A couple of weekends ago my parents came up to visit us. We had a cup of tea at our house, and then walked up to Oak Hill – which involves going up a relatively steep hill. My Mum struggled with this – she began to get quite breathless and had to make the return journey by car.
Anyway, we had dinner, and they returned home that evening. The following evening she had pains in her chest, and early on the Monday morning they went to A&E at the hospital. I’ll cut a long story short here, but it turns out that she has a rare form of lung cancer (by ‘rare’, I mean less than 10% of people who have lung cancer have this particular type.) They were originally warned that it was potentially untreatable, and that she may well only have a few weeks to live.
However, to our relief, it turns out that although the cancer is inoperable – apparently this particular type is rarely detected before it’s spread – it is treatable. It’s not linked to smoking (Mum has never smoked), she was just unlucky. We found out last week that the cancer should be treatable by chemo- or radiotherapy, and we found out yesterday what form that would take. It should start next week, which is positive anyway.
I have to say, all of this has been a bit of a shock to the system! Even though cancer is such a prevalent thing, you just don’t expect it to happen to you. (My aunt died of cancer a few years ago, but she was a heavy smoker and when it happened I don’t think it was unexpected).
All of this happening right now, while I’m a theology student, makes you question what you believe. Not question in a ‘is it true?’ kind of a way, but ‘do I really believe it?’ C.S. Lewis wrote in ‘A Grief Observed’ that you never know you’re building a house of cards until they get knocked down and you have to start building again. He was talking about faith: it’s all well and good to say, “I believe and trust in God” when things are going well – but when trouble happens, as it inevitably will, you’ll find out whether you really believe, or whether you were just saying it.
In some ways I think I’ve actually been surprised by just how much of a support a faith like that can actually be. I’ve been reflecting on the words of the hymn ‘How Firm a Foundation‘. I apologise for quoting the whole hymn, but it’s worth it!
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
to you that for refuge to Jesus have fled?
Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed!
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
that soul, though all hell shall endeavour to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.
It’s times like this which make us realise that the advice we can so cheerfully dole out to other people actually works. It’s an opportunity to trust God, and an opportunity to make sure our faith is put in the right place. It’s helpful for me particularly because I’ve been writing essays about the Bible and suffering (not directly, but related topics), and I can see how some of those things work out in practice first-hand.
Doesn’t really make it any easier, but it does make it more bearable.