Hope Springs Eternity

As I drove the forty miles or so to attend the funeral of my friend’s father in Ness, I thought about his wife – a lovely, warm and cheerful lady, and a sister in Christ. After all their years, and four children, together, she is now a widow. But how wonderful too, I thought, that she does not grieve as those who have no hope.

What does that actually mean, though? They are words often repeated at wakes and funerals, where the doubting, the unbelieving and the seekers gather alongside the saved. Even some who belong to Christ may never have stopped to consider the difference between Christian hope and the everyday, common or garden kind.

When my late husband was diagnosed with cancer, he underwent a battery of tests and scans. The consultant told us that all these were clear and therefore, he said, ‘there IS hope’. It didn’t impress Donnie who, a Lewisman through and through, interpreted it as a forlorn attempt to make the grim certainty of death a little less imminent. Hope, he argued, is all we have to cling onto when reality is a bit hard to take. And ‘hope’ seemed like a weak word in that moment, implying an outside chance at best.

We are often asked to prepare for the worst whilst hoping for the best and – again – this has trained us that hope is little more than a comfort blanket, and a thin one at that.

It was, as I’ve written before, at my own father’s funeral that I really began to understand the nature of Christian hope, and its difference from the common way. As a friend clasped my mother’s hand and told her, ‘he’s in the happy land’, I saw something in both these women that was much stronger than words: it was certainty. They had placed faith in so trustworthy a Saviour that there could be no doubting his promises. This was not a frail hope that the Gospel might just possibly be true, but a living reality, played out in front of me and anyone else whose eyes were open that day.

How strange it must seem to those as yet living in unbelief that death is often the place where Christians display the greatest hope. To those with no faith, the valley of the shadow is a desolate spot, a featureless wasteland where they must part forever with someone they have loved very much in life. That last clasp of hands, the dying breath . . . they are final. It is here in the valley that worldly hope perishes.

For the disciples, there was a time like this too, when the man they thought was the Saviour died, and their hope with him.

But even though they didn’t realise it, they were certainly not grieving as those who have no hope: they were grieving for a Saviour who accomplished so much more than they could have imagined. Jesus did not escape the cross because he did not want to merely cheat death; he embraced his punishment because he had promised to conquer death.

And conquer it he did.

We are asked to always be ready to give a defence of the reason for the hope that is in us. Well, I say you can do worse than look to the widows. 

My friend’s mother, my own mother and myself are all privileged to know the same thing, and to share in the same hope.

Death is indeed the final parting – because when we are reunited with those who have gone before us, it will be eternally and it will be in a better country – yes, even than Ness! This is not the hope offered by a kindly surgeon, but the security we can all enjoy in the Great Physician.

Now Only Three

On Sunday morning, I was driving through the neighbouring village of Gress. To my left, the carpark was already starting to fill up, and people were unloading an assortment of beach toys, dogs and children. Over to the right, the cemetery lay quietly, an eloquent reminder that even in the midst of life, we are in death. As I continued onwards, I fell to pondering what visitors make of our cemeteries, plentiful and prominent as they are.

In fact, like our primary schools and churches, the burial grounds are a testament to the way in which Lewis was grown. Each village was a world entire for the people who belonged to it. And note my use of language- it’s something those from outside of the islands would do well to take on board: we make no claim of ownership on these communities, but they have a claim on us. That’s why, to a degree, the concept of community ownership in the literal sense is a bit alien. Traditionally, our relationship with land has not been proprietorial.

Indeed, our relationships were always described in terms of claims on, and not by, us. Where do you belong to? Who do you belong to? 

Thus, the villages had their churches to nurture the spiritual lives of the people, and schools to educate. Land was tenanted, not possessed, and the whole patchwork stitched together by fellow feeling, common experience and mutual understanding. 

The cemeteries are a part of it. One of the first things I did as a grown-up, married woman was to pay the lair fees for myself, my husband and my mother in-law. I began life in Tolsta paying nine pounds, then six . . . and now only three. It is an annual memento mori, a gentle pecuniary reminder nach e seo baile a mhaireas. Unlike many other townships, Tolsta’s cemetery is less prominent and so far removed from the village that you could go your whole life without glimpsing it. That’s a shame, I think, because when burial grounds are at the centre of a village, they do serve as a normaliser of death as something natural. For most villages, too, until very recently, burial itself occupied a central role in community life: everyone turned out to local funerals. 

Lewis funerals were the ultimate act of community – a public solidarity with the grieving family, and a respectful acknowledgement of the deceased person’s place in the tapestry of their lives. We understand better than most how someone you barely knew, or knew only by sight or who was just a name to you, still touched your life in some way, however small. They existed, they shared your heritage, they were a part of the same things you are. And thanks to our very civilised and healthy relationship with death, we are able to give them that dignified place at the end of life. The patronymic system ensures that their memory lives on, a chain linking those of us still in life to the relations and neighbours gone ahead into eternity.  It connects us, across the continents and oceans also, to the emigrated loved ones, keeping them a part of our community in life and in death, just the same.

We are losing our hold on what has kept these communities through the centuries. The church building may be where it was placed, at the centre of our villages, but the actual church is rarely at the heart of community life. And because of this, our relationship with death is also changing, turning into something sour and unhealthy.

It is darkly ironic that the unbelievers who call Christianity ‘a death cult’ are so prepared to argue against the sanctity of life themselves. If an unborn life is inconvenient, terminate it in the bud; if a person’s health is deteriorating or their quality of life poor, remove the burden now. Don’t wait on God’s providence, don’t trust him: push his hand away and do it for yourself. Somehow, we think that a life untrammelled by difficulty or pain is our birthright, and if it isn’t provided for us we must take it for ourselves. That justifies breaking the commandment to protect life. What does God know of our suffering?

The people who placed their churches and their cemeteries at the heart of community life knew better than to turn their faces from him. In accepting his seasons of providence, they showed great wisdom. ‘Fatalistic’, some have called it, but I don’t see it that way. They trusted him with all the moments of their lives. We are linked to them, through that patronymic chain, through all the words of prayer uttered by parents for children, by sisters for their brothers and vice-versa, and by pastors for their flocks.

Let us find our way back to a place where God is permitted to be God, and we accept that it is both in and to him we belong.

Because He Loved Us First

When the bombs fell on Buckingham Palace in 1940, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother said that she was glad because it meant that she and the King could finally ‘look the East End in the eye’. Many people have laughed at this statement, believing it to be illustrative of just how out of touch the royal family is. People who had almost nothing, losing everything they owned in one night were not experiencing the same war as the privileged Windsors with their untold wealth and multiple palatial residences. If one castle gets totalled, move to another: that is not poverty.

We seem to believe that empathy can only stem from our having actually experienced something. Until the monarch has to live in a high-rise flat with no food in the fridge and no money to feed the meter, she cannot begin to understand the plight of her poorest subjects.

Empathy, though, is like faith – it shouldn’t require evidence. Nothing breaks my heart more than homelessness, though I have mercifully never been in that position myself. Surely the essence of the empathetic heart is being able to find the common point of experience. The Queen Mother was not suggesting that her domestic situation was the same as that of the Eastenders; she was saying, however, that both knew what it was to have their homes threatened and even breached. One was much larger and grander, yes, but home nonetheless.

And, just the same, when I saw our Queen sitting all by herself at the funeral of her husband, I could finally understand how a blone from Lewis and the monarch of a kingdom might have something in common.

When the time came for the mourners to file into the church on the day of my husband’s funeral, a church officer approached me and asked, ‘are you alone?’ I felt his words like a knife to my heart. Yes indeed, I thought, quite alone. My best friend, my helpmeet, my companion in life, has gone on without me, and I have to navigate this path as best I can with no hand to hold.

I don’t imagine the pain of losing a spouse is any less when you are a world leader. Perhaps, indeed, the pain is greater still for one whose life is so public. She must now find a way in which to do everything she used to do, but always conscious of the absence where Prince Philip used to be. It is likely – though by no means certain – that her reunion with him will come much more quickly than mine with Donnie. When I was first widowed, I used to envy elderly women in my position, because I thought they wouldn’t have to experience so much of life without their husbands.

Now, though, I know it makes no difference. Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead, but he still wept with the family. His tears were not merely for their pain, but for the human condition – for the fall that has brought us to a place of death. Inevitably, whether we are exalted in the land or humble, we gather at the graveside and mourn for what the great leveller has removed.

Jesus – the Queen’s Saviour and mine – was displaying empathy. He was shedding tears for mankind, for the sin that brought death into our experience. Although he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, death would eventually claim him a second time.

Of course, the depth of Jesus’ empathy was what led him to finally surrender himself on the cross. So moved was the Lord’s heart by what we have inflicted upon ourselves, that he did not merely weep with the bereaved: he gave himself to death in our place.

Christ became man and walked this Earth. He was born into the humblest of surroundings. As a man, he had no home to call his own, no regular income, no insurance policies. The King of Kings was a vagrant.

But that isn’t what made him the most empathetic man who ever lived.

Before God sent his Son into the world, there was compassion, and there was empathy for our plight. Do we castigate God because he has never had his home destroyed, or lost his spouse? Would it be fair to tell him that he cannot understand our pain? Of course not, because he is the very model of what empathy means. If I may put it like this, he carried empathy to its ultimate conclusion.

If we are followers of Christ, then, shouldn’t empathy be part of our character? There are things I have not suffered, practices I do not approve, walks I have not had to take . . . but when I see my fellow man in their midst, where is my heart? Do I rush to judgement, to vitriol and condemnation, or do I say, ‘there but for God’s grace go I’.

Christ came alongside all manner of sin and suffering. That was empathy. And we are capable of it, it is expected of us, because he loved us first.

Love Letters Straight From My Heart

It has been quite a long time since I wrote anything even approaching a love letter. These days, my bag is more complaining emails and sarcastic texts. But it’s not a skill I plan to lose. So, today, I want to flex my writing arm in tribute to love: love so perfect and so  immeasurable that I think, folks, we’ve got to give it a capital ‘l’.

Love. 

I could tell you about how I met my husband. It would write itself, a blog about the best man I ever knew. And I could reminisce about how, weeks before he died, there were still flowers for me on Valentine’s Day. 

But I have a better love story for you even than that. Oh, and, if you don’t know this other love of mine, you could be forgiven for thinking he’s a bit of a villain. After all, he brought myself and my husband together. He knew we’d be happy. In fact, he saw to it.

And then he split us up.

What a cruel, heartless thing to do. We weren’t old: I was in my late thirties, Donnie was in his early fifties. Our twelfth wedding anniversary was a few months away. Because of his work, we had already been denied a lot of time together. And then, it was over.

All because of Love.

That’s right. Because. Not in spite of love, not denying or ignoring love, but precisely because of it. 

God so loved the world that he gave his only son. These are words as familiar as ‘I love you’ and they mean the same – only more so. The harrowing, hellish, suffering death of Jesus on that cross is God’s love letter to a broken world. Do you think it meant nothing to him, to be separated from his beloved, perfect Son, for my sin and for yours? 

God IS love. He didn’t invent it or create it – he embodies and defines it. What is not patterned on him is not really love, but a pale imitation.

He gave us those three little words that mean so much, that changed the course of not one life but countless thousands forever: 

‘It. Is. Finished.’

My heavenly Father’s love for me deserves a response. It is worthy of acknowledgment. Of all the love letters ever written, his is the only one that was designed to be shared. God wants me to pass it on. And I can do no more than to tell it to you in terms you’ll understand. 

We’re human and, being human, we experience love – if we’re that fortunate – in its various forms. When you find happiness with a life partner, however, it brings a special kind of fulfilment. I had that with Donnie and he, I believe, felt the same.

So, you see, it was real love. The kind that used to make me think I could never live without him.

What stopped me from falling into an abyss of despair, then ? How can I look back on what I had and not feel bitter that it has been taken away?

I must be an amazing person, no?

No. Those who know me are scratching their heads, going, ‘no, that’s definitely not it’ – and they’re right. 

It’s that all this is done in love. Real love. God gave his only, perfect son for me. Does it seem likely he would do anything to gratuitously hurt a person he loves that much? Of course not; God is love. 

A life lived in Christ is a life of love. Even though it may seem that he is inflicting pain, in fact, it is the very opposite. I would not willingly sacrifice the things or the people that he would have me give up, and so, in love, he gently removes them himself.

I love the Lord because he first loved me. And he has gone on loving me. God’s love is not the fragile emotion that we humans sometimes share – it is active, and it follows a set trajectory which ends in perfection. He doesn’t waver, or doubt, or forsake.

So, don’t pity me for my loss: envy me so much for my gain that you do everything you can to secure that love for yourself.

With God, every day is a celebration of real love.

Godness Without Goodness

Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Well, the answer to that rather depends on who you ask. Robert Burns, I think, was steering us towards a negative answer. The prophet, Isaiah, on the other hand, urged us to ‘remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old’.

At the turn of the year, it is natural, however, to  reminisce. That other gobby spideag, Scarlett O’ Hara used to advise against such things, warning that the past would drag at your heart until eventually looking back would be all you could do. Normally I’d agree with her, but New Year is a special case. We stand on the threshold of 2021 and, however this twelve-month has served us, it’s hard to resist a last glimpse before finally taking our leave.

The world is in visible chaos. This pandemic drives home a truth that has been with us since our fall in Adam: we are not in control. It may be more apparent to us at this moment in time but it is, actually, no more true than it was last year, last century or last millennium. God has told us this repeatedly. He has told us gently and kindly, he has roared it at us, he has written it in fire and cloud across his beautiful Creation. That is, the same Creation we fractured when we first tried to take his place.

As those who commit wrongs often do, we failed – collectively and individually- to accept the guilt of that presumption. Instead, humankind has wasted all its time and effort trying to prove that God doesn’t exist and, if he does, he’s to blame for wars and childhood cancer, while man furnishes the peace treaties and the cures. 

We fail consistently to go to our Father and repent of this age-old struggle to wrest his godness from him and confer it upon ourselves. 

As a race, humanity lacks humility.

For me, 2020 was a fresh beginning. I came to terms with a lot of things, and put others into their rightful places. Because of the new way of living, I rediscovered the joy of home, and the manifold blessings of this life that my Father ordained for me. 

Another privilege I have enjoyed is peace. That is, the settled peace that permits me to take a step back from my own experience. I view it, if not with a dispassionate eye, then certainly with a perspective that comes from the Lord. If people say things about me that are unjust or untrue, what is that to me? My reputation with God is crucial; he sees and he knows. We may protest our goodness and our kindness, but if our actions witness to the contrary, that is recorded. It is simply a question of deciding whose opinion of me matters and I will take the courts of the Lord ahead of the court of public – or social media – opinion any day of the week.

I cannot say that I deserve the blessings he has poured down upon my head this year. In a period of uncertainty and grief for many, God has been more present than ever, and much more giving than I have any right to expect. Though I cannot say exactly how, I feel that I have turned a corner and that I am ready for a fresh beginning in 2021. Never really having been conscious of particular weakness or vulnerability, it is strange to acknowledge that I feel much stronger and more like my ‘old self’.

She is an old acquaintance that I don’t want to forget: Catriona Murray, Donnie’s wife. There is nothing about those years I would wish to blot from memory. I can survey them with happiness for the life well-lived that joined to mine for a time. Now, I am someone else. A germ of that same Catriona went into making this present incarnation, but I am renewed and refined by all that has happened since I held my husband’s hand for the last time. 

And because of these experiences, I ponder the resurrection of believers and see the same mind, the same creative hand at work. God can take us and make us into something else. Catriona the wife and Catriona the widow are the same person, and yet, not.  

He is working in his people, the world over, right at this very moment. Look at your loved ones – little children, old ladies and everyone in between: if they belong to him, he is remaking them in his own image once more. Perhaps he will have to bend them, and pummel them and change them almost beyond recognition, but he is conforming them to the original pattern of perfection.

We try to take his godness from him, and to possess it for ourselves. But, if we would only recognise his goodness and submit to it in Christ, 2021 could be a year of renewal and blessing for all.

A Home For All Seasons

I am writing this blog as a howling gale rages outside. Myself and the dog are tucked up by the woodburner, enjoying the warmth and safety of home. And it occurs to me, as I pour another cup of Dark Grey no.4 (tea, incidentally, not malt whisky), that it could all serve as a metaphor for the life that I live.

The house was built many years ago by the father in-law that I never met, as a home for his growing family, of which my husband was the baby. In time, it became his, and I moved here with him as a bride in 2003.

Over the years, we carried out work that made it more our home, including the installation of the Morso Squirrel woodburner upon which I am currently toasting my cable-knit slippers. And Donnie became a tree and shrub aficionado, growing obsessed with screening the house off from the world. I remember saying to him, as we made yet another pilgrimage to Maybury Gardens, to please not mention the word ‘privacy’ again. ‘David Iain is going to think we’ve got something to hide’, I said, as we both laughed at the thought.

It is on a feu, and it is not mortgaged. So, when my beloved Donnie passed away in 2015, I had the comfort of knowing it was completely mine. No one could take it from me. He had, in the last few months of his life, been single-minded in ensuring that I would be secure in every way that he could make certain of. That was always his instinct. 

I remember one evening, a few years before the shadow of death crossed our path. He had filled up the log basket and gone out to close the gates. ‘That always feels good’, he said, shooting the bolt home, ‘everything secured for the weekend, and both of us safe inside’. It was why the trees were so important too: he was putting a circle of protection around what meant the most to him. This house was everything: it symbolised his parents and siblings, and his marriage to me. It was everything warm, safe and positive in a life kindly and gently lived.

So, when that legacy passed into my keeping, I felt very keenly that it was like having his protection still. He cannot put his arms around me now, and I cannot go to him with my troubles – but I have our home, with all its happy memories and warm associations.

Every metaphorical storm – and every literal one too – that has blown since I lost him, sent me to the solace of this place. Here, I feel close to him, and safe. 

But there is an additional reason for this. No, not additional – it is, in fact, the foundation that was there all along. It was what motivated Donnie, it was what sustained us both as we walked through the valley of the shadow, as much as in the sunlit uplands of happiness.

Love. Real love, that is. Not the Mills and Boon sort, nor the kind that breaks under pressure. The original, the best, patented by the Creator.

Over my sitting room door hangs a sign that says ‘The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?’, the first verse of psalm 27. It speaks volumes to me of what home is, of what it always has been. I understand God’s protection because I have always been blessed to have the shelter of a loving home.

Now is no different. I have a home that was built with love, and – as my husband wrote in the last of his diary entries – was always a place of happiness. That sort of legacy is not meaningless, and I don’t hold it lightly.

Not long ago, a friend of mine was talking about a widow who had some slight bother with her neighbours, and kept saying, ‘this wouldn’t happen if Murdo was alive’. I suppose he thought she was full of self-pity and being melodramatic. But I believe that she probably had a point, because people do treat you differently. Kind people treat you more kindly, and those who are only out for themselves seek to exploit your solitude. 

God has a heart for the fatherless and for the widows, though. I don’t just believe that; I know it. He has given me to have a safe place in storms of all kinds. Sometimes, he causes them to be calm, and sometimes he lets them rage and fume and blow themselves out.

But always, I am here, in the warmth and safety of my home. When the forces outside batter and buffet me, I look up and I read once more:

‘The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?’

The answer is this: no one. I am safe in the shelter of one who can silence the storm with a word. 

A humbling thought if you have ever glibly said of yourself, ‘I am the storm’. 

Roll the Stone Away

Last night, someone introducing himself as ‘your friendly, local elder’ telephoned. I was briefly distraught, thinking something had happened to the usual grumpy (but ultimately loveable) fellow. And then, I realised, no, it IS him, he was just trying to confuse me. He was doing a pastoral visit by phone, checking that I was surviving the lockdown, and not going off my head at the full moon.

Slightly shame-facedly, I admitted to him the thing that I have hardly dared admit to myself: this situation has brought me armfuls of blessing. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I don’t for one minute forget the gravity of what we face, or the tragedy it has visited upon our world. Yet, while I am mindful of all that, I have to confess to feeling the lightest and easiest in my mind that I have for years. There is nowhere to go, no one asking this or that of me. I am in my own home for most of every day. I am growing to love that again.

Because of technology, I can speak to my family and friends – and our conversations are more meaningful because they are our only means of contact. Last Wednesday, it was a revelation to Zoom into the prayer meeting. I felt genuine joy at seeing the familiar faces on-screen, faces I used to take for granted, faces I barely noticed when we shared the same space. And on Sundays, I can sit exactly where I usually go to read and pray at home, but also hear God’s word preached by our own minister.

We are scattered, but still able to be together in all the ways that matter.

It has afforded me that too rare commodity: time. I have not rushed my devotions, nor had to skip them in order to dash off somewhere else. My life and my mind are both uncluttered and I see something very clearly now that I was afraid to even look at before.

God truly has healed me.

See, five years ago just now, I was on leave from work, coming to terms with my new and unwanted status as a widow. From there, I hurtled into this commitment and that, afraid to have any unoccupied minutes. I have been utterly unfair to myself, because all that bustle prevented me from truly experiencing God’s care.

Now, it’s true that most of what fills my time I do because of him. That’s how I have been able to tell myself it’s not inconsequential busyness. Nor is it. But it has left me little scope to just breathe, to look around my new landscape and thank God for bringing me up out of the valley. I have been darting from one place, one thought, one commitment to the next, never once taking in the view from where he has brought me to.

It might seem strange that it took a lockdown for me to realise that there is nothing to fear from solitude, nor from having time to contemplate. Then again, not really so odd – because it was actually another lockdown that set me free to begin with.

On that first Good Friday, when they rolled the stone to the mouth of Jesus’ tomb, his followers must have been in despair. His persecutors surely thought there was no more harm he could do them. He was dead, and his body locked in for good measure. They placed a guard on him just to be sure. The risk, they thought, was that the disciples would steal his body and fake the prophesied resurrection.

What is it about lockdowns and conspiracy theories?

Three days passed during which his own people would have felt all kinds of despair and grief, the death of hope leaving a bitter tang. Meanwhile, those who hated Christ revealed something of the nature of their enmity. It was born of fear: fear of his power, fear of his true status – why else surround a dead man with soldiers?

And at last, on the third day of nothing much happening, the angel came and the stone was rolled away.

We know very well what was found there. The grave clothes for which he had no further need, were placed where he had lain. And our Saviour was no longer there.

He had risen.

Sometimes, it’s only when everything seems to be over that real hope springs forth. I know it for myself and I count it as blessing.

No one who stood, guarding over that tomb could have suspected the work being accomplished within. It was the end, it was the ultimate lockdown.

When God brings all to a standstill, he is doing more than reminding us who is in control. He is giving us the gift of time – perhaps more than those three days, perhaps much less – in which to stop, and regard him in all his glory.

After the stone was rolled away, a story was put about by religious leaders that Christ’s body had been stolen during the night by his followers.

But they lied. They lied because they were afraid. Yet, they chose fear and denial over acceptance of one great and simple truth:

He IS risen.

If we are spared to see this stone rolled away, I pray that fear will not have won. I pray that we will all use the lockdown to bow our hearts in submission.

Who would believe an ugly lie in place of the beautiful, wonderful truth – that he rose again, and in him, we are free indeed.

No Sting in this Tale

Everyone is looking back. It is not just the turn of the year, but the close of a decade also. Photos abound, comparing faces from ten years ago with their present-day counterparts; and there are the inevitable lists – what we wanted to achieve over against what actually transpired.

If I do the same, the change in my life looks seismic. At the start of this decade, both my father and husband were still living. I was quietly going about my business: work and home and family were the boundaries of my small world. My face was considerably less wrinkled, my eyes less baggy, and that generally shopworn look had not yet settled on me. It was still possible to stay up all night at election counts and do a full day’s work afterwards. In short, I hadn’t started to think I might be mortal.

That all changed when we experienced a break in our tight family circle. With the death of my father came the real, heart realisation that this world is not forever. I felt that some door to eternity had been flung open and I lived in a state bordering on terror that death was not yet done with us.

It wasn’t. Yet, when it came again to claim Donnie, I was so blessed to be able to see it as what it really is: the last enemy.

I had heard the term, of course, many times – which death-fixated Calvinist has not? But I hadn’t properly understood that such a gloomy phrase could convey much spiritual comfort.

See, as an unassured Christian, I took it to mean that we all need to accept the fact that there is always that last hurdle at the end of our lives. No matter, I thought, how easy or difficult things are in this world, no matter whether you are atheist or believer, there is this dragon guarding the exit. It was a lurking, crouching, dark form, waiting to blight my life by removing loved ones and, eventually, to claim me too.

‘Well’, you’re thinking by now, ‘am I glad I started to read this – she’s fairly cheered me up. A blog by PTL is like the last enemy at the threshold of the year!’

I refer you to Naomi’s advice for her daughter in-law, Ruth; advice I often have to give myself: ‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out’.

I haven’t finished yet.

Death being the last enemy is not a threat to me anymore; it’s a promise. You may say that this is all very well because, yes, it is the ‘last’. Nonetheless, it is also still the ‘enemy’ and that is something, surely, to fear.

It used to be. That’s why my father’s death left me feeling persistently exposed and vulnerable. Eternity was speaking to me, laying before me two options. There was the broad road, which looks so easy and attractive. Parallel to it was the narrow path, winding, steep and – in places – dark. Standing at the entrance to these it seems simple to pick which journey to take.

If I had chosen to be seduced onto the broad way, I would be facing the last enemy alone. Instead, by God’s infinite mercy and grace, I was drawn down the narrow way. It isn’t straightforward and I have stumbled so often. There are even many days when I look wistfully at that parallel track, and even stand on the verge that separates the two, wondering where I belong.

The last enemy waits for me, some way ahead – near or far, I can’t be sure.

But, because I walk, limp, and crawl in the company of Christ, the knowledge that death is the last enemy is a sweet one. It doesn’t loom ominously because my wonderful Saviour vanquished it for me long ago:

‘I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless; Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.

Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?

I triumph still if thou abide with me.’

So, yes, on the surface, and even somewhat deeper, this has been a hard decade. Over the last year, indeed, and even the past fortnight, there have been many attempts by the devil to make me fear, so that I will regret the way I have taken. It is difficult to hold your nerve against such onslaught- which is why I don’t; I give it to someone else to hold for me.

The bags under my eyes, the tired face . . .  don’t be fooled; inwardly, I – like every man or woman who calls upon the name of Jesus – am being renewed.

At the start of a new year and a new decade, then, I pray for that perspective on the last enemy to be the lot of those I love. More challenging still, I pray that it will also be the lot of those of you who hate me for Christ’s sake.

Comforting His People

, All summer, the blacker of my two cats – let’s call her ‘Mo’, for that is her name – has been largely absent from the house, except for the occasional visit to fill up on Whiskas and slap the dog. If I petted her, or even addressed a casual remark in her general direction, I was invariably met with a hard stare, or a high-pitched mew of disdain.

The moment, however, the weather turned a little colder, a little wetter and a lot windier, Mo became my best friend again. She can now mostly be found curled up in my wardrobe (don’t ask), or stretched on the radiator in the front hall. Cuddles are welcomed, and she even seeks out my company from time to time. However objectionable my personality and conversation, Mo clearly realises when she’s onto a good thing – I am a warm and cuddly guarantee of food and shelter. In short, I am her source of comfort.

For human beings, there are two levels of comfort. There is the ordinary, everyday kind – or, at least, it’s seen as such by we privileged westerners – which consists of all the things we take for granted: warm, clean clothing, a secure home, income, a steady food supply, good health and good healthcare, relative peace and safety.

I don’t know why, particularly, but this morning I was moved to thank God in prayer for the howling wind and driving rain sounds to which I awoke, to which I often awake. They remind me of my blessedness in living where I do, in a place I love, and in a home which is a stronghold against the elements.

The other level of comfort, though, is a deeper one – it caters to our emotional and spiritual needs. Like Mo, our craving for it can be particularly acute during the onset of a soul-shaking storm.

We heard in church recently how the idea of comfort in the Bible carries with it the sense of getting alongside the person who needs it. It is not unusual, when we anticipate going to the home of a bereaved family, to worry that we will not know what to say, as though the perfect choice of words from us could make any difference at all. The words don’t matter; the being there does. And, comfort comes from knowing that there is solidarity in grief, which is surely the most universal of all human experiences.

This week, two families I have come to know and love in the Lord have parted with loved ones. In their different ways, these deaths have touched the church and wider community in Scotland. It isn’t simply that Anna and Murdo Alex were so young, though that cannot fail to give the hardest of hearts a thought of eternity. I think it is the strength of their faith that compels everyone standing near to confront the fact that this comfort which we get from God, it’s real. There is no quick-fix, this’ll make you feel better for now-ness about it – this is the solid, all-encompassing, unchanging, faithfulness of God writ large across the lives, and deaths, of those who love him and, more crucially, whom he loves.

He has created his church as a body, to experience his providence – easy or challenging – collectively. I tend to think that’s what Ecclesiastes is getting at when it says, ‘in the day of prosperity, rejoice, but in the day of adversity, consider’. We learn something in our own providences, yes, but it is something we were made to share with the rest of God’s people too. I feel able to speak to people who have lost loved ones, from a place of greater understanding because it has been part of my own experience too.

The thing is, though, I hope that what I’m sharing is not so much my experience of death as my receipt of God’s comfort. For me, the miraculous thing is not that I got through the worst thing that has ever happened in my life, but that I was comforted by the presence of my Saviour, and by my knowledge of his sufficiency in that and all things.

That received sense of peace would be meaningless were it not for the complete trustworthiness of the source. A made-up God that I was choosing to believe in would be a thin comfort blanket indeed against the chills of grief. Yet, poor unbelievers persist in the delusion that Christians ‘choose’ to accept the existence of God as a crutch to get them through.

God exists; that is not up for debate. It is not the mere existence of God which keeps his people in their darkest hours, however – it is his provision, through Christ, of a love that will not let them go. Our relationship with him is often at its most beautiful when we need him most. Hardship and trials in this world, even those less painful than bereavement, drive us into his arms.

It does not remove, or even lessen our difficulties in this world, but it does help put them in their proper perspective. We are the body of his church, and what hurts one, should pain all. Equally, the comfort which we individually receive at his hand is for sharing, that we might bear one another’s burdens.

“ ‘Comfort, comfort, my people’, says your God” – not empty words, not a ‘there, there’ pat on the hand, but a prelude to his own coming among us in the person of his Son.

That’s comfort of the most complete, all-encompassing kind. And there is no comfort apart from him. I know, because it is mine, and it is enough.It will  always be enough.

 

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.