Three weeks ago I received an email from the son-in-law of a longstanding friend, who now lives almost 200 miles away, to tell me that Brenda had been diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus. He wrote: “She is not going to be able to withstand treatment but has had a stent inserted to keep the food pipe open. She is in a lot of pain at present and faces a very uncertain future. Please pray for her. She is calm and trusting the Lord which is encouraging.”
Knowing that time could be short, I decided the sooner I visited my friend Brenda, the better. So within three days of receiving the message I was on my way to see her. Although Brenda was uncomfortable, I gathered that it was nonetheless one of her better days. She told me that the doctor had said she had between two months and two years to live – however, her daughter later told me privately that they think she has less than six months.
We talked a good deal about the past. Brenda had been a member of the pastoral team in my church at Chelmsford, and in that role had done a wonderful job of caring for people, young and old. With tongue in cheek I used to liken her to a rottweiler – for once she had committed herself to care for somebody, she never let go. As we reminisced, I thanked her for all that she had meant to the church – and also to our family.
We also talked quite openly about the present and the future. We spoke about the process of dying: of being able both to let go of our loved ones and of the world as we have known it, and at the same time to hold on to God. I mentioned the Latin motto of Spurgeon’s College, of which I was principal: teneo et teneor – ‘I hold and am held’. Finally, I read Psalm 121, the pilgrim’s psalm, and then prayed for her. To my relief Brenda was very much at peace.
Then last week I received a card from Brenda. The front had a colourful picture of spring tulips, headed with a verse from the Psalms: “I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me” (Psalm 13.6 NIV). Inside, along with thanking me for my visit, were the words:
“I had to attend hospital last week – a bit of a disappointment as I was informed that the cancer in just three weeks had extended to my liver. This is causing some concern and I am in really bad pain 24/7. On the plus side, I have got family near, friends praying for me, and the Lord walking with me!”
I was deeply moved – and not least on her choice of a card with such a text. Here was (and is!) faith in action. I consulted two of my commentaries on the Psalms.
According to Michael Wilcock:
“This is a ‘prophetic perfect’… and behind the psalmist’s very real anguish is an equally real certainty that he will be lifted out of it, and will then say, ‘God was good to me’. It is also a recognition that God has undoubtedly been good to him in the past, and ‘he who began a good work… will carry it on to completion’ (Philippians 1.6). It is, finally, a grasp of the fact that even at the time, without ever saying (as some seem to do) that evil is good, he could rejoice in the great truth of Romans 8.28 that God was working all things for good to those who love him.”
Derek Kidner, warden of Tyndale House when I lived there in my final year at Cambridge, perceptively stated:
“The psalmist turns his attention not to the quality of his faith but to its object and its outcome, which he has every intention of enjoying. The basic idea of the word translated dealt bountifully (RSV/NRSV) is completeness, which NEB interprets attractively as ‘granted all my desire’. But the RSV/NRSV can be hardly bettered, since it leaves room for God’s giving to exceed man’s asking.”
What a great text for my friend to choose. Even in the toughest of times we can say, “God is good”!
PS: I am not breaking pastoral confidences. Brenda has given me permission to share with others what is happening to her.