In sickness and in health

sandy-millar-YeJWDWeIZho-unsplashThis week Fiona and I celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary. We thank God for bringing us through so many ups and downs, and we keep asking him to help us love each other whatever the future may hold. We don’t have a perfect marriage and we’ve got lots still to learn. But the promises we made weren’t conditional. They weren’t dependent on feelings or good circumstances. We went with the traditional options… you know… better/worse, richer/poorer, sickness/health. I suspect we made these promises without pausing to contemplate very deeply. We just knew we wanted to get married and we wanted to stay married. Still do.

Back then it was…

Richer? Who cares?

Poorer? I doubt it—we were both students.

Better? We’re about to get married. It can only get better, surely?

Worse? I hope not.

Health? Of course, we’re both young and fit and full of life.

Sickness? Everyone gets sick sometimes, don’t they?

Fast forward to 2019 and one promise stands out. Never would we have contemplated what this could mean, what it would mean. “In sickness and in health”.

On any count, the typical annual dose of the flu, occasional colds, a few broken bones, irregular migraines, four caesareans, bouts of labyrinthitis, recovery from a major car accident, and eight years of living with cancer, add up to a lot of time “in sickness”.

And what about all the sicknesses and injuries to our children? More than three months in the NICU, regular injuries from skateboarding, cycling, or rugby, catching the bugs from school friends (sometimes literally). And then there are ageing parents. And mental health struggles. And pregnancy complications. And, and, and.

Let me go out on a limb and say I reckon marriage for us has been at least 1/3 sickness, 2/3 health.

Marriage is not for the faint-hearted. It’s not for casual or temporary affections. Marriage is a covenant to love. It’s about putting your life partner before yourself. It’s about “we will work it out—whatever”. It’s about let’s keep asking God to help us.

It’s about learning to love, actively, showing the initiative, being the first to forgive, killing our selfish pride, overcoming our discontent, and rejoicing in the wonder of growing together in all the ups and downs of life. It’s about a love that grows in patience, and kindness, without envy, boasting or pride. This is a love that isn’t self-seeking, doesn’t get easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, and always protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres.

How can you learn to love like this? Two thoughts come to mind:

  1. Even though he never got married, Jesus shows us the kind of love that will make a marriage work.
  2. You know love when it gets put to the test. Seems like “in sickness” is a challenging place to grow real love.

We have dear friends whose marriages have faced the challenges of better and worse, richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, more than we will ever know—friends who have no relief from continual pain, perpetual fatigue, aching brokenness, chronic illnesses, and more. Please pray for friends’s marriages, pray for your marriage.

Now it’s time to seek God’s help to practice what I preach.

 

Eight years closer to eternity

rhodi-lopez-Cxpqnzd3Psg-unsplashWe spent this morning at the funeral of a friend’s mum. She died at 64, leaving a husband, 4 kids, 10 grandkids, and so many friends. The church was packed, the overflow was packed, and it was standing room only outside. We’d been to the church before and it was all but empty. I’m talking single figures of regular attenders. Today there were literally hundreds.

Church mattered today. People flooded the building. People engaged with spiritual matters. They prayed the Lord’s Prayer. They recited the 23rd Psalm. Today God was on their agenda.

I thought to myself, “Why are we normally content to mindlessly fill our lives with trivial pursuits?” “Why do we drift toward death, without pausing to consider what life is all about?” “Why does it take the death of someone we know, love, care about, to cause us to stop and think about matters that really matter?”

Today is exactly eight years since my cancer diagnosis. Eight years I never expected. Eight years of lows, highs, and everything in between. Eight years of being personally plugged into my mortality. Eight years of continual reminders that life is brutally short. Eight years of growing, deep conviction about the meaning of life and the purpose of existence.

Is it all blind meaningless chance?

I don’t believe so. I’m persuaded that there is a God behind it all, that he can be known, that he is good, that he gives hope, and that hope is real.

What do you believe?

And why?

Preparing for marriage

IMG_4919
Waiting for the bride

I married a couple yesterday in the beautiful surrounds of the Old Butter Factory at Telegraph Point. God’s timing with the weather was awesome—we had clouds and drizzle then sunshine and storms—all at the right times. It was a thoroughly Christian wedding, pointing to God’s amazing love for us in the gospel of Jesus.

We enjoyed celebrating this day with the beautiful couple—but all the more because we’d spent a number of evenings over the past few months preparing them for marriage. Not simply preparing the wedding—but preparing for marriage. We’d have a meal together and then talk specifically about preparing for married life. More precisely, we’d get the couple talking together about their expectations, hope, fears, and dreams for life together. Fiona and I use the Prepare/Enrich material to gain insights into the couple and assist them to prepare for their life together.

It’s not enough to prepare a great day, we need to be preparing for a lifetime. Two previously single ‘selfish’ individuals need guidance and support with communication, conflict resolution, managing finances, preparing for intimacy and sex, encouraging each other spiritually, and much more.

IMG_0977If you’re looking to get married, then don’t sell yourself short. Don’t put all your focus on making the day just perfect, but take the time to prepare for what comes afterwards. For better and worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health. This is the important stuff. This is the tough stuff. This is where the deep and lasting joy is to be found. This is really what it’s all about. Marriage is for a lifetime together. Isn’t that worth a little serious preparation?

If you’re a pastor or Christian marriage celebrant, what do you do to prepare your engaged couples for marriage? Can I strongly suggest that you take a number of meetings with the couple to focus on what a Christian marriage is all about, and to explore the particulars of building a new family. Have some good books that you can share or give away, such as Married for God by Christopher Ash or What did you expect? by Paul Tripp.

Get trained in using the Prepare material. This gets the couple answering questions separately, collates their answers, and highlights strengths and work areas for their relationship. It gives you real data to work with and it gives them a workbook for now and later on. It moves you someway from idealism and starry-eyed dreams, to realism and areas for growth in relationship. It helps facilitators to pinpoint matters of specific relevance to each couple. Preparing for marriage is hugely important, so don’t sell the couple short. Let me encourage you to get well prepared, so that you can help the engaged couple to be well prepared.

Prepare training is available throughout Australia. Check it out here.

Stepping down

fiecDear friends

I’m letting you know that I will be stepping down as FIEC National Director next year. It’s been a tough decision and a while in the making.

There have been a number of new stressors this year, most significantly declining health. My health problems reached a crisis point in June, when I was trying to function with constant pain, coughing, and breathlessness. Scans and biopsies confirmed that the cancer had been growing in my lungs and pleura. My poor health, fatigue, uncertainties, and stress, are among the factors behind my decision to step down. However, it’s not just the last year—it’s been eight years of living with the effects of lung cancer.

I now have reduced physical, mental, and emotional reserves, and I need to listen to my body and make some changes. While the pain and difficulties of the cancer have been reduced through the treatment, the side effects continue to limit me. I have increased fatigue, need more sleep, and yet often don’t sleep well. My stamina and durability have declined. I am still seeking to discover my new ‘normal’, but I am aware that it must be lesser than the previous normal. While I pray regularly for healing and relief, I must factor in continuing daily chemo for the remainder of my life.

A friend said to me this week, that not only have I had to drive the ship, but I’ve had to build the ship while driving it. It’s had its challenges, but I’d take the opportunity all over again. And I will miss it—that’s for sure.

This is not to say that I intend to stop serving within FIEC. Fiona and I have developed significant and supportive relationships among pastors, wives, and churches. We enjoy being able to offer practical ministry help, mentoring, and encouragement. It’s a joy to partner with churches to spur them on. It’s been a privilege to represent FIEC, as I’ve visited colleges, spoken at conferences, and exercised wider ministry. I will share with you more of our future plans as they become clearer.

I want to thank everyone involved with FIEC for the honour of serving you over the past three years. Thank you for your faith in me as I’ve sought to pioneer this role. It’s been a privilege to serve alongside each of you. I’ve appreciated your support and your fellowship. I’ve loved the opportunity to invest in the FIEC ministry, and to encourage men and women to work together in building God’s kingdom. Visits to churches and our annual conferences have been highlights for me over my time in this role.

As I’ve said, it’s been a tough decision to step down as National Director. I am stepping down from this specific role, not from ministry. I want life to continue to be about the service of God and others, it will just take a different shape. I understand that this will be disappointing news for some—we feel the grief ourselves. We would value your prayers and encouragement at this time of change.

What Ms Castle could have written…

IMG_4761Following Raelene Castle’s letter to Wallabies fans yesterday, where she failed to show any appreciation to the Australian side, this is the letter that I believe would have been more befitting the CEO. This is what she could have written…

Dear Wallabies fans

As we lower the curtain on another World Cup, can I ask you to please join me in thanking so many who’ve worked so hard. It has been a tough campaign and it’s been far more than a few weeks or months. It’s been four years in the making. We expect more and more of our professional players and coaching staff. The competition has become incredibly fierce. The quality of rugby keeps getting better and better. Our teams keep being pushed harder and harder as the game gets tougher and tougher. Join me in thanking everyone involved for their grit and determination during four tough years of international rugby.

Let me begin by expressing gratitude to Michael Cheika and his coaching team. Being a professional coach is often a thankless task. I laud the long hours spent by our coaches, medical staff, and trainers, devoted to maximising every opportunity to put the best prepared team on the paddock every time we play.

Let us express our congratulations and gratitude to Michael Hooper and his team of players. You have represented your country with pride. Sheer guts and determination, game after game, season after season, year after year. And thank you to the players in the squad who haven’t taken the field, or who haven’t seen much game time. We understand how it takes many more than 23 players to win any serious competition, let alone a world cup. Every one of you has played your part. Thank you to the players in Super Rugby, the NRC, and club rugby, for challenging one another, and lifting our standard of competition.

Thank you to those in our team who have endured special hardship to represent our country. To Christian Lealiifano for your inspirational journey back from leukemia to play flyhalf in a World Cup quarter final. To David Pocock, for your difficult journey through injury and rehab, to put your body on the line for one more World Cup campaign. To the unrecognised and unheralded players who have gone above and beyond for our entertainment and joy in this great game.

Many of our players have played their last game for Australia. We want to say thank you for representing us so well on the world stage and to wish you all the best for your futures, both in rugby and beyond.

Our thanks must go further. So, to the wives, partners, parents, children, and extended families of our players and high performance staff, we salute you. Many of you have accepted being temporary widows or orphans to allow your men to reach the heights they have. Thank you for your support, love, and sacrifice.

As we come to the end of another World Cup campaign, there can only be one winning team, and we eagerly look forward to seeing who that will be. We will need to review our own campaign. We will examine our processes, systems, priorities, and strategies. We will review our coaches, high performance staff, and players. We will examine our board, and I will submit to review, in my capacity as CEO of Rugby Australia. There will be changes. There must be. It is only right that we take a long look in the mirror. But, for now, let us not forget to appreciate the men, women, and families who have worked so hard for so long.

With deep appreciation,

Raelene Castle

CEO Rugby Australia

A ride down memory lane

Having cancer often gives me cause for reflection. Sometimes, in grief and melancholy, but other times in joy and delight. I grieved that I would never see grandchildren, and now four of them bring us enormous blessing. I lamented the loss of ministry experience, and God has opened doors that I didn’t even know existed. I’ve learned how easy it is to take life for granted, and God has given me a renewed delight in so many of the simple things in life. Let me reflect on a thread that has been woven through my life.

I’m going to take you on a ride through some back roads of my nostalgia. It’s 40 years since I gained my motorcycle license and rushed out to purchase a second hand, blue Honda CB250. It didn’t go very fast and that wasn’t such a bad thing. It was my first vehicle and it gave me some independence. It took me to school, to friends’ houses, to the rugby, to job interviews, on some weekend rides around the Cotter-Tidbinbilla loop outside Canberra, and it got me praying. Dear God, help me stay alive. In case I don’t make it home tonight, please forgive me for all the bad stuff I did today. 

But I need to go back a few steps.

My introduction to motorbikes began much earlier when I was 9 years old in Tasmania. My best mate, Vaughan, had a Daytona 60 and we’d ride it on his property and on tracks near the Gorge in Launceston. It was awesome to get on a bike that ‘went by itself’. You didn’t have to pedal. You just had to learn how to not fall off and then how to stop. A few of my friends had motorbikes. Me? I didn’t even have a push bike. We lived on a steep hill and bikes were considered far too dangerous.

We moved to Canberra in 1975 and, again, many of my friends had motorbikes. My Grandpa gave me the money for my first bike. It was a Malvern Star Skidstar GT, with twin halogen headlights, 3 speed shift, speedo, and chrome mudguards. The only thing it didn’t have was an engine. Mind you, I did crank it out to 80 km/h going flat out down the road from Mt Ainslie. I wish I still had it—apparently they are collectors’ items.

Some of my mates had trail bikes and they’d ride the fire trails of Mt Majura before they were old enough to get their licenses. It was on one of these, when I was 12 years of age that I rode for the first time on a ‘proper’ motorcycle, with gears and a clutch. My friend, Paul, would double me to the forest and then let me take turns in riding. Once I got the hang of it, I was hooked.

I loved the look and feel of bikes. My Bible study leader rode a WLA war model Harley Davidson. It was camo green, had hand gears, a foot clutch, and was sometimes working. I loved checking it out whenever he rode it to church. My good friend, David, bought himself a Honda CB250 road bike—the same one I was to purchase later from a dealer in Braddon. Another friend from church, Jack, who worked for the Canberra Times, had two Moto Guzzi Californians—and in later years we would go on some long trips together.

My friend Ross, who was a theological student, had some amazing bikes. He’d race them, customise them, drag them, and do outrageous things on them. My favourite was a Yamaha 650 that was semi-chopped, airbrushed, and had the sweetest exhaust sound I’d ever heard. I don’t think I knew what a theological student was. It had something to do with studying the Bible and becoming a minister. My dad was a minister, but he didn’t drag race Kawasaki 1000s!

smithDuring high school I met John Smith and other members of the Gods Squad Christian Motorcycle Club. We had John and other Squad guys visit or stay in our home at different times. I admired their passion for Jesus, their support for the disadvantaged and the marginalised, and their guts in reaching out among outlaw bikers, such as the Hells Angels MC. It was during one of the Squad visits to Canberra that my whole outlook on life changed. I decided that I wanted to work among people, to reach out to those who are doing it tough, to share Jesus with others (and maybe one day to ride a Ducati or a Harley Davidson!) I wanted to quit school immediately and become a youth worker. The problem was I was only 17 and I needed to spend some time growing up and working out my life and faith. I’d grown up in a Christian home, but I needed some independence to work out what I really believed for myself.

cb250That same year I bought the CB250. I’d saved enough to buy the bike through working on a milk run after school. I’m not sure how my mother agreed, but she did. Dad and I went to the shop and I purchased the bike. I bought some boots, gloves, Barbour oilskins, and conceded to buying a bright yellow helmet. I stuck a cross on the back with electrical tape and then I spray painted the helmet metallic blue, leaving a bright yellow cross. I’m not sure why I did it, but it probably had something to do with working out my identity.

daveLater in the same year I got a labouring job in the outer suburbs of Canberra. I’d start work at 7am and decided that I needed a reliable bike to get me to and from our worksites. My next purchase was a burgundy Honda CB400 twin. It was smoother, faster, and leaked less oil than the 250. This was a bike that would take me places—rides along the Kings Highway, up and down the Clyde, camping at North Durras or Burrill Pines. It was powerful enough to carry a load, but laboured a bit when doubling a friend. It would become my means of transport between Canberra and Sydney, where I’d moved to commence a Social Work degree at UNSW.

brotherhoodUniversity gave me the independence I needed to force a crisis of beliefs. I’d left home—would I leave my faith behind, or would I see it grow into maturity? I thank God for surrounding me with friends who were serious about following Jesus. They opened the Bible and expected it to make sense. They saw Jesus as the key to meaning, life, and the future. I learned that I could be forgiven for everything, because the death of Jesus had paid it all. Being Christian wasn’t about being good enough to be accepted by God, it was about God accepting me because Jesus dealt with all my sin on that first Good Friday. During these years I also became loosely involved with the Brotherhood CMC. They were similar to the Gods Squad, based in Sydney’s west, with an outreach to the marginalised. I’d considered applying to become a patched member, but I didn’t go ahead with it, and I realise now that my heart wasn’t in the right place.

new doc 2019-10-01 12.09.34_1They say the ideal bike is the one that is just a bit bigger than the one you’ve got. I’d started to take a couple of my best friends, Fiona and Barry, on rides to different places. Fiona’s brother lived in Wollongong and I’d take her for visits to his family. I’d say, let’s ride to the Gong for a hamburger on Friday nights. The truth is we visited a Christian outreach called ‘The Hamburger Hut’ in Fairymeadow. We’d meet interesting people who surfed, rode bikes, did fun stuff, but significantly wanted to share how good God is. The CB400 soon got replaced by a blue Honda CX500 Shadow. It was a super-comfortable, shaft-driven, V-twin. It was the ideal tourer and was loads of fun in the twists and turns. I’d take it everywhere—to and from Canberra, even in the cold of winter; along the Great Ocean Road; outback NSW to Narrabri and West Wyalong; to and from Wollongong via the Royal National Park.

vf754_1Somewhere along the line the blue CX500 was traded in on a newer black CX500. It was one of the nicest bikes I’ve ridden, but I didn’t keep it long. Fiona and I were getting married, so we opted to replace the bike with a 1974 Corolla and then a Datsun 180B SSS, so that we’d have a vehicle that we could both use. We temporarily swapped our Datsun for a Honda VF750/4 for ‘part two’ of our honeymoon.

After we were married I started working in a Christian ministry apprenticeship based in the Eastern Suburbs around UNSW. Fiona had her medical training to finish and life became a little frantic. I had an ex-police model, white Suzuki 750, with almost no suspension, during this time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter four more years in Sydney and completing theological training, we left to start ministry in Canberra. In the busy years of raising four kids, we decided that I wouldn’t continue riding much, other than occasional times when someone might lend me a bike (or even an OzTrike) while they were away on holidays!

moto moriniAt one point I purchased an ‘almost restored’ Moto Morini 3½. It was a collector’s item and now resides at the National Motorcycle Museum in Nabiac. Now that I’m nearby, I must pay it a visit sometime soon.

120816 HD2A highlight of my motorcycling experience was when Fiona arranged for me to have a Harley for 24 hours as a gift for my 50th birthday. It seems bizarre when I look back on it. I was 9 months into my cancer journey and still pretty weak and frail. Here I was dodging the effects of chemotherapy and Fiona arranged for me to ride a 350 kg Harley Davidson with her on the back. That is trust for you! I marvel that I could even hold the thing up, and we rode it for more than 300km through country NSW.

IMG_0092As my cancer seemed to disappear, and I had no evidence of disease, I considered getting another bike. A good friend gifted me his BMW R1100S. He was very generous and it was such a treat. I remember the feeling of being alive as I started to regain confidence on the bike. But I owned this bike for a little more than two months, before it was stolen from our backyard and we never saw it again. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.

IMG_3101And, so, to now. We are living in a beachside town, with awesome scenery and some nice roads. Every Sunday we watch a steady stream of bikes going backwards and forwards on the coastal stretch in front of our house. Earlier this year I test rode a Triumph Bonneville T120. It handled nicely, looked great, and sounded awesome. I took Fiona on the back and we explored some country roads.

But there was a problem—the pain I felt afterwards. Fiona didn’t find it very comfortable either. After a few days of riding, my back was in such pain, my ribs were so sore, and I remember saying to Fiona that I must be getting too old to ride. I needed some physio, but the massages just seemed to make it worse. After a dozen sessions trying to get my back and chest right, nothing seemed to work.

It turns out that the problem wasn’t riding motorbikes, nor this particular bike. It was the recurrence of the lung cancer. Tumours had been slowly regrowing in my left lung, and activities like motorcycling caused the pain to flair up. Now that I’m back on treatment again, my pains have all but gone. And I’ve now purchased a bike and I’m loving riding it. A commute to town has become a joy rather than a chore. Fiona has ridden with me. We’ve done a few winding roads, climbed a couple of mountains, and found a café with a view worth lingering over. We’ve been thoroughly drenched in the rain. We’ve enjoyed the sun and the wind. And we’ve done it together, like we did so long ago.

Is it safe? No, it’s not ‘safe’—but we can be and will be careful. We’ll dress safely, stay alert, and look out for trouble. I would like to do an advanced rider’s course. I will assume that we are invisible and take precautions.

Lately, I’ve been praying when I ride—not just for our safety, but I thank God for life and the feeling of being alive. And I pray for others—for some bikers I’ve met, for some neighbours who’ve lost their wives or husband, for my friends with cancer, for our little church at Salt, for my family, for my friends, for some people who are doing it tough right now.

Harley Davidson - CopyWhat motorcycle did I get? Well, let me say, it runs in the family. My grandfather, Dave McDonald, had a Harley before my father was born. Grandpa and Grandma brought my newborn dad home from the hospital in the sidecar in 1935. What can I say? Perhaps I have another genetic mutation!

IMG_4652Last month, I picked up a Harley Davidson. It’s a little more sophisticated than its forbear. It chugs along pretty well. It’s a cruiser, a bike for old blokes. It’s low to the ground and easy to get on and off. It looks good naked (the bike, not me); and it has saddle bags, a comfy seat for Fiona, and a windshield to clip on for longer trips.

It’s opening new opportunities with people, we are making new friends, and I’m getting opportunities to share the love of Jesus with others. There are a few riders in our church, and there seems to be many bikers in our community. I’ve become friends with a Harley rider who is only alive today because of a lung transplant, who knows what it is to be given new life.

Eric Liddell, from Chariots of Fire, said that when he ran he felt God’s pleasure. I can say something pretty similar. Thank you God for the joy of riding.

It’s not a cure, but it is good

IMG_4661My new targeted chemo regime is now in full swing. So much easier than the previous routine of hospital visits, IV chemo, crash for a week, regroup for two weeks, then do it all again. Now it’s just four tablets with breakfast and four with dinner. Instead of a chair in hospital, I can sit on the deck at home.

This week I had my first CT scan since starting treatment and the results are exciting. The drugs are working, the cancer is shrinking, and life is stabilising. The pain has all but disappeared, the coughing has gone, and my breathing is getting easier. There’s increased fatigue, some aches and pains, my heart has slowed down, and my brain has become a bit muddled at times. Latest blood tests show that I am tolerating the impact on my liver and other organs. The breathing is getting easier and I’m keeping fairly active.

Thank you for your concern, your prayers, and your encouragement. I’m very grateful for God’s kindness in giving me a renewed lease on life. God has put a smile on my face and an increased desire to number my days for his sake. It’s not a cure, but it sure is good.