It had been a long, tiring day for Andy McLeod. He spent most of his working time driving trains rather than being a passenger. His work would include the Cornish branch lines; and he loved it. He loved Cornwall, the people, the scenery, the beaches, and the job itself was satisfying. And yet, at the same time, he was homesick for his beloved Scotland – the lochs, the real mountains … and the snow in winter.
So, he was travelling `home` for a spring break, going to a little settlement not far from Inverness; well away from towns, cities and tourism. It was all very exciting and Andy looked forward to renewing friendships with people he had not seen for 20 years or so, although they had remained in contact through the annual round of Christmas messages.
He sat at the dining table of a guest house in Inverness. The cheerful, portly landlady had, as promised on the telephone, prepared him a hot meal to await his arrival in the Highland capital. The following day would be the final leg of his journey, by `bus. That could not happen until the morning, for Andy had arrived well past the time of the last departure of the day.
The warmth of the welcome he received was extraordinary. How often would one be offered a wee dram of Glenfiddich to sip with an after dinner coffee?
Feeling replete and happy, Andy studied the little card he had been given, back in Truro, two days previously. The message on it meant a great deal to him, and he knew he would be able to share the story of the `man with the cards` with most of his friends over the course of the next few days. They would regard the Cardman with respect, as Andy certainly did.
A foretaste of heaven
Andy McLeod arrived at Inverkirgie by mid-morning, the next day. The old, single-decker `bus had rattled its uncomfortable way along a narrow, economically maintained lane that, with each bump, seemed to be taking it ever further from civilisation, as if on some macabre, one-way mission.
As it approached a crossroads, where the evidence of life could be detected by a nearby, shabby, rusty, red telephone box, the driver called out, `Inverkergie.`
Andy climbed down from the `bus and the driver pointed to the left-hand track, `Go that way for about a mile and a half and you`ll come to a wee cottage by the loch. That`s the place you want.` And with that, the `bus moved off in a cloud of dust, bouncing, almost at will, along the lane that would eventually reach some small settlements, and even a town with tarmac roads.
Andy felt a mixture of excitement and anticipation. He looked around at views he had never seen before – the lush green from the rains of late winter and early spring shared centre stage with the dusty track and sun-baked ruts, upon which he enthusiastically stepped out, carrying his weathered rucksack upon his back.
The morning sun, uninterrupted by a cloudless sky, was a welcome companion as he walked. The air was clear with an unspoilt freshness, unpolluted by motor cars, and there was a slight chill which gave a hint of warning that it was not yet summer. He did not know this part of the Highlands well and had no idea what to expect when he would finally reach the cottage to which his friend, Angus, would regularly escape from the rigours of life as a Minister in Edinburgh.
When he glimpsed his first, distant sight of it, Andy stopped almost in awe at the beauty of the landscape laid out before him. A tiny, wooden, single storey dwelling, sat, silently engulfed in a breath-taking panorama of sturdy oaks and firs and, as a backcloth, a range of mountains of indistinct purples and greys that blended with the light blue, translucent sky. And there, in between the cottage and the distant mountains, the deeper blue of the loch. If he had been a religious man he may have said a prayer at this point. And yet, his deep appreciation for the vista before him was, in itself, a prayer, although he would not have recognised it as such.
Andy walked steadily closer to the cottage, soaking in the sheer beauty of the scene ahead of him; the succulent greens of the meadows and the sentinel woodland that gently swayed in the light breeze; the yellows, pinks and blues of the wild flowers, dotted haphazardly in the fields. And then he reached the cottage; no hedge or fencing to state its boundaries; no gate to open; just a neatly mown lawn to differentiate between the public lane and the private. A dusty and battered, maroon Land Rover, parked nearby, gave evidence of life within.
The harsh sound of the brass door knocker was like an unwanted predator in the totally surreal tranquillity. The door was opened almost immediately and there stood Angus, his right arm stretched out to welcome his expected guest. A larger than life figure; reddened, outdoor face, behind a fluffy white beard; searching, busy eyes that glistened with mischief; a smile that rolled back the years which, without words, said `come in, friend.`
Angus shook Andy`s hand, enthusiastically. `Andrew, my brother, how are you?` he asked, not just as a greeting but genuinely wanting to know.
`Fine, fine, thank you. I`ve been admiring this wonderful view. Fancy living in a place like this …,` he replied, incredulously.
`Well, I don`t live here all the time. This is my bolt hole … a place I come, to get away from the establishment and the big city.`
`Not your parishioners?` Andy asked, almost glibly.
`No … well, not many, anyway. Although, I do need to allow myself some space. You have to look after yourself as well, you know,` Angus reflected, `so many ministers burn themselves out by giving so much and not taking care of either themselves or their families. Many, today, think they have to give away all of themselves to either the Kirk, as an institution, or to the Kirk as the people. Indeed,` Angus continued, almost speaking to himself rather than to his newly-arrived friend, `there are times when one has to give everything of oneself to others – that`s right, of course – but there has to be a balance. And this, Andrew, is my balance.`
`It`s some difference from the city?` Andy remarked as he sat down on a small cottage chair, from which Angus had lifted a pile of newspapers and glossy magazines.
`Yes, I must admit,` Angus continued, thoughtfully, `I seem to be drawn here more and more these days. Being a widower now is lonely most of the time, but strangely it seems better when I`m really alone … if you see what I mean.`
Andy nodded. He could not remember how long ago Angus` wife had died, but he did know it was sudden. He asked, with concern, `so how are things for you, Angus?`
`Much the same, really. I have good days and bad days. On the good ones I thank God for the time that Bonny and I shared together; on the bad ones, I shout and rant and tell Him that it isn`t fair.` Angus paused. `She was only 38, you know,` he said softly, honouring the precious life that he so missed.
`Anyway …` he continued with a sigh, his eyes filled with the tears that so often fell from the big man`s face, especially when he was focused upon his relentless shadow. `Anyway, it has been nearly four years now …` He walked off into the small kitchen, and called back, `do yer want a cup of tea?`
`That would be nice, thanks.`
`The peak right over there,` Angus pointed through the window to the range of mountains on the far side of the loch, `is called Bonstable`s Nook. I`ve climbed it more than once. And I`ve sat on the top and looked down over this wee cottage. It`s a good thinking place. Everything looks so small from the top. Insignificant. I`ve had some of my best talks with the Almighty up there. Peering down at this place seems to put everything into perspective. What am I? I ask myself. What am I in the bigger picture of earth and heaven?`
The two men stood in silence looking at the majestic view. Andy wondered what he should say, if anything. His world was less poetic, although he knew about shadows that haunt by day and night. Indeed, he knew about shadows; he knew only too well.
`Let`s go for a ride on the loch`, Angus suggested, spontaneously, bringing his thoughts firmly back to the present and this time with his friend. `I`ve got a mooring, and a rowing boat … just the thing to get us to that wee island over there,` he enthused, pointing his left hand to a small isle, just visible, camouflaged against the mountain`s backcloth.
Soon they were on the clear, clean water of the loch.
`It`s called MacKennan`s Isle. MacKennan was the laird, many years ago,` Angus explained above the sound of the oars dipping in and out of the calm water. `I think it`s the sole reason my family had this boat … to get over there. In my childhood I spent most of my holidays on that island. Amazing place,` Angus laughed, his whole body erupting with the precious memories of long summer days and camps, before adulthood took away the innocence and freedom of childhood.
`I seem to have spoken only about me since you arrived, Andrew. So … how are you?` Angus called out.
`Fine, absolutely fine.`
Angus, although busy with the rowing, did not fail to spot the hint of untruth in Andy`s reply; but he decided to leave it be until they were safely on MacKennan`s Isle. The remainder of their short voyage was spent in silence.
Andy looked, in awe, at the absolute beauty all around him, filling not only his mind with an unexpected and welcome peace, but reaching his heart and the innermost part of his being. Is this what paradise is made of? From the light blue of the sky to the deeper hue of the loch, and in between, this was the kind of heaven that Andy had known from his Scottish upbringing. It was, truly, a wonderful `homecoming` and yet the lingering shadow of the present time even pervaded into this perfect day.
With the boat safety tied to the trunk of an ancient oak – the island`s makeshift mooring – the two men sat on a grassy bank, looking back from where they had come. After a few minutes of silence, Angus quietly turned to his friend and apologised, `I`ve been preaching to you ever since you arrived here; bombarding you with what`s going on for me.`
`That`s okay, Angus. You obviously had a need to talk.`
`Aye, just a bit. So, Andrew, how are things for you down in the far west of England? I mean, how are you, really?` The question was asked. Andy instantly felt transparent, as if Angus had read his mind or could even see his dark shadow that enveloped him. But there was no reply.
Angus asked, after a courteous pause, `How`s Lydia?`
`She`s well, thank you … very well.` Why had Andy the need to emphasise that she was well, as if Angus had some misguided knowledge to the contrary and needed to be corrected?
`And the girls?` Angus enquired further, `how are they?.`
`Okay.` There was some doubt in Andy`s voice. He changed the subject immediately. `It was Lydia`s idea that I should take this holiday,` he offered.
`This amazing view makes all the travelling worthwhile … I can`t imagine anywhere I`d rather be, right now.`
`It does that for me,` Angus agreed, `I imagine this as a foretaste of heaven; and yet, I believe what`s in store for us is even more beautiful than this …`
Andy picked up on the inclusive language. `You said “us”. Do you include me in that?`
`Of course, why shouldn`t I?`
Andy looked down at the grass beneath his feet and pondered upon this question. Eventually he replied, `I`m not a religious man, Angus. I have never gone to church regularly. I don`t own a Bible; I can`t see its relevance for me; whatever I`ve heard seems so distant and of no bearing on my life. How can I expect to be allowed to share the same `heaven` as you – you who are a good man, and a minister in the Church?`
Angus laughed. `Me … good? You must be joking, laddy. I`m not good. I`m no more good than anyone else – none of us are good, perhaps with a few exceptions like Mother Theresa; although, if she were alive, and with us now, she might very well say the same as I have.`
`So what is good?`
Angus thought for awhile, handling a long blade of grass between his fingers. `See this piece of grass,` he eventually answered, `it was alive because it was attached to its root, somewhere in the ground. Now that I`ve broken it off, it will die. And that will be the end of it. In time, it will just whither and rot.` He threw the grass to one side in a theatrical jester to emphasise his point.
`We are not the same,` he continued, `for this time here on earth, though beautiful in itself, is just a beginning, just a preparation for what lies ahead.`
`You seem very sure about this,` Andy observed.
`Oh yes, I am. The Bible, which you say is an irrelevance to you, speaks much about life after death; about, what we call, resurrection.`
`I`m sorry, I didn`t mean to offend you about the Bible …`
`Andrew,` Angus interrupted, `you haven`t offended me. Quite the reverse, actually. You are being honest about yourself, about what the Bible means to you, of what Church means to you. And that is so important. You see, I`m not you. Who you are is to be honoured. You are unique, as unique as I am,` Angus laughed, `heaven forbid that there could be another identical me.`
Andy laughed, too. He felt unusually free, relaxed and there was an acceptance in Angus` words that spoke to him deeply, telling him that he mattered. Andy mattered. Was this what the Church taught? Was this what the Bible speaks of? All those stories that he learned in his childhood – Joseph being thrown into a pit; Moses being floated in a basket; someone, whose name he could not remember, being stoned to death. How does this help him? And yet, those gentle, non-judgemental words of Angus meant so much.
As if he could read Andy`s thoughts, Angus said, `I think you are finding all this a wee bit hard to swallow. Am I right?`
`Yes, just a little.`
Angus considered whether he could steer Andy back to what, he perceived, was the real issue for him. `How old are your girls?` he asked.
`Pru is 10 … and little Jo is … only seven …` Tears filled his eyes. Only seven. Angus looked out at the loch, its calmness always a therapy. `What`s wrong with Jo?` he asked, still looking away from Andy. There was an uncomfortable, expectant pause.
`You`re very perceptive, Angus. She`s been diagnosed as having leukaemia.`
`It seems so cruel, Angus,` Andy sobbed.
`Yes, very cruel,` Angus agreed, putting a brotherly arm around his friend. For 30 years he had known him. He remembered the first time Andy had mentioned Lydia. They were just school friends, then. But somehow it worked. And he was invited to their wedding, down in Lydia`s beloved Cornwall – she was 18 by then. Andy was one year older. Both teenagers. After that, Angus lost touch with them, except for the occasional letters. One arrived with the unexpected news that Prudence had been born; unexpected because years of unsuccessful trying for a family had been accepted as a fact of life. Their announcement was accompanied with so many words of joy and delight. Then, three years later, another reason for celebration … Joanna was born. But now, it seemed, the sweet flavour of joy was being replaced by the sour taste of potential loss.
Angus had never met Prudence or Joanna, but, in an instant of revelation, he visualised Jo and Jesus together. There was Jo, ill and suffering, being held in her daddy`s arms, and Jesus looking down at her from the Cross. And prayerfully, Angus whispered, through his tears and longing, `Lord, in your wounds hide her; in her wounds, be hidden.`
They sat quietly. Now was the time for silence. After a few minutes, without speaking, Andy removed the crumpled card from his jacket pocket, and passed it to Angus.
`Someone outside Truro Cathedral gave it to me, the day before yesterday,` Andy told him. Angus looked carefully at the photograph of winter ash trees with their bare branches pointing towards a clear, light blue sky, like naked arms stretching heavenward. And there, slanting its brilliant rays through them, was the sun, bringing sharpness to an otherwise indistinct picture. Angus considered this; his gift for poetry and writing led the experienced eye to look for something deeper; something that superficiality could miss. They were not just trees. In this was a message; nature clearly spoke to Angus; he was endowed with a unique gift.
`Turn the card over,` Andy urged, impatiently.
Angus did so. He read the words, then looked out across the loch as if searching for inspiration. Eventually, he asked, `Very helpful words. Do you find them so?`
`I haven`t been able to think of much else since this man gave me the card. Well, what do you think, Angus? After all, you`re the Church of Scotland minister; I thought you`d be able to explain it to me.`
`Does he know your situation?` Angus asked, thoughtfully.
`No. He doesn`t know me, or me him. All I know is that he stands outside the cathedral each day and gives out these cards to anyone who passes him by.`
`Seems an appropriate message for you, right now,` Angus said with reverence. And he read it aloud, `Jesus says, “Come to ME, you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” That seems to be personalised for you, Andrew. Note the emphasis on the “ME” and “will”,` he said pointing at the words. `What does that say to you?`
`I`m not sure.`
`Well, I would say the “will” is answering a question for you, or even arguing with you. Perhaps he knows that you don`t really believe that Jesus can give you rest or peace …`
`I`ve told you, I`m not a religious man,` Andy interrupted, defensively.
Angus could see that his friend was feeling uncomfortable with the conversation. `I don`t force my belief on anyone, especially friends who I haven`t seen for 20 years. I guess, sometimes, the church would rather I was more directive. But, that`s not me, Andrew. I preach at the Kirk on Sundays – when I`m there,` he chuckled, `but otherwise I wait to preach when I`m invited to do so.`
`I`m inviting you, now, Angus. I want to know more about this,` Andy insisted.
`Okay. But I want to know a little more about this man who gave you the card. He interests me. For one thing, did he give other people the same card as you? I don`t suppose you know.`
`Well, actually, I do. After I had been given mine, he did the same for a young lady with a baby in a buggy. I followed her away from the cathedral then asked her if I had the same message as she did. So, she showed me her card … it was not the same. The picture was, but the message on the back was different. I can`t remember the actual words, but I know they were different from mine.`
`Are you sure?`
`So did this man specially choose this card before he gave it to you?`
Andy thought, remembering that sunny day in Truro. There had been a kaleidoscope of summer colour, and he compared it to the present, where the two predominant hues were blue and green, filtered together in their multifarious shades and nuances.
Eventually he replied, `No, I don`t think he did. He just took this one out of his pocket as I passed him by, and, I noticed, the one for the lady following me, from the same pocket.`
`That`s extra-ordinary,` Angus mused. `Those words, from Matthew`s gospel, seem so personal to you. What is this man`s name?`
`I don`t know; no-one knows as far as I can tell. He`s just called the `man with the cards`.
`Extra-ordinary,` Angus repeated under his breath, staring out into the peace of the uncluttered world before him. There were, he guessed, so many unanswered questions, even in this remote escape in God`s kingdom. For many years here had been his secret place, where he would bring questions to which the answers seemed hidden. And yet, in the tranquillity of this heaven on earth, answers would form in his mind; sometimes unexpected answers that he would never have been able to conceive in haste or with the distractions of city life. Even so, there seemed no other answer that readily came to mind than that of extra-ordinary. This `man with the cards` is clearly someone special; perhaps an evangelist with a particular gift to impart … perhaps.
`So, can you help me understand what these words are telling me?` Andy asked, breaking into Angus` contemplation.
`Andrew, what do you know about the Christian faith?`
`Not much. I`ve never really been interested, what with my work and the family,` he said in his defence, assuming, wrongly, that Angus was judging him. `It`s all seemed so irrelevant, really.` That was then; but, now, its relevance was like a stranger tapping at the door of his insecurities. That stranger he recognised as the `man with the cards`.
Angus reflected upon the use of the word seemed; past tense. `You said seemed so irrelevant. Does it feel less irrelevant, now?`
`Well, I`ve never before been faced with a message like this; as you said, it seems to be aimed just at me. So, I`ve become interested all of a sudden,` Andy explained, surprised by his own admission.
`Let`s start with Jesus` crucifixion,` Angus suggested. `His death was necessary as the atonement for the sins of the world …`
`Hold on. Atonement? What`s that?`
`Sorry, I thought, for a moment I was back at the Kirk. It means as it`s spelt – at-one-ment; bringing all people, past, present and future, to God.`
`Hang on a minute, Angus, you`ve lost me already. How could Jesus, dying on the Cross, bring all people to God … and why was it necessary, anyway?`
`Good question. I`ll take your second one first, why was it necessary? We need to go back to the beginning of creation of humankind … to Adam and Eve.`
`In the Garden of Eden,` Andy interrupted, eagerly.
`Yes. Everything was beautiful, perfect, like we might imagine heaven to be. Well, along comes Satan and he seduces Eve into taking the apple …`
`From the tree that God said was forbidden.`
`Exactly, Andy. And that was the point at which sin entered the world. The perfect had now been corrupted. In time, God decided to start again – this is illustrated in the Bible with Noah and his family being told by God to build an ark; and then God flooded the world, getting rid of the corrupt human race.`
`Except Noah and his family,` Andy added.
`Indeed. Now, although the human race was all but wiped out, Satan was still at large …` And so the conversation continued late into the afternoon and, as the evening sun began to show signs of retreating from this beautiful day, Angus knew it was time to return across the loch to the cottage.
`So the words on the card?` Andy prompted, as the two men climbed into the rowing boat. `What are they saying to me?`
`Trust Him. Trust God – trust Jesus. He is alive, and you matter to Him.` Angus started to row away from the tiny island and watched as it gradually disappeared into the incumbent dusk. `The problem is, so many people don`t do that. They go it alone through life. It was this independence from God that attracted Eve to that apple. And it`s still the same today.`
The gentle movement of the water had a soporific affect; both men yawned as they neared the mooring.
`And the peace that comes from trusting in God,` Angus continued, offering a hand to steady Andy as he climbed from the boat, `is inexpressible.`
The last Sunday of May
The question of how and why is a mystery, known only to the Creator
`Did you sleep well, laddy?` Angus beamed as Andy McLeod staggered into the new day. Without waiting for a response, he asked, from behind his tartan apron, `do you want a bagel or two?`
`Yes, please,` Andy yawned. `You`re up early; couldn`t you sleep?`
`Too much to do … so, how many do you want?`
`Oh,` Andy hesitated, he did not like days that started with too many decisions. `Perhaps, two … if that`s alright?`
`Of course; no problem,` Angus said agreeably. `Tea or coffee?`
`Porridge,` Andy replied, absently.
`Okay. But you can`t drink porridge – you can`t mine, anyway. So what will it be, tea or coffee?` he repeated himself.
`Good, I thought you were in a parallel universe for a moment.` Angus laughed, his whole muscular body rocking from side to side.
Andy was not good in the morning. He always needed a gentle half hour, or so, to come to terms with the new day, irrespective of its light and beauty, or otherwise. That is the way he was. Conversely, Angus would rise from his bed almost immediately he awoke. It was normal for him, when he was at the cottage, to take a short walk before breakfast; to breathe in the crisp, cleansing Highland air. There always seemed to be a lot of it! But, on this day, with courtesy for his friend, he decided to forego his walk and, instead, set to work preparing breakfast.
`Do you ever think about air?` he asked Andy as he placed a bowl of porridge before him at the dining table.
`Yes … I suppose so … sometimes,` Andy replied, surprised by this odd question. When he returned again from the kitchen, Angus added, `that`s the point, Andrew. Sometimes, you said. It`s a good job the air is not available, just sometimes,` he laughed, `otherwise we`d not be able to enjoy this beautiful place for long, would we?`
`No, I suppose not,` Andy agreed, wondering what on earth Angus was talking about. `Do you have a `thing` about air, Angus?`
`Well, as a matter of fact, I do,` his host enthused, sitting down at the table. `The main problem is that we take it for granted. Where would we be if we didn`t have air?`
`Astronauts would agree with that,` Andy chipped in, enjoying the apparent lunacy of his friend.
`Indeed, they would. I imagine Neil Armstrong`s attitude towards air was different after his walk on the moon.`
Andy looked up from his porridge and thought about this more seriously. `Yes, Angus … I suspect he did. What an interesting thought.`
`I knew you`d think so,` Angus continued, as enthusiastic as a television scientist, gesticulating freely. `But think about this for a moment. We get up in the morning and the air is there for us to breathe in. We don`t think about it, we just do it; we go through the day breathing it; we go to bed at night still breathing it; we sleep, breathing, and then we go full circle, waking in the morning still breathing,` Angus finished with a crescendo.
`So what are you getting at?` Andy asked, perceiving that there was a deeper meaning in what Angus was saying.
`Ah, you clever man – you have detected a parable in all this. Substitute the word `air` with the `love of God`. That`s my message this morning.`
Andy thought about this. There was such a depth in Angus that Andy had not appreciated, even during their time together the previous day. One moment, Angus was glibly talking what appeared to be nonsense; the next, he had used those same words to illustrate a deep message. One moment, he was laughing; the next, he was totally serious. `You`re a bit of clown, aren`t you?` Andy asked.
Angus smiled, `thank you, Andrew. That`s a real compliment. The world needs clowns.`
They continued to eat their breakfast together without any further words until the last mouthful of bagel had been consumed.
`That was really good, thank you,` Andy said, appreciatively.
`You`re very welcome.` Angus collected the crockery and made for the kitchen. Before he reached the sink he was interrupted by a question from Andy, which made him return to the table immediately.
`If God loves us so much, why is Joanna dying?`
Angus sat down, again, at the dining table. He looked out of the large window that fully exploited the beautiful view of the loch. The morning was breath-taking. A clear, cloudless sky, tinged with the orange of sunrise, which promised so much; the dark blue of the loch – still, tranquil. And in that beautiful cameo, an example of God`s perfect creation, he searched and found the inspiration he needed.
`It`s a view that changes dramatically with the weather,` he spoke, softly, knowing that Andy`s eyes were also fixed upon it. `Some days, we have mist; on others there could be that mizzle that seems to hang around all morning; on others, strong winds and, of course, there`s the snow that sweeps down over the Highlands. But, today is perfect, isn`t it?` He did not wait for an answer. `See the mountains in the distance; they`ve been there millions of years, looking down protectively over the loch. And this cottage has been here for, I guess, 80 years or so, and, before this was built, there would have been a log cabin or something similar. I wonder how many different people have looked at this view throughout the ages? I wonder how many have cried as I have cried here.` He turned to look at Andy. `And I wonder how many of us have asked that same question as you? Why, God, why?`
`Don’t you know the answer?` Andy asked, softly.
This was not the time for theological statements regarding sin and its malignant effect upon the pure and perfect creation; or about God`s wonderful gift of freewill; or, indeed, that one`s earthly life is but a preparation for what awaits on the other side of death, something so immensely beautiful and fulfilling that words could never fully express. No, this man beside him was not ready to hear these things, and Angus knew he had to meet him where he was, not where Angus wanted him to be.
`No, I don`t know,` he decided upon as his answer. `But I do know that you are already grieving inside. And you`re angry … and frightened. Am I right?`
`Yes. I can`t relate this to the loving God you spoke about yesterday, or even this morning,` Andy almost whispered, not wanting to hear his own words; words that seemed irreverent and ungrateful.
`If you were not angry, you would not be human, Andrew.`
`But isn`t it wrong to be angry with God?`
`No. But …` Angus stopped himself.
Angus considered carefully what to say. `At some point, Andrew, for your own good, you will need to move on from being angry … to acceptance.`
Andy exploded. `Acceptance? Accept what? That my little girl is dying? How can I accept that? What sort of God is this God of yours who allows a little, innocent child to die?` Andy wept.
Angus then took a risk. `Andrew, you are already grieving. You are grieving for Joanna, and yet she is alive and, as you told me, living a fairly normal life at the moment. It is incredible what can be done these days …`
There was silence for a while. Then Andy looked directly at his friend`s honest face. `You`re right, Angus,` he replied, wiping his eyes with a handkerchief. `You`re absolutely right. I am grieving already.` He smiled, suddenly realising the truth in Angus` words. `It`s almost as if I`ve already said `goodbye` to Jo. What I need to be doing is enjoying every moment of time with her.` And he then wished he was back in Cornwall, sharing in the chaos of family life; taking his girls for trips out as well as just being with them at home.
`What you fear most, Andrew, may not happen.` There was a pause for thought, as Andy watched a pair of curlews fly gracefully over the loch on their journey towards the east coast, leaving their familiar, evocative call in their wake.
`I understand what you are saying, but it`s not easy telling myself that. Ever since we learnt about Jo, I have assumed the worst.`
`Does Jo know what`s wrong?` Angus asked, gently.
`Yes,` Andy hesitated, remembering that dreadful evening when Lydia and he broke the news to her. `And she asked me … am I going to die, daddy? It was a question I was not ready for …`
`How could you be?` Angus whispered.
`I said … I think so. And we all cried together.` Andy remembered the pain.
`She is so strong. She said, after a while, we must enjoy our time together; no more petty arguments, like the ones all families have from time to time. And she smiled before she went to bed that night and said, “I love you both so much.” Lydia and I just broke down when she had gone to her room. It was as if she had rehearsed what she would say … so mature … she is the strongest.`
`How has Prudence taken the news?`
`Badly. She won`t speak about it; she covers up her emotions very well, but I know she`s tied up in knots. I feel so sorry for her.`
`We all have different ways of dealing with pain. This is probably how she is coping. You just need to be there for her whenever she realises she needs you,` Angus suggested. `Do you know what I think would be good for you right now, Andrew?`
`I think you need to go for a walk on your own, along the track that leads down to the loch. It might be good to clear your head a little; to kick a few stones on the way; to tell God what you think about Him … to pray a little.`
`I don`t know how to pray …` Andy responded, defensively.
`You don`t need to know. In its simplest form there is nothing to learn. It`s just a case of talking, like we`re talking. Speak to God, tell Him what you think; you won`t tell Him anything He doesn`t know already .` He put a hand on Andy`s right shoulder, `Andrew, I believe it helps.` And the many times Angus had done just the same came flooding back to him; the tears, the anger; the depth of hurt that surfaced and eventually settled. Angus could speak from his own experience of loss and grief. Whilst he knew that the greatest healer is time, he also knew that the moment of acceptance, and the desire to move on to a new chapter of living, could not be forced. It had to take its own time, often supported by the wise counsel of a fellow traveller, and with the unconditional love of the Creator.
`Yes,` Andy eventually agreed, `I will do what you suggest. Thank you.`
Walking with God
At first, Andy felt rather pathetic. There he was walking slowly along a dusty track, without a valid reason, without even knowing his destination … just walking. It was uncomfortable; he always had a purpose in whatever he did. If he walked anywhere it was for a reason, to reach another place; to go to work or to the shops; never walking for the sake of just walking. Why was he doing this, anyway? To please Angus? Certainly not to please himself. To please God? Why should he want to do that? Anyway, who is God? If it hadn`t been for that idiot with the cards back in Truro, he would never have been thinking about God! And how much better things would be. All the pain he carried within him would not have been stirred up. Passion is a good thing but needs to be controlled, he thought. And he had cried … cried in front of another man! What would Angus be thinking? No doubt … some weak one is Andrew. And why does he call me Andrew, not Andy, like everyone else? Strange that.
It`s odd this walking without a reason. I wonder how far I should go before I turn back? Perhaps to the edge of the loch. This is ridiculous. A real waste of time. Yes, perhaps I will kick a stone. And another … and another. He`s put me through so much over the last 24 hours. Be a man, Andy, turn back and tell him that you can cope alright on your own. Yes. I don`t need anyone to tell me what to do. Things aren`t that bad are they?
`Yes, they are.` Andy stopped and looked down at the sharpness of his shadow upon the track; the midday sun was strong and relentless. And then he heard a voice – soft, small, so indistinct it could have easily been ignored. In his head he heard it. Look at that shadow, Andy. Look at it. That is you, the voice said.
He looked, surprised by the sudden invasion of his thoughts. What is a shadow? he asked himself. It is caused by standing in the way of the sun`s rays. And that part of the track is prevented from receiving the sun because of me.
And, he thought, is that what I`m doing? Am I casting a shadow upon everything wherever I go? Stopping the light from shining? A barrier?
`But there`s a shadow covering me, too,` he shouted in anger. There was no response. He walked on, avoiding his shadow until he could resist looking at it no longer. That part of the track is prevented from receiving the sun because of me, he reminded himself. And he thought about it, and somehow the very process of thinking disarmed his anger. Suddenly he felt as though he was a little child; vulnerable; needy; frightened; alone. Gone was the desire to control; instead, there was a longing to be loved.
Without analysing what he was doing, Andy just walked and walked. No longer did he feel ridiculous; no longer did he look down at the track but raised his eyes to capture all the beauty that surrounded him. It had already been there, of course, but, through being so self-absorbed, he had not connected with it.
`So much to see …` he whispered. And he thought about Angus` words over breakfast and how he had responded so defensively; `…at some point, Andrew … you will need to move on from being angry … to acceptance.` What did he mean by that? Accept what? Accept that my little girl is dying? He became angry again as he focused upon the pain; the pain that was engulfing him; the pain that had become all-consuming.
`I don`t want to accept it,` he yelled. `I don`t want to accept it!` he repeated himself. `I`m not going to,` he said, more softly, submissively. `If you are really the God of love, why is this happening?` And he stopped and stared at the loch which had now come into full view. He saw oyster catchers busying themselves at the edge of the water; and a heron stood, one-legged, just looking towards the middle of the loch. He sat down upon a rock and watched; and thought; there was a warm, light breeze that gently brushed through his short, dark brown hair.
`Why?` And he watched the birds scratching away for food. He imagined them to have no conception of grief or anger. How lucky they are. So, what do they feel, Andy?, came that soft voice from within, once more. What do they feel? he then asked himself. Birds sing beautifully, usually when they`re happy; sometimes their calls are of distress; but they are usually content just to do what birds do; unbothered by worries about where their next meal is to be found; unconcerned about the longitude of life. Just content to take one day at a time … one day at a time, he reflected. That is acceptance.
`Is that what I`ve got to do?` he spoke, just audibly. And he remembered more words that Angus had said, `… you are already grieving.` It was true. And he imagined what Joanna would be doing at this time on a Sunday lunchtime at home. He pictured her laughing with Pru; perhaps, if she was not too tired, she would be running around with her, playing `tag`. He thought of her lovely innocent face glowing with joy. She has accepted things as they are, he realised. She isn`t grieving … she is just getting on with life; one day at a time, like the oyster catchers do.
Andy smiled. `I`m wasting the joy of today by worrying about what may happen tomorrow,` he concluded, softly, yet triumphantly, for anyone who wanted to hear. `Thank you,` he added, for the benefit of the birds and the magnificent view, for the gentle breeze; and for … God.
The Andy who walked out from the cottage that morning was so different from the one who returned mid-afternoon. Angus greeted him with a bear hug. No words were spoken; he just looked and knew. The Scottish air; the tranquility; the unspoiled natural beauty; the opportunity to think, all co-operated to provide a therapy beyond all understanding – God`s therapeutic peace. Angus just looked and knew; he had received that very same therapy of walking alone with God. Alone, yet never alone because God is always with us whatever we may think, however we may try and dismiss the possibility. God is with us. There are times when we feel we need no one, especially God. But, despite us, God is always present.
`He waits for you to knock. When you do, He will always open the door to you,` is all Angus said, quietly.
`Thank you for being so patient with me,` Andy replied.
`Andrew, I guess you have met God?`
`I imagine so,` Andy told him. `I felt really stupid at first. But, what happened is unbelievable. I got angry with Him. And then it happened. It was like words just poured into my thoughts. I looked at my shadow and saw myself as one, preventing the light from reaching wherever I went. And I thought about what you said about acceptance. I didn`t understand at first, but then it all came clear.
Joanna has accepted her illness. But, not me.` He looked at Angus with wide eyes. He had encountered God.
It was also a hot and sunny afternoon in Redruth, Cornwall. One of those balmy days when relaxing outdoors was essential. Many people would have been frustrated by their responsibilities, restricting them – even on a Sunday – to the office or shop or household chores.
Not so for Joanna. She was particularly tired this day. Her mother was worried because she had eaten very little of her lunch.
`That`s not enough to keep a bird alive,` Lydia McLeod had told her, more out of a deep concern for the wider issue than for the bowl of salad that had hardly been touched.
`I just want to go and sit in the garden,` Jo told her.
And so, Joanna reclined in the shade beneath a green and white striped parasol. She read about her favourite four children and Timmy, the dog, as they explored Kirrin Island.
Unbeknown to Joanna, her father was also exploring. His island was far away in Scotland; his exploration was less physical but equally adventurous.
She felt so fragile, no different than the day before, or the week before that, and even a month or two, before that. She had resigned herself, as much as a seven-year-old could, to being unwell. Her face was becoming gaunt. The effects of eating very little also showed in the thinness of her arms, and even her legs were following in the same fashion. She was beginning to hate her body, and would deliberately avoid seeing her reflection in the long mirror in her parents` bedroom.
She was always so tired. Never a day passed without her needing to rest when other, healthy, children would be chasing around with the fullness of life. Not Joanna. She was different. And she lay back in the recliner and looked at the predominant blue sky above and around her. Why me? she asked a tiny, puffy, white cloud that, in her imagination, resembled the face of a young girl. Why me? What have I done? Why am I not as beautiful as you?
It was not in her imagination what happened next. She lay still, soaking up the warmth of the day, although sheltered from the sun`s direct rays. Suddenly, she felt an arm around her, just like her daddy`s cuddle. She even felt a squeeze of her left arm. Then, she experienced something touch her hair. It was like a gentle hand that rested there. Warm; consoling; gentle. She could not explain how it really felt, but later, as an adult, she would say that it was as if all the poison in her body was being drawn out. It did not hurt. On the contrary, it was a wonderful feeling. All that harmed her was being removed. In an instant, she felt hungry. She was also aware of wanting to run. So she did. She chased her shadow on the long, well-mown lawn. She fell over and rolled. Laughter flowed. Joy erupted within her. She wanted to do a cartwheel. She did that, too. And then another.
`Mummy,` she said as she ran into the kitchen. `Can I have something to eat?`
`But I`ve just given you lunch and you hardly touched it.`
`I`m hungry, mum. It`s a long time `till tea. Can I have something to keep me going?`
Lydia looked at her daughter and brushed off some grass from her pink dress. `Have you been lying on the lawn?` she asked.
`Yes, I was rolling on it,` Joanna laughed, `I did cartwheels.`.
Rolling on it? Cartwheels? Jo wants to eat? Lydia did not understand, but she knew there had been a change. A sudden change. How was this possible?
She looked at Joanna and could see the lost vitality of the seven-year-old reappear before her eyes. Indeed, she did not fully understand what was happening, but she drew Joanna to her and hugged her. Joanna looked up at her mother`s smiling face. Joanna knew. Lydia knew; Pru would soon know, too. But how, and why, was a mystery to them.
Sometimes, the how and why need not be asked. Like the creation of life, itself, the question of how and why is a mystery, known only to the Creator.
Tuesday in the second week of June
Live each day without fear of the future
Andy McLeod walked purposefully towards High Cross. The Cardman saw him as he turned into the square.
`I want to thank you for that card you gave me,` Andy told him, without preamble. `I took it with me to Scotland and my friend, Angus, was able to help me understand what it meant. I mean, really understand it.`
The Cardman smiled. `Good,` he said, `it was intended to help you. And has it done so?`
`Yes,` Andy replied. `I could never have guessed what would actually happen up there.`
`What did happen?` the Cardman asked, with interest.
`I found God,` Andy said, in wonder at the sound of his own words. `I walked and talked with Him. It was amazing. It was like finding a friend who I didn`t know I wanted.`
The Cardman could see that Andy had genuinely experienced conversion.
`And what did my Father tell you?` he asked, gently.
`To live. To live each day without the constant fear of imagining what the future might bring. To trust in Him.`
hat is so good, Andy. I`m really glad the card I gave you helped.`
`It did – it opened the way for Angus to speak with me about Jesus.`
`Yes, Andy, that`s what so often happens. It enabled someone to talk with you, and for you to listen. But, you also helped in the process by hearing and accepting the message. There are so many who hear but do not respond. They do not listen. Clearly, you are not one of them.`
`So, what did the words on the card tell you, Andy?` the Cardman continued.
Andy thought carefully before he answered. `That I am not on my own. There are people who are willing to help me.`
`Come to me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest,` the Cardman repeated the words he had written on the card.
Andy was amazed. `With all the cards you give out, how can you remember the actual words you gave me?`
`They are important, Andy. You were particularly heavy laden. And you came to Jesus, and you have found rest and peace.` To Andy, this felt as if he was still talking with Angus … or to God, along the Highland track.
`And, do you know how you `came to Jesus`?` the Cardman asked.
`Not really. It just happened, I suppose.`
`No, Andy, it doesn`t just happen. You spoke with your friend, Angus, and he helped you. Angus was Jesus to you. He was Jesus in this conversion experience of yours. And then, as you have told me, you walked and talked with God. That is prayer, Andy. And you allowed yourself to be open to receive God in a very special way.`
`But you played the biggest part in this, Andy. You kept the card I gave you. You read it and contemplated upon the words, although you think you didn`t understand them. Then you opened yourself to Angus; you agreed to walk with God and allowed Him to touch you at a very deep level. All because you were prepared to take a risk – you were willing to take a step in faith. And what a wonderful step it has been.`
`Anyway, I wanted to thank you for giving me that card in the first place,` Andy said, remembering the main reason for coming to the square. `And … I wanted to apologise to you. At first, I thought you were some kind of religious crank; that`s before I understood the truth.` Andy`s face reddened as he remembered his walk with God and how he referred to the `man with the cards` as an idiot.
`I wish all the cards I hand out could have such a profound effect,` the Cardman replied. `Tell me, how is Joanna today?` he asked with concern.
Andy did not question how the `man with the cards` knew about Joanna – for he had not told him. His face lightened at the thought of her. `She is remarkably well …` He stopped and looked at the Cardman`s smiling face. In a moment of sudden realisation, he knew. It all seemed so clear. This man was not just someone who gave out cards, randomly, to passers by.
Andy recalled a reading from his new Bible that Angus had given him. `And you said to Jairus, “your daughter is not dead but only sleeping”,` he spoke in a whisper, just audible over the sounds of the bustling city. He looked into the Cardman`s eyes. He knew.
`Andy, in your mind, Joanna was dead. You were already grieving. And yet, she lives. Enjoy every day, for it is a gift. Don`t worry about tomorrow,` the Cardman told him, kindly. `Watch her grow and strengthen. Share her joys and thank God.`
Andy stood silently, unconcerned about the tears of joy that filled his eyes. He could hardly believe what he was hearing; and yet, he did believe. Never before had he experienced such kindness and love. Again, he knew he was encountering God, and the truth in the words on the card suddenly became clear.
`You told me to come to you,` he said, softly. `And I have come and you have given me rest. And even more than that …`
`Go home, Andy. Be with your Jo. Enjoy the gifts you are given, and praise God daily for them.`
Andy turned away from the square. Life felt new, like he had been given a fresh, unspoilt piece of paper on which to write the next chapter of his life story. He walked through the city`s streets as if on a cushion of air. He knew Jo had been healed. He just knew. His walk with God continued from that first, hesitant, encounter in the Highlands. He wanted to shout aloud, `my girl is healed. Thanks be to God.` He would tell Lydia and Pru everything that had happened to him. And, of course, he would share it all with Jo. He would tell them about the card, about Angus and their deep conversations. About that strange walk with God and its revelation. About the `man with the cards`, the architect of it all. And how all this had changed him. Andy had been touched by God – he would never be the same again.
Whilst he had always been sceptical when others had spoken of life changing experiences, he knew this was one of them. It was real.