After over 20 years in Christian ministry in Belfast and Nigeria, it finally seemed as if everything had fallen into place for Adrian Adger. He met and married Karen in 2013 and, two years later was appointed as the minister of Clough and Seaforde Presbyterian Churches. But in 2017, Adrian and Karen’s world turned upside down when he was diagnosed with incurable cancer.
(From the April - June 2019 issue of VOX)
Tell us a bit about yourself
I grew up on a farm near Ballymena and attended Trinity Presbyterian Church. At 18, I decided that church was boring so I walked away. For the next four years, I lived for myself, studying in Scotland and then moving back to Belfast to work as an accountant.
When I was 22-years-old, I remember driving between Coleraine and Portrush at dusk. A tractor was travelling very slowly on my side of the road. I didn’t see the tractor until the last second, so I swerved the car and just missed it. But there was a lorry coming the other way, so I swerved back, just missing the lorry.
A few days later, I woke up gasping for breath and thought I was having a heart attack. I was rushed into the City Hospital where the doctor diagnosed it as an anxiety attack. I was lying in the hospital bed feeling alone and I asked myself, “What would happen if I died?” I thought there was no chance of me going to heaven. I knew that I wasn’t right with God. For the first time, I became desperately afraid of dying.
Travelling home, I felt my life was in a mess. My question was, “How could God forgive someone like me?” And suddenly I remembered a prayer that my Sunday School teacher taught us, “Come into my life Lord Jesus, come in today, come in to stay.” As I prayed that prayer, the tears began to roll down my cheeks. I knew that He heard my prayer. I was so thankful that the Lord heard my desperate cry.
I went to see my minister and he explained the importance of repentance and the significance of the cross. It had never made sense to me. Now as he explained it, I understood that God loved me and Christ had died in my place. A great burden was rolled away. I found great joy that my sins were forgiven. I had peace with God and I wasn’t afraid to die any more because I was assured of a place in heaven.
What changed in your life?
Back at church, I realised the problem wasn’t the church but my bad attitude, for which I was now truly sorry. I found a welcome and acceptance and soon got involved helping with Sunday School and the youth fellowship. Five years later, a WEC missionary was speaking on Acts 16:9-10 about Paul’s “Macedonian call.” I knew the message was for me and that God was leading me into service for Him.
I enrolled at Belfast Bible College. It was a joy to dig into the Bible and study something I really wanted to learn. Now, I was studying with a new passion to grow in my knowledge of God’s Word. While there, I met Brian Smyth. We were in a prayer triplet and became best friends.
In 1994, Brian was working with Belfast City Mission and he told me there were opportunities with BCM. Eventually, I was accepted as a missionary in the Woodvale Mission Hall in Shankhill. That was a time of reaching into the community with the Gospel, sharing Christ’s love in word and deed. In 2000, I moved to a thriving work at another mission hall in Fairview Road.
How did you end up in Africa?
When a colleague planned to use his holidays for a mission trip to Burkina Faso, that challenged me. I’d never thought of using my holidays for overseas mission. As I prayed, Nigeria came to mind. A missionary friend told me there were opportunities to speak at the Bible College. I thought, “I can never do that.”
But during a Faith Mission Convention someone said, “It is not ability but availability that counts.” I was moved to tears. I knew it was a direct word to me. In 2007, I spent a few weeks teaching at the William Wheatley Theological College in Nigeria and returned two years later with a short-term team.
At the Mission Africa conference in 2009, God spoke to me so powerfully. One missionary referred to the call of Moses and asked, “What’s in your hand?” I looked down and my Bible was in my hand. So God spoke to me that I was to leave Belfast City Mission and go back to Nigeria to teach the Bible. That was a shock. I’d been with BCM for over 14 years. In one meeting, with one word, God said, “You are going to Nigeria!”
I was based in a rural part of Africa training local pastors for ministry. Looking back, God had prepared me with those two previous trips and my work at the city mission. These young pastors have a tremendous zeal for the Lord but none of the resources we take for granted. We wanted them to have study Bibles but these were held up in Lagos. We didn’t know if they would arrive in time but a few weeks before I was to leave, these young men heard the news that they would each receive a study Bible. They immediately got down on their knees and lifted their arms to praise God. They were so moved by God’s provision.
So what came next?
When I came home in 2010, I had no idea what I was going to do next. Brian Smyth telephoned me and said, “A lot of ministers are retiring from the Presbyterian Church.” That was another “Macedonian call”. After further training with Belfast Bible College, I went on to Union college for a two-year diploma in ministry.
While at Union, I met Karen at a Christian meeting and again at a barbecue. Through a mutual friend, I asked her out for a coffee but she turned me down. That was disappointing but, “faint heart never won fair lady.” I met her again at another Christian meeting and this time, she spoke to me and we got on really well.
We had our first date in Newcastle and went for a coffee afterwards. On 3 April 2013, I got down on one knee and asked Karen to marry me. Thankfully she said, “Yes.” My best friend Brian Smyth, now the minister in Trinity Presbyterian where I grew up, married us on 23 July 2013!
Eventually, I started work as full time minister of Clough and Seaforde Presbyterian churches in County Down in June 2015.
Tell us about your first cancer diagnosis
I was not long married to the best wife in the world. Everything was going well with the two churches when suddenly, in February 2017, I took a pain in my side. The hospital thought it was kidney stones but when I went back, they discovered a tumour on my kidney.
That was a massive shock but they removed my kidney in April 2017 and although the tumour was malignant, it had not spread to the lymph nodes. Everything was fine, so after a ten-week recovery period, I was back to work.
I received the results from my six monthly scan on 6 November 2017. That was when the consultant told me they had found lesions in my abdomen. He diagnosed incurable and inoperable cancer.
How did you react?
It was an unbelievable shock. We were totally devastated. At first I thought, “Is God punishing me for something?” But I had just been speaking at a CEF conference and in my churches. I thought, “If God has been with me, He can’t be punishing me.” And I remembered that Christ has taken the punishment for my sins.
But it was still like a death sentence; a dark cloud had come over me. I asked, “Will I ever know joy again?” We cried all night. We hadn’t even been married for five years but Karen has been amazing at every step of the way.
I felt, “Why me and why now? In the midst of my life, when everything has come together so well?” I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I don’t understand... and that’s okay. I leave that with God. I know I’m going to heaven to be with Christ. I’ve no doubt that in eternity it will be revealed to me. For now, there is a mystery.
The two churches have been amazing. The elders called the whole church to a day of prayer and fasting and the elders came and anointed me with oil.
At Christmas 2017, I was receiving a scan in the Cancer Care Unit when I read John 21, “Feed my sheep” and “Feed my lambs.” I was facing chemo but God still had work for me to do. During 2018, I did better than the doctors expected. I was able to continue working and teaching the Bible.
This January, I learned that the chemo is no longer working, the tumours have grown and the cancer has now spread to my liver.
What has given you hope, even in the face of such difficult news?
Someone said to me, “You have a story to tell.” I’ve realised there are people in difficult places who need to find hope in the darkness. And now Jonny Sanlon has created a four-part video series about my story - Finding Forgiveness, Finding Guidance, Finding Love and Finding Hope (available from www.cloughandseaforde.com/finding-series.html and on Facebook).
Humanly speaking, I would be in despair today, given the news I’ve received. My wife and I have cried lots of tears but we are rejoicing and we feel a sense of peace. As I face a very uncertain future, and even death itself, my hope lies in the Word of God. Philippians 1:6 says, “...He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion...” My confidence is in the Lord. The powerful, strong and mighty name of the Lord Jesus is the only hope for the nations.
I believe God wants to use this story for His glory. God in His mercy has granted me more time and has allowed me to do these videos (and this interview).