Monday, 17 September 2012

An Unexpected Outpouring of Grace

This summer, we had our family caravan holiday in Pembrokeshire. It was a random decision taken last autumn as John browsed through the Caravan Club site directory and plumped for somewhere that was new to us and not too long a journey for me to cope with. What a beautiful area! What a fabulous coastline! We were staying near a headland called Strumble Head and I quite fell in love with it and its valiant, stubby lighthouse.

I was in very bad shape in the time leading up to the holiday and there was some real concern about the wisdom of going at all. Over the last few years we have always sought to see an upward trend in my illness, but were having to face the reality that I was definitely losing ground and becoming more limited and disabled by it, with constant, crippling pain and deadening exhaustion. Nevertheless, we decided to take the risk and go on holiday - thankfully!

We love being away in our caravan - the five of us plus Kingsley - Wigram sardines in a can! Every time we do it we know it could be the last, as the children are now aged 21, 19 and 16. I seemed to be coping ok and we thoroughly enjoyed family time together.

Our caravanning neighbours, aware of my situation, told John about a beautiful valley nearby that I might be able to enjoy from the car - the Gwaun Valley. We had a few false starts but then, one Saturday, John and I set off for a car tour. Indeed it was very lovely and we meandered along the roads taking in the different aspects of the valley until the need for a disabled toilet led us to a remote car park. As we turned into the car park, we noticed a driveway leading off to our right with a sign at the bottom - 'Ffald-y-Brenin'. I looked at John. He looked at me. Why was that name familiar? It too a good few minutes and then it suddenly dawned on me.

One of the unexpected blessings that God has given me through the time of my illness is a very special friendship with Sue and Sarah. Each week we meet together and pray together and encourage each other in our life with God. Recently Sarah had read a book called 'The Grace Outpouring' by Roy Godwin and Dave Roberts - the amazing story of God's work at Ffald-y-Brenin. She was excited and inspired by it and had given it to Sue to read. Just before we came away on holiday Sue had talked about Ffald-y-Brenin and, in particular, her longing to get me there somehow. All she had said was that it was somewhere in Wales. We realised that we had both assumed it was in North Wales. Could this really be the place? It just seemed too much of a coincidence not to investigate further.

Encouraged by a smaller sign that read 'Christian Retreat Centre', we headed up the long, steep driveway to find a group of buildings with an awesome view of the valley below. John went to explore and was reassured immediately that it was the right place as he discovered 'The Grace Outpouring' for sale in the reception area. It became evident that there was no one in charge to talk to that afternoon, but a day visitor assured him that it would be no problem for us to come one day simply to spend some time there. We decided immediately that we would do that before the end of our holiday. Before leaving, however, John got me out of the car and took me in my wheelchair into the reception area. Amazingly the peace of the place began immediately to pervade my soul. It was impossible not to recognise that this was one of those 'thin places' familiar from celtic spirituality where the veil between heaven and earth seems to dissolve.

As we lingered there something caught my eye amongst the resources for sale. It was a simple slice of a tree branch with the shape of the cross cut out of it. In an instant it spoke volumes to me - of womb and tomb and all that makes up life between the two; of the pain and the joy that colours us and shapes us; and of the cross that reaches to the very depths and rawness of our human experience, bringing the hope and promise of life bursting through with resurrection power...

For the last year, Sue and Sarah and I have been supporting each other in engaging day by day with the Ignatian Exercises as laid out in a wonderfully accessible way in Larry Warner's book, 'Discovering the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius'. It has been really good for us in different ways, rooting and establishing us deeply in God's love and enlivening our relationship with Jesus as we have travelled through the Gospel stories from incarnation to crucifixion and beyond. At this point I had just spent a few weeks meditating on the suffering, agony and death of Jesus - arduous weeks that had shaken me to the core. Now I was beginning to turn towards the resurrection with a sense of shuddering, anticipatory joy. Somehow this piece of wood with its cross-shaped hole connected deeply with all of this.

So we bought it and headed back to the caravan. In the days that followed, as I spent time with this resurrection cross and absorbed myself in the resurrection appearances of Jesus, I became aware of a growing longing in me to meet the risen Jesus in a new way, whatever that might mean.

Meanwhile, John phoned Ffald-y-Brenin on Monday to arrange for us to spend a day there. Speaking to Daphne he began to ask about accessibility, explaining that I was in a wheelchair because of M.E. Her response rather took him by surprise, "Oh - we've had so many people here healed from M.E.!" I think that was the moment that John first realised that God might really be up to something! Anyway, after further conversation it emerged that Thursday would work out best from their point of view and that she and Roy would be willing to pray with us if we wanted them to. We were due to be returning home on Friday so it was quite a mad thing to do for me to go somewhere for the day before coping with the journey home the following day - but then 'much madness is divinest sense'! (Emily Dickinson)

Thursday morning came and my state of mind is perhaps best described by words I wrote in my journal before getting up and getting ready to head off to Ffald-y-Brenin:

Thursday 2nd August - 8am
..."Here I sit in our caravan bed with the sound of the kettle heating slowly for early morning tea, wondering what today will hold.
Will I meet the risen Jesus?
Will there be healing?
I am afraid to hope, in case of the deadening disappointment that might follow. And yet hope is rising and trembling...
Maybe it is time - God's time - for me, for encounter, connection, embracing, healing? Am I ready? Oh yes! I want to be. I am nervous. I am afraid. I don't know what it would mean but, yes, if is is your time today for me - I am here. Help me to be open, to believe, to receive you and whatever you are wanting to give me.
What do I want?
To meet the risen Jesus.
To believe and not doubt.
To be really healed from M.E.
Could it possibly be my time, my day? God's time, God's day for me?"

We said 'goodbye' to David, Hannah, Peter and Kingsley and drove off gently. On the journey we tentatively shared our hopes and longings. More than anything we were both desperately longing for a close encounter with Jesus - but that trembling sense that the day was also somehow about my M.E. and healing persisted. Perhaps the turning of the tide? Perhaps more than that...?

Arriving at Ffald-y-Brenin we discovered there were lots of people coming and going and I found it quite disorientating, but I do remember one lovely lady saying to me, "I hope you receive everything you've come for and more!" Not much was accessible in the wheelchair and John had his work cut out for him getting me into the Prayer Room. I began to fear that it would all prove to be too much for me but, as we settled into some welcome quietness, that amazing peace that had been so evident before began to settle into me. Ffald-y-Brenin means 'the sheepfold of the King' and it felt like being embraced and held secure within that sheepfold.

We spent the best part of a couple of hours together in the silence - praying, writing, resting, waiting. I was just realising that the trembling hope within me had almost imperceptibly become a trembling trust - a trust that I was God's and he was there for me - when the door opened and Roy and Daphne came in.

We talked a little to introduce ourselves, but talking seemed somehow unnecessary because God was there in such a tangible way. I do remember Roy speaking a bit about others they had seen healed from M.E. in a way that gave me confidence that they really did know about M.E. and in a way that stirred faith in us. Then I remember him looking at me directly and saying, "Rachel, this is your time! This is your day!" Echoing so exactly what I had been writing and wondering in the morning, it took my breath away. Then he asked me, "Rachel, do you want to be healed?" I felt the quiver of the nerves, the fear, the uncertainty that I had also written about, all totally eclipsed by the overwhelming desire to be free and well.  I found myself saying, "What must I do?"

My memory of what followed is a little jumbled as I was totally caught up in it all! Roy led me in prayer in a way that felt very significant and definite. I remember Daphne saying something like, "You've been saying 'enough is enough'. (I have, in exactly those words!) You're  not the only one. Today God says, "Enough is enough!"' Then, after a very short time, Roy said, "I think you should get out of that wheelchair."

Up until then, and for the last 5 years, despite a good deal of reluctance on my part, the wheelchair had been the absolutely necessary and right place for me to be. In that moment, quite suddenly, it was not. I replied, "So do I!" and prepared to stand up. As I did, I felt strength rising from the soles of my feet upwards, lifting me up and out. I stood. I walked a few steps. And then I leapt and danced. I couldn't help it. I was vaguely aware of John with tears rolling down his cheeks as I cavorted around.

After a bit Roy continued to pray - very thoroughly and quite graphically - cutting off and pulling out all the roots of M.E. going back 32 years and beyond; punching out the teeth from the massive jaws of M.E. that have been clamped around me for so long; healing the wounds left by the teeth with the soothing, cleansing water of the Holy Spirit; praying for strength to go on rising, for joy to increase, for permanent and complete freedom and healing from all the symptoms and causes of M.E... It was both powerful and effective and kind of fun!

Meanwhile Daphne had disappeared for a few minutes. She returned with a brightly coloured skipping rope that she felt God had told her to give to me. I promptly skipped a few times with it and spent the rest of the day with it hanging around my neck. I have it by me here as I write this as a visual reminder of all that God has done.

The time for midday prayers for all who were staying at Ffald-y-Brenin was fast approaching by this point. Of one mind, we decided to fold up my wheelchair and put it on the table in the middle of the Prayer Room, resting on the Bible with the Cross on the top. Roy and Daphne recognised that John and I were in a bit of a state of shock and not quite ready to face everyone else yet - so they sent me off to make us a cup of tea! Oh the joy of walking out of the room by myself, down a few steps into the next room, boiling the kettle and making a mug of tea for us both. So wonderfully ordinary and just exactly what we needed! I guess it goes without saying that midday prayers exploded with joy and celebration!

Rather a lot later we took ourselves off to eat our packed lunch in the car, still bubbling over with thankfulness and also reeling with shock and amazement. Now we faced a bit of a dilemma - we desperately wanted to get back to the caravan to tell the children what had happened, but we also knew we needed a bit more time at Ffald-y-Brenin to settle into God and what he had done. In the end we decided to stay for a while.

First stop was the amazing chapel, which would have been totally inaccessible to me earlier in the day! As I sat in there, this is some of what I wrote in my journal:

Thursday 2nd August - 2.30pm
"Wow! Alleluia! I am in a state of amazed shock sitting here with a brightly coloured skipping rope around my neck. Just before midday prayers Roy and Daphne came to pray with me and John. Amazing! In very little time I was out of my wheelchair and dancing wildly. Strength rising. Freedom rampaging. Healing overwhelming my body and my mind and my spirit.
I can walk. I can jump. I can skip. I can sing.
Pretty much the first thing that Roy said to me was, "Rachel, this is your time, this is your day!" Also that he could see God's healing resting over me already as he came into the room. Also that he felt that the roots of M.E. were already loosened (Ignatian exercise, everyone's prayers...?) ready to be pulled out completely.
Daphne said something like, "Rachel, you have been saying 'enough is enough' (I have been saying exactly that). You are not the only one. God says 'enough is enough'!...
Daphne presented me with this skipping rope as a sign of what God has done and we plonked the wheelchair on top of the table in the middle of the room on top of the Bibles with the cross right on the top - just in time for everyone to come in for midday prayers. What a celebration!! What a sense of faith rising! What a sense of the risen Jesus in our midst! THANK YOU JESUS!!..."

Next stop was the high cross. We walked hand in hand, hardly able to take in what we were doing, along the path and up to the cross. Then we spent time chatting with  lots of people over another cup of tea before collecting my redundant wheelchair and heading off.

What joy to get back to our family and share what had happened. The last evening of our holiday was rather different to any other. We went for a walk together by the lighthouse - that's me walking and chatting with our children! We had fish and chips, shared a bottle of wine over a game of Trivial Pursuit and laughed a lot!

Packing up the next morning was fantastic. I could clean and sort things just as I wanted them! I could explore the field we'd been staying in for nearly three weeks and look at views I hadn't yet seen. Peter was heard to say more than once, "Mum's wandering off again - and she's singing!" The journey was fantastic as I travelled without pain and even stops at service stations were wondrous! It was so good to be able to jump out of the car and walk with Hannah into the normal ladies toilets rather than the torturous palaver that had previously been necessary. I remember sitting on the toilet saying, "Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!" Quite mad, I know! As we walked together into the service station shop, Hannah worked out that she was 13 years old the last time we had walked side by side into a shop together. She is now 19.

We got home, I joined in the unpacking and then John and I went to the local Tesco to stock up. I walked around the store feeling about 15 feet tall having spent so much time seeing everything from sitting down!

Since then I am going from strength to strength as I increasingly discover the fullness of what God has done and adjust to life being ridiculously and wonderfully different! This email that I sent to Ffald-y-Brenin a fortnight after our visit there sums it up:

Dear Roy & Daphne
Just over two weeks on from our visit to Ffald-y-Brenin, arriving in a wheelchair and leaving leaping and dancing, I thought it was high time I dropped you a line. After 32 years in the jaws of M.E. and particularly the last 5 incredibly limited, dark, painful, heavy years, I am free and life is a revelation. 
Everything seems wondrous - even hanging out the washing! I think one of the first things I said to you after God healed me was, "I'm tall!" Well, I'm continuing to discover that I really am quite tall and that the world is a wonderful place and HUGE! Having spent most of my time in one room of our house, only able to venture out occasionally in my wheelchair, the simple freedom to walk out of our front door opens up a whole new world. Now I can explore our house, our garden, and the valley we have lived in for the last 4 years that, up until now, has remained more or less unknown to me. It's so exciting. And, meanwhile, my wheelchair gathers dust in the shed!
Family life is transformed. Our 3 children (aged 21, 19 and 16) are overjoyed. Six days after we came to Ffald-y-Brenin it was our son's 21st Birthday. I suddenly realised I could make him a cake, so I did - in the shape of a computer game character. He was absolutely delighted. Then we all went out for a celebratory meal together, followed by a walk by the river and watching a film. What was impossible for me and therefore for us, suddenly and wonderfully possible.
After years of virtual isolation, reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones is such a profound joy. Telling and showing what God has done and speaking his blessing into the lives of others, there is a tangible sense of the flow of God's grace and the stirring of faith rising.
Every day I am overwhelmed with thankfulness and wonder as strength continues to rise and we explore and discover the full implications of what God has done. Three words from your Midday Prayer liturgy leapt out at me - Joyful, Simple, Gentle. I feel very much that God has given them to me to shape this time as I settle into the rhythm of this new and vibrant life.
Thank you for your hospitality, for your faithfulness, for taking me by the hand and leading me to Jesus.

I was reading Psalm 18 the other day and was grabbed by verse 19, "He brought me out into a spacious place." I feel like this is exactly what I am experiencing - God has brought me out into a spacious place. Alleluia!