David and Adèle Ellis were married in Java in 1964 and served together for fifty-two years in Indonesia, Singapore, and the UK. In a moving chapter from his recent book Through All the Changing Scenes: A Lifelong Experience of God’s Unfailing Care, David shares their experience of how Adèle’s encounter with Alzheimer’s made the things of earth grow strangely dim as God prepared to welcome her into the light of his glory and grace. David’s honest reflections about questions and fears in times of upheaval, pain, and grief provide precious and timeless truths about the covenant love of God and our identity in Christ.
David Ellis and his wife Adèle served with OMF in Asia for about two decades before they returned to the UK in 1982. There they served in Glasgow where David was Associate Minister at St. George’s Tron until 1989 when he became the national director of OMF UK. In more than fifty years of ministry they travelled and taught widely before retiring to Scotland. After caring for Adèle through her Alzheimer’s, David now lives in Dundee where he serves as an elder in the Free Church.
The God of Covenant Love
Mission Round Table Vol. 15 No. 2 (May-Aug 2020): 40-47
Even when I am old and grey, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come. (Psalm 71:18)
One of the most unforgettable messages I have ever experienced came from the lips of a dying man. In his day, the godly Dr. Johnstone Jeffrey had been a Moderator of the Church of Scotland. He had been invited to the lectern at the front of the lecture hall in the old Glasgow Bible Training Institute to give a word to the students.
As he stood in front of us, he looked elderly and was clearly very frail. He opened his Bible and simply said that he wanted to read his favourite Psalm to us, Psalm 139. As he read, the sense of God’s presence in the room was palpable.
O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
You are familiar with all my ways. (Ps 139:1–3)
We were conscious of hearing that other still small voice. He finished and looked exhausted. He had our sympathy. We waited for his message. We wondered if he was strong enough. His message, when it came, consisted of three halting sentences, nothing more.
“Young people often have problems with guidance for the future.”
There followed a very long pause.
“God will always give you enough light to take one more step.”
Another long pause.
“Take that step!”
And with that, he sat down.
The silence was eloquent. We searched our hearts; we felt we were being searched; there we found unfinished business: weaknesses in our prayer life, disobedience, areas where we knew God wanted us to “take that step.”
A week or so later Johnstone Jeffrey died. The message that came through his reading of that Psalm and those three sentences have lived on with me to this day.
All of that was more than fifty-eight years ago and it was what came to mind forcibly as we found ourselves facing retirement, wondering just what the next step for our ministry might be.
Retirement. Something the media likes to portray as the warm afterglow on the sunny uplands of life. An attractive dream? The end of the rainbow?
Not without some truth—but not the whole truth. The halting questions and the answering affirmations in Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poetic metaphor of life as the struggle of a journey “up-hill … the whole long day,” echo with those who would seek to live the life of faith.
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.
It would be comfortable to think that as the pilgrim life progresses the incline might ease off some before we reach the “resting place”. The language is deceptively simple yet captures the life experience of many godly men and women through the ages. It was the converted slave trader, John Newton, who wrote poignantly about his own uphill journey:
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace,
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly His face.
’Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer,
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favoured hour
At once He’d answer my request
And, by His love’s constraining power,
Subdue my sins and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea, more with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe,
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Humbled my heart and laid me low.
“Lord, why is this,” I trembling cried;
“Wilt Thou pursue Thy worm to death?”
“’tis in this way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.”
“These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”
There was a time in the life of John Henry Newman when sailing home from Italy he became very unwell. Becalmed somewhere between Palermo and Marseilles he was overwhelmed by illness and doubt. Homesick and with his mind in turmoil he penned a poem which in later days was to be made into a hymn:
Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
“One step enough for me?”
Enough! Really? Facing retirement, we wondered just what that step might be for us. We had often quoted those words from Renè Padilla’s experience, “God will not give you a map, but He will give you His hand,” when counselling missionary candidates stepping out in faith for service in Asia. Now we were about to face a time when we were going to need to know, more than ever, just how to grasp and be grasped by that hand and walk on uphill, one step at a time!
Of course, there are times when we can, and indeed we should, do as much as we can to look to the future and plan ahead, sensibly. But then there are other times when the way ahead is not that clear and we just don’t know where another step along the road will lead. Just as when climbing the Scottish mountains in a mist, you don’t know what’s beyond the next cairn because you just can’t see through the mist. And, of course, you won’t ever get to know until you reach the next cairn. But if God has given enough light for the next step, then, in faith, the challenge is to have the courage to trust Him and take it!
Adèle at Schynige Platte near Interlaken, Switzerland.
We had retired to a beautiful home in Perth. There was a preaching ministry round several churches in Perthshire, walking holidays in the Lake District, and wonderful trips to Switzerland with our caravan to meet up with some of Adèle’s Swiss relatives along with former OMF colleagues. There were happy times with our children and grandchildren in Dundee and Glasgow. However, after a few years it was becoming more and more obvious that Adèle was having difficulties. Cooking became complicated. Writing letters, confusing. Knowing how to answer people’s questions at church, intimidating. Offering hospitality and accepting invitations out from friends, daunting. Deciding what to wear, a mammoth exercise fraught with repeated attempts to get it just right. And trying to remember names and faces or just even to find words, stressful and, at times, impossible.
As for most older people, past their three score years and ten, memory problems are nothing out of the ordinary. Yet somehow Adèle’s memory problems were not at all ordinary. What was the next step going to be?
Probably none of us go through life without fears of one form or another. For Adèle it was fear of the slow, cruel disease she had seen stealing away the life of her mother. She was becoming more and more afraid of suffering from the very thing she had feared the most, ever since we first met at college some fifty-seven years ago. Alzheimer’s.
As retirement progressed, she became more and more dependent. It became increasingly obvious that when I was not around, she would become disorientated, anxious and distressed. So, the next step was to move to a new house—hopefully for one last time. We wanted to be nearer to our children. We left Perth for Dundee. That was the easy part. We were used to moving to a new house! What followed proved to be more delicate. When you suspect the very thing you fear the most, how can you find help to face it? And how, as one who is looking on, can you help the one you love to summon up the courage they need to face up to the very thing they fear without adding to their fears?
For some time, both of us tried to live as if nothing was out of the ordinary. But as time went on it became harder to ignore what was becoming obvious. Slowly Adèle herself became increasingly aware that things were not right. She was struggling. She wrestled, we both wrestled, and finally it was with real courage that she decided to share her fear with our doctor.
It is one thing to fear the beast, but another to be brave enough to be prepared both to name it and look it in the face. Yet, again, in the remarkable gentleness of our loving Shepherd, it seemed that once the psychologist and psychiatrist had confirmed a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, she was given an amazing sense of acceptance. Her condition was no longer the thing that could not be named—the elephant in the room. It had been named, and by the grace of God, the Great Physician gave her the strength to accept the very thing that had so long been the nightmare that haunted her. He tempered her fears with the balm of His peace. In a spirit of gentleness that was evident throughout her life she proved the truth that the Lord was with her. She had learned Paul’s secret:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, 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 your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:6–7).
From that day to the day the Lord finally took her to be with Him, more than six years later, the progression of the illness was slow but the outcome inevitable. Going out became more and more d