The first task I had to do was unexpectedly hard. I had to clear my diary.
Once the penny dropped about how much of 2015 was going to be unavailable for me to do anything much (or, as it turned out, anything at all), I had to go through the year and let people down.
I hate doing that: each talk I’d agreed to give, or conference I’d said I’d attend, represented a deliberate choice on my part. It’s not that I have a grand ambitious scheme, and all these events were rungs on a megalomaniacal ladder; but that like most gospel hearted people, I like to be useful. Like many of my age, I’d reached a point where I do have to choose what I do, because there are so many hours in a day, and days in a year; preparing for a talk takes time, and that’s time taken away from other responsibilities.
So I began making a few calls, letting good friends down. Now I’m making it sound like there were lots – there weren’t, of course. But each call trampled my pride. My friends understood, of course.
My ego didn’t. It was uncomfortable discovering just how much of my self-understanding was tied up in the fact that I get invited to do stuff. And part of being invited is having said ‘yes’ to something else, and shown willing. I was used to being on the platform. All had to go.
I had a book coming out in June, and I’d been sketching out some plans to build up to a launch. Gone.
Then we started at church. The training courses I’d planned – gone. The keynote sermon series – gone.
We were (and are) involved in writing a five-year plan for the church. At least, I said, I can keep that. And so I tried, through one round of chemotherapy, to do that. That went too.
I did preach a few times in the first couple of months and we structured it around my chemo cycle. But they went too.
I was left with one responsibility, and it was a surprisingly obvious one for a pastor – I’ll come back to it in another post, with a book I found really helpful.
But in the meantime, I need to remember how hard it felt to lose all those things in which I had invested some of my own significance. It was more than losing my public face to be left with the private, because (as many reading this know), Christian ministry isn’t like that, if we’re trying to do it properly. There is no public/private divide. We’re not allowed to fake a persona, and to be a Corinthian communicator (if you don’t know what that means, take 30 minutes to read 2 Corinthians).
And I’m also blessed to have been in Christian circles where there isn’t an excessive amount of ‘puffing up’ of the speaker before he or she stands up.
But even so, saying ‘no’ was hard. As I find my feet again, I’m learning how much simpler it is to say ‘no’ at the outset, rather than have a diary which is overstuffed. But I must not forget the deeper lesson, which is that those things, however deeply they echo any gifts God has given me, do not define me, or my relationship with him.
Jesus did not die for me because I would be useful in ministry.
And then something worse happened.
I think church is really important (you might have noticed), and I think music is really important. and I love it when the two come together. At our church, we are blessed with some fabulous musicians, and I really enjoy it when they are enjoying serving us. So it was with horror that I discovered that one of the growing side effects of my chemo was a growing tinnitus: a non-stop, high pitched whistle on several frequencies. Which seemed to be particular activated by three things: one was conversations, and the sounds of many voices, especially children; and a second was music.
What if God’s sovereign plan was making it impossible for me to go to church? What if it was making it impossible for me to sing in a congregation? (No-one wants to hear me solo. Trust me).
I said there were three things – here’s the third, and it was the hardest: my tinnitus seemed to be aggravated by the sound of my own voice coming through a PA system. It was like having a feedback loop inside my own head.
What if God was taking preaching away from me?
That was a hard, hard question. What am I, if I am not a preacher?
Now the good news is that the tinnitus seems at this point to have stabilised and to have much more variation in it. It is less susceptible to what triggered it before, and I can mostly get along just fine (my family will point out that it has left me deafer than before; I just reckon they’re muttering).
But boy, what am I, if stripped of all those things? What are you?
How much of your relationship with God and others is infused with a public aspect of ministry: speaking, blogging, writing, singing, leading, organising? How would you feel if God took that away?
How often do you say ‘yes’ and find yourself overcommitted? Would it worry you if, for a season, those requests dry up?
How do you feel if you have to let people down? Are you a people pleaser?
What lessons might you have learned in my shoes?