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.

Give Your Heart a Home

As I sat at my kitchen table, typing up Sunday evening’s sermon, I came across something in my notes which has caused me a lot of reflection. The minister had said – as ministers often will – that the
unsaved should not listen to the restraining voice which prevents them
from closing in with Christ. He pointed out that their fear is misplaced, because there is no better place to be in the whole world.

And he is, of course, absolutely right.

At the same time, however, God is not coming into your heart to pat and soothe you, or to affirm that you are essentially a good person. Quite the opposite, in fact. Just like Legion, in the same sermon, I
am commanded to tell what the Lord has done for me and, truthfully, I have to say that He has driven a coach and horses through my life.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I use that term with complete reverence and no little awe at His ability to turn everything on its head, and yet leave the person at the centre of the storm feeling more
secure than she ever has before.  That is the truth of it.

In CS Lewis’ famous Narnia series, one of the children asks about Aslan, the lion, ‘is he safe?’ The answer comes in the negative – ‘Course he isn’t safe, but he IS good’. That is a perfect description
of how I have experienced God’s providence. He has done things in my
life that I would certainly not have chosen for myself, but He does it as a loving Father, who knows my end from my beginning. What hurts me momentarily benefits me eternally; I trust this because I trust Him.

Had He been safe, I could have relied upon Him to leave me in my comfortable sin – but what kind of God would that make Him?

I am not referring here just to the loss of my husband. That was God’s providence and the death of a spouse will affect believer and unbeliever alike. But, when you have the immeasurable advantage of
knowing Christ, it’s different. There is still the pain of being parted, but there is also the sweetness of His comfort. If you let
Him, God will do more than make grief bearable; He will make it beautiful.

He has turned my life upside-down in other ways, however. When you cease to be wise in your own sight, everything comes to be thrown into sharp relief by the light of God’s wisdom. Like most dimwits on entering the Christian life, I thought that there were aspects of mine
which I could keep, untouched and unaffected by Him.

I was wrong. That is how the world sees Christianity – a philosophy, or even just a lifestyle that we choose and can adapt to our own preferences and predilections.  But it is not a lifestyle choice: it is, quite literally, a life for a life. Christ laid down His for me, and I am asked to give Him all of mine in return.

One of the sharpest difficulties has been my political beliefs. I have been a nationalist since I could pronounce the word, and I remain such. However, I cannot support many of the policies being promoted by the SNP because they go against what my conscience tells me. When your guiding principle is the Bible, there can be no compromise on what is
right, or what is moral, whatever the cost.

Being a Christian has lost me friendships – unbelieving friends who turned out not to be tolerant after all.  Part of the discipline you learn, of course, is when to stop trying. I realised that, with some,
talking of the Gospel only provides an opportunity for them to spit on it. There is most certainly a time to be silent.

However, I would not want anyone to form the impression that giving your life to Christ is all about the things He removes. Like a skilled surgeon, He cuts away the dead tissue so that what is new and healthy might flourish. And He has filled my new life with blessing, much of
which He delivers through other people.

I am privileged to be able to witness for Him through my blog and online. This has led to difficult conversations, and to public ignominy – but, more importantly and enduringly, to a world of wonderful experiences and precious friendships.  For every slur on my name for His sake, He brings me the prayers and fellowship of His people, the surrounding love of His church, and the confidence that comes from leaning on Him alone.

He has taken me down paths to serve Him that I would not have trodden of my own volition. Not a natural public speaker, and certainly not a courageous defender of anything, He fills my mouth with His words when I need them. We are not required to possess the heart of a lion,
because He does, and He lends His strength to any who ask it for His sake.

Earlier this week, I spent the evening in the company of new friends. They had known my husband before I did and I was very moved to learn of his interest in the things of God all those years ago.  We listened to a song that they had played, and which made a powerful impression
upon him – ‘Give Your Heart a Home’ – addressed by Christ to an unbeliever:
‘If you’re tired and weary
weak and heavy-laden
I can understand how
It feels to be alone
I will take your burden
If you’ll let me love you
Wrap my arms around you,
Give your heart a home’.

Christ is not safe; He won’t leave you as you are. He has turned my life into something the me of three years ago would scarcely believe. But He is good – and though He has taken me along unexpected and challenging paths, I can say with all my heart that I regret nothing
because He is with me.

And He will do as much for any heart that finds its home in Him.

Birds who Pray and Birds of Prey

Etiquette in Lewis is not like it is anywhere else. One knows, almost instinctively, for example, not to bring up a person’s Balallan connections in polite company. And we don’t need a manual to dress appropriately (no wellies after Ness Gala Day), or which implement to use first when lifting the potatoes.

It is possible, as it turns out, to know all that and yet, still commit a great social taboo. I know, because I did it myself.

‘Will you speak at our fellowship in Kinloch?’ I was asked, an invitation which I happily accepted. But in the breathtaking arrogance of the lifelong Wee Free, I forgot to check which denomination . . . for there are two.

‘Two!’ I hear your exclaim in disbelief. Yes, well, I mean in Laxay. Obviously we have others throughout Lewis – we are Presbyterians after all.

Anyway, I discovered the daftness of my assumption in time and set off with friends for an evening service in the Kirk. Or so I thought.

In another colossal breach of island etiquette, we actually went to the Free Church next door. Such is our indoctrination, and our fear of the Session, that we thought we’d better, or risk censure on our return.

No, not really. In fact, the Church of Scotland notice board declared that they would be having a Gaelic service, and my pal is a monoglot, so . . .

Eventually, we did make it to the Aonadh fellowship. A lifetime of ribbing my mother about her ‘inferior’ CofS upbringing, of questioning the validity of her own and my father’s marriage (it having been Kirk-rendered) . . . all words I’d have to eat, along with some excellent pancakes. Because – and nobody tell the Session I said so – they were a lovely congregation. Aside from some native character flaw which makes them all turn up at the last minute for things, they are a warm, genuine and welcoming branch of God’s family.

I knew they would be. It’s not simply that one or two of them were known to me before, nor my natural Lochie bias, what with the Achmore genes, but something else altogether.

It was God’s timing, and His hand I could discern. My visit to ‘the Lake District’ of Lewis had been planned for a couple of weeks, and it was a standard, share-your-testimony kind of plan. But, I knew, a couple of days before that, whoever else might derive benefit from hearing me, one person really needed to hear that testimony again: myself.

I was running, if not quite on empty, very close to it. Physically, emotionally and even spiritually. End of term, end of tether.

There have been difficult conversations around differences of opinion with other Christians. Not everyone sees Grace on the Green as what we intended it to be: an open-air act of public worship, and a nod to the place Christianity has in our culture, all to glorify God. Nonetheless, I appreciate those who addressed their disquiet directly to me, and who did so privately, as Scripture prescribes. No difference of opinion between Christians should result in public displays of pique. And, I might venture, no one should assume they know the heart of another, nor the prayers that have gone out from that heart. God knows, and He deals accordingly.

It has been predictable, but dispiriting. On top of everything else, it gave me a quick flash of ‘why do I bother?’ which, after prayer, dissipated. The freedom I enjoy in Christ is not going to be bound up by anyone else’s idea of conscience. Otherwise, are we really free?

God had prepared the remedy for me last Sunday, however. It was not the good Laxay air, nor the copious amounts of baking, nor even the warmth of the lovely fellowship. No, it was my own testimony.

What is testimony, after all, but evidence – an eye-witness account – of God’s goodness to us? This same God who took my time of unspeakable sorrow and raised it up as immeasurable blessing. It is to Him I pray, to Him I commit every day of my life, and to Him I look for guidance. My faith is sure because of Him, not because of me. And so, I know in whom I have believed. That is more than sufficient for my peace of mind. Remembering His goodness to me reaffirmed that; I rest on Him, and He is enough.

The doubting – and sometimes unpleasantness- of others can shake your confidence. You can begin to question your own judgment and even your own motives. But whatever is anchored in Him is sure and unshakeable. Sometimes you need to remember that all over again.

As I left Kinloch, one of the congregation stood at the door of the church with me, and pointed out two birds of prey flying overhead. Hen harriers, he thought, and I marvelled how he could tell from that distance.

And then I realised that his confidence came from knowledge and a practiced eye. I think we Christians would also know each other better if we spent more time getting acquainted spiritually, and remembering our unity in Christ.

Even from this distance, we should all be able to discern His marks on our brothers and sisters, and them on us.