“There either is a god or there is not; there is a ‘design’ or not.”
~ Christopher Hitchens
16-December-2013. Tomorrow, I enter Belfast City Hospital for stem cell transplant, following three months of chemotherapy for relapse of aggressive lymphoma. Today, without seeking medical permission (!), I’m taking ‘A Dublin Day’, in a more physically precarious state than I’ll admit to anyone, to buy Christmas presents in Dublin’s Kilkenny Shop.
On the train, I read the late Christopher Hitchens’ book ‘Mortality’. Eloquently, he shows that people of faith have no monopoly on appreciating beauty or railing against injustice.
‘A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humour, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called 'meaningless' except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so.’
I meet Patrick Mitchel, Director of Studies at Irish Bible Institute. Patrick is my oldest friend, since Sullivan Prep in Holywood, 1967. We have lunch in Trinity College before he returns to work. I go shopping. Mindful that this may be my last Christmas, significant thought and budget go into fitting gifts for the women in my life!
I get a taxi to the Institute around 5-ish. Exhausted, I’m given soup and bread before a tour around the impressive college. I’m a manager in BT, not a theologian. However, provoked by traumas personal and global, I ask Patrick my perennial question ‘So, does everything work out OK in the end? Does Love win?’ We don’t arrive at a tidy answer.
Patrick gets me onto the Enterprise. Half an hour later I discover he has slipped a gift of ‘Surprised by Hope’, by Anglican Tom Wright, into the Kilkenny Shop carrier. Unexpectedly, the understanding expounded in this book sustains me through the months ahead.
17-December-2013, and back into hospital for high-dose ‘conditioning’ chemo, which kills the immune system, before bags of previously harvested stem cells will be returned on Christmas Eve. Ascending in the lift up to Ward 10 North, I recall David Tennant’s final words before his Doctor Who regeneration, ‘I don’t want to go!’ and say to Ruth I’m quite OK if we go home right now. Ruth says we’re heading for ‘Tim Version 2’ and, hand-held, I’m firmly guided back across the threshold of 10 North into isolation Bay J. I say to the Nurse that I’m terrified of the procedure – possible risks and definite side effects. ‘That’s easy. All you have to do is keep breathing.’
During this challenging month, physiologically and emotionally, my ‘shields are down’. Mindful of suffering on the Ward and suffering of friends, I can’t cope with news items such as Hurricane Agaton in the Philippines. Instead, on recommendation of my son Downey, I listen to Mumford & Sons sing ‘Ghosts That We Know’
So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light
Cause oh they gave me such a fright
But I will hold on with all of my might
Just promise me that we'll be alright
I do hold on, but will we be alright? Or does each life end only in putrefaction or crematorium ashes?
As Tim version 1.0 recedes so that, hopefully, Tim version 2.0 can emerge, I share day-by-day the dying Christopher Hitchens’ heartfelt appreciation of friendship, love, irony, humour, parenthood, literature and music.
And also, over time, Tom Wright’s exposition of the implications of Jesus’ resurrection sinks in.
The night before He dies, Jesus says: ‘Because I live, you also will live.’
On Sunday morning, Mary goes with spices, expecting to anoint a decaying body. Instead, she is first to see the risen Lord, but misperceives Him to be the gardener. Somehow, His appearance is changed. His resurrected body represents both continuity of life and God’s ‘future-arrived-in-the-present’ (p.57).
With the church at Colossae, Paul used the phrase ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’. Until now, I had thought of that in terms of each individual’s private experience. However, as Tom Wright says
‘When God “saves” people in this life, by working through His Spirit to bring them to faith, and by leading them to follow Jesus in discipleship, prayer, holiness, hope and love, such people are designed – it isn’t too strong a word – to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to do for the entire cosmos. What’s more, such people are not just to be a sign and foretaste of that ultimate “salvation”; they are to be part of the means by which God makes this happen in both the present and the future.’ (p212)
Now, writing late in 2014, I’m back to health, work, church and the gym.
Tim Version 2.0 has a firmer hope that there is a designer of this world created as good, with a plan to make all things new again, inaugurated via an empty tomb.
However, I have no tidy answer for people suffering abuse, disease, poverty, severe learning difficulty or in conflict areas.
Since re-entering normal life, I have been in the presence of people who have suffered beyond imagination and yet have shown courage, cheer and somehow a generative approach for others.
Jesus calls us friends, not servants. But, ‘Hope’ is a verb, an action word. As we pray for His Kingdom to come, what might we do to work out our prayer?
Published in the Irish Methodist Newsletter, Jan 2015 issue.