50 not out – thank God!

photo[1]Had my birthday on Sunday. 50 not out! To be honest, late last year I seriously doubted I’d see this day. As the news of cancer hit us like a tsunami… as we sat drawing up my will… as I talked seriously with some of my kids about life without their dad… as I collapsed in the x-ray room, unable to breathe or support my own weight… as I struggled to think about all the things Fiona would need to know… as my whole life seemingly passed before my eyes, with people travelling from everywhere to see me… I didn’t hold a lot of hope of seeing my 50th birthday.

But God has been very kind, and I not only reached my birthday, but I thoroughly enjoyed it! It was cool to be bombarded by facebook messages, emails, cards and greetings from friends all over the world. It was a great joy to share an afternoon in our backyard with a number of our friends. Fiona was awesome, she had gone to so much trouble to give me a special day – and it was! Our church sang Happy Birthday to me and gave me an incredible cake! It was a fun day. 🙂

In fact, this has been a special weekend in other ways as well. Saturday night was the annual Brumbies Presentation Dinner – a black tie affair! I couldn’t remember ever wearing a dinner suit before and I thank the two men who offered me all the bits and pieces I needed. It felt kind of cool to be all dressed up like James Bond for a night, with a pretty girl on my arm! The dinner is a night to celebrate the season and give awards to the best players. Over the years some of the best players I’ve ever seen have taken out the awards. Notably George Smith winning Players’ Player on 9 separate occasions!

awardThe shock of the evening was the announcement that I’d won an award – Best Left Right Out of the Team! No, I was given the Garry Quinlivan Service Award in recognition of service to the Brumbies. It’s an absolute honour to receive this award named after Quinzo. He’s a living legend at the Brumbies, having given his everything in serving the players since the club began. It’s been my privilege to serve as their chaplain for ten seasons. Most of the time my efforts are well hidden, behind the scenes. I don’t do it for money or recognition, but it was lovely to receive this show of appreciation.

Some weeks back I asked Marcus, our lead pastor, if I could preach on this Sunday. “But it’s your birthday”, he said. “What would you want to preach on your birthday for?! You’d better check with Fiona, and your oncologist!” I count it a special gift from God to have been able to preach from the Bible at church on my birthday. I debated whether I should, because I didn’t want to do it for my sake, just because I like preaching. But deep down I wanted to be able to share God’s word with those I love. It’s the greatest gift I had to offer them.

I love teaching God’s word to others and I love sharing in people’s lives, so it was a delight to look at this part of the Bible. 1 Thessalonians 2:8 especially stands out:

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.

These words are an encouragement to me to make a priority of both truth and relationships. It’s hopeless to be a preacher who is doctrinaire and disinterested in people. It’s dangerous to be a people-pleaser who is cavalier with the truth. Genuine knowledge of God shows itself in real love for people. Real love for people will be shaped and guided by the truth. Real love leads to humbly making the truth known to others.

God’s love, revealed in the gift of Jesus Christ, is the truth that keeps me going. It’s a message of hope and life and a future beyond death itself. I know it will seem to some as wishful thinking or religious superstition. But I ask you to give the message about Jesus’ life and death and resurrection your serious consideration. If it’s true, then you have nothing to lose and absolutely everything to gain.

I don’t know how many more birthdays I’m likely to see. I do pray there’ll be many more to come, but the message of Jesus gives me hope beyond birthdays. These words by John Newton express what I believe and where my hope lies:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

Scanxiety

I discovered a new word the other day…

scanxiety
n. the tension which builds particulary amongst those who have or have had cancer as they move towards their regular check up scan, hyperscanxiety being the period as they await results!
Usage: His scanxiety, though suppressed, grew as he awaited his next scan in the certain knowledge that hyperscanxiety would cut in as soon as the scan was over as he awaited the results!

I can relate! Just returned from the hospital following another CT scan. I’m becoming well acquainted with this machine! It’s a couple of months since my last scan and we’re pretty keen to know what’s been going on in the interim. Especially as we’ve backed off the serious chemotherapy in this time.

Scans are my reality check. They provide the best evidence for what’s going on inside. The experts can compare scans to determine whether the tumours are growing, shrinking, spreading, or just staying much the same. Whatever’s going on, they provide objective information on which to base decisions about my treatment. This is so important, because the externals can give a false picture. Having had less chemo and having returned from a couple of weeks in the Queensland sun, people have been saying “You’re looking so well!” Maybe, but this doesn’t mean I’ve been getting better! That remains to be seen.

I’ve experienced my share of anxiety in the face of scans, but overall I think I look forward to them. Not totally sure, but I’m keen to know what we’re dealing with. Even though the scans remind me of the harsh reality that I have cancer, I’d prefer to deal with the facts. I don’t want to be flying blind. And I know that worrying won’t do me any good. I’m not going to get a better outcome by becoming more anxious. If anything, it’ll make things worse.

God’s word provides me with good reasons for not being anxious and a good alternative when anxiety creeps in. Jesus said these words to his followers in the famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (Matthew 6:25-27)

Paul wrote to the church in Philippi:

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

These are excellent reasons not to be overcome by scanxiety or any other form of anxiety. Worrying is a normal response to fear and uncertainty, but it’s what we do with those worries that matters most. We are invited to pray – to share our worries with our Father in heaven. God knows me more precisely than any scan will reveal and he has my life in his loving hands. Rather than placing my hope in CTs and doctors and chemo and special targeted therapies, I will put my hope in God. I will hand my anxieties over to him. I will tell him my wants and desires, and trust him to meet all of my needs. I will ask him to guard my heart and my mind in Christ Jesus.

Carer’s brain

Appears it’s contagious! When Fiona saw my tee shirt, she immediately thought she should get one that read ‘Carer’s Brain’. We couldn’t find one online, so our daughter came to the rescue and made this one for her. I like the shirt, but I prefer what’s in it!

The reality is that the chemo experience isn’t simply for the patient. Chemo impacts the whole family. I’m very thankful for my family, for their patience, love and support. But it takes it’s toll on them too. Fiona has been juggling so many extra things this year, and often has to function as a single parent. She shares the worries and anxieties. She soldiers on through the ups and downs. She also grieves the ‘what could have beens’. This is not the year she had planned!

She might not remember everything, she forgets to finish sentences, she often misplaces items around the house, and she’s always having a fight with the computer… and I love her deeply!

Chemo brain

One of the effects of being treated for cancer is what’s known as ‘chemo brain’. It’s real, not imagined, and some reckon it could impact as many as 50% of chemotherapy patients. These are a few examples of what I’d describe as chemo brain:

  • Forgetting things that I usually have no trouble recalling (memory lapses)
  • Trouble concentrating (having a short attention span or ‘spacing out’)
  • Trouble remembering details like names or dates
  • Trouble multi-tasking (especially when it’s someone else asking me to do something I’m not keen to do)
  • Taking longer to finish things (disorganized, slower thinking and processing)
  • Trouble remembering common words (starting a sentence, but being unable to find the right words to … umm … umm … finish, that’s it!)

Personally, I’ve found it weird and occasionally a little worrying. I’ve usually prided myself in having a good memory and being able to multitask. I enjoy word games and puzzles. Leading a multi-congregational, multi-staff-church has meant being able to keep many balls in the air at once. Teaching and preaching most weeks for over two decades has required me to think quickly on my feet, especially as I only use brief notes. I’m hoping this will be a temporary symptom rather than the new normal!

photo[1]In the meantime I will keep exercising my brain, eat more vegetables (apparently it helps), keep up the crosswords, go for walks in the fresh air, drink coffee (not sure if it helps or not), read good books, use my diary, keep better notes, file things carefully, spend time talking with people, try to increase my physical exercise, make sure I get enough sleep, ask for help when I need it, have a bit of fun with friends and family, blog a little, pray that God will heal me, and try not to let a bit of mental fog here and there bother me too much!

Sorry, what was I talking about again?

It’s a tough gig being a dad

I’ve been challenged recently about the importance of being a good father. To be honest, I’ve been challenged for the past 22 years, but having cancer brings a lot of things into sharp focus. It’s made me see more clearly how often I’ve been consumed by work, rushing from one thing to the next, and not making time for the family. I’ve felt rebuked for taking my children for granted. Having my life expectancy drastically reduced is a big incentive to make the most of every opportunity with my kids.

Over the recent holidays our family watched a movie called Courageous. Friends had recommended it. It’s an inspirational movie, with an explicitly Christian challenge for dads to step up. The funny thing is that as I reflect on Courageous it’s a line from Eminem’s 8 Mile that sticks in my head… You only get one shot! One shot at being a parent per child. You can’t rewind the tape and do it again. In Courageous we see a father lose his little girl and his life being turned inside out. Through this tragedy God challenges him and his mates with the importance of being better dads.

As movies go, this isn’t a bad one. It’s well produced, it’s got a bit of action and humour, and it’s certainly motivational. But it should come with a warning: Explicit Christian themes and parental advisory content! We enjoyed watching it as a family and I think it inspired each of us. By the way, Fiona and I also watched Family Man with Téa Leoni and Nicolas Cage during the holidays. This movie reminded me how hopelessly unromantic I can be as a husband. 😦 Maybe, I should stop watching movies so I can feel good about myself!

The most recent challenge to consider my role as a dad has come about as I’ve prepared to preach at church this weekend. I’ll be opening up 1 Thessalonians 2 with the congregation at Crossroads. It’s not a passage about parenting, but has some big things to say in passing. The Apostle Paul reminds the church in Thessalonica about his attitude towards them and he uses the illustration of being like a father to them. (He also describes himself as a nursing mother, but that’s for another time!) Take a look at his words…

10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

To be honest, if you’d asked me to write my job description as a dad, I’m not sure I’d have focused on these things! The first thing I notice here is the importance of being honest and real. He’s open and transparent before them. They can testify to his words, his actions, his priorities, his values. And he’s not cleverly pretending to be someone he isn’t. God knows his heart. This is not to say that Paul is perfect or self-righteous. He knows intimately the grace and forgiveness of God shown to him in Jesus Christ. Here’s the challenge to be fathers who our kids look up to as examples of integrity.

The second personal challenge is to allow God’s priorities to shape my priorities as a parent. Paul passionately encourages and urges his ‘children’ to take following God seriously. He understands that life is short and that we’re called to live in the light of eternity. This means not being all-consumed with education, careers, hobbies, homes and possessions. There are much more important matters demanding our attention. Interestingly, the father is also described as comforting his children. Life isn’t easy and won’t always go our way. The father is called to deal with his children with tenderness and compassion. This is my calling and I need to take it seriously.

Earlier this week I was having lunch with a friend and we were discussing our experience of being fathers. He shared with me that his kids were now following Jesus Christ as adults. They were making big decisions about their futures based on how they could best serve God. I was encouraged by the legacy that he’d left as a father. Not that he’d got it all right. He also shared with me that his daughter had recently asked him why he’d never taught her to read the Bible! It made him sit up and think.

My desire is to keep becoming a better dad. I want to prioritise my kids and do the best I can by them. It won’t happen unless I make it happen. And it won’t happen without God’s help.

Please God, forgive me for the times that I have been slack as a dad. Forgive me for the times I’ve taken my family for granted. Forgive me for my selfishness and failure to be the father you’ve called me to be.

Please make me a good example to my children. May they look at me and see someone who is seeking humbly to trust you and to serve you. May your word guide my steps. May your priorities and values shape my thoughts and words and actions. May my heart be filled with gratitude to you and overflow in love for others – especially my family.

Where seldom is heard an encouraging word

Olympics-2012Much has been said about the poor performance of our athletes at this year’s Olympics. Much is also being said about the poor performance of our journalists. Much more could also be said about our poor performance as a nation. There’s something ugly in our psyche.

Before our athletes even arrived in London, they were already champions. After all, how many people get to represent their country? When someone misses out on a medal does that make them a failure? Is a silver medal really code for ‘number one loser’? How stupid to push a microphone in an athlete’s face and say ‘you must be so disappointed’. Where’s the applause, the celebration, the encouragement?

Our behaviour as a nation is not something to be applauded. We carry on as though a lack of medals is a personal affront to our dignity as Aussies. What gave us the right to gold medals? To any medals? What exactly have we done? As we sit on the couch, and whinge and moan, how much training have we put in? How did we contribute? What sacrifices did we make?

Sadly, I’ve seen this same attitude on the sidelines watching kids’ sports. The coach who yells abuse at his team. The parents who criticise their children for making mistakes or simply failing to win. I’ve seen the tears in the eyes of the children. Their heads hung low. The lesson we teach is that you’re only worthwhile if you win. And I can only be somebody when you win for me. How wrong is that! How crass! How selfish! How demeaning! How discouraging!

We’re all flawed human beings. We need to own up to our own failures and weaknesses. Once we recognise our own shortcomings we’ll begin to learn to treat others with dignity and grace. A little humility will go a long way.

If I’m going to be honest, then I must confess that I see this same selfish spirit of discouragement in myself. My shortcomings are huge and my failures are many. And yet I can testify to the grace of God towards me. His word to me is one of encouragement. He builds me up rather than cutting me down. The Bible reminds me that God has reached out to me while I was a failure (Romans 3:23-24). Christ died for me while I was a rebel (Romans 5:8). God reconciled me to himself while I was his enemy (Romans 5:10). I’m so grateful to God that I don’t get what I deserve. Grace is an awesome thing. God’s grace is immeasurable.

There is a saying that says “There but for the grace of God go I.” How true it is! Left to my own resources I will mess up, fail, disappoint, and look to lay the blame on others.

Thank you God, that you don’t treat me as I deserve.
Please remind me of your grace. Please fill me with humility. Please enable me to build up rather than tear down. Please make my lips an instrument of blessing and encouragement, rather than discouragement and blame.

Physical inspiration

I’ve just returned from a walk/jog/walk/jog/walk… Week 1 Day 1 of C25K. The plan is to get from the couch to running 5 kilometres. It hurt! The body didn’t have a clue what I was trying to do! My lungs got their biggest workout in 8 months. The muscles were a bit stiff, the joints a bit creaky, and I had to hold my chest so it didn’t bounce around and cause pain! All I did was jog for 60 seconds, walk for 90 seconds, and keep repeating the cycle for 20 minutes. But I felt inspired to look ahead, set a plan, and achieve some fitness goals.

The inspiration came from a few places. Watching the Olympics might have had something to do with it. Marvelling at pensioners surfing on the Sunshine Coast helped. This morning I renewed my driver’s license until 2017 and I don’t want to waste the money! Research is showing that exercise plays an important role in fighting cancer.

… maintaining a healthy weight, getting adequate physical activity, and eating a healthy diet can reduce the chance of recurrence and increase the likelihood of disease-free survival after a diagnosis.

Last night I read about Paul Goebel. He’s my age and in January this year he was diagnosed with the same cancer of the lung. Admittedly, he was starting from a much higher baseline of physical fitness, but I was inspired that on June 23 this year he completed a marathon running at an 8.30 pace! Wow!

But the real inspiration is more personal. I want to be able to contribute to my family, enjoy activity, share with friends, return to work, get out and about. The disease and the treatment have a big impact on my capacity to do things, but I don’t want to give up. God has numbered my days and he calls me to use them for his glory. I have no idea how many days I have, nor does my oncologist, or anyone else. But I want to make the most of whatever days I have.