Faith for the impossible

It’s a Friday evening.

Spring has sprung. Green shoots are piercing the ground. Parks and gardens are full to bursting with daffodils and tulips. Trees are laden with pink and white blossom. Temperatures are rising. Sunshine and blue skies are returning. Everywhere there are signs of new life.

I should be feeling hopeful.

Instead, I’m battling disappointment.

I’ve got seven friends, old and new, near and far, some close and some more distant, but all in their 30s and 40s and about my age, and all of them battling cancer.

I know that God can heal them – I’ve seen Him do it – but during this particular week, two of them have taken a turn for the worse. They are both in hospices and preparing to die. We are anticipating the worst, while still holding out hope for healing.

Lord, where are you?” I find myself crying out to Him, “Why are you not bringing healing?

I toss and turn that night, sleep evading me, but struggling to pray while I’m lying awake.

***

It’s now Saturday morning. I’m sitting in a swivel chair, facing into a full wall mirror at the hairdressers. A beautiful purple orchid is in full bloom on the counter in front of me. The air is thick with the smell of beauty products. There is a hubbub of female voices all around me.

The salon is familiar. I’ve been coming for several years. And I get chatting, the way I always do, with the woman who’s about to style my hair. Let’s call her Phoebe*.

Phoebe wears a hard-as-nails attitude to life, but that’s mostly because life hasn’t treated her very kindly. She’s no more than 30. Her arms are covered in tattoos. Her hair style and colour are different every time I see her. Today, it’s a peachy shade of blonde and cut in a trendy sharp edged bob.

What’s different this time is that she’s limping and clearly in pain. It’s blindingly obvious, but I ask her how she is.

In pain, she says. It’s her back and sciatic nerve, she explains. Her GP has given her a depressing diagnosis: Because her job requires her to stand – all day, every day – she needs to be careful. The pain is treatable, but there’s a risk that she could do irreparable damage. She’s trying to reduce the number of clients she sees, to have more regular breaks so she’s not standing for hours on end, to take tablets to reduce the pain. But none of it is really working.

I ask what treatment she’s been getting. She tells me she’s doing Pilates, but it’s not making much difference. She’s also thinking about physio.

Even as she’s speaking, I can feel the Holy Spirit nudge me, and a combination of compassion and courage rise up inside. Before I know it, I’ve spun the swivel chair round and I’m looking up into Phoebe’s face, straight into her eyes.

Has anyone ever prayed with you?” I ask.

I’m never normally that bold.

Er, no,” she replies, looking bemused.

I’m a Christian,” I continue, on a roll, feeling fear drop away. “I’ve prayed for people to be healed in the name of Jesus, and I’ve seen God heal some of them.

I pause, as she takes this in. In all the years I’ve been coming to the salon, I don’t think I’ve ever discussed my faith with her. Not even once.

Would you like me to pray for you?” I continue.

Sure,” she says, nonchalantly, shrugging her shoulders, as if to say it’s worth giving anything a go.

I ask her where the pain is and she points to a place mid-way between her waist and her hip on her left hand side. Gently, I explain that I’m going to put my hand on that place and speak out loud, and what I’ll be doing is praying. Is this OK?

I’m aware that I have a captive audience, as the conversations over other swivel chairs around the salon have become subdued. All eyes and ears are on Phoebe and me.

Under my breath, I am sending up arrow prayers … Lord Jesus, help!

As I pray for Phoebe, my right hand stretched out from where I’m sitting on the swivel chair, she is looking down at me, uncertainty and scepticism in her eyes. It’s obvious that she’s never seen or heard a Christian pray out loud before.

My prayer is simple, no more than two or three sentences. All I’m doing is calling on God, in the name of Jesus, to take the pain and inflammation, and to heal her back and sciatic nerve.

Then …

What’s that tingling?” she asks.

I’m not sure,” I respond, “but that could be God at work.

Bloody hell,” she replies. “If this works, I’ll owe you one.” She pauses for a moment. “How about a free haircut?” she enquires.

Quick as a flash, I can feel the Holy Spirit nudge me. “You won’t owe me anything,” I say. “If this works, you’ll owe God one, not me.

As I turn my chair back to face the mirror, I’m aware that conversations are starting up again in the rest of the salon, and my conversation with Phoebe moves on to other things. Family. Work. The weather. Holiday plans. All the usual small talk topics that hairdressers discuss with their clients, day in, day out.

Later, after my hair has been blow dried and finished by one of Phoebe’s colleagues, I’m paying up at the reception desk, and I hear Phoebe calling out down the salon towards me.

I think it might be working,” she yells, breaking into a broad grin. There’s clear incredulity in her voice, even as she says it.

I do a thumbs up sign and point upwards, a symbolic reminder that any credit is God’s, and I walk out of the salon, my newly styled hair bouncing around my shoulders, the door swinging shut behind me, my heart singing.

***

God’s timing, as ever, is impeccable. He knows I need a gentle reminder: If he can alleviate back pain, can he not also heal cancer?

All I need is a little boldness and fresh perspective.

I am reminded of this several months later …

It’s now late summer. The sky is blue and the sun is shining. Families are on beach holidays, making sandcastles with buckets and spades. School is still out, but only just. New uniforms in the shops are a reminder that it’s not long now until term starts again. Bushes are burgeoning with the weight of ripening blackberries. The tips of the leaves in the trees are just glinting at hints of orange and red.

My hair needs attention again, so I have an appointment. Walking into the salon, I am greeting by a grinning Phoebe, completely transformed. She looks visibly lighter, as though a load has been lifted from her shoulders.

She is happy and well, she tells me.  “I’m also virtually free of back pain“, she adds.

I can’t believe what I’m hearing.

I ask her whether she remembers my prayer.

Sure”, she says, before adding diffidently, “I’m not sure whether I did it right, but I said a little ‘thank you’ to God.”

Even as she tells me this, I feel hope rising.

Praying for Phoebe reminds me that ‘With God, all things are possible’ (Matthew 19:26).

As I make my way home, I can feel hope rising and disappointment dissipating – and I find myself thanking God that I still have faith to believe for the impossible. Even the seemingly impossible.

 

*Name changed to preserve confidentiality.

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More than meets the eye

Please will you pray for me?” she whispers, her voice barely audible.

Of course,” I reply, not feeling convinced by the confidence in my voice.

We are sitting next to each other on a soft cushioned bench, running round the perimeter of a small circular chapel. The floor is made of limestone, the walls unevenly white washed. In the centre is a huge slab of rock serving as an altar, solid and immovable, a cross and two tea lights perched precariously on top, a small glass vase of freshly picked daffodils balanced at the base.

Pearl* is a grey haired woman in her 50s. She has a strong northern accent and carries a few extra pounds. As she looks at me, I can tell she is in pain. Her ears are throbbing, she explains. She often gets ear ache, and today the pain is extreme.

It’s the end of the chapel service. People are beginning to leave, quietly lifting the latch on the door, pulling it gently closed behind them.

I rise to my feet, silently praying, mouthing the words under my breath. “Lord God, please give me your anointing for healing, please use me as a channel, please help me do this, in Jesus’ name.

Standing in front of Pearl, she gives me permission to lay hands on her ears. As I do so, I pray in tongues, speaking a heavenly language, and I feel a mantle of authority fall heavy on my shoulders …

***

Every Spring time, for nearly a decade, I have found myself heading to the west coast of Wales for a week of rest and reflection. There, nestled high in the hills, lies a Christian retreat centre and house of prayer, looking out over a beautiful lush green valley.

I first heard about Ffald-y-Brenin when I was given the book, ‘The Grace Outpouring‘, by a friend. At the time, the book was relatively unknown and certainly not the best seller it’s become in the years since. It tells the story of how God has chosen to pour out His grace and blessing in this remote corner of Wales, and it took me less than 48 hours to devour it.

Immediately, I was on the phone to the friend who had given it to me.

She didn’t need any convincing. Two days later and we had both booked a week off work, found a local B&B to stay in, and downloaded directions.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Ffald-y-Brenin quickly took root in my heart as a special place, a place with a thin veil, where heaven touches earth in tangible ways.

***

It must have been my third or fourth visit, when I met Pearl.

Standing in front of her, the tangible weight of God’s authority on my shoulders, I find myself commanding the earache to go in the name of Jesus. I feel ill equipped. I don’t know what I’m doing. But I tell the infection, the bacteria, the virus, the pain, the inflammation, whatever is causing it, all of it is to go, in the name of Jesus.

I pray in tongues, and then I feel a nudge from the Holy Spirit: “Rebuke what Satan is doing over her balance.

Where did that come from?

I don’t question it. I know it to be the still, small voice of God.

With my hands still on Pearl’s ears, I calmly and gently say out loud, “Satan, in the name of Jesus, I rebuke what you are doing over Pearl’s balance. And with the authority I have in the name of Jesus, I tell you to get off her balance and her ears, and to go to the foot of the cross of Christ where you belong.

My heart fills with compassion, as she starts to sob, her tears free flowing. The sobs get louder, guttural, heart wrenching. God is clearly doing some deep inner healing.

I find myself declaring John 10:10 over her, that she may know fullness of life: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; Jesus has come that [you] may have life, and have it to the full.

The chapel is almost empty now. The handful of people left are praying, with me, for Pearl, seated where they are, dotted around the chapel. The dappled evening sunlight is pouring through the arched windows onto the altar, catching the shadows of the daffodils at the base of the altar.

I know that God is working in Pearl, so I decide to leave her in His presence.

***

How did you know to pray for my balance?”

It’s the following day and I’m in the communal kitchen, making a cup of tea. Pearl has joined me at the counter, her eyes bright and dancing. She looks lighter than she did the day before and she clearly doesn’t have any ear ache today.

I explain how I felt the Holy Spirit nudge me, how I followed through and obeyed what I sensed was God telling me to rebuke what Satan was doing over her balance.

She is clearly bemused. “But I didn’t ask you to pray for my balance,” she says.

As we sit down together, steaming mugs of tea cupped in our hands, she blurts out her story. She doesn’t find it easy; she’s not naturally articulate, but she has my full attention.

Years ago, when Pearl was conceived, her mother was an unmarried teenager. Although it was the 1960s, there was immense stigma in giving birth out of wedlock. Pearl’s mother had never intended to get pregnant. Pearl’s father didn’t want to know. It was a classic unwanted pregnancy.

Pearl’s mother tried to abort her … only it didn’t succeed.

Pearl fought through. But her ears, her hearing and her balance were permanently damaged. None of them have ever worked as they should, something the doctors have directly attributed to what happened when she was in the womb. She regularly gets excruciating earache and labyrinthitis, an inflammation in the inner ear, causing dizziness and loss of balance. She has learnt to live with it.

Until now.

Pearl tells me how she came to Ffald-y-Brenin because God had convicted her that she needed to forgive her mother. Their relationship has never been good. Pearl has always felt responsible for not dying in the womb, when her mother wanted rid of her.

Yesterday, she finally forgave her mother.

A few hours later, I prayed for her.

Last night, she went to bed, feeling peace unlike anything she’s known before. This morning, when she woke, she felt that same sense of peace. Her earache has gone. Her balance is restored. She feels like a new person. She still can’t believe what’s happened.

She thanks me for praying for her balance. We exchange a hug.

***

I feel humbled. Why me? Why would God use me to bring this about?

And then I sense Him speaking:
It’s not about my ability; it’s about my availability.
It’s not about my understanding; it’s about my trust and obedience.
Only God ever has the full story; I just have to play my part.

* Name changed to preserve anonymity.

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Facing against the direction of travel

Being British, our family’s Christmas Day would not be complete without The Queen and her annual message. It’s tradition. It’s an institution. It’s one of the rare occasions when we hear her personal perspectives.

Huddling around the TV to hear Her Majesty on Christmas Day a couple of weeks ago, we are listening as she reflects on a year full of ‘moments of darkness‘. She causes us to pause a moment, to recall the terrorist atrocities in Tunisia and Paris, and the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into Europe …

Then, boom!

“It is true that the world had to confront moments of darkness this year,” she says, “but the Gospel of John contains a verse of great hope, often read at Christmas carol services, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ 

I am reminded of this blog, lying languishing, beckoning me to write.

It is true that there have been many ‘moments of darkness‘. Not just in the big wide world. Not just in my community, in my family, amongst my friends and acquaintances. Not just in this tiny corner of the universe that I happen to inhabit.

But it is also true that there have been many cracks of light shining through those moments of darkness. Glimmers of hope. Miracles of healing and deliverance. Stories of transformation.

Why have I not been recording them? Why have I not been sharing them? Why does it take The Queen quoting the strapline of this blog to remind me that it’s here?!?

Then I stumble across these words over at Live to Write — Write to Live:

“Reflecting on the year gone by is an exercise that can quickly bring you down if you don’t keep your perspective … Reviewing what you have accomplished inevitably leads to acknowledging what you have not accomplished, and those realizations can leave you feeling deflated, guilty, ashamed, and generally disappointed in yourself. Or, maybe that’s just me. 

Each year, I stride into January with Big Dreams and High Hopes. A small voice in my head cheers the mantra, “This is the year! This is the year!” I can’t help but be swept up in the exhilarating annual revel of redemption and expectation. After all, who doesn’t love a second chance? 

Processing my New Year this way — looking both backward and forward, layering my hopes and plans for the New Year on top of the successes and missteps of the old one — forces me to take a longer view of things — to look at the ‘old’ year and the new one not as distinct entities that must be judged against each other, but as interwoven pieces of an unbroken continuum.”

So, at the beginning of another new year, I am forcing myself to take a longer view of things. I am looking both backward and forward.

To quote Kate Coleman from Next Leadership:

“The vast majority of people in the Western world live their lives with their faces to the future, eager to see what is ahead, with barely a second glance at the past behind them … Consequently, we hardly ever learn from the past or ask ourselves strategic questions in order to improve upon it … Hebrew, together with some other languages, views the past as being ahead in full view, while the future, the unseen, lies behind. This perspective, which is rather like sitting on a train with your back to the direction of travel, proves invaluable for those seeking to explore the source of true vision … ”

I am seizing the opportunity to sit for a while, on the train journey of life, with my back to the direction of travel. 

I am encouraged by all the stories I’ve encountered, during the past year, of light piercing the moments of darkness – sometimes in a trickle, sometimes in a flood – and I am excited in anticipation of the many more I’m going to be seeing in the coming year. My vision is to share them, with courage and confidence!

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The kindness of a stranger

I stumbled across the ‘Faith’ poem today, written by Patrick Overton:

When you walk to the edge of all the light you have 
and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown, 
you must believe that one of two things will happen:

There will be something solid for you to stand upon,
or, you will be taught how to fly.

I love how it’s all about walking to the edge, taking a step, believing …

To me, this speaks of faith.
Faith that God will provide something solid for me to stand upon.
Faith that He will enable me to fly.
Faith that He is there for me when I reach the edge.

I guess that’s why it’s called the ‘Faith’ poem.

Even if we don’t have faith in God, we need to have faith in something. Otherwise, what happens when we reach the edge?

There’s been a story in the news this last week, which has got me thinking about this, about what happens when we reach the edge.

It’s a story about mental health campaigner, Jonny Benjamin. When he was 20, he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. It caused him to lose hope. One morning in January 2008, he was standing on the edge of Waterloo Bridge in central London,  about to take his own life.

He had got to the edge of all the light he had.

But the kindness of a stranger stopped him.

It didn’t take much. The passerby just had the right words.

Calming words. Kind words. Words of empathy and reassurance. Words of hope.

Words that helped give Jonny something solid to stand on.

His act of kindness changed my outlook on life and I have thought about him ever since. I want to find this man so I can thank him for what he did. If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be here today.

Jonny agreed to climb back over the railings to safety. The police stepped in to look after him. The passerby continued on his way to work.

But Jonny never got to know the stranger’s name.

Six years on and Jonny wanted to find and thank the man he named ‘Mike’. The power of social media led to the ‘Find Mike’ campaign, which went viral.

The result was an emotional reunion between Jonny and the passerby. 

His name wasn’t ‘Mike’. It was Neil. And he was just an ordinary person. Just like you and me. But there’s something about his ordinariness that makes me love this story. 

It reminds me that it’s the smallest of smiles, words, actions, which can have the biggest impact. It reminds me that it doesn’t take much to reach out to someone. It reminds me, today, tomorrow, to look out for the person who might just need me to help them find something solid to stand upon, or the means to fly. 

There’s a lot to be said for the kindness of a stranger.

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Fruit for those who follow after

I can still remember the day my friend, Karen, told me she had cancer.

It was early in 2004. She had just returned from a holiday in South Africa with her husband, Martin. While she was there, she’d discovered that all was not well. Symptoms that she’d ignored in recent months just wouldn’t go away. She kept gaining weight. She kept throwing up.

The doctors had diagnosed a huge abdominal tumour, which had wrapped itself around the artery to her heart, and entangled itself with her other vital organs. Surgery was going to be needed, and urgently. The prognosis was not good.

Karen was kind. She was warm and welcoming, generous and gracious, full of humour, full of life, full of faith. She made everyone feel special. She made everyone laugh.

She was also young. Too young to have a cancer diagnosis.

I remember the shock, the numbness, the sense of unreality.

It made no sense. How could this be?

Confidence and courage

I first met Karen in the spring of 2001. It was at an international ‘children at risk’ conference in the Netherlands. I was there because I was contemplating a career change at that time.

I remember Karen standing out from the other delegates. She had an unusual air of confidence for one surrounded by people predominantly twice her age.

Karen had just returned to the UK from South Africa, where she had pioneered a network for people working with children at risk in Cape Town. This had not been an easy undertaking. Working out of her little office in a shed at the end of a friend’s garden, she had helped abandoned children to find shelters with spare beds, and childcare projects to track children who had gone missing. She had even managed to strike up a deal with a businessman from her home back in south Wales, which had released funds to support the work. And she had replicated the model in neighbouring Zimbabwe, where she helped set up a similar network for people working with children at risk in Harare. 

Karen was a person who embraced danger and difficulty as part of her Christian responsibility. I remember her recounting how, on one occasion, her car broke down whilst driving through a notoriously violent township at night. She knew that she would become an instant target if she stayed in her car, so she hid in a nearby bush until dawn.

If she believed that God had given her a word of knowledge for a complete stranger, she would happily walk up to them and tell them. She was the kind of person who, depending on your perspective, might be either a dream or a nightmare as your neighbour on a long-haul flight.

Comedy and compassion

Karen was someone who managed to find herself in the most ridiculous situations. She would regularly have us doubled up with laughter. Her humour was as much wrapped up in the straight-faced way that she told the stories as in the stories themselves. It was the way her dead pan expression combined with her soft Welsh accent, which always had us in stitches as she told her tales.

We heard about her job washing the outside of aeroplanes with special extra-long mops, on a runway in south Wales. About the time that she was interviewed for a job by the Port Talbot Mafiosi, and asked if they minded that she was a Christian. About the time that she was perusing a china shop and saved an entire shelf of porcelain from landing on the floor, only to watch the man behind her knock it all down and smash it.  About the time she offered her services as a driving instructor, only to watch with horror as her sister ploughed through a barrier and drove over an occupied manhole cover. About her holiday in Pembrokeshire, when she got followed around by a magician who would occasionally cut his assistant in half.

We heard all her crazy stories about men proposing to her in unexpected places, and then we came to realise that one of them wasn’t going to give up. Karen and Martin met on a train in South Africa, the romance blossomed, and they married in 2002.

One of the things that Martin loved best about Karen was her kindness. She was kind to everyone. She didn’t know how to be anything else.

After she and Martin moved to the UK, if they weren’t housing one of Martin’s South African security-guard-friends, they were providing a roof for a waif or a stray,  an orphan or an outcast who had nowhere else to go.

It made sense when they signed up to start fostering. I remember her recounting how, on one occasion, they had taken in a troubled teenage girl for foster care, only to have her angry father turn up at their house one night. Apparently, he fled when he saw Martin’s enormous silhouette in the doorway.

Faith and fearlessness

All this.

And then came the cancer.

Karen’s attitude was typical. Determined as ever to fight fiercely for what she believed to be right, she was having none of it.

It’s not of God,” she kept saying, “I don’t believe He wants me to die.

In the days leading up to her emergency operation to remove the tumour, Karen and Martin mobilised their friends to pray. Many agreed to fast as well. People from places as far apart as Cardiff and Cape Town got on their knees and pleaded with God for Karen’s healing.

It was during this time that three separate people sensed God give them a word of knowledge. Located in different parts of the world, they all contacted Karen independently to say they felt God had spoken to them: Her cancer had been caused by a curse from a witch doctor during the time she had lived in Zimbabwe.

What they said resonated with Karen and she knew immediately which incident they were referring to. She recalled what had happened, what words had been spoken, what had resulted. She repented of any part she had played and asked God to forgive her.

Above all else, she declared that, if her cancer had a spiritual cause, then it could be confronted with a spiritual solution.

Armed with this revelation, Karen’s Christian faith kicked in. “I belong to God,” she said, “and the Holy Spirit in me is greater than the spirit who lives in the world,” quoting 1 John 4:4 from the Bible. “We need to command the cancer to go, because the power and authority we have in Jesus’ name is greater than the power behind a demonic curse from a witch doctor.” 

Somehow this clarion call spurred us on. All of us. Even those with wafer thin faith. It was as if Karen’s faith buoyed everyone else’s. Her deep down conviction carried the rest of us: God was going to heal her.

It was the kind of theology I had read about in books and rarely encountered, but I mustered up faith and joined in the praying and fasting.

In the name of Jesus,” I prayed out loud, “I speak to the cancer in Karen’s stomach and I command it to go by the authority I have in Jesus.

When Karen’s stomach began to shrink in front of our eyes, we couldn’t quite believe what we were witnessing.

I learnt a profound lesson that week. A lesson that has remained with me ever since. A lesson that was simply this:

– When Christians call on the name of Jesus, and claim the authority they have in the name of Jesus, God gives them immense power through the Holy Spirit.

– That immense power is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead.

– Because Jesus was raised from the dead, everything demonic has already been defeated, including curses from witch doctors.

Amazing.

A medical miracle

On the day when Karen was wheeled into the operating theatre, although the surgeon had agreed to operate, he admitted that he expected various secondary complications to result from the operation. He and his team quietly doubted that Karen would come out alive.

When he opened her up, he couldn’t quite believe what he found.

The tumour in Karen’s abdomen had shrivelled and died. It had unattached itself from the artery to her heart and untangled itself from all her vital organs.

Weighing in at more than 9lb, it was heavier than most newborn babies, but it was relatively easy for the surgeon and his team to lift it up and out.

To say the surgeon was astonished was an understatement. He had never encountered anything like it.

Karen was so impacted by the role that her Christian faith had played during this gruelling time that she told anyone and everyone who would listen that it was Jesus who had healed her. Her testimony was incredibly powerful and it led to two of the medical team, her mum, and one of her sisters, all becoming Christians.

Dogged determination

During her recuperation, Karen sensed God telling her he was giving her two more years of life and that she was to use those two years to complete the Quality Improvement Scheme (QIS). She’d had the vision for QIS while she’d been living in South Africa but, at that point in time, it was incomplete.

Karen was a fierce protector of standards. She knew from firsthand experience that the vast majority of Christian childcare practitioners had no formal training in organisational development, and their projects and programmes were run using very basic standards in areas such as governance, financial accountability, fundraising, child protection, and staff care. Based on evidence from pilot schemes she conducted, she discovered that there was enormous demand for the type of assessment and training that QIS was designed to provide.

Using her amazing academic aptitude, she delved into the quagmire of international quality frameworks, and produced a set of criteria and standards appropriate to the Christian childcare community, while negotiating funding deals with international donors to pay for QIS to be rolled out.

The significance of this piece of work cannot be over-stated!

Karen’s dedication to fulfilling the vision for QIS was second-to-none. Today, it is being used by thousands of Christian childcare projects and programmes, which together are benefiting millions of children at risk.

In some small way, it’s testimony to what God can do when someone gives birth to a vision that He has planted in them.

Learning to let go

Throughout this time, apart from some back pain, which originated from muscles that had been displaced during her operation, she seemed well. She became an advocate for enjoying the simple things in life, especially the people around her.

Her relapse happened quickly.

A scan towards the end of 2005 suggested that there might be some minor problems, but did not propose any immediate action. By the end of that year, Karen was in hospital with breathing problems. A tumour just as vigorous as that of the previous year had invaded her lung.

While many believed that she might be healed again, she pointed out that God had given her the two additional years of life that He had promised her.

Her last few days were spent in a hospice. Her deterioration was sudden. Nobody had expected her to go so quickly.

Towards the end, Martin asked her whether, when Jesus called her home, she would like him to ask Jesus to bring her back to life. (Being South African, he had seen people raised from the dead, in the name of Jesus, so this wasn’t an unusual request.)

Karen’s reply, amusing as ever, was that she’d want Jesus to show her around so that she could see if she liked it first.

The next day, when she died, Martin marched round her bed praying, African-style, asking God to bring her back to life.

And then he heard Jesus whisper, “I’ve shown her round now Martin, and she likes it here.”

He knew what this meant and it enabled him to surrender and let her go, switching instead to marching round her bed and praising God for her life, much to the bemusement of the hospice staff.

Leaving a legacy

This year marks a decade since that fateful day when Karen was told she had cancer. And this week has seen the anniversary of her death. That’s why it feels timely to write about her.

Few lives have left so much fruit for those who follow after.

The seeds that Karen planted through her work will result in Christian children at risk projects and programmes which are better organised, which better support their staff, and hence which offer the hope of better lives for the children under their care.  Although Karen never had children of her own, through QIS, she has brought life to more children than she would ever have dreamed possible.

At her funeral, Martin gave an altar call to all those who had gathered to pay their respects. Many of them had no faith, and couldn’t understand how, if there was a loving God, why He had called Karen home so young. But Martin knew that Karen would have wanted those guests to hear the gospel message. That’s why he did it.

And who knows what seeds were planted that afternoon? Who knows how God has watered them in the subsequent years?

Of all the Bible readings from Karen’s funeral that day, this one from Hebrews 11: 13 spoke to me most, and it seems fitting to repeat it here: “All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth.

Karen knew heaven was her home. She knew where she was going.

For those of us who knew her, she was, and she remains, an inspiration.

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It’s important to remember

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day.

As darkness goes, the Holocaust was pretty dark.

There were 6 million Jews. There were also 5 million ‘others’. (Those who were deemed to be ‘racially inferior’ or ‘degenerates’ – Slavs, Roma Gypsies, disabled people, gay and lesbian people, anyone of African descent, Jehovah’s Witnesses, trade unionists and many more.) All of them killed en masse by the Nazis, and their collaborators, during World War II.

I didn’t really understand the horrors of World War II until I read The Diary of Anne Frank. I was a similar age to her at the time when I read it. Her story impacted me deeply.

Later, I read The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who, along with her father and other family members, helped many Jews escape the Holocaust, and then was imprisoned for it. Unlike many of her family members, she survived Ravensbruck death camp, determined to share what she had learned there: “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still,” and “God will give us the love to be able to forgive our enemies.

I remember feeling challenged: Would I be willing to risk everything for the sake of others? Did I believe that there was no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still?

Then I watched Schindler’s List, the film about the German businessman who saved the lives of more than a thousand Polish-Jewish refugees, by employing them in his factories.

Again, I found myself asking: Would I be willing to risk everything for the sake of others?

More recently, I came across Nicky’s Family, the film about Nicholas Winton, sometimes called the ‘British Schindler’. It tells of how he organised the rescue of hundreds of Czech and Slovak children on the Kindertransport, just before the outbreak of World War II. After the war, he didn’t tell anyone about his wartime rescue efforts. It was not until fifty years later, when his wife found a suitcase in the attic, full of identity documents and transport plans, that his moving story emerged.

Watching the film through tears, I once again found myself asking: Would I be willing to risk everything for the sake of others?

Corrie Ten Boom, Oskar Schindler and Nicholas Winton all inspire me. There is something about their courage and bravery; their selflessness and sacrifice; their willingness to risk everything for the sake of others.

It’s hard to believe that all of them regretted they didn’t do more, that they didn’t help more people.

Yet, to quote Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing,” and, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.

I’m glad that Ten Boom and Schindler and Winton didn’t do nothing. I’m glad they did the little they could. I’m glad they give us something to remember today.

The problem is that, all too often, good men do do nothing, and evil does indeed succeed.
We’re comfortable and complacent.
We’re not prepared to risk anything, let alone everything, for the sake of others.

Hugo Rifkind, in reflecting on a visit to Auschwitz, puts it so well: “You go, you see, and you acknowledge that horror can happen, and it can be vast, and that people can live just down the road from it, and pretend it isn’t there. And then you swear to yourself that you won’t ever allow yourself to forget – although a better word, really, would be “suppress” –  that this can happen, and did happen, and could, should we ever allow ourselves to stop talking about it, happen again.

From year to year, this horrific period in history recedes a little further into the past. But it’s important to remember.

For the sake of those who died.
For the sake of those who survived.
For the sake of their descendants.
For the sake of those, like Ten Boom and Schindler and Winton, who risked their lives to help.
For the sake of those, today, who are victims of persecution and genocide.

It’s important to remember because it reminds us to ask: Would we, would you, would I, be willing to risk everything for the sake of others?

God forbid that such a mass destruction of human life should ever happen again.

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How the light gets in

For years, those closest to  me have been urging me to share my stories and reflections, and to share them publicly, not just privately.

So much of my life experience seems to be about seeing, witnessing, hearing about, or living through, situations of pain and suffering, hopelessness and despair, poverty and injustice.

On face value, life can feel full of darkness.

Yet, as Leonard Cohen once famously said, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

Again and again, I have seen God shine into the darkness, reside in the midst of the darkness, dispel the darknessTime after time, I have experienced His life, power, glory, character, wisdom, and presence, breaking in and breaking through. 

Through this blog, I hope to be able to testify to the way God’s light always seems to find the cracks in the darkness: “The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (John 1:5, Holy Bible, New Living Translation)

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