The Land of the Living

The Land of the Living

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Friday 27th December 2013 started well. That night we were planning to go to a big surprise get together of family and friends for my niece’s 30th birthday. Leah was happiest when surrounded by family and friends and this was the first family get-together that she had been allowed to attend since her bone marrow transplant in Bristol on the 1st August earlier that year. Leah was very excited.

30th-birthday-invite

However, during that day Leah became seriously ill, with an initial diagnosis of pneumonia. She was admitted to the Cancer Centre  in Belfast and subsequently transferred to ICU at Belfast City Hospital. Two and a half weeks later we had a family get together of a different kind, when we all gathered together at the N.I. Children’s Hospice  to say our goodbyes – the ones that we didn’t want to have to say.

During Advent I have been reading the daily devotionals that were especially written for the charity Samaritan’s Purse UK by Malcolm Duncan. He is a Pastor at Gold Hill Baptist Church and a leader at Spring Harvest. Malcolm is sadly very familiar with grief and loss. I previously wrote here about his very helpful sermons on the topic of the theology of suffering. In his devotional for the 1st December what Malcolm wrote regarding the death of a friend of his, has really stuck with me and brought me great comfort:

When my friend died, she left the land of dying and entered the land of the living. Death did not win. Cancer did not win. Sin did not win. Her salvation is now complete. She is more fully alive than she has ever been. She is more fully herself than she ever was. She is complete, truly released and free. Nothing can change who she now is. This is the great hope of every Christian. God wins! God always wins in the lives of Christians because God always has the last word.

During those two and a half weeks when Leah was dying, she and I derived so much comfort from listening to her favourite songs, which she had previously saved into playlists. Their lyrics washed over our hearts and minds and pointed us to the only One who could give us the strength to face each day.

leahs-playlist

Since Leah’s death most of these songs have continued to bring me comfort, as I miss Leah and yearn for her presence in our lives. Today I have one of the songs from this list playing on repeat; ‘Bring the Rain‘ by MercyMe.

 Bring The Rain

I can count a million times
People asking me how I
Can praise You with all that I’ve gone through
The question just amazes me
Can circumstances possibly
Change who I forever am in You
Maybe since my life was changed
Long before these rainy days
It’s never really ever crossed my mind
To turn my back on you, oh Lord
My only shelter from the storm
But instead I draw closer through these times
So I pray

Bring me joy, bring me peace
Bring the chance to be free
Bring me anything that brings You glory
And I know there’ll be days
When this life brings me pain
But if that’s what it takes to praise You
Jesus, bring the rain

I am Yours regardless of
The dark clouds that may loom above
Because You are much greater than my pain
You who made a way for me
By suffering Your destiny
So tell me what’s a little rain
So I pray

Holy, holy, holy
Is the Lord God Almighty

Love in a Box

Love in a Box

When I became a parent I was very keen that our children would understand that Christmas is for giving and not just for getting. I wanted our children to understand that many children throughout the world do not have the material goods with which we are blessed here in the UK and Ireland and to care about this fact.

Around that time I heard about Operation Christmas Child. Operation Christmas Child is a very simple concept: you find an empty shoebox, gift wrap it, then fill it with love in the form of toys, sweets, pencils, notebooks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap and a flannel, a scarf, gloves and hat and send it to a child in a country that is much less well off than we are here. On the outside of the box you indicate whether the box is for a boy or a girl and the general age group (2-4, 5-9 or 10-14) that it’s suitable for. You also make a donation of £3.00 per box to cover shipping costs.

Our children used to each pack a shoebox for a child of the same age as themselves. The hardest part used to be covering the shoebox with the wrapping paper. Thankfully when our children were small, my two older nieces from London used to visit us over mid-term and they helped with this, which I very much appreciated. Nowadays you can buy pre-printed shoe boxes  specifically for this purpose. If your group buys them in bulk, they work out about 50p each.

Each year in October a Sunday afternoon would be set aside when I would sit down with the children to wrap and pack the shoeboxes. In recent years, after the boxes were filled, Leah took on the responsibility of checking each one to ensure that nothing had been forgotten. One year (while still in Primary School) Leah went to the local collection centre in Limavady to help check all the boxes that had been collected before they were sent on to their destination.

Our children used to also enclose a Christmas card in their shoebox that they had written to the child who would receive their box. One year, to Leah’s absolute joy, the child who received her shoe box wrote back and even sent a little picture of herself. Her name was Bojana, she lived in Montenegro and she was the same age as Leah. Leah was so excited to hear from this young girl.

Every year, when we shopped the January sales, Leah was quick to spot items that could be used later that year to pack our shoeboxes. Before we left for Bristol Children’s Hospital  in July 2013 Leah and I had already gathered up much of what would be needed to pack our shoeboxes when we returned in a couple of months. However, things did not go the way we expected them to and it was mid – November before we returned home. Shoebox Sunday at our church had been and gone and to be truthful, packing shoeboxes was not uppermost in our thoughts.

After Leah died in January 2014, participating in Operation Christmas Child joined a long list of family activities that now felt so painful that I couldn’t imagine myself ever being able to take part in them again. Each autumn as the Operation Christmas Child leaflets were given out at church, the promotional video was shown and each family came to church on Shoebox Sunday with their contribution, my heart silently broke and my tears flowed freely. To be honest, I have always cried watching the Operation Christmas Child videos, seeing the suffering of those families living in abject poverty and how grateful they are for so little, but now I had other reasons to cry as well.

However, this year when they started giving out the leaflets I said to my youngest “I wonder could we manage it this year?” I knew there was no way that I could tackle wrapping the boxes, so I bought four of the ready to use flat-packed shoeboxes a few weeks ago. However, after looking at them sitting in a corner of the Living Room for a week, I concluded that I couldn’t go through with it and I stored them away in a cupboard. I reasoned that they would keep until next year.

I knew that the last weekend in October was the final occasion before Shoebox Sunday in early November that I would have any reasonable amount of free time to spend filling these shoeboxes, but I just couldn’t do it. However all week afterwards it floated around in the back of my mind; this ‘family tradition’ that was so important to Leah and was once so important to me too.

So that is how, on a very busy Friday at the start of November, with a to-do list as long as my arm, I carved out time for my youngest and I to fill four shoeboxes: one from each child – four boxes filled with love. Today we brought them with us to church and we added them to the ‘wall’ of over two hundred shoeboxes that have been collected.

Of all the promotional videos created in support of Operation Christmas Child, my absolute favourite is the one with the backing track Love in a Box by Melisa Bester. One of Australia’s youngest artists, Melisa Bester, recorded this song for Operation Christmas Child in 2006 – when she was only eight years old. Please watch the video and listen to the beautiful words. Also, do take a few moments to tell me about your experiences of packing love in a box and sending it off to a child in another country to let them know that they are loved.

God on Mute ~ A Book Review

God on Mute ~ A Book Review

Many years ago, before we had children of our own and life became crazy busy, we used to run a children’s Bible Club every week in our garage for all the local children. One of their favourite songs to sing each week went like this:

Sometimes God answers ‘yes’ when I pray.
Sometimes God answers ‘yes’ when I pray.
Sometimes God answers ‘yes’ just because He loves me so.
But I know He always answers when I pray.

Sometimes God answers ‘wait’ when I pray.
Sometimes God answers ‘wait’ when I pray.
Sometimes God answers ‘wait’ just because He loves me so.
But I know He always answers when I pray.

Sometimes God answers ‘no’ when I pray.
Sometimes God answers ‘no’ when I pray.
Sometimes God answers ‘no’ just because He loves me so.
But I know He always answers when I pray.

It is very easy to sing these words as a catchy little tune. It is much harder to believe and accept them when the prayer to which God has apparently said ‘no’ to relates to saving the life of your teenage daughter.

Since Leah died there has never been a day when I haven’t talked to God in some shape, form or fashion. Yet, I no longer know exactly what I believe about prayer. Although I pray diligently for people to be healed and helped, while some prayers are answered in the way that I want them to be, others clearly aren’t.

For this reason, I recently read a whole book about prayer. It’s called God on Mute:Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer by Pete Greig. Pete Greig is a writer, church-planter, pastor and founder of the 24-7 Prayer movement. 24-7 Prayer is an international, interdenominational movement of prayer, mission and justice working in more than half the nations on earth.

God on Mute was written out of Pete’s personal experience of the miraculous power of prayer alongside the pain of unanswered prayer and his own struggles with that paradox. Just after the birth of the 24-7 Prayer Movement as well as that of his second child, Pete’s wife Sammy was diagnosed with a massive brain tumour. Subsequent surgery to remove the cancer was successful, but Sammy continues to suffer severe epilepsy, despite fervent and heartfelt prayer for her complete healing.

I found this book very helpful. Pete is not afraid to ask the hard questions, the kind of ones that you might think about in bed at night, but wouldn’t dare admit to anyone in case they might think that you had lost your faith (or your marbles). He also has a wonderful sense of humour, which I very much appreciate.

The way that Pete writes around the story of his wife’s illness and (partial) recovery made the book very readable for me, while at the same time there is also plenty of theological substance to it. Pete is clearly very well read and he quotes plentifully from other relevant writers and speakers.

In Chapter 1 Pete says regarding his wife’s illness:

“Outwardly, I tried to give an impression of stoic endurance, and there were times when I did feel very calm. But I was also scared that Sammy might die if I didn’t pray enough, or if I didn’t have enough faith, or if I didn’t fast enough, or if I didn’t bind some disembodied principality, or if I didn’t repent of some root sin, or if I didn’t strap her on a stretcher bound for Lourdes, or if I didn’t agree with Benny Hinn. Surely I thought, God would not disqualify her on a technicality?”

If the author had been standing in front of me at that moment I would have hugged him. In some of my darkest moments since Leah died, I too have wondered about some of the things that he mentions here and it was a relief to have this very Godly man, whom I greatly admire, tackle them openly in his book.

One very emotional part for me was in Chapter 5 when Pete describes a situation where the wife of a missionary couple in his church was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Pete was really struggling with this until this woman’s husband came to him and said:

‘Pete, many times in our lives Barbara and I have needed to exercise faith. Faith for healing in the face of sickness. Faith for finances when we had no food in the cupboard or when we lost everything. Faith for guidance. But this time, God has asked us to trust Him in a different way: to have faith not for healing but for dying. The challenge she’s facing is to die well, to die peacefully, to trust God and to love God in the most frightening days of her life.’

At various stages in the book Pete addresses possible reasons for unanswered prayer – he cites fifteen in total. Something that particularly resonated with me was contained within the section: Reason 5 -Doctrine:  ‘Some prayers aren’t answered the way we think they should be because our understanding and expectations of God are wrong.‘ In this portion he states ‘Preachers who say that it is always God’s will to heal simply have no theology of suffering.

Overall, I found the 300+ pages of this book very readable. I felt that the author completely understood where I was coming from with my doubts and my questions about prayer. The various quotes and references he includes in the book have helped me to think about prayer in many different ways, some of which I had not thought about before. I definitely would recommend this book to anyone who is struggling with the issue of unanswered prayer.

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Wrestling with God

Wrestling with God

One of the devotionals that I regularly use during my daily time with God is the First 5 app  from Proverbs 31 Ministries. This app is free to download and is compatible with iOS and Android. The First 5 app provides written Bible teaching Monday through Friday, with a teaching video every Saturday that includes a summary of the learning from the previous week.

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A few weeks ago the weekend teaching was based on 2 Corinthians 12: 8-12 and was presented by Lysa TerKeurst, who is president of Proverbs 31 Ministries. Her message was entitled Perseverance through Pain. Earlier this year Lysa had a significant health scare which resulted in her undergoing surgery to remove half her colon. The results could have been devastating, but she has made an excellent recovery. At the time Lysa wrote on her public Facebook page:

I have no words. Except “thank you.” Thank You, God. Thank you friends who prayed me through this. Thank you to this surgeon who finally figured out why I was in excruciating pain for days and days in that hospital bed.
Thank you that I still get to do life.

In her weekend teaching Lysa referred to her recent illness and recovery and talked about finding joy during difficult times and about the gift of experiencing God’s grace despite the pain. However Lysa is very clear that she doesn’t want to offer ‘easy answers’ to those who have prayed for healing for themselves or their loved ones and instead of God saying ‘yes’ He has apparently said ‘no’. Lysa talked about the death of her sister as a result of ‘a medical tragedy’. She said that after her sister died, she very much did not want people to offer her ‘easy answers’ as to why this tragedy had happened, because she needed space to ‘wrestle well’ with God.

Lysa’s phrase about wrestling well with God really resonated with me. I’ve written here before about wrestling with God. I don’t feel that I ever ‘lost’ my faith during Leah’s illness and death, however I have ‘wrestled with God’ over it all and I continue to do so as I seek to reconcile the events that have taken place, with what I believe to be true about God and about life. Tragedy and suffering definitely alter the lens through which everything is viewed.

Last weekend my husband and I watched the film Shadowlands, which is based on the romantic relationship between Oxford academic C. S. Lewis  and American poet  Joy Gresham, her death from cancer, and how this challenged Lewis’ Christian faith. We had previously watched the film when it was first released in 1993. This time round we found the film absolutely heart-breaking and we could identify with so much of it. However our recollection of watching it on the previous occasion many years ago, was of it being a ‘nice love story with beautiful scenery and a sad ending’!

There is a part towards the end of the film (at 1hr 55 min) after Joy has died when C. S. Lewis is grieving deeply and he joins his academic friends/colleagues at a social gathering. Lewis says to his friends:
I wasn’t going to come tonight but then I thought I would.”
One of his friends responds:
Life must go on.
Lewis’s answer to this comment begins with the line:
I don’t know that it must, but it certainly does.
He then entreats his friends with the words:
Don’t tell me it’s all for the best.
Undeterred by Lewis’s heartfelt plea, one of his friends (one who wears a clerical collar) begins to give him a theological explanation for what has happened. At this point, C. S. Lewis, overcome with emotion, shouts at his friends, then apologises and quickly leaves. His parting words, said under his breath are:
I just wanted company tonight.

My husband and I have no recollection of this scene from the first time that we watched Shadowlands, but needless to mention, it impacted us greatly this time around. Although I feel greatly blessed by the many people that I have in my life who understand grief and loss and who continue to provide emotional support whenever I need it, I could also relate to this scene in which C.S. Lewis just wanted his grief and loss acknowledged and didn’t want to be offered ‘easy answers’. The scene is so heartfelt and poignant.

C. S. Lewis is also an excellent example of someone who knew how to wrestle well with God. His books continue to inspire long after his death and he is often quoted by other writers and speakers.

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When Your Family’s Lost a Loved One ~ A Book Review

When Your Family’s Lost a Loved One ~ A Book Review

Having finally got a few days to myself, I am disciplining myself to start working my way through the mound of unread books on my bookshelves. One of these books is When Your Family’s Lost a Loved One: Finding Hope Together  written by David and Nancy Guthrie and published by Focus on the Family.

N Guthrie book

Nancy and David Guthrie have one surviving son and they buried two children in infancy due to a genetic condition called Zellweger Syndrome . This is the kind of book that you could keep within reach for the first two or three years after a family bereavement, for all family members to dip in and out of, as they feel able. It is relatively easy to read, and very helpful. Nancy is a gifted writer and speaker. I was so blessed to have been able to hear her speak live in Belfast, last year, at the Irish Women’s Convention.

This book covers every aspect of family grief; such as preserving the marriage relationship, parenting grieving children, surviving holidays, displaying photographs and belongings of the person who has died, dealing with ‘well-wishers’, holding on to your faith, all discussed in a realistic and practical way.

The book also features interviews with others who have experienced different types of grief, such as the loss of a spouse, a parent or the loss of an older child to suicide.

This book is written from a faith perspective but in a sensitive way – we aren’t expected to smile and be happy just because our loved one is in a better place.

The closing chapter is entitled ‘Going On‘ and here Nancy writes:

“There comes a time in our grief that we realise we have to figure out how to keep on living, how to incorporate the loss into our lives. We want to feel normal again, to feel joy again. But even entertaining that prospect feels like a betrayal of the person who is gone……..If we choose to let go of the pain, or at least let it become manageable, it doesn’t mean we love the one we’ve lost any less. And it doesn’t mean that person’s life was any less significant or meaningful or that we will forget. Perhaps it’s not so much that we let go of our grief, but that we give our grief permission to lessen its grip on us.”

I have read several of Nancy’s books and always find them to be sensitive, helpful and easy to read. This book would make an excellent gift for any family who are seeking to navigate their way through grief in the context of a strong Christian faith. Nancy closes with the words:

Your loss has given you a new appreciation for life – and a new anticipation of eternity.

A discussion guide to use with this book is available here.

A Little Whisper of God to my Soul

A Little Whisper of God to my Soul

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I’ve been very tearful these past few days. I think that this has been triggered by my birthday – family events are invariably a time when the ’empty chair’ is at its most conspicuous. Thankfully I now have a few days off work where I can just relax, read, eat and sleep – and catch up on some housework. I haven’t been sleeping well recently, so catching up on sleep is definitely high on my list.

A few months ago a website called HOPE SHACK (Finding Hope in the midst of Life’s Struggles) contacted me to say that they would like to feature excerpts from my blog on their website. I willingly agreed to this. I visited their website today and saw that they had featured excerpts from my blog on the 26th May – the very day of my birthday – that’s a lovely encouragement for me. It’s like a little whisper from God to my soul that says “I have not forgotten you.

N Guthrie Quote

I especially love the fact that the song they chose to feature alongside these excerpts is “How He loves us“. This is one of the many songs that Leah and I used to enjoy listening to together. However Leah and I couldn’t agree on whether we liked it best sung by a female voice or by a male voice, so I remember us sitting in the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit in Bristol, first listening to a version by Kim Walker-Smith and then one by David Crowder and debating (in a good-natured way) over which one sounded better! I favoured the David Crowder version:

“How He Loves”
(originally by John Mark McMillan)

He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden,
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.

And oh, how He loves us, oh,
Oh, how He loves us,
How He loves us all

He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden,
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realise just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.

And oh, how He loves us, oh,
Oh, how He loves us,
How He loves us all

Yeah, He loves us,
Oh, how He loves us,
Oh, how He loves us,
Oh, how He loves.

And we are His portion and He is our prize,
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes,
If his grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.
And Heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss,
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest,
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets,
When I think about the way…

That He loves us,
Oh, how He loves us,
Oh, how He loves us,
Oh, how He loves.
Yeah, He loves us,
Oh, how He loves us,
Oh, how He loves us,
Oh, how He loves.

Yeah, He loves us,
Oh, how He loves us…
Oh, how He loves us…
Oh, how He loves us.

Missing Kylie by Mark Myers ~ a book review

Missing Kylie by Mark Myers ~ a book review

Those who know me well will know that I love reading and tend to buy more books than I have time to read. On the 7th April 2016 Mark Myers published his account of a two year journey ‘through the wilderness of no‘.

On the 9th April 2014, the youngest of Mark’s daughters, Kylie, aged 12, was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma. She had always been known as Smiley Kylie. Kylie fought her illness bravely for ten months. On February 13th, 2015, Kylie’s battered body succumbed to the disease. She left her family with two missions; take care of her kitten and kill childhood cancer so that no other child has to die.

Our daughter was also a cat lover, but sadly her beloved cat Charlie died on the road while Leah was having her treatment at Bristol Children’s Hospital. Apparently Charlie missed Leah terribly while she was in hospital, as he was so used to receiving lots of cuddles from her.

Leah and Charlie 3 edited

Mark’s blog came to my attention just before Easter this year when I read his blog post The Empty Grave Conundrum. I wept profusely as I read, identifying with almost every word.

I tried to resist the temptation to buy his book Missing Kylie: A Father’s Search for Meaning in Tragedy as soon as it was released, as I have so many unread books adorning my shelves. I succumbed on the 12th April and I read it over two days.

Missing Kylie

This is one father’s account of  his two year journey from the day that Kylie received her diagnosis up to the first anniversary of her death. Kylie’s response to her diagnosis was similar to Leah’s; Kylie said “God must have a really big, great plan for me.” Leah lived nine months from her diagnosis, ‘Smiley Kylie’ lived ten months. Just like Leah, the primary cause of death cited on Kylie’s death certificate is respiratory failure.

Mark has three main aims with his book:

1) To share the story of his beautiful brave daughter Smiley Kylie with a wider audience.

2) To share his ‘messy faith’ with hurting people in a genuine and authentic manner.

3) To raise money and awareness for safer and more effective treatments for childhood cancer.

Mark achieves all these aims and more besides. This is a very readable book that I could not put down. I read it over two days. Mark is honest and genuine without giving unnecessary medical details that could make it difficult reading for those who are a bit squeamish. The love within this family of six is so evident.

I especially loved reading the letters that each family member wrote to Kylie on the first anniversary of her death. Mark concludes the book with three short chapters that contain guidelines for how to support a family who are dealing with a difficult diagnosis or life-threatening illness. One of these is entitled ‘What to say when there is nothing to say.’

I highly recommend this book.

The Listening Life

The Listening Life

Today when walking down the corridor at work, I bumped into the specialist in paediatric palliative care who was enormously helpful to us in organising Leah’s end of life care.

Straight away I felt the pangs of heartache, as my heart was transported back to the 14th January 2014 in Belfast City Hospital. I silently asked myself “Must it always be this way, will there always be pain triggers waiting round every corner?” Then I remembered hearing recently that every event is actually 20% fact and 80% perception, so I started talking to myself in my head about how blessed we were to have had the support and expertise of this amazing woman and how much her input meant to us at the time. Within minutes I was feeling more positive.

A couple of hours later I was going down the corridor and I met her again. She stopped and asked me how I was. I looked in her eyes to see if she was just being polite or if she really wanted to know. Her facial expression told me that she really cared, so I told her the truth. She also enquired about each family member. I briefly told her about some of the ways in which we are struggling to rebuild our lives while battling the pain of grief and loss.

Then, just like she did in the corridor of the City Hospital 26 months ago, she hugged me and said “Let’s say a wee prayer.” For a few hallowed moments she quietly lifted up each member of my family to God in prayer. I felt God’s peace touch my heart.

She’s a very busy doctor, with a very busy agenda, but somehow in the middle of her very busy day she took the time to minister to my heart. How long did it take? Ten minutes perhaps? Yet it meant so much to me.

I felt blessed and encouraged by her actions, but I also felt challenged. How often am I so caught up with my own agenda – however good and noble that may be – that I allow no time for the unexpected, no time for ‘God’s agenda’?

A few weeks ago I was scrolling through the Facebook page of author Cheri Gregory  when my attention was caught by a quote from a book called The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction by Adam S. Mc Hugh.

The Listening Life 2

I immediately headed over to Amazon, where I read this about The Listening Life:

“Be quick to listen, slow to speak.” James 1:19 How would our lives change if we approached every experience with the intention of listening first? In this noisy, distracting world, it is difficult to truly hear. People talk past each other, eager to be heard but somehow deaf to what is being said. Listening is an essential skill for healthy relationships, both with God and with other people. But it is more than that: listening is a way of life. Adam McHugh places listening at the heart of our spirituality, our relationships and our mission in the world. God himself is the God who hears, and we too can learn to hear what God may be saying through creation, through Scripture, through people. By cultivating a posture of listening, we become more attentive and engaged with those around us. Listening shapes us and equips us to be more attuned to people in pain and more able to minister to those in distress. Our lives are qualitatively different indeed, better when we become listeners. Heed the call to the listening life, and hear what God is doing in you and the world.”

I was ‘hooked’ and ordered it immediately. When the book arrived I started reading with great enthusiasm and got as far as page 50, then unfortunately I got totally distracted by other books that I was reading simultaneously and forgot about The Listening Life. This is by no means a negative reflection on The Listening Life; I regularly have three or four books on the go at any one time and I dip in and out of each of them depending on my mood!

I absolutely love books, I only wish that reading them were as easy as buying them! However, today’s encounter reminded me of why I bought The Listening Life and how important it is to listen – really listen – to God and to each other.

P.S. Click here to read an excerpt from The Listening Life on Emily P. Freeman’s blog.

The Beautiful Peace of God

The Beautiful Peace of God

 

In August 2012 Leah and I went to Coleraine Congregational Church where Catherine Campbell was launching her most recent book: Broken Works Best. Amongst the invited speakers that night were Pat and Andy Cardy. I was familiar with their story as I had heard them being interviewed on the radio several times. The sound of their voices has always reduced me to tears, their story is so heartbreaking.

On the 12th August 1981 Pat and Andy’s nine year old daughter Jennifer left her home in the quiet countryside to cycle to a friend’s house nearby. Jennifer never reached her friend’s house that day. Her bicycle was later found thrown behind a hedge along the road. A week later Jennifer’s body was found, strangled and drowned, in a dam thirteen miles away.

In 2011, Robert Black, who was one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers, was convicted in Armagh Courthouse of the kidnap, sexual assault and murder of nine-year-old Jennifer. Robert Black, who worked as a delivery driver, abducted and assaulted Jennifer before throwing her body in McKee’s Dam, near Hillsborough. Already serving a life sentence at the time of his trial for her murder, he was sentenced to another 25 years and told that he would be 89 before he would be considered for release.

That night when Leah and I heard Andy Cardy interviewed, he spoke with no trace of bitterness or anger. He described how God had ministered to him and his wife over the intervening years, giving them the grace to cope with their situation. He talked about the then recent six week trial and how he had looked into the face of evil – the last face on earth his darling little girl had seen – and how he had felt no hatred.

It had not always been this way, there had been a time when Andy had been angry, very angry, wanting to murder the person who had done this to his daughter. However over the years Andy had learned that hatred is much too costly – he had learned to let God be the judge. Robert Black had stolen the life of his darling daughter and had also destroyed the lives of many others; Andy had decided that he wouldn’t let this man destroy his life as well.

On our way home, Leah said to me “Mummy, you cried through the whole meeting.” This was true, I was so moved by what everyone had shared, but especially the Cardy’s. I had always imagined that losing a child must be the worst pain imaginable, but losing a child in the circumstances in which they lost Jennifer was to me incomprehensible. Yet, they were testifying to the all sufficient grace of God:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 2 Corinthians 12:9 (NIV)

With the recent death of Robert Black on the 12th January 2016 in Maghaberry Prison, the Cardy’s are once again in the news. In this article on the BBC News website the Cardy’s are quoted as saying:

Mrs Cardy told BBC News NI that she feels no bitterness towards her daughter’s murderer and would have liked to have spoken to him before his death in jail in a bid to change his “wasted” life, that was full of “depravity”.

“As Christians, Robert Black could have had what I have and what Andrew has, and our whole family – that is just the beautiful peace of God,” she said.

“I have actually prayed for Robert Black that he could come to this and therefore, his life that produced no good could now begin to change. I would have loved that for Robert Black.”

Mr Cardy said: “I’ve often said that he stole the life from our daughter but we would not allow him to steal our lives. We were determined to live on and live on for the family that we had, but the hurt is still there.

“We miss Jennifer but we have to move on, we have to keep going.”

To me, those are amazing words. The Cardy’s have allowed God’s grace to work in their hearts to such an extent, that even in the most horrendous of circumstances, they experience the peace that passes all understanding.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV)

NOTHING can separate us from HIS Love

NOTHING can separate us from HIS Love

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One of the saddest and loneliest experiences of my life was returning home without Leah from the Children’s Hospice on Thursday the 16th January 2014. As we turned in to our drive I caught sight of our other car – a seven seater family car – and the realisation dawned “our family doesn’t need a car that size anymore”.

It had been twenty days since I had driven away from the house, with our two elder daughters. There had been an air of excitement in the car, as that night we were going to a large family get together – our first since Leah’s bone marrow transplant in August. This was going to be a very special occasion.

The rest, the say, is history.

I was by now totally exhausted, both mentally and physically. I managed a few hours sleep that night. When I got up on the Friday morning, I felt bewildered and disorientated. I had no script for what to do next. Like every other day I snatched a few moments of quietness to spend with my Saviour, reading and praying, in the hope of finding some help and strength. My concentration was very poor and I struggled to focus on the words on the page. My reading for that day in Streams in the Desert‘ was Daniel 6:20:

Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you?”

Daniel had spent the night in the lion’s den as his punishment for praying to the living God. The King had gone there first thing in the morning, hoping that Daniel was still alive, which he was.

The phrase which was highlighted in my reading that morning is that we serve a ‘living God‘, one who is unchanging and who is always there. In the reading George Mueller is quoted as saying:

In the greatest difficulties, in the heaviest trials, in the deepest poverty and necessities, He has never failed me; but because I was enabled by His grace to trust Him, He has always appeared for my help. I delight in speaking well of His name.”

This past two years have been rough, I continually grieve and mourn for Leah. I mourn too for others that I’ve known along the way who, like Leah, have had their lives cut short by illness, by accident or by suicide. I don’t understand why there’s so much suffering in the world, I don’t understand why some seem to experience miraculous healing while others, equally loved and prayed for, die.

Still, I believe that God is a good God and that many things in this life are a mystery and beyond our understanding. I believe that NOTHING can separate us from God’s love which is ours in Christ Jesus. One of the passages of Scripture that Leah and I read together most often during her illness was Romans 8:35 – 39.

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
37 Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. 38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Rend Collective, Leah’s favourite band, have a song based on Romans 8:37 “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” I heard it at New Horizon in Coleraine the Summer after Leah died and I thought the words and tune were really encouraging:

MORE THAN CONQUERORS

We are more than conquerors, through Christ
You have overcome this world, this life
We will not bow to sin or to shame
We are defiant in Your name
You are the fire that cannot be tamed
You are the power in our veins
Our Lord, our God, our Conqueror

I will sing into the night
Christ is risen and on high
Greater is He
Living in me
Than in the world

No surrender, no retreat
We are free and we’re redeemed
We will declare
Over despair
You are the hope