Healing is a mystery. We have a God who is all powerful and yet He chooses to intervene and restore health only sometimes. Two men tell their stories of loss and healing. One a widower, the other restored from the brink of death - they both have more questions than answers. But they share a common faith in God’s love and Christ’s care for them in their times of joy and sorrow.
Julia’s Story by Rev Jonathan Perkin
It was a very ordinary Friday evening in late November. We had just picked the boys up from school, and they were watching Blue Peter while Julia and I were preparing the evening meal together.
“Oh, I feel a bit dizzy,” said Julia. I thought nothing of this since she had visited the osteopath that afternoon and often felt ‘funny’ afterwards. The next 30 seconds not only changed my mind but also catapulted us into the worst nightmare of our lives.
As she crossed the room to sit down, I noticed that her speech became slurred and she dragged her right foot. I knew instantly that this looked like a stroke attack. I had seen it enough times in parishioners to recognise the signs. Although she recovered in a few minutes, except for losing partial sight in her left eye, we rang for the doctor and ended up in our local A&E. She was then admitted for further investigation.
The next five weeks were the most bizarre and unreal that we had ever experienced. After 10 days of tests for Endocarditis and Vasculitis, they discovered cancer in her left lung and in her bones. We were utterly speechless. She had no prior symptoms except back ache (who doesn’t have back ache?). She had never smoked in her life, never lived with a smoker, never done a job which might cause lung cancer, and had no cancer in the immediate family. Yet here she was, riddled with it.
Events then happened so fast. She came home for Christmas and then transferred to the Middlesex Hospital in Central London. We knew she couldn’t be cured without divine intervention. People were praying furiously all over the country. Three cathedrals had her on their regular intercessions list. The question was, ‘How long ?’. We had some hope of a few more months of reasonable quality of life. On January 3rd, a third major stroke hit her, and she died on the morning of January 5th. Ironically, it was my birthday. A dear friend noticed the reading from Daily Light for the previous evening. It read,
‘My time has almost run out. Very soon now I will be on my way to heaven. I have fought long and hard for my Lord…Now the time has come for me to stop fighting and rest. In heaven a crown is waiting for me.’
And so, my dearest wife, died at the young age of 43, leaving behind her a husband and two sons aged 11 and 9.
The shock and grief we now experience is very sharp. It is unbelievable that only a few weeks ago Julia was a thriving and bubbly presence in our lives.
Last October half-term we treated ourselves to a week in Portugal where we swam in the sea and sun-bathed in the late summer sun. How little we realised what was soon to break upon us.
Naturally, we are full of questions and confusion. We were enjoying our new parish where things were going well. Julia was involving herself in Alpha, Ladies Breakfasts, and parenting courses. She was also dipping her toes back into teaching after a 15 year break. Humanly, we were taking off not crash landing.
Strangely, before this illness was even known, I had decided to preach on Habakkuk, a prophet from the Old Testament, in the New Year. I had not realised how pertinent this would be for me personally and for the parish who were also hurting after her death. From this book I drew strength from three great truths.
Firstly, it is okay to question and express our doubts and fears. Habakkuk asks ‘How long?’ and ‘Why?’ (Habakkuk: 2,3,13) with forthright honesty. Too often, we shy away from expressing what we really feel to God for fear of offending him, or letting the side down. I have learnt that expressing doubt is not the enemy of faith but an essential part of the process of growing in faith. The Lord delights in our honesty although we may not be able to handle the answer (1:5). I have tried to find some rational sense in this tragedy, and some people have been quick to offer their pennyworth. But at the end of the day, I don’t know the answer and probably never will this side of heaven. Instead, I am content simply to express my feelings knowing that He loves me and will always be working for my ultimate good.
Secondly, the Lord calls us to live in this life by faith and not by sight (2:4). Every day we have a choice either to trust in our Heavenly Father or to live like an unbeliever. Although for a Christian that seems like an easy choice, in reality it is far harder than one thinks. Each day I am struck by many anxieties for the future. Will I cope as a single person without her friendship, wisdom, companionship and intimacy? Will I handle being a single parent of two wonderful sons who will miss their mother dreadfully? Will I be able to continue in parish ministry without her invaluable insights, correction and humour? And so the questions go on and on. Now this may sound trite but the only way forward for me is that each time the questions come I have to choose to lay it all at his feet and trust him even though I cannot see the answers.
Habakkuk learnt to look back at the way the Lord had come to deliver his people during past crises. He could then pray with confidence that as the Lord had worked in the past, so he would come in the future and answer his prayers (3:2).
Lastly, it is okay to admit that life is a mess while at the same time acknowledging that God is good (3:17,18). Habakkuk lived with this paradox without trying to resolve the difficulty. In verse 17 he admits that everything is a nightmare, yet he could continue to rejoice that God is still God.
People often ask me how the boys and I are. “It’s a total mess” is my usual reply. And it is. We have lost a loving wife and mother leaving a huge gap in our lives. Each day is a struggle. Of course, life goes on. We get up, eat, work and go to bed. We laugh a lot, and talk about her endlessly. But there remains this profound dull ache that all is not right with the world. Yet, we can still rejoice that God is still there (18). More than that, he will enable us to climb over this ever-present mountain of grief (19) to the land beyond.
Julia gave a talk last October in the parish about the struggles in her life, especially when she had ME. She finished with a passage that seemed to sum up her faith in her Lord. It was Habakkuk 3:17,18. ‘Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.’
We are still in the dark valley. There is much more I would like to write, and maybe a book is in the making. For now, the boys and I are trying to adapt to our new ‘normal’ life. We are wonderfully blessed with a loving congregation that supports us in so many practical ways. We are also greatly blessed with the love of family and friends. He never promised us an easy journey, but he did promise a safe arrival. We will catch Julia up later.
Rob’s Story by Rob Lacey
In 1996 actor and writer Rob Lacey was told he had cancer. Over the next few years Rob struggled with poor health – during this time he began work on ‘the street bible’ an ambitious re-telling of scripture, which was published three months ago. This basic chronology charts Rob’s struggle with life threatening illness while writing “the street bible”.
Sept 95: Marry Sandra. Touring as an actor in self-penned theatrical storytelling shows for the community.
March 96: First diagnosed with carcinoma in the bladder. Receive treatment.
June 96: Given all clear.
1996–2000: Recurrent chronic bladder infections, cystitis type symptoms. Frequency and urgency and pain. Touring as an actor. Symptoms getting worse.
March 2000: Commissioned to write “the street bible”, second diagnosis of carcinoma in bladder.
May 2000: Finish touring due to ill health. Collapsing after shows. Commence writing “the street bible”. This continues, as health permits through the next 16 months. (First attack the book of Job, looking for inspiration in my struggle.) Treated with BCG again. Unsuccessfully.
July 2000: Tests find earlier diagnosis mistaken - cancer is actually in kidneys. Writing “the street bible” on hospital ward in Kings Camberwell!
Oct 2000: Treated with BCG three times the earlier strength in the kidneys through dual nephrostomy tubes into my back (procedure never performed in UK before this).
Dec 2000: Given all clear from cancer. But now have TB in bladder – side effect from the treatment. Same cystitis type symptoms but on a bigger scale, plus night sweats and violent stabbing pains in anus from prostate. Urinating over 100 times a day, 30 times a night. Severe sleep deprivation.
Jan 2001: Our son, Lukas, born. Rob present for birth. There for every contraction, away in corner urinating in between each contraction.
March 2001: Move home. London to Cardiff, too ill to unpack boxes.
Sept 2001: Complete first draft of ‘street bible’.
Sept 2001: Have operation to bypass TB infested bladder. Cancer tumour found behind bladder. Given a year to live if treatment goes well.
Nov 2001: Family unit (and some friends) fly to Mexico Clinic for alternative therapy. Fly on to Toronto for a Christian Healing Conference. Condition deteriorating by the day. Tests find cancer now also in the bones. Pain levels impossible, untouched by morphine. Even overdosing on morphine. Fly home a month later to hospital in Cardiff.
Immediate heavy level of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. All this travel in a wheel chair, occasionally on crutches. Nerve damage from cancer gives heavy limp on left leg.
Dec 2001: Dying. Doctors write me off to the palliative pain care team. Discussing choices of hospice. People making their “last visits”.
Jan 2002: More chemotherapy over next five months. Some improvement in symptoms of cancer. Struggling with symptoms of chemo.
Feb 2002: Recommence working on edits for ‘street bible’, continuing till Jan 2003 as health allows. Paraphrasing the Bible serves as a lifeline, creatively, psychologically, therapeutically, emotionally, and spiritually. Health struggles serves as inspiration for material in text on life’s big issues: death, depression, anger, peace, love. Sense of authority to handle such heavy material.
May 2002: Angry red patch on back diagnosed as evidence of cancer spreading more aggressively. Doctors write me off again.
June 2002: Sandra insists on more tests, which show NO CANCER in bones. Doctors overheard using the word “miracle”! by a family “spy” in hospital staff canteen.
Aug 2002: First time back in a swimming pool for five years (swam for Wales as a child). Test results show NO CANCER in lymph nodes.
Sep 2002: Begin coming to terms with the news. Grateful, humbled, first tears for nine months. Prospects of enjoying wife and son.
Oct 2002: Come off all pain killers.
Dec 2002: Swimming 80 lengths of a 20m pool in 45 minutes.
Jan 2003: Final edit of “the street bible” completed.
Feb 2003: Wean self off anti-depressants. (Realise I ‘re-wrote’ the bible while on drugs!)
March 2003: Still walking with a limp. Still walking. Myself again. Many questions. 100 lengths. ‘The street bible’ published. Still married to Sandra.
The street bible by Rob Lacey is published by Zondervan £8.99 – and is reviewed this month in Christianity+Renewal – see page 56.
Thank Emmanuel. Thank God with us. I’m well!
But why me? Not her? Why me? Not them?
It’s not cos. I memorised the whole of Job.
Or wore an anointed prayer shawl.
Or a special hospital robe.
It’s not cos. we went to Toronto.
Or as soon as we heard,
We were down on our knees, pronto.
It’s not cos. we found a formula;
Said, “if it be thy will”.
Or always ended with, “in Jesus’ name”.
It’s not cos. we’ve changed things or kept them just the same.
It’s not cos. some famous people prayed.
It’s not cos. some non-Christians played the “if Rob lives, I’ll love Jesus” card.
It’s not cos. I’m a bard that I got better.
It’s not cos. I’ve always been a go-getter.
It’s not cos. we cried “mercy!!” a million times.
It’s not cos. I wrote a hundred prayers with rhymes.
It’s not cos. my wife deserves me.
Puts the sign “reserved” on me.
It’s not cos. my son needs me.
Twin Tower workers were parents too.
It’s not cos. we’ve hung on.
It’s just that He pulled us through.
So is it, “because I’m worth it”?
Well I am, I’m worth everything to God.
But so was David Watson,
So was Jacqueline du Pre,
So was Eva Cassidy.
It’s not cos. He said, “I can”.
It’s cos. He said, “I will”.
But why? And when?
Was it already planned right back then?
Or did He shuffle and shift?
And watch all our prayers lift up past His eyes?
And did He hear our cries?
And did they all add up to Abraham or Moses size?
When they dared to do diplomacy with God?
Did we, together, negotiate with God?
Did we love enough to cover a multitude of sin?
Or just bring in what was already plan A?
And rip up plan B and throw it in the bin?
Did we? Did He?
We’ll never see the subplots, The alternative scenes,
Until we get to heaven, read the script And work out what it means.
Did I hang on any better than those God chose for home?