Another First

Another First

Since downloading a step counter onto my phone a few weeks ago I’ve become a lot more aware of how active I am (or otherwise) on different days throughout the week. Comparing my ‘steps’ with other family members also allows for a little ‘competitive edge’!

So this evening, after a rather sedentary weekend, I headed out to walk the three mile ‘square’ around where we live. Within minutes I realised that this was the first time since before Leah became ill in 2013 that I had headed out on my own to walk the roads around where we live.

Field

When my mother died in 2008 in her eighties, I was quite aware of the many ‘firsts’ in that first year after she died. The second year after mum died was definitely a lot easier than the first. Losing a child has been very different; even three and a half years later it feels like there are still so many ‘firsts’ that I have to face, because to have faced them before now would have been too painful. I used to enjoy cycling the country roads where we live during the summer, both alone and with the children, but I have never been back on my bike since Leah died. That’s just one of several activities that I once enjoyed, but that I now avoid doing. Sometimes it’s easier to stay in the ‘safe zone’ than to do things or go places that are likely to trigger a grief reaction.

About half a mile into my walk I came to the field with the donkeys. A friendly donkey walked right over to the ditch where I was standing – just like the donkeys always used to do when I stopped there with Leah and her siblings.

donkey

This seemingly innocuous act caught me completely off guard – for a split second I was back in 2012 and everything was like it used to be – going for walks with the children and stopping to engage with friendly donkeys. Then a flood of emotion hit me along with the realisation of how much has changed since I last stood there looking at a donkey. I found it very difficult trying to process it all. I was glad of the quietness of the evening as I wrestled with my emotions and the tears fell freely.

About a mile or so further on, I encountered some sheep. They weren’t as friendly as the donkey, but some of them stopped to look at me.

Sheep 1

As I thought about these sheep, I reflected on these words from Psalm 23  which is a psalm that I especially like:

The Lord is my Shepherd,

I shall not want,

Sometimes, when I’m very stressed, I repeat these words inside my head to remind and reassure myself that God is my Shepherd and that He has promised to take care of me. At times I recall how Leah used to sing the Stuart Townend version of this psalm  with the Girl’s Brigade choir and how her face used to radiate joy when she was singing. Listening to the words of this song brings me comfort too.

The Rainbow

The Rainbow

Yesterday afternoon when I was in Ballyoan Cemetery tidying Leah’s grave I found myself overwhelmed with feelings of sadness. My lovely mum was dead nine years on Wednesday past the 22nd February. On the 7th February, it was seven years since our close friend Elizabeth left us. Elizabeth is also buried in Ballyoan.

elizabeths-grave

Returning to the car, I rested my head on the steering wheel and sobbed, totally overcome with grief. I cried out to God and told Him that this was all too much, living daily with the weight of grief and loss.

Most of the time I feel like I am coping quite well, but now suddenly, everything just felt like it was too much. All at once, life felt like an impossible burden.

I lifted my head from the steering wheel and gazed through tear stained eyes at the horizon ahead. To my amazement, although it had not been raining in the cemetery, a beautiful rainbow stretched across the sky, seizing my attention.

rainbow

I immediately thought of a verse from one of the children’s Bible songs that Leah loved, one that we used to teach the children when we led Children’s Church together:

Whenever you see a rainbow

Whenever you see a rainbow

Whenever you see a rainbow

Remember God is love.

I remembered also the verses in the Bible in Genesis 9  that tell us that a rainbow in the sky is a sign of God’s covenant with Moses where God promises never again to flood the whole earth.

genesis-9

Then I recalled some of God’s other promises to us, where He has promised to always be with us, such as in Isaiah 43:2

When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. (NLT)

As I thought about all of this, fragments of hope once again seeped in through the cracks of my broken heart. Gradually, imperceptibly, my perspective began to change, as I thanked God for sending this beautiful rainbow to remind me that He is a powerful God who loves me and provides for my needs. Some verses from Matthew 11  came to mind also:

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Music always ministers to my soul so as I drove home I listened to the song ‘My Troubled Soul’ by Robert Critchley.

My troubled soul,
Why so weighed down?
You were not made to bear this heavy load

Cast all your burdens, upon the Lord

Jesus cares, He cares for you.

Jesus cares, He cares for you
And all your worrying won’t help you make it through
Cast all your burdens, upon the Lord
And trust again, in the promise of His love.

(I will) Praise that mighty name of Jesus
Praise the Lord, the Lifter of my head
Praise the Rock of my Salvation
All my days are in His faithful hands.

My anxious heart
Why so upset?
When trials come, how you so easily forget
To cast your burdens, upon the Lord
Jesus cares, He cares for you.

Jesus cares. He cares for you
And all your worrying won’t help you make it through
Cast all your burdens, upon the Lord
And trust again, in the promise of His love.

(I will) Praise that mighty name of Jesus
Praise the Lord, the Lifter of my head
Praise the Rock of my Salvation
All my days are in His faithful hands.

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.

f5_rc_weekend9

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.