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.

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.

The Night and the Sacrifice

The sinister side of Stornoway Free Church was revealed to me last Sunday when I was taken aside and threatened by our Assistant Minister. ‘Do NOT record this’, he hissed. Oh my goodness, I thought, all the conspiracy theories were right – he actually suspects me of wearing a wire. But then his meaning dawned on me. Having been called in to take the service at short notice, he didn’t want the sermon recorded as he’d already preached it elsewhere.

His general demeanour was so menacing, however, that I sat with my arms folded throughout the service just so that he could clearly see that I wasn’t even touching the audio equipment. Still, I did manage to take on board some of what he was saying.

It was about Abraham going up to Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son, Isaac, because God had commanded him to do so. The message of this lovely, familiar incident is one of extraordinary faith, of course. Christians aspire to be like Abraham, prepared to give up that which he loves because his God desires it. Imagine, you find yourself thinking, that level of obedience.

Imagine, the minister said, the night before that sacrifice.

We can probably all do that. I have certainly had those nights. Oh, not sacrifice, no – but long, sleepless hours, dreading what the morning will bring. What will the scan show? Has the oncologist got bad news for us? How will I get through my husband’s funeral service?

It’s difficult for me not to let my mind dwell on what I’ve lost, at this time of year more than any other. From January through to March, when Donnie died, I relive the gradual loss of hope, the coming to terms, the apparent end of everything

Perhaps Abraham also felt that way on what he thought would be his final journey with Isaac, that longed-for son of his old age. But he kept putting one foot in front of the other. It was a faith journey, in the truest sense.

Mine was different. I took every step in resistance to what God was gently telling us. If my stubbornness could have kept my husband alive, he’d be here now.

The long, dark nights before, though, they pass, and even they must give way to morning.

How dreadful that dawn must have seemed to Abraham. Despite never having to do what he did, it is not impossible to empathise with him. My faith has not made such demands on me, probably because I do not possess the faith of Abraham. Yet, I can enter into his suffering in a small way, because I can recall the terrible fear that comes in knowing death is close by.

But what about the journey home, and the night after? It is hard to imagine that Abraham’s bed was much easier. His heart must have been overflowing with love for God who had stayed his hand at the eleventh hour and restored Isaac to him. He must have been filled with wonder at the meaning of his test on the mountain. And he was surely reassured at the willingness his son, Isaac, displayed to be the sacrifice that God required.

I don’t think that the joy and the thankfulness were just because Isaac was alive, though. That is not the world-fixated way that faith works. Christian joy is not tied to such variables as life or death.

Donnie died, but I can understand Abraham’s night after better even than his night before.

He did not require a sacrifice from Abraham but, then, He did not require one of me either. God’s great kindness to me was in taking, rather than asking me to give – because unlike faithful Abraham, I would have sinned my soul and refused. And if that route had been open to me, what a world of blessing I would have denied us both.

The night before is all about dread. But the night after, you see His hand, His nail-marked hand guiding you from the place of sacrifice to the place of peace and of love. You rest in Him, and then you see the journey differently because He is with you in it, always.

And in the light of being loved by Him, you forget there ever was a night before.

 

 

 

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.

Doing everything by the Book

In the last, difficult weeks of Donnie’s life, we spent a lot of time on planes and in hospitals. I say, ‘we’ because, although he was the patient, I went through it all in my own way too. My way involved reading. Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ were satisfyingly bleak and waiting-room long; they suited the mood, and they passed the hours.

And for a while, I thought they were going to be the last books I would ever open.

After Donnie died, I could not read. At first, it didn’t matter, and I barely noticed. There were other things to fill my time, other concerns to occupy my imagination. But, gradually, it started to worry me. I had already lost what felt like the greater part of my identity. The months and months of anxiety and nursing had ended abruptly; I was no longer a wife. Now, it seemed like reading had gone too – I simply had no appetite for it any more.

Perhaps that doesn’t sound like a big deal, especially in the context of my loss. But reading had always been part of me. I remember being endlessly chided for trying to bring books to the dinner table, and for walking from room to room, book in hand, nose buried in a story. Once, hilariously, my father watched me bring home yet another purchase and said in exasperation, ‘surely you have enough books now!’

Yet, some of my most treasured volumes are the ones he bought me because he knew how much I wanted them.

I think I worried him enormously by insisting on finding a new home for the bookcase full of theology texts I’d amassed while doing a short course with the Free Church. He must have despaired when I kept saying, ‘I won’t need them again – they should go to someone who will use them’. And although I’m not sorry that they joined the fledgling library of a now newly-ordained minister, I am sorry for the anxiety I must have caused my father in the process. Did he think I was turning my back on God?

Yes, books have played an important role in my life. I wish I had told my father about the devotional I read as a child that caused me to kneel and ask Jesus into my heart. It may not quite have been a conversion, but He never quite left me after that either.

By the time I was a widow, all these years later, I was also His completely. I had lost the ability to get absorbed in a novel, but was beginning to find a new identity in Christ. Wrestling with mounting concern about my reading mojo being gone, I began to tell people how worried I was that it was never coming back. Privately, I actually thought I was mentally ill. When I would try to make myself read, I could not finish anything. It was like a sickness when food turns your stomach. My sister in-law suggested that it was the result of my conversion, that perhaps I no longer cared for ‘worldly’ books. Okay, but I wasn’t exactly devouring Christian ones either.

Except for one, that is. The One. Morning and evening, and in those still stormy, tearful times in between, I reached for my Bible. Gospels, Pauline epistles, the beautiful Song of Songs, the melancholy Ecclesiastes, the inspiring Job, and the incomparable, endless Psalms. They all spoke to me in their different ways, and in my different moods.

This Bible that had been a dumb thing in my hands for so many years, it was transformed by the power of the Comforter. Now it was ministering to me in all my need. When I wondered what all this fog of pain could mean, it spoke truth into my heart.

The Bible is not just a book. It is the living Word of God and He reaches us through it. If I did not know this before, I know it now. Books, the very things which had once peopled my world, receded from me when I needed them most. They would have been no use anyway.

His Word, though, did the work. It caused me to feel my pain, to regard it through the lens of God’s mercy and justice. For all that people call it folktales and fairy stories, it does not provide a means of escape. We have got our means already; He from whose lips the cup did not pass. But the Bible helps us accept that, it helps us see where we fit into His plan.

It did not always use soft words, nor did it beguile me with pretty promises for this world.

But it does speak absolute, inerrant truth. It comes from the Lord, and it tells us what we need to hear – that is, not what we want, but what He knows is best for us.

Trying to run things for myself, I had begun to panic, and to struggle against what was happening. Actually, though, I see it now: it was as if God had taken the book from my hand, laid it down, and whispered, ‘listen to me’.

The more I listened, the clearer His voice became.

No, the Bible is not just a book. It is a direct line from God. There is no pain, no loss, no heartache, into which it cannot speak. But it’s got to come down from its high shelf first; and so do we.