to help you discover the God you already know

Month: November 2016

God’s candles



I have four daughters, mature women, three of whom are dotty about small furry animals.  One of them will cross a crowded street in order to fix an innocent passer-by with a winning smile and ask ‘Please may I say Hallo to your dog?’


Another, who lives alone, adopted a house cat called ‘Ash’ a little over a year ago, who is suffering from cat HIV, as well as being an exceptionally battered looking stray. For a year he has stayed hidden away under the sofa coming out only at night to feed. It was a huge source of joy to her that she woke up in the middle of the night recently to feel a warm bundle asleep on her bed, purring loudly.


And the third adopted a cat from a friend who had in turn taken him in from a cat rescue so ‘Ed’ too came with a certain amount of ‘previous’:  he was very cautious about going outside, and would shoot into hiding if anybody remotely unusual came to my daughter’s home. Not all the ‘previous’ had negative consequences, for it endowed him with quite a deal of character, and under my daughter’s love and care, it would not overstate the matter to call it ‘spoiling’, he flourished. But now at the grand old age of seventeen she has had to have him put him to sleep. The crematorium and its setting was a lovely place, the people there were kindness itself, and the whole process was handled gently, lovingly and yet with dignity. She and her partner celebrated Ed in anecdote and song as they drove home, and blow me if there wasn’t the most perfect rainbow they had ever seen across the sky. My imaginative and intuitive self can see Ed in ‘cat heaven’, home at last, sending a farewell kiss and a ‘thank you’ as a little farewell gift!


I’m not sure why my daughters are such a soft touch for small furry animals, but I suspect that I may not need to look far for an answer.  One of the most painful decisions I’ve ever had to make was when my wife Sylvia had to go away knowing that our dog Leo would not be alive when she returned, leaving me with the precise timing of his departure. I couldn’t consult him, as one would another human being, and so I had to ‘read’ him, and he effectively had to trust me with that decision which I would make on his behalf. So it all hung upon the quality of the relationship between us: and I guess the deeper the relationship, the harder the decision.  I remember that it felt an awesome yet privileged responsibility. I recall weeping as I drove away from the vets, and more certain than I’d ever felt before that Leo would be safe in whatever passes for ‘doggie heaven’. I was also grateful that one of my other daughters was with me at the time, so I was not alone.


This is by way of a long introduction to a story one of my daughters alerted me to recently about an autistic boy who can’t be touched or hugged by anyone, but who has connected for the first time – with his new service dog. Apparently, five-year-old Kainoa Niehaus travelled to the 4 Paws For Ability centre in Ohio from Japan after two years of waiting for an animal to become available.

His mum Shanna shared a photo of her son on social media, resting his head on Tornado the dog. “See this moment? I’ve never experienced a moment like this,” she wrote underneath the post “This picture captures the face of a mother who saw her child, who she can’t hug, wash, dress, snuggle and touch,  freely lay on his new service dog of his own free will, with a purposeful, unspoken. attachment.  As a mother, I have seen countless challenging and painful moments my son has encountered and cried countless more. Yesterday however, I cried for a different reason. It is a feeling that is indescribable

I’m reminded of the story Atul Gawande tells in his wonderful book ‘Being Mortal’ about a doctor assigned to a Nursing Home in the USA, who was determined to address what he called the Three Plagues of nursing home existence: boredom, loneliness & helplessness. It’s a fascinating tale but the nub of it is that he managed to persuade the authorities to introduce one hundred parakeets, four dogs, two cats, plus a colony of rabbits and a flock of laying hens into the nursing home, together with hundreds of indoor plants & a thriving vegetable and flower garden. The result was that the number of prescriptions required per resident fell by half, the total drugs cost dropped to 38%, and deaths fell 15%. The lives of many residents were transformed.

And I’m reminded of the book ‘Guardians of Being’ words by Eckhart Tolle, art by Patrick McDonnell, which gently makes the point that small furry animals have a capacity for simply being still, stopping, looking, listening and focusing on the present moment in a way that keeps millions of people sane.


Very often the most heartfelt prayers are impossibly difficult to put into words, and a symbolic act is necessary: such as lighting a candle, allowing the flame to carry your prayer to the divine without recourse to words, Candles aren’t the only way of doing that of course, but their use is becoming increasingly popular.


I sense that God also ‘lights candles’ as symbolic expressions of Her providential love for all creation. Small furry animals are an excellent example. But just about anything that is ‘alive’ will do: a flower, a tree, a river, the wind, the warmth of the sun, whatever touches you deeply. If it feels ‘alive’ then it will reach out and touch you, and you may sense yourself blessed and transformed. Millions of people know this of course, and feel their lives to be enriched. Most wouldn’t dream of describing it as I have done. God in Her modesty probably isn’t too fussed about that providing the ‘candles’ are doing the job she, in part, designed them for.


And, of course, it works the other way too. If these are indeed ‘candles lit by God’ then we should treat them with appropriate respect and honour. If we could manage to do that then there would be no cats and dogs needing rescuing, no rivers needing to be cleansed of pollution, and the world would be a healed and interconnected place: rather like heaven!



Google ‘An autistic boy who can’t be touched has connected with a service dog’ to see the article and a photo.

‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gawande

‘Guardians of Being’ by Eckhart Tolle and Patrick McDonnell



The end of a course of chemotherapy

I found myself struck by a paradox recently: and paradoxes are to be welcomed with open arms I reckon. On the one hand my course of chemotherapy is coming to an end, and I find that I am actually very grateful both for the cancer that initiated it and for the chemotherapy. I have learnt a lot from them both: they have become, slightly to my surprise, ‘gifts’.  And yet, on the other hand, I also recognise that I am delighted that the chemotherapy is coming to an end, indeed I have now had my last dose, and that source of giftedness is therefore now largely behind me. What to make of this paradox?


One answer is that paradoxes are simply things to be lived with, and resolution is best not sought.


Another, in this particular instance, is to recognise that this paradox fits quite well with my thinking on sabbaticals. I reckon that I’ve learnt a thing or two about sabbaticals over the years, and have tried to approach my six months of chemotherapy as a sabbatical. The most important part of a sabbatical is the year after its over. So often I’ve seen people brought back to life by a sabbatical, and yet within a couple of weeks of its ending its as if they’ve forgotten all they discovered and are back in the old familiar ruts. The true test of the success of a sabbatical is whether you are able to integrate what you’ve learnt into your life, and face and accept the required changes!


So I hear God saying to me: “Well I’ve given you the opportunity for a sabbatical, indeed, frankly I’ve obliged you to take one, and you reckon its been an unexpected gift which has taught you much. Well how are you going to integrate what you’ve learnt? What changes are necessary? Are you willing to implement them?”


Well there’s the nub of the matter!! I recall a visiting friend asking me a question in the summer which took me completely by surprise, and left me not knowing what to reply. She asked me, with respect to my sabbatical, ‘so whats new?’ And I wasn’t sure that anything was new and that surprised me.


On reflection, I think that my sabbatical has not so much taken me into new places, as invited me to go deeper into known places. A good example is that there is nothing like an operation for cancer and a dose of chemotherapy with that, to get me thinking about my mortality and the meaning of life. And that in turn led me to write a number of reflections which I posted here in the early summer. There wasn’t anything much new there for me, those thoughts had been mulling around in my mind for years in some cases, but I now had the opportunity to try and set them down in words in a more coherent shape, and I found great value in trying to do that, and in sharing them. Re-reading them recently, I thought they weren’t too bad, and I’ve resolved, post sabbatical as my energy levels rise, that one thing I want to do is to revisit those little articles and edit and perhaps extend them: go deeper with them maybe, both internally, and externally on the page.


Another little gift of chemotherapy has been that I have lost some of my bearings. Some relatively minor ones like loss of taste for some foods I usually enjoy, a certain loss of feeling in my fingers and feet, and a certain hair-loss!  I even largely lost interest in my pipe. But other more significant ones too, like the loss of energy at certain points in the two week chemo cycle: such that I couldn’t pick up a book to read it, my concentration levels were so low. Instead all I could sometimes manage was to gaze weakly out of the window, seemingly unable to act, or initiate anything in any meaningful way. In short I felt powerless and out of control: my usual bearings had disappeared.


These points in the cycle passed, and my energy levels revived, but there was gift to be found in them. Or more accurately, gifts found me, in them. For example, as I wrote up my journal of an evening thinking that I had done nothing that day, I was often surprised by how much had actually happened for which I was grateful. Or, I was sometimes, not always, surprised by the way that insights and revelations would come in those times of powerless: in your weakness is your strength, indeed.


So losing my bearings was not such a bad thing. “I am not lost, I am here,” as a wise man once said, and this focus on the ‘here’ and its attendant ‘now’ , and the inability of my mind to exert much control over either of them, has been a rich gift. The course of chemotherapy has obliged me to learn to pace myself better, I’ve tried to let my body set my daily rhythms and to adhere to them; and I’ve kept a daily journal which has helped to focus my reflective awareness. I’ve been more attentive to the natural world, listened to more music, looked at more art, read lots more poetry: ‘the voice of the soul’, enjoyed the company of family and friends.


I hope to continue to lose my bearings and plan to claim more reflective space in my life. None of this is ‘new’ as those of you who know me well will I hope recognise. Indeed, I sense from some of the kind things people have either said or written, that this is precisely what some people value in me. But awareness of my own mortality and the subsequent sabbatical have re focused and refined my vision. So I’m thankful for cancer and chemo, and I’m thankful that the latter is now over [at least for the time being] and I can begin the task on seeking to integrate what I’ve learnt or been reminded of by a gracious and patient God. I feel excited by that, and hope that I’ll be given time to get on with it.


And of course what I thought was a paradox has turned out to be a process that looked paradoxical when closer examination showed that it wasn’t, which in turn reminds me of that wise Rumi saying:


“Watch two men washing clothes.

One makes dry clothes wet.

The other makes wet clothes dry.

They seem to be thwarting each other,

but their work is a perfect harmony.”


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