‘Grace unto you, and peace, from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ’ This phrase by Paul, addressed to the church at Thessalonica in 54 AD. It is one of those introductory verses we often skip, lacking something to say or think about it, as we pass on to the ‘meat’ of an epistle. ‘Grace’ means ‘unmerited favour’. If someone was unkind to you, and you were kind in return, that would be grace. Straining to adjust the focus to God’s grace, with a correct view of our state in sin, any favour shown towards us, rebels, iniquitous as we are, is far above anything that could be imagined issuing from a human heart. No doubt Paul could act graciously to these people he had recently visited. But any other name, including Paul’s, would empty the verse of any real use to readers. As great as it would be to receive grace from Paul, he died long ago. Even when he was alive, Paul could not be everywhere at once. God, being everywhere, and eternal, is actually present with me while I read the words, even in the words. It is wonderful, vital, powerful truth to me that the simple words on the page actually convey God’s grace to me, almost 2000 years after they were written to these Thessalonians. The words remind me of gospel blessings: Jesus’ perfect obedience to God’s law counts for me, just as the dreadful punishment my sin deserves was borne by him on Calvary’s cross. Reconciled to God the Father, I inherit an eternal home with him and all his saints. But the words are more than a reminder; they are alive through the Holy Spirit and afford a moment of fellowship with my gracious Friend, whom to know is life eternal. I have tried to take Rev. Jim Elliff’s parenting advice with my four children: he suggested taking them off, one at a time, ‘into the wilds’ to spend quality time together. The first to get this treatment was Padrig, then aged ten. In May 2008 he toiled up Pen-y-Fan, South Wales’ highest peak, and then the clouds came over, pelting his face with hail. Through the sobs he began reciting Psalm 46 the whole of which we’d recently been learning... ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble...’ It was a touching moment to watch and hear him draw courage in that way then, but soon he would have a far more arduous trial to cope with. In August 2008, we aborted our first camping holiday abroad, in France because Padrig was in excruciating neck pain. The hurried return journey was harrowing. After being assessed by many different medical staff, Padrig was eventually diagnosed with medulloblastoma (malignant brain tumour). The operations, radiotherapy and year of chemotherapy were very tough. In December 2009, Pads was scanned again and the result was clear. But five months later, he sensed a familiar feeling: a scan revealed the unthinkable had happened. Against the odds, and to universal dismay, the tumour was back. More surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy followed. This time the chemo was so harsh that his own stem-cells were harvested to ‘re-boot’ his immune system afterwards. Apart from the very lowest moments of agony, he really has not complained at all. God has sustained us. We have found His promises a sure soul-foundation. All the suffering is real, we are not stoics. The Bible communicates the grace of God which transforms pain into blessing. Pads still asks me to sing his hymn before the light goes out, ‘Oh, the deep, deep love of Jesus’. Few there are who avoid the trials of this life, either for themselves or someone close. The Apostle Paul knew more than his fair share, but when he writes, ‘I take pleasure in infirmities’, because they press home the immense and eternal blessings and benefits of being reconciled to our Glorious Maker through gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.Pads is quite weary, spending most mornings in bed so the Chippenham conference was out of the question on Saturday - he was given a special dispensation to go last time, being too young at the time. At lunch I remembered I'd ordered a cream tea for him as it represented good value and I knew he'd not want the scone!
He's getting some of the symptoms he remembers from the first time the tumour made it's presence felt, but thankfully none of the pain, and his cough has tailed off almost completely.