‘Will you let God disagree with you?’

I’ve been trying to work all day, preparing sessions for a conference on the Fatherhood of God. It’s been tough to keep my mind on my work, however, because this is a topic with which I was thrilled to the depths by a man of God who, several days ago, was suddenly taken from us and into the presence of his Lord, Jesus Christ.

The Revd. Dr. Michael J. Ovey was my principal at Oak Hill theological college, and even since I left college had continued to be a mentor and encourager and teacher and good friend.

As I’ll say below, Mike’s death is a huge loss to so many people. But I need to say at the start that this reflection on him cannot capture the depth of grief, and loss, that his precious family are suffering. His wife and children are hurting, and I could never let it be heard that what the rest of us feel is comparable to that. Theirs is the pain that needs most comfort, and prayer.

I simply want to speak of Mike from the perspective of the rest of us.

I have several things to say , and in Ovey fashion I will help delineate my reflections in numbered points:

1 – I think God got it wrong.

There are a number of reasons why I make this assessment:

1.1 – Mike was a friend and helper to all, regardless of situation or station. I don’t think I have come across someone who held such esteemed honour amongst so many people, who was at the same time breathtakingly kind and interested in the lives of everyone under his care.  If someone was in trouble, Mike would be present and fight for their well-being with all the power he could. Here are a few personal memories:

1.1.1 – Our college time. Life at college, with our disabled, and now deceased daughter, was made as comfortable and manageable as possible because Mike was relentless in making sure we had all we needed. The times I went to Mike, desperate and unable to see a way forward, and yet came away with peace and reassurance, are too many to count.

1.1.2 – Our current situation. Our job, and house, which needed to happen for our daughter’s sake, came about because Mike would not let us be without what we needed for Tilly’s sake, and for the future of our family.

1.1.3 – Our continuing ministry. After Tilly died, I was close to not wanting to carry on. Mike was singularly compassionate and encouraging in helping me draw on the Lord’s strength to keep going in ministry. He said that this was where the Lord had called me, and he (the Lord!) would not let me fail.

God was wrong to take a man of such character and compassion, because so many people owed what they have to him.

1.2 – Mike was a godly, biblical, and brilliant theologian.

1.2.1 – Mike was passionate about the gospel. I mean, really passionate. His exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ in all he did was humbling – he lived out the truth that Christ was of more value than anything else. This was infectious – every lecture, every conversation, made me want to dig deeper into the depths of God, not for the sake of theology, but because of the beauty of God himself, and the knowledge of the Son’s Father as my Father.

1.2.2 – Mike pointed us to the word of God, drew everything out of the word of God. His thinking was informed by all the great traditions of Christian theology, but for him, Scripture alone was his final authority, and his ability to read the text and bring out its treasures was incomparable.

1.2.3 – Mike’s mind was terrifying! I could walk into a thesis supervision meeting, splurge out all the Reformed Scholastics I’d been reading, and Mike would highlight their salient points and bring together an argument without any time to prepare. He was visionary in his analysis of church and culture, his knowledge of doctrine was superlatively expansive; and let’s face it, who else could quote nihilists, communists, cartoon figures and Wodehouse-eque characters to make a point about the freedom of God?

God was wrong, because this theological brilliance is a rare, rare thing in the UK evangelical church, and we need Mike to think deeply and articulate what we need to know.

1.3 – Mike made hundreds, thousands, of churches richer in their knowledge of God and the gospel

As a theological educator, Mike was in his element. Everyone I know from college speaks of how their ministry is what it is only because of the depth of education they received under Mike. His vision to see ministers prepared to proclaim the gospel in cultural situations in 40 years time that we can’t even yet imagine is what led to the world-class, integrated programme at Oak Hill. He wanted deep biblical knowledge and piety combined with all the lessons drawn from history combined with a forensic analysis of culture combined with a glorious vision of the triune God combined with pastoral wisdom combined with a comprehensive biblical worldview, combined with competence in the biblical languages, combined with…and all possible only because of the investment he made in our spiritual formation.

God was wrong, because without this theological education, ministers in the church will not be what they should.

1.4 – Mike was a titan of the church

Mike was a leader who inspired gospel churches to do better, who spurred on faithful ministry across the church as a whole, and who stood for what was right even at great personal cost. He was brave, valiant-for-truth, and unrelenting when it came to the protecting the gospel. And yet, as a servant leader, he also pointed people to Christ rather than himself. At a recent ordination service, as one passing on the baton to the next generation, he said this:

“We want you to be better than us, we want you to be more faithful than us – we want you, spiritually speaking, to tower above us so that the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ stands high in this land and that men and women may know the blessings of eternal life.That is our dream for you, that is our prayer for you, not that you are as we are, but that you are better.”

God was wrong, because the church needs leaders like him as we face an increasingly hostile and uncertain future.

I feel angry, and disappointed, that God got it so wrong.  But…

2   Mike wouldn’t ever let me get away with saying that God was wrong. In fact, one of the things that will always remain with me was his challenge to us as a college – ‘Will you let God disagree with you?’  You know that you’ve got something approaching a big enough view of God only if you are willing to lay aside what you think you know, and let God correct you through his word.

If there are two things Mike would have me know in which God disagrees with me in this situation, it is these:

2.1 – God, as the all-knowing sovereign, never makes mistakes;

2.2 – God, as the unchanging Lord, always intends to keep his promises, and is able to keep them exactly as he intends.

There will be time enough to reflect on Mike’s legacy. But for now, while the loss for all those he befriended and inspired is so raw, and for whom this seems like such an error, we need to ask ourselves, ‘will we let God disagree with us?’

Mike would have us look at the cross, and humble ourselves to whatever correction we need to have made.

A blank canvas? Guest post by Mrs Stead

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
    who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy
who satisfies you with good
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (from Psalm 103)

There are moments that are hard to forget, memories that are hidden yet can resurface or just bubble up when you least expect it. This happens to me often, reminding me of happy times, perhaps even times when I’ve been elated. Then there are the tragic and excruciating memories.. those seem to remain with me right at the surface, never hidden. There are, however, the vivid memories that just sit there, like an old friend, comforting and reassuring, tucked away but certainly not forgotten.

This is the way with one particular memory of a spring walk from where I lived at the time  towards university. I remember the crisp morning air as I paced as quickly as I could to one of my first year nursing lectures. No time to stop for coffee (as much as I would have liked to), I remember wanting to talk to God about everything that was going through my head but struggling to know what to say. I sensed a long term relationship was soon to come to an end, months of nursing placements were still looming, work was mounting up and I was swimming in a sea of the unknown. What was I doing in this city I barely knew? What was going to happen over the next few years? How would I serve the Lord in what He had given me? What if I was making mistakes left right and centre, but simply hadn’t noticed?

I vividly remember deciding there was simply nothing I could do but pray. I prayed the same few sentences all the way along the lane until I reached the lecture theatre. “Lord, you know all things, nothing is missing from your sight. Have your way with me Lord, do whatever you will with my life. It is yours.” I didn’t know what else to pray. But I did know the One to whom I prayed, and He heard my prayer.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;

as far as the east is from the west,

so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

As a father shows compassion to his children,

so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.

For he knows our frame;

he remembers that we are dust.

As for man, his days are like grass;

he flourishes like a flower of the field;

for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,

and its place knows it no more.

(Psalm 103)

So why does this memory bubble up and prod me (in a slightly abrupt way at times) even now, after 12 years? Its hard to say but I guess because it’s a vivid memory of me calling out to God; knowing that although I was literally staring at the blank canvas of my life, I knew the canvas He was looking at was full and complete. Psalm 139:16 says that every one of my days is ordained, written in God’s book before one of them came to be; my life, to me, is like a blank canvas, but my loving heavenly Father had already placed every complex and minute brush stroke in exactly the right detail and for the right time.

God had already painted in my degree in nursing, where I would go on to spend many happy hours in my first post as a surgical nurse. He had sketched my path to meeting the most wonderful, patient, kind and gracious man I could have ever had imagined I would marry, with whom I’ve spent the last 8 wonderful years (and still counting).

There was already the palette of colours woven into intricate and beautiful brush strokes as I fell pregnant with our first child,  Nathaniel, and then with darker hues as we buried him, born asleep, just months later.

The months of anguish as I waited in a hospital bed wondering whether my second child would be born safely.  The elation as I held my baby girl Talitha to my chest and breathed in her deep and intoxicating scent. The hours, days, weeks, months that we spent in her 3 years of life in hospital, as well as at home making so many memories.

No colour, no picture, no priceless piece of art could ever depict the beauty of my little Tilly girl. Her blonde hair and piecing blue eyes that would draw you in to that gentle and soft soul, her brave and determined spirit. The Lord picked all of His most beautiful shades when He painted her into the canvas.

Every single day of her life was planned.

He knew her inmost being.

He carried her home and she is now with Him.

Admist the stormy waves and through the darkest days He brought us the sublime gift of joy, Ava. Her beaming grin lights up each day; even the darkest day can be lifted by that infectious laugh and beautiful smile. She too, woven into the picture and making each stoke into a beautiful landscape.

But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,

and his righteousness to children’s children,

to those who keep his covenant

and remember to do his commandments.

The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,

and his kingdom rules over all.

(Psalm 103)

I saw a blank canvas, I cried to Him, God, do what you will. I saw a blank canvas but He saw every stroke of the brush. Every tear, every smile, every gut wrenching cry, even my little girl’s last breath was held in time, by Him. Nothing missing. All woven, all held by Him, creator and sustainer.

Verses of scripture that I have read through many times of recent months are from Revelation 21:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Those verses make me both leap and weep. Leap for joy as I think of eternity with our glorious God : He will dwell with them. God Himself will be with them as their God. Oh to think of the prize that lays before us, my little girl may have gone before me but the day when we see Him face to face, what a day! Leap for joy. Weep as I think upon the depth of the glorious riches of His grace: He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.. no more tears my Tilly girl. Death shall be no more: For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 6:23. Death has been swallowed up in victory, hallelujah! Neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore.. for the former things have passed away. All will be made new. We are now clothed in His righteousness, and then we will see him in his glory, and all death and mourning shall be no more.. how I long for that day. Until that day we have the promises of God to cling to, His truth to be immersed  in and riches of His grace for which to praise Him.

 

I saw a blank canvas, but God had already painted the picture, and if some of its beauty is lost on me now, that’s only because I don’t yet share the perspective of the Artist. One day, with tearless eyes, I will.

A World Without Downs

I watched the excellent documentary by Sally Phillips on BBC2 about the new screening tests introduced for Down Syndrome, and its implications for the Downs community in the UK. In it, she probes the presuppositions that people have concerning life as someone with Down Syndrome, as well as life for the family as a whole. It’s beautifully made, and sobering to watch.

 

I watch and read lots of things about disability, suffering, the value of life, and indeed how the gospel relates to those things, and I don’t often publicly comment about them. It’d get a bit tired, after all, if the guy whose disabled daughter died only kept commenting on what other people say about disability and suffering. But Phillips’ film was so good, and so important, that I felt like putting a few random thoughts down on paper. Here they are, in no particular order:

 

1 – Sally Phillips is an astonishing journalist. Her ability to cut through to the assumptions of those who advocate greater screening and weren’t troubled by higher terminations was seriously impressive, and she was robust enough not to be intimidated by the credentials of her interview subjects. She should do this more often.

2 – the inability of people to reason ethically whilst trying to maintain a denial of moral certainty is painful to watch. The bloke who had genetically mapped his own son was talking about the basis upon which people make decisions to terminate. He said it was only a matter of opinion that people should have full knowledge of the quality of life with Downs Syndrome – yes, you read that right: he thinks it is only a matter of opinion that having a rounded view of the facts was important before deciding to abort. He even admitted that the use of pre-natal screening to avoid having children with all manner of relatively insignificant characteristics was “pernicious” to him, but was quick to say that this was only his opinion. It was so awkward and incoherent I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. Then I remembered that he was saying that the dispensability or otherwise of another person’s life is determined by opinion. The feeling passed. Boy, do we need better thinking on bioethics than postmodern emotion-driven silliness. Hopefully this film is an important start!

3 – I was saddened to see a GOSH geneticist so hardened to the personal issues that she understood a question about ‘cost’ to be about finance which, clearly in the context, referred to moral consequences.

The geneticists at GOSH were the ones who discovered why Tilly’s life was so complicated, and as a result of their discovery we were able to utilise a drug to give her many months of better quality of life. They are brilliant! But it’s sad to see their work turned to ends that will, inevitably, result in more children having their lives taken away.

4 – George Church, the Harvard geneticist, told Sally Phillips that if she wanted people to stop aborting Downs children, because she believes that their lives and those of their families aren’t actually the desperately sad affair that some believe, then she would need to spread the word that Downs people are valuable members of society. [jaw drops]. Imagine if he’d said that about Mexicans, or women.

5 – I only wish that Sally Phillips had spent more time with the TED speaker exploring the issue that so much more needs to be said than just that Downs people can lead fulfilling lives and make valuable contributions to society. The TED speaker was making the case that *all* lives matter. I liked this crucial contribution – I love hearing about all the phenomenal achievements and enjoyments that Downs people manage all the time, and this is such an important message to get out. And I *know* that Sally has to make the case incrementally – this documentary is breathtaking in its bravery, and cannot fail to have moved people and changed their minds. What a success!

But my heart is still heavy for my little Tilly girl. She didn’t work hard, or achieve. She couldn’t. But (and I know Sally would agree wholeheartedly) Tilly still needed no justification to live. No word should need to be spread. Her right to life was as fixed as anybody’s. And this is what I add, not because Sally lacked this insight, but because she can’t say everything in one short programme: disabled children don’t need to prove what they can give to society; they are themselves the gift.

The measure of maturity that we apply to our culture is not found in the standards it demands for inclusion, but the compassion and energy it shows to the weakest, and most vulnerable who should not even have to fight to be included. What Sally Phillips has done is show that not every scientific advance is progress, and that (to paraphrase someone else) sometimes true progress means stopping short in our tracks, and heading down the road in the opposite direction. Maybe this programme is that first step.

In the light

 

“Turn your eyes upon Jesus

Look full on his wonderful face;

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim

In the light of his glory and grace.”

I read literature recently by some Christians who don’t like this hymn. Such folk think it downplays the goodness of creation, and makes people retreat from the surrounding world. I think their concern is for something important: God made things for us to enjoy, and we shouldn’t pretend to be pious in rejecting God’s good gifts.

However, even ignoring the fact that the people who complain about the hymn’s sentiments are often those for whom the ‘things of earth’ are more easily accessible and enjoyed, that’s really not the point of the words.

They communicate the reality that whilst created things can be enjoyed, they should point us to the Creator. Compared with Him, ‘stuff’ just loses its brilliance and veneer of preciousness. The whole hymn is about death, and everlasting life, and when all else is taken away, if you know and have Jesus then you realise he’s all you need (Tim Keller says that more poetically, but I’ll stick with my way of putting it).

Why bother writing about this? Is it because slightly unbalanced theological reflection is so irritating that it deserves a public scalding? Perhaps.

But, primarily, it’s because tomorrow (21st August) would have been my little Tilly girl’s 4th birthday, and when she died in October, the words of this hymn were the last words she heard; today seemed like a good opportunity to share a little bit about what that night and that hymn have etched into my life. Not because I’m a literary exhibitionist, but because so many people were touched by Tilly’s life that this chapter seemed good to share as well.

…………

If you know us, and our family situation, you’ll know about Tilly’s tumultuous life. Born with an extremely rare genetic mutation, she suffered with an epileptic encephalopathy that produced multiple seizures and disabilities. In and out of Great Ormond Street Hospital, her short life was one of medications, medical procedures, and round-the-clock medical care from me and Abi. You can read more about this in a post from two years ago.

When Tilly was two and a half, the seizures became less of a problem; not because they improved, but because she started having severe bleeding in her lungs, posing a terrifying threat to her life.

Inexplicably, and previously unknown to any doctor anywhere, Tilly’s chest was full of hundreds of arteries that shouldn’t have been there. They connected into all parts of her lungs, and it was inevitable that this vascular pressure would cause bleeding.

Several ICU admissions followed, and the world’s most skilled interventional radiologists performed procedures which involved inserting plugs and glue into those arteries. They worked for a month or so at a time, but then a stray cough or sneeze would bring the blue-lights of emergency services into our lives again, and we’d have another anxious time in ICU, praying that she would be able to extubate and come home.

In September, after another admission and intervention, we were told that the time had come to stop trying to rescue Tilly. She had managed to leave ICU and go to the neurology ward, where we were preparing to go home, and we had a meeting with her consultants and specialist nurses, including the palliative team. Tilly wouldn’t survive another ICU admission; the ventilation would irreparably ruin her ability to breathe.

………….

As time now slows down in this narrative, I want to warn you of what is about to follow. I’m not going into any minute detail, but I am going to give you a glimpse the darkest night.

Maybe it will help you understand us a bit better, and why this pain of losing a child isn’t an event to ‘get through’ but a grim gateway into a new mode of experiencing life.

Maybe it’ll help you face up to some of your own brokenness.

Maybe it will make you realise that the manner in which this world needs putting right transcends the grave.

Maybe it will prompt you to look again upon Jesus’ wonderful face, and just turn down the brightness of your things of earth that are too prominent right now.

Whichever applies to you, please don’t treat lightly what comes next.

…………

Back to that consultation.

We had to make plans for what would happen if Tilly bled again; we would try to stabilise her, but the medical teams wouldn’t intervene, except to make her comfortable. We talked about hospices, hospitals, what drugs we might give her. Abi (a trained nurse) was offered the opportunity to practise administering sub-cutaneous morphine and midazlolam, drugs that would take away the feeling of breathlessness and keep Tilly calm, in the event that things happened at home.

As I began feeling lightheaded and sick at the content of this conversation, one of Tilly’s consultants paused; he had been the first to diagnose and admit her to GOSH, and as he wiped tears from his eyes, he said we should take a moment to recognise just how distressing this was for all concerned. Looking around, we saw all of Tilly’s medical team felt the same. She never met anyone without leaving them affected.

More talk. The plans were put in place, and we left the room, with everyone expressing their fervent desire that the most recent radiology intervention (more glue) would keep Tilly safe for many months.

Two days later, as we were getting ready to bring her home the next day, there was another bleed.

Not as bad as previous ones. And it did stop. Would this now be the pattern? Sporadic events, but manageable and non-life-threatening? It seemed possible. We prayed that it might be.

Those prayers were not answered as we would have wished. More bleeding followed, and family and godparents quickly made their way to GOSH.

…………

We were in a side room on the neurology ward, where Tilly had spent so many months of her life. If we could have chosen the place for her to die, this would have been it. The staff adored her, and had thrown themselves into her care for three years. It was fitting that they would be the ones to manage this final stage, and they made sure that one nurse was completely focussed on us, with no other responsibilities.

The rooms are nice and modern, and a good size. Chairs and stools appeared as Tilly’s loved ones came to spend some final time with her. The blinds over the windows to the corridor were half open, letting in some of the light, but we only had a small lamp on by her bed. Even in spite of all the oxygen and monitoring equipment, it didn’t feel clinical, and we were able to sing, and pray, and cry, as the night and day went on.

I can’t remember when we decided, with the palliative team, to start the medicines. This continuous infusion of drugs would make Tilly sleep and be peaceable, even as her ability to breathe worsened, but it is very much the point of no return; short of a miracle, the reason this decision is made is because there is no hope of recovery. I can’t remember when we decided, but I know that we did, and that we needed to prepare ourselves.

It’s very hard to describe these things without resorting to cliche. Food did indeed turn to ash in our mouths; time passed slowly and at breakneck speed, all at once; faces around us merge in our memories, such that we cannot remember much about that last day.

I do remember barely letting go of Tilly’s hands. I definitely remember holding her, and kissing her, and Abi lying next to her for most of the day and night. I remember our families doing what they always had done, being there and supporting in any and every way they could.

As night fell, Tilly’s breathing became more shallow. We reached midnight, and then we were just alone in the room with her, and then her godparents came in to be with us. The whoosh of the oxygen was the only sound. The monitoring equipment no longer needed to be on. Those numbers would have shown nothing we didn’t know.

I broke the silence by asking one of her godfathers to read 1 Corinthians 15:50-57. It was, in one sense, a jarring sound, to hear about victory over death and imperishability as we saw what seemed to be the very opposite lying in that bed. To the nurse who was stood in the corner of the room, it may have sounded like a taunt, like the most painful gloating and mockery one could dare conceive.

Yet these words were written precisely to be heard in the context of brokenness. And they are a taunt, a mocking cry intended to sneer at a loser; but the loser is death itself! Whether Tilly could make out the words or not, they stated her present and her future with even more accuracy than the painful pronouncement of the doctor which followed less than an hour later.

“For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality…O death, where is your victory?”

…………

Never has there been a mother like Abi. Throughout Tilly’s life, Abi knew everything about our little girl, and fought for whatever she needed, and never missed anything. If Tilly’s life exploded the expectations of all the medical teams, expectations of length and quality and experience, it was because by God’s grace Tilly had a mum who pursued her well-being without fail.

At that moment, Abi knew that Tilly didn’t have much longer, so she started singing a song that she had always sung in Tilly’s ear.

“Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full on his wonderful face.”

Tilly was lying in Abi’s arms on the bed. I’d been holding Tilly’s hands, and I gripped them more firmly at that point.

“And the things of earth will grow strangely dim”

I think I finally understood that line. This life is to be lived, and enjoyed, so far as we can, but there’s a reason that so many biblical writers press upon our attention the transience of our existence. We need a proper perspective, and in the gospel, God kindly lets us have it.

“In the light of his glory and grace.”

How seriously do we take the faith, we who profess to be Christians? Are our perspectives dominated by resurrection realities, or is the hope of new creation just a nice idea that the preacher occasionally throws out? Is the grace, the undeserved favour God has shown us in Christ, the thing that defines our lives, or just a good story to sing about once a week? What’s shining most brightly in our lives?

As Abi finished the final line, I waited a few seconds and began another of Tilly’s favourites, ‘How deep the Father’s love for us.’ I’d seen her smile as we sang this every day, and watched as her heart rate settled upon hearing of the cross of Jesus. I thought it would be a good one to sing next.

I only sang the first few words. The godparents, who had joined in to keep my wavering voice company, went silent a few seconds later.

Tilly had stopped breathing.

…………

During the days that followed, we saw dear friends and family at the hospice where Tilly’s body had been taken. We had to make funeral arrangements, and the choice of sermon text was obvious: Mark 5:41.

This was the text that gave us Tilly’s name, ‘Talitha’. The whole verse reads:

“Taking her by the hand he said to her, ‘Talitha cumi,’ which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise.’”

That Talitha had died, but Jesus gave her life with a simple word. The Lord of life will one day raise his people from death with the tenderness and gentle touch of bringing a child from sleep, and our Tilly will hear those words spoken to her: ‘Talitha cumi.’ For us, without saying anything at all about anyone else’s children, the question of what lies beyond the grave for our lost children is not wishful thinking, but wise theology, captured in an old Reformed statement of faith: Christian parents “ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.” From the wideness of God’s mercy in the covenant of grace, to the way in which Tilly showed great joy as we spoke and sang with her the good news of Jesus, we have enormous comfort that not only is her suffering ended, but she has a greater joy than we have yet known.

But this isn’t a grief-killing medicine; “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” was what the apostle Paul said about his own life, and this captures true Christian existence. The joy of knowing God in Christ is infinite and everlasting, but in this life it co-exists with sorrow. Without wanting to affirm all that the following author says, I still think that Nicholas Wolterstorff captures something of how we feel when he spoke about losing his son:

“Sometimes I think that happiness is over for me. I look at photos of the past and immediately comes the thought: that’s when we were still happy. But I can still laugh, so I guess that isn’t quite it. Perhaps what’s over is happiness as the fundamental tone of my existence. Now sorrow is that. Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea.”

Are we now permanent grumps and kill-joys? I hope not. But the British way of ‘getting on and getting over’ is a frustrating character trait that isn’t biblical. I don’t care how other people have handled their grief. I don’t care if I come across as too serious, or sad.

I watched my daughter stop breathing, and instead of planning a nice present for her birthday tomorrow I ordered a headstone for her grave.

I am grateful for family and friends who know this, and who never make us feel like we need to apologise for our grief. And I am grateful when dear Christian brothers point me in the right direction.

One reminded me, when I commented that it all felt like a nightmare from which I wanted to wake up (I told you that cliches are difficult to avoid), that in once sense, it is. Glory beyond all comparison will one day make this seem light and momentary.

And one of Tilly’s godfathers made a comment that I will never forget (and I stole for her eulogy!). He said that God delights to choose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. Supremely true of the manner of salvation (a bloody cross), but also true of how he works even today. Tilly was weak, weaker in body than most people you’ll ever meet. But God used her, and her life, to bring about good and praise and worship and grace and joy and life-changing-awe to an extent that we are still discovering. (we definitely made good choices of godparents)

…………

We’re not even a year past her death yet. I don’t know what our grief will look like at her next birthday. There’s so much to say even now that hasn’t been said, that can’t be said.

But I do know that on that great day in the future, when God’s people are raised to glory and eternal life, a cemetery in north London will hear my little girl’s voice shout out the words “O death, where is your victory; o death, where is your sting?”

“And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,

In the light of his glory and grace.”

Talitha Christin Shelagh Stead – 21.8.12 – 18.10.15

I’ve not updated this blog since my response to Stephen Fry, back in February. Quite a lot has happened since then. Tilly had several ICU admissions due to massive bleeding in her lungs. It turns out there was an unheard of condition in her chest, which led to a forest of abnormal collateral arteries that filled and surrounded her lungs, and there was practically nothing to be done to stop them bleeding.

She died last week, on 18 October, 2015. Our world has been torn apart. But, because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we know that God is still good.

At her funeral yesterday, Revd. Dr. Mike Ovey, the Principal of the seminary where I trained, read out the eulogy pasted below. I wrote these words in a feeble attempt to offer tribute to my ineffably brilliant little girl. I have had lots of requests to share them, and so I’ve done so here. It’s a public place to share such personal thoughts, but I have no problem with the world (or the 27 people who will read this blog) knowing about my little Tilly girl, and knowing the God with whom she now resides.

Tribute to Tilly

Introduction

I am grateful to Mike for being willing to read this tribute. We knew we’d be barely able to string two words together today in conversation, let alone something like this, and yet we wanted to share our faltering thoughts about Tilly.

Thanks

It is only fitting to thank all who stepped up to help make her life as good as it could be. First and foremost, this must include Great Ormond Street hospital;Tilly’s rare neurological condition, and her unique blood vessel malformation, meant that only the best medical teams in the world could attempt to care for her. So, we thank God for the neurology doctors and our heroic nurses on Koala Ward, the team on ICU, the palliative team, and others. We are also grateful for medical staff at Barnet hospital, and the community nurses and therapists and carers who kept us going at home.

Over the last three years, we have also been at the receiving end of a staggering display of care from Oak Hill college community, the congregation at London City Presbyterian Church, our beloved Grace Church family, our nearest and dearest friends (who are too brilliant for words), and our tirelessly loving families.

If there has been a shred of competence, or consistency, or success in our care for Tilly, it is because we have been surrounded in every corner of our lives with the people sat in this building. We have been carried by friends and family of immense compassion and self-sacrifice. We would be in many, many pieces without you.

Indeed; if, instead of all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, Humpty Dumpty had had our family and friends, then the nursery rhyme would have quite a different ending.

No burden, but joy

It would be easy for the casual onlooker to conclude in light of constant hospitalisation, intense medical care, and profound disability, that there is now release for us.

Well, there is of course relief for Tilly’s sake that the pain of seizures and bleeds has now ceased. But please don’t think we have experienced any kind of burden lifting.

The added needs of Tilly’s life, and rather unusual mode of everyday existence, were not things to resent, and if we ever gave that impression then we were simply careless with our communication. We happily did all that was needed, and would do so ten times over, because caring for this most splendid little person was always our joyful privilege and delight.

No burden has been lifted, because there never was a burden in the first place.

What to say?

And as we now come to speak of her directly, we face two opposite extremes.

On the one hand, we don’t want to give the impression that words are able to capture Tilly. What can be said to convey the bliss of hearing her sigh with contentment as we wrapped our arms around her for a cuddle, or the thrill of seeing her smile when we wiggled her hips, or how much we enjoyed it when she wrinkled up her nose if we kissed her too many times?

But then, on the other hand, we could speak for days about Tilly, and never grow tired of it. We would happily list each and every Tilly moment we experienced, and spend years reliving the memories.

So, with words that are barely adequate, we’ll limit ourselves to sharing just a few of the things that make us thank God for her and her life.

Beauty

First, we were always struck by her beauty; beauty that one could see with a look, and beauty of character that shone through even severe disease.

We know that as her parents, there is the possibility that our assessment is not entirely neutral; however, we take it as uncontroversial and objective fact that no number of clifftop sunsets or works of art could take your breath away quite like Tilly. So many evenings, we would sit and watch her sleep and express our disbelief to one another that we had such a beautiful daughter, whose personality was such a joy to know.

Gentleness and Fun

Secondly, she was gentle and fun. Her cheeky smile, and cheekiness generally, seem to be one of the chief things that everyone remembers. She was so warm, and tactile, and never complained about anything. She enjoyed playing with messy things, and things that felt funny, and would lie contented as she listened to music she liked, and made sure we knew when she didn’t like a song, or had had enough painting time. She loved holding hands, and being cuddled, which was good because they happened to be things we liked too.

Strength

But a word that sums up so much of Tilly’s life, is STRENGTH. She was a fierce little fighter.

She could direct this fierceness towards us, on occasion. If we annoyed her with a nappy change, or caring for her mouth, or doing suction, our Tilly tiger would fight us off with some ease.

But it’s the fight for her life that made everyone else stop and take notice. Confounding medical expectations time and again, Tilly would face challenges through which no one else would have been strong enough to pass, and shrug them off like they were nothing more than a cold. She was, and remains, the strongest and bravest person we’ve ever known.

Having avoided using cliches up to this point, we beg your indulgence for this one now: Tilly’s presence made the world a better place, and the hundreds of messages we’ve received since her death confirm the lasting impact she has had. God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong, the insignificant to humble the proud; and through this seemingly insignificant little girl, he inspired so many people to greater trust, prayer, and worship.

Tears of loss

Due to her additional needs, our daily existence was, and had to be, all about Tilly. She filled every inch of our life. There is no ‘normal’ to which we return in a week or two; there is no mere ‘readjustment’ which needs to take place. Our family is, in one sense, starting anew, and we covet your prayers as we begin to work through the pain and tears.

And we are not sorry for our grief. We lament this fallen world, and the existence of death, and we mourn our little Tilly girl. We take heart from the grief of our Lord Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus. There, the One who gave life to all things, wept with gut-wrenching sorrow in the face of death and bereavement. Tears are therefore not a problem. They belong to our humanity.

And Jesus’ weeping does not tell us of a suffering God; rather, we see in Jesus the love of God which is so fierce in its vehemence that suffering cannot touch it, a love which led the Lord Jesus to take our humanity to himself, and suffer as a man in order to do away with suffering once for all.

Because of Jesus’ tears, our own are vindicated and justified; because of Jesus’ perfect humanity, we are justified through and through before God. Surrounded and bounded by the covenant and promise of grace, Tilly enjoys what all God’s people will know: a joyful forever with the Lord. One day, her once-sightless eyes, which ran with too many tears for such a short life, will open to a world in which tears are no more, and all of our weeping which will last for this dark, dark night will be gone in the light of that spectacular morning.

Tilly, we miss you so much; but only for a while.

An alternative Fry-up

You may well have seen it. Lots of people are sharing it around the web. Some are hailing it as a tour de force of irrefutable statements against the worship of God.

Yes, I’m talking about that video of Stephen Fry giving voice to his objection to God: people suffer. Specifically, children suffer. Therefore, he concludes, God is a monster, an evil and stupid being of such mean-minded and selfish caprice that he deserves no respect.

It’s a rather vehement and crude way of restating a problem that people have been talking about for centuries, with much thought, many tears, and considerable energy. Bizarrely, despite the fact that Fry says nothing new, or particularly creative, this short video seems to represent for many a visionary and powerful support for their disbelief in and/or hatred of God.

So, I’ve decided to offer my own few thoughts on a couple of problems with Stephen Fry’s invective against the divine, and serve a fry-up of my own; like him, I don’t offer any new insights, nor do I claim to put forward a comprehensive and thorough answer. But for Christians who are unsettled, or others who think he’s got a point, I want to prompt some further reflection about just how persuasive this video is, once you get past the rhetoric.

Given his chosen topic of disgust, I think I can at least stand as one who knows by experience, possibly better than Stephen Fry, about the pain of broken life to which he refers, and yet still have a vision of God as utterly compelling and wonderful, worthy of all respect, without whom life simply would not be.

From whence the complaint?

First, given what Stephen Fry believes about life, the universe, and everything, why does he even have a problem? If all that is, is the result of blind chance, an impersonal materialistic universe that just ‘happened’, then what’s the problem of suffering children? What is suffering? Why care? The weak die, the strong survive, the species carries on – the categories of ‘wrong’, or ‘injustice’, or ‘evil’ have no place.

Indeed, to speak in such terms is to assume that there is something which goes beyond us, and our universe, something to which we can appeal in order to be outraged at the way things are. From where does the ‘ought’ come? Why ought it to be the case that children don’t undergo pain, and hardship? In an impersonal universe of chance, where evolution is absolute, and we are nothing more than vibrating atoms, there is no claim to be made that some atoms should vibrate in a pleasing way. To suggest that the category of ‘evil’ can remain as a useful human construct misses the fact that whoever says something in the world is wrong, unjust, or evil, they appeal outside the human sphere of authority, to something (Someone?) transcendent.

Please, please, please note what I am NOT saying – I am NOT suggesting that people who do not believe in God are not good, or loving. I take it as an empirical fact that many who don’t believe do, to an embarrassing degree, far excel the church in charity, generosity, and love. What I am saying is that without God, there is no way of accounting for why we even care.

Any model which excludes the Christian God of love and perfection necessarily excludes the complaint that there is even such a thing as suffering, or injustice. In short – if these things trouble you, you (subconsciously, unwittingly) assume the necessary existence of God in order to make the case that God doesn’t exist.

As a child needs to be lifted onto her father’s lap in order to slap him in the face, Stephen Fry needs God in order to say anything at all about the misery of life.

Making it personal

However, Stephen Fry does not reference the fact that the problem of ‘evil’ is as much a problem for atheism (if not more) than it is for Christianity. He seems quite happy to argue on the basis that there is a God – his objection is simply that in light of the way things are, the God who created everything must be a reprehensible monster.

Fry has zeroed in on the severe suffering of very ill children to accuse God of evil, stupidity, and caprice. This is an emotive topic, one which touches a deep nerve in many people, and which deserves sensitive treatment.

I don’t say what follows in an attempt to claim firmer authority for my reflections on God, and suffering. I think God has enough authority on his own for that.

I simply want make clear that when I dismiss Fry’s allegations as misguided and ill-considered, I am not dismissing the real pain which many people have when they come to this question. As CS Lewis helpfully says through the words of Aslan in The Horse and His Boy, when it comes to the question why God allows suffering, we can only really deal with our own story, and not that of anyone else; abstract discussion has its place, but let’s not forget that we deal with individuals.

As you can read about in elsewhere on this blog, after burying my first child, my wife and I are now full-time carers for our second, our daughter Tilly. Tilly has a neurological disability so rare and severe that only ten cases have been reported worldwide. She has seizures, which shake her two year old body and make her turn blue as she stops breathing; her brain stem malfunctions, and causes a terrible movement disorder that sets her nerves on fire and makes her scream; she can’t swallow, so is fed through a tube into her bowel; she was fed through a tube into her stomach, but her stomach churned up so much that she vomited all the time, and we are now in the process of preparing to have her stomach sewn up; her lack of movement leaves her prone to chest infections, bowel infections, circulatory problems, joint pain, and a deformed spine. Her life expectancy is poor, and her life quality is too complicated to even pin down. Her vast cocktail of medicines can only make a dent.

I have watched her stop breathing more times than I care to count; I have administered aggressive drugs in order to break her out of long seizures, and then clasped oxygen to her face and called for emergency help as those drugs depressed her respiratory drive; I have watched her cough up blood from her raw and damaged stomach, and spent weeks of sleepless nights loitering by her bed with suction in my hand in case she started again.

Caprice? Evil? Selfish and mean-minded? Tempting though it might be to use Tilly’s condition as a reason to fall back on such clichéd captions concerning the God of the Bible, whom I worship, we need to do a little more thinking.


The God of the Bible

One of the most striking things about the Bible is that God seems singularly unembarrassed by the existence of suffering. The Bible doesn’t present it as a good thing, and it certainly doesn’t try and skirt around it. I mean, the songbook of the Bible (the Psalms), words God gave to his people to sing praise, is full of questions, and pain, and heartache, and suffering! The God who is willing to have us sing the bleak despair of Psalm 88 clearly doesn’t want to cover up the reality of life in a fallen world.

What I’m trying to say is that it is good, and right, that I am cut to pieces by grief when I think of Tilly. Like the songwriter who came up with Psalm 73, I look around at people whose children are fine, knowing that I would give everything those parents have given and more, and feel sad that my little girl has to endure such pain. I don’t know the reason.

And actually, that’s ok. Psalm 73 moves from questioning and pain, to the house of God, and the realization that he has a better understanding, and reasoning, and knowledge, than I do. I have the freedom to lament, and the firmness of the promise that ultimately, God is doing something I cannot fathom, but that it is good.

And it is here that we need to take a step back from what Fry has said, and realize where he’s gone wrong. He cannot make up a god to disagree with, and then complain that he is unsatisfactory; he needs to take account of what the God of the Bible has said concerning himself, rather than attacking a straw-god, a god in Fry’s own imagination.

The Christian God is, quite simply, not like us. He is not a bigger version of me. He is other. He is perfect, in ways that we cannot even begin to understand. He is his own goodness, justice, wisdom, and power.

With an arrogance that so sadly characterizes the brilliant and intelligent people of history, Fry assumes that God can have no reasons for the way things are that he, Stephen Fry, has not countenanced. He gives no consideration to the fact that a being wise and powerful enough to create the universe might just have access to factors, ideas, considerations, to moral qualities of love and goodness, that mere human beings cannot begin to comprehend. That He might have ends, and goals, which are beyond our understanding and judgment.

In the video, Fry claims that his atheism not only promotes unbelief in general, but also seeks to question what kind of God God might be, given the state of things. One wonders where his implicit claim to impartiality and authority to do so comes from, but the fact he claims it is obvious. In any event, it is clear that he has already prejudged any answers that might be given – why else is God stupid, evil, capricious, and so on?

His suspicion concerning God’s ability to be all-powerful and all-good is unfounded. He should instead be suspicious of his own ability to comprehend the infinite.

In removing the possibility that God might know more than him, might have a greater love and care, might have a perfect wisdom, Fry has also removed any semblance of the Christian God, and therefore removed the possibility of a real interaction with this question. It’s an effective presentational skill – neglect any real examination of another position, construct your own ‘opponent’ in its place, and then knock it down. Unfortunately, there is very little substance to it.

The Good News

As I mentioned above, I don’t have a philosophical answer that exhausts and resolves the heartache my family endures. I would be suspicious of someone who tried to offer it.

Christianity takes suffering very seriously. Without entering into all of the debates about free will and God’s sovereign control, the Bible is clear that suffering is not God’s moral fault, but ours. Humanity’s rebellion against God means that we are both victims and perpetrators; not that in any given instance, one moment of suffering is proportionate to an individual’s sin. Tilly’s condition is not due to a severe transgression in our lives; she does not suffer in this way because she personally deserves it more than others. Not at all; I speak corporately – humanity’s fall meant the fall and corruption of everything that God had made good.

So, suspicion and anger towards God is wrongly directed. The world suffers under the curse because humanity is in the wrong. We live in a world of injustice and pain precisely because we have walked away from the One who is perfect justice and joy; we suffer ugliness and strife because we have rejected the beautiful God of peace.

God would have been just to leave things as they are. But he did not. The essence of the Christian message about suffering is not philosophical speculation, but an announcement of good news, that God entered this world, in the person of Jesus Christ, taking human nature upon himself and suffering on a Roman cross, suffering the curse that we deserve, so that eternally, we might be free from its pain.

With a weakness that is yet strong enough to move mountains; with a stupidity that is yet wiser than Solomon (or Stephen Fry); with a perfect love so ferocious and pure in its brilliance that the highest act of human charity seems like a broken lamp in comparison, the triune God confounds all human speculation about his good omnipotence with the bloodied wood of Calvary.

We are not entitled to know God’s reasons for what he does, and allows. We may weep, and ache, with the question ‘why?’ We cannot, however, demand God’s justification according to our own standards, and consider him guilty until proven innocent. As a friend remarked concerning this video, it is a great presumption to demand such answers from the one who gives us our very lives.

Instead, we should take our hurt to the cross, and listen to Him who died in the place of sinners, asking a much more painful ‘why?’ The Son, fully willing and loving, hung there and asked “My God, My God, WHY have you forsaken me?”

Every drop of blood, every seizure, every tear, and every heartache we have known as a family, are bound up with that God-man Jesus as he experienced the stupidity and evil of suffering, the wise and just sentence of God, as he died in the place of sinners.

In that ‘why?’ all of our own find their resolution, even though we cannot fully grasp it:

“If we again ask the question: ‘why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’ and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself.” (Tim Keller)

With resurrection hope, we look forward to the day when pain and sadness are no more. Tilly’s suffering is not the final part of her story, nor ours. We aren’t emotionless robots waiting for pie in the sky. By God’s grace, we know that the God who allows our situation is the God who sent his Son to save us, and give us eternal life. And one day, when the tears are gone, and there is nothing but the joy of new creation, we might, just might, start to know by sight what we now grasp by faith – that God is all-good, all-powerful, and if we ever doubt this, or wonder how they fit together, we need look no further than the cross, and have all the answers we need.

Psinging Psalms is good for your psoul…

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs…”

 

(Colossians 3:16)

 

It is one of the commands of Scripture that many Christians no longer obey, and yet the imperative to sing psalms is one of the greatest blessings which the church has in its possession today.

 

The Psalter is a book of songs upon which God has set his seal of approval; no, more, of which he himself is the author.

You want truly Spirit-filled worship? Sing the Psalms.

You want songs in church that are theologically profound, God-centred, edifying, expressive, reverential, and intimate? Sing the Psalms.

You want to hear God speak in the local church? Sing the Psalms.

You want songs that actually reflect the fullness of human experience and capture the realities of God’s steadfast love in a transient and fallen world? Sing the Psalms.

You want songs that resonate with the deepest emotions of the hurt and broken and messed up people that come to church? Sing the Psalms.

You want songs that elevate the name and honour of God as far as finite human language can achieve? Sing the Psalms.

You want songs that will lift the soul and provoke and create the desire to serve God in every area of life? Sing the Psalms.

You want songs that call out for justice for the oppressed, that look to God to remedy the pain and anguish caused by evil? Sing the Psalms.

You want songs that look for the bliss and joy of everlasting life caught up in the perfect felicity of the triune God? Sing the Psalms.

You want songs that are truly gospel-driven and Christ-exalting? Sing the Psalms.

 

I could go on. I frequently do.

 

Sadly, it’s a soap-box that is often gathering dust. Not many people today feel obliged to take the (divinely inspired) apostle Paul at his word, but the church neglects to sing the psalms at its peril. The modern church is something of an historical aberration in the way that the sung Psalms no longer feature at the centre of its corporate worship. We wonder at the base superficiality of Western Christianity all the while considering ourselves, aesthetics, and pragmatism, as greater arbiters than God in deciding what is acceptable worship.

 

Let’s opt for a better way.

 

There are many great resources that can help. For instance, ‘The Book of Psalms for Worship’ is a cheap app that has metrical arrangements of the psalms, together with sheet music and midi-style tunes, that allows you to break out into psalm singing wherever you are with your phone or other smart device. Or the Free Church of Scotland’s Psalter, ‘Sing Psalms’, has words and music for each of the biblical psalms. (feel free to add further, helpful, internet resources in the comments!)

 

My friend Matt Searles has the same passion I do, to recover Spirit-filled-and-authored worship in the local church, and has done far more than I have to help churches in this area. One such way is through the release of several albums of psalm-singing, which I have thoroughly enjoyed. And for the next week or so, he has made one of them FREE to download.

 

Click through to the link. Download. Be inspired by Matt to sing songs inspired by God on your own, in your family, in your church. God’s gifts are good, and the gift of an entire song book can only be for our benefit.