Reflections on a death

My mother is dying.

At 81, she has been a widow for more than half her life. I remember the day Dad died, aged 40. I was 13. It was a sunny day in the summer holidays and I was lying on a rug in our garden reading a book. My brother Dave came out to tell me, “Dad’s dead.” He had gone to work that day as normal, felt ill during the morning, accepted a lift home from his boss, stopped off at the doctor’s surgery on the way, walked into the waiting room and collapsed there. The doctor, having been unable to resuscitate him, was left with the task of coming to tell us the news.

Sudden death is shocking. The world changes immediately and then you adjust and move on.

My Mum’s death is different.

She has always been an anxious person. Throughout my adult life she has had periods of severe depression at about 10-year intervals, requiring inpatient treatment. Between those times she has tended to worry about things, so that my brothers and I have not relied on her for emotional support in our own big decisions.  However, although she has worried and often criticised, she has always supported us in the end and been proud of our achievements. She has also retained her Christian faith, in spite of trials and doubts over the years. Indeed, I credit her with one of my own foundational experiences of faith when, in the aftermath of Dad’s death she told me she was going to stop asking God why he had died and start trusting that God knew best. I never heard her again being bitter about her lot, and when asked in the future how she made such a success of lone-parenting three teenagers, she always claimed not to know: “I just trusted God!” God and she did a good job.

In recent years she has had vascular dementia. I think it was probably diagnosed fairly late in the process, as her previous mental state made it difficult to decide when dementia had arrived. With the dementia her misery deepened. In the care home she lived in for the past few years she has been constantly unhappy and consequently difficult to visit.

After a long, gradual decline, a month ago she stopped moving and was completely unresponsive. The care home sent her to hospital where they wondered if she had an infection and gave her antibiotics for two days, but when those dealt with her temperature without improving her overall condition, we all knew this was the end. My brother Pete and I, who both live in the south of England, flew to Scotland prepared to stay until the end. Dave and his family hospitably put us up and we arranged a rota for about 10 days so that one of us was with her most of the time, intending that we would be there when she went.

After 10 days, Pete and I had to come home; Dave had to work and our rota collapsed. We are now waiting and checking our phones regularly for the news that she has gone, and she is confounding all expectations. It’s now, remarkably, a month since she has had any significant calorie intake, and a week since they stopped her subcutaneous fluids.

In all this, it’s hard to know how to feel. People assume it’s a difficult time for me, but actually there have been many blessings in this time. So I have decided, in the words of an old hymn, to count my blessings and name them one by one.

Blessing 1:  Family Gathering. There has been a joy in being with my brothers, and in us all being with our Mum. About a month before this final illness, there was another occasion when she was hospitalised and we thought that her end might have come. So again we gathered. On that occasion she recovered and returned to her nursing home, but there was one special moment when the three of us were round her bed and she looked at us all and said, “How lovely to have you all here.” It had been many years since we had all been together. In that moment Pete and I knew we had been right to fly up to be there. And in the beginning of this final illness we also knew it was important to be there. We are family. We don’t get together very often, but it has been special

Blessing 2:  Agreement. There have been no arguments among us, or between us and the hospital staff, when important decisions have been required. We agreed that we did not want, nor did we think that she would want, invasive medical treatment to prolong her life. The priority has been her comfort. So: drugs for pain and distress; fluids to avoid thirst (though for a while she was also able to have sips of drink when she wanted them) until she lost consciousness and seemed still peaceful so they could be stopped. We are grateful that we have hardly even had to discuss all this – it just seemed obvious to us all.

Blessing 3: The NHS. We are currently in election mode in the UK and the NHS is mentioned frequently as a political issue. We are experiencing its benefits practically. Our Mum is having excellent nursing care in a hospital acute ward. No-one has expected her to live for so long, so there has been no talk of transferring her to a hospice or anywhere else, but we have never been made to feel that she is a burden, that they need the bed, or in any other way negative. The ward staff have been unremittingly kind to us all, allowing us to ignore the usual visiting hours and be there as much or as little as we wanted to be, supplying tea, conversation and laughter, and a very comfortable reclining armchair on which we spent a few nights. And, because this is the Scottish NHS, there is free hospital parking and free wifi! Such things make a difference.

Blessing 4: Honouring our Mother. I realised recently that I have had some problems in honouring my Mum. There have been years when visiting has been a chore and it’s been hard even to talk of her in a positive way. (On that note I must honour Dave, who has lived near her and been the one who has looked after her and visited consistently. He is a hero.) But in this last illness we had a chance to serve her. Being there, interpreting her needs, holding the cup for sips of water, have given me more precious memories in this time than in the last few years put together. Though for the most part her conversation was basic and concerned her needs, there were also times of tenderness such as the one where she looked at me and gave a huge smile, and when she told Dave and Pete that she loved them. We have been able to love her and honour her in a new way and I’m grateful for the time.

Blessing 5: Eternal Life. This is what makes death bearable in the end. That it is not, in fact, the end. When I knew I would have to leave I kissed her and said goodbye, but then, “I’ll see you again.” And I believe I will. And when I do, we will both have been transformed. The frustrations of this life will have gone; all our sins which affected our relationship will be forgotten. Death will have been swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54). Ultimately this is why I am not sad – what lies ahead is so much better than what has been.

Our Mum’s death is being very different from that of our Dad. Whereas his seemed like a life suddenly cut short, she has come to the end of hers and has achieved a dignity in death which was largely absent for the last period of her life. For that I am truly grateful to God.

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Loving Jesus, Loving Church

Though you have not seen him, you love him. (1 Peter 1:8)

Today is our denomination’s International Missions Sunday. Every year on the Sunday nearest to 23rd June we remember 9 missionaries and their children who were killed in 1978 in what was then Rhodesia (you can read their story here), and we pray for our ongoing missions work throughout the world. Today we also received a special offering for church planting and prayed for church planters we know and others we don’t.

We welcomed two new members to our own church today, and I reflected on Acts 11 which introduces us to the church in Antioch, a really significant church in those early days; one which grew, had great leadership, good teaching and people who cared about their family in the rest of the world. Local church is a great thing – in fact local churches are how Jesus chooses to bless and to save the world.

So church organisation is good. I am pleased to be involved with it. But my personal highlight of the morning was when part of one of the verses I have learned this week came into my head: “Though you have not seen him you love him.”  And I thanked Jesus that my greatest joy is to love him. I want to grow church because I love Jesus and want others to love him too. My prayer for our church people and myself is that we will love Jesus more. Through trials, sorrows and joys, it’s the love of Jesus that sustains us and keeps us.

After the service I talked with a young woman who had given her life to Jesus just last week. She was distressed because of some family difficulties, but it was lovely to be able to help her hand over the distress to Jesus and see her find some peace in the middle of the storm. My job is not to make the storms go away, but to help the people to find Jesus in the middle of them. My friend was able to smile in her pain, and I was able to smile as she decided she would be baptised next week.

I love Jesus and I love church.

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Refined through trials

These [trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.   (1 Peter 1:7)

I visited two elderly ladies yesterday. They are both going through some trials, but their reactions are very different.

One has suffered for as long as I have known her with often crippling anxiety. Surprisingly, as her physical health has suffered recently, her mood and her faith have generally strengthened. However, it now seems that things have got worse for her. She is not coping at home in spite of a really good care package and will not even think about moving to residential care. Instead she rings people up in the early hours of the morning and can’t accept that there is little they can do at that time. Is the genuineness of her faith being proved? It’s hard to see it at the moment.

The other is a joy. At 92 she has lost her (until recently hearty) appetite, is losing weight and wonders whether the throat cancer she had some years ago may have recurred (medical tests are pending). She admits to having been down recently and a bit weepy, and faces the future with some nervousness. However, her confidence in God’s perfect will for her life remains. When asked how she would like to see things pan out, she says she really wants to stay in her own home until the Lord takes her to heaven. She’d like to regain her appetite and be able to continue her active family life and social life, but she knows that her time on earth is limited and is glad that she knows where she will go from here, whenever that may be. This second lady has a much simpler faith than the first. She doesn’t know the Bible as well, and is always apologetic that she doesn’t know or remember things. But she has a confidence in God and a delight in God’s people which shines through as genuine faith.

This verse from 1 Peter has been translated a bit clunkily I think – what doesn’t come out is that the word indicating ‘proven genuineness’ is the same as that used for the gold being ‘refined’ by fire. There are other Bible passages which refer to God refining us through the fire of suffering (e.g. Isaiah 48:10). Here Peter talks not so much about the fire removing the impurities in the gold, but that even pure gold will be destroyed in a raging fire. But faith which is genuine can and will survive however severe the trial is.

Yesterday I also spent some time with a third lady who is going through a very different sort of trial. I have seen her grow in her knowledge of God through some very hard tests in the years I have known her, and yesterday she told me she had recently become more aware of how necessary suffering is and how much it had caused her to lean on God and to learn from him. Some of her friends can’t understand her attitude, but she has shifted her prayers from just wanting everything to be made better, to asking God to help her to live for him and glorify him in her present circumstances. There are still things which could be better, but they are outwith her control so she must honour God anyway.

Ladies two and three are heroines. Their faith is being proved genuine, and is itself growing, as they face the trials of life. It’s a privilege to pastor such people.

But Lord, let me not forget that lady number 1 is also a privilege for me; perhaps one of my (small) trials at the moment, but then again I need some so that my own faith may prove to be genuine too.

Grace to all.

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New birth into a living hope

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead

(1 Pet. 1:3)

Having learned this verse in the morning, I used it as I worshipped in church today, to thank God for his great mercy, for the new birth which I have and which he offers to others, for a true living hope and that it is because Jesus has risen from the dead. What a quality of life Jesus, the defeater of death, brings!

And then I discovered that two young women had taken the step of commitment to Jesus this morning which means that they also have new birth and a living hope. What joy to see the light in their eyes. One in particular said she felt as if something had been lifted off her.

There is nothing so good as witnessing new birth. Praise to God indeed!!

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Chosen to be obedient

… who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood. Grace and peace be yours in abundance. (1Pet. 1:2)

A few days ago I came across this little book and downloaded it to my Kindle. I’ve always been keen on memorising Scripture but, probably like most people, the bits I have committed to memory tend to be isolated verses. The one exception to that was many years ago, at the age of 22, when I spent 4 months in Nigeria on my medical student elective period. During that time I was listening to a series of sermons on Romans and learned Romans 1 off by heart, though sadly I don’t think I could now quote it from memory.

However, Andrew Davis challenges us to learn whole books of Scripture and gives us a practical way of doing that. So I am taking up the challenge and have decided to attempt to learn 1 Peter, verse by verse. A verse a day (with some days off – Davis suggests 6 a week and to give yourself 10% extra time to allow for other days when you don’t manage a verse) gives me the goal of learning the whole book by the end of October.

I’m looking forward to it, and only two verses in, realise one of the benefits that Davis highlights: that you get the chance to look in more depth at each verse. Hence yesterday’s post on 1:1 and today I’m adding 1:2.

I write about this reluctantly, but I realised that if I keep writing bits about verses in 1 Peter you might wonder why I am spending so much time there. I don’t want you to think that I am seeking plaudits for a great act of memory: I might not manage it for one thing, and for another, millions of Muslims learn the whole Koran so why should we get credit for learning the true Word?  No, it’s more that I think if I do this semi-publicly I might have more incentive to keep it up. And if a few insights along the way help anyone else reading this, then all the better. And, most importantly: all glory goes to God!

So 1:2 – a trinitarian verse. Our calling is known by the Father in advance; powered by the Spirit and so that we can obey Jesus. Praise God. I am called to be what I know I cannot be (obedient), but the very calling comes through the Spirit’s sanctifying work – so I am changed. And the Father knows all about this in advance. Wow.

Grace to you (and peace of course – abundantly!!)

PS Don’t expect an update every day! Learning it is one thing; blogging is another.

 

 

 

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Scattered strangers

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia …  (1Peter 1:1)

I must admit I don’t often meditate much on the introductory verses in the Bible letters. But today this one gives me pause for thought. That may partly be because last night in our Alpha group we were discussing the concept of not being conformed to the world (Romans 12:2). This concept is expressed in the Bible in various different places: we are in the world, but not of the world (Jn 17:14-16); and here Peter calls God’s people “strangers in the world.”

Of course we want to be normal, not weird. Let’s not put people off the Christian gospel by imposing strange dress, odd language and daft traditions. Oops – isn’t it the case that our strangeness often consists in these things and not in the things that we really ought to stand out in?

But my meditations this morning have been more along the lines of identity and belonging. How important it is to know who we are and to whom we belong. Peter, secure in his own identity as an apostle of Jesus Christ, calls his readers strangers in the world, scattered throughout it. Naturally feeling insecure, then. Perhaps standing out ethnically as well as religiously from those around them.

To that group of scattered strangers, Peter reminds them that they are “God’s elect.”

Christian, however out of sorts with your culture you may feel, remember that you are chosen by God. So, scattered as we are, we can change the atmosphere in our workplace, our street or our social gathering just by our presence. And we have a powerful reason to resist the pressure to conform: we are God’s elect.

Be a stranger today, and allow God to scatter you wherever he wants.

Grace to you.

 

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Coming back to the heart

We are preaching through the book of Acts in church at the moment, and today I had to preach on 4:32-5:16, which contains that terrible account of the deaths by divine judgement of Ananias and Sapphira. One thing which is clear from that account is that they were not judged for keeping back part of the proceeds of their land sale, but for lying about it. They wanted to appear more generous than they really were, but God is more interested in the state of the heart than the size of the offering (as Peter had already learned from Jesus when he watched a widow giving her offering).

Before I preached we had sung the lovely song by Matt Redman: “When the Music Fades.” It contains the lines:

I’ll bring you more than a song, for a song in itself is not what you have required

I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus.

I realised as I sang that, with a small change, the song could illustrate the story perfectly: “I’ll bring you more than an offering, for an offering in itself is not what you have required/ I’m coming back to the heart of offering, and it’s all about you, Jesus.”

I could also sing, “I’ll bring you more than a sermon – I’m coming back to the heart of preaching,” or “I’m coming back to the heart of service.”

Whenever one aspect of our Christian life becomes more about ourselves than about Jesus, it can be an idol. It’s possible to give, preach, serve or sing so that others will be impressed, when actually Jesus, the Father and the Spirit are impressed by truth, integrity and holiness. It’s not that God doesn’t want my offering, preaching, singing or service – He does.  I am called to do all of those wholeheartedly and with a generous spirit, with my primary motivation being to please God.

Longing just to bring something that’s of worth that will bless your heart

Thanks to Matt Redman for putting it so well.

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You wait months for a blog post and then two come at once

This one is less consequential.

The other day I discovered in my pantry two cartons of long-life milk which said they were best before dates in 2010. “Well,” said my husband and I, “it’s about time we used them up.” Both of us were trained in and formerly practised medicine, so we have a healthy scepticism about sell-by, use-by and best-before dates. If it’s not walking out by itself, it’s probably ok to eat.

Anyway, I can today report that 3-year-out-of-date long life milk did indeed reach the end of its long life some time ago. It wasn’t off, just separated and looking horrible. I suppose I could have done my Miss Muffet act and eaten the curds and whey, but even my tolerance has its limits.

By the way, for my church people who read this and wonder if this is the same person who goes round regularly chucking things out of our church kitchen, that is different!

 

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Covering over sin

Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.  (Psalm 32:1)

On Sunday mornings I normally have a low level of anxiety. It’s the day of the main meeting of the church and I am usually in charge (humanly speaking). That means the opportunities for my falling flat on my face (not usually literally, thankfully) abound. A church leader should be thoroughly prepared, yet open to the Spirit; ready for deep conversation with a few without ignoring the many who need a greeting; conscious of what God is saying to the church as a whole but still worshipping wholeheartedly oneself. I love church but sometimes I get it wrong.

I got it wrong the other day. There were a couple of things I forgot. I have to admit it’s not uncommon for me to forget things. Lack of preparation and forethought is one of my common faults, and while the other side of that particular coin is that I am good at being flexible, it’s something that I need to work on. God highlighted that to me again as I had forgotten the contribution that some others were going to make to the service. I felt bad; I had let down those individuals, God, and the church as a whole, by my inattention.

However, (oh, praise God for the ‘howevers’!)  the individuals concerned were immediately gracious and good-humoured. They forgave me and made their contributions excellently anyway. Most of the rest of the people didn’t notice (I think – though of course they may be reading this now) and the service went ahead smoothly. In fact it was a particularly good one, in which God spoke to us about unity and there was a great awareness of God’s presence among us.

And I sat on the front row in the worship time and heard God talk to me about covering over sin. I knew my sins were forgiven – I preach it every week – but that day I was experiencing something different: a covering over. God lets me off many of the consequences of the sins I commit daily, so that I don’t appear nearly as stupid, heartless and self-centred as I really am. That is real grace!

There’s a danger in this contemplation and it is this: I must not presume on God’s covering. It does not give me licence to keep sinning. I really must work on my organisation and other things which I know need to change. God may have hidden some things from some people, but he and I both know they are there; he hasn’t just swept them under the carpet. Some day, if sin is not dealt with, it might indeed be exposed (Luke 12:1-2), but in the meantime God shelters.

You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.  (Psalm 32:7)

Then of course, as I have received freely, I must freely give. Not only does God cover my sin, he asks me to cover that of others.

Love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8)

So with God as my model, I seek not to ignore sin in others, but also not to expose it. It may be that there are things I have to confront people about – but the place to do that is in private and not by public exposure, at least to begin with, which of course is the pattern that Jesus gave us for church discipline in Matthew 18:15-17.

Praise God for his grace and mercy!

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Assumptions and Prejudices

“How can the Christ come from Galilee?” asked some of the crowd listening to Jesus one day (John 7:41). The Pharisees were even more certain: “Look into it and you will find that a prophet does not come from Galilee.” (John 7:52).

It was a reasonable question. The crowds knew that the Scriptures said that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem and they had clearly not heard the account of Jesus’ birth. It’s fair enough to be puzzled and to ask about things we don’t understand, as long as we do so with an enquiring heart and mind which has not prejudged the issue, as did the Pharisees. They were blinded by an arrogance which assumed that they alone were the authorities on the things of God; they also thought they were a cut above the rest, including the guards, the ‘mob’ and anyone from Galilee. See how human pride is the root of class war and racism. They were so closed minded that they could not recognise that their own assertion that none of their own kind believed in Jesus might not be true – their minds were made up; don’t confuse them with the facts!

I was challenged by this passage the other day. On one level, we can take it as an encouragement to ourselves if we experience any prejudice against us. Perhaps others do not listen to us because we are young/old/female/single parents/uneducated/black/poor. Jesus himself knows how that feels. Keep following him.

On the other hand, are we the ones who are prejudiced? There are people in my life who have let me down and I am inclined not to trust them, but, Lord, let me never fall into the trap of assuming that nothing good can ever come of those relationships again. Of all people, we believe in redemption, grace, hope and change. Let me hold doors open, and let me be willing to give someone a fair hearing again and again. Just as Jesus always does for me.

 

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