The Spirit that gives life: Audrey’s story

Posted by on Oct 23, 2015 in Blog | 2 comments

DSC_0266 (2) Brian and Audrey

It is possible that at 75 years of age Audrey Francis is the oldest student at Vose – I am not sure. What I am sure of is that she is one of our most engaged and engaging students, and that her life speaks of the reality of God, or of the Spirit that gives life, which was the theme of her recent chapel talk at Vose where she shared her life story. I found it both inspiring and encouraging, and am confident you will too. As you read it, imagine it being spoken in Audrey’s gentle Irish voice. Perhaps as you do, you will hear the Spirit that gives life speak to you.

Bible Reading: John 6:56-69

Friends,

The Gospel reading from John, which we have heard is, to say the least, startling. The writer of John’s Gospel records these statements as being said in the synagogue. Jesus was not simply chatting with his close followers in a quiet place, he was preaching to a community that was divided in their understanding of who he was. I suggest that it may go even deeper than that. He was speaking of the mystery of his relationship with God. Jesus was aware of the deep yearning that lies within the heart of people, a yearning to draw back the curtain, as it were, and sense the presence of God as being close. The emphasis falls on the individual’s relationship to God.

In several instances in John’s Gospel, we are faced with statements that, taken literally, are difficult to understand. In our reading today even the disciples are saying, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” Then Jesus leads the listeners on, again drawing back the curtain when he says, “it is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life”. Then we read, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him”. Jesus challenged the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” And their response is “To whom can we go?”

So we are also called into the same company to explore and discover what it means to know this “spirit that gives life”. What is this spirit and how does “knowing it” bring life?

I would like to illustrate how I have experienced this spirit “that gives life” at work throughout my personal life.

I was born, the seventh child, into a clergy family in Northern Ireland. My father and my brother were Methodist ministers; my sister married an Anglican priest and my Aunt was a Deaconess in the Presbyterian Church. No-one could accuse us of being one-denominational!

My grandfather was a farmer. As a small child, I knew him as being retired. He had a large vegetable garden, a few fruit trees, a place where he kept a few hens and a field where a goat grazed. We lived next door and I liked going to visit Grandpa in his garden. In retrospect, I think he probably spent so much time there to escape from the active household. When he needed to rest, he would sit on the ground and enjoy the silence of nature. I would sit next to him and very little was said. He taught me many practical things about nature and how to treat it with respect. He let me collect the eggs from the nesting boxes; he showed me how to milk the goat and told me to wait for the flowers to appear on the potato plants as a signal to dig the potatoes.

He was an Elder in his congregation and, on Sundays, he would always be found, in suit and tie with a tiny flower in his buttonhole, at the door of the church to greet the people. Most importantly, I believe he awakened in me, as a child, a sense of the sacred, a sense of God, the Creator, and I touched the childish edges of what it meant to know the “spirit that gives life”.

Teenage years passed by as they do. In the 1950’s there was not much choice of career. In fact, the choice that I was given was teaching or nursing. I chose nursing –simply, I thought, because I did not want to be a teacher. An elderly Minister said to me that healing was very near to the heart of Jesus. This period of my life was marked by the deep sadness of my mother’s death when I was 18 years old.

Completing my general nursing, I saw the world opening up to me. Something within had nudged me into considering going overseas, but there seemed to be lingering uncertainty. Then, without much warning, my father became seriously ill and, to cut the long story short, I spent the next five years, at home, caring for him until his death. Although this time in my life seemed to be stagnant, almost like a period of drought, in retrospect, I can see the spirit was at work preparing me for what would be a life-changing experience. I joined in my local church and at this time, the Methodist Church in the UK and Ireland was planning to build a new hospital in the Republic of Ivory Coast, West Africa. I helped to raise some money and thought that would my contribution – but not so.

After my father’s death, I returned to nursing. This hospital in West Africa had been built and I began to receive information from my brother about the staffing needs. He also threw out the challenge to me, “What are you going to do about this? Why don’t you go there?” I could see every reason why I should ignore these suggestions. However, they kept coming until I was more or less led; I believe by the spirit that gives life, into thinking more seriously about the idea. I found several significant reasons why I would be unsuitable – I needed further training and I didn’t speak French, which was the common language in Ivory Coast.

I had been advised by my teacher in High School not to continue to learn the language. What I saw as obstacles, my brother saw as steps in preparation for this new and spirit-led part of my life.

So it was that, on St Patrick’s Day 1970, I found myself in the Republic of Ivory Coast at the start of perhaps the most significant 10 years of my life. This mission hospital, though small by hospital standards here, was exceptionally busy, especially in the outpatient’s clinic. Long days at work were normal and its reputation for the standard of care soon spread.  We trained the local staff as nurses, pharmacy and laboratory assistants; the aim being to equip the hospital with highly trained local staff and then withdraw. Each day began with prayers in the Outpatients and the wards. “The spirit that gives life” was present in the hospital and with me as I adapted to working in a new culture, in a second language, French, and in a tropical climate nursing many medical and surgical conditions, which I had never seen before.

As Nursing Sisters, we soon found our roles carried much greater responsibility than perhaps we had anticipated. There were often surprises. After I had been there for about 2 years, the Matron returned to the UK on leave for family reasons. The day before she was due to return, we received a telegram (remember, this was long before emails!) saying that she was unable to leave her mother to return as planned.

I became Matron of the hospital by default – or was it by default?

The administrative side of nursing required a greater command of the French language so, more study!

I had also become joined to the local congregation in the village church. There I was immersed in the music of the African choir as they swayed and danced into worship and gradually I became accustomed to services lasting 2-3 hours. Attending a traditional Methodist service spoken in French and with all of the colour and sound that accompanies and African expression of worship was unforgettable.

Personal life was not left unattended. During this time I met and married my husband, Max, who had come from Australia to oversee the Laboratory in the hospital. Our wedding took place in the village church with the full choir in attendance. In the congregation were people from all walks of life, Christians, Muslims and animists. It was a great expression of the spirit giving life in joyful blessing.

Two years later our older daughter was born and spent the first year of her life surrounded by the environment of the hospital and the village. In 1979 we felt our time to leave had come and it was, with great sadness, that we packed and returned to Europe and then to Australia.

In the past 35 years, I have seen the “spirit that gives life” opening up opportunities for me to express caring in our local community. These included establishing a centre at Trinity Uniting Church in Perth where adolescent mothers might continue their education to tertiary level, establishing a welfare agency and a programme to support people recovering from mental illness: both were outreaches of my own congregation at Manning. As well, Max was able to go overseas to such places as Madagascar, Zambia, Cameroon, Malawi and Angola to offer short term relief to medical laboratory staff in mission hospitals in those places. The common factor in all these activities was to demonstrate the love of God and to show how the spirit can work in every person, whatever their circumstances, that they may have life and have it abundantly.

In the last 12 years, I have been a volunteer in the Pastoral Care Department of Royal Perth Hospital. Hospitals are like home to me. There I encounter people who have found themselves in the strange environment of a busy public hospital, uncertain and concerned about what this experience will mean for them, all the time being surrounded by unfamiliar faces of the people who will determine that future. Somewhere, in the middle of the rush and bustle, a word spoken or a smile shared can bring the spirit that brings life to a person.

Just two years ago, I was commissioned as Lay Preacher in the Uniting Church. People have said to me, “Why did you wait so long? “ The answer to that would probably make another talk. Suffice to say, that the timing seems right and I am continuing my studies here. At this point I would like to thank every-one at Vose for the welcome I have received and the way in which I have been able to integrate into the student body.

It has been a long and interesting road with many unexpected twists and turns stretching from my Grandfather’s vegetable garden to this day at Vose. It has also been a road travelled in the company of the spirit that gives life.

The spirit of God is sometimes described as the wind. We read again in the Gospel according to John, Chapter 3 and verse 8 – “the wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the spirit”. I have shared my story this morning. Your story will be different. Mine took me far from my childhood home. Your story may be centred in one place for your entire life. What we have in common is the truth that this “spirit that gives life” has touched our hearts.

John, the author of the Gospel, from which we read today, also wrote letters. In his first letter he encourages his readers, and us, by saying, “And this is His, God’s, command: believe in the name of his son, Jesus Christ and love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his command live in him and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us. We know it by the spirit he gave us.”

God is spirit and we must worship him in spirit and in truth.

Amen

 

 

2 Comments

  1. a great story.

  2. I was in that chapel service when Audrey spoke, and my thought was, “We are in the presence of saints.” A lovely story, an amazing life, woman and presence.

    Thank you Audrey.

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