Sermon preached at St Mary Islington, 18 January 2009
I want to start by telling you about someone I will call Geoffrey. Geoffrey was born with cystic fibrosis, a condition which causes him to have chronic chest infections which require him to spend many hours a week on treatment and which will eventually kill him at a young age. We were discussing why Geoffrey, an intelligent human being, had stopped doing his treatment. He knew why the treatment was necessary, he was not stupid, and he was just not doing it. And he would not tell me why. So I asked him, ‘Geoffrey is it because you want to be normal’. And his eyes filled with tears, he could not speak, he just nodded. And when we had that conversation, Geoffrey was 8 years old.
Dai Brainbocs, a fictional character in Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth books, a boy crippled by an unspecified disease, poignantly asked ‘Tell me, Louie, how does the Lord decide on the basis of a life not yet lived who should be blighted?’
In the last 6 months I have looked after two small children diagnosed with lung cancer while under my care. I work in the biggest children’s cystic fibrosis clinic in Europe. We also look after many children with muscular dystrophy and other muscle diseases, progressively becoming paralysed, relying increasingly on technology to survive.
How do I, a Christian paediatrician, reconcile this and many other instances of suffering in children with a God who is love, and all powerful? If you work on a Childrens ward, and come to Church and the hymn is ‘All things bright and beautiful’ with the last lines ‘How great is God almighty, who has made all things well’, either you have the insights of a Julian of Norwich, or you put your head in a bucket of sand., or you are brought up short. Where is the ‘love divine, all loves excelling’ in this? Does not God have a duty of care for the little children Jesus took in his arms and blessed? No-one hearing me would wish cancer on a child, and all here would strive as hard as possible to prevent it? Where are you, God, and what are you doing?
The true challenge in all this, setting the bar even higher, was put most clearly by Bishop John Robinson, he of ‘Honest to God’ fame. The week after taking the funeral of a young child, knowing he himself would shortly be dead of cancer, he preached his last sermon in Trinity College Chapel. In it, he rightly said that anyone can see God in a beautiful sunset, or fabulous scenery, but the challenge to the Christian is to find God in a cancer.
The finest and most spiritual minds in Christendom have tried and failed in this endeavour, and I do not expect to succeed where they have failed. I can only offer gleanings from the fields through which I have journeyed. If any or all make no sense, discard them without hesitation. I cannot claim to speak ‘Thus says the Lord’ as the ancient prophets did; rather, like Winnie the Pooh, ‘This is what a Bear of Little Brain is trying to grapple with as he comes down the stairs, bump, bump, bump on the back of his head’.
Of one thing I am convinced – there is an answer, maybe so great and beautiful that we cannot grasp it. In one Corinthians we read ‘Now we see but a poor reflection in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part: then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known’. Maybe for God our Father to try to make us understand this now through the darkened glass would be akin to an adult trying to explain the joys of sexual love to a three year old, who cannot have the ability to understand. I certainly reject Dai Brainbocs’s friend Louie’s reply ‘Jesus doesn’t know the answer Himself. That’s why he’s been hiding all these years’. There has to be an answer, whether I know it now or not.
But I believe it is useful to see how Christ himself confronted this hard question, most poignantly at the tomb of Lazarus, and I think there we can find an important clue. You recall that Jesus deliberately delayed his trip to see Mary and Martha until after their brother had died. Jesus loved Lazarus so much that he was in deep distress and wept, even knowing that he was going to raise him from the dead within minutes. And some of the Jews asked ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Why did Jesus not answer that question? Usually his answers to questions, particularly if the questioner was in bad faith, were utterly devastating. But to these distressed, grieving and supportive Jews, he answered not a word. Why did he not say ‘Don’t worry, everything is going to be fine, this is part of God’s plan, and in an hour you will all be partying’? Instead St John writes he was ‘once more deeply moved’. I wonder if it was because behind that question they asked him, he heard other questions, echoing down from throughout time. This idea is completely derivative from Dorothy Sayers play ‘The Man born to be King’, but I wonder if Jesus also heard the echoes of other questions, perhaps questions uttered by some of us here. ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept my husband alive when he had his heart attack?’ ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have brought my grand-daughter through her major operation?’ ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have let my father walk instead of being paralysed in the weeks before he died’ – questions asked in great anguish of spirit, in the most genuine prayer we could manage, with the best motives achievable on this earth – and no answer. I suspect if Jesus could not answer the question, then we will never have an answer this side of eternity. Certainly, the answer to the Jews was not a flippant ‘It’s OK chaps’ even though a glorious miracle was but minutes away, and it was indeed much better than OK. I believe the only answer to this is that Jesus knew than many millions of us would ask a similar question, and it would NOT be OK; at least, not OK from our own perspective.
However the tears of Jesus bring me to on the first important solid rock on which I have to stand in my professional life. He is in there with us, with that suffering child. I think as with so much, CS Lewis’s Narnia tales put it much more clearly than I can. In ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ Digory goes hunting through new worlds to try to find something to cure his mother, who I guess was dying of tuberculosis. He meets the Christ-figure, Aslan, and it seems that all his hopes have gone, he is aware of his own wrongdoing and that he has to try to atone. He blurts out ‘But please, please – won’t you – can’t you give me something that will cure mother?’ “Up until then he had been looking at the Lion’s great front feet and the huge claws on them; now, in despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own, and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his mother than he was himself.”
So for me, in that situation of suffering, Jesus cares far, far more than I can, or I can imagine caring. He has bright tears for the child with cancer, for the child killed in war, whoever the aggressor, for the child born with the handicap. But there is more than just tears and handwringing – these are I believe very, very special babies and children indeed, truly God’s great gift. I was humbled greatly in the PICU when talking to the mother of a baby with a severe progressive paralysis who would never sit unsupported or live to go to school – and she knew that clearly – and she said that she and other mothers had been talking, and agreed that they had ‘special babies’. For these mothers, God had indeed made their babies well.
I am repeatedly amazed at the love and care that women, mothers, have for their babies. Some fathers too, but my experience is that it is the women who usually lead from the front. I see them with their babies, hopeless cases by ordinary rational human standards, lavishing such amazing love, care and attention on them. An example was an African woman, saying ‘I do not want to know what people think of how my daughter looks, or what she cannot do, I only want her to have a good quality of life in the time she has’ and looked after her so well during that time. I cannot resist a side swipe at Richard Dawkins, who, whatever you may think of his theology, has the worst grasp of scientific method of anyone I have ever read (and this does not mean I am unreconstructed seven day creationist, by the way –Darwin and the Holy Spirit have different things to teach us). I would have thought that the way women behave must be so counter-intuitive to the rationalist – why waste time on the child, why not just go and have another and discard the deformed or ill one? Surely this is what a good evolutionist would expect, get rid of this useless one, who has no value, forget “it” as soon as possible, and have another strong healthy child instead. But no, with one accord this is rejected, instead they do all they can for their ill children, often at the cost of their own health, sometimes sadly their relationships as well, and mourn them and continue to mourn them long after they have died. Why? Does it make sense?
And immediately my feet rest firmly on my second rock. For the Christian, it makes perfect sense. Is this not exactly a mirror of the love of God for us? Do I not see a reflection of the stupendous love of Almighty God? Am I not a distorted apology for what God originally planned in His own image? And yet, God sticks with me. He gave me Jesus. He did not need to, you know. None of us would know if He had decided to crumple up his first attempt, like a child with a drawing that has gone wrong, and start with a new creation. If Jesus had said one day ‘You know Dad, I’ve been thinking of it, and this idea of crucifixion is not much cop, I want out’ and God had started again, how would we have known? He could have done it, but did not, because we are worth in his eyes the appalling price Jesus paid. Similarly, these babies are beyond price to their mothers. Still more are they beyond price to God. They are teaching us such important lessons about the value of human life. So God IS there – these are his special teachers, He loves them boundlessly more even than their own mothers – far from being some celestial mistake, a bit of detritus that was left over, these children are in the epicentre of God’s love and God’s plan.
And the third and final rock is the children themselves. I am repeatedly left awestruck by the indomitable courage and spirit they have. What a great privilege it has been to try to help them and their families, in some small way. I have to pay a huge tribute to them and their families; how often does the image of God shine clearly and brightly there. There is rarely self-pity, but so much fun and mischief. Scientific studies have shown that boys with muscular dystrophy, virtually completely paralysed, needing to be on a ventilator when they sleep, totally dependant on others for care, rate their quality of life as high as people with chronic bronchitis – they repeatedly triumph over adversity, they get so much out of life so often. Perhaps a message to me from God: do stop moaning Bush; if these guys, who have so much to moan about can be cheerful, for goodness sake stop acting like a dying duck when you have a piffling cold. I am afraid the addictive drug of self-pity, of moaning about stress (footballers on a hundred grand a week are stressed!!), is one that I suspect I am not alone in taking in more than moderation. Of course you can have perfect physical health and real and intractable problems, and I would not dream of playing these down for a moment, but for many of us, me included, perhaps we should take a little thought or say a prayer or two before we complain.
Fine words – but do they help now? When Job saw God face to face, instead of just hearing about him, his questions became irrelevant and without meaning, like asking ‘how heavy is yellow’. The awesome appearance of God refocused Job totally. That does not help me, because I am just at the hearing stage. I do not know if anyone here is wrestling in practice with what I have dealt with as an outsider, anyone who is currently contemplating an apparently dark tunnel with no end, when this verbiage is just the utterings of someone who ‘darkens counsel by words without knowledge’. I would like to close with words that I have found true and important, written by Father Trevor Huddlestone, at the ending of his book that shook the world. ‘Naught for your Comfort’ tore the filthy rags off the malignant giant of Apartheid. This book ends ‘But above all, I have found God where every Christian should expect to find him: in the darkness, in the fear, in the blinding weariness of Calvary. And Calvary is but one step from the Empty Tomb’.
I believe his words are true, and in all my many failings sometimes glimpse that truth through the dark glass. But I also do not underestimate how dark and obscured that vision often is for many of us, including me. Amen.
Professor Andrew Bush is Professor of Paediatric Respirology at Imperial College, London, Academic Director of Paediatrics at the National Heart and Lung Institute, and Honorary Consultant Paediatric Chest Physician at the Royal Brompton Hospital.
Andrew Bush is Professor of Paediatrics at Imperial College, Professor of Paediatric Respirology at the National Heart and Lung Institute and Consultant Paediatric Chest Physician, Royal Brompton Hospital. He has written a lot of papers, that no-one reads, and given a lot of talks, which are instantly forgettable. His chief enjoyments are researching clinical physiology and airway inflammation; clinical paediatrics, which means having fun seeing little kids who do more good for him than ever he did for them; and above all, his family, which includes two fabulous grandsons who happily for them do not resemble their grandfather in any way whatever