There are “times that try men’s souls,” wrote Thomas Paine; and that Friday evening at 9:30 came after a time that had been more trying than most.
It began with the results of a biopsy. “I’m afraid it’s cancer,” the surgeon told my wife.
The day of the operation was fixed. We had arranged a week’s vacation in the Yorkshire Dales immediately before, “to take our minds off things.” But when we returned, it was to news that an MRI had revealed a larger cancer than the ultrasound had found, together with a second, smaller one. The first operation was canceled and a date scheduled for a more comprehensive one.
That second date seemed an eternity coming (in fact, it was less than two weeks). The operation was performed on a Thursday afternoon, I visited Anita not more than an hour after the end of the operation, and there she was, bristling with tubes, unnaturally pale, and breathing with the aid of an oxygen mask. I left the hospital with Anita looking awful but recovering.
By visiting time on Friday evening things were beginning to look a little better. For one thing, there were fewer tubes. And after my visit I felt like taking a walk before resuming my duty by the telephone at home.
The Long, Difficult Road
I chose to walk home via a circular road along the outer limits of the hospital grounds. My mind was a jumble of pictures. One of the pictures that surfaced was of a lesson on the London Blitz I had taught years before, my description of the fear among those who hid from bombs in air-raid shelters, and the response of one of the pupils: “Well, sir, they knew we would win in the end, didn’t they?”
The point had been, of course, that they had not known. And neither, now, did I.
Another picture that sprang to mind became a whole sequence of pictures: the morning worship crowd at Stanborough Press praying for Anita from the start; the wider circle of praying people as the bad news spread: my good friends in Ireland, Sweden, Watford, Barnsley, Brighton, and Nottingham. Prayer support from overseas: my friends at Adventist Review. Then there were the very special prayers that had been prayed at the anointing service.
The hospital perimeter road proved longer than I had anticipated. But I welcomed the opportunity to be outdoors. You can’t beat the long-shadowed late evenings of an English summer. And anyway, I needed to think.
Where had God been in all this? Had those prayers made any difference? What of the future?
God kept us calm in the crisis. There had been a few wobbles, but through it all we experienced a sense of God’s peace. Anita had been so cheerful, positive, and upbeat that she proved an inspiration to our neighbors and a major source of positive thinking to our immediate neighbor, Fred, battling cancer himself.
But that Wednesday evening, with both of us psyched up for the Thursday ordeal, Fred lost his battle. In order not to discourage us, another neighbor tried to prevent us from hearing the news about his death. But inevitably the news reached us. Despite our sadness, we were aware of the peace that passes all understanding.
Still some distance before the hospital perimeter road joined the main road, my ears picked up a sound. Someone was whistling a tune. Distinct and clear, it seemed to be the only sound there was. The tune was familiar. I identified the Irish folk melody “Slane” (the one we use in The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal to accompany the hymn “Be Thou My Vision”).
When I came round a turn in the road, I saw that the whistling was coming from a boy, perhaps 12 years old, standing beside his bicycle where the hospital road joined the main road. The road is thronged with traffic most of the day, but at 9:30 that Friday evening there was no traffic, not a soul about. Except, that is, the whistling boy.
I smiled. Soon the boy will notice my approach, become embarrassed, and stop whistling, I thought.
But he didn’t; instead he started to sing!
To the Irish tune he sang words that took me back to my school days. At the time all that stuck in my mind was the first two lines:
“Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy,
Whose trust, ever childlike, no cares could destroy . . .”
The boy sang on until I reached him. I nodded, smiled, and thanked him. Leaving him behind, I heard him resume singing.
I know, I should’ve asked him his name. The truth is that the sight of a boy whistling, then singing, a hymn just there, just then, was so out of the ordinary that I didn’t think to ask his name.
Who was the boy? I didn’t see him subsequent evenings when I walked past that spot. In the town where I live, youngsters who hang about on corners at 9:30 are not generally serving a positive purpose. But on the evening he was needed, there he was; first whistling, then singing, a hymn.
Do angels need bicycles?
1. What is the heaviest burden you're carrying at the moment? What makes it so burdensome?
2. When has God delivered you from some challenge that frightened you and seemed insurmountable?
3. How did God use a song, a text, or a promise to help get you through?
4. What song, verse, or text will always remind you of God's care and providence?
But more important than the messenger, of course, was the message.
“Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy,Whose trust, ever childlike, no cares could destroy,
Be there at our waking, and give us, we pray,
Your bliss in our hearts, Lord, at the break of the day.
“Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all faith,
Whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe,
Be there at our labours, and give us, we pray,
Your strength in our hearts, Lord, at the noon of the day.
“Lord of all kindliness, Lord of all grace,
Your hands swift to welcome, Your arms to embrace,
Be there at our homing, and give us, we pray,
Your love in our hearts, Lord, at the eve of the day.
“Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm,
Whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm,
Be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray,
Your peace in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day.”*
For the present: God’s peace. For the future? Well, we know He wins in the end, don’t we? n
* The text of “Lord of All Hopefulness,” by Jan Struther, is used by permission of the copyright holders, Oxford University Press.
David Marshall is recently retired as editor of Stanborough Press. He and Anita live in Alma Park, Grantham, Lincolnshire, England. This article was published February 24, 2011.