Living through pain.2 and a half years ago I was diagnosed with Psoriatic Arthritis. It is an evil disease that is debilitating and life-shortening. This made sense. As I lied in a bed, unable to walk and in excruciating pain, I thought back over the past 10 years and thought “this is it”. The disease was the reason I had not been able to play sport. It was the reason my toe twisted 6 years prior to the diagnosis, the reason my knees were always swollen and sore. This disease had caused the increasing fatigue I had been experiencing. Now, not only did I feel this pain and distress, I was permanently put on Methotrexate, a Chemotherapy that is pretty rough. I spent a few nights unable to sleep, a mixture of pain and fear keeping me awake. The consultant hadn’t given me much hope for recovery. I went over, and over, dying. How would my kids cope? What about Jo, would she re-marry? I want her to remarry. No I don’t. Yes, I do. As my joints loosened, and the pain went, I saw my knee caps for the first time in many years. I repeatedly visited the consultant, went for constant blood tests, regular steroid injections and regular joint aspirations. I also repeatedly heard the words “great progress” and a sense of hope sparked. And then, after countless “faith” prayers and countless “be healed” moments, someone, in amongst a rambling prayer, uttered the words “Thank you Jesus for interceding for Tom”. Something in me broke. Peace filled my heart. I’ve been in remission for 2 years now. I still take Methotrexate once a week, a toxic drug. My kidneys are stable, yet not functioning fully. It’s not always a nice experience. But according to the Consultant, I am on the minimum dose and it’s working almost miraculously.
RecoveryI thank God, for the healing process of course, but also for the opportunity. I’ve never felt so in love with Jesus. I still carry physical pain with me on a daily basis. My knees hurt, my jaw clicks and aches, my knuckles are tender and my toes sometimes swell. But I’ve found a sense of joy in life that was missing for a long time. Cycling was a huge step forward for me. 3 months post diagnosis I got an e-bike, followed by a road bike. I now enjoy riding with my kids, and also took part in my first “big ride” yesterday. A 65k timed ride with 4 monstrous hills. Another milestone achievement was climbing Bunda in Malawi a few weeks ago (with my children). I enjoy hill climbing, it runs in the family. But the last hill I had climbed was mount Sinai in Egypt on our honeymoon, 2005. It was agony, even back then. While these physical achievements have been big moments in my life, the biggest joy has been found in relationship. Firstly, my relationship with Father God is more intimate and real than ever. On the 65k bike ride, when my muscles felt like they would pop while going up a 300 feet incline at a 13% gradient, he was there cheering me on, and when we got to the top I felt him closer than ever. While climbing up Bunda I saw his creation and marvelled. I am in awe of him, his majesty, and I kneel before him as King. Yet we laughed and cried together through the pain and the achievement. This mixture of awe and intimacy is both majestic and comforting. There’s also the people who, maybe unbeknown to them, went through these tests with me. Uncle Humphreys bounded up Bunda with me and the children, and I’ll forever cherish sitting at the top, on the beacon, eating a pack of mini cheddars together. Then there’s Steve Gregson and Lee Andrew who took part in the 65k with me. Well, really we took part with Lee who finished 30 minutes ahead of us! Steve is a man I so admire, a man of integrity and grit. Cycling such a distance together will be forever something I treasure. In all of this, my family has come to mean so much more. My parents and my sister have shown deep concern and looked to support me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I feel closer to them than before. Just like I know Father God cheers for me, I know they do too. Some of the cycle rides I’ve completed, I’ve completed with my children. The climb up Bunda was also with my children. To be able to support them, encouraging them on, to stand at the top together, and to share the stories of our adventures with others is something I couldn’t have dreamed of 2 and half years ago. Then there’s my wife Jo. While the cycling, and the Bunda climb, were not tasks we completed together, we have approached this as a team. 2 and half years ago she had a husband who needed looking after (I still do!). Someone who’s ability to provide was in doubt. She was unwavering in her support for me. When I suggested cycling, she was my number 1 supporter, convinced I could do it. When I mentioned, rather casually, I want to ride to Bath (something I hope to do in one day on the 29th April) she, as ever, believes I can do it and sets out to support me. She is a rock, and as I came home on Sunday, after completing the 65k ride, it dawned on me how excited I was to see her and share the completion of this ride together. Unlike me, she doesn’t boast. Unless you’ve asked her, you won’t know she got a first for her first year of Midwifery. You won’t know she achieved this while being a mother of 2, supporting a husband who you’ve just been reading about and holding down bank shifts as a screening technician. This illness, and the subsequent physical challenges has brought me closer to Jo. They have revealed to me how great, how deep, how dedicated and how loyal she is.
BlessingAll this has led me to consider blessing. And I’ve really been considering it a lot.
Too often we hear that blessing is material. “Thank you God for blessing me with this car” etc. Too often we believe the lie that material blessing equates to Gods favour. This is a Western, cultural value and one that I believe is separate from the heart and values of God. Too often we hear that healing is somehow linked to our own actions, or possibly the actions of those who pray for us. The rhetoric in our churches is often in danger of dismissing the work of medical professionals. This, in turn, could mean dismissing the work of God himself. Jesus said blessed are those who mourn. BLESSED! Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure of heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted. But the thing that fascinates me most about Jesus’ take on blessing is not who he states as blessed, but WHY or WHAT they are blessed with. This is what real blessings are made of. Other “stuff” are just tools for life, or worse, they are curses. We have an arrogant cultural view of ourselves in the West and it’s one of superiority because we have “easier lives” than other cultures, and we even conclude that God blessed us as such. I’ve been reconsidering this view recently. I’ve been challenging myself to see things from other viewpoints.
So what’s real blessing?Jesus starts with receiving the Kingdom of heaven. Something you can’t receive until you realise you are spiritually bankrupt. Completely corrupted. So many times I’ve heard the phrase “we just need a good person, or a Godly person in office”. I’ve come to believe that we are all corruptible, that our hearts desires are not to be trusted. When we realise this, and instead of trusting ourselves or fellow humans for blessings or for saving, we begin to trust the work of Jesus on the cross – then we are blessed. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
We are blessed when we are comforted. But to truly know comfort, you must experience loss, death. This is a hard lesson. But what a wonderful promise, in the middle of our grief, when all is lost, Jesus promises that we will be comforted. “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Next, Jesus talks about inheriting the earth as a blessing. I’m not claiming to understand this completely, but I do believe he was talking about people who bring their strength under control (meek), and therefore the earth will bless them. As a farmer I can relate to this one. You are blessed when your harvest produces great yields. This is perhaps the most material type blessing Jesus talks about, yet it relates to our work. Blessed with yields at work. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
You know that emptiness we sometimes feel? Or how about extreme anxiety? Or how about those physical lusts? Well you are blessed when you are satisfied, when you are filled up. When those fires that rage inside are quenched. “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
Mercy, seeing God, being called a child of God, and again receiving the Kingdom of Heaven. These are blessings. Fortunately for us, Jesus tells us about attitudes and circumstances that will lead us into these blessings. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Gospel of St. Matthew 5:3-10
For me, this has been one of the biggest questions I’ve faced. I’ve been wrestling with it constantly. It seems almost every Christian preacher and teacher I’ve come across uses the common denominator of materials or physical healing as how God will bless us. It’s a dynamic and life changing shift to see blessing as Jesus does. To see blessing as being part of the Kingdom of heaven, as receiving comfort over loss, as seeing God, being called his children, when our work bears fruit, receiving mercy, and having our internal thirsts satisfied.
I have been blessed by God, and I pray I never forget it