Sport played an important part in my development. When I was at school, I spent most afternoons either playing rugby, soccer, cricket, running or swimming. Physical fitness was a natural outcome of my lifestyle.
When I became a schoolteacher in 1980 I focused on training the minds and bodies of teenagers and any spare time I had was used to study law and play music. My ambitions extended beyond the classroom. My own physical fitness took a backseat. This continued to be the case when I began to practise as an advocate in 1994. This, along with my music and house church ministry at St Luke’s, took most of my time. My physical activities were limited to the occasional visit to the gym and an infrequent hike. I missed the regular physical challenges that had been an integral part of my life.
I was then diagnosed with clinical depression. I will not go into all the reasons for this and the therapy and medication I received to help me to cope with the demands made on me in my life.
A few years ago, I was introduced to Park Run which I soon embraced with great enthusiasm. It filled the gap that I had been missing for a long time. It became a priority for Felicity and me every Saturday at 8h00. Our dogs also enjoyed it. Unfortunately for me I became too enthusiastic. My naturally competitive nature was rekindled and I pushed my body too hard in trying to improve my time for the 5 km course every time I did it. I acted like I was still a twenty-year-old rather than being in my sixties.
I should not have been surprised when at the beginning of this year (2019) I developed unbearable pain in my lower back and right leg which put a stop to doing Park Run. I went to a neurosurgeon who sent me for an MRI scan which revealed a large synovial cyst on my lower spine which was putting pressure on my sciatic nerve. The principal role of synovial fluid in the synovial joints in the spine is to reduce friction during movement. The strain I was putting on my old joints by my rigorous running had caused this to leak and form the cyst.
My neurosurgeon put me on medication to reduce the pain but did not recommend surgery because of the proximity of the cyst to vital nerves connecting my spinal column to my right leg.
Initially, I accepted this but eventually the pain became so unbearable that I went for a second opinion from a neurosurgeon who recommended surgery to remove the cyst. Despite the pain I decided to delay the surgery until the end of the year so I could afford to take 6-8 weeks off to recover.
Being self-employed my strategy was to put in as much overtime as I could prior to 26 November 2019 (date of op) to make this financially possible. This resulted in me literally working seven-day weeks almost every week. I did not take one of the Ten Commandments – not to work on the Sabbath day – seriously. Afterall, surely God would understand my need to work this hard. I reassured myself that we are also living under grace and not law.
After months of relentless work my life, however, started to fall apart. The chief symptom was that the depression that I was previously managing to live with became unbearable. I have a vivid imagination and one Sunday evening, having spent the whole week working, I imagined tying a heavy weight around my legs and jumping into the deep end of our pool. I longed for oblivion.
This was a very frightening experience and I confessed it to one of our ministers at St Luke’s who prayed for me to be healed. The experience also drove me to review my lifestyle to understand how I had ended up this way.
Our house church was studying a bible series by Beth Moore entitled “Living Beyond Yourself – Exploring the fruit of the Spirit”. I was preparing the section entitled “The Crucible of Self-control” which started by examining Proverbs 25:28:
“Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.”
It was critical during those days for cities to have walls because these provided protection to their inhabitants against the many physical dangers they faced. I had thought of self-control as applying to bad habits such as overindulging in consuming food or alcohol or losing one’s temper, but I realized that by overworking I was failing to exercise self-control over my own body which is a temple of the Holy Spirit. The result was that I was like a city without walls i.e. vulnerable to attack. The part of my body that was made most vulnerable was my brain which I was not giving a chance to recover from the strain I was constantly subjecting it to. This abuse was also cutting me off from the source of living water (Jesus) which resulted in me being spiritually barren. Just attending church for a few hours on Sunday mornings (usually); a Christian breakfast group (occasionally); and house church (sometimes) was not enough. No wonder my heart was so troubled that part of me sought oblivion.
My preparations for the study led me to Isaiah 58 in which God said to His people via the prophet that if they obeyed His commandments:
“The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honourable, and if you honour it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
This convicted me deeply of the error of my ways and reminded me of the words of Jesus in Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
I repented of my rebellion against God’s law and committed to taking on less work so that I could honour the Sabbath by not going my own way but spending it in fellowship with God and others so that my broken walls could be rebuilt and that I could be refilled with His Holy Spirit.
By that time, thank God, I did not need to do as much overtime as I had thought because the pain caused by the cyst had diminished significantly by October 2019. The only symptom that remained was slight numbness in the toes of my right foot. This was either owing to the cyst shrinking on its own over this time or because of divine intervention. Whichever is the case does not matter because it was still a miracle. I was aware of many people at St Luke’s and the wider Christian community I am part of praying for my healing and God answered their prayers and mine. I am deeply grateful for this.
It would, however, take more than henceforth honouring the Sabbath to deal with the spiritual slump I had got myself into.
I shared the insights God had given me regarding self-control and the Sabbath with my house church one Wednesday evening and became tearful in the process. It’s good to have a safe place in which one can unburden oneself.
The next day I received a call from Janette Ross who is a long-standing member of our house church. She informed me that God had convicted her to invite me to attend a 4-day Advent Retreat that was taking place at the end of November. She had put together a “Preserve Eric fund” to sponsor me for most of the cost. My first reaction was to gratefully accept. I then considered the consequences of having to take the time off work. I visited my doctor and after I had described the symptoms, I was still having she booked me off for a week to recover from stress. I decided that I had to go on the retreat.
The Sunday prior to my leaving to attend this retreat David Block came to St Luke’s to deliver his presentation on the book he co-authored with Kenneth Freeman, “God and Galileo.” I was impressed by the clear distinction they draw between the book of Nature (Science) and the book of Scripture (Revelation) as sources of truth, but what remained most with me was David’s personal testimony about how others can try to stop up our wells of progress as had occurred during the time of Abraham when the Philistines had stopped up the wells which his father’s servants had dug by filling them with dirt (Genesis 25:15). I felt that my spiritual wells had been stopped up by the factors I have referred to and urgently needed to be unstopped. I saw the retreat as the opportunity to start working on this. I was encouraged by David stating that God is a master of unstopping wells (John 4:14).
The start of unstopping my spiritual wells at the retreat proved to be more difficult than I had expected. Although we were provided with thought-provoking insights by our Jesuit trained leaders/directors, most of our time was spent on our own in silence communing with God.
My journey on this retreat is the subject of another article I intend to write, but I will state now that it was worth the time and effort. After a lot of digging (spiritually speaking) and the expert and caring direction of Sue Tinsley I began to see the light again and the living water began to flow again to begin quenching the thirst of my parched soul. In short, I again experienced the lavish love that God has for all of us.
Thanks be to God for His Amazing Grace and to His servants for their faithfulness.
By the way, I have returned to Park Run, but its now more Walk than Run. Last Saturday I walked it in about 46 minutes. Not near my personal best but not bad for someone with a degenerating spine who turns 65 on 7 March 2020. I have given up on beating 30 minutes.