Walking through Cancer Valley: 5. Creation Sings and Creation Groans … and My New Body

This is the text of a video on my YouTube channel entitled Walking through Cancer Valley: 5. Creation Sings and Creation Groans … and My New Body.

“Hello. This is the fifth and final video in the set entitled “Walking through Cancer Valley”. The title of this one is “Creation Swigs and Creation Groans … and My New Body”.

One of my most favourite songs is “What a wonderful world” especially as it is sung by Louis Armstrong.

Coming home from hospital both after my surgery but especially after the time I was so very ill over Christmas and New Year was for me a fresh and more vivid experience of the sights and sounds of the physical creation – the songs of the birds, the sound of the wind, the colours of creation, the shapes of the clouds and so much more. It all impacted me afresh and there’s a verse in the old hymn “Loved with everlasting love” which goes like this:

Heaven above is softer blue,

Earth around is sweeter green;

Something lives in every hue

Christless eyes have never seen:

Birds with gladder songs o’erflow,

Flow’rs with deeper beauties shine,

Since I know, as now I know,

I am His, and He is mine.

It was that kind of experience of the beauty of this wonderful world. But, you may well say, that’s not the whole picture … and you are correct. In a spoken introduction to “What a wonderful world”, Louis Armstrong says this: “Some of you young folks have been saying to me, ‘What do you mean, what a wonderful world? How about all them wars all over the place? You call them wonderful? And how about hunger and pollution? They ain’t so wonderful either.” And he goes on to respond: “It seems to me that it ain’t the world that is so bad but what we are doing to it”. This was recorded way back in 1970 but how much more aware we are now of what we human beings, our sinfulness and our greed, is doing to the physical world!   

So there are two sides to the story. On the one hand, Creation sings. The book of Job in the Bible talks of how the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy. That’s in Job 38, verse 7. And we can listen to Creation, we can hear its music. I hear the song of the robin asserting its territory from the tree outside our house early in the morning. Creation singing, the sound of the waves on the seashore, the sound even of the thunder in the sky. But that is not the whole story, not the whole picture. In his letter to his friends in Rome, Paul writes this. He says, “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time”. That is in Romans 8, verse 22. Creation groaning and the pain is not the pain of death but of a longing for the new redeemed creation yet to be born.

Creation sings; Creation groans. Is this not another example of the two hallelujahs, (Frederick Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ one and Leonard Cohen’s “broken hallelujah”?! There are two hallelujahs within us and there are two out there everywhere. It is hardly surprising because we are physical beings, we’re part of the physical creation, made of the chemical elements that are everywhere. Carl Sagan said, “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff”, he said.

Because of the surgery that I had and its life-changing impact, I’ve become very much more aware of my physical body and its functions … and of its frailty and, yes, of its mortality. But I believe that one day I will have a new body which in some way is going to be continuous with the body that I now have. The risen Jesus came to his friends and they thought they were seeing a ghost but he said, “Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones”. That is in Luke 24:39. Then he asked for something to eat and they gave him a piece of fish and he took it and ate it. A ghost doesn’t eat fish! We are not going to be body-less souls sitting on clouds playing harps. We will have new physical bodies and live in the physical world made new.

Two Bible passages as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson:

“I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: ‘Look! Look! God has moved into the neighbourhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.’ The Enthroned continued, ‘Look! I’m making everything new’.” That is Revelation chapter 21, verses 3-5, in The Message.

And this passage:

“Jesus Christ … will transform our earthy bodies into glorious bodies like his own. He’ll make us beautiful and whole with the same powerful skill by which he is putting everything as it should be, under and around him.” That is Philippians 3, verse 21, in The Message. What a prospect!

Thank you for walking with me through Cancer Valley as I’ve tried to share some of the experience of this walk with you. Much of it has been about relationships. Relationships with other people as in the video “All real living is meeting” and indeed in the video about nurses and other wonderful human beings. Relationship with self, perhaps particularly in the video about the shalom-ful gift, the inner peace, the gift of Jesus. And in this one the relationship with the physical Creation, the wonderful world. But all of these are transformed by the most important relationship of all which is relationship with God, relationship with the Lord. When we’re in right relationship with him, when all the badness, all the wickedness, all the things we’ve said, thought, done are forgiven, when there’s nothing between us and him, it transforms our relationships with one another, our relationships with the physical world including our bodies, our relationship with ourselves.

Thank you. Thank you for walking with me. God bless you real good.”

Walking through Cancer Valley: 4. The Shalom-ful Gift

This is the text of a video on my YouTube channel entitled Walking through Cancer Valley: 4. The Shalom-ful Gift.

“This is the fourth video in the set entitled “Walking through Cancer Valley”. The title of this one is “The Shalom-ful Gift”.

‘Shalom’ is a Hebrew word and it’s usually translated as ‘peace’ and I want to share with you about the peace I experienced in hospital and, more generally, about where peace comes from.

As a teenager at school in County Tipperary, one of many poems that I learned and loved was ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by W B Yeats. And in the second verse of that poem, he talks about how he expects to find peace in that tiny island in Lough Gill in County Sligo and he writes this:

“And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.”

I really love the phrase “peace comes dropping slow”. It’s about a peace that comes from without rather than from within.

Now in recent years, I have written and spoken a lot about peace, about shalom, about it as being something that we should seek to promote in all our lives … especially in our working lives. I often quote from the prophet Jeremiah who wrote to the exiles in Babylon who were longing to get back home to Jerusalem and he said, “No, you are to seek the shalom of the city, yes the city of Babylon. (If you’re interested in the kind of thing that I’ve been saying, you can see, for example, a blog on johnshortt.org and a video on my YouTube channel both of which are entitled ‘And the people stayed home’.)

However, in those two stays in hospital, it really came home to me that shalom/peace is not simply something to be sought and worked up from below but that it is a gift from above. Inner peace can be more than something simply achieved by being still and mindful although these certainly have their place. It can be more than something experienced on a tiny island in an Irish lake or in some other beautiful natural setting although those too can have their place.

But there is a peace that is a gift from above, a peace that Saint Paul describes in his letter to his friends in Philippi. He describes it as a peace that transcends human understanding and that’s the peace of which Jesus spoke with his friends on the occasion of the Last Supper before he was crucified. And he said to them, he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” And that is in John chapter 14, verse 27. And the verse continues with Jesus saying this: “Do not let your hearts be troubled”. It’s a peace that the world doesn’t give so it’s different, it’s from above. But Jesus said, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled”, the implication being that we have a part to play in receiving and experiencing this gift. And after Jesus rose from the dead, John records three occasions on which he appeared to his friends and he greeted them this way, a lovely greeting: “Peace be with you”. In Arabic it would be “Salaam alaikum”.

In an email that Val and I sent out to friends and family after my first stay in hospital, after I was in for the surgery, I said of my experience of peace: “The experience is like that of being a little child questioning its Dad and perhaps complaining and wanting to be told everything but having him simply say, ‘Shush now, little one’.”  And one friend who received that email wrote back to me and she quoted from the Old Testament prophet Zephaniah, Zephaniah 3:17 where he says, “He (the Lord) he will quiet you with his love”. And I believe that what was happening to me in that ward was that the Lord was quieting me with his love.

And during those stays in hospital, I think I must have uttered within more hallelujahs than I had for years!  Mind you, although most of them were of the soaring Handel’s Messiah ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ kinds of hallelujah, some were also of the kind that Leonard Cohen sang when he talked of “broken hallelujahs”. (Again, if you’re interested, there is a blog on my website entitled “Two hallelujahs”.) But through it all there was a sense of peace such as I think I had never experienced before. Perhaps, perhaps there is a special peace the Lord gives to us when we are in special need, when we’re helpless, when we’re too weak to play any part in it.

And in the dark night hours punctuated by nurses’ checks on blood pressure, temperature and pulse, songs and hymns would come ‘floating by’ (to borrow a phrase from singer-songwriter John Denver). Carey Landry’s lovely adaptation of “Peace is Flowing like a River” was certainly one of those but most of them were older hymns and songs that I had learned in childhood and teenage years. Those were the ones that came to me in the night. And Val at home here had a similar experience and even of some of the same songs and hymns. And it was those hymns and songs that came with this sense of shalom, the peace that Jesus gives.

The next video starts with reference to one of my most favourite songs from teenage years. It’s the song “What a wonderful world” and I will be talking about the physical creation and also about my physical body, the changes that I’ve been experiencing. Thank you.”

Walking through Cancer Valley: 3. Nurses and other Wonderful Human Beings

This is the text of a video on my YouTube channel entitled Walking through Cancer Valley: 3. Nurses and other Wonderful Human Beings.

“Hello. This is the third video in the set entitled “Walking through Cancer Valley”. The title of this one is “Nurses and other Wonderful Human Beings”.

Although I’ve been married to a wonderful and lovely nurse for 52 years, these recent times in hospital have given me fresh insight into what nurses are made of. I think I’m quite good at saying the right thing, the helpful thing, to people who are suffering but I’m not at all good at thinking of and doing the practical things that can make all the difference to them. Val is always able to combine care and compassion with leaping into doing the right thing for the suffering person.

And I found that this was also the case with many of the nurses whom I met in those times in hospital. They could relate to me as if I were the only person who mattered in those minutes and yet, at the same time, they could deal in the most matter-of-fact way with very intimate and potentially embarrassing matters affecting this old man in that hospital bed. I realised more deeply that this is what nursing is all about and that these are truly wonderful human beings. One of them on one occasion shared quietly with me that she had been a nurse in a Covid ward earlier last year at the time of peak hospitalisation in the first wave. And she said with, I think, tears that she regarded it as a privilege to be able to do that, to work in that ward and to sit with very ill patients and some who were passing away. I found that very deeply moving.

I also found that the doctors I met were truly caring people and they were not at all like a doctor that I’m going to talk about for a few moments. He is not one that I met. He is one that Parker Palmer talked about. Many of you who know me well know that I very often quote from Parker Palmer’s wonderful book The Courage to Teach. But this came from a recorded talk rather than a written book and he talked of a rather different experience of a hospital doctor that he had in hospital. He talked of an “externalised view of the human body and of medicine” which sees the doctor as being “like a mechanic repairing a machine” and he recounted how, when he was in hospital for a heart condition, he was treated by a doctor whom he described as an “Icelandic cardiologist freeze-dried at birth” to whom he, Parker Palmer, was nothing more than case number X in ward Y. He went on to say that, on the other hand, the “nurses treated me like a human being, not an object suspended by cables and wires”. And he said that doctors like his cardiologist are not healers because they don’t “evoke the patient’s inner powers of healing”. This was in a talk entitled Divided No More that he gave at Rhodes College, Memphis, back in September 2002.

And thinking about it now, I find it resonates with what I tried to say in the second video, the one entitled “All Real Living is Meeting”, when I talked about the distinction between I-You relationships and I-It relationships. For that cardiologist treating Parker Palmer, he, Parker Palmer was an It and the relationship was an I-It relationship. On the other hand, for the nurses who were treating him, he was a person and the relationship was an I-You relationship.

The doctors and the nurses that I met all treated me like a human being, like a person, not an object. None of them were like Palmer’s freeze-dried cardiologist! I was in a single room for most of the time on the two occasions that I was in hospital but on the first occasion I was for a short time, for a few days, in a ward which I shared with four other men. And I recall one occasion on which a doctor had to give the man in the bed next to mine some very unwelcome news and he did it in such a caring way. And the same was true of the nurse who came afterwards and sat with him and comforted him. She was also very caring and compassionate.

I’m so proud of and so thankful to God for the British National Health Service. Well, we say ‘British’ and we say ‘National’ but it is greatly enriched by nurses and doctors who have come to work here from countries in mainland Europe and in other parts of the world and I met several from a number of different countries. Now I know that some people particularly in some parts of the world would regard our NHS as being a ‘socialist’ system, often using the word ‘socialist’ in a very broad and undefined sense. I’m glad that we don’t have a privatised system rooted in an individualist ideology.

I think there are two extremes in approaches to matters like this. One extreme is that of individualism, that which values the freedom of the individual above everything else. That’s the supreme value. At the other extreme, perhaps found for example in Soviet Russia in former times, is that of a collectivism which devalues the individual and makes the whole, the collective, the group, of supreme value and therefore limits the freedom of the individual. I think that there is a third way, a way that is an alternative to both of these extremes, and combines that which is good in both, in one and the other. And that’s in the idea of community, community that values both the individual and the group, both the one and the many. And this resonates with what I was trying to say again in that “All Real Living is Meeting” video about ubuntu. I am because we are. Both the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ are important. It’s not one at the expense of the other.

And I think that this can be rooted in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, of three persons and one God, of the one and the many being equally ultimate but perhaps that is a subject for a written blog or another video on another occasion but not for now!

Nurses and doctors and other wonderful human beings! Thanks in part to the nurses and doctors and other hospital staff whom I met on those two times in hospital, both times were for me quite unexpected but very real experiences of peace, of shalom – that lovely Hebrew word.  my doctors and nurses, the hospital ward proved to be a peaceful place for me. And that’s going to be the subject of the next video in this set, the fourth video which will have the title “The Shalom-ful Gift”. Thank you.”

Walking through Cancer Valley: 2. All Real Living is Meeting

This is the text of a video on my YouTube channel entitled Walking through Cancer Valley: 2. All Real Living is Meeting.

“Hello. This is the second video in the set under the general title “Walking through Cancer Valley”. The title of this one is “All Real Living is Meeting”.

‘Ubuntu’ is the brand name of a computer operating system but the source of the name is a word in the language of the Xhosa people of Southern Africa and it’s usually rendered in English as “I am because we are”. And this word ‘ubuntu’ has become one of my favourite words in recent years.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu defines it like this: “Ubuntu … speaks to the very essence of being human, saying my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life and so …”, he says, “… we say in our part of the world a person is a person through other persons. It says not: I think therefore I am. It says rather: I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.”

The importance of relationships with others is surely something of which we have become very aware in this time of pandemic. We’ve been unable to meet face-to-face with family members and friends and for some it’s been especially heart-breaking not to be able to be with loved ones who may perhaps be in a Covid ward on a ventilator or in a care home and suffering from dementia.

For me in the hospital ward and for Val and the rest of the family here in Leighton Buzzard or up in Leeds, telephone conversations, text messages, WhatsApp video chats have been such comforting lifelines when visits to the hospital visitation were not allowed. And for me in the hospital, talking with fellow-patients in the time when I was in a shared ward or talking with nurses, doctors and those who brought the meals and those who cleaned the rooms were especially helpful.

How we relate to others is so very important. Martin Buber (from whom I borrowed the quotation which is the title of this video – “all real living is meeting”), Martin Buber famously distinguished between two kinds of relationship, between what he called ‘I-You relationships’ and ‘I-It relationships”. Now you may well think that I-It relationships can have nothing to do with how we relate to other people but Buber pointed out that it is all too possible for us to treat other people not as whole persons, real human beings like ourselves but as objects, as things, as a means to our advancement or our satisfaction.

I recently came across a quotation from the film star of the 1950s and early 60s, Marilyn Munroe, and she was quoted as saying this, “That’s the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing. I hate being a thing.” I googled this quotation and I discovered that it was from an interview with Life magazine, an interview that was published just two days before Marilyn Munroe died in her home in Los Angeles at the age of 36 because of an overdose with barbiturates.

Being related to as a sex symbol is perhaps an extreme example of I-It relation but there are many other less extreme ways in which we may relate to others not as a person but as a thing. We can so easily de-humanise the other person, by for example not really listening to what they say, not putting them first. How often in conversation do we find ourselves not listening to the other person but actually preparing what we’re going to say next!

Jesus said, “Love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy. … Love others as well as you love yourself. There is no other commandment that ranks with these.” That comes from Mark chapter 12, verses 30 and 31, as paraphrased in The Message.

One of the books that I read on Kindle when I was in hospital was The Road to Character by David Brooks and I was deeply moved by what he had to say about what he called ‘The Big Me’ culture and all he had to say about the importance of our love for other people. It’s a recently published book but I wish I could have had it back when I was a teenager just moving into working life!

Talking about how we relate to others and how they relate to us, I’ve mentioned doctors and nurses and other hospital staff and the title of the next video in this set is “Nurses and other Wonderful Human Beings”. Thank you.”

Walking through Cancer Valley: 1. Backs to the Future

This is the text of a video on my YouTube channel entitled Walking through Cancer Valley: 1. Backs to the Future.

“Hello. This is the first of a set of five videos under the general title Walking through Cancer Valley. The title of this one is Backs to the Future.

The world has been in a time of extraordinary uncertainty since the global pandemic hit us. There is no escaping from it. It’s everywhere and we have no idea what life’s going to be like in the future, what the ‘new normal’ may be like.

Did any of us in our wildest nightmares back in 2019 imagine that such an event would happen around the world?! For our part, Val and I sent out our Friends & Family Christmas letter early in December 2019 and it began with these words: “Another year is about to slip into history and a new one is just over the horizon with all its unknowns”. We had no idea that those unknowns would include a global pandemic! And I guess that’s true for probably most of us, if not all of us.

But for Val and me and our family, we also had no idea that those unknowns would include the diagnosis of my cancer, the major surgery that followed and the complications that took me back into hospital over Christmas and New Year. Even though my mother had surgery for bowel cancer when she was eighty, I nevertheless assumed that cancer was something that happened to other people and surely not to me after more than three quarters of a century of relatively good health. I had never been in hospital for more than two or three days and then only for relatively minor conditions. (Oh by the way, my mother lived for another six happy years after her surgery.

And my hospitalisation when a side-effect of the chemotherapy hit me so hard was certainly one of those unknowns. I’d listened to the oncologist and I’d read the literature so I knew that such a development was possible but I didn’t know it was going to happen and with such severe impact.

We think of ourselves, don’t we, as facing the future? The future is something that’s in front of us and the past is behind us. Our younger son, Gareth, when he was only two or three years old, was one day searching for the word ‘yesterday’ and he couldn’t find it. And he said “the day at the back of this one”! So already he had this concept of the future as being in front and the past as being behind.

However, isn’t it the case that, in a real sense, we are all backing into the future. We can see where we have been, we can look back over the past but we can’t see where we’re going. It’s as if we are in a rowing boat and we are rowing facing back and only the Cox can see where we’re going.

I had my own plans for the unseen future, my own understanding of what I wanted to do in the remaining years of my life … to be with my family and friends for much longer … to see our grandsons move into adulthood … to organise and publish in a short online booklet the fruits of years – even decades – of research into my family history … and to continue to teach and write. I wanted to do this … I wanted to do that … but I’ve come to realise that I must commit all those plans to the Lord and submit to him for what he wants and not what I want.

There are some verses in chapter three of the Old Testament book of Proverbs which say this: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” He is the Cox in the boat and he knows what is best for us.

All my plans for the future began to matter less and less and the realisation began to dawn that, although what I may do in the future is important, how I relate here and now is what matters most – how I relate to other people, to God, and to the wonderful world in which we find ourselves. 

And that is the subject of the next video. Thank you.”

Walking through Cancer Valley: INTRO

This is the text of a video on my YouTube channel entitled ‘Walking through Cancer Valley: INTRO‘.

“Hello. This is an introduction to a set of five short videos with the title Walking through Cancer Valley.

The back story starts last summer when I had a blood test which showed that I was very anaemic. This was followed by hospital tests which revealed that I had bowel cancer. On 22nd September, exactly six months ago on the day on which I am making this recording, I had surgery for the removal of my large intestine and the formation of an ileostomy. Eight weeks later, I commenced what was intended to be a three-month course of chemotherapy. However, one of the side-effects made me very ill and I was in hospital over both Christmas and New Year. We decided not to continue with the chemotherapy because anyway it was intended to reduce the already low probability of the cancer returning. Since then I’ve been making steady progress back to health.

Back in November before the side-effect of chemo made me ill, I posted a blog entitled “My Cancer Diagnosis and What I’m Learning”. This listed five things I was learning from the experience of the diagnosis, the resultant surgery and the five videos that follow enlarge upon those lessons and broaden the focus of some of them.

The first is entitled “Backs to the Future” and it deals with the impact of the unexpected developments of the diagnosis, the surgery and the more recent hospitalisation.

The second video video is about relationships, about relationships being what living is all about. The title is “All Real Living is Meeting” (a quotation from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber).

Having been a hospital inpatient for a total of eighteen days in this past six months and having also been there for countless out-patient appointments, I’ve had a lot of contact with nurses and other hospital staff. The third video is entitled “Nurses and other Wonderful Human Beings”.

The fourth video has the title “The Shalom-ful Gift”. The Hebrew word ‘shalom’ is usually translated as ‘peace’. And it is one of my favourite words and indeed it’s a subject that I’ve written and spoken about a lot in recent years. But the experience of these last few months has made me think more about shalom and, in particular, has helped me to see it as a gift from without rather than as an accomplishment from within.

The fifth and final video is about our relationship with the physical creation, the wonderful world of which we are part. Through these recent months, I’ve had cause to become more aware of my physical body, of what it was, what it is and what it will be. The title of the video is “Creation Sings and Creation Groans … and My New Body”.

As I said at the beginning, the title that I’ve given to the whole set is “Walking through Cancer Valley”. Walking has become a very important part of my life since the operation. When I came home from hospital, I was unable to walk more than a few steps unaided. And I’ve been gradually increasing the distance walked each day and it has been a joy on many of these days to walk and talk with one or other family member.

Those are literal walks but the word ‘walk’ is also often used metaphorically as, for example, in the Bible or in the anthem of Liverpool Football Club (“You’ll never walk alone”). I hope you will walk with me through these video reflections and that, as you do, you will find that we are both walking with Someone else, Someone who I believe can make all the difference to a walk through Cancer Valley. Thank you.”

Walking through Cancer Valley (videos)

These are links to a set of videos in which I reflect on my recent experience of a diagnosis of bowel cancer, major surgery and subsequent hospitalisation because a side-effect of chemotherapy had made me very ill.

Walking through Cancer Valley: INTRO

Walking through Cancer Valley: 1. Backs to the Future

Walking through Cancer Valley: 2. All Real Living is Meeting

Walking through Cancer Valley: 3. Nurses and other Wonderful Human Beings

Walking through Cancer Valley: 4. The Shalom-ful Gift

Walking through Cancer Valley: 5. Creation Sings and Creation Groans … and My New Body

My Cancer Diagnosis and What I’m Learning

I’ve been thinking long and hard about writing this blog while the memories are still fresh. Because it is focused on what I, along with Val and our family, have been experiencing in recent weeks, I don’t want it to end up as a me-centred piece but rather as one that leads you (and me) to turn our eyes upon Jesus (as the song puts it). I hope and pray that this will be so.

Here are the things I’ve been learning or that I’ve long known but have been coming to appreciate more deeply and fully:

  1. There are unknown unknowns in life;
  2. Relationships matter most;
  3. Nurses are wonderful human beings;
  4. Peace is a gift from without, not an accomplishment from within; and
  5. Songs and music lie deep within us

What has been happening

First, a brief account of what has been happening in recent months. During the summer, I was at last persuaded to consult my doctor by Val and other family members who had been noticing some signs of ill-health of which I was not really aware.

A blood test revealed that I was quite anaemic and I was referred to hospital for a gastroscopy and colonoscopy. I clutched at the straw that I was merely suffering from pernicious anaemia but, although the gastroscopy was clear, the colonoscopy revealed two tumours of significant size in my large intestine. Biopsies confirmed that they were cancerous.

We were given this diagnosis on Friday 14th August. This was the Friday before a week in which I was co-teaching online with Antony Billington for the Irish Bible Institute. In spite of the news we had just received, it was a great week. It was for an MA module on the theology of work with a lovely group of fifteen students in their homes all over Ireland. One was originally from Brazil and another from Ethiopia so they were both what is referred to as “new Irish” – don’t you love that phrase?!  We were mostly relative strangers to one another at the beginning of the week but, by the end, we were all relating together like old friends. Interaction in both plenary sessions and in that wonderful Zoom provision of break-out rooms really helped us to get to know one another – even though it is not the same as being together in a seminar room.

CT and MRI scans revealed no evidence of the cancer having spread to lungs, liver or lymph nodes but, because the tumours were of significant size and quite a way from each other in my intestine, radical surgery was recommended. This took place on 22nd September and involved the removal of my large intestine and has left me with a permanent ileostomy. I was under anaesthetic for nine hours – a very anxious wait for Val and the rest of the family who because of pandemic restrictions on hospital visiting had to wait for word by telephone. I was in hospital for a week and we were so thankful for communication facilities via phone calls, text messages and WhatsApp.

Although the surgeon assured us that the cancer had been completely removed, the oncologist recommended chemotherapy to lessen the chances of recurrence. This is taking the form of a three-month course of four three-week cycles. It is taking place through a combination of an intravenous drip on the first day of each cycle through a line from my upper arm to a large vein just above my heart followed by two weeks of daily tablets and then a week free from treatment.

The first cycle started last Tuesday and I am pleased to report that, of the many possible side-effects listed in the literature, the ones I have experienced so far have been few and relatively mild. We are hoping that this will continue to be the case.

So what have I been learning in all this?

There are unknown unknowns in life!

Our Christmas 2019 Friends and Family letter opened with these words: “Another year is about to slip into history and a new one is just over the horizon with all its unknowns”. This was written in early December before the news of the pandemic began to break.

Back in 2002, Donald Rumsfeld famously said “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Surely the pandemic has been for all of us an unknown unknown. For me, the diagnosis of cancer was definitely also an unknown unknown. Even though my mother had major surgery for bowel cancer when she was eighty, cancer was something that happened to other people and not to me after 76 years of relatively good health and never more than two or three days in hospital and those few occasions for minor conditions. (My mother lived for another six happy years.)

We think of ourselves as facing the future but, in a real sense, we are all backing into the future. We can see where we have come from but we can’t see where we’re going. We are rowing facing back and only the Cox can see where we are going. (I blogged about that earlier in the year in a piece entitled “It’s about Time!” and that was before the cancer diagnosis!)

My first reaction to the diagnosis was to forget that cancer is not always terminal and to pray along the lines of “Lord, this isn’t fair!  I have so many plans, so many things I want to do!”  I want to be with my family and friends for much longer. I want to see my grandsons moving into adulthood. I want to go on teaching. I want to write more – especially that academic article on “Knowing of the Third Kind” (see another blog of mine with some thoughts on this). I want to put my family history research into a short online booklet with stories of several people from the teenage John Shortt who moved from Tring, Hertfordshire, England to North Tipperary, Ireland in the sixteen forties through the formidable MaryAnne Fitzgerald Shortt who held her family together in the Irish Famine years and my great-aunt Victoria Shortt whom I cannot trace beyond her admission with a baby boy to a London workhouse in 1909. These and so many more plans!

Then I began to see a bigger picture.

Relationships matter most!

All these plans, all these things I want to do but they suddenly began to matter less and less and the realisation began to dawn that it is not what I do but how I relate that really matters – how I relate to others, to God, and to the wonderful world in which we find ourselves. This is about being and loving rather than merely doing things!

One of the books I read on Kindle during that week in hospital was David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” and it moved me deeply with all it had to say about The Big Me culture and about love for others. How I wish I could have had that book when I was starting out in my working life almost sixty years ago!

And talking about relationships …

Nurses are wonderful human beings!

Although I’ve been married to a wonderful and lovely nurse for more than 52 years, that week in hospital gave me fresh insight into what nurses are made of. I think I’m quite good at saying the right things to people who are suffering but I’m not good at thinking of and doing the practical things for them that make a difference. Val is always able to combine care and compassion with leaping into doing the right thing for the suffering person.

I found this to be true also of many of the nurses who cared for me through that week. They could relate to me as if I was the only person who mattered in those minutes and deal matter-of-factedly with very intimate and potentially embarrassing matters affecting this old man in that hospital bed. I realised more deeply that this is what nursing is all about and that these are truly wonderful human beings. One of them shared what it was like to work in a Covid ward earlier in the year and that was very moving.

I am so proud of and so thankful for the British National Health Service. Many of the nurses who cared for me were from mainland Europe and Africa – how they enrich us here in the UK!

The hospital ward proved to be a peaceful place for me.

Peace is a gift from without, not an accomplishment from within!

In recent years, I have written, lectured and preached a lot about shalom as what we should be seeking to promote in our lives and work … and especially in teaching and learning. (If you’re interested you can see, for example, a book chapter I wrote entitled “Education for Shalom: dimensions of a relational pedagogy”.)

However, in that week in hospital after my surgery, it came home to me that shalom/peace is not simply something to be sought and worked up from below but that it is a gift from above. It is not something simply achieved by being still and mindful although that has its place. There is a peace that transcends human understanding of which Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) or as Eugene Peterson renders it, “I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace. I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft. So don’t be upset. Don’t be distraught.”

In an email we sent out to friends and family, I wrote “The experience is like that of being a little child questioning its Dad and perhaps complaining and wanting to be told everything and having him simply say ‘Shush now, little one’.”  One friend wrote back with a quotation from Zephaniah 3:17: “He will quiet you with his love”.

During that week, I think I must have uttered within more Hallelujahs than I had for years!  Mind you, some were of the Handel’s Messiah type and some were Leonard Cohen’s “broken hallelujahs”. (see http://johnshortt.org/two-hallelujahs/.)  Carey Landry’s lovely adaptation of “Peace is Flowing like a River” also came floating by me.

Don’t you find that songs often come “floating by”?!

Songs and music lie deep within us!

Thanks to a schooling in Ireland in the fifties that made much of memorising poems and songs, I’ve done quite a bit of memorising of Bible passages in recent decades and performing them in lectures, seminars and sermons. However, strangely enough in that week in hospital, I found it easier in the night to recall hymns and songs from childhood and youth than these more recently memorised passages.

There were those I had learned in childhood in that little country church like “Saviour, send a blessing to us”, “Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us” and “Immortal, invisible, God only wise”. There were also those which I came to love around the time that I came to trust the Lord as a seventeen-year-old in Dublin like “How Great Thou Art” and “Amazing Grace”. There were those I learned in Bible College in Glasgow (where Val and I first met) and in a summer conference centre by the River Clyde like “I want my life to be all filled with praise to thee”. (I’ve googled the words but I can’t find it online.)  “Christ is risen, hallelujah!” also became a favourite at that time.

I found that I could remember from childhood all the verses of John Newton’s “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds”. One of them runs, “Jesus! my Saviour, Shepherd, Friend, / My Prophet, Priest, and King; / My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End, / Accept the praise I bring.”  There are ten sermon titles there!  I’ve preached on one of them under the title “Our Forever Friend”. (If you are interested, you can go text and slides). Maybe I’ll get to speak on others sometime.

Music and songs lie deep within us. Alzheimer’s Disease sufferers come alive with music and song.

Time to wrap up!

But first let’s sing with Abba, “Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing / Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing / Who can live without it? I ask in all honesty / What would life be?”

Thank you too, Lord, that you know the unknown unknowns. Thank you too for the relationships. Thank you for the wonderful human beings who are nurses and especially for one of them whom I’ve known for all these years and love with all my heart. And thank you for the gift of peace, the gift of shalom.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

God’s Many-Coloured Works of Art

No, this is not about Joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat of musical fame! It is about God’s creativity … and what we can learn about it from some things Paul says in his letter to his friends in Ephesus.

Thinking about this was triggered by a recent Facebook post by Claudia Beversluis of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This took me, with Charles Strohmer’s help, to one of his own ‘Waging Wisdom’ blogs. Then, out of the blue, came Matt Tuttlebee, an Irish friend of mine, and a ‘Bundoran Bible Reflection’ video that he made and posted on Facebook. During this time, I was also in touch with Alexandra Kingswell, another old friend, about her artistic designs.

It has all come together in a four-part harmony which I hope you will find helpful. (I don’t know who sings soprano and who alto or who tenor and who bass!)

  1. ‘God’s many coloured / many textured wisdom’ (Ephesians 3:10)

The story begins on June 7th with a sharing of a Facebook post by Tom Hoeksema, a good friend who was Head of the Education Department at Calvin College (now Calvin University) when I was a visiting teacher there on several occasions in the Noughties. What Tom had shared was a piece by Claudia Beversluis, a Calvin colleague, about the meaning of the Greek word polupoikilos and its significance for the current debate about racism.

Claudia says that she loves markets because they “are usually places filled with color, texture, smell, sound, chaos, and beauty”. So, she points out, when Paul writes in Ephesians 3:10 that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God will be made known”, the word polupoikilos translated ‘manifold’ is not an academic word. It is “a marketplace word, a word of the street, a word for colors and textures, and fabrics, and art”. It means many coloured or many textured!

She goes on to say that Paul’s wonder, surprise and delight can be heard in this passage. She imagines him exclaiming: “What we thought was in monochrome – look! It’s in purple, and green, and red and blue! This God has a different story than the one we thought was happening, and I, Paul – am alive to tell it!”

The wonder for Paul was the coming together of Jewish and Gentile Christians in one people of God. The wonder for us is of people from innumerable cultures coming together as the people of God. “Dividing walls of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) are destroyed and, in this many coloured, many textured people of God, we are “being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives” (2:22).

2. ‘God’s handiwork / poem / masterpiece’ (Ephesians 2:10)

The story continues. Thinking about what Claudia had written triggered a memory for me. It was a recollection of reading or hearing at some time or other that where Paul says just a few verses earlier in Ephesians 2:10 that we are “God’s handiwork”, the translation could be “God’s work of art”. I mentioned this in a message to another good friend, Charles Strohmer whom you have met already in these blogs. He immediately sent me a link to a blog he had published five years ago and I realised that was almost certainly the source for which my aged memory was casting around.

Charles entitles his blog ‘Christ the Editor’ and he points out that the word translated ‘workmanship’ is poiēma. He says that this word was derived from a word for all kinds of craftmanship. In Homer’s time it was used for pieces crafted from metal and “it developed into a word that often denoted what we today would call artistic work, including the work of someone who wrote a book or a play. Plato and others after him also used poiēma especially of poetical works.”

Charles reflects on how great poems get written: “Just as every note in a musical score is significant, every word in a poem tells, and tells significantly. And it does not line up that way by chance or sloth. Poetry, with its compact, exact language and precise punctuation, may be the most carefully crafted and painstakingly written, and edited, form of communication. Poets will fight tooth and nail with a publisher over placement of a comma.”

He goes on to picture Christ as the editor working with us on the stories of our lives and replying after we have submitted a revised draft:

“Patience,” Christ the Editor responds. “You’re making good progress, but we’ve still got a few wrinkles to iron out. You have a tendency to get ahead of yourself or fall behind or forget about a change that’s been made. And you are still inclined to insist on keeping material from the old story.

“I know it’s slow and painful at times. I get that. But keep in mind that I’ve already been sending parts of your story around for reviews and, as you know, they’re being well-received. So hang in there. You want that masterpiece I promised, don’t you?

“So when will you have that next draft ready for me?”

3. God the Restorer / Master Craftsman

The story continues with me musing on what Claudia and Charles had written about these passages in Ephesians. I looked up the account in Acts 19 of Paul’s two-year stay in Ephesus and was reminded that it all ended with a riot which was started by “a silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis”. He called together “the craftsmen” for whom the worship of Artemis/Diana “brought in a lot of business” and also “the workers in related trades” (19:24-25) and soon the whole city was in an uproar.

So Ephesus was the home of skilled craftsmen whose trade had a “good name” (19:27). Paul himself was a tent-maker and it seems that he worked at his craft during those two years in Ephesus because he says in his later farewell message to his friends in Ephesus, “you yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions” (Acts 20:34).

In the midst of these thoughts early on June 14th, I found myself watching and listening to an 8-minute video uploaded to Facebook that morning by an Irish friend, Matt Tuttlebee. In his ‘Bundoran Bible Reflection’ entitled ‘The Longing for Restoration’, Matt says that he loves a good restoration project and goes on to talk about the work he did for a friend in restoring a table, bench and chairs that had looked “tired and sad, rickety and brittle” and were “ravaged by woodworm and water damage”.

Matt then refers to Ephesians 2:10 about our being God’s handiwork. He says that God’s work in our lives can be painful because it will “expose faults of which we were not aware or didn’t want to face”. Restoring the table and chairs required abrasive processes such as planing and sanding the wood. God, the Master Craftsman, is also “patient and gentle with us” like the furniture restorer staining the wood and waiting for the paint to dry.

4. God the Inspirer of Art

Through the days of this developing story, I was also in touch with another friend, Alexandra Kingswell, about her artistic work. When I first knew Alex back in the nineties, she was doing great work in designing the classroom materials that teams of teachers had worked on together and which we published for the Charis Project.

Since then, Alex has become a designer of beautiful one-off textile artwork in which, as she says on her website, she “explores the creative potential of number, proportion, sequence and colour”. A number of her works make use of the Fibonacci Sequence. I was in touch with her by email because I was then working on my recent blogs about the Fibonacci numbers and the Golden Ratio.

In one of her emails, Alex said that she loves “those (Old Testament) passages that talk of God designing the fabrics in the temple and His equipping of artisans with skill to do the work”. This took me to some Old Testament passages. Exodus 28 tells of skilled workers to whom God had given wisdom to make priestly garments for Aaron using “gold, and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and fine linen” (28:5). 2 Chronicles 2 tells of preparations for building the temple and mentions “Huram-Abi, a man of great skill, … trained to work in gold and silver, bronze and iron, stone and wood, and with purple and blue and crimson yarn and fine linen. He is experienced in all kinds of engraving and can execute any design given to him. He will work with your skilled workers.” (2:13-14)

Alex’s work is that of a skilled artist and it surely displays the many coloured wisdom of God that Claudia Beversluis tells us about.

All of this applies at the level of the individual person who trusts Christ. God is at work in us as individuals to transform us into the image of Christ but we surely cannot stop with an individualistic account.

It is the whole people of God of innumerable cultures that is his many coloured work of art. In what Tom Wright in his recent ‘Undermining Racism’ talk calls “polychrome unity”, all the colours have their place as have all the notes in a piece of music, all the words in a poem, all the components of Matt’s beautiful upcycled table and chairs, and all the pieces that make up Alex’s textiles.

Let us pray.

Lord, you came as a man and worked for many years in the skilled craft of carpentry in Nazareth. In you all things hold together. Help us to use the creative gifts that you have given us in a way that attracts people to you and brings you honour and praise. Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

Nature by Numbers (Part Two)

We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body.” (Colossians 1:15-18, The Message)

Paul says in Colossians that in Christ all things hold together. In Part One of this blog, I tried to explain an example of this in how the Fibonacci numbers are found in the natural world. Now in Part Two, I will try to do the same for the Golden Ratio, a ratio that is found both in the natural world and in arts created by human beings.

What is the Golden Ratio?

In Part One, we saw that the Fibonacci Sequence is a sequence of numbers that starts with 1 and 1 and in which the next number is obtained by adding the two previous ones. 1 + 1 = 2, 1 + 2 = 3, 2 + 3 = 5, 3 + 5 = 8 so the sequence is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, … and so on ad infinitum.

Before we go any further, I suggest that you stop reading at this point and view a 7:31 minute TED talk entitled ‘The (ab)surd golden ratio’ by Robb Enzmann‘ of Miami University.

I hope you found that informative and enjoyable. Now for more on how this ratio links with the Fibonacci numbers and how it occurs in the natural world.

The Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci numbers

As Professor Enzmann shows in the TED talk, as we go through the Fibonacci numbers dividing each one by the one before it, the answers converge on a number that begins 1.6180339887 …..

1/1 = 1, 2/1 = 2, 3/2 = 1.5, 5/3 = 1.666…, 8/5 = 1.6, 13/8 = 1.625, 21/13 = 1.61538…

This number is an irrational number like pi (π). In other words, it goes on for ever and cannot be expressed as a fraction for any whole numbers. (0.33333… goes on for ever but it can be expressed as 1/3.) The Golden Ratio is represented by the Greek letter phi (φ).

This can be presented visually by making a picture starting with two small squares of size 1×1 next to each other. On top of them, we can draw a 2×2 square. Beside them we can then draw a 3×3 square and below them a 5×5 square and so on for as long as we like.

Each addition of a square makes the whole into a rectangle – 3×2, 5×3, 8×5, 13×8,… . As the process continues, the whole approximates more and more closely to a rectangle with sides in ratio 1.6180339887… to 1, i.e. a Golden Rectangle.

Golden Spirals in nature

The quarter circles shown above inside the squares form a spiral that approximates to what is known as the Golden Spiral or Phi Spiral.

This spiral often appears in the natural world. Examples include the shapes of sea shells and the shells of snails. The Nautilus sea shell is a frequently quoted and pictured example.

I have seen accounts which say this spiral is also seen in the shape of water spiralling down a drain, waves on the sea, hurricanes, and spiral galaxies. However, I notice that such examples are not usually mentioned by mathematicians so I am hesitant about saying that this is definitely the case. As Ian Stewart says, the literature can be “long on speculation but short on fact”.[1]

One undisputed example is in the case of the spirals we met in Part One – the spirals in seed heads and florets of composite flowers, e.g., the flower pictured at the top of this blog. The angle between primordial cells in the growth of the plant is crucial to the optimal packing of florets or seed heads and this angle is 137.5 degrees and is known as the Golden Angle. Only this angle leads to seeds with no overlaps or gaps. This is represented beautifully in Cristobal Vila’s ‘Nature by Numbers’ video (starting at 1:40 minutes).

At this point, I want to sing with Louis Armstrong (with tears in my eyes as he had in his!) ‘What a Wonderful World’!

The Golden Ratio in Architecture, Art, Music, …

The Golden Ratio has been known since the days of Pythagoras and Euclid. In his TED talk, Robb Enzmann says that it was known to the Mayans. It is therefore possible that it was known from early times by some architects, painters, sculptors, musicians and poets and deliberately incorporated in their work. On the other hand, there are many who hail the Golden Rectangle as the shape most pleasing to the eye and claim that it therefore is likely to occur naturally in artistic creations without deliberate and conscious intention.

The idea that the Golden Rectangle is the most pleasing shape is open to criticism. In his TED talk, Rob Erzmann quotes research done in the 19th century when people were given a group of rectangles and asked to pick their favourite one. The one he picks out on the screen as being most often chosen is not the Golden Rectangle. However, not knowing about any such research, I often gave this task to students when I was teaching Mathematics and I have to say they usually chose the Golden Rectangle!  Perhaps they had read up about it in advance and just wanted to give the answer their teacher expected!

Closeness of approximations to phi is also an issue. Mathematicians tend to shudder when they see phi rounded down to 1.6 and claims made that Golden Rectangles are present on the basis of such rough approximations. They tend to be happier with the observation that the proportions of the credit card are very close to the Golden Ratio. Did it just happen that way … or was that ratio deliberately chosen?

Architecture: Golden Rectangles are claimed to exist in buildings as old as the Parthenon of Athens and the Great Pyramid of Giza. The approximations are reasonably good but there no documents to show whether this was intentional.

In modern times, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier and others have intentionally made use of the Golden Ratio in their designs.

The Core, the education building at Cornwall’s Eden Project, was inspired by the plant architecture of sunflower heads. Eden’s director of learning, Dr Jo Readman, says, “We wanted a building the shape of a sunflower and the size of a spaceship. Nature has a fundamental blueprint which goes beyond DNA. We have translated that blueprint into the structure of this amazing building.”

Painting and Sculpture: Close approximations to the Golden Rectangle may exist in the work of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Seurat and Mondrian. Some cubist and modern painters, e.g., Salvador Dali in his The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, have deliberately sought to use the Golden Rectangle in their work.

Ron Knott says that there are clearly Golden Ratios in Graham Sutherland’s huge tapestry of ‘Christ the King’ behind the altar in Coventry Cathedral.

Music: The Golden Ratio has also been claimed to exist in the compositions of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, Debussy and Bartók. Some modern composers have deliberately sought to use Fibonacci numbers in their work.

In an interesting video entitled ‘The Golden Ratio and Fibonacci Sequence in Music’, classical pianist Nahre Sol and drummer LA Buckner discuss what are called ‘Phi moments’. These occur when the climax of a piece of music occurs at a point in the whole that lands close to the Golden Ratio. Examples they give include ‘Under Pressure’ by Queen and David Bowie and ‘In My Feelings’ by Drake and they suggest that Phi moments occur naturally and these musicians weren’t “writing songs with calculators by their sides”.

What should we conclude from all this? It is clearly the case that many creative people find the Golden Rectangle to be a pleasing shape albeit not necessarily the most pleasing shape. Their art deliberately imitates nature and therefore reflects natural beauty.  On the other hand, even though exaggerated claims are often made by the over-enthusiastic who see the Golden Ratio everywhere, it seems to me quite likely that human creativity should unconsciously and without deliberate intent manifest these beautiful proportions. They are clearly there in the natural world and most clearly in the plant kingdom so it is hardly surprising that they should be present in works of human creation. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world!

Let us pray

Creator God, we thank you for the wonderful and beautiful world you have made and for the beauty of so much architecture, paintings, sculptures, music, song, poetry that we human beings, made in your image, have made and do make. Help us to recognise and appreciate beauty wherever we find it and to discover and employ our own creative gifts. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.


[1] Ian Stewart, ‘Nature by Numbers’, The Times, 5 May 2011.