Some of you, reading the last blog, have asked me if my husband ever became a Christian. I don’t want to make it sound as if a small crowd, bearing flaming torches, was battering at my door shouting ‘And did the heretic ever repent? Did he? Did he?’ It’s not quite like that. Two readers have asked if George ever came to faith. He did. And it’s a pretty amazing story. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin;
My George – here he is, busy strangling me – was a Scottish engineer (Scotland produces the finest whisky, tweed and engineers).
He designed and then managed the erection of sugar refineries all over the world, from first proposal to turnkey hand-over. South Africa, America, Cuba, Mauritius. He’s done them all!
The youngest of 4 children he grew up in Central Glasgow, in the very shadow of Barlinnie Prison and he well remembered (when I think of him my syntax goes Scottish) the days when executions were carried out. He remembered how, even as a young boy, he would be aware that the terraced streets were strangely hushed, something between dread and reverence filling the air. The executions took place at breakfast time, and George’s mother, a strict and cold woman, would sit her four children down and they would pray for the man about to die, and for the man about to kill him, and for the justice system that had handed down the sentence. She was a staunch and rule-loving Presbyterian but I wonder if there was a corner of her heart that was true Quaker?
George was a sporty type. He held a black belt in Judo long before it was a popular sport, and was a madly keen rower. He rowed for Glasgow and was on the team for Scotland. When I met him he was deep into his engineering career and rowing had been neglected for some years, but he returned to it as a veteran and for several years, when our daughter was little, every weekend and Wednesday evening was set aside for sculls. When he wasn’t on the river, he was running. He ran 18 kilometres a day and more when he wanted to give himself a treat (tsk). When we moved to South Africa he ran through the fields of sugar cane, up the beautiful hills around Durban, along the beach at Umhlanga. And then ……. knees. His knees made running and rowing impossible.
Losing this physical power and release was very difficult for him. He was a workaholic, he didn’t read, wasn’t a contemplative or restful person by nature, and physical exercise was his only escape from the treadmill of work and ambition. His mind was always working, an engineer to his bones; in a restaurant he would comment on the ceiling beams, explaining (as I glazed over) why they were A beams or thin-walled or cantilever…. how the strength of that beam would have been tested or should have been…. I wanted to go on the wall of death at the fair, but he spent so long (far too long) explaining G force and centrifugal force that I gave up and wandered away to the candy floss stall, and the dodgems. There were times when we wondered how we’d ended up together, we were so different. We were both scarred from the lives we’d led before we met and sometimes we just weren’t up to the job of looking after each other.
When Lou was 3 we went to South Africa where he tried to defy gravity and joint erosion and doctors, and began to run again. I think maybe he ran at this time in an effort to put some distance between him and me, to give himself a break from a strained domestic life, because we were struggling. It was a second marriage for both of us and we were both desperate to walk away, but equally desperate to stay for the sake of our daughter. And neither of us wanted to admit defeat for a second time. There was pride involved, George was a high achiever in his work and he didn’t admit defeat easily, so for both of us, this second marriage failure was hard. But we started to discuss separation.
I was very homesick and this came as a surprise to both of us. I had never really had a home or family to miss, and I am not the homesick sort. I became depressed very quickly, isolated in a strange country, with a small child and a husband I saw only late at night, and rarely at weekends. I started going to a little Baptist church, a few minutes walk away from our house, simply because our daughter needed play time with others, and the Pastor’s wife, Irene, had invited me. Lou would go into Sunday school and I would sit at the back of the church and listen.
And then I got a part-time job in the church nursery school and slowly the people in that little congregation began to ease my unhappiness. George had met the Pastor, Leigh, and liked him. They were both men’s men. Leigh didn’t judge or nag or proselytise, but he didn’t flinch from talking about God either. If George had not liked Leigh, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to stay in the church long enough to learn what it was to be a Christian. I’m so glad that our churches are full of men’s men, blokes who talk about wood and rugby and building and steak and all those boy-things. Maybe even the strength of beams and centrifugal force. The world is full of men who need friends and those men have wives and girlfriends, and if our churches were full of fey flower-arranging blokes, we’d never get them, or their wives, through the door. And when women find God, we need to make church a place where their menfolk can come and feel at ease.
That was a digression. Or a soap box.
You know, I can’t shake the impression that my conversion was as instantaneous as Paul’s (but without the voice of God and the sudden blindness), but Irene tells me that it took months for me to accept Christ. From where I’m living, inside my head, it felt like it was almost an instant, an explosion of belief and realisation. But yeah, yeah, OK, it took months. Irene is right (she wrote, grudgingly).
This is me we’re talking about. I did not become a wise, loving and patient person. I became a certain person. Filled with certainty. I dived in, I threw caution to the winds, told George that, now that I was a Christian, divorce was not on the table, he was stuck with me, and that was that. George said ‘But we were talking about separation, an amicable way to move apart and divorce.’ and I said there was nothing to talk about any more because I was right and he was oh, so wrong. We would work it out because God would help us. George was appalled. I was deaf to his reasoning. What can I say? I was stupid and selfish. Same old, same old.
I’ve known only two Pastors, and both have been wonderfully and amazingly instrumental in pointing me towards God. I love them both. Leigh was patient with us. George said he was returning to the UK once his contract was complete, but the tenancy on our house was already finished so I had to return without him straight away…. and I realised, for all my piety, I had no choice. Lou and I had nowhere to live, George didn’t want to take another house on, I earned very little… so I flew back with our six year old daughter, a second marriage down the pan, jobless, homeless, heart broken. Leigh contacted a church in Cambridge and a kindly couple offered us a room. All I had to look forward to was a divorce once George was back in the UK, and I gave up.
God never gives up. Even when someone’s as flat footedly hell-bent of self destruction as I was, God never gives up. And doing God’s work, Leigh didn’t let up either. George had moved into a sort of working men’s hotel, and his life had become long long days of work, followed by an evening in the bar. On one such evening, Leigh called by, and when he left he gave George a paperback book. I really wish I knew which paperback it was, but I’ve forgotten. George sat by his bed in his little bland hotel room, with his whisky and this book and he read it cover to cover. It didn’t impress him much, he told me later, but it backed up what he’d heard from Leigh and from me, and he’d even sat through a few sermons, so he had some understanding from beyond those pages. The last chapter was a call to the reader to commit their life to Christ. I think it was 5 steps, but it may have been 3 or 4.
I don’t believe that there is a format of words that make you a Christian. I believe that something stirring within you, a desire for the truth and for God, and that very stirring brought about by God, that’s what leads a person to commit to Christ. And George would agree with me – there was no way that any ritualistic five steps could make him a Christian, could transform him. But with all he’d learned from Leigh, and maybe with some scriptures he remembered from his Presbyterian childhood, he read that last chapter and he said the words. Aloud. The ritual of steps to Christ. I think they went something like: 1) Acknowledge who God is , and who you are. 2) Accept that you are a sinner. 3) Repent….oh, you know what? I find them so ritualistic, so Mickey-mouse and trite, I can’t reproduce them. But he read them aloud and meant them.
And then he drained his whisky, got into bed and told God something like ‘That’s it. I’ve done my part. I’m sick of trying and failing and I don’t know what else to do, so come and get me. If you don’t, we’re finished, you and me.’
He slept well that night. In the morning when he woke up, he was a new man. He was a completely transformed and amazed, dazed, bewildered man. He knew with absolute certainty (like his estranged wife!) that Jesus Christ was Lord, that Jesus was real and alive, that Jesus would never let him go.
How do you explain that? I don’t. All I can say that is that God is good, that God healed my lovely George, and healed our marriage (at times there was pain in that healing!). I know that God used Leigh and his sermons and his friendship, and maybe he even used my clumsy enthusiasm, to place George in a place where he understood what it meant to be a Christian and where he could surrender all his success and ambition and energy, forgive his parents, understand that there was more to God than they had ever known. I know that it wasn’t the liturgy of those five steps that brought him to Christ but it was Christ Himself.
That day he called Leigh to tell him that … well, that he was a new man. And then he called me. What a phone call. I didn’t believe him, fully. I flew back as soon as we could get a ticket and we took a little house just outside Durban and there I saw that it was true… when you’re born again, you really are born again.
How did our marriage develop? I think it’s true to say that we became devoted, one to the other. He was the same engineering, sporty, introvert but he softened, overnight. Truly. Overnight. He found great peace in prayer. His heart melted, that’s the only way I can describe it – my Scottish granite could, at times, turn to marshmallow. Lovely marshmallow. The Andrex puppy could move him to tears – OK, that’s pushing it, but he would choke up watching an Olympic Medals Ceremony, at a sad film, hearing Lou sing. My engineer with a heart. Suddenly he revealed his wonderful sense of humour and we could laugh for hours on end. The same stupid things tickled us. We learned how to trust each other.
You all know me as Lucy Gannon. That’s my maiden name. When I had married George I had taken his name, Marshall. But when I started writing I was working as a nurse and I wanted to separate the two roles and so reverted to my family name, as you know me now, Lucy Gannon, writer.
Lucy Marshall struggled in her marriage but Lucy Gannon, writer, had the most supportive husband in the world. And his life wasn’t easy with me (I know, amazing, eh?). Never easy.
His faith? How did that develop and grow? He was always a very private man. An engineer who didn’t talk easily about things of the heart. He could never accept the institution of church, still bruised by his experience as a young Scottish Presbyterian; church three times on a Sunday, no joy, rigid rules, cold parents. We went to a couple of churches together, but he didn’t like the first and walked out of the second in the middle of the service, saying “Come on, girls, this is not for us.” Do I have any regrets about my marriage? You know, I do. I really really regret that we never prayed together. When he prayed, he told me, he wept, and he couldn’t unbend quite enough to have his wife see that. It’s sad that he didn’t understand it would only have made him stronger in my eyes. I regret that he didn’t want us to attend a church and we were always ‘lone’ Christians. I regret that although we shared everything else and loved each other, we never read the Word together. No church, no Bible, no shared prayer. We didn’t grow, we loved each other but we didn’t grow in our faith. We stayed where we were when we first knew Christ. That’s sad. But it’s not tragic. We did know that Jesus loved us. We did pray (him daily, me sporadically). I think George’s spiritual life, his relationship with God, was rich, but it was very private, and it excluded me and Lou. I don’t blame him for that, when we left South Africa we were brand spanking new Christians, and in order to grow we both needed to be under good teaching. But, back here in the UK, we never were, and our own resources weren’t enough.
God threw us a lifeline in the church, the many churches all around us, but we never grabbed them.
In the last week of July, when Lou was 14, we travelled to Scotland and took a boat up the Caledonian Canal. It was a great holiday – the weather was fabulous, our little boat was fun, and the day before we came home he saw an eagle, a life long ambition. We stopped off at Gretna Green for an overnight break on our way home and when I woke, in the motel bedroom, his bed was empty. He came in a little while later and said that he’d gone outside to pray, sitting in the early morning sunshine. As we got ready to face the day together, drinking awful motel instant coffee, he told me that he had been thinking about his childhood, and thanking God for his life. He wanted me to know something – he said that if he was going to be ill (he had been diagnosed with a ‘minor’ heart condition – nothing to worry about) he would like to die quickly, suddenly. He said he would be a bad patient and he was ready to go to God. We both smiled. He was as far away from death as anyone could be. His heart trouble was so minor the specialist had said ‘Yes, go boating, do the locks, it’ll do you good.’
That afternoon he dropped dead, of a massive and life long, undetected heart condition.
That’s my George. Up and away in glory.