On Learning of the Death of Rachel Held Evans

I just found out about the death, on 4th May, of one of my favourite Christian writers, Rachel Held Evans. I am currently listening to her read Searching for Sunday and it brings me so much sadness to listen and know that she is no longer in this world. I pray for her husband and children, that they will be comforted, just as Jesus promised in His Sermon on the Mount. So, so sad. Sincere and heartfelt condolences to Rachel’s family and friends. It feels like losing a friend, even though I only knew her through her blog and her books. Much love to all Rachel’s supporters.

 

This Little Light of Mine

…historically the Christian life began with the public acknowledgement of two uncomfortable realities: evil and death. And in baptism the Christian makes the audacious claim that neither one gets the final word. 

When I get to [certain] stories in the New Testament I’m inclined to take the sophisticated approach and assume the people who had demons cast out of them were healed of mental illness or epilepsy or something like that which, when you think about it, simply requires exchanging one highly implausible story for another. But lately I’ve been wondering if this leaves something important out, something true about the shape and nature of evil, which, as Alexander Schmemann puts it, is not merely an absence of good, but the presence of a dark and irrational power.

~ Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans

 

 

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Only in silence the word,
Only in dark the light,
Only in dying life:
Bright the hawk’s flight
On the empty sky.* 

As I said to my daughter, who asked me about suffering a few days ago – the darker the room, the brighter a flame burns. This is not an easy answer. Neither is it an acceptable answer, but it’s the only answer I have and the only answer I can have, in this life. Held Evans continues:

…God is in the business of bringing dead things back to life, so if you want in on God’s business, you better prepare to follow God to all the rock bottom, scorched earth, dead-on-arrival corners of this world, including those in your own heart, because that’s where God works…

Evil and suffering are realities in this world, however much we want them to be no part of it. But God has a plan in all this – and it may not be one that we understand. When we call Him Messiah, Jesus gives each one of us the God Light – the Holy Spirit – that burns and forever burns, even in the dark.

The Light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness did not understand it or overpower it or appropriate it or absorb it [and is unreceptive to it].

John 1:5 (Amplified)

*from A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

Where is your power to hurt?

For what is mortal must be changed into what is immortal; what will die must be changed into what cannot die. So when this takes place, and the mortal has been changed into the immortal, then the scripture will come true: “Death is destroyed; victory is complete!”

“Where, Death, is your victory?
Where, Death, is your power to hurt?”

Death gets its power to hurt from sin, and sin gets its power from the Law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

So then, my dear friends, stand firm and steady. Keep busy always in your work for the Lord, since you know that nothing you do in the Lord’s service is ever useless.

1 Corinthians 15:53-58 (GNT)

In the past five years, I have lost various friends and family members, ranging in age from 36 to 96. It has made me realise that our culture acts as if death is something that can be overcome by sheer willpower, or else something to be ignored, until it happens. Which is ridiculous. Old age and infirmity are treated in the same way. Also ridiculous.

To prevent some of the painful, distressing events that occurred when my in-laws became infirm and subsequently died, I have come up with a plan: a questionnaire about funeral, burial, infirmity, illness and the dying process. If I can get everyone to fill it in this Christmas (which is the next time we’re getting together as a family), from the youngest to the oldest, maybe we can be a little better prepared for when the inevitable takes place.

What happened with my in-laws, as much as it was distressing it was equally infuriating because with a little bit of planning and forethought, so much could have gone so much more smoothly. Their suffering, let alone that of their nearest and dearest, could have been reduced. I’m not in any way blaming my in-laws – they were just behaving in the culturally-accepted norm. Everyone was trying their best as they saw it at the time. But it is a norm that is unnecessary and can often be actively harmful to both the ill or infirm person and to their loved ones. I don’t want my kids having to make those kinds of decisions when the time comes, or for them to be placed in those circumstances. I want them to already know, to have it right there in black and white what my wishes are about end-of-life care and what happens after.

I came across this video on youtube that may be helpful (in fact there is a great deal of helpful content across the channel as a whole):

I can also recommend the following books that changed the way I approach old age, infirmity, illness, dying and death:

Contented Dementia by Oliver James

In the Midst of Life by Jennifer Worth

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence

Are there any books, videos or websites that you can recommend on any of these subjects? Let me know in the comments. Thank you. God bless you.

Sacrifice

 

Dear Jemma

I miss you. I miss you more than I would have thought, pragmatic as I try to be. It’s not as if we saw each other more than a few times a year – although with the best of friends it’s the quality of the friendship, not the quantity. You were the opposite of me – so vibrant, so full of energy, never stopped talking, never stopped loving, serving, everyone around you – yet in the unspoken, in-between spaces we shared a true friendship. It was a friendship that said things like “you be you and I’ll be me”,”I’ll always be there for you”, “you can tell me anything” and “I’ll never judge you”.

I remember you saying that last one to me, maybe a year before you died. You said one of the things you really valued about me was that you knew I would never judge you. “Same,” said I. That sort of honest to goodness friendship is so hard to come by.

I have so many memories: camping, sharing meals, visiting places with the kids, walking the dog, singing in church (you always were one for the avant garde ‘raise both hands in abandon’ worship in contrast to my equally heartfelt but more staid response), sharing our struggles in Celebrate Recovery. You were funny – when you felt awkward you had a tendency to stretch the truth a little, to invent things. I never knew why, but I understood that it was just part of you.

When we were together we made the most of it. You were always in the middle of everything, looking after everyone else. I didn’t want you to feel you had to look after me, or feel obliged to me in any way. I wanted you to know that I valued you for you, so I didn’t insist on us meeting as much as I’d have liked. Now I wish I had. Almost. But then I’d not have been the same friend to you that you could rely on in your own way. At least, that’s what I tried to be. I don’t know. I think if you could read this you’d understand what I meant.

You were the rare sort of person for whom all the niceties that are said after death were absolutely 100% true. I can’t remember you without remembering your laugh, and that always leaves me smiling. You were one of the nicest, most genuine, Christ-loving people I have ever known. I would have said that in life. I probably did, though I don’t remember.

You had your flaws. You were notoriously late for everything, often by several hours, but the people who loved you accepted that that was you. You would forget to reply to people, or forget that you had made arrangements, but that was surely because you were always doing everything for everyone at hundreds of miles an hour! I was always in awe of your energy.

When I heard the news of your death last year I genuinely couldn’t believe it. For days I kept thinking I must have heard wrong – that they must mean some other Jemma. You were so healthy, literally so full of life. You were happily married after all that you’d been through, to a man who treasured you for who you really are were. How could you die suddenly from something that affects elderly people? You were only in your thirties. It made no sense. It still makes no sense. The only thing that makes any sense is that you, having lived your whole life at 300 miles an hour, had packed everything in that was required of you, and then God called you home. And you, being you, couldn’t resist joyously climbing into His eternal arms.

So today I will pause and remember you, dear Jemma. I think of you every day, even now, 15 months after you died. I recognise the sacrifices that you made daily in your life, loving and serving whoever came in your path. I am truly humbled by your generosity of self. You are an inspiration to me and to everyone who knew you. In your death you solidified that inspiration – although we would all rather have you here, with us. I miss you, but I know that I – and everyone else who loved you – will see you again one day.

from Sandy x

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. 

from John 15:9-14 (NRSVA)

Jesus teaches us that the greatest sacrifice we can make is to lay down our lives for our friends, and it is this that we remember every 11th November, and especially today, exactly 100 years after the end of the First World War. What I want to share today is this: some of us will be called to give up our lives for Jesus. I can only imagine what they go through and what their loved ones go through. Even if that is not required of us, Jesus asks us to offer our daily lives. And every time I think of Jemma, I see that she did just that.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:1,2

The picture of the poppy is from The Royal British Legion website.

 

 

 

Reblog: All Souls Day

 

Beautiful post about autumn, death and remembrance. I wish I had written this post!

The Left Hand of Ehud: Matt's Bible Blog

They say the dead are closer at this time of year. Maybe that’s easier to believe as the nights draw in, as the earth draws into a kind of hibernation. Here in Britain it’s a season of memories, all poppies and fireworks. Remember, remember, what we do to our enemies. Remember, remember the fallen. And while All Souls Day isn’t part of my tradition, there’s something about this time in history that’s bringing the dead closer. For me that isn’t personal mourning but corporate. It’s getting darker earlier now, and in the quiet and in the shadows it almost feels like memories are haunting us like ghosts. It’s been less than a week since a gunman murdered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue and that can’t help but evoke the countless other times the spirit of antisemitism walked abroad. We say “Never again”, but we’re oh so good…

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Struggling Grace

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No one can acquire any virtue unless he begins by dying to himself  ~ St. Francis of Assisi

…regarding your previous way of life, you put off your old self… and be continually renewed in the spirit of your mind [having a fresh, untarnished mental and spiritual attitude], and put on the new self [the regenerated and renewed nature], created in God’s image, [godlike] in the righteousness and holiness of the truth [living in a way that expresses to God your gratitude for your salvation].

~ Ephesians 4:22-24 (AMP)

I have been crucified with Christ [that is, in Him I have shared His crucifixion]; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body I live by faith [by adhering to, relying on, and completely trusting] in the Son of God…

~ Galatians 2:20

PTSD? Depression? Grief? PMT? Who knows? All I know for sure is that I have been struggling lately. I know the death of my mother-in-law shook me up (actually, not her death – because she was a woman of faith – so much as the suffering that preceded it) and I know that the flashbacks have returned (PTSD: such fun!) but in a different form, and I know that hormones are a right bugger at certain times of the month (‘scuse me, gentlemen), but I don’t think I’m depressed. Just floundering a bit. Feeling a bit overwhelmed. Even though it’s mostly my own brain that’s doing the whelming. Mind you, Prince is poorly again and that breaks my heart because he is in pain and there’s nothing I can do and I can’t explain it to him – it’s difficult enough to explain to a neuro-typical child, let alone a young man with autism :-/ Then there’s my dear husband who is struggling with grief at the loss of his mother. I am quite inadequate at offering comfort. He hurts so I hurt. That’s what having a strong sense of empathy does. You feel other people’s feelings, especially the bad feelings. It’s good because it begets a deep compassion, but it can have a down side. I feel too much, sometimes. Other times I feel nothing at all.

So I go back to the bible, back to the words of people who followed Jesus with their whole being. The death of self that St. Francis is talking about in that first quote, above, is not just dying to the old selfish, sinful ways, it’s also about dying to the old negative thinking patterns – that I am useless, unworthy, a waste of space. These are all the feelings that have been floating around my head and the worst bit is that they stop me from being able to think straight. I have the desire to be caring for my family and looking after the house, but my head gets stuck and I can’t figure out what to do and then all I want to do (all I feel able to do) is to curl up in bed and do nothing. But then I feel bad because really I do want to be caring for my family and curating a loving, organised, fruitful family home.

Oh, sweet Jesus! The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Bring me once again to my knees as I wholly and completely put my trust in You to accomplish even the smallest of small things for Your dear name’s sake. I am quite useless without You, yet quite marvellous with You. Use me. Give me the awareness of grace – five minutes at a time if need be – and help me to share Your grace with everyone I meet. Help my poor boy to feel better. Show me what I can do for him and to encourage him. Help me to be whatever my husband needs as he comes to terms with his loss.

In Your name I pray. Thank you for this gift of prayer.

Amen.

I write all this here not as a way of seeking attention. I don’t want attention, although kindly thoughts and prayer would be an encouragement. I hope that this might help someone else going through the same sort of thing to not feel so alone, but the main reason I write this is because true testimony begins with honesty – and that includes the bad… all the while knowing that God is always good.

On Autism, Family, Grief and Kindness

During the funeral for my mother-in-law last week, I made sure Prince stayed with me. I carefully explained exactly what would happen beforehand and although the girls went with my parents, Prince stayed by my side the whole time.

Prince is 17 years old and has autism. He goes to special school. He struggles with anxiety so was, of course, very worried about what the funeral would be like. I think he thought we’d all be wailing and moaning and falling over one another or something, because beforehand he was constantly asking me if it was ok that he was sad, but not very, very sad, and he was glad Grandma was not suffering any more (he didn’t word it like that but I think that’s what he meant). He also said, quite bluntly, that although he liked Grandma, he didn’t know her very well, so he wasn’t as sad as he would be if it was his other grandmother, whom he knows very well. Which is fair enough. I told him not to say that to anyone else, though!

To be honest, when we would take Grandma out (she lived in a lovely care home for the three years prior to her death) I was mostly thinking about how to manage her with her frailty and dementia (make sure she is not distressed or too tired, keep her upbeat and happy by talking to her and constantly reassuring her, even if I’ve already done exactly the same thing a dozen times or more), Prince and his autism (minimise anxiety, keep him passive), boisterous or bickering girls (make sure they’re not forgotten in the need to put Grandma and Prince’s needs first) and a husband who gets easily distracted and might not notice if his mum is about to topple over or something (keep an eye on him). This family time was lovely – my MIL was lovely – but could also be quite stressful, so encouraging anything other than quiet, non-anxious, absorbed-in-his-radios behaviour from Prince was never really the priority. I don’t mean to sound mean towards my husband. He had all the same things to deal with, along with my PTSD and CFS, so we have always had to look out for one another. My point is that I didn’t seek to encourage interaction between Prince and his grandma.

On the day of the funeral I made sure Prince was with me, to make sure he was ok. I didn’t want to risk my parents saying the wrong thing to him, however well-intentioned they may be. I sat in the pew first, followed by my son and then my husband. During his sister’s beautiful eulogy, Frank began to tear up and I saw him wiping his eyes and nose. I felt bad that I hadn’t sat in between them both, but I couldn’t move as that would distract from the eulogy. Then came my turn. I stood and walked to the front of the church and read a poem I had originally written after the death of Frank’s dad. As I came to sit back down, I deliberately sat in between Frank and Prince. I took Frank’s hand. He squeezed mine. The tears began to flow. I reached for the tissues and thanked God that I had kept it together until after my poem. Then, to my surprise, Prince took my hand in his. He didn’t say anything, but this little gesture from a young man for whom touch is anathema made me realise what a wonderful boy I have. That simple act of taking my hand meant so much to me that I can’t really describe it. You won’t know what that’s like unless you’re a parent of a child with autism yourself. Prince saw that mummy was sad and he wanted to make me feel better.

I love my boy. I love his innocence. You can take your neurotypical sons. I’m glad they have parents who love them. I’m glad they will have the chance to ‘succeed’ in life, to go to work and have a family of their own. But I wouldn’t change a hair on my boy’s head.

This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. 

Matthew 10:42, The Message

I think my boy is a true apprentice, even if he doesn’t know it.

Auf Wiedersehen

The funeral for my mother-in-law went well. It is always a sad time, the farewell of a loved one, but for followers of Christ it’s a celebration, too, of the life the person lived, of the end of their final journey. When a woman devotes her life to serving God, to loving the unloved, the sendoff is always bittersweet.

God was there in the bright February skies, in the new-formed heads of tiny snowdrops lining the lanes. God was there in the musty old church, He was there in the coffin, in the pallbearers, in the tears and smiles of friends and family. It was a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman. I am so thankful to have known my MIL, to have been accepted as part of the family, and most of all for her very lovely son, my husband, who would not be the wonderful, kind, intelligent man he is today without his mother.

I imagine Jesus stretching out his hands in welcome and my MIL stretching out her hands with that big, warm smile on her face.

Jesus says, “You made it!” and MIL responds, in her wonderful regional accent, “I can’t believe it, I’m ‘ere! At last!” Behind Jesus she spots her husband, no longer old or infirm, but remade and whole and happy, and then she sees her parents, her sister, her friends… Hurrah! They all say. Welcome home!

So for us it’s not so much ‘goodbye’ as ‘auf wiedersehen’ – till we meet again.

Thank you, Jesus 🙂

Hope

640px-oedipus_at_colonus

Oedipus at Colonus by Harriet Fulchran-Jean (Wikipedia)

A man desperate for many years of life, not content to live a moderate span, is… obviously a fool, for many feelings stored by lengthy years evoke more pain than joy, but when we live beyond those years that are appropriate, then our delights are nowhere to be found. The same deliverer visits all of us, and when our fate from Hades comes at last, there is no music, dance or wedding song. No, only the finality of death. The finest of all possibilities is never to be born. 

~ from Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles, 401BC,

translated by Ian Johnston

Love never ends… we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end… For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:8-12 (NRSVA)

The last enemy to be destroyed is death… 

What is sown is perishable. What is raised is imperishable…

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?

…thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 15:26, 42, 55, 57

What comfort comes from the sureness of God’s merciful compassion! What hope from the knowledge of His love! What thanks we can raise when all suffering is ended, when, as the Salvationists say, our loved one is ‘promoted to glory’. We are sad because we will never take Grandma out for lunch again. We won’t share a cheeky grin. We won’t share the fresh joy of new-burst daffodils, or the pleasant cure-all of a ‘nice cup of tea’. But we know that –

…the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more…

Revelation 21:3 – 4

Blessed

Comfort, O comfort my people,

says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

and cry to her

that she has served her term,

that her penalty is paid,

that she has received from the LORD’s hand

double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,

and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,

and all people shall see it together,

for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

 

A voice says, “Cry out!”

And I said, “What shall I cry?”

All people are grass,

their constancy is like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades;

when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;

surely the people are grass.

The grass withers, the flower fades;

but the word of our God will stand forever…

 

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;

he will gather the lambs in his arms,

and carry them in his bosom,

and gently lead the mother sheep. 

 

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand

and marked off the heavens with a span,

enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure,

and weighed the mountains in scales

and the hills in a balance?

 

…Have you not known? Have you not heard?

Has it not been told you from the beginning?

Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

 

…Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The LORD is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary;

his understanding is unsearchable.

He gives power to the faint,

and strengthens the powerless.

Even youths will faint and grow weary,

and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint.

Extracts from Isaiah 40 (NRSVA)

My dear mother-in-law died yesterday. We weren’t quick enough to the hospital to be with her, but Frank and I were able to see her, laid out in a private room with a sheet neatly placed over her body, just exposing her face. She was warm when I stroked her hair and said a burbled goodbye. I thanked her for being my mother-in-law and told her I was glad to know she was with Jesus. Later, when we were home, my sister-in-law visited and cuddled one of our newly acquired guinea pigs as we briefly discussed the next steps. Jesus said ‘Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted’. I doubt he meant that guinea pigs would be part of the process, but I am quite sure God uses even the lowliest of creatures!

Please keep Frank and his sister in your prayers as they go about the funeral arrangements. Thank you.