lounge around in self-pity, she isn't snappy and unkind. She walks in the strength of the Lord and has been a wonderful testimony to her children and her husband of the grace of God being lived out in His children.

We may have a difficult week ahead as Heidi deals with her latest chemo, in addition to the white cell boost she needs. But through it all we are both absolutely confident in the love and tender grace that our Savior extends to us. She often remarks to me, "How do people get through this who aren't saved?" My answer? "I don't know." But to know God personally through the saving blood of Jesus Christ is the only thing that keeps us going. Paul said it best:

Romans 8:38-39 "For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Will keep in touch!

Nahum 1:7 "The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble;
and he knoweth them that trust in him."

Friday, 3 January 2014

One of those days

You ever have "one of those days"? That means something different for everyone; the day your car blows the engine, or your son falls off his bike and breaks his arm, or your mother-in-law shows up for a surprise visit. You know what I mean - "one of those days". We had one of those weeks.

Last Sunday afternoon, as we sat around in the lounge room, Heidi was telling me she thought she might have a fever. Now to the uninitiated, this is a bad thing for a chemo patient, as the chemotherapy drugs kill the white and red blood cells and the neutrophils. This means that the body is unable to fight any infection at all, no matter how small. I dutifully got the thermometer and, viola, she's outside of the margin. If a chemotherapy patient has even a low grade fever, it's time to go to the ER. I know this because the chemo nurse told us, and because I am a man. Allow me to explain.

Men are different than other mammals. We're wired differently. We have this pre-programmed circuitry in our DNA that says "fix it". This, by the way, is why every man likes Wreck-It Ralph. We can sympathize with both characters, since we also inherently love to break things. But today I go into "fix it" mode. When there's a problem, I'm here to fix it. My wife has a fever. Fix-It Felix is on the job.

So back to my lounge room. Things now begin to get hazy as my mind kicks into "fix" mode. Wife has fever, have to go to the hospital. Time to make this happen, Tom, so lets go down the list:

Throw wife over shoulder and run for the car. Check.
Come back in and get the keys. Check.
Stop and fuel the car up because it's empty. Grrrr-check.
Call the house and tell the kids we left. Check.

Does this sound familiar to anybody? So we race down the road to the hospital, at least as fast as this 4-cylinder can take us. "Why didn't I get a faster car?" And have you ever noticed that when you're in a hurry, every light is red? And you always seem to get behind a 90-year old woman driving 20 in the fast lane? Why do these things happen to good people? And the whole way there, my wife is saying things like "Slow down, I'm not dying".

Analysis: My wife is delirious. Drive faster!

After a 4-wheel slide into the ER parking lot, we're in the door, and by now I'm a mess: shirt half buttoned, hair sticking up, got this wild look in my eyes. The triage team isn't sure who the patient is at this point. I insist it's my wife. They decide to take blood pressures on both of us, and I still insist it's my wife. Ah, men are tragically misunderstood!

Heidi has this nifty card that she carries that identifies her as a chemotherapy victim, ah, patient. She shows this to the Emergency Department and things happen quickly. Within five minutes we are in a room, she's having blood drawn, and the doctor is having a chat with us. Wow, I gotta get me one of these cards! They do a quick evaluation and wait for the results of the blood work, and we learn that she is neutropenic. I had to learn what that means. Neutropenia is an abnormally low count of neutrophils, a type of your white blood cells that help fight infection. This is not unexpected during chemo treatment, and so we realize we're going to be staying around the hospital for a few days. Sure enough, about two hours later they move Heidi upstairs into C5c, bed 52. Now we've gone to a public hospital, which means that they put her into a room with three other people. It's now after 9:00pm, she's feeling lousy, aches, chills and fever. And it turns out that the three patients she shares a room with are three old guys. I considered saying something to the nursing staff about moving her, but about that time she gets off the bed and wheels her little IV cart across the room to the restroom wearing her hospital gown. The three old geezers all went into respiratory arrest, and the nurses decided that having a pretty blonde lady in the room with three heart patients wasn't in their best interest, especially if she was walking around. Problem solved!

They transferred her immediately to Bed 49, a private room, and we breathed a thankful sigh of relief. We made it!

The next several days were tests and managing the pain and symptoms. Her oncologist said he would reduce her next dose of chemo, scheduled for the 8th, and that this shouldn't happen again. You gotta love the optimism of doctors! So we spent the week in the hospital. She had an appointment with the wig lady on Monday to have her head shaved and the wig fitted, but that didn't happen, so she lay in bed all week shedding like a golden retriever. I kept telling her to look on the bright side - at least picking all that hair off her hospital gown gave her something to do all day. I brought her a little beach hat and one of those dog-hair tape rollers. I guarantee she was the only patient on C5c with one of those!

New Year's Eve came, and I had permission to go to the Ward and spend time with my wife. We watched a 9:00 firework show outside the window of her hospital room, and before long she started getting sleepy. We prayed together, I blew her a kiss, and came home to a quiet house. As I lay in bed, I began to think of the past 12 months:

A year ago our family was back in the U.S. visiting family and friends. We had enjoyed Christmas with our families and were bringing in 2013 like we had any other year. There was no thought to anything unusual or unexpected ahead. We didn't know that there was a cancer growing inside of my wife's body even as we celebrated another year ahead. A year ago I had plans for the new year and beyond; I was preparing for a missions trip to Europe. I had a schedule for my year!

A month ago my wife had just had a second surgery to remove cancerous lymph nodes under her right arm. We were still coming to terms with this sudden and unexpected turn in our lives. I was trying to figure out how to prepare for the next year ahead. We had to move house as our landlord had sold the house were were living in. Life had changed.

A week ago was Christmas Eve. Things were pretty sedate around our house that night. It was still a blessing, but of course, things were different. We were in a new house, nothing felt like home. It was a bit surreal for an otherwise normal time of food, fun and fellowship at home.

An hour ago I said goodnight to my wife as she lay in a hospital bed. I couldn't kiss her because of an infection risk, and couldn't stroke her hair since it was falling out on her pillow!

A minute ago I rolled over to look at the side of the bed where my wife should be lying, as the New Year rolled in. I looked at the ceiling and began to think and pray.

Now as I considered these things, it occurred to me how I had been living this life God gave me. I have often talked about being submitted to the Lords will. Submission to the will of God is proven in the valley, in the unexpected circumstances of life. When things go "well" there is no submission on our part; rather we express a grateful acceptance of the blessing and provision that God gave us. But when things do not go as we wished, as we enter a time of testing or hurt, we are put into situation where we can choose to truly be submitted, or simply seek to endure the hardship until it's over. And that's exactly what I don't want to do. The fortitude of a human being can enable them to endure adversity for awhile. We can endure pain, or discomfort and grief. We can weather the storm out of sheer determination and get through to the other side. But if that's all that happens with this thing in our lives, I know the trial would have been wasted on us. I was praying the other day and told the Lord, "I don't want to miss what you are trying to do in my life!" I don't want to endure, I want to submit. Man, that's tough.

It was the Lord Jesus Christ who gave us the perfect pattern of submission. As he knelt in the Garden of Gethsemene, on his way to the cross, he told the Father, "Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt." (Matthew 26:39) Not what I want, but what You want. The big problem in all of this is what I want! I want happiness, health, prosperity. I want my dreams fulfilled, my future mapped out. I want a full head of hair. These impossible things are my fantasies for Tom, but as I gaze into today, I don't see them being realized in the manner I had dreamed up. And so this is the battleground for submission: do I trust God enough to do what's best for me that I will unquestioningly submit to His directive will? Even if it hurts? Even if I don't understand it?

I must admit that I don't always succeed in that area. There are times that I fight against the current that my Father has placed me in. But by the grace of God, there are times that I don't fight. I must always remember that God would not have placed me here unless there was something wonderful that He wanted to do in my family, and in my own life.

Heidi was discharged yesterday, and is back home and relaxing. We are thankful! So we face this New Year ahead, but as I sit here today, I am determined to face it with the right spirit. God is always right and good, He sees what I do not and knows exactly what needs to happen in my life for the right outcome.

If I'm honest, I'm looking forward to seeing what He does in our lives in 2014.

Nahum 1:7 "The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble;
and he knoweth them that trust in him."

Friday, 20 December 2013

Suck it up!

Have you ever done a self-evaluation? I've read books on leadership where they tell you to evaluate your leadership style. I tried that but found that I was every leadership style, and at the same time none of it. I once took a spiritual gifts test, and all I could think about was "What kind of wacko came up with this?" I didn't realize that you could actually fail a spiritual gift test, but that's ok - at least I'm consistent academically.

I've been having a look around my own heart the past few days, and I found some interesting things. In every one of us there are positives and negatives, or so I'm told. There are areas in which we are gifted, and areas that we have zero talent. I've actually discerned that I have a few unusual gifts, two of which I will share with you.

Firstly, I have the gift of talking out loud to other drivers. Now at first glance this may not seem to be an asset, but it has served me well in my life, being a useful vent for the frustrations of my day as I drive home from the church office: "Whassamatter with you, are you brain dead?" The problem with this gift is that in the 27 years of my driving career, I have never met a single driver with the gift of listening. Even my own loving wife doubts the validity of this gift, and will occasionally offer a comment after one of my tirades: "You know they can't hear you, right?" Wives can be an insensitive lot.

I also have the gift of sarcasm, which in my opinion is one of my more endearing features. Along with calling other drivers "morons", this gift also seemed to come quite naturally to me. Indeed, it needed very little development. Witty comments, clever insults and basic harassment are always lurking under the surface, even from my days in primary school. When I was young I was a slow grower, so although I didn't have a single muscle as a kid, I did have really fast legs. These were the only reason that I didn't die in the third grade. I remember playing tee ball during recess one day, and a fat girl named Joan got her finger caught in the chain link backstop. I watched as the fat oozed out of her finger, and that event activated my gift! It instantly found its way from my brain to my mouth. I made an innocent remark, and before I had time to react, Joan was running across home plate with a bat in her hand, screeching and howling. I never feared for my life like I did that day. Even the school bully had nothing on Joan. Now that I've had ample time for reflection, I think my comment might have prolonged her life and happiness, as she most probably lost ten pounds chasing me around the swing set. I still occasionally have nightmares of a fat girl chasing me around the playground with a wooden bat. Shudder! What I'm saying is that clever and well-timed comments are a gift which I'm thinking I could use in my future ministry. What might that be, you ask? Although I don't have the gift of fraud, manipulation or narcissism, I believe I could still be a televangelist!

There is one gift that I don't seem to have, though. I've actually felt a bit proud over the years that this was not in my repertoire. I'm referring to the gift of compassion. Now my wife is a compassionate soul. There's not a boo-boo that doesn't get special treatment, not a stray cat that won't get a feed and a free bed for the night. I'm not that way. When I see a boo-boo I say things like "suck it up" or "you're not gonna die", and when I see a stray cat I run to get my boots on. I'm just different is all. I've laughed about how compassion is not in my dictionary, as if it was something optional that I could do without in my life. And then suddenly my wife got cancer and my whole perspective changed with astounding speed.

I remember that we got the news of cancer on Monday. There were several days where we were reeling with the concept, trying to come to terms with a radical change of our current circumstances and our future life. Emotions I had never felt flooded my heart. Thoughts I had purposefully avoided now came crashing into my mind unwanted and unchecked. I cried often and without warning. There were times it was irrational or unreasonable but I cried anyway. And in those few days after getting "the news", God began to work some very profound and real changes in my heart. The next Sunday I was at church, greeting people and preparing for the messages of the day. I remember someone shook my hand before church and told me of a health concern in their life; not a crisis, but a concern. Normally I would kindly ask some questions and then pray for their situation, but I would be emotionally unmoved. But this day was different. As soon as I heard their concern, tears sprang to my eyes, and I was instantly not only concerned but involved. What was happening to me? God was beginning to teach me compassion.

When God speaks of Himself, He reveals His character and nature to fallen man. Notice how He describes Himself:

Psalms 145:8 "The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy."

Think of it, the very nature of our eternal God is compassion! What an attribute, what tenderness He shows to fallen people like me. When we read of the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, we see this attribute on display in numerous ways. When he saw the multitudes he was "moved with compassion". When he saw the lepers or the blind or bereaved, he was compassionate, and in his compassion he ministered to them. What a rebuke to my hard heart!

I've been wondering how many opportunities I've missed in my life because I lacked compassion. How many people could I have helped, encouraged, or even won to Christ if I had only humbled myself enough to really care about them? I know some compassionate people, several of them in our church. These men and women really care and everyone around them can see it. Although I've had years of opportunity to be humble and care more for people, I've arrogantly hid behind a facade of spirituality and made jokes to hide behind. Even now as I look back I am ashamed!

Three days ago my wife had her first chemotherapy treatment. It was a stressful and anxious day for both of us, honestly. This was another "first", we didn't know what to expect or how she would respond, and I found it quite easy to be thinking only of her and our situation. But God had other plans that day. We met a young lady and her father who were also there for treatment. It wasn't the father that needed chemotherapy, however. We knew them from an introduction earlier this year, and God worked things out for us to be there at the exact same time. She also has breast cancer, but the cancer had already spread in her body before they discovered it. Heidi and I were both moved with compassion, a genuine care and concern and desire to help in any way we could. Although we only had a brief time to talk that day, we were both blessed to be able to partially focus on someone else instead of ourselves. I'd like to ask you to pray for Kirsten, for her recovery, for her life, and for her to know the peace that can only come through Jesus Christ. She seems to be a wonderful lady, a young wife and mother, and I am praying that Heidi will be able to be a blessing and encouragement to her in the days ahead.

As for Heidi, I would appreciate your continued prayer on her behalf. It's difficult to watch your wife suffer and change, but we are learning to adjust for this next short while as she undergoes treatment. I would like to sincerely thank each of you that has shown such a genuine compassion toward us during these past two months.

It was in the Book of Jude that our Lord gave us two simple principles about compassion:

Jude 1:22 "And of some have compassion, making a difference: (23) And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh."

The two truths I see are these. First, compassion makes a difference in anybody's life! Try it sometime. And second, in the context he is talking about having compassion toward the lost, and being compelled to seek to win them to Christ.

Perhaps we should be asking the Lord to help develop a greater compassion in our lives. I would not have chosen this pathway to teach me compassion, but I'm grateful that the Lord is working to change me!

Nahum 1:7 "The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble;
and he knoweth them that trust in him."

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Bad teachers

Some of the happiest memories of my childhood were of times spent climbing trees, shooting squirrels, or sitting by gurgling glacial streams as they ran lazily down the mountains and into the river below. I remember bygone days riding bikes down the dusty roads, or building imaginary cities with Matchbox cars, but as fond as those memories are to my mind, they were always interrupted with the annoyance of having to go to school.

Kindergarten and first grade were my best years of school. Ever. I would go so far as to call them a smashing success. Did you know it's virtually impossible to fail first grade? I got straight "A's" in nap time, and squeaked by in other less important subjects. And then I hit second grade, and Mrs. Stevenson.

I suppose that somewhere in this world there was someone who thought Mrs. Stevenson was a nice lady. I never met them, but would assume there was at least one human who thought well of her. I know nobody in second grade did. Mrs. Stevenson was a plumpish woman with dirty blonde hair and a vendetta against me. My one overarching memory of second grade revolved around our handwriting drills, and her comment to me that my handwriting was "terrible". Needless to say I was cut to the bone. Even now, 33 years later, I can hardly write a handwritten note without the pain of her criticism giving me an involuntary twitch. I was never so happy as the day I graduated into the third grade.

In the third grade I fell in love with my teacher. I don't remember her name, but I was captivated and got to sit in the front row of her class. Things were going splendidly until that fateful afternoon when I wet my pants in Math class. We sat in those one-piece desks that had the moulded plastic bucket seats, and I never realized how much liquid those seats could hold until that day. Needless to say, the romance fell apart at that stage, and the term "pee wee" took on a whole new meaning in my life.

Skipping forward several years into High School, I found myself sitting in World History with Mr. Harper. If there was ever a man stuck in the 60's it was him. He sported a comb-over, scruffy goatee, and a sizable gap between his front teeth. His most distinguishing feature was the endless array of ties he paraded through our class that year; not just any ties, but the wide ones like your grandpa still has in his closet. And let's not even mention his ability to hold an audience. World History that year would have been the cure for even the worst of insomniacs. I still have a dent in my forehead from the countless times it smashed against the chair in front of me in class. I was asleep after only 15 minutes each day, and count myself fortunate to have learned perhaps 25% of World History in High School (I am available to tutor your child for a small fee). I suppose if you summed up my years of schooling, you could say I was a less-than-eager student and not very teachable. Not a sterling performance.

I've learned some things in my life since High School, and one important, life-altering truth has been burning into my heart since the day I found out my wife had cancer. As a Christian I have supposed myself to have a teachable spirit, to be submitted to the Word of God. I have read the Bible dozens of times, I have studied it and taught it, and in my pride I assumed I had "a pretty good grasp" of what God said. But what I've learned recently is that for all these years gone by, although I loved the Lord and His Word, I was still living my life the way I always had. I had an agenda, a plan, a schedule, a program. Although God fit into my program, He did not dictate it; I did. I wasn't living my life for each day, I had it planned out in carefully designed blocks of time and activity.

In Psalm 90, Moses was looking at his life and recognized just how short it was. If he got to 70, he knew it would be with pain and sorrow. And so Moses' prayer was simply this in verse 12:

"So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom."

It's a lesson that God has had to forcefully begin to teach me. Moses asked God to teach him this truth. How is it that God teaches us to number our days? One very effective way is through disease or the possibility of death. When a person knows they are about to die, they get really serious about each day. And I think that is what the Lord is trying to get my attention about. He is attempting to teach me to number my days, to live each day to the fullest for His glory. When I truly see my life as a conglomeration of days instead of a large block of time, I will change my perspective about it. When I view life as a block of time, say 80 years, then I no longer think about each moment. I am focused on the end number. When I have that mindset, I begin to make statements like "When I'm retired" or "When I get old", and I no longer give consideration to each day the way that God told me to.

It was Jesus Christ who developed that principle into a series of practical commands for us. He told us to ask the Father, "Give us this day our daily bread." But how often have I asked God for my daily needs? He told us in Matthew 6:34,

"Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

What's the point? He is saying, "Keep your focus on the day, realize that life is not forever, and make each day count in your life. Trust me for your needs today, and don't worry about tommorow." But I've realized something. In all of these years as a husband to my wife, a father to my five children, a friend, a brother, a son and a pastor, I have not truly been making each of my days count. Again as Moses prayed, "...teach us to number out days..." Why? "...that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom." When we realize the brevity of our life, then we see that God made time our most valuable commodity. Therefore we will do all that we can to maximize each day for the glory of God instead of wasting and squandering it. A hard lesson for a hard-headed man! But oh, how valuable and precious.

So God has been teaching me. He's not critical, nor is He out of touch. He is real, present, and active in my life. One great result of the trial in my life is that God has finally got my attention, and is teaching me to number my days.

So how about you? Are you living life for your own agenda, on your own schedule? God may have a warning for you as well:

James 4:13-15 "Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that."

You may have had some bad teachers in your past, but not your Heavenly Father. If He allows some trial and hardship into your life, be assured that among other things, He is attempting to teach you to number your days. For what purpose? That you may apply your heart unto wisdom, which to our God is "the principal thing"! (Prov. 4:7)

Nahum 1:7 "The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble;
and he knoweth them that trust in him."

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Whitney won't win!

On the corner of Derby & Somerset Streets stands a horrid little house. With old weatherboard siding and faded roof tiles, it's a mournful reminder of a bygone era of financial hardship, and is nearly the last house standing amid the changing demographic of a booming hospital district.

If this were like any other house, you might drive by it a hundred times and never notice. But the difference is that this house is painted a bright, obnoxious pink. And it is the clinic where my wife found out she has cancer.

Walking into the clinic for the first time, the novice breast cancer husband has his senses immediately overpowered by two things. It is incredibly hot inside, with the heater running even in the middle of summer. The logic behind this escapes me, as you are already drenched with anxiety. As you find a tiny chair to sit in among the sweating masses, your senses are then overloaded in another direction. There is a CD playing in the background, not the upbeat swing of Glenn Miller's jazz band, nor is it the toned down "Best of the 80's" hits. Tragically, the voice belongs to Whitney Houston and the CD is on repeat. In mathematical terms, the equation works out this way:

Anxiety + sweltering heat x Whitney Houston = masculine meltdown.

The first time Heidi and I sat here, we waited for an hour to see the specialist, who informed us that my wife had cancer. Surgery followed, and after another wait we ended up here again, where we found out that my wife needed another surgery. Then we came again, waited with Whitney, and found out the cancer had spread into a lymph node, requiring more surgery. We came back, waited with Whitney, and then were told she had further spread into her lymph nodes, requiring a PET scan. And now here we were again, and you got it, Whitney was still howling away in the waiting room. I told Heidi as we pulled into the parking lot that if Whitney was still there, I was going to wait outside. My poor nerves couldn't handle hearing "Didn't we almost have it all" for the nineteenth time.

As I stood outside and waited, I was thinking about why I felt the way that I did. Every single time I had been to this little pink house, my world felt like it was turned upside down. It was bad news, more bad news, and even more bad news. What I realized was that my surroundings were adding to my emotions. This sad mournful music became the focal point of all my emotions about my wife's cancer. I had associated my feelings with the songs, and before I ever walked I to the office I started feeling discouraged and anxious. It was no different now as I stood outside. I guess when you boil it right down, I was just afraid. We had been waiting for several days for the PET scan results, and since all we had heard was bad news, we were feeling a bit pessimistic about this appointment. I was trying not to let it, but fear was gnawing away at the edges of my emotions. As I stood out there and stared blankly at the traffic going by, my wife (who was inside with Whitney) sent me a text, a little thought that Paul Chappell tweeted. Here is what he said: "Trusting God's faithfulness dispels our fearfulness." I read it a couple of times and shook my head in amazement. God knew what I needed at that very moment! I was afraid, and He wanted to remind me of His faithfulness in my moment of fear. Fear is a powerful emotion and a dangerous weapon in the hand of our adversary. Heidi and I had been praying about the results of her scan, and the Lord was forcing us to wait. It was the ultimate contest being played out spiritually in our lives: resting and trusting in the Lord, or wrestling and being tormented in worry.

As I stood there and thanked the Lord for His intervention, my wife sent me another text: "Our turn." I walked in the office and sat down to face the doctor for our news, and for the first time since we met, she told us some good news, the scan came back negative for cancer spread in the body! We were thrilled and immediately thanked the Lord for answered prayer. It was such a welcome relief to the anxiety we both felt, and much of the remaining visit was lost in a fog as I silently thanked the Lord for His faithfulness and kindness. As we returned to the car, we sat there, held hands, and thanked our merciful Savior for such wonderful news. My spiritual comment afterwards was something like, "Let's party!"

I know that many of you that are friends and family have been faithfully and sacrificially upholding my wife in prayer, and we are so thankful for each of you. We could never truly express our gratitude to you, but please know that you are valued and greatly appreciated.

The next item on the agenda was our foray into the bizarre world of wig shopping. Now honestly, this is something I never thought I'd ever be doing. The owner of the shop was a scary-looking, mid-50's Lebanese woman who looked like she just auditioned for the Addams Family. Hard to believe such creativity as a designer was packaged into such a frightening face, but she was a genius. It is amazing how real the hair looks, and I was feeling a bit envious of my wife by the time it was all over (the early 40's hasn't been good to me). They say that chemotherapy is like clockwork; exactly 15 days after your first treatment, your hair starts to fall out. Apparently this wig shop is the full-service deal, though. When my wife's hair starts to come out, we'll go in and they will shave her, prep her head, and fit and style the wig all in one sitting. Yeah, I know what you're thinking. Who thought this stuff up? But the truth is, the wig she picked looks fantastic. I suggested either the dreadlocks or the black emo wig, but my wife decided to stay conservative and normal. You'd think after all these years with me she would have a bit more adventure...

So for now, we know what's coming. On the 17th Heidi starts her chemotherapy treatment and the beginning of a long six months. Although she is not looking forward to it, she is grateful that the Lord chose to spare her any additional cancer. We will continue to keep you all informed as we go along.

Nahum 1:7 "The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble;
and he knoweth them that trust in him."

Monday, 9 December 2013

I want an omelette

This past November I found myself flying back to Australia from the USA. I was flying on Virgin Australia, which I tend to prefer to other airlines, particularly United. Flying United is like being in a geriatric ward at 40,000 feet, complete with pureed food and flight attendants that should be playing bingo at the aged-care facility rather than demonstrating how to survive a dive into the Pacific. And so I was delighted to fly Virgin, and was enjoying a splendid flight across the pond until about ten hours in. Then everything went bad. When I had boarded the flight in LA, I noticed the menu options for breakfast: banana bread with fruit or a sausage omelette. Now to any red-blooded man there is no choice here. If some pig didn't give his life so that I can feel like I got a good start to my day, I'm not interested. But there was one flaw in my in-flight logic; namely that I was sitting close to the back of the plane. By the time the cart got to my seat, there were no longer two breakfast options. Banana bread it was (I could almost feel the smirks of the men in the rows ahead of me). I wanted an omelette. Banana bread is for the birds.

Today was another one of those "big days" for us on this cancer journey. To anyone who has been down this road, you already know the thoughts and anxieties that I will describe, but for us this is all new. We went to the hospital today where Heidi will be receiving her chemotherapy treatments. Now we've been to this beautiful new hospital a couple of times before, visiting church members who were there. But today was a different day, and it seemed to be a darker purpose. I wasn't my upbeat self, quite honestly. I was apprehensive, a bit nervous for Heidi's sake. We found our way to the lobby and saw those ominous words on the directory: Chemotherapy Unit. We soon found our way there and were ushered into the "Quiet Room", where the attending pharmacist sat with us and educated us about the chemo medications Heidi would be receiving, as well as some meds she would need to take prior to her first treatment. They told us treatment begins 17th December, 9:15 a.m. This was it. I was thinking to myself, "There's nothing you can do about this, Tom." It was a short, stressful visit, but I knew that I would become intimately familiar with my surroundings. The chemotherapy ward is soon to become our second home!

In the Gospel of John chapter 21, Jesus is speaking with Simon Peter after his resurrection. He admonished him to be committed to his calling as a preacher of the Gospel and an Apostle, and then he shares something with Peter that I find quite profound. Jesus said,

"Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not." (John 21:18)

Now he was revealing something about Peter to Peter, and Peter's journey is mine as well. In effect the Lord was saying this: for all of your life, you have relied upon yourself. You take care of yourself, you dress yourself, you have your life planned out and structured the way you want it. You go where you want to go when you want to go. And this is me! I also do this. For most of my life I have relied upon myself. Now I'm not saying I've never sought the Lord or rested in His provision for me. But the reality is, I've mapped out my own quiet life. I've determined my destiny, and this is what it looks like: my kids will never get sick or diseased, they will never rebel against God, they will marry godly spouses and serve God their whole lives. My wife and I will grow old together and live a long and happy life into our golden years, surrounded by our grandchildren. Now that's my life strategy, honestly. But the Lord had to reveal something to Simon that also caught my eye. Notice the last part of verse 18, "and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not." Jesus told him that one day the controls would be wrest out of his hands and he would be at the mercy of another. They would carry him somewhere that he didn't want to go, and that place was directly INTO the perfect will of his sovereign, loving Heavenly Father.

This is where my wife's cancer is taking me, and the Lord has been kindly and graciously revealing some things to me about myself as we go along. I am a good planner. I can see most things a long way off and begin to map out a strategy to prepare for them. I am good at structure, preparation and execution in order to see something accomplished. But what I've always considered (in pride, I might add) to be my strength is in fact one of my greatest weaknesses. At the core it is self-reliance. To boil it down further, I just think too much of myself. It's pride that's been covered up in spiritual talk. But now things are really different in our house and in my life. I used to be the guy in the back seat telling the driver what to do and where to go. But now I suddenly find myself behind the wheel, really as the chauffeur to this frightening passenger called cancer. All I can do is go where I'm told, and I have no say. I guess you could say it this way, that the Lord is carrying me whither I wouldest not. And as I sit and contemplate that, I realize that it's for my best.

I'll admit that I don't want to go here. I do not choose this path. I do not want the days and days of unknown test results, uncertain treatment effects on my wife and an unseen future. I'm being carried where I don't want to go, but this one thing is certain to me... it is my Father that is carrying me here. I am reminded of what David said in Psalm 23 when he walked through the valley. There was no lingering glow of the radiant sun in that valley. There were no gentle mountain breezes drifting down to refresh the weary traveller. The happy song of the bluebird could not be heard, and the warmth of the summer breeze could not be felt upon the skin. This valley was overshadowed by a darkness that could be felt, a looming and lingering fear and dread which threatened to turn peace into hopelessness and trust into a raging terror. But the blessing of the valley is seen in what David knew:

"...for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."

What a happy and wonderful promise! God is with me. He has led me here, not because He is angry with me, not because He is punishing me, but because there is a grand purpose in my life and in the lives of others. The valley is where He is more clearly seen in my life. The valley is where I feel the instruments of His leadership; the rod and the staff, guiding, protecting, steering me. And these are not instruments of judgment and condemnation for me, but they are a comfort to me! O blessed Saviour, wonderful Friend, my constant companion! How could the terrors of this valley overwhelm a child of God? Though I may come to a place of fear, I need not be governed by it. Though I have no certainty in the outcome of my future, I can have absolute confidence in the One who guides my present.

I don't know what you may be facing in your life right now. It may be an uncertain future; perhaps a health concern, a financial reversal, the loss of a job or fracture of a relationship. Perhaps you need to consider that God is graciously taking you where you don't want to go, and He's doing it for a wonderful purpose. There are no mistakes or accidents in the will of the Father. So be encouraged today, Christian. If you have put your faith alone in the shed blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ, you are now a purchased possession, bought with a price, beloved of your Father. Trust Him, rest in Him, submit to Him. What He offers you will always be better than your own choice.

Nahum 1:7 "The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble;
and he knoweth them that trust in him."