‘You’ve got liver disease,’ my heart consultant said recently. ‘But you won’t die of it.’
This is a surprisingly comforting thought. Not least because you can add to it all the other things you won’t now die of:
Trying to land a spacecraft on Mars
Swimming the English Channel
Flying a light aircraft under a bridge
Being eaten alive by piranhas
Trying to break the world record for jumping a motorcycle over 42 double decker buses.
Really, it’s liberating. When you are a teenager, and happily raised in a land when you have some opportunity to express yourself, the possibilities are enormous. You can’t totally rule out, for example, being trampled by a herd of zebras or finding the end of hostile bayonet, or disappearing in a caving accident, or finding your attempt to cross the ocean on a giant rubber duck going horribly wrong.
It’s true that when young, if you’re lucky, all sorts of possible lives seem to present themselves, but they are accompanied by even more sorts of possible deaths.
Instead, as you ripen, with any luck or grace, you may be happy enough to find youself settling — into a life with people you love, things you love, work you love and times you love. Leaving those will be hard, and you will not want to let them go, even though some banal and workaday illness will finally prise your fingers away. But at least you found them and had them for a season, and thus perhaps, as I believe, sampled eternity.
A friend of mine for more than 25 years has just died. He was a soldier, then a taxi driver, then in his final couple of years he worked at our local hospital, helping clear the rubbish from the wards and driving a vehicle than carried all this waste, snaking through the underground corridors. He struggled with health conditions all his life, a chest that wouldn’t sweep out infections, and he had been given just a few years to live when a teenager. He swallowed antibiotics every day. He sometimes swelled with arthritis until a new medication was found, and for many years plugged himself into a C-PAP machine, like a vacuum cleaner, every night.
He stayed a soldier in civilian life, gleaming shoes, immaculate taxi, always on time. For several decades he had contracts to shuttle materials between Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge and the nearby Papworth Hospital, the pioneering transplant centre. The contract only ended when Papworth become the Royal Papworth and moved onto the Addenbrooke’s site. Carrying radioactive materials for transplant purposes, he never let the patients down, and took on extra work, like taking mail between departments that otherwise might miss the collections. He told me once of a girl he’d taken home from the city centre, almost too drunk to give her address, certainly too drunk and incapable to pay her fare. He took this vulnerable girl home, knocked on her door, handed her over to her father, made sure she was safe, like she was his own daughter, and went on his way.
He was the beating heart of our men’s breakfast group, instigator of our weekends away in the Lake District, organizing them himself for many years, army style, with rations allocated and he would have had us travelling in convoy if we’d let him. He sought old army friends out and welcomed them in. He loved a curry. He loved his family and quietly fought his infirmities, every day, to keep going for them. His self-medication took him hours in a morning, and yet he was early to work every day. He had an encounter with Christ almost the first time he walked into our church (his daughter was at Sunday School) and followed him faithfully ever afterwards. I love his example of an ordinary life, each ordinary day, like his shoes, burnished, gleaming with grace.
We were talking with a couple recently who were part of a church that had turned itself inside out. They had sold their (Baptist) church building, and moved into a community centre that was owned by a mental health charity. The charity, a non-religious outfit, had been set up to provide community-based care but were short of volunteers. The church had volunteers but no building. Bringing the two together brought two half-formed visions together. Fascinating (even if I’ve somewhat garbled the story).
Much more could be done. I have sometimes wondered if a church, instead of employing a family worker or a youth worker, could employ a professional mental health nurse. She or he could supervise lay work in the community and provide professional backing. Many community mental health needs can be met by lay people. They are often at the level of dropping in on someone for a cup of coffee, or phoning them to make sure they’ve taken their meds, or helping with cooking, shopping or budgeting. Such community concern (also known as ‘friendship’) can be transforming in the life of someone struggling alone with mental health issues.
Similarly, I am very impressed by the work of legal aid charities, who provide free legal services. Some of this work doesn’t need trained lawyers – for example helping people get justice via disability or Special Educational Needs tribunals. It just needs suitably skilled and trained volunteers. A church could easily pay a legal professional to manage a community law centre who could in turn lead a team of enthusiastic (though trained) amateurs and perhaps the odd intern.
Imagine a community legal centre or mental health centre that became a worshipping community on Sundays and the evenings!
These are all examples of churches turning themselves inside out, or perhaps more strictly, dissolving their outer structures and seeking fluidly to fit themselves to pre-existing vulnerabilities in the community. Solid at the core, fuzzy or fluid at the edges. Becoming less like bacteria and more like viruses perhaps. The churches get to do all the good they want to, the community gets served. Better, surely, than worshippers in a building, and needy people in their homes, each alone in their own way.
Again I’m writing about healing, partly because I’m living it, partly because what I picked up from many years as a Christian now seems so wrong and there is so much rethinking to do.
I’m still rethinking, and I’m still breathing, both of which I feel are important.
The last few weeks: we bought a disabled buggy, a wonderful little thing, and took it on holiday. (It folds into the car.) We were with our daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren and there was much walking on the prom and the cliff-tops, all of it now painless and easy. Nor was anyone needed to push me around in a wheelchair. And I could give the kids rides. So now in God’s riches I have an electric bike for longer journeys around Cambridge and an electric buggy for when I am with others.
Then yesterday I took the train down to my specialist heart centre in London where they retuned the pacemaker in my chest. A week or so before that, after phone calls from me, I had downloaded the pacemaker data and sent it to the hospital via a piece of kit that lives under our bed. The hospital looked at it and called me in and did the necessary reprogramming. Amazing. It is early days for this treatment but I feel less breathless and my wife tells me I am no longer blue to look at. Those guys at the hospital (both female guys as it happened) don’t just measure your ECG; they modify it and tweak it. They don’t take an ECG lying down. They press buttons and see what happens. Such fun!
This techno-assistance, though, seems a far cry from the New Testament where the Lord Jesus or the apostles did their stuff and immediate physical transformation appears to have happened. My electric buggy and the retuning of the extraordinary electronics that supply my heartbeat seem a different order of a thing to that. Why can’t (as Naaman asked) a prophet just wave his hands over me and make me well? Does this techno-medical intervention really count as ‘healing’ at all? Or is it a second-best solution for those whose lives are so cold and lacking in faith and zeal that the real healing stuff never happens to them? What is healing after all?
The New Testament contains hints that what I have heard doctors call the ‘psycho-social’ parts of healing are important, just as are the physical deliverance parts. Ten lepers were cleansed: only one came back to say thank you. Was there a lingering psycho-social unhealing among the healed lepers? Body fine, head in wrong place. Demons are driven out of the Gaderene demoniac. He is seen sitting clothed and in his right mind. But Jesus tells him to go home to his family, rather than joining the band of disciples. Is that to complete his healing? To address the pyscho-social roots of what got him in such a state in the first place? As it is, Mark records that the former demoniac takes up a speaking ministry in the Ten Towns, and Mark is silent over whether or not that was what Jesus really intended for the man. Interesting.
Then I watch friends, with a cancer diagnosis say, put their lives on hold until the treatment is completed. I observe, I think, I might be wrong (I hope I am), that they are putting all their eggs in the physical healing basket. Zap the cancer, go back to the life we had before. Nothing else matters.
I am so not so sure that this is right. (Of course I have to allow for the fact that I am sitting in my garden, at my ease, contented, writing this, not suffering some medical emergency or hospitalization which would indeed require a lot of effort and focus.)
But still. I am coming to believe more and more that healing is life today, bread today, thriving today and that it is entirely God’s business how he delivers that. All good gifts come down from the Father of lights who does not change as the shifting shadows: buggies, pacemakers, holidays, instant miraculous physical transformations, play, vocation, nice food, people you love and good relationships with God and others.
I am coming to believe more and more that healing is life today, bread today, thriving today and that it is entirely God’s business how he delivers that.
Of course, you have to qualify that idea. There are seasons of emergency actions, long wintry paths of mourning, times of brute endurance of the deeply unpleasant. It’s hard to speak of ‘thriving today’ in the face of those. But still. Healing is thriving. Healing is enjoying our lives, nourished by God’s daily bread, despite everything, in these ramshackle tents of ours, before they are replaced for good with the eternal mansions of glory.
‘Keep busy and see friends, even over a drink or two’
Fascinating Economist article about Japanese efforts not just to live long but to live well, long.
(As a subtext the Economist in recent months has come to see Japan as a harbinger of all our futures and rather than being an economy to fix, they are an economy to watch as they tackle problems that many developed nations will face in coming days.)
They mention some novel ideas: a step counter on your phone that gives you discounts in shops related to how many steps you do. But then they focus on a district called Yamanashi, ‘a bucolic prefecture at the foot of Mt Fuji’ that is one of the top two prefectures for healthy life expectancy. They say this about it:
Helping people stay healthy, rather than simply alive, involves looking at broader social and environmental considerations. Jobs are essential. Working longer keeps people physically and mentally active, but also keeps them connected to others. Yamanashi has the second-highest elderly-employment rate in the country.
Social networks—the real-world kind—play a big role, too. Strong ties with friends, family and neighbours make for better mental health, more active lifestyles and better support. Investments such as upgrading cultural facilities or creating mobile libraries to serve remote communities may not appear to be health-related, but can benefit public health, says Kondo Naoki of the University of Tokyo.
In Yamanashi, many public-health specialists point to mujin, traditional local microcredit associations which have evolved into something more like social clubs. Members chip in funds for regular gatherings, often over noodles and sake (some prefer tea or mah-jong). Mr Kondo’s longterm studies have found that those who participate actively in mujin stay healthier for longer, even when controlling for wealth and other variables. The group activity offers a sense of purpose, and also acts as an informal safety mechanism, with other members noticing when someone is absent or looking worse than the previous month. “Being lonely is most detrimental to health,” says Nagasaki Kotaro, Yamanashi’s governor, who recently started offering subsidies for mujin. The secret to a healthy life, then, is similar to a happy one: keeping busy and regularly seeing friends, even over a drink or two
Economist, February 4 2022
It’s lovely they get to the same conclusions as I did in Bread: networking and vocation being the very stuff of life. Makes me think there might be something in them.
OK, I get that it may not excite you all that much but it’s just lovely for me. I do appreciate Netgalley, putting early editions of books in the hands of reviewers who don’t know or owe the authors of the book. More than all the gatekeepers in the world – agents, publishers, booksellers — actual readers are the people you want to hear from:
I raad this book as a Christian, and someone who has had to come to terms with chronic illness changing their ability to be “successful” and “productive” in the traditional sense. Initially, it wasn’t the book I expected. I didn’t realise that it is the second in a series and I was expecting to read more about the author’s personal experience and faith during his recovery after his coma. Whilst it does mention this, the book focuses in a more objective way on key elements that we lose or rediscover in a different form when we experience a life change. I have to admit to wondering for a while where this book was taking me. I am immensely glad I kept going, because from the fourth chapter, Making, this book really sings for me. It opens up the scope of the term “vocation” in a way that is both exciting and affirming, and exhorts us not to “die with your music inside you.” I highlighted almost that entire chapter! Although many years a Christian, I came found new and thought-provoking ideas in the following chapter, Believing (don’t panic, no heresy!). This is where the author really brings all the previous chapters together. The loose link to the experiences of convalescence and dealing with a significant change in life becomes much more concrete. I’m excited to read more of Glenn Myer’s books and have already bought one. Although it took me a while to get into this book, I feel he has wise and important things to say on life in general and the combination of life, faith and vocation in particular.
Look at this from Private Eye‘s wonderful ‘MD’ (aka Dr Phil Hammond) (15-28 October 2021 p 8)
The model of general practice – trying to manage multiple complex risks and needs in very brief encounters – has long been unsafe and unsustainable. You have 10 minutes to help an 80-year-old woman who is arthritic, breathless, recently bereaved and on 12 tablets. It takes three of those minutes to walk her from waiting room to consulting room.She wants to talk about her late husband; you want to ensure her breathlessness was not a red flag for a life-threatening condition or a side effect of the pills you have prescribed.
It takes another three minutes to undress her and get her up on the couch to be examined. And yet her main reason for coming was loneliness.
A study of Norwegian health records, published in the British Journal of General Practice, found that — compared with a one-year patient-GP relationship — those who had had the same doctor for between two and three years were about 13 percent less likely to need out-of-hours care, 12 percent less likely to be admitted to hospital, and 8 percent less likely to die that year. After 15 years, the figures were 30 percent, 28 percent and 25 percent.
Healthcare depends crucially on relationships, and staff knowing and understanding you.
Imagine a GP being resourced enough to combine a vocation as a doctor with the time and stability to develop relationships with patients. Vocation and relationships … just like in a book I recently wrote, which I may have occasionally mentioned in this blog. And which is still ‘forthcoming’…
Just a single statistic caught my interest recently. In the early 1970s, traded goods were about 30% of world output. So, two-thirds of goods were made and used locally. In the early 2010s, that traded-goods figure had risen to 60%, meaning two thirds of goods were made elsewhere and shipped to where they were needed.1 Locked away in that little statistic, maybe, is loss and sorrow and Brexit and Trump and populism and nationalism.
When I was growing up in 1970s England, to see ‘MADE IN ENGLAND’ stamped on a thing was a thing. And it was everywhere. Slowly that ended. Now, the handtools and toys we buy are mostly made in China. This expansion of trade has brought prosperity to much of the world and cheap prices and more and better stuff.
But in the (thankfully) now past agonies over Brexit in our country, I observed nostalgia and loss over the way we don’t make our own stuff any more. It may be that that sense of loss has driven populist or nationalist politics all over the former stuff-making regions of the earth. In it is a hint of gaining the whole world (the free trade economists were right) but losing our soul.
Then I look at things editors pick as good news stories. Building windfarms the size of Yorkshire in the North Sea, for example. People who build and repair windfarms spend weeks on ships, climb creaking columns in gales, replace sprockets, rehang blades, loosen corroded big-end bearings — I don’t know what they do — but it is hard physical work to be proud of. Or someone else, further down the coast, is growing herbs in a vertical farm.
These are good news stories because they are about people saving the earth, but they are also hands-on, tiring, providing for your local community, reducing our dependence on others and fostering independence and self-sufficiency and they feel good.
Kind of like finding your soul again. Interesting.
If you’ve been with me over the summer, you’ll have seen that this book is about how adversity and suffering can change your life for the better. Better still, you can change your life for the better without the adversity and suffering (by reading the book). Suffering makes you realistic about you are — strips you down, perhaps. But two things can then build you up. Belonging — the art of belonging — is one (see last week). The second is vocation — doing something beautiful. Which is what this extract is all about.
My search for what really matters (8)
Don’t die with your music inside you
Vocation is about intentionally not dying with your music still inside you.
I was very ill when I first came across this thought and it was galvanizing. Since ‘galvanizing’ means ‘using electricity to coat something with zinc’, it wasn’t literally galvanizing, but it was a lifeline in the forever-January experience of convalescence. Then, and since, the idea of vocation has lit something in me that helped me fight to be well and stay well.
Don’t die with your music still inside you. Ask yourself. Other things being equal, feet still roughly on the floor, need for realism acknowledged, what would you love to do? I love asking this question of people. What gives you energy? What is fulfilling? What do you love? What would frustrate you if it were never let out? A famous theologian described vocation as the meeting point between ‘your deep gladness’ and ‘the world’s deep need’. Where does that sit for you?
I hesitate to give it an upmarket name like ‘vocation’ because for some people it means cheerfully and faithfully doing ordinary things. For others, though, it might seem a long way from what they are now and you would never guess it. A person with a career in software wants to turn wood. A researcher would like to be a receptionist in a hospice. Others have found a love of counselling. I know a couple of people who find sanity and happiness through making time to paint. I know that in horrible places of infirmity I have been buoyed by the thought of writing something original, creative and quirky. This is vocation knocking: the chance to take something that belongs to you, and to give it out. Breathe deeply of it, and you oxygenate your soul.
Vocation has designed cathedrals that will last a thousand years and spun melodies that the world will sing forever. It has squeezed goodness and grace out of places where only the banal should exist. Vocation is God’s fingertips brushing the earth through the actions of people. And when we live out our vocation we furnish our lives with satisfaction and happiness. Vocation is bread for the hungry soul, a satisfying meal.
I love watching people in their vocation. Someone came to our home to do some carpentry. His first love was restoring antique furniture. His eyes lit on our dining chairs, things that had tumbled to us down through our family as heirlooms. He knew which 19th century decade they were built in and named the style. He told us what he could do to them if he had them in his workshop for few days.
My son and I both have physics degrees. My physics degree helped me to ascend a few small hills and look across at mountain peaks of human thought. My son, though, climbs these peaks for fun. He knows how partial differential equations work, for example. He understands Maxwell’s equations, beautiful things that describe all of classical electromagnetism. I see him in a team experimenting on lone atomic particles that are in near-perfect vacuum and nearly at absolute zero. Even as a child he loved maths problems.
You stumble into vocation all the time. You wander into an office and find people who have time for you and all the resources you need. Someone bakes you a wonderful cake. You see a mum organizing her children or a teacher with her class interested and working hard and happy or arguing furiously with each other about finer points of maths.
Fine, you may say, but a vocation is a bit of a luxury if you’re a single parent just holding everything together or someone already buckling under the strain of just earning enough, or you are battling pain and depression, or you are in a toxic workplace, or you are retired. I am not so sure that you are right. For these reasons:
Thinking about vocation at least enables you to set a direction for where you’d like to go and what you’d like to be.
It probably also points to something you’re quite good at.
It points you to a higher ambition for your work than just as a vehicle to being solvent or (worse) rich, respected or lauded. These false gods shrivel your soul. Vocation nourishes it.
Even if you don’t change career, thinking about the work you love may change how you spend some of the odd scraps of time you already have. If you can’t be a professional musician or artist or footballer, be an amateur one. It still will feed your soul. Who knows where these small beginnings will lead? Take a step.
Change to your current circumstances might not be as impossible as you think. If, God forbid, you got a serious illness, or a divorce, you would change things around fast enough. Emails and schedules that tower above you now wouldn’t look that way then. They don’t matter so much really. The world won’t stop even if you stop. If you died tomorrow, someone would fix all the emails or finish the jobs. But that thing which is you, that thing you can give to the world, no-one else can do that like you do it.
Negotiate a compromise between vocation and career. This is why artists become graphic designers or would-be session musicians become tutors, or novelists get paid as journalists. Wiggle a little.
Remember life has seasons. The pages turn. Kids grow up. Debts get paid down. The rush to complete qualifications passes. Workplaces change. If your life is a busy river, abuzz with boats and criss-crossed with bridges, so hooting with shipping that you can’t take it all in, it may not stay that way. This river will probably evolve into something fat and lazy as it nears the sea, weaving slowly through the bulrushes like a jazz solo. Maybe your vocation awaits a new season. But start it now.
Your vocation is your chance to be big, beautiful you. Do you really want to miss this? So take some steps. Do something. Do something. Don’t die without giving us a song.
Here’s some aspirational stuff on what the Christian faith can do for those of us who work with others. This is fromKatherine Alsdorf who herself used to work with Tim Keller’s Redeemer Church in New York, and co-authored a book with him.
If we as the people of faith can work with purpose, partnering with God in his love and care for the world, if we can admit our mistakes more readily because we experience God’s grace, if we can love others and serve them because we’ve been loved and served, if we can find hope that helps us persevere because we believe in his kingdom that will end all brokenness and wipe away every tear, then, I think the faith and work movement will be the forefront of evangelism.
Are you jealous of your coworker? The gospel can change that. Do you fear that you’ll fail at what you’re doing? How does the gospel calm your fear? Are you having trouble getting up in the morning to face work? Or trouble stopping work in order to rest. As a matter of fact, work is a bit of an idol factory. It leads us to overvalue success or money or security or recognition or comfort. And the gospel helps us to root out those idols and turn to Jesus for our salvation. And when we do that, we change. Our hearts change. I love it. I love it when it happens to me and when I see it in others. I see people change from hating to loving their colleagues, from fearing failure to stepping out in faith. This gives a good start in applying the gospel to work and our work lives.