Strangers in Saunas – Update 2

Just back from my Monday lunchtime swim at the gym – thought it might be good to pass on some more information.

Up to 60 lengths today – please don’t get visions of a Bluefin Tuna gliding effortlessly from end to end. My aquatics are more akin to that of the Humpback Whale!

The main thing learnt today in the Steam Room was God’s sovereignty over circumstances.

After entering and sitting I tried to start the conversation with a middle-aged guy in the corner by saying: ‘They could do with a light in here!’ I’ve often thought that to myself, so it seemed a reasonable introduction. Well, to my surprise there was no response at all. Just long silence for the next 5 minutes.

My next attempt was more fruitful: ‘The weather’s great, isn’t it?’ Now it just happens to have been the driest April on record in Northern Ireland. Yesterday also just happened to be a real ‘blue-sky belter-of-a-day’ (sorry if these colloquialisms seem strange across the pond!).

Suddenly the stranger perked up – it seems I’d struck the conversation-opener jackpot. ‘Yeh!’ he agreed. ‘Spent the whole day up the Mournes!’ (our local mountain range and of Don McLean fame).

‘Climbing were you?’ I inquired slightly nosily still trying to sound interested.

‘Well, not these days, try to do some gentle hill-walks!’ he responded. ‘I’ve got XXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXX’ he added.

Now that really made my ears prick up. Not only because of my medical background, and that I knew a bit about it. What was more unusual was that two of our own congregational members (it is a small congregation) have been diagnosed with the same condition in the last 6 months – it’s really a very fresh topic of conversation with me. At very least, I mused, this is more than a coincidence, that I’m able to engage pretty fully with this chap.

I was able to express sympathy and surprise that such a young man, at the age of 46 (he was able to give the year and date when the doctor broke the news to him), was diagnosed with a condition that affects most people in their 80s. We talked together about his signs and symptoms and how he was managing with them. When I asked, hoping to reassure him, if he had family at home, he spoke of his divorce, three grown up children, falls down the stairs, falls in local parks, and an incident in the pool of near-drowning, some months ago, which totally rocked his confidence – only recently has he begun to swim again.

After listening for some time and talking about the effect of his medication, I asked him ‘Well, has your faith helped you?’ in a kind of open-ended way. His reply was not unexpected ‘I’m not really into religion! But I do try to take a positive outlook – there’s many more people far worse off than me!’

There are at least three lessons I have been taught up to this point:

FIRST I got up this Monday morning feeling flat, tired, jaded and sluggish, until I mustered enough zest to haul myself round to the pool. O.K., I did read two chapters of Jeremiah in Hebrew in the course of my devotions, and prepared an agenda and draft a policy document for a committee that I chair, after a couple of cups of coffee – but in a rather bleary-eyed, tufty-haired fashion! My spirit was one of mild start-of-week low-key complaint – SHAME ON YOU! I thought. What must it be like for this man, to get up on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday etc., in fact every day in his life, with the aches, pains, spasms of his progressive, degenerative, condition, afraid to swim in case he drowns or walk in case he falls – and this man has no faith and hope. What a sovereign, kind, rebuke, to repent of moans & grumbles.

SECOND the LORD who commands the clouds and rain, orders hail, wind and frost, sustains the course of the sun in the sky, so ordered the recent weather, so that this man would be up the Mourne Mountains the previous day, be glad to talk about meteorology, and discuss the difficulties of climbing, in order to be able to share a conversation about his condition with me – to converse with a pastor with my particular skill-set (you’ll have yours too), who has two members of his small congregation with a similar condition, which means I’m also up-to-speed. It is an awful lot of ‘chance’ happenings, don’t you think?

THIRD this was an answer to prayer. I was forced to conclude others had taken up the challenge of praying for ‘strangers in saunas’.

Anyway, we chatted for a few minutes: after sharing some of my own personal struggles growing up, and telling him that I was now a preacher, I explained that I believed that all our difficulties in life have a divine purpose behind them. After that we exchanged names and he said ‘I’ll see you again!’ in a kindly, friendly manner.

After showering and changing, I then bumped into my ‘You asked the right question’ stranger. He was chatting away to a man of 80 about cartilage problems in his knee. I was actually in a rush, but he seemed more than keen to strike up a conversation with me. I also happened to learn, from a conversation he was having with someone else, that this ‘stranger in the sauna’ lives right beside our church – that is a fact of sovereignty that has really blown me away. In the ten years I have been ministering in Belfast, this man would have received leaflets and invitations up to 10 times from our church. I’m now wondering might he possibly recognize my face from photos & know who I am? I still think probably not – but I’m now fascinated by this providential ‘turn of events’.

Obviously, I was now very keen to get back home to type this post to tell you that I am convinced these last few moments are an ongoing answer to your prayers. Only the Lord knows His purpose behind these events in his life, mine, and the witness of His Church. So please keep supplicating for Mr C I met today, the climber with the great question, Faith who I haven’t met since, and the other strangers in saunas. May God, in His wisdom, have mercy on us all, so that there might be angels in heaven rejoicing over newborn saints in saunas or in other sites were you take Christ.

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