I recently read a really good secular parenting book. It was practical, insightful and loving. And it got me thinking about grace.
I know loads of fantastic parents who wouldn’t consider themselves Christians, so this is in no way a dig at non-Christian parents. If anything, it’s a dig at myself.
Advice given in this book included (these aren’t direct quotes):
Start each day with a clean slate – no matter how badly yesterday went.
Don’t beat yourself up when you make mistakes – give yourself a break and look ahead, not behind.
Teach the children to be kind to one another, because in this family that’s how we do things.
Family traditions should be kept, no matter how people have behaved.
These are all really important, in my opinion. Great advice. But how do you do this without grace? When you’ve been called names and had things thrown at you, how do you put your child to bed with a goodnight kiss and, “I love you” and start the next morning with, “Good to see you, how are you feeling?” How do you forgive?
And how do you forgive yourself when you realise that they’ve learnt their bad anger from you, or when you snap at them again because you were distracted by something else?
When her brother deliberately ruins the craft she’s been working on for three days, how can I tell her to forgive him and love him anyway?
And how can I hand my daughter a Christmas Eve Krispy Kreme when she’s tantrummed all the way there because no, she will not be getting a Segway for Christmas?*
For all of these predicaments and more, I need the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. When I consider his grace to me, that the Son of God should die for me, an ungrateful sinner, then forgiving others becomes possible.
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32.
When I come to the cross of Christ with my parenting failures, confessing again that I’ve fallen short, again, and that it was completely my own selfish fault, I find sweet forgiveness.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9.
Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:16
And none of this – the forgiving others and the confessing my own sin – would be possible without the Holy Spirit, who changes my heart daily.
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24.
I suppose if you don’t believe in the grace of God and you’re not filled with the Spirit, then you need to summon the strength from within you to forgive your family and yourself. It can help to believe that your children ‘don’t mean it.’ He didn’t know it would make her sad if he did that; she doesn’t know how expensive Segways are. It’s only natural they should fight – all children do. He’s calling me names because he’s upset about something – he doesn’t mean to hurt me.
Sometimes these are the things I tell myself. But that’s not what the Gospel tells me.
The Gospel says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3.23-24.) There is no difference between parent and child. We’re all sinners in need of mercy.
So if you’re reading this and you’re not a believer, I marvel at your ability to parent well. I marvel partly because you’re doing it without a church family to help you, and without the wisdom that the Bible gives us, but mainly because you’re doing it without the daily supply of grace that I desperately need.
To learn more about this grace, try clicking here. Or you could watch this award-winning Christmas video.
*I should say that the examples I’ve used about things children do are not specific to my own children. My daughter has never actually had a tantrum over a Segway! I don’t want to defame them.
September is a bit like January, with all of its good intentions and naïve dreams of being a better version of myself. Over the summer I scheme and daydream and about being more on top of things, and wonder whether this is finally the year we’ll get “the balance right.”
When my children returned to school this term, I felt quite lost for a couple of days. Suddenly the flat was quiet and I had time to do all the things I had been putting off during the holidays. But where to start?
By week two, we’re were off to the proverbial races and we have to remember PE kits, after-school clubs, homework and consent forms. I feel like now that it’s all in full swing, there isn’t much time for quiet reflection. But I have noticed one thing:
I’m still me.
I’m not the slick, imaginary version of myself I’d dared to hope I might be.
As it’s a ‘new year’ I’ve been using some new Bible reading notes, and I’m slowly reading John Chapters 14-16. I keep thinking about these words:
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. 5 ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15)
If you can relate to my emotional ups and downs, here are a few encouragements from Jesus’ words here:
You’re in Christ. If you believe in the Son, and he’s your Lord, then you’re secure in him. This is the same whether your kids are at home, at school, or at the hospital. It’s true when your morning is running smoothly, and it’s true when someone spills the cereal and the cucumber lands in your tea. It’s true at the Seaside in August, and it’s true on the school run in September.
You’re bearing fruit. If you’re in Christ, then he’s making sure you bear fruit. He’s making you more like himself. It’s not just my children who’ll be learning a thing or two this year. Jesus has a curriculum ready for me, too.
If you’re bearing fruit, you’ll be pruned. Jesus’ curriculum for me will at times be painful, because he’s chopping off the selfishness; the pride; the impatience; the harshness; the self-pity; the badness etc. And this is good news! He’s getting rid of it, so I need to get with the programme.
Apart from Him you can do nothing. I don’t need to be slick (there’s no danger of that, so phew!), and I don’t need anyone to think I’m on top of things. I don’t need to depend on a new system or regime for getting out of the door and through the school gate on time and in a state of calm serenity. I need to depend on Him. Seriously, I need to remain in him. Jesus repeats this phrase to emphasise that this is what we need. We must depend on him. We must trust and obey him. I need to take my eyes off my ‘to-do’ list and wish lists, and fix them on Christ.
It’s for the Father’s glory, not mine. “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15v8) When I remember and acknowledge that I’m completely dependant on Christ, I will give the glory to the Father. What’s my goal for this term? Is it to keep a neat hallway? Is it to donate more stuff to the charity shop? Is it to finally teach my daughter the piano? Well, those could be my mini goals, but my ultimate goal must be to glorify my Father in heaven. That is obedience. And let’s face it, that is much, much more worthwhile.
Let’s pray for a fruitful term, to the Father’s glory, knowing that the Gardener will have some pruning to do. (And try not to forget the packed lunches.)
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12.)
I’ve been doing a bit of running. I started with the Couch to 5k app about a year ago, and now I try to go to my local parkrun* when I can. I’m very slow, but it turns out that even if you’re slow, it still counts. It’s better than not running.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to watch a marathon, or any other long distance race. About ten years ago my parents, husband and I went to watch the Great North Run (a half-marathon) because my brother and his wife were running it. It’s such a fantastic day out.
There’s something very moving about watching people run and cheering them on. Many people wear their name on their vest so you can call it out as they run by. We discovered that one of the best things to shout is, “Keep going, [Dave]! You’re looking really good!” It usually made people smile.
We positioned ourselves quite near the end of the race, so some people we saw were really flagging. And of course, what do you do when you see someone who looks half dead? You cheer all the louder! “Come on, keep going! Don’t give up! You can do this! Not much further!”
I think one of the reasons I got so choked up about all of this was that it brought to mind the fact that the Christian life is like a race. Scripture mentions this several times. It’s a race in which everyone who crosses the finish line receives their reward, whether they were elites at the front or power-walkers at the back.
Everyone’s a winner…
… at Nursery Sports Day
Sometimes we go through seasons in our Christian life when we’re flagging. We look like we might not even finish. Sometimes this happens because of big life events, like the birth of our first child, or an illness in the family, or the death of a loved one. Sometimes it’s caused by other factors. But at those times, we need encouragement to keep going. We need our friends to cheer us on and remind us why we’re in this race and what the prize is at the end.
At my local parkrun on Saturday, there was a group who all knew each other from a running club. Some of them finished fifteen or twenty minutes after others. But the last ones to finish got the biggest cheer, because in some ways it’s more magnificent when someone who’s struggled more crosses the line.
Think of your friends who have struggled in this Christian race. The ones who need reminding to come to Bible study, or who need persuading to come to church. The ones who you’ve spent so much time with explaining the simple gospel over and over again, because that’s what they’ve needed. The ones who you weren’t sure were going to finish. How overjoyed will you be to see them cross the finish line! When you see them in the new creation, won’t you be thrilled that they made it? And won’t they be thrilled that you didn’t stop cheering them on?
To God be the glory – it’s by His grace we’re saved and begin the race, and by His grace we make it to the Finish. However, we do also have a responsibility to make it to the finish line, and to help our brothers and sisters to get there, too. Paul tells us, “Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever.” It won’t be easy, but the prize is disproportionately rewarding.
Thinking of his death, Paul wrote: 6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
I want to be able to say that at the end: that I’ve kept fighting; kept running; kept believing. I want to receive that crown, so that I can cast it down before Him, lost in wonder, love and praise.
Let’s not get distracted or held back, by babies or wealth or sin. Let’s remember that we’re not running aimlessly, but we’re heading for a goal. Let’s remember that we’re in this race together, and we don’t want anyone to give up.
To humans belong the plans of the heart,
but from the Lord comes the proper answer of the tongue.
All a person’s ways seem pure to them,
but motives are weighed by the Lord.
Commit to the Lord whatever you do,
and he will establish your plans…
In their hearts humans plan their course,
but the Lord establishes their steps.
It snowed here. If you live in the U.K., you’ll have experienced snow this week. If you live somewhere else, you’ve probably seen it on the international news. I love snow, and living in central London we usually get short-changed on the snow. I’d have liked more. They cancelled the parkrun in Fulham, but that’s the only difference it really made to me. My brother, however, lives in Glasgow which has ground to a halt. Only Morisson’s soldiered on. The shelves soon emptied.
I know this chaos is the cause of much amusement for Scandinavians and Canadians and any other nation who has enough snow ploughs. But the truth is, we’re ill-equipped and so the snow does make things rather unusual. And it’s no laughing matter for people stranded in their cars on a motorway in Scotland.
Besides any actual risk to life, though, I actually like the chaos. Usually I love order (quite an affliction for a mother of four), but when all plans have to be changed because of the weather, it’s a wonderful reminder of one truth we usually ignore: we mere mortals are not in control.
We think we can control everything: what’s on TV, what food we eat, what school our children go to, where we live, how healthy we are, how many children we have, how long our journey will be, how successful we are etc. You only have to look at how stressed people get when they lose control of one of these things, to see how much we love control. In about 6 weeks’ time parents in England will find out which primary school their children have got into, and the news headlines will show outrage and panic as parents lament over their school place, despite having moved house and gone to church for 3 years just to get into St Juniper’s because it’s Outstanding. We do not like being reminded that we’re not in control. We do not like being reminded that we’re not God.
Don’t get me wrong, I find this challenging. There are plenty of things I try to control, and I get irrationally upset when I can’t. Sometimes the things we want to control are good things, like wanting our children to follow Jesus. Or even just wanting this meal to be a blessing and taste good. But my loving Heavenly Father does like to remind me that I’m not in control. He’s teaching me to trust him, to hold my hands up and say, “You’re in charge, and that’s a good thing!”
If it’s a blessing to be reminded that God is the one in control, then this is certainly a major bonus of parenting. If anyone can ruin your plans, it’s a wilful child. Sometimes through no decision of their own, but often deliberately, they don’t fit into my neat plan. Before you have children, you can plan how many motorway stops you’re going to have on a long journey. You’d never dream of a toilet break 15 minutes before reaching your destination.
I remember trying to go out and meet Mike one day when I was about 37 weeks pregnant with number 2, and number 1 was 18 months old. I physically couldn’t get her into the pushchair, partly hindered of course by my enormous mass. I had to phone him and say I didn’t think I could go out. That was a low point. Plans thwarted by a very small, tantrumy toddler.
We might plan our career out and then find that our child needs more care than we’d expected. We might plan where to live and then discover we’re expecting twins. We might look forward to cycling holidays and then discover our child refuses to learn to balance on two wheels. Or their obsession with dinosaurs means that museum trips will be more enjoyable. We hoped they’d come to watch football with us and it turns out they don’t like crowds, or football, or Middlesbrough FC.
Im so grateful that in the major, life changing things and in the small irritating things of life, The Lord not only sees it coming but has planned it all out from the very beginning. He is truly awesome.
Last week I introduced you to Anna, whose daughter Jemima has Cystic Fibrosis. Here she shares Part Two of her journey as a mother. Thank you again, Anna, for your honesty.
I’ve been deeply humbled and encouraged by the response to the first post I wrote for Cat’s blog. It cost me to pull myself back into those black and white days but I’ve been amply repaid by the kind words I’ve received and in knowing that I’ve not been alone in these feelings.
Two and a half years on and life looks very different. Jemima is a fully fledged little person, desperate to communicate from the moment she formed her first ‘oooh’ sound, determinedly social, a blur of life and energy. She plays hard, sleeps soundly and is chomping at the bit to start nursery in the spring. We do weekly tennis, gymnastics, trampolining and music classes, as well as a monthly running club and swimming whenever we can. We do library visits, craft sessions, playdates and lots of park trips. She loves her stuffed cats (including an eccentrically named feline called Cupompom: like cucumber + pompom), role playing with Duplo characters and bouncing on her 4 foot trampoline with her stuffed frog. Her favourite books are currently ‘Zog and the Flying Doctors’, ‘P is for Potty’ and ‘Toad Makes a Road’. Her favourite colour is green and her favourite foods are bear paws and smoked salmon. Her eyes are light blue, her hair is honey coloured and she has a double crown. She has enormous tantrums which she recovers from by lying on the sofa with her dummy and blanket. She twiddles her hair to fall asleep. She is both a very ordinary and a very extraordinary girl.
The process of coming up for air after Jemima’s diagnosis has been long and hard. People sometimes comment on how time has flown. For me, it has involved the longest nights I’ve ever known: nights I spent expressing milk and watching dawn break over the city while a newborn Jemima slept on the ward. Our life before her seems so remote. We have been extremely blessed that her health has allowed us some respite to adjust to our new life, our new world. We have not had multiple hospital admissions up to this point; many children have. My heart and all my respect goes out to the parents of these children. Our one admission for viral bronchiolitis (unrelated to CF) sent me spinning back down into the dark again.
As my dad often reminds me, it costs us more to take care of Jemima. It takes time and energy to administer daily medicines, inhalers and physiotherapy. It takes creativity to think up games that make these things fun or at least acceptable for a toddler. It takes energy to chase her around, bounce with her and have tickle fights to help her clear her chest. It takes patience to squeeze apple puree onto a spoon and sprinkle on Creon around 20 times a day. It takes time to make sure that the house is clean, to help protect her lungs from bacteria and dust. It costs us financially to buy the high calorie food that her body needs. It costs us emotionally to hold her for blood tests and cough swabs and to explain to her why she can’t gather armfuls of rotting leaves like the other children because it could make her poorly. It costs us socially to avoid people with coughs and colds. Chronic anxiety wears my patience with her and with Jonathan. As much as it costs us, it costs some parents much more to care for children with more severe or complex conditions. But as my dad also reminds me, the rewards are great. I am amazed every day by Jemima’s resilience. Despite having more to complain about than some, she is not a complainer. She’s physically tough. She’s emotionally mature. She does her treatments and takes her medicines (mostly) without complaint. She’s not afraid of medical professionals or of clinic visits. If she has a procedure she dislikes (cough swabs are currently the enemy) she cries but gets over it. She’s bright, optimistic and curious. She’s agile and physically fit. To her, life is full of people to play with and parks to play in.
This sends me back to my original question and one that I’m never far from: how do I know that God is good? People often say that God is good in response to good things that happen to us. But to me there is a big difference between saying that God is good in response to our circumstances and saying that God is good irrespective of what happens to us. The logic is fairly simple: if the goodness of God is a consequence of our circumstances we must assume, if circumstances go awry, that God is not good. If God’s goodness is validated by our circumstances, we must assume, if circumstances go awry, that he’s either displeased with us, that we’ve strayed from his ‘path of blessing’ or that our circumstances are beyond his control. None of these options are comforting. I know that God is good not because I feel that it’s true but because I believe it is so. Fossilised somewhere in my memory are the words of the Psalm we used to recite at church when I was a child:
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations. (Psalm 100:5)
I wouldn’t say that this feels ‘comforting’ exactly but I do believe that it is true. The knowledge that God is good, irrespective of what happens in my little life, is both liberating and terrifying. In many ways I would prefer a clearer cut and more directly applicable system: that God would bless me and keep my daughter well and by this, show his goodness. But I know in my gut that the truth lies with Job, a man who suffered and who wrestled with these questions. Job asks:
Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble? (Job 2:10)
Job did everything ‘right’ yet he lost everything he had. His friends told him to shape up or ship out but still he persevered in believing that he wasn’t being punished for his sins. And he was right.
Fast forward a few thousand years and the question remains: if God is good regardless of my circumstances, how can I know that he cares? I go back to the words of John:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. (1 John 3:16)
These are hard truths. They challenge the very basis of my faith. They are hard because, as my pastor says, suffering has become personal. But there is great relief in knowing that the fact that my daughter has a genetic disease is not a sign of God’s displeasure with me or with her. He is still good. He sent a saviour in Jesus, his precious only son. The fact that Jemima has been very healthy so far is an indescribable blessing but it’s not the reason that I know that he is good. It’s taken the words of the Bible and the words of some wise people who have suffered more than I have to bring me to this conclusion. It has taken its toll on me and has left a wound which – although I know it will never heal this side of the veil – contains deep and precious truth.
I believe that God is good because he says he is and because he sent Jesus to bring ultimate healing for the sufferings of the whole world. Genetic diseases should not be passed on through generations. Babies should not be stillborn. Children should not have to make bucket lists. Add to this a million other painful tragedies and injustices. God cares, he is good and in the end he will bring about restoration:
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21:4)
This is the end of the story and it’s one that I long for exponentially more than I did before I had Jemima. As for our story, I don’t know how it will play out. There are now medicines that aim at fixing the faulty gene that causes CF on a molecular level. There are also other tragedies, unrelated to CF, that we’re not guaranteed to be spared from. I want Jemima to live a long, full and joyful life. I want her to know Jesus. I want to protect her from suffering. The knowledge that I can’t protect her from life’s blows has been brought home sooner for us.
I am still angry. As the Hulk says in the film ‘Avengers Assemble’: “I’m always angry.” But I am also grateful. As much as it costs us to take care of Jemima, our victories are all the sweeter. Someone has likened living through a CF diagnosis to climbing a mountain of slick sh*t with a breathtaking view. I don’t take any of Jemima’s milestones for granted. Her first swim and her first stomp through the snow were deeply emotional and exhilarating for me. Every night that I go into her room and see her sleeping peacefully brings intense thankfulness that we’re not in hospital; that I can enjoy a glass of wine and sleep in my own bed instead of on the hospital floor amidst the bleeping of machines and slamming of doors. (Those of you who’ve been there will know all too well what I mean.) Every morning when she calls me into her room at 6am because “Mr Golden Sun is awake!” is tinged with relief and thankfulness. The breath in all of our lungs is a gift. Life is a gift in all of its fragility.
Anna is an old friend of mine, and we are really honoured that she’s made the time to write this piece. It’s longer than my usual blog posts, but I’m sure you’ll see that it’s more than worth it. Thank you, Anna, for your honesty and for sharing part of your story with us.
Part One: The First Year
Nine months after my daughter Jemima was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, Cat asked me if I would write a post about ‘how the Lord had helped me.’ My initial reaction was one of anger; our world had been shattered and how God fitted into this turn of events was beyond my comprehension. The assumption that God would necessarily be helping us as a family when, as I saw it, he’d not only ‘given’ my daughter a genetic disease but had abandoned me to deal with it in confusion and fear, made me feel all the more lonely and lost. Now, almost two years later and out of the fog of the initial diagnosis, I do have some thoughts to share. It has been and still is a steep learning curve and I am always in transition: one day full of energy and plans and another full of anxiety and fear. Life is unpredictable and my emotions are messy and non-linear. So, more accurately, here are some thoughts from me, today, about the first year of Jemima’s life, on a cloudless Sunday morning.
Jemima was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (CF), a genetic condition that affects the lungs and the digestive system, at 10 days old via the heel prick test. We were already in hospital awaiting surgery for a bowel blockage so we knew something wasn’t right. I’d had a relatively eventful pregnancy with extra scans to monitor my gestational diabetes and Jemima’s bowel anomaly – which had been flagged up in my third trimester. Miraculously, she didn’t need surgery and we arrived home armed with medicines, instructions for how to give chest physiotherapy and advice as to how to ‘keep her healthy.’ We were to avoid people with colds and coughs, as children with CF are more susceptible to chest infections, and to avoid other people with CF, due to the risk of passing bugs between them. We were also told, paradoxically, that it was a ‘good time to be diagnosed with CF’ as advancements in medicines to treat the condition were coming thick and fast. And on top of that, we were to ‘treat her like a normal child.’
How can I describe everything that I was feeling? I can only approach it with metaphors. The world, previously benign or even beautiful, became sinister, dangerous and unpredictable. I felt wrenched from the life I’d always known and roughly deposited into a parallel universe of medical terminology and unknown threat to my tiny, precious daughter, who had dropped to under 6lb during her admission. The feeling of being scared to hold her – when she was in hospital and covered in wires and IVs – persisted when we arrived home. Every noise she made terrified me; any delayed bowel movement sent me spinning into panic. But at the same time, she was so unspeakably beautiful, so tiny and so perfect. Intense loneliness, grief and overwhelmingly, anger, characterised the first few months.
I had no idea where God was at this time or what he was doing. I felt utterly abandoned, even cursed by him. Sometimes well-meaning friends would share Bible verses with me which, if I’m honest, mainly served to make me more confused and angry. I felt as if I was in free fall, grasping for someone or something to hold onto. More painful still was that everything I’d thought about the character of God seemed to be shaken. In those times, it was the friends who would just listen to me who helped the most, and who prayed for me when all I wanted to do was scream and rage at God. Behind this white hot anger was the death of my belief that God’s goodness is demonstrated in blessings to us, here and now. Although theologically speaking I could have picked this apart, I still felt that my pregnancy was a blessing and a sign that God was ‘pleased’ with me. To learn that I carried a genetic defect that I had unwittingly passed on to my daughter (there was a ¼ chance that she would have CF – though we didn’t know this before becoming pregnant) was a blow. To discover that having another sibling with CF could put them both at risk of swapping bacterial infections, was heavier still. If God was trying to ‘teach’ me something – as is often talked about in Christian thinking – it wasn’t only ‘not worth it,’ it was downright perverse and sadistic. In hindsight, this was part of the inevitable flow of the grief cycle. I needed to ride out the rawest parts before coming to any conclusions about what life would look like for us and how my view of God had changed. Shock and trauma erased a good part of those early months and I see them now as if watching an old film, about someone else.
After about four months I suddenly felt as if I’d burst up from under the surface of the water. I started to look around me a little. It was Autumn and I remember noticing that the trees were bare apart from a few tiny yellow leaves and of having no recollection of them falling. I remember looking at Jemima, as if for the first time, and wondering who she was and who she would be. But the world was still in black and white, two-dimensional. I was afraid to keep the curtains open after dark. Christmas passed and Jemima remained well. She had gained weight wonderfully and I started to wonder if she really did have CF, as they said she did. I started to wonder if God had chosen to bless her by healing her miraculously, proving the doctors wrong. Denial and hope were given a rude awakening in the results of her ‘sweat test’ (the ‘gold standard’ for confirming a CF diagnosis) showed that, without a doubt, she did have CF. In the meantime, other people had ‘healthy’ babies, and I struggled to piece together my idea of a God who would bless others and not me; who would bless other children but not my daughter. I immersed myself in research about CF but the more I read, the more slippery the ground seemed. There were no concrete predictors of what life would look like for us and how this ‘invisible condition’ would affect her. I became addicted to trying to find the answers, trying to plug the leaks in my fractured world.
Then, I was persuaded to read a book called ‘The Life You Never Expected’ by Andrew and Rachel Wilson. For the first time, I felt that I wasn’t alone in feeling abandoned by God and in struggling to understand why this was happening to us. They articulate a response to suffering that did my heart good: that it is healthy to simply grieve when hit by one of life’s blows. It gave me permission to grieve, doubt and rage, and so begin the healing process:
“Many of us, fuelled by fears, doubts or insecurities, want to rush in with questions (‘how could God let this happen to us?’), answers (‘this must be happening because of this’), advice (‘we/you should start doing that’) or just plain silly comments (‘it will be alright’) …But there’s a place for just wailing about it, like Jesus did when his friend died, and like the psalmists seemed to do all the time.”
At the heart of the matter, my assumption that God was good, or at least of what good looked like, had been dissolved. What C.S. Lewis wrote in his Narnia series about the God-figure Aslan: that he’s not safe but that he is good, rang true. I didn’t feel that God was safe. Trusting a God who could allow my daughter to inherit a chronic genetic condition felt like a risky option. And if this was what good looked like, I wasn’t sure I wanted this sort of good God. Yet, where else could I go? The internet had failed me. Medical knowledge had failed me. Doctors, as I discovered to my horror, were not fonts of all wisdom and healing, but flawed humans with extra knowledge and experience, infinitely more qualified to treat my daughter than I am, but not infallible. Even they couldn’t tell me how the disease would manifest itself in Jemima’s body, much as I quizzed them about it.
It opened up the larger problem of suffering in general. Before having Jemima, my eyes were largely averted from the pain and difficulty around me; it was easier and safer to ignore it. Now, I can’t walk the corridors of our local children’s hospital without being forcibly reminded of is. I can’t see the toddler whose little hat speaks of ongoing cancer treatment or the child with the tracheotomy and nasal gastric tube without knowing something of the reality of this ‘new world’ of suffering. Amongst my acquaintance, this picture of suffering gathers pace; the little girl who dies suddenly of a rare genetic condition; the baby undergoing invasive tests to determine what is going wrong in her little body. As I once heard Don Carson say: “sooner or later, life will kick you in the teeth.” Suffering isn’t a matter of if but of when and how. I have gone through my entire life assuming that it’ll probably never happen, but when Jemima became the of 1 in 2,500 babies born with CF, this idea didn’t hold water.
As much as I resent being admitted into this new reality, I do believe it’s fundamentally the most accurate view of life. There’s nothing like being given a ‘life expectancy’ for your newborn to make you question all the notions you’ve been living by. Yet the reality is that life itself is terminal. It makes the idea of ‘life expectancy’ somewhat meaningless as, even if you don’t have a diagnosed health condition, an aggressive cancer could snuff you out, as it did one of our lovely CF nurses, between two of our bimonthly clinic appointments. And even if this doesn’t happen, death is bizarrely the only absolute certainty in life. As the apostle Paul writes in the book of Romans: “outwardly we are fading away.” As the artist Sufjan Stevens sings in ‘Fourth of July’: “we’re all gonna die.”
In the emotional chaos of the first year, I found C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Screwtape Letters’ helpful in articulating this alternative view of the world. It is a fictional series of letters from Screwtape, a senior devil, to Woodwood, a junior devil, advising him about how to tempt his ‘victim’ during a time of suffering. Here, the Enemy is God. This passage chimed with my experience of suffering in early months of Jemima’s diagnosis. I didn’t feel that God was there and I didn’t know what he was doing, but I know that he must have been there or I wouldn’t be writing this now:
“Of course, at the precise moment of terror, bereavement, or physical pain, you may catch your man when his reason is temporarily suspended. But even then, if he applies to Enemy headquarters, I have found that the post is nearly always defended.”
But it was such a significant event that I don’t want to be silent about it. I’ve tried to organise my thoughts for you, but I’m very aware of my limitations, so please forgive me that this brief reflection will be inadequate. I’m hoping that the links I’ve added might be helpful too.
This is hard, because my overwhelming feeling about the tragedy is sadness. And sadness alone doesn’t make for a good read. I live in the same Borough (area of London) as Grenfell, and I live on an estate with seven tower blocks. Does this make the horror and pain of it more real to me? Maybe. I do think that being local makes it feel more real – it’s affected people I know. I’ve seen the tower in real life, and it’s much more chilling than it looks on the telly. And because it’s more real, it’s harder to accept and move on from. Nor do we want to accept it and move on.
The big headline for me about this whole thing has been this: Terrible Things Happen. We might say we believe that, but in this society I don’t think we really do believe it. If, like me, you had a happy childhood and grew up in a safe and healthy place, you may live day to day thinking that the worst thing just won’t happen. We’re able to go through life thinking this because, on the whole, the worst things don’t happen to us. When tragic things do happen, we consider them to be breaks from the norm. However, do we know how unusual that is?
Less than eighty years ago our country was living through a period of sorrow, loss, want and fear that my generation of Brits cannot even imagine. And even leaving war out of it, medical advances and social reform mean that most of us are living with levels of safety, comfort and good health that our ancestors wouldn’t have dared dream of. So most of us can go through life enjoying ourselves, overcoming challenges and ticking off our bucket lists, feeling pretty confident that one day, when we’re really old, we’ll die peacefully in our sleep.
But in other countries across the world (and of course for many people in the UK), life isn’t like that. They wouldn’t need to be told that Terrible Things Happen, because they’ve always known that. And now, for many people in my local area (and those across the country who’ve been engaging with the news), this concept that Terrible Things Happen has for the first time become a horrifying reality. This is a dangerous, broken world. There is good in this world (as we’ve clearly seen in the amazing response to this tragedy) but there is also pain, horror and death.
Some people might say that if a whole tower block of people can go up in flames, then there can’t be a good God in charge of this world. I might be thinking that myself if I’d lost my children in a burning building. A post I wrote a while ago, This I Know, seems appropriate at this point. But I also want to share three thoughts about this with you:
Grenfell is the worst kind of reminder of the value of human life. Staring up at the burnt out shell which represents so many families, and so many deaths, we feel overwhelmed by the tragedy of it. But if there is no creator God, it’s hard to say why we feel that people are valuable – more valuable than other creatures. And if people aren’t special, because they’re not made in God’s image, then we have no logical reason to mourn them. If love is just caused by some chemicals in our brain making us want to reproduce, then the loss of Grenfell is meaningless. Whether we live in a towerblock, a country mansion or a beach hut, I’m sure we all believe this was a tragedy, but can you explain why you feel that way?
Deep in our hearts, we all want justice. If there is no God, then there will be no justice for Grenfell. People might go to prison because of cladding, or building regulations, or council funding. I doubt it, but they might – we’ll see. But nobody deliberately killed all of those people. At worst it was neglect, which is terrible, but it’s not murder. Even if the blame could be given to one person or a small group of people, they could never be punished enough to make all of this right again. So many deaths, so many lives ruined. We feel deep down that there shouldn’t be such inequality and that the poor shouldn’t be neglected. I’m thankful that God has made us to feel that way and that somehow, God will one day bring about justice once and for all.
If Terrible Things Happen and death is real, then it matters what will happen after we die. The trouble with living a happy, safe and healthy life is that we can pretend we’re not going to die. Friends, how confident are you that you know what will happen after you die? And what reason do you have for that confidence?
As Christians, we have a King who went through horror for us, who experienced the worst injustice for us, and who did all of that so that we could go to a place where there will be no brokenness, no mourning and no pain. This world isn’t how it was made to be, and that’s why we’re so sad about the things going on in it. But there is hope in Jesus, hope for a perfect world – a world of safety, justice and joy. And this hope in Jesus is on offer to everyone – whether you live in a tower block or a Kensington mansion.
Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless. Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, ‘He won’t call me to account’? But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand. The victims commit themselves to you; you are the helper of the fatherless… You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror. Psalm 10.12-14;17-18.