Love lifted me

It is interesting to read the obituaries of people who have recently died. Many, who are not well-known, have lived very interesting lives. The obituaries usually do not give details of the cause of death and often make no reference to the person’s faith in God. However, the Daily Telegraph recently published an obituary of Joan Winmill Brown, who died at the end of June at the age of 89. I had never heard of the lady, but her story was unusual.

Joan was a successful actress. In the years following World War II, when she was a rising star of the British stage and screen, she was introduced to Bobby Kennedy. He was attracted to the beautiful young actress and she became his secret girlfriend. When Bobby’s father, Joe Kennedy, found out about their relationship he ordered his son to end it. Their break-up, in early 1950, hit Joan hard; she sank into a depression during which she drank too much. She even considered suicide. She said, “At that time my world fell apart, but in hindsight I don’t believe I truly loved him. I think I was infatuated with his aura of wealth as much as the man himself.”

In 1954, a friend persuaded Joan to go to a Billy Graham Crusade in Harringay Arena. She recalled, “As I walked in the crowds were singing Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. I didn’t get it at all.” That night she was introduced to Ruth Bell, Billy Graham’s wife, and a lifelong friendship began that helped turn Joan’s life around. Later Joan received Jesus as her personal saviour and said, “God in Jesus showed me the way to happiness.” In 1952, she met Billy Brown whom she married. They both worked with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and, after they retired, lived in Hawaii. Billy died just a few months before Joan.

A hymn often sung at Billy Graham Crusades well expresses Joan’s testimony; “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry, from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. All my heart to him I give, ever to him I’ll cling, in his blessed presence live, ever his praises sing. Love so mighty and so true, merits my soul’s best songs. Faithful, loving service, too, to him belongs. Love lifted me! Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, Love lifted me!

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away

This week there will be a debate in the House of Lords on a Bill to legalise “assisted dying” which would allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to terminally-ill patients. If passed, the law would apply only to those who it is judged have less than 6 months to live and would have to be signed off by two doctors. The patient would administer the substance themselves, although they would be able to receive help if they could not lift or swallow it. So the Bill would legalise assisted suicide.

Compassion is at the centre of the debate. What is the compassionate thing to do for someone who is terminally ill and, possibly, in great pain? Over my years in the ministry I have pastorally cared for many people in such situations and their families. I have witnessed the amazing courage of terminally-ill people and seen the loving care of their families which has surrounded them. The skill and commitment of the medical team and the palliative carers has been wonderful to see. Even though everyone involved knows that death is drawing near, they have committed themselves to showing compassion and love to the dying person.

The proposed Bill presents a very different picture of compassion. When a terminally ill person feels they cannot go on those who are with them, both family and medical team, will agree that the compassionate thing to do is to allow them to end their life, even though they may have as much as six months to live. Lethal drugs will be prescribed and, then, the person, either on their own, or with assistance from those nearest to them will take the drugs and, within a short time, die. A husband or wife or son or daughter will have to live with the realisation that they played an active role in the death of someone they loved very deeply.

As I have visited terminally ill people it has been amazing to see how God has wonderfully sustained them. He has given them grace to face each day as they have experienced the deep love of their family and friends. When, finally, they have died the family had no sense of guilt but have been able to trust God to comfort them in their deep sense of loss. They could say with Job, when he suffered great personal loss in the death of all his children, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Do not be anxious about anything

A report from The Mental Health Foundation provides an insight into the extent of depressive illness in Britain today. 1 in 4 people experience a mental health problem in the course of a year, with anxiety and depression being the most common. 1 in 10 children have a mental health problem, and depression affects 1 in 5 older people. Women are more prone to anxiety and depression than men, but suicide rates are 3 times higher amongst men than they are amongst women.

The Bible provides real help to those who are anxious and depressed. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Paul knew that it is not helpful to simply tell people not to worry, so he gave good advice about what we should do. When we are anxious or afraid we should pray to God. We should talk to God about “everything” – big things and small things. When we pray, we should give thanks, remembering all the good things God has given us. We can thank him for the gift of life, a beautiful world, our family and friends, food and clothing, and his amazing love shown in the gift of his Son, Jesus. This puts our situation into a proper perspective, because when we are anxious and depressed we tend to forget all the wonderful blessings God has given us.

Then we can ask him for his help and strength to face our problems. Anxiety and fear can paralyse us, but God can help us to overcome them. When we pray, God also gives us his peace, which transcends all understanding. Some years ago I visited a friend who had suffered a heart attack. He was in the coronary care unit and I could see his monitor. I asked him whether the doctors had told him when he would be able to go back to work. Immediately his heart rate jumped to double the rate it had been, although there was no apparent change in his face. He was obviously very anxious about the future. We read together Psalm 56, verse 3, “When I am afraid, I will trust in you.” Then we prayed and asked God to take away his anxiety about the future and to give him his peace.

The God of Hope

The news that someone we love has taken their own life is devastating. I have ministered to families facing such a tragic loss. Some had been aware that the one who died was depressed, but, for others, there had been no indications. Some felt a sense of guilt because they had not been able to help. Others felt angry that the one who died didn’t think of the consequences their loved ones would have to face. All feel an overwhelming sadness at the loss they have experienced and a sense of the helplessness of being unable to do anything to change the situation.

In the past 45 years suicide rates worldwide have increased by 60%. The World Health Organisation estimates that one million people die by suicide every year – one person every 40 seconds. By 2020 this rate may have doubled. In the USA suicide is the third highest cause of death for young people between 15 and 24. The Samaritans report that suicide rates in the UK are increasing amongst men born in the 1960s and 70s and suggest that the changing role of men in our society may be a contributing factor.

When the apostle Paul was in Philippi he and Silas were severely flogged and put in prison. The jailer was told to guard them carefully, so he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in stocks. If his prisoners escaped, he would be executed. At midnight, while Paul and Silas we’re singing hymns to God, there was a violent earthquake. The prison doors flew open and everybody’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up and, thinking his prisoners had escaped, drew his sword to kill himself.

Paul shouted to him, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul asking, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.” The jailer brought Paul and Silas into his house, bathed their wounds, and gave them food. Then he was baptised and was full of joy because he had believed in Jesus.

This story shows that when we come to the point of utter despair we are not seeing things clearly. When it seems there is no hope, there always is. God is the God of hope. He saves from death, destruction and despair. He can give us joy again even out of the deepest darkness.

God is our refuge and strength

Some new stories are very sad and reveal how vulnerable we all are when we are exposed to exceptional pressure. Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse at King Edward VII hospital who answered a prank phone call from two Australian DJs, took her own life just 3 days later. Frances Andrade, a mother of 4 sons and a very talented violinist, committed suicide after giving evidence against the music teacher who abused her when she was a teenager. Both Jacintha and Frances were living fulfilled lives until they were subjected to pressures with which they could not cope. Both deaths are tragic and have devastated the families.

The apostle Paul was once imprisoned in Philippi. He and his friend, Silas, were in the deepest cell with their feet fastened in stocks. At midnight there was an earthquake which shook the foundations of the prison. All the prison doors flew open and the chains of every prisoner fell off. The jailer woke up and, seeing the prison doors open, assumed the prisoners had escaped. He drew his sword and was about to kill himself when Paul shouted to him, “Don’t do it! We are all here!”

Under great pressure the jailer made a mistake, which any of us can do. He had experienced an earthquake, saw the prison doors open, and assumed all the prisoners had escaped when, in fact, none of them had. All of us can be brought to a situation where we are in the depths of despair and feel there is no way forward, no hope for the future. It is so important to be sure we have really understood the whole situation. It is easy to think that we need to do something drastic and to do it now!

It is also important to be able to talk to those who love us, our family and friends. Feelings of despair and hopelessness are strongest when we are alone. Those who are tempted to take their own lives often feel that everyone would be happier if they were not around, but nothing could be further from the truth. We can also ask God to help us and give us strength. He is a refuge for all in need. One hymn writer, who had experienced great troubles, wrote, “How oft in the conflict, when pressed by the foe, I have fled to my refuge and breathed out my woe! How often, when trials like sea-billows roll, have I hidden in Thee, O Thou rock of my soul!”

Dying with Dignity

An unofficial Commission has recently reported on the subject of assisted dying/suicide. The Commission was chaired by Lord Falconer, a former Justice Secretary, and was funded by Sir Terry Pratchett, the well known author, who has Alzheimer’s disease. The Commission was set up because those involved felt the present law, which makes assisted dying illegal, is “inadequate.” Most of the members of the Commission were known to be in favour of legalising assisted dying/suicide.

The recommendations of the Commission were that, in certain circumstances, assisted dying should be legalised. If a person is over 18, has a terminal illness, and is not expected to live more than 12 months, they should be permitted to kill themselves, provided they are not mentally impaired and are able to make a voluntary decision. The person would also need to be independently assessed by two doctors before being given the medicine to end their lives. The Commission believed there was a “strong case” for this procedure to be legalised. Many people refused to give evidence to the Commission, including the BMA, who said the majority of doctors do not want to legalise assisted dying.

This is a very important subject for any civilised society. Since the 1967 Abortion Act was passed there have been 7 million abortions in the UK. Mothers expecting babies whom tests reveal have a disability are routinely encouraged to abort them so that the child will not become a drain on resources. Now it is being proposed, in the guise of being caring and allowing freedom of choice, that the terminally ill be helped to “die with dignity.” This is a serious issue for us all.

It is very important that we affirm the sanctity of every human life. We all bear the image of God and have an eternal soul. The way we care for the terminally ill and elderly affirms the value we set on every individual person. I have often witnessed the loving care of families and medical staff for those who are dying. When life is drawing to an end it means so much to be surrounded by our loved ones. The excellent care now available in hospitals and hospices eases the final days for many. Long may this loving care continue. How tragic it would be if the law allowed people to ask their doctors to give them a fatal dose of drugs so that they can commit suicide.

When bad things happen

Some news stories are heart breaking. A few weeks ago a man in our town went into the hairdresser’s shop where his estranged wife worked and shot her with a shotgun. She was seriously wounded and has only recently been released from hospital. After shooting his wife the man went to local woods near their home and killed himself. A few days after his mother came out of hospital the couple’s 16 year old son hung himself in the same woods where his father died, and where his ashes had been scattered.

The background to this tragic situation is that the couple had separated and the wife wanted a divorce. The husband was angry and decided to shoot her. As he entered the hairdressers shop he shouted “I love you!” and then shot her. It is not clear whether he decided to kill himself beforehand or made this decision after he had shot his wife. I’m sure it never occurred to him that his actions would lead to the death of their son, who was a sensitive boy and was deeply affected by what happened.

Life can be very difficult. When big problems come it can be hard to see our way past them. Problems in family relationships are especially painful. When we are in the midst of the problem it may seem that life is not worth living. We may even think that everyone would be better off if we were not around, but that is never true. Our lives, especially in the family, are closely intertwined and suicide is devastating for all who are near to us. Those who are left often feel guilty and think they are responsible for what has happened or that they should have done something to help.

So what should we do when we find ourselves in desperation? It’s important to talk to someone we trust and to seek their help. It is also important to pray to God for his help. In Psalm 34 we read, “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” A well-known hymn says, “Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness: take it to the Lord in prayer. In his arms he’ll take and shield you, you will find a solace there.” So don’t give up hope. With God there is always a way forward from where we are.