Pause for Hope reflection by the late Bishop David Sheppard
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
Bishop David Sheppard Homily 2004
I come to the Cathedral today, not so much as a preacher as a fellow patient. And the Cathedral is a fitting place to meet and to pause for hope. Like many of you, I have been living with cancer for a number of years. I come to express how thankful I am for the skill and care of so many; of doctors, surgeons, nurses, Macmillan nurses, District Nurses, Researchers, administrators, secretaries, and those who make sure that we arrive at the right moment for the appointment; maintenance engineers who keep the machines working, phlebotomists who take the blood (I've seen a great deal of them!) cleaners and porters - oh and many more.
This great team so often goes the second mile. Last, but not least, I thank my own family, friends and neighbours who are there day after day providing love and practical care through all the ups and downs. So thank you all. I also thank God for the gift of life that has become so much more precious these days. It is worth fighting for.
But I come not only as a patient. I come unashamedly as a preacher too - for I profoundly believe there is good news. St Paul described an illness he was facing: "Three times", he says, I begged the Lord to take it away; but His answer was, "My grace is all you need. Power comes to its full strength in weakness". He goes on, "I am well content, for Christ's sake, with weakness; for when I am weak, then I am strong". What a strange thing to say. But St Paul had discovered something. His knowledge of Christ helped him to accept his suffering, and move on.
I believe that the grace of God, undeserved as it is, is the greatest resource we have. It is a gift. That grace enables us to accept what otherwise we find unacceptable. Acceptance is not the same as resignation. Being resigned to something means that we give up the fight. Acceptance is much more positive. It is active and can change our whole approach.
There is another resource which is part of this grace. It is what I think of as "The fellowship of cancer care". I meet this fellowship, for example, when I come to the cash point in the supermarket. There is often an encouraging greeting from my fellow cancer patient who is on the till. There is mutual support from our different yet shared experiences of cancer. This sharing is part of God's grace and I rejoice in it. It gives us hope.
More than forty years ago, Grace, my wife, was suffering from ovarian cancer in the London Hospital. One of the cleaners brought her a message from an older friend saying that she too was a patient in the hospital. Messages went to and fro. Grace told her that she was anxious that our daughter, who was only three, might grow up without a mother. Elisabeth, the friend, told her that her daughter was small when she first had cancer, and was now grown up with her own family. Now my wife is in full health, is caring for me - and our daughter has two boys of her own.
These moments when we pause for hope and share it can bring great encouragement. We can bring the grace of God to other people -and to our children. And we will be helping to reduce the fear that so many still have of the big C. We can help each other to live with cancer, while fighting it as well.
Let me share one of my stories: one day, soon after my first bowel cancer operation, my surgeon came to visit me. I realised I must do what I was told. She had already made it very clear that I should never cross my legs. She stood at the foot of my bed. Without thinking, I had crossed my legs again. Quietly, without a word, she uncrossed them, for me…I have never crossed them again!
There is so much for us to learn as patients: how to be patient… how to be gracious as we receive from others, especially from our carers. Quality of life becomes so much more important than quantity. If our days are limited, each one becomes more precious. Grace and I have found these three and a half years more special than ever.
There are many thank you's to say today - none more than to our carers. Willingly, they keep track for us of all those pills every day: they chauffeur us to hospital and back - and wait for us there - there's a lot of waiting: they maintain the home base; keep the news of our health up to date with family and friends; some do the work of professional nurses. And there's still more; in the Bible it speaks of "receiving angels unawares". We have a ring at the door, and see a friend standing there with a saucepan of soup, or a phone call offering to do the shopping. In fact, Grace has put up a list of "angels" in our kitchen - friends who have offered practical help that we can turn to when there is a need.
Even this week we had a letter from someone who said he remembered us in prayer every day. That too is part of God's grace - and gives us hope. But life is even more than this support and comfort that we receive each day. Short term comfort in this life is extended into long term Christian hope. We know that there is a valley that we must walk through one day. Last Sunday night I watched Michael Palin on television travelling precariously through rugged Himalayan valleys with frightening drops from time to time. Perhaps you watched the programme too. As their truck approached a lorry coming the other way along the narrow track, the precipice at the side seemed perilously close.
As I watch the next part of his Himalayan journey tonight, I shall remind myself of those great words from the Psalms. "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for Thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff comfort me". That is God's promise - to walk with us through the darkest of valleys.
I pray that this fellowship of cancer care may bring strong hands of support to each of us here - to patient, carer and families - and to all those involved in the National Health Service and Research, as together we grapple with the mystery of suffering. Sometimes we feel very weak, but I hope my text from St Paul may come back to mind: "My grace is all you need. Power comes to its full strength in weakness". That is my hope and my belief.
May God be with us now and always.