What have I done to deserve this?
It’s the summer of 1993 and the sun is bright today, lighting the distant Firth of Forth and its famous bridge; below us the city of Edinburgh is half-hidden by the wooded hills. We are on holiday, joined this afternoon by friends from Glasgow, Felicity and her parents.
And look – the ten-year-old takes her father’s hand as they walk, trot, then run as fast as they can together across the grassy slopes. There’s nothing strange in that happy family scene, is there? Well, yes there is because for eighteen months Felicity has been totally blind.
One of my tasks that month was to write some new hymn-texts based around the letter to the Philippians. I made many scribbles about life and death, profit and loss, need and contentment, but the image of a father and daughter kept dancing across the page. After several drafts and re-writes, a hymn was born which included this verse addressed to Christ:
In risk or safety, be my friend:
I place my hand in yours,
with you to rest, or wait, or walk,
or run with all my powers.
A progressive illness was slowly reducing Felicity’s speech, mobility and freedom, but at school she still played the flute. She lived at home until aged twenty, when she needed more care than even mum and dad could provide.
It’s now the winter of 2010 and a packed congregation in one of Glasgow’s evangelical churches gathers to thank God for the life of one of their most influential members. Although Felicity’s latter influence was largely passive, this severely disabled young lady had an enormous effect on others.
So hundreds of us stood to sing this hymn, opening the service from which (as I write now) I returned six days ago. The tributes to Felicity were sorrows laced with laughter, rich in Christian confidence and refreshingly honest: ‘If I wasn’t a Christian,’ said her father, ‘I would be a drunk’. Mum and dad had seen dark days and nights, having already lost their elder daughter from a different, sudden illness years before.
Such lives and deaths raise many questions. Unbelief looks at our grief and demands, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’. Faith looks at the cross and wonders, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’. But no-one can question how God has blessed that church with that family; that family with those daughters and a married son; and this daughter with gifts of trust in Christ, music, creativity, a mind of her own, and warm loving.
‘Hey!’ she would greet the assembled morning congregation, emerging from the lift in her wheelchair. ‘She got away with it,’ said dad, ‘although this is, after all, the Church of Scotland!’ Would anyone care to continue this work of enthusiastic encouragement, he wondered? Felicity loved her Lord and her church, engendering love in a great range of others, within the Christian community and far beyond it.
Safe in God’s hands
Many of us know households something like this; we may even be part of one. Each situation is unique, but what’s the common factor between such families? God brings joy and wholeness irrespective of the physical healing which is naturally our first prayer request.
Nearer my home was an elderly unbeliever who had been given hours to live in the week when his son, a baptist pastor, was preaching on judgement and hell in a long-planned series. Did anyone pray for his recovery? The church prayed for his conversion. God graciously answered by granting both, and then he was baptised; ask yourself, which was the greater miracle? Peter is still largely wheelchair-bound, but I have this week been privileged to share in the now-regular Bible-study meeting in his home.
No Christian family would wish to prevent birth, hasten death or unduly delay it, endure unnecessary agony, nor presume to know better than our sovereign, merciful God whose beloved Son was not spared the most appalling suffering of all. If that had a purpose which all of us can grasp while none can share, the purposes of His children’s pain are also safe in God’s hands.
Philippians 1 allows for death as a possibility; Hebrews 11 illustrates the varied triumphs of faith, whether over disaster or through it. From that Edinburgh/Glasgow hymn, again:
In calm or crisis, be my hope
and take my mind in hand:
so shall I trust you, even where
I cannot understand…
O Christ my help, my hope, my joy,
my all-enduring Friend,
all that I am belongs to you
who loved me to the end.
Christopher Idle is a retired Anglican minister in Bromley, Kent.