The leaves are turning yellow and orange again. The air feels cooler, and night falls more swiftly. I love Autumn because it is beautiful, but also because it reminds me about the briefness of life.
Summer seemed never-ending, and was it really that hot? But here we are at the start of a new season. And soon it will be winter, with its icy dark days and bleak trees. What could be good about winter, besides the first few hours of snow, and hot chocolate?
I think that without the reminder of our own mortality, life is all too easily taken for granted. Knowing that one day we will die, reminds us to enjoy what little time we have; to make the most of what we’ve been given; to hug our loved ones more tightly.
And after the emptiness of winter, we know that a new life awaits us. We look forward to it. Death and life are opposites, yet like two sides of the same coin. There is no need to fear winter, because one day spring will arrive.
For now, I will breathe in the scent of woodsmoke, delight in the colours, and be grateful that I am here to enjoy another Autumn.
It’s three years exactly since I had my official diagnosis. I had the tests the previous week, and had been told that they could see it was cancer. But 15 April was the official, biopsy-confirmed diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer, with spread to the lymph nodes.
Maybe I shouldn’t mark this day: after all, it wasn’t a happy occasion. Perhaps my last chemo, in August, would be more appropriate. Or my surgery date, of 13 October, when the cancer was properly cut out. Or my last day of radiotherapy, in early February. That’s the thing with cancer: it gives you many important milestones. But, I’ll stick with this date I think. After all, it is a birthday of sorts. A day when I waved goodbye to the normal healthy young woman that I was, and started my new life as a cancer patient, then survivor.
So how do I feel this year? Last year, on my 2nd cancerversary, I was elated. I had recently stopped my life-destroying (how ironic, as they are actually intended to stretch out my lifespan just a little longer, but to the unacceptable cost of all joy or peace for me and my family) drugs, and was happy feeling a lot like the old Alex.
This year, I honestly don’t know how I feel. How am I meant to feel? Life as a cancer survivor is one without a map.
Sometimes I am hugely relieved just to be alive and every extra day is a blessing. Other times it feels like I cheated death, and it’s just waiting for me in the wings; until I am really comfortable. Then I forget all about cancer and feel like a normal healthy person. Occasionally I feel boring and tired. Sometimes I feel I have been given a second chance: an eye-opening brush with my own mortality that seems like more a blessing than a curse. Then I think of how much my kids have grown up in the last three years: will I still be around for the next three? I am reminded of how God has blessed me with such a wonderful life, and how I shouldn’t waste it. Then I worry that I won’t be around to see my children finish school, get a job, get married, have their own children. Sometimes I believe that I will live to 90, just to prove a point. Other times I am grateful that I can help people newly diagnosed. Then I will feel that I’m not doing enough for those in the cancer community. And I also think about how unfair life is: not for me, but for the people without a voice; like the innocents being bombed in Syria, and the people struggling to survive in Burundi. And I think that I should shut up about cancer, after all, I am well and what’s the point of moaning? Then I can’t be bothered to think, and just want to watch telly, draw a doodle or read a book. So yeah, that’s a typical day!
I haven’t celebrated this day as such, but my daughter and I did bake cupcakes, which are surprisingly good. And what is the point of surviving cancer if you can’t enjoy a home-made cupcake now and then?
I asked Donna to tell us about how she first got involved in Burundi; her vision for the country; and what is currently happening with her Hope for Tomorrow Global charity.
I have been friends with Donna for a while, and knew much of her story, but still learned a lot about her journey from being a teacher here in the UK, to leading a charity in Africa which serves and blesses many hundreds of families in one of the poorest countries in the world.
First trip to Burundi
Initially I went to Burundi in 1999 to set up a school for orphaned children, sent by my church, to volunteer with an African charity.
When I met the lady who invited me, I didn’t even know where Burundi was, but I had a heart for orphans.
I lived in Burundi for almost 3 years. I grew to love Burundi, but then felt God asked me to leave. It was a confusing time, because Burundi was still in my heart and God has given me many promises which had not yet been fulfilled. I thought about the people that I worked with and the children every day, even though I had no contact with the country. I never expected to go back there.
Once back in the UK, I worked for Newfrontiers in Brighton, running short term mission teams around the world. I learned a lot about the church. It was a foundational time. I discovered that God wants to use his church as a vehicle for transforming communities around the world. I was especially impacted by what the church was doing in Zimbabwe, one of the places we sent teams to.
During that time, I starting working in Zimbabwe, and was in and out regularly.
Then I was offered a job with one of the Newfrontiers churches there and was making plans to move to Zimbabwe permanently but within days of accepting the job, my Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, so everything was put on hold.
After my Dad died, just 6 months later, I began to seek God, as I was feeling unsure about moving to Zimbabwe. It was a very confusing and difficult time.
Hope for Tomorrow
In the midst of my confusion, one day I felt God spoke to me and said, “Start Hope for Tomorrow”. I felt that God said to me, “Give yourself to this vision and trust me to provide.”
Hope for Tomorrow was my name for a vision God has given me while I was in Burundi in March 2000, 8 years earlier. It had felt like there was a download in my head, from God to me.
God spoke to me about the what he wanted me to give myself to. I felt that he wanted me to facilitate practical demonstrations of God’s love, in areas such as education, health, water, farming, church planting and caring for orphans.
I felt I was to play a part in seeing these things established and was to help resource and mobilise people.
This was not specifically about Burundi, it was a more pic
ture of God’s heart for the nations and for the poor and marginalised specifically.
I got very excited! I wanted to give my life to this. I just didn’t have any idea of how it would happen, but then I felt God very clearly said to me,
“Don’t do anything other than pray.”
That was hard! I had no idea I’d have to wait so many years.
So, in Jan 2009 I had resigned from the job with Zimbabwe and had no income. It was now time to pursue the vision. A new journey of living by faith was beginning!
God provided incredibly, but it was still a dark time, as I didn’t know how I would fulfil this vision or even what it really meant! I often saw God’s amazing provision for me but not a lot happened that was visible to others.
People were beginning to think I was crazy as nothing was really happening!
When I had left Burundi years earlier I knew that God has asked me to leave teaching, which I loved, and to give up my career. Now friends started to tell me to go back to teaching and get a proper job. Part of me wished I could but I knew God has spoken.
After more seeking God over many months, I finally felt he said, “Keep your eyes on me, be filled with the Holy Spirit, be faithful with what I put in front of you.” That’s what I tried to do, just giving myself to anything even vaguely related to the vision!
Two unexpected events
In 2010, two very important things happened.
Firstly, I received a Facebook message from one of the orphans I had taught in Burundi, who was now a young man. He said to me,
“Why did you leave us?”
This made me really want to go back to see the kids, and to explain why I had left.
The second thing that happened was that a few weeks later, out of the blue, one day I felt that God spoke to me and said,
“I want you to go back to Burundi.”
It seemed so random!
I called my friend Mark T (who was, at that time, an elder of the church I attend), and asked him if he thought I was crazy.
“I often think you’re crazy, but you do hear God. Why don’t you go and see what God might do?’ was his reply!
I didn’t have the money for the flight and was worried but that same day my friend Angela called and said to me, “You can’t wait for the provision to come. Faith must be activated. Take a step of faith first.” So, I booked the flight. The very next day I was given money to pay for it.
Within ten days of speaking to Mark, I was in Burundi!
When I got back to Burundi, it was clear that God was doing something. Evariste met me at the airport. He had helped to get the school set up when I lived in Burundi before. He took me to see his home in a rural village. I had not seen rural Burundi before, due to the civil war making it too dangerous to travel.
We went up into the mountains to see where Evariste was born. Prayer mountain looks out over the countries of Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Congo.
Evariste shared his vision; it was based on a promise from God that he would see transformation wherever his eyes could see. It would be a transformation of the land and of people’s hearts.
In that moment I knew that God had taken me there for a reason. This is where Hope for Tomorrow would begin.
Evariste was already starting to bring transformation to his village. He started by buying two fresian cows, which he took to his village. Long-horned cattle are the traditional cattle of Burundi, but they give very little milk (only 1-2 litres per day.) Evariste showed the people in his village that a fresian cow is much more profitable, as it gives 10-15 litres of milk a day.
Burundi is a very malnourished country. Having milk to feed your family, as well as extra to sell, is life changing. No one believed Evariste for two years, in fact he was ridiculed for having fresians. People said he was feeding them something different, to make them produce more milk. He finally gave two families the fresian cows and sold the surplus milk in the city on their behalf, giving them the profits. They were lifted out of poverty in weeks! The two families could now afford to send their children to school; as well as ‘luxuries’ such as tin roofs for their mud-hut homes. People in the village could see that their lives were changing for the better.
Evariste wanted more fresian cows for the village. By this time, 30 families had cows. I decided to I’d try to help him to get more cows seen as God had told me to be faithful with what he put in front of me. I felt sure God had taken me there for purpose.
We bought more cows, and I then somehow I ended up helping him to set up a commercial dairy, working with a team of volunteers who built him a pasteuriser!
During this time, people started to give money to support this work and so my little charity, Hope for Tomorrow Global charity was set up.
We sent the new processing machine to Burundi together with 7 solar powered fridges.
Then the charity started getting involved in other areas in Burundi, such supporting a community after flooding and landslides, which cause many Burundians to lose their homes and livelihoods . Many lives were sadly lost.
Gateway church soon started getting involved with Burundi together with many churches from the Regions Beyond family of churches. We’ve helped two communities, one of which was displaced and the other which had been badly flooded.
Hope for Tomorrow Global has continued to support the milk business called Milk for Transformation. Now there are well over 400 families who have been lifted out of poverty, thanks to the fresian cows.
We’ve recently started training Burundians in Foundations for Farming (so that they can feed their families, and sell their crops). This has been amazingly successful already. We are also helping people to start small businesses and supporting those in crisis with food and milk (with the Milk for Transformation enterprise.)
Donna, what would you like us to know about the people of Burundi?
Often our view of Africa is formed by TV aid appeals, with pictures of starving children. These images are true in some ways, but are certainly not the full picture.
Burundi is one of the poorest nations in the world but what people might not know is that in Burundi people are so resourceful and resilient and joyful despite their circumstances. There is a contentment about them that is so humbling. But they long for dignity and they want to change their circumstances. They do not want to be dependant on others. They long for opportunities to change their futures.
Poverty is not just a lack of money but it’s a lack of choice and opportunity. If we can help give our Burundian friends opportunities, which come through employment, learning trades, and education, this will make a huge difference to their lives.
If everyone did what they could with what they have, we could all make a huge difference. We can’t change everything overnight, but there is hope. It’s simply not the bleak picture that the media paints of Africa!
God can do the impossible. God changes hearts and minds. He has a plan to help people practically, as well as through the hope and truth found in the gospel.
The challenges that are faced in Burundi are enormous, but there is hope!
The poor need hope for today and for the next day, hope for tomorrow – before they can have hope for their future.
In the Carama community, 212 families are displaced, and they have no homes to live in or means to sustain or feed themselves. Humanly speaking they are destitute, although this is through no fault of theirs.
Recently, the Camara leaders asked if we would help them to start up a church. They said to us that we had taught them how God sees them, through Psalm 113, and it has given them hope. They want to share that with others.
1 Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, you his servants;
praise the name of the Lord.
2 Let the name of the Lord be praised,
both now and forevermore.
3 From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
the name of the Lord is to be praised.
4 The Lord is exalted over all the nations,
his glory above the heavens.
5 Who is like the Lord our God,
the One who sits enthroned on high,
6 who stoops down to look
on the heavens and the earth? 7 He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; 8 he seats them with princes, with the princes of his people.
9 He settles the childless woman in her home
as a happy mother of children.
Praise the Lord.
Now the people of Camara see themselves as God does. They started to change, because they don’t see themselves as victims anymore. How God sees them has transformed them.
We are seeing the power of the gospel at work!
God is transforming the people of Burundi. They are learning to farm successfully to provide for their families and for profit; and small businesses are starting up. Many have given their lives to him. The church is growing. People whose lives were so bleak before, now have hope.
In July, after a few months of illness, I was diagnosed with bowel disease.
Today my doctor undiagnosed me.
When the test results came back and I was told that I had colitus, I refused to accept it. I knew that I was ill, but I knew that I would get better soon. There was a long conversation with a nurse who insisted that I had bowel disease, while I countered that actually, it was just an infection that would heal. She was pretty bemused.
She offered me medication. I said no thanks, I’m going to be better soon. She made a follow-up appt with the doctor, and gave me her direct phone number, ‘just in case’.
When I got home, I spent the next few weeks claiming healing for my body, in Jesus’ name. After all, he did heal me from breast cancer, so colitus would be easy, right?
Today when I saw the consultant amd he asked about my symptoms over the last few months, he told me:
“It looks like it was just an infection. You don’t have colitus.”
An amazing man died this weekend. He had stage 4 (incurable) stomach cancer, and the doctors had put him on palliative care. It wasn’t a big surprise that he died, but it is incredibly sad.
Nabeel Qureshi was born into a devout Muslim family in the US. A Christian friend who he met at university strongly encouraged him to disprove Christianity. Nabeel was desperate to do so: he was full of faith in Allah. Of course he could not prove that Jesus is not the son of God, no matter how hard he tried. He was born again, after finally realising the truth.
He has degrees in medicine, Christian apologetics and religion. He was studying for a doctorate at Oxford University when diagnosed with cancer.
It is painfully unfair that someone so young (34), intelligent and full of faith in God, died. He could have achieved so much more if had lived longer. His daughter would have had a father; his wife a husband.
So many people around the world were praying for a miracle, that he would be healed. It is easy for us as Christians to get angry at God for allowing Nabeel to die. How dare he?
The problem is that we just can’t understand it. Why would God allow this young man to die? Unfortunately, we will only get the answer to this and many other questions, when we too die. Then, as believers, we will be able to ask God face-to-face. I have no doubt that our all-knowing creator had perfectly good reasons for this, and other suffering, to happen… it’s very hard for us to get our heads round it though, right? It just seems so unfair.
We don’t see the full picture, we can’t understand, and sometimes that sucks. We like to believe that we have all the control in our lives: choosing our friends, our jobs, who we marry, how many kids we have and when, where we live, etc. And of course we do have a lot of decisons to make, and responsibilities.
But we never get to choose when or where we are born, who our parents are, and when we die. We like to think of ourselves as masters of our destiny, but ultimately, when it comes to life and death, this is an illusion.
The fact is that every day that we live is a gift from our maker, God. We may rage at his unfairness is taking away young lives, but in reality, we were never promised long, healthy, wealthy lives, without a moment’s pain. Quite the opposite in many cases actually, especially for Christians.
My heart breaks for Nabeel’s family and friends, but thank God for his life. Thank God for our lives, no matter how short or painful they may be. Thank God that he sent his son to die as a sacrifice for us, so that when we die we can live forever with him. Thank God for his love, for hope and for every day that he gives us on Earth.
It’s not all about how long you live, or how many countries you visit, or how many children you have.
Much more important is knowing in your heart, on the last day that you live, where you are going. That you are going to meet your Heavenly Father: the one who loved you even before you were born, the one who send his son to die in your place.
I know that Nabeel had this faith, and that he is happy now in Heaven, probably asking Jesus some of those difficult questions.
I haven’t written a blog post in ages, so I think it’s time for one.
Many of my blogs have been about trusting God in the really difficult times, or being thankful for the good things.
I don’t remember having written many inbetweeny posts. For those without access to a dictionary, inbetweeny is where things aren’t great and things aren’t horrendous. They are just inbetweeny. I guess that for most of us, with the notable exception of Calamity James, a large percentage of us spend most of our lives in this zone.
So, you may not know that I have been some some health problems for the last few months. I do not believe that they are in any way related to my cancer history, but it has still been unpleasant and draining.
Recently I had some investigations, which included biopsies. The nurse said that one of them was not routine. When you hear those words, some small alarm bells are set off.
I want to say that I am not anxious about this, at least 99% of the time. Having cancer has taught me to give over all this sort of stuff to God, and sharpish. I have learned that I can trust him, no matter how bleak the circumstances. So the last thing that I need to hear from anyone is ‘Be anxious for nothing.’ Thanks dude, but I learned that one the hard way and I don’t need your well-intentioned judging.
That said, show me someone who says that they never get worried about anything, and I’ll show you a liar.
And that’s what I mean by inbetweeny, because of course that’s normal. And it’s in the normal, the job stuff and health concerns and fun weekends and family times and business of life that we really need to learn to put God first. There aren’t many athiests on a lifeboat, and most of us are happy to thank God when life is awesome, but those times are just the bookends.
There are a whole lot of unreported stories, times that we may not photograph or share on Facebook, where we still, as Christians, need to learn to put God first. I’m good at trusting him with the big things, but I need to hand over all the small stuff to him too.
So that’s where I am at the moment: inbetweeny and learning to trust God with the everyday. And whenever I make the effort to focus on him, there he is with me, just like when I woke up after my operation nearly two years ago. Right in the room with us, where he always is even if we don’t notice.