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.

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 🙂

Sparrows

“By night, we hasten, in darkness, to search for living water, only our thirst leads us onward, only our thirst leads us onward.” ~ Teresa of Avila

It has been a surreal year or two. First my great auntie died. Then my dad’s best friend. Next was my dad’s cousin. Then my father-in-law, followed a few months later by my dear granny**. Now this morning my dad rings me, sounding rather desperate, and with a catch in his throat gives me the news that his sister-in-law, my auntie, died unexpectedly in the night. My poor uncle. It seems worse when it’s unexpected. My dad’s on his way to see his brother.

“…when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where [the king sits] at dinner on a winter’s day… In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came…”

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England

8th Century AD

Life seems so solid, so certain when we’re young. In adulthood it can overnight seem as fragile and as fleeting as a butterfly. What can we do – those of us who are left? What can we do to offer comfort to those in grief? In the famous sermon on the mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Matthew 5:4, NRSVA

Or, as The Message puts it: “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”

But what does this mean, in reality? Doesn’t it sound rather harsh to tell someone who is grieving that it’s all ok because now you can get closer to God? For those of us who have a strong faith, we do reach out to God and we do find comfort in our sorrow. But for those outside the flock a bible verse on its own is not much practical use and may well sound like platitudes, or an excuse to not do something ourselves.

I believe that the verses above are made true in us. I believe that God’s promises are made true in us. We are the body of Christ, you and me. Don’t worry – none of us are any better at it than anyone else. We’re all a bunch of muppets, as my old pastor used to say o_O But that is where grace comes in; when we allow God to work in us and through us, we can truly be God’s hands and feet. Through our thoughts and words and actions our friends and family, indeed everyone around us, can know the Living God.

Jesus said “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Matthew 10:29-31 (NRSVA)

Dear Lord, thank you for your words of hope and comfort.

Thank you for your gift of peace.

May we bring your presence to those who mourn.

Give us the courage to say what needs to be said,

to do what you need us to do.

We are nothing without you.

In Jesus’ name we pray.

Amen 

**Addendum (23/10/14) I forgot to mention that in the past few months, my mother’s cousin also died and my husband’s aunt and uncle. The latter two were well into their 90s and very frail, so that was not unexpected. With my mother’s cousin, however, I was the only one on our side of the family who knew he was very ill, apparently. It came as a shock to my parents. I just assumed they knew. What a year.

Butterfly

‘Oh, see now the restlessness of this little butterfly, while never in its life has it been more quiet and peaceful! It is something for which to praise God, since the reason why it does not know where to settle and to establish itself is that, having tasted such repose in God, everything it sees on earth displeases it…’

St. Teresa of Jesus  ~ The Interior Castle

 

Hello, friends. I hope you are enjoying Pentecost. I went to church this morning for the first time in months. Hurrah! Our church is a half hour drive away and what with a husband who doesn’t drive and my ill health, we haven’t been able to get there. But we went today and were given a warm, kind welcome. I had the pleasure of telling people that I was getting better, in response to the question ‘how are you?’

 

In our everyday life we are waiting to find out whether the house which we would like to buy will ever be ours. For various reasons we have had our hopes raised and dashed more times than I can count. Hopefully we will have an answer in the next week or so… God is working His purpose out, one way or another. I don’t tend to get attached to ‘things’ very much, but for whatever reason I really do love this house. I am hoping that this love is because it is part of God’s plan, but either way I thank God for His gift of trust. I wonder if faith is my small act of will, but knowledge of grace, and the resulting trust, are what follows?

 

My grandmother died a few weeks ago. I was able to travel to her funeral and bring some comfort to my mother. Dear Granny was a simple soul who lived well into her 90s. God showed me a great thunderclap of a lesson as I sat listening to my uncle’s eulogy: God doesn’t require us to be in charge of the local homeless shelter or to run the church tea rota or [insert appropriate item]. It’s not that those things aren’t important, indeed the letter of James tells us they are vital…

 

‘My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it?’

James 2:14 (GNT)

…but sacrificing one’s time for the sake of others is not – surprisingly – what God requires. God desires us to have humility and trust, first, two things my dear granny had in abundance.

 

‘They then said, What are we to do, that we may [habitually] be working the works of God? [What are we to do to carry out what God requires?]

Jesus replied, “This is the work (service) that God asks of you: that you believe in the One Whom He has sent [that you cleave to, trust, rely on, and have faith in His Messenger].”

John 6:28-29 (Amplified)

I don’t believe for one minute that one can be a believer and ignore the needs of the oppressed, or the sick, or the marginalised. But we overestimate ourselves, and underestimate God, when we think we can do any of these things in our own strength. That’s what grace is for! The beauty of compassion (and it is incredible) must bubble up from within because God has placed it there. My dear, sweet grandmother had the heart of a child and the simplicity of faith that Jesus tells us is all we need. I never realised this until after her death (in my defence this is because for the last two decades she suffered dementia and lived in a care home), but I praise God for this revelation and thank Him for this example of a woman who, despite so much sadness, never lost her simplicity or her smile.

 

“Whoever will humble himself therefore and become like this little child [trusting, lowly, loving, forgiving] is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

And whoever receives and accepts and welcomes one little child like this for My sake and in My name receives and accepts and welcomes Me.”

Matthew 18:4-5 (Amplified)

I said goodbye knowing that Granny is home at last.

Her favourite hymn:

The Lark Ascending

Today, along with around 200 people, we said goodbye and paid our final respects to Frank’s father. Frank gave a truly beautiful eulogy and his sister gave a very moving reading of one of their father’s favourite poems. I realised on the way home how privileged I am to have become part of the King family. There are so many things I never knew about my father-in-law (or mother-in-law, for that matter). An excerpt from The Lark Ascending was played at the crematorium. It was one of my father-in-law’s favourite pieces of music. Mine too – the first time I heard this piece marked the beginning of a passion for Vaughan Williams. It took my breath away. Still does. I believe it is a very fitting tribute to a man loved and respected by so many people. Please do take the time to listen. It is exquisite.

Strange Times

We had a rather unexpectedly sad end to 2013, as my father-in-law passed away. He was not a well man and had been in and out of hospital many times over the past year. He was readmitted on Boxing Day morning (we got a phonecall at 3am) but they initially said he had a cold and would soon be out again. Sadly, on 30th December we received another phone call saying he was struggling to breathe. Frank and his sister were with him at the end, and we are thankful that he was in no pain.

Now we are in the middle of funeral arrangements and surreal conversations with my mother-in-law, who has dementia. One is not quite sure how much she remembers. The undertaker visited yesterday – a very pleasant man. I had the curious experience of perusing a catalogue of funeral flowers. Some of the photographs of wreaths and bouquets looked so bright and cheerful, as if celebrating a birth or a wedding. I can’t imagine my father-in-law ever wanting anything like that. He was a very straightforward man – rather like my beloved Frank.

The strangest thing is that there has been no element of shock, because Frank and his sister had been confronted with the idea of their father’s imminent death quite a number of times over the past few years. The idea of loss has already been confronted, so (I think) while they are both sad, it is not overwhelming.

In the 90s, when my grandmother died, she and my grandfather had been visiting us for Christmas (I was a teenager) and as soon as they arrived my Nana complained of feeling unwell. She had been in very good health up to that point, and was an active, mentally healthy lady. She died about three weeks later. Grief visited our house sudden and huge, shattering everything in its path for months. I didn’t dare to laugh or smile, in case I inadvertently intruded on the grief of others.

One thing that probably has made a difference is that my father-in-law was a believer, so we know without doubt where he is now. He was a regular preacher for many years, the last time being in 2012. It is comforting to know he is safe in the arms of Jesus – and this brings with it a sense that he is not so far away, after all. Lots of friends have been praying, and I think this has brought comfort.

The children of course have had lots of questions, especially the eldest, because of his autism. I have said to them that life is a journey and we are not home until we reach heaven, where Jesus is waiting for us. On the evening after he died, little Chip led us in prayer: “Thank you, God, that Grandpa is with you. We ask that you keep him safe and look after him. Amen”

 

“O Lord, our Lord,
    your greatness is seen in all the world!
Your praise reaches up to the heavens;
it is sung by children and babies.”

Psalm 8:1-2a