Episode 7: There is a place east of here

Listen with headphones while you read.
'East of here' composed by Nathan Gernetzky
‘Unless God has raised you up for this very thing you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils.’ John Wesley to William Wilberforce, 1791
‘Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side.’ The Message, Psalm 23:4

Mondays were always hard days. 

For a while after Diane passed away, I would get into my car and drive to places that would bring her back. Ghostly memories of happier times. And even with the edge of my emotions blunted, from a daily dose of 20mg of Paroxetine, I never found happiness.  

It’s overrated anyway. I needed joy, not happiness. 

For a while  it was impossible to drive back through Sea Point in Cape Town. You know the feeling that you get when you drive along places where your heart has laid memories down like GPS waypoints. Those places always take you back. Sea Point was an emotional minefield for me. It didn’t stay that way forever though. 

Sometimes we just need to go and create new memories. 

Wander around a secondhand bookstore for long enough and soon you’ll be reminiscing over some good old stories that you read or stories that were read to you. Stories carry us to places of fancy and mystery. A few years ago, I bought such a book. Yet strangely, this one didn’t have any moments from my past attached to it. No anchor of emotions or thrilling bravery. The title just grabbed me as I was looking for a new bedtime story for my children. 

‘THE TRIP TO PANAMA.’  

It sat, all used and scuffed, on a shelf just the height of my knees. I was in need of a holiday, and so the title was my cheap ticket away from the land of burden and grief. The weight of being a single dad to four children was too much to handle on most days – so ‘The Trip to Panama’ it was. A German children’s tale by author Janosch (Horst Eckert), now translated into my little English copy. I paid the R10 and left with my purchase in a rectangular brown paper bag – just big enough to hold its contents. 

‘Oh, wie schön ist Panama’ was the original German title. 

The book lay next to me on the car seat where Diane would have sat. 

Mondays were our days. We would try to go somewhere for breakfast together. Usually Kalk Bay. Diane loved the eclectic shops that lined the main road of this old, quaint fishing community in Cape Town. We would usually just relax together after our meal with a coffee and the morning’s newspaper. 

For a young married couple, we sometimes resembled those much more seasoned than us. You know the kind you see sitting together in complete secure quietness. Sipping a coffee, and playing some good old fashioned board game. The silence wasn’t because of anger or boredom with each other. Words just weren’t necessary to communicate at that moment in time. 

Sometimes that was us. 

You’d be excused for thinking of us as ‘Old Farts.’

When you get married young, you are forced to grow up together. Your ways of thinking about the world get tangled with each other. Opinions about what you like, and even hate, can sync together over time. Places also begin to hold more shared memories than individual ones. The mysteries of body language become easier to decipher and yet sometimes decoding is still difficult. Just when you think you have won the war, your victory flag gets packed away again. You’re chuckling to yourself because you might just know what I’m talking about. And yet, there were times when not even Alan Turing (the legendary wartime code breaker) could have figured us out. 

Diane would come home from a long day of work. I was working from home. From the moment she walked through the front door, all I wanted to do was talk. Catch up from the day. All she wanted to do was make some tea, run herself a bath and be alone for some time. 

And I hated this. In my immaturity, I always took this as rejection. And sadly my insecurities were the cause of many arguments. 

(I’m so glad that I’m a little more grown up. Got my big-boy pants on now.)

And slowly I learned that true love is always finding joy in the adventure of discovery. 

For much of our early married years, Diane was working as an Au Pair for a family in Hout Bay. She’d travel over the Constantia Nek in her little cream Mazda 323 hatchback. Her job payed the bills and put food on our table. She didn’t mind because it brought security. My income was erratic as any travelling musician can tell you. 

I was part of a band called ‘Rain’. Nineties grunge, mixed with hints of electronic and a whole lot of self-belief. That was us. We were touring South Africa for a couple of years and at best covering our costs financially. We launched our second album in Cape Town to a lively and packed ‘Max’ record store audience. I can’t confirm this now, but on that day our claim to fame was that, according to the store manager, we out sold local chart topping band ‘The Springbok Nude Girls’ when they launched their album at the same venue. 

Some months later we brought our rock ‘n roll careers to an end. We hired the Cape Town City Hall – a beautiful old venue complete with wooden opera viewing boxes and the biggest pipe organ ever. This beauty was the place where we held our final concert. It is a majestic building right in the heart of Cape Town. Looking back over all the highs and lows of band life; that night spent together, making music and singing our hearts out with our many friends in a filled-to-capacity theatre, were the happiest times of band life ever. If you were there. Thank you. We made so many friends.

It would be a suitable venue for a reunion. Even if it was just for the six us to sit and compare life stories over some coffee.  

Back in Kalk Bay, between two old buildings, there is an alleyway which housed a small book shop. Second hand books. Old magazines. Vinyl records and artsy bric-a-brac. We would often pop in there after our breakfast and lose ourselves to browsing and the smell of burning incense. 

We usually ended up at the children’s section. Even before we had children of our own, we just loved the innocence and wonder of the stories created for the pure in heart and mind. The little ones. Finding anything by Roald Dahl, A.A Milne or C.S Lewis were treasures that I could never resist acquiring. 

Sadly, sometimes, it’s broken adults who write stories for children. I mean, aren’t we all broken in some way or another. And often laced between the lines of words and syntax are spaces carrying pain and disappointment of a childhood never realised or innocence lost. The pungent mothball smell that accompanied the books was also a rude reminder that these books once belonged to someone else, and now were unboxed for another reader to travel to distant shores, riding wherever their imagination would take them – maybe far from hurt and fear and nearer to knightly courage or princess-like beauty that we wished we all had. 

Books can be an incredible gift if you find the right ones.

And if you ever visit Kalk Bay, you must try the fish and chips at the harbor just across the street from the book shop. 

I couldn’t wait to read ‘The Trip to Panama’ to the kids that evening, but it didn’t happen. In fact, I didn’t read that book for the next three years. I can’t give a definitive answer as to why it fell under my radar. It just lay in my desk drawer until one winter evening, I took it out and read and reread this little book to myself. I laughed and cried and laughed some more. Ok, maybe more of a chuckle here and a giggle there with some laughter at myself. It was just what I needed in that moment. 

Let me share the highlights with you. 

*Spoiler alert* – but it’s worth reading my version and then the original as well.

It’s about two best friends who live together in a small, yet functional, log cabin. Little Tiger and Little Bear just love where they live and they love their adventurous life together. Fishing and cooking, enjoying their boat on the river and picking mushrooms on the bank. Little Tiger and Little Bear were both content, until one day when, while fishing, Little Bear noticed a wooden crate gently floating passed him. He pulls it ashore and immediately is struck by the fruity aroma that comes from the wooden planks.

‘Bananas!’ Cries Little Bear. ‘It smells like bananas!’

Then he notices that on one of the sides of the crate is the word ‘Panama.’

‘I just want to go to Panama!’ shouts Little Bear to his friend. Little Tiger is now very curious because of all the commotion.

‘I just have to go to Panama, because Panama smells just like bananas’ declares Little Bear to his eager pal. 

‘We can go together.’ answers Little Tiger. 

And so they begin to make plans to find this mysterious country that smells like bananas. Not knowing where to go they first erect a pole with an arrow and the word ‘PANAMA’ painted on it, pointing in the direction that they feel they should go in. And so, after proudly planting their sign post in the ground, carrying a fishing rod and a cooking pot, they close their cabin door and set off. 

They leave the idyllic setting of their home with its serene surroundings in search of the land that smells like bananas. 

I pause a bit with this realisation settling in my mind; I’m just like our new intrepid adventures – maybe we all are. We get just a whiff of another life, another possibility, another relationship, another city to move to and we begin fantasising about this new potential reality.  

Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect you know what I’m talking about. Simply quoting the old adage ‘The grass is greener on the other side.’ reminds us how fickle we are.

And so, whatever the ‘bananas’ are, we go after them. Sometimes with grave consequences. 

Oh there were days, when after Diane and I had tried everything to find a cure for her cancer, that I would just wish I was somebody else, living some other life with somebody else. 

How could I ever dream of wishing myself away? 

And yet, there were times that I did – especially when the cancer seemed to be winning the war. And then the crate of self-pity would come seductively floating by. 

And the smell. The smell was intoxicating. I say ’seductively’ because to me self-pity is a heinous beast all dressed up to entice. Nothing beautiful about this demon. Like the Siren’s of sea-faring legend entrapping foolish sailors to their deaths. Self-pity always smells like bananas. Otherwise why would we give in to its destructive commands? 

And the self-pity was loud. There were women more attractive in those moments. Pain-ending morphine, too easily available to me, sitting right next to our bed. Our small but well curated wine collection was no longer for choice dinners with wonderful friends. Other children of other parents appeared better behaved than ours. 

One day, with self-pities tight grip on me, I was even jealous of the homeless vagabond who stood at the traffic lights near my home – begging for his next heroine fix. No responsibilities. No one to justify his actions too. I knew I was drifting closer to emotional oblivion. 

‘You really broke my heart when you let her die!’ 

This was my cry of anger directed at God. The self-pity would rear its enticing head like a cobra ready to strike. It disfigured my heart into something I couldn’t recognise. 

And now, years later, my heart breaks for anyone fighting for a loved who is battling with cancer. The material that the oncologist gives you just simply doesn’t prepare you for the emotional and physical onslaught you are about to endure. No one told me that my wife’s cancer would also eat away at me. No one told me I’d also have to fight to survive the cancer.

A subtle destruction, but still deadly.

With my faith slowing eroding to no longer being able to carry the heaviness of empty prayers and failed medication, I knew I was in trouble. 

‘How could I be going through this?’ Or ‘You deserve better than this.’ Would be the slivery whispers coming from the fork-tongued shadows. 

You lose yourself when you’re giving everything to fight for your spouse. The battle takes over. It’s what I thought about every waking moment. My nightmares were consumed with waking up next to a body no longer alive. My mind was constantly thinking, searching and wanting to find a cure. I was reading every possible hopeful blog article about a person’s victory over cancer. 

One day my hope was ignited when I received an email promising that I might get my wife into a clinical trial. I even signed us up to go to a clinic in Mexico that was having good results with patient trials. Diane even tried a course of intravenous vitamin-c treatment. The dosage given over her hourly visits was the maximum amount that the body could take without detrimental side-effects. Her liver and kidneys did suffer badly though. 

As a follower of Christ, my faith was bombarded on a daily basis. But that wasn’t the worst of it. My theology (what I think and therefore believe about God, humankind, the world, the beginning, redemption and the end of all things) took a beating. Here’s a shocker: faith in something isn’t always safe. Just because you believe in something doesn’t make it truthful and therefore trustworthy. Sometimes I don’t have faith, and I have to pray for faith to believe. 

What’s worse, well for me at least, is when your core foundations are rocked. The value system that governs everything. The truth you’ll die for. When that becomes ground-zero for a theological terror attack, you might just come to the conclusion that nothing could be worse. Well, battling cancer, just did that. It was the terror in the night and the enemy in the shadows – never relenting. For me, I was rocked to the core over everything I ever believed to be true in the world. 

My faith isn’t based on blind hopefulness. It’s a faith that’s built on strong foundations. It’s an intelligent faith. It’s a supernatural faith fueled by the life and words of Jesus. It’s a tried and tested faith based on great women and men of faith who have seriously thought through this stuff. Yet no one prepared me for how cancer would erode my foundations.

That is what happens when you take your eyes off God and put them on the cancer. Vision gives courage and when we aren’t fixing our eyes on what’s true and constant it gets us looking at the grotesque and freakish. Out of morbid curiosity, cancer became my constant enemy. The Balrog to slay or at worst go down trying. 

‘This foe is beyond any of you.’ 

These were Gandalf’s words describing the demon of the ancient world when the Fellowship of the Ring encountered the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. Tolkien has a way of writing that not only captures the imagination but gives proper nouns to our deepest fears. Balrog. Just the word gives me shivers. Pure evil.

On the bridge out of the mines, as the Fellowship run across, Gandalf declares with authority his defiance of this beast. With sword and staff clenched with both hands he slams them down with an almighty blast of light and thunder.

‘You shall not pass!’

The bridge disintegrates and the Balrog falls to its death, yet still managing to entangle Gandalf with it’s fiery whip-end on it’s way down. The battle continues as they fall out of sight of the Fellowship. 

And so, battling cancer can pull us out of sight. Make no mistake. In prayer and hatred of this disease I declared countless times the cry of all those overrun by the enemy. The Bible gives us many examples of those brought to the brink of death, who cried out to God for help. Those on the line of utter destruction cried with the defiance of Gandalf. But these moments were real. This wasn’t fable or myth. This was real life. I begged God to heal Diane.

‘You shall not pass!’ 

Oh for bananas now! Little Bear and Little Tiger are searching for Panama. How was I going to deal with my circumstances now? Even the road signs near our home in Chelsea Village seemed to be replaced with markers to exhaustion and sadness. Our once pristine little part of Cape Town was now a battlefield for my faith. How do you go through experiences like this and keep your faith and your sanity?

Most mornings when I would get up and wake the children, I was reminded gently that there were four daily reminders of the preserving grace of God in my life. Four gifts that kept me refocusing hourly. Even when I wanted just to give in. Kyra, Anna, Samuel and then baby Joel. Four anchors holding my ship down and away from rocky ruin. I flushed away the morphine that sat next to my bed. 

I will tell you the rest of the story of our two travellers – Little Bear and Little Tiger. But first, let’s read a passage from the Bible together because through it my faith found an anchor of hope. It’s from the Book of Psalms. Songs written for the early people of God to sing when they would gather. 

In Psalm 84:5–7 the sons of Koran write: Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion.’

This song focuses on a group of travellers who are a long way from home. Desperate for rest. They are pilgrims trying to make sense of this life, circumstances and their faith in God. In verse 5 we open where these ‘travellers’ find themselves in the Valley of Baca. They are wanting a home. They are pursuing more of God but find themselves in Baca. The Hebrew word used for this unknown location is Baka – meaning ‘a place of tears or sorrow.’ This dry place filled with hardship becomes a place of springs, life and joy for those who have a heart set on wanting more of God in their own lives. 

Well, I certainly was in Baca. I was nowhere near Panama or anything resembling the warm summer bliss of bananas on the beach. I’d done my fair share of weeping. I was punch-drunk and stumbling about from weariness. And then as I would sit down and read these verses again and again, it was like I heard the whispers of my Heavenly Father.

‘I am here. I haven’t abandoned you. I’m with you. Give me your tears and anger. Give me your sadness and disappointment. Find me here.’

That’s what I felt God telling me. And I began to do that. I set my heart on wanting more of God. It started with me getting brutally honest with myself and God. Admitting to myself just how dark my heart had become and yet the smallest flicker of hope lit the hidden places. 

I set out to make my Baca a place of springs. I sowed my tears and pain in soil drenched with the fresh spring rains of God’s mercy and grace. I didn’t need to be rescued from the battles. I didn’t need to slay my Balrog or defeat my wife’s cancer. I didn’t need a geographic relocation to ease things. I needed to set my heart on God. I needed to get my soul happy in God. I was now on a journey to make God my total satisfaction. 

Bono, the lead singer of U.2. , once said ‘perspective is the best cure for depression.’ 

True, but even more powerful is the perspective of Heaven. A vision set on eternity and the God that holds my life and yours in His hands. I hope that you know that. His hands hold you because you are more loved than you could ever imagine (to paraphrase Blaise Pascal, the 17th century mathematician and theologian).  

It wasn’t all springtime and sunflowers from that moment on. But I knew that Baca wasn’t my address. The valley of sorrow, defeat and anger wasn’t going to be where I was going to live any longer. My spiritual and emotional geography began to change. There were moments where I would carry my very ill wife back to bed, after washing her, and weep over her knowing that this is not the end of her story, or mine or the children’s. And miracles? Probably a few I couldn’t discern. I did see one major miracle during this time. Looking back, one so profound that only God can get all the glory – in the hardest moments of life, both Diane and I went from strength to strength when we set our hearts on God. That’s not normal right? Well, not naturally normal. 

And the miracle continued after her passing away. There were deep valleys still to walk and there still are, but I discovered that God’s Word is true and powerful once again. When I set my heart on Him, when honest before Him and I admit that there is nothing I can do on my own. It’s there I find the work of God’s Spirit empowering me to levels that I can’t account for in my own doing. That is my ongoing miracle. 

And I’m not talking about Superman-like train bounding qualities. I’m talking about the real stuff that matters. The stuff that keeps us alive with hope and confidence that God has our future in His hands. The strength to keep walking forward. The courage to step out into my fears and put one foot in front of the other daily, even hourly sometimes. The confidence to hold my Jo’s hand today and with our five children and say, ‘God we trust you. In this valley we find strength in you. Our hearts are yours. We don’t know the future but we know the God who does.’

To paddle into the biggest wave I can. Get to my feet. Look over the ledge and take the drop. 

Fearless.

So Little Bear and Little Tiger set off from their home in search of Panama. That place in the story that holds out the smell of bananas. Carrying the basics, they wander far from home. On their expedition they occasionally meet up with an interesting character and without fail ask if their new acquaintance knows the way to Panama. Each time the reply is, ‘Keep going a short distance and then take a left turn.’ 

After several directional interactions with varied creatures, each with the same set of instructions, you begin to notice a pattern and conclude the inevitable for our travelers. 

‘Keep going a short distance and then take a left turn.’

The story comes to a surprising and yet obvious ending. And this lovely little story holds out a profound lesson for us. Our new friends come over the hill to see a beautiful setting. A lush green pasture set up against a sparkling clean river backdrop. There’s a small wooden rowing boat moored to the river bank. A short jetty leading out into the river. And amongst the cool of the trees sits a beautifully built log cabin. And outside the front door to the cabin is a sign marking the new find for Little Bear and Little Tiger. 

“P A N A M A” 

Painted crudely in yellow on a piece of crate-plank. 

‘Oh, isn’t Panama lovely Tiger! It has all we could ever want. A river for fishing. A forest for collecting food and a lovely log cabin just made exactly the way we would build it.’

Panama is indeed the place of our dreams Bear. And we don’t need to be afraid of anything because we have each other. Isn’t that right Bear?’ 

And just like that my heart opened to this wonderful possibility for the future. I understood what God was wanting me to discover from this little bedtime story that I had only meant to read to my children. 

It was time to make the place that I was resenting my ‘Panama.’ 

In an earlier episode we spoke about developing a ‘theology of place.’ We find peace when we settle our current geography as the place we need to be. For a period of time we settle the tearing in our hearts to always be somewhere else. And yes, when we move for a new job or an exciting opportunity opens up we do just the same. We settle. We unpack the boxes and put our favorite pictures up on the wall. God has brought us to this place. For me this began by setting my heart towards God. Facing up to the reality that sacred spaces are the everyday places that will allow God to be God in our space and time. 

Sacred spaces are the everyday places. 

And once we settle this tension, we learn that the everyday places become the sacred spaces.

We can turn the ‘Valley of Baca’ – formerly a place of sorrow and weeping – into a place of bananas and springs. We can go from strength to strength. We can sow our tears and trust for a harvest of joy and peace. 

And it’s a life long journey isn’t it?

Eugene Peterson, in The Message, translates Hebrews 4:14-15 like this: 

Now that we know what we have — Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God — let’s not let it slip through our fingers. We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all — all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.’ 

The journey is learning to walk right up to God and open our hands and receive His mercy and help. 

Panama is right where you are. 

And we can make our Baca a place of springs. 

‘God, I thank you that I’m never alone in any moment. You came into my world. My time and space and experienced all the same pain and suffering I could possibly ever go through. My heart leaps from inside of me knowing you identify with me. And when I put my head down at night you don’t see my weakness and forsake me but rather embrace me. By your grace oh God let me not forget the wonder I have through Jesus – accessing your presence. Forgive me for self-reliance and self-pity. I choose right now to put my hope and trust in you for you are merciful and will never let me fall away. I am walking right up to you today. Amen. 

Look

‘Acrylic on paper.’ by Jo Gernetzky

PHOTO-2018-07-29-18-48-57

6 thoughts on “Episode 7: There is a place east of here

  1. Nathan your writing is so anointed
    That you get or better said take the time and space to write and share so deeply is a beautiful miracle on its own !
    May our Lord Bless you richly for your faithfulness in encouraging His body
    I can’t explain how much your vulnerability & story blesses me – Thank you so very much
    Oh boy do I relate to Bear & Tigger
    I might just paint me a PANAMA sign !!!
    Beautiful….. Lord give me the Grace to live like that
    How reckless His love for us 🙌🏼
    God Bless
    Chantal C

    Like

  2. Funny I should happen upon this particular episode when my family and I are contemplating relocating from Israel to….wait for it….Panama. I’ll know in a short while if it really is a land that smells like bananas or not.
    Will let you know🙂. Thank you for sharing. I have been left with tears streaming down my face, feeling so much for the loss of Diane and what you have been through. But, I have also been left in awe at the miracle of God’s provision and continous restoration. Enjoying the good vibes posted of family skating sessions on instagram! Childhood pictures in my minds eye of Yellows and Slummies…oh how I miss it. I am so looking forward to reading more Episodes. Thanks Nathan.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s