On Remembrance Sunday 2016 I was standing at the war memorial in Ballynahinch, chatting with another minister before the Remembrance Ceremony about getting ready for the birth of our fourth child, who was due almost a month later. Little did we know, that by the following Sunday the baby would be born and our eldest would be in hospital with a blood cancer diagnosis. I preached one more time – Christmas Day – in Ballynahinch before taking time off to care for my family.
The week after Remembrance Sunday 2017, I preached for the first time in 2017, for Home Mission Sunday. It had been so long, I was surprised at how weak my voice had become. But I was happy to share with the folks on that visit to Seymour Hill that our son was well on the way to recovery after a bone marrow transplant and their prayers were being answered; they brought me into the vestry afterwards and laid hands on me, asking God for the full healing Timothy needed, and for protection from infections and the like over the winter – protection which he received.
One year later, Remembrance Sunday 2018, we had moved to Dromore, dealt with relapse and a second bone marrow transplant, and I was preaching on my first day back with pastoral responsibilities in our new church, hosting the RBL’s Remembrance Service for the town. I thanked people again for their care and their prayer. It stuns me that nobody in our house had a cold over that Winter, especially as close relatives were laid low by a nasty flu. God was protecting us.
On Remembrance Sunday 2019, I preached in Dromore Methodist in the morning, after a year of sharing life with the church family and being thankful for Timothy’s wellbeing. That evening I spoke at Dromore Cathedral during their ‘Wider Act of Remembrance’ service, when people who have been recently bereaved are invited to remember their loved ones and to receive God’s healing presence.
The next morning, we heard that Timothy had relapsed and would be unable to have another bone marrow transplant. “Options are limited, and it’s time to make good memories for your family” was essentially the message being communicated. We were – and are – devastated. But it’s also four months later, and he’s still here, fully engaged in school and in remarkably good health. We’ve got to do some fun things together in that time – a trip to London, the Strictly Tour, VIP guest of Ulster Rugby – as well as walks, parties, a Christmas Tree Festival and normal life with family, friends and church. As time passes we have equal amounts of anxiety and hope for the future.
With all of those Remembrance Day markers, I thought I’d remind myself of what I preached a few months ago at the Cathedral, based on Colossians 1:3–14 [you really should have a wee read of it yourself, it’s good stuff!]… I need to preach the themes to myself today:
- People are praying for you – v3, v9 and later in chapter 4, the folks in Colossae are left in no doubt that they are being prayed for. That’s our experience too; about six hundred people receive our prayer updates (bit.ly/HartePrayer) but when we publicly shared about Timothy’s relapse on Facebook back in November, the link to the message was clicked over 12,000 times! We keep meeting and hearing from people we don’t know, who tell us they (and often their prayer group) are praying for us. When I can’t pray about our situation, it is comforting to know that many, many people are praying on our behalf.
- Grace is there for you – v6 & 14 remind me that the grace of God that leads to forgiveness is there for us all, both to avail of and to dispense. Opinions about many things, including how we should spend time, can be delivered pretty robustly in our house. But even after harsh words are spoken and the occasional door is slammed, the moment eventually comes where ‘sorry’ is whispered and hugs are shared. I am blessed to receive this ministry of grace even when I am the grumpiest of daddies.
- The knowledge of God is for you – Paul and Timothy’s prayer request for their readers is pretty stunning (v9-12), longing that they might grow in fruitfulness and the knowledge of God even in difficult times. Kathryn has already written about ‘keeping the table extended‘ – as a family, we are determined to live as openly as we can, sharing the hope of Jesus while recognising that we’re in a season of receiving kindness more often than we can offer it. But it’s the knowing of God, and knowing God’s wisdom and will, that I really need at the moment. This is a long auld haul, filled with decisions every day about infection-control and school and work and appointments in the calendar. I need to ‘be still and know that God is God’.
It’s good to remember these sermon points again, as I preach them to myself. And reading this passage again reminds me of The Message rendering of a couple of the verses – words which were meaningful to me at the very beginning of this journey:
“We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us.”Colossians 1:11-12 (MSG)
Oh yes, yes, yes.