I can say Alleluia!


I wake on Easter morning with my wife’s kiss. “Christ is Risen!” she smiles. I hesitate before responding, “He is risen indeed.” it is a great day, but I feel just pain behind and in front. The Psalmist’s words were louder in my mind than Easter’s liturgical cry: ” Fat bulls of Bashan surround me on every side.” Back pain behind and gastritis before fill my consciousness. in the same breath, I pray, “You are behind me and before: such knowledge is too wonderful for me,”, and I feel the truth of Psalm 139 deep within.
But it is not enough to get me to celebrate the Great Feast in the company of fellow-Christians. I deal with disappointment by turning to the gospel account of the first Easter morning.
I have been reading Brendan Byrne’s “theological reading of Mark’s Gospel” – A Costly Freedom, and it being in the Year of Mark, I turn to Mark 16. It is exciting to re-read the Greek: so much new is there!
Three women leave for the tomb “very early in the morning” (verse 2), between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. This, according to my hospice nurse wife, is the low time, the time when death often creeps through the house of the dying and claims those who are ready. It is a time of intense dark, and for most, the deepest sleep. Yet in Mark’s Easter story, they arrive “just as the sun was rising.” Easter is a dawn that arrives before expected, the good news that tears away the deepest darkness! The first Easter, and all those that follow, are extraordinary dawns.

As the Sun Was Rising
As the Sun Was Rising

The story moves on. I smile at the colloquial translation of verse 4(c) that springs to mind. The women are amazed that the stone is rolled away: it was a “bloody great boondie”! This whole business with the stone is amazing. The women discover that it has been moved by “lifting up their eyes and gazing” – the word theoriein calls to mind both wonder and the deep seeing of meditation.” its removal is literally “apocalyptic”, a heavenly revelation.

And then verse 5: “they enter into, into” – the preposition is repeated – the tomb, the realm of death. This detail sets Mark’s resurrection narrative apart from Matthew’s and Luke’s. The three women here enter deeply into the experience of death (“baptised into his death ” (Rom.3.6 perhaps?)) This is more than grief, although the grief is profound, like Jacob’s at the supposed death of Joseph.
This is a mythical experience of the profundity of death; Orpheus going into the place of the dead to retrieve Eurydice, and the lost possibility of new life with her. This is the place where many of Mark’s original readers may have been – in the hell of persecution or martyrdom. This is the place where true disciples must take shelter before they can shout the joy of Easter.
In my pain and disappointment this morning, I can identify some way with the women going into, right into, the place of death.
This also means I can identify with the hope put into the angel’s mouth: I too am looking for Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified One, the Risen One. Any emptiness I experience is because “he is not here” (verse 6). I too can experience the thrill of being called again to discipleship and mission, “go and tell the disciples that they will see him again.”

Best of all Mark’s “shorter ending” with its abruptness restores to me the sense of being included in this ongoing mission of God. The other Gospels describe many Appearances of the Risen Jesus. Mark doesn’t crowd me out with the experiences of others. Mark trusts that my experience will be authentic on its own terms.
Even though I struggle with pain that takes my breath away, I can feel his breath filling me with new life. He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Walking with the Risen One
Walking with the Risen One

A Ditter


Changing topic altogether: learning to live with the new social networked internet.

A DITTER
IF you want to be up to date,
to fit in with the glitter,
then you’ll learn to communicate
with the new wondrous Twitter.

Darwin taught that those who survive
are environmentally fitter;
so talk and talk to stay alive
on organism Twitter.

For serious talkers only:
not to giggle or titter,
stop from being lonely –
Put your faith in Twitter.

If you cannot make a page,
then ask the baby-sitter,
who’ll say it’ll take you an age
to communicate with Twitter.

It will keep you up all night,
this new-born cyber-critter.
It’ll give you depth all right:
just you stick with Twitter.

Ted Witham

The Glory of God is people fully alive

“Hope is engaged in the weaving of experience now in the process, or in other words, an adventure going forward.”


Yesterday I discussed with my doctor changing the frequency of one of my medications. This involved charting my reactions to the drug, a discussion with the doctor, who telephoned the specialist after appointment. Later in the day, the doctor rang me back with the conclusions of his discussion with the specialist. I had to explain all this to my wife when she came home from work. Today, I must collect a new prescription from the doctor’s surgery and take it to the pharmacist and discuss it with him.

Chronic illness is like that. It is so easy for the illness to become that the main preoccupation of my thinking, and relations with others.

The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel writes, “Thus there is a risk that illness will make of me that deformed creature, a catalogued and professionalised invalid, who thinks of himself as such and contracts in all respects, the habitus of illness. … In so far as I hope, I detach myself from this inner determinism.”

Living well with chronic illness requires making a fundamental choice about who I am. I can choose to be a person with chronic pain, a sick person, a “catalogued and professionalised invalid.” Alternatively, I can choose to be a full human being, not defined by my illness, or any other single characteristic, but seeking a balanced and rich life.

This choice must be made every day. I learn how to live well with my illness from my experience as a Christian disciple. The framework of my life includes the habit of Morning Prayer. Every morning I need to be reminded that “new every morning is the love”

Peace at Ile des Pins
Peace at Ile des Pins
whose energy permeates my life. Every morning, I need to be reminded to choose God, to choose life rather than death, to choose to walk a creative path rather than to crawl in sin.

Every morning, I make the choice anew to live in the moment. How destructive it is to dwell in the past, or to worry in the future. “Hope is engaged in the weaving of experience now in the process, or in other words, an adventure going forward.” (Marcel again.)

This way of life is both practical and profoundly spiritual because it is both a more enjoyable and more integrated way for the mind/body/spirit to live.

The second century theologian Irenaeus saw the vision of the glory of God as people really alive (Gloria Dei vivens homo). Living with chronic pain need not reflect a disappointment with the Creator, making a mess of his creation. Living with chronic pain, when the creative path of living fully in the present moment is chosen, can truly glorify God.

Trust: when to hang on, and when to let go


“Let yourself go.” In the boys’ school where I worked, I was often part of the team that took groups of boys out into the bush on camps. One of the favourite activities was abseiling. We would find a suitable cliff in the bush, perhaps 10 metres high. The instructor would go to the top of the cliff with the boys. The other staff member and I stayed at the bottom ready to belay the abseilers as they came over the top.

Letting go
Letting go

This was a moment of great terror for the new boys. We would hear the instructor telling the lad how to put on his safety ropes and clamps. We would hear him coaxing the boy to walk backwards, “Just keep walking backwards. You can keep walking backwards over the cliff. Don’t worry, the ropes will hold you!” Then just as we could see the person beginning to overhang, we would hear the instructor, “Now just let yourself go!”

There is a moment of free-fall just as you overbalance the cliff and before the ropes slide to hold you. The boys used to describe that moment as sweet terror. I would shoot a video of each one as they came down the cliff to the base. We would show the film that evening. “That’s me!” each would shoot, “That’s when I went over.”

The abseiling became a rite of passage for several years. Each lad would remember a moment of terror followed by an experience of trustworthy ropes and belayers.

Dealing with chronic pain takes courage, too. And a lot of it is about trust, the kind of trust that “lets go”.

There is another kind of trust, which is trusting by hanging on. We think if we grit our teeth and hold on, we will prevail. But that kind of trust, the hanging on tight kind of trust, will ultimately fail. It’s trusting in oneself, in a person’s own ability to hang on. Arrive at a point where we can no longer hang on, and that trust is gone.

I tried to hang on when my chronic pain worsened in 2002. “God wants me in this demanding job,” I told myself, “so if I hang on to God, God will bring me through.” The problem was that I was trusting, not God, but my own ability to hang in there. In the end, my own ability was not enough.

When I remembered that moment of sweet terror in abseiling, I knew what I had to do. I resigned from my job at the end of 2003. That was a messy process. I tried to work from home as a consultant, and began to let go. When I found myself in hospital in 2004, not just once, but three times, I knew things were entirely out of my control. All I could do, and can do now, is sink into the trust. It is a matter of stepping backwards over the edge, into the unknown and the uncertainty, and waiting for the ropes and the clamps to gently take my weight.

Belaying
Belaying

There were boys who were not too good at abseiling. They would get started, and then be filled with fear. They grabbed hold of the main rope and tried to haul themselves up. Watching below, you could see they were safe – their rope supports were still in place – but their descent was awkward. They would swing into the face of the cliff, sometimes bruising an elbow. They would spin out of control, and only stop by tangling a foot in the rope. Sometimes they were jerked into a hanging position: given the position of the main clamp between their legs this was an uncomfortable manoeuvre. They still got down, but it was the hard way. The most elegant parts of their descent were still when they let go and let the system of ropes, clamps and pulleys gently bring them down.

I have to say that that still happens to me. I know the principle, but I still come down the hard way, the clumsy way. I begin to worry about finances, or about Centrelink, or about being able to travel far enough for family gatherings, and the moment I worry, my life jerks out of control again. I try to solve things by my own strength, sell some writing, perhaps, to help the income stream, or take a journey and suffer for it after.

‘Letting yourself go’ is not an easy thing to do. But having got to the top of the cliff and stepped over, I now know that it is possible. I need to find people who’ve abseiled themselves and ask for their encouragement. The more I let go, the more graceful my progress will be.

The Messenger reviews my book


I am proud of the review by Ruth McIntyre in February’s Anglican Messenger. Her comments are generous. Read them below.

In the Messenger
In the Messenger

SUFFERERS OF chronic pain, and those who care for them, will find great comfort in this short book. It does not recommend throwing away the prescribed medication, but offers carefully described ways to make the most of a life that must be lived as well as possible.

As Ted Witham writes: Pain disables us. Pain takes us out of circulation – it seems to erect barriers between us and our families, our friends and our work. Pain imprisons us. At its worst, pain claims our total attention, and we can do nothing else but react in anguish.

How then to cope? In twelve steps, each detailing ways of understanding, Ted Witham offers his own experiences of meditation with exercises that will challenge other sufferers.

Refreshingly honest in approach, Living Well discusses the accompanying depression of chronic pain and suggests ways that will help to overcome it. Spiritual responses are thoughtfully underpinned with practical methods of approach.

Practical and emotional support is highly desirable and the writer has produced a manual to accompany the text. Walking the 12 Spiritual Steps with those in Chronic Pain: The Manual for spouses, friends and pastoral carers (Spirit-Ed 2008 ) is carefully and thoughtfully presented to help people closely involved with the affected person to gain increased knowledge and understanding. How is it possible to be truly helpful and supportive without impinging on the dignity and privacy of the person with chronic pain? What inner struggles are likely to be standing in the way of accepting the burden of pain and probably affecting the relationship?

Ted Witham, though a priest himself, places no great restrictions on the views of God held by those who seek help. There is room to develop knowledge and grace on this journey of pain and he shares his experiences, both practical and spiritual. as guides to enrich the lives of others. Relevant readings from the Scriptures are suggested for each of the steps.

Pain Management Programmes have the capacity to improve the patient’s quality of life, reduce suffering and distress and provide a more satisfactory lifestyle. They are not designed to eliminate pain or provide the patient with a cure. (Australian Pain Society: http://www.apsoc.org)

The Book's Cover
Living Well: The Book's Cover
Ted Witham is equally realistic. His goal is abundant living – the best quality of life that is possible – and that will include taking part in some of the things patients want to do and activities that are important to them.

If chronic pain is a problem to you or someone you love, this book and its guide will prove invaluable.

Ruth McIntyre