Before Bethesda

I have never been able to tell when God opened my eyes to His marvellous light of truth. It dawned gradually, I think; so much so that day had broken long before I felt the warm rays on my face.

What I can recall is when that blessed assurance became mine. It was simultaneously the worst and the best day of my life.

My husband was in hospital. He had a raging infection after his third dose of chemotherapy for metastatic bowel cancer and needed specialist care. They had scanned him the previous day, and the news was encouraging – it appeared that the tumour was responding to treatment. In the midst of a truly awful, bleak period of four months since his recurrence was diagnosed, this was more than a glimmer of hope.

So, imagine how it felt the next morning when his Macmillan nurse phoned to summon me to the hospital. ‘He’s a lot less well’, she said, ‘and you should come’.

I drove, I parked, I ran to the ward. She told me, as I held his hand, that we were more or less out of options. He could go to Inverness for extensive surgery, but they doubted he’d survive the journey. Besides, she said, he’d had enough, and only wanted my say-so to lay down his arms. It didn’t give me a moment’s hesitation. Donnie had been through enough; he had battled bravely, and not once opened his mouth to complain.

The ambulance came within the hour and took us to Bethesda. His family were there, and my sister. I cried then. But from then on, I was surrounded by what I have only ever been able to describe as a bubble of peace. If I called to God, it was with my heart, not my voice – but those prayers, He hears them too: perhaps even more so. My soul inclined to Him instinctively, because somewhere along the way, it had become His property without my knowing it.

Donnie lived a week after that; Friday to Friday. We were both in God’s tender care, I have no doubt about that. All of this I have said before, many times.

But what I have not done justice to is the instrument God chose. For the last week of my married life with the man I will love forever, Bethesda Hospice became God’s hands and feet.

I can’t recount every instance of their ministering to us, but I can tell you enough. The kindly-stern nurse who insisted I eat a proper meal at lunch and teatime; the one who brought me tea and toast each morning. Those lunchtime naps I was forced to take, away in a room by myself where I could weep, and pray, and then gather myself again to face everything. And halfway through the night, I would leave his room for a little while so they could tend to Donnie, making him more comfortable.

One evening, nearing the end of the week, I was exhausted. There’s a little room with a recliner and a sort of giant lava lamp. The nurse more or less shoved me in there, dimmed the lights and shut the door; within seconds, I was away. That nap refreshed me; but the memory of the kindness with which it was orchestrated remains to this day.

And I will certainly never be able to repay the nurse who sat with me as I held Donnie’s hand for the last time, who gently confirmed for me that he had indeed gone home.

All of this might have been so different. For many families in years gone by, it was – loved ones died in the clamour and bustle of a hospital ward. Or, far worse, inadequately medicated against pain, and frightened, in their own homes, helpless relatives looking on, unable to help.

That was before Bethesda. A group of like-minded people, largely drawn from the Christian community, sought to provide a facility for palliative care in the island.

Having been in receipt of that care, I see how inadequate a word like ‘facility’ is to describe Bethesda.

Because of the hospice – the staff, the people who raise money to fund it – I can look back on that week with no regrets. The merest flicker of a frown on Donnie’s peacefully sleeping face was noticed by nurses, and more pain medication administered ‘just in case’. They ensured that I did not worry for one second that he was suffering. He was, I can truthfully say, gentled into death.

They couldn’t take my pain away, but they did everything short of it. I could not have thought of or asked for better treatment for him, or for me.

I left there the night he died, his wedding ring clutched in my hand. Thanks to the care I had – God’s own care administered by human hands – it was possible to reflect upon a good death for my husband. Their tenderness made me strong enough to return home unbroken.

And home was not a nightmarish place, littered with hospital paraphernalia, as it might once have been, in the days before there was Bethesda. Because of that, I was returning to a cocoon of happy memories, to a place I had shared with someone who did not have to die there, our much loved home becoming his prison of pain.

I don’t think the authorities realise what they have in Bethesda. It’s the kind of place that shouldn’t have to beg for the resources to do what it’s doing – making the awfulness so much less awful for people who just need to be upheld.

For me, the hospice is symbolic of the Saviour’s love. There is an untouchable peace and dignity at its heart, even as the politicians and the money men wrangle over every last penny. Still, Bethesda stands as a beacon of all that is kind and caring. Established to minister to the sick and dying, used by God to draw near to His own suffering people, we surely cannot let it become a tawdry pawn in the hands of politicians.

I don’t write this as emotional blackmail – it wouldn’t work anyway; but as a letter of thanks to Bethesda, and praise to the God who established it for all such hours of need.

May it be there for others as it was for us.

Time On My Hands

Last week, I was looking for something else entirely, when I came across my husband’s pocket watch. It was nestling in its box, in the top drawer of what I still think of as his bedside table. He was, as I am, a great fan of timepieces. After he died, I gave both his brothers wristwatches that he had worn and cherished – but this remained where his own hand had last placed it.

He used to joke about my obsession with clocks, especially when March or October rolled around, and their hands had to be moved in the requisite direction. Sometimes he would jokingly suggest starting on them a week before.

I counted them today – not including the cooker, or other electronic timers, there are eleven clocks in my house. The sitting room is home to both a grandfather and a mantle clock, with a resonant tick-tock, and lovely Westminster chimes.

I also have numerous watches, but far and away the most precious is the one I wear most days. It is Swiss with a mechanical movement, bought by Donnie for me when we celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary in Barcelona. It was two months before he was diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life.

I can sit here and look at the present  he gave me, and remember how it was before we knew that time would end for us. It is almost like having the ability to go backwards through the years. This object seems to connect me, not just to Donnie, but to that last perfect holiday.

Because it’s mechanical, like the pocket watch, it stops when it has been off my wrist for a while. When the nurse handed me Donnie’s wedding ring, I felt like that too: everything seemed to grind to a halt.

Time became my enemy. It had ticked relentlessly away towards 7pm on Friday, 20th March, 2015. One minute, he was still alive, and the next, he was not. One minute, I was holding my husband’s hand, and then elders from the church were shaking mine, newly-widowed and bewildered.

How many years might I have to get through without him? How soon could I reasonably hope to die? Those were my very real thoughts.

But I didn’t stop. My cogs and gears kept moving, and time carried me along with it. It still does.

Even now, I have probably got too many timepieces, and a certain tendency to anxiety if late for anything. But, in every real sense, time has lost its hold over me.

Just one glimpse of the eternal will do that.

I don’t pretend to have had a vision of the celestial city, although, for a while, the idea of heaven possessed me. Once, at a house fellowship, someone casually mentioned having read a book about heaven. At the first opportunity, I bought a copy and read it in two sittings.

Christians can’t help but be curious about this home that they have never seen. It is a frequent, speculative topic of conversation. But I have lost any appetite that I may once have had for reading books about it. None of us can possibly imagine what it will be like. If God is too perfect to behold our sin, then it follows that we are too sinful to conceive of His perfection. Never mind that we cannot grasp what eternity actually is, with our finite minds – we cannot imagine heaven with our sinful hearts.

Of course, as a Christian, I associate the word ‘eternal’ with its companion, the word, ‘life’. And whatever my tiny, science-avoiding brain cannot comprehend, my heart tells me this for certain: eternal life begins, not after death, but the moment you accept your Saviour. That’s when time loses its grip on you, and concedes to its Master.

And it’s why, whatever I felt on losing Donnie, time did not win. Nor did it stop. For him, it gave way to eternity.

Receiving his wedding ring back after he died, I see now, was so appropriate. The circular band is a symbol of eternity, without beginning or end. Beautiful as that seemed on our wedding day, it actually achieved its full resonance the evening he went home. I keep it now as a reminder, not of our promises to one another, but of God’s promise to us both.

And the pocket watch I kept because it was lovely, and it was his, no longer carries the same meaning. Because it only moves when it’s worn. I don’t want it lying in a drawer like some morbid memorial to Donnie – as if, like grief first made me fear, time stops with death.

I know that isn’t true. Time goes on for me. Now, my wee mechanical wristwatch has ticked me three years forward from the night I last held Donnie’s hand. But when it finally stops for good, and is laid aside in its box, I know with certainty that eternity beckons.

And although I don’t know what that will be like, this I do know: God is there.

If only our obsession with time would be replaced by a real concern about eternity – it should never take a stopped watch, or a wedding ring without an owner to lift our eyes to that horizon.

 

 

 

 

 

Outwards and Upwards

My late husband used to carry a photo in his wallet – just one, mind you. It wasn’t a picture of me, however, but of another young lady entirely, one he loved with his whole heart.

She is his niece, Joanne – beautiful to look at, and one of the most consistently happy people that I have ever known. To hear Joanne laugh is to have your day brightened unexpectedly.

She was born very early and, as a consequence, has faced many challenges in life – her vision and hearing are both limited; she cannot walk or speak; she is fed via a peg in her stomach. Joanne has spent a lot of her life in and out of hospitals, and she has been a worry to her family and friends on many an occasion. This week alone, she has been staying in hospital suffering from – amongst other complications – pneumonia.

Her parents are an inspiration. Not because they are remarkable in any way that is outwardly obvious, but because of their commitment to her. They would not want to be portrayed as heroic because they are not: they are simply loving their daughter; it just happens that loving Joanne requires more practical application than it might if she did not have so many health problems. The crucial thing is that Joanne has problems; she is not, herself, a problem; she is a blessing from God.

Those who are unbelievers struggle with the idea of children suffering under the eye of a benevolent and loving God. I understand their confusion; we think that if God loves, then He will not permit it.
But, the evidence of our own experience teaches us that this is not so. There is suffering. Many of God’s own people go through unimaginable hardships.

So did God Himself, though.

He knows what it is better than any of us, and so He does not shrug His shoulders and walk away from the person who is afflicted – God is NOT watching us from a distance. Scripture even tells us that He hovers over us like a broody hen.

Donnie once asked me why I thought Joanne had to bear so much in her young life if there really is a loving God. I don’t know what I said at the time – my answer would have been wholly inadequate anyway.
He had the most compassionate heart of any person I have ever known – Donnie came closer than anyone to actually being able to feel other people’s suffering. There were many occasions when I told him that his conscience was far too active, and that he could not take on the problems of the whole world. His reaction to every crisis was automatically, ‘what can I do in this?’ It took me sometimes to point out that not everything was his responsibility.

His mother, by the time I first met her, was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s. Donnie’s patience and care of her spoke volumes about the kind of person he was.

One Christmas, after washing up the dinner dishes, we went for a short walk in the early evening, leaving her at home for just half an hour. When we came back, she had emptied the cupboards of every single item of crockery. In a worried voice, her big, dark eyes full of concern, she told us, ‘There’s a child missing, and everyone is out looking. I’m making tea for them’.

And it’s actually now, writing this, that I realise who he took his enormous empathy from.

Finally, it was his own turn to suffer. It is one thing for your heart to be exercised for others in their hardships, but the way you conduct yourself in the midst of personal pain surely speaks volumes about who you are. He never wavered. I didn’t expect that he would.

It is a measure of him that he had far more pity for Joanne, and for his mother, than he ever had for himself. He did not ask ‘why me?’ Not once. In fact, I have often recalled how, many years before, when his friend was terminally ill with cancer, Donnie said to me, ‘imagine if that was one of us, how the other would feel’. His attitude was always , ‘why not me?’

I believe he knew how to conduct himself in the midst of his own suffering because he had gone through it with and for others so many times. He suffered less for himself than he had for those around him. Even the last few entries in his diary are full of compassion for me, not pity for himself.

I understand that aspect of his character better now through closer acquaintance with our Saviour. Sometimes, Christians believe that they are entering the ‘fellowship of His suffering’ by enduring hardships in this world, but I can’t think that this is what Paul meant at all. God does not ask us to suffer in order to enter His fellowship – we identify with Him in His suffering for us.

As ever, it requires nothing from us but our faith.

What our own trials will do, if we allow them, is bring us closer to Him. Like a hurt child, we hold our arms up to the Father who knows how to comfort. It is, in every sense, an inside job for Him: He has been there Himself, and He heals the bruises that the rest of the world simply cannot see.

On February 22nd, 2015, a month before he would pass peacefully from this world, Donnie wrote in his diary of his love and concern for me, and of his gratitude to, and trust in, God.

I thought then that it was a good way to die. But, as I have since learned in facing this journey without my husband, it is also a very good way to live.

Look outwards at others, and upwards to Himself, and your own pain can never overwhelm.

Ask Not For Whom the Bells Toll – It Won’t Be Me

I have never been a fan of New Year. Too much looking back, too much sentimentality, and – for this unreconstructed Calvinist – too much presumption. It never sat easily with me to celebrate the unknown that lay ahead. What if providence brought you something hard, something regrettable?

The year my father died, my husband and I took the decision to spend New Year away from home. We rented a cottage and holed up for a few, snowy days. I didn’t have to feign a celebratory mood, but I was safe with someone who understood exactly how I was feeling. By the time we got home, it was all over, and we could just get on with the business of living.

As it happened, that new year – 2012 – was to be our last normal one together. 2013 brought the shadow of cancer, 2014 came in with great hope which sadly faded at its latter-end, and 2015 brought our final separation. Each turning year seems to bring me further away from him. I am more, and not less, aware of his absence. Every new thing that happens, every person I meet and every novel experience I have, are mine alone. There have been so many moments I would have loved to share with Donnie, things we would have laughed over together, and things we would have discussed endlessly.

These last few months, I have wondered often what he and my father would have made of some of the situations I’ve found myself in.

But these are all good reasons for me to not ‘do’ New Year. Try as you might to be unsentimental, it just isn’t possible and in what may well be a titanic act of cowardice (though I prefer to think of it as self-preservation) I have fallen into the habit of ending the old year a couple of hours earlier than everyone else. Bed, a good book, or a film, and the transition happens without me noticing.

Perhaps, ‘Gone with the Wind’, would be a good film to watch. Scarlett O’ Hara may not be the most obvious role model for a Wee Free widow, but she got one thing right – she told others not to look back because the past can drag at your heart so much that finally all you are capable of doing is looking back.

Lot’s wife paid the ultimate price for just that tendency too. Not, perhaps, because her past was happy, but because it was familiar.

We are all of us wary of the unknown. It is hard to admit our vulnerability, but if we were honest, we could all say to one another that it is something we have in common. What we have already experienced is always preferable because it is a path we have trodden before, and we know where the pitfalls may be lurking.

Faith changes your perspective on all of this, though. The more I meditate on the advice I was given after Donnie’s death not to ‘over-spiritualise’ my grief, the less I understand it. It is putting my trust in God, knowing that He has everything in His plan, which has preserved what little pretension to sanity I enjoy. I am not privy to what He has in store for me, nor even why those events already unfolded fell to my lot, but it truly doesn’t matter. He knows, and He is God; He has never been less than God to me, or to anyone else.

It is easy to focus on the silent voice and the empty chair at this time of year. Grief is selfish, though. Not in the most negative sense, but it is nonetheless about how we feel. We miss them, we wish they were here, and that life could resume its old, familiar pattern.
That is when we have to turn fully to Him. He only brings change, I think, to facilitate growth. And the only growth that matters is the spiritual kind, that we would allow Him to love us more and that He would be glorified.

When we are – quite naturally- missing loved ones who have died in Christ, though, we have this unrivalled comfort: the worst is over. Yes, we go on hurting because we long to see them, yet the next turn in our journey does not actually take us further away from them, but rather, closer to where they are. God has the roadmap, indeed Christ IS the roadmap. And the final separation has already been, as I said. Next time we meet, there will be no further parting.

And, remarkably, this is not even the best part of the story. It is only the tangible aspect, which we are probably best able to get our heads around. Besides, I believe that it offers helpful perspective.

At first, I was perturbed by Matthew 6: 21, which says that, ‘where your treasures are, there will your heart be also’. I worried that my priorities were wrong and that I merely wanted to see those whom I loved, all gone before me – that it was in them the attraction of heaven lay.

It isn’t that, though. You cannot separate  believers from the Saviour or understand them apart from Him. They, we, and He, are united by unbreakable cords of love woven by Him, and binding us all together in ways none can understand.

Yet.

What a beginning that will be, with no trepidation for what lies ahead. Those bells, now, I long to hear.

Bovril, brokenness and adoration

This week, I went to pieces over a jar of Bovril. I’ve never liked the stuff anyway, but finding it lurking at the back of my kitchen cupboard was unexpectedly emotional. It wasn’t mine, you see; it was Donnie’s. And seeing it there, knowing I would have to throw it out, and that I will never again buy another jar of the revolting substance brought me to tears.

Every clear-out I have is difficult because, no matter how thorough you’ve been, there is always something. It is like stripping away layers of your life together. When you come across the object – Bovril, a CD, a book – you remember it in its old context. And now you have to deal with it in its new. Worse, you have to decide whether to keep it or not. It would have been ludicrous to keep an out of date jar of beef tea, though, so I didn’t. It was thrust decisively into a bin liner in a single, rapid movement I’ve become very practised at.

It took me months before I could do that with his toothbrush, or his toiletries. There is still a bottle of his aftershave in the bathroom cabinet. Little by little, as kindly as you can to your own heart, you have to make changes.

Two months after he died, I traded my car in for something that had never been parked in the hospital car park, nor sat for a week outside the hospice. I just needed a neutral vehicle, with no leaflets about coping with cancer in the door pockets. But it took more than a year before I could shake myself to give Donnie’s car away.

Grief is a painstaking process – it is like piecing the mosaic of your life back together with a toothpick, after it has been shattered into a billion shards. Some days, none of the tiles fit, and all you can see are empty spaces.

But that is not every day. Or, at least, it is not every day for me.

For a long, long time, I could not bear to sing Psalm 100 along with the rest of the congregation. It was too poignant, there where we married, singing the verses I walked down the aisle to. Every time it was announced, I wanted to flee from the building before the precentor even got to his feet.

But I knew this could not be allowed to continue. It is a psalm of praise to God – it is not about me, or my loss, or my grief, or my very unbecoming self-pity. So I read it again. I read it over and over, trying to hear His voice.

I’m no theologian. In fact, a lot of the time, I worry that I might veer into heresy, or take too much on myself in how I read God’s word. The Bible is not art, or poetry, and it isn’t safe to interpret it just how you please. But this Psalm speaks to me very clearly. It says ‘come into His presence with singing’, and it says, ‘enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise’.

It does not say, ‘come into His presence and sing’, or ‘enter His gates and give thanks’. We are surely to come into His presence already doing those things.

But, more than that, as I have found out – we are to come into His presence by doing those things. Praise Him, bless His name for all that He is and all He has done, and He will draw very near.

There are many shattered lives in this world. People see their plans unfulfilled, their hopes and dreams broken before their very eyes. The world is a place of brokenness and has been since the end of Eden. We were intended for perfection, yet we chose sin. If God was the cruel, remote entity unbelievers would have Him be, the story would end there and the atheists would be right: this world would be all there is. After all, we made our choice. Knowing and living in perfection, our first parents still rejected it and left us this legacy of grief, of doubt, of corruption and all the manifold horrors that sin brings in its wake.

God has not dealt with us as we deserved, though, has He? He offers us the beauty we rejected. In Jesus, He has made for us, not a mosaic from the pieces of our old life, but a perfect, new creation. I see it, even as I fit my life back into some semblance of order.

What I thought were spaces in the picture, are simply those things which are unseen. They are what will endure, just like His steadfast love.

Asked last week to write a short piece on ‘adoration’ for the forthcoming Free Church Day of Prayer, I had no hesitation in basing it on psalm 100. It does not represent loss to me any longer; but the only gain worth counting.

If we are His people indeed, ours will be a song of praise without end.

The hope that saves

I once tried to explain the doctrine of election to some students. It’s fair to say that it wasn’t an unqualified success. One – a Roman Catholic looked at me with mounting horror and, when I’d finished, said, aghast, ‘Well, we have hope’.

It’s the hope that kills, according to many people in desperate situations. Hope keeps you going, only to be finally dashed on the rocks of reality. Wasn’t it cruel to have false expectations dangled in front of you, only to have them snatched away at last? Isn’t it always better to know the worst?

Well, I don’t think so. Four years ago this month, my world changed forever when the dread word, ‘cancer’ came into my own and my husband’s experience. I imagined the worst; he imagined the worst. And then, little by little, hope was restored. The tumour was contained, the operation was a success, no lymph-nodes were affected. Post-operative chemotherapy was optional, but advised as an extra precaution against the cancer which, seemingly, had an 85% chance of non-recurrence.

Little by little, he got his strength back. He was able to come with me to walk the dog. The first time, I remember, just after getting home from hospital, with a vacuum pump dressing. We walked maybe 1000 yards, but it was all progress.

And, when he was well enough, we both agreed that we had neglected our souls long enough. He knew as I did who had got us through all those terrible times. Twice, I had sat, frozen in terror, as Donnie underwent surgery. The first wait was bad enough; the second – to remove an adhesion, ten days after the resection – was a little foretaste of things to come. I know he thought he might die; I certainly thought so too. When the phone rang at 11pm and I heard the surgeon’s voice, I really thought that he had died in theatre.

But he came home, and the nodes were clear, and everything just might have worked out fine.

It didn’t, of course, as everyone now knows. Things took a negative and aggressive turn very rapidly. So rapidly that one day we were told the scan showed some shrinkage in the tumour, and the very next, that there was nothing further they could do. He died exactly a week later.

We had almost a year, though, of looking forward and of thinking we might just have beaten cancer. A year of hope. That, I believe, was God’s gift to us. He wasn’t cruelly tricking us, letting us believe we had a future together while, all the time, laughing up His sleeve. I think He was dealing with us gently, like the Father He is, knowing the hurt we would eventually suffer.

And isn’t election another example of that? All of us fell in Adam, not one of us deserves resurrection to eternal life, nor even the hope of it. Yet, by God’s grace, that is what we have. Isn’t it the case, therefore, if we can say that we have that hope, then we have everything?

Recently, in church, we heard that it isn’t necessary to understand the doctrine of election to be saved. We must, of course, endeavour to absorb the teaching of Scripture regarding it, but never to make any difficulty in fathoming its mysteries an obstacle to our right relationship with Christ. Being able to explain election to my students will not save me; only submission to my Saviour can do that. Making our calling and election sure is a lifelong task, but it is one founded on faith, rather than doubt.

Faith in God is very different to fragile, human hope. It is knowing your own weakness and dependence, while acknowledging His complete sufficiency. Yes, there will be trials in this world, and hard trials at that, but these are preparing you for an eternal weight of glory.

God does not play with the minds of men. If He has implanted a desire for salvation, and begun that good work in you, He will see it through. If you can say, along with that other lady, ‘we have hope’, then work at that. He does not encourage the harbouring of unfounded hopes, but that is why we have to remember Romans 15:13:

‘Our hope comes from God. May He fill you with joy and peace because of your trust in Him. May your hope grow stronger by the power of the Holy Spirit’.

It isn’t the hope itself that counts, it is the God on whom that hope is founded. He will not see you ashamed.

God’s unwanted gift is one of His greatest

Death, in case you’re under any delusion, doesn’t wear a long, black coat, or carry a scythe. Nor does it only happen in Lewis, although we are remarkably good at it. I don’t mean that facetiously. Actually, I think we have always handled the business of dying with considerable aplomb, and that has somehow earned us the reputation for being a bit, well, morbid.

I don’t have any statistics on this, you’ll be glad to know, but I am fairly confident that the average Leodhasach goes to more funerals than his counterpart anywhere else in the country. Although I’m a wee bit away from pension age (and, unlike previous generations, actually getting more so the older I grow), I could not begin to estimate the number I have attended.

The book of Ecclesiastes says, ‘It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting’. While few of us would opt for the former over the latter, there is – unsurprisingly – the wisdom of Solomon in this.

God draws us closer to Him in the times when we are broken. I think, like any parent seeing their child in pain, His infinite heart goes out to us. He knows what it is to grieve and although He knows our end from before our beginning, He also knows our limitations. Our Heavenly Father knows that we are going to have all tears wiped from our eyes ultimately, but He also knows how our faith can waver. Although we always have that truth to comfort us, we don’t necessarily remember it as we should.

After my father died, six years ago, I felt as though a door had been opened up into eternity – a door through which death might very well come again. Despite my job, I am not much given to premonitions. Nonetheless, I had a very strong impression that death had unfinished business with me. Within two years, my husband was undergoing an operation and treatment for cancer: the illness that took his life a little while after.

I have not written about Donnie’s last hours before now because I supposed no one wanted to know. But I have since read a very brave and honest account by another blogger, who lost her mother to the same disease, of what seeing someone dying can be like. Sometimes, we can handle everything else connected with mortality so well, and yet shy away from the truth of the death-bed.

Before he finally fell asleep, he would drift in and out of consciousness. Every time he awoke, he would look at the clock as though surprised and disappointed to find himself still subject to it. When I asked him if there was anything he wanted to talk about, he told me that he would be fine and then, surprisingly, he quoted, ‘I go to prepare a place for you’. Smiling, he added, ‘but you won’t like the curtains because I’ll have to choose them myself.’

He was still his lovely, cheeky self. But better, because although he was being kind as ever, I think his heart had already left me and his family, and gone on ahead. There had been months of pain and sickness, even flashes of fear and irritability. Here, though, in his final few hours of alertness to this world, it comforts me that his eyes and his soul were already looking to eternity.

The body is frail. He was strong and healthy until this sickness came. In the last hours, as I held his hand, the infection in his chest made a noise like several pots boiling at once. Despite this he – himself – seemed to be in total peace. And then, he was gone. Never one for great shows of drama, his death was typically quiet.

Watching him go, knowing the spiritual significance of that moment, you expect something more.

Why, though?

Physical death, after all, is separation of soul from body. The battle in his lungs had nothing much to do with the peace of his inmost being. What I and that lovely nurse were witnessing was simply his body closing down, no longer needed, for now.

His soul, on the other hand, had gone on. We who had felt so much pity for him in his suffering, and who feel so much sorrow at his loss, are actually the more to be pitied and sorrowed over. Donnie is where he would certainly never want to return from.

After he died, I was troubled by the verses in Matthew 6 that urge us to store up treasures in Heaven, ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. I worried that the treasure I was thinking about was my husband and that I simply – understandably – wished to be where he was.

But this is why grief can sometimes be God’s gift to us. It is not something that can be gone through, dealt with, and shelved away. Two years on, I still get waves of overwhelming, almost physical pain. And in those moments, I can go to my Saviour and show Him my bruised heart.

No one else comforts like He does. I can truthfully say that He has been closer to me in my sorrow than at any other time and, for that reason, grief itself can become a strange sort of treasure.

It was through death that He gave us the greatest gift of all.

 

 

God’s unwanted gift is one of His greatest

Death, in case you’re under any delusion, doesn’t wear a long, black coat, or carry a scythe. Nor does it only happen in Lewis, although we are remarkably good at it. I don’t mean that facetiously. Actually, I think we have always handled the business of dying with considerable aplomb, and that has somehow earned us the reputation for being a bit, well, morbid.

I don’t have any statistics on this, you’ll be glad to know, but I am fairly confident that the average Leodhasach goes to more funerals than his counterpart anywhere else in the country. Although I’m a wee bit away from pension age (and, unlike previous generations, actually getting more so the older I grow), I could not begin to estimate the number I have attended.

The book of Ecclesiastes says, ‘It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting’. While few of us would opt for the former over the latter, there is – unsurprisingly – the wisdom of Solomon in this.

God draws us closer to Him in the times when we are broken. I think, like any parent seeing their child in pain, His infinite heart goes out to us. He knows what it is to grieve and although He knows our end from before our beginning, He also knows our limitations. Our Heavenly Father knows that we are going to have all tears wiped from our eyes ultimately, but He also knows how our faith can waver. Although we always have that truth to comfort us, we don’t necessarily remember it as we should.

After my father died, six years ago, I felt as though a door had been opened up into eternity – a door through which death might very well come again. Despite my job, I am not much given to premonitions. Nonetheless, I had a very strong impression that death had unfinished business with me. Within two years, my husband was undergoing an operation and treatment for cancer: the illness that took his life a little while after.

I have not written about Donnie’s last hours before now because I supposed no one wanted to know. But I have since read a very brave and honest account by another blogger, who lost her mother to the same disease, of what seeing someone dying can be like. Sometimes, we can handle everything else connected with mortality so well, and yet shy away from the truth of the death-bed.

Before he finally fell asleep, he would drift in and out of consciousness. Every time he awoke, he would look at the clock as though surprised and disappointed to find himself still subject to it. When I asked him if there was anything he wanted to talk about, he told me that he would be fine and then, surprisingly, he quoted, ‘I go to prepare a place for you’. Smiling, he added, ‘but you won’t like the curtains because I’ll have to choose them myself.’

He was still his lovely, cheeky self. But better, because although he was being kind as ever, I think his heart had already left me and his family, and gone on ahead. There had been months of pain and sickness, even flashes of fear and irritability. Here, though, in his final few hours of alertness to this world, it comforts me that his eyes and his soul were already looking to eternity.

The body is frail. He was strong and healthy until this sickness came. In the last hours, as I held his hand, the infection in his chest made a noise like several pots boiling at once. Despite this he – himself – seemed to be in total peace. And then, he was gone. Never one for great shows of drama, his death was typically quiet.

Watching him go, knowing the spiritual significance of that moment, you expect something more.

Why, though?

Physical death, after all, is separation of soul from body. The battle in his lungs had nothing much to do with the peace of his inmost being. What I and that lovely nurse were witnessing was simply his body closing down, no longer needed, for now.

His soul, on the other hand, had gone on. We who had felt so much pity for him in his suffering, and who feel so much sorrow at his loss, are actually the more to be pitied and sorrowed over. Donnie is where he would certainly never want to return from.

After he died, I was troubled by the verses in Matthew 6 that urge us to store up treasures in Heaven, ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. I worried that the treasure I was thinking about was my husband and that I simply – understandably – wished to be where he was.

But this is why grief can sometimes be God’s gift to us. It is not something that can be gone through, dealt with, and shelved away. Two years on, I still get waves of overwhelming, almost physical pain. And in those moments, I can go to my Saviour and show Him my bruised heart.

No one else comforts like He does. I can truthfully say that He has been closer to me in my sorrow than at any other time and, for that reason, grief itself can become a strange sort of treasure.

It was through death that He gave us the greatest gift of all.

 

 

A Silent Voice And The Stronghold Of My Life

Three months after my husband died, I was mildly surprised to find myself sitting under a tree in the grounds of the Cabarfeidh Hotel, meditating upon Psalm 27. It was an unexpectedly special moment in the midst of what was an awful time.

I hadn’t just randomly decided to do this – whatever else I may be, I am still a strait-laced Wee Free. It was an activity in the program of events at a Christian conference for women. And I think those thirty minutes of peaceful contemplation did more for me than the rest of the day put together.

It was against my better judgment I was there at all. Closed in with Christ, but not yet ‘out’ as a Christian, I had been persuaded into it by a lovely friend who has done more for me than she can ever know. She has been to me what her namesake was to Mary: a trusted and comforting presence in a time of change and new life.

When I arrived at the hotel in the morning, feeling like a fraud, the first people I saw were nurses from the hospital. I wanted to turn and run. It had not been long enough. The wound still felt raw and I was vulnerable.

But then, there was psalm 27, and silence.

It was already my special text. God is the stronghold of my life, He is my light and my salvation. How often I had prayed those words, knowing in the midst of my grief that this much was true.

And then, it was as if He had reached down and placed a comforting hand upon my shoulder. Here was my psalm; our psalm. In the midst of all these women, here I was with my Father.

Silence. I needed it and had not realised. The long battle with cancer does not make room for this kind of silence. There are so many words you do not want to hear. And when there are no words, there is no peace – just anxious waiting and that knot of foreboding. And then, after death, a different kind of silence. It is an absence of something in your home and in your heart. For years, I had lived for Donnie. And for months, I had willed Donnie just to live.

In the last week of his life, I spent every night on a recliner by his bedside. I wanted to hear his breathing and I wanted to be there if it should stop. Nothing could make me go down the corridor to the room that was ready for me. My mind recoiled from the idea of leaving him, and even more from the thought of being sent for.

That last silence came gently. He was just no longer there. It was many things, but it was – most of all – an end to his pain, and if not exactly the beginning of mine, a step-change in it.

Sometimes, I feel my widowhood most in the evening when I wish he was here to read and pray with me. I don’t want to be the head, and the whole household too. In my darker moments, I have ceased praying because I am fed-up of my own voice.

But He is the stronghold of my life and, somehow, even when I’m by myself, I am not alone.

There is silence, though not because I feel that God has gone away. In fact, I am aware of His presence constantly in my home. If He is silent, it is because He is waiting for me, or because He is drawing breath, about to speak. And I have learned to let Him.

It is always in my expectant quietness that He has spoken. And when He speaks, He speaks peace. Hearing His voice only deepens my desire not to utter a word, but just to listen. This, I always feel, is real prayer: His heart speaking directly into mine.

That is one of the reasons that I do not, as a Wee Free woman, feel deprived that I cannot pray aloud at public worship. What can I ever say with my lips that my heart cannot tell Him more honestly?

Last year, the Free Church held a national day of prayer. It remains a special memory for two reasons.

The day began for us in Stornoway with an early prayer meeting. For me, to share my morning devotions with others was beyond beautiful. There is something about the morning and prayer, anyway, but this was so lovely.

Our evening meeting closed with five minutes of communal prayer. I don’t know how many of us there were, but to have every heart joined in that way was moving and powerful. And it was silent.

I have come to the realisation that God does not need to hear our voices, or the words we try to say. We, on the other hand, should learn to simply be quiet sometimes, and let Him speak to us.

Only in the stillness can we hear Him.

Silence for the believer is not mere absence of noise; it is the presence of God.

 

I can’t feel your pain, but I know a man who can

Recently, I read a blog post by the late Rev.Dr. Iain D Campbell, in which he reflected on his own father’s death. As a minister, he said he felt that he owed an apology to many families for having failed to fully appreciate the pain of parting with a loved one. I rather think he was being a bit too severe upon himself.

You cannot feel someone else’s pain for them. No matter how much you empathise, it can only go so far. If I ever complained to my late husband of an ache, a pain, or a bad day, he would make all the right noises and then say, ‘but, look on the bright side, at least I’m ok’! Of course he was joking, but there is some measure of truth in it.

My father passed away at the age of eighty-one and, when the minister came to visit my mother tried to play down her situation, mentioning the death of a young man that had happened the same week. ‘But’, the minister said, ‘everyone’s loss is painful to themselves’.

There is a limit to how much of another person’s burden we can shoulder, because we are not them. In the moments after the news was broken to me that my husband would die, the nurse said that, were it possible, she would take it from us. I think on that often; I’ve probably written about it elsewhere. But, of course, she couldn’t take it from us. We had to carry it ourselves: first, both of us together; and then, just me.

I had prayed, of course, that God would heal Donnie in a dazzling miracle, and restore him to me. God is unfailingly merciful, though, and doesn’t play with people’s emotions. He didn’t put false hope in my heart. Instead, He opened my eyes to what healing really is.

But my desperate petition reminds me of something else. Our Saviour also asked that the bitter cup of sin and death should pass from Him. In His very humanity, He flinched in the face of what was to come upon Him. And small wonder that He should.

What a uniquely lonely situation He was in: only He knew just what a weight there would be in the sins of the whole world; only He understood what it would mean for us to be parted eternally from the Father; He alone knew that the hope of salvation rested squarely upon His shoulders. And, of course, He alone has viewed death from both sides.

Although Jesus knew that He would raise Lazarus from the dead, He still wept with the man’s grieving family. And although He knew that He was fulfilling God’s redemptive plan at Calvary, He still experienced fear and pain. No one could take that away from Him either.

We have to remember that He was also wholly God, which makes Him uniquely capable of understanding our pain. And totally human, which made Him desire to be freed from His fate.

That very fact means  He is weeping alongside every person going through a difficult time – through family troubles, through loneliness, through illness, through death. He wanted to push it away from Himself, but still drank that bitter cup to its very dregs for us. This is no well-meaning, aloof God, patting our hands and saying, ‘there, there’. Jesus has experienced all the horror of death so that we never have to.

I would be lying if I said that the bereaved Christian does not suffer. Of course they do. There is a sentiment I hear expressed in prayer for the bereaved from time to time in church which, I feel, sums up the great emptiness of it. ‘We pray for those who have lost loved ones – how difficult that a familiar voice is gone and that the home is now silent’. That is unendingly hard, it’s true.

Throughout Donnie’s illness, my mother kept getting the same text: ‘This sickness is not unto death’; she and I both clung to that promise. We forgot something, though. Our understanding of death, and God’s meaning in these words, are simply not the same.

After all, it doesn’t end there – it continues, ‘but for the glory of God’.

My home is a lot quieter these days, and a much-loved voice is gone. I would have him back, but I also know that if there are bolts on the doors of Heaven, they are sure to be on the inside.

I have nursed my husband when there was hope he would recover, and when there was none. And I have done many things I had believed were years away – cleared his wardrobe, stopped his mail, picked his headstone – but I cannot feel the pain of other widows doing the same things. Of course I empathise with bereaved people, and yes, probably more now than ever, but I am limited in what I can take on of their suffering.

Jesus is not limited. He is limitless. Our Saviour weeps with us, binds up our broken hearts and gives us not only the one comfort to be had, but the greatest comfort that could ever be: death shall have no dominion.

This Jesus, on the brink of a savage death, was afraid. He suffered unimaginably, but He went through it. My prayer for anyone whose home is silent because of death, is that they would speak to Him. Speak and He will answer. He will not leave or forsake you. He knows what you are feeling – better even than you do yourself.