A well-respected and faithful member of the Riverlife church family for almost two decades, Ann Farrell is an esteemed member of the education sector in Australia, mother of four and grandmother to six. The recent loss of her husband, Lindsay, has proved a challenging chapter in her journey and she took time to share her story with us.
Interview:Aimee Cowan Read:10 mins
Ann, tell us a bit about your childhood – did you grow up in a Christian home?
Yes, I grew up in a Christian home. I was the youngest of six children. My parents were loving and kind Christians. My mum had actually started Silky Oaks, a home for women and children, at the end of the Second World War. We always had lots of people ‘on the margins’ living with us and it meant that we had a largish household: mum, dad, six kids, plus, plus, plus – all under the one roof!
One memory from my early years was of an elderly relative or two living in the home with us. This meant that, throughout my childhood, there was always someone dying or preparing to die. It may sound macabre, but it was quite lovely, because I got to see the cycle of life and to witness mum, in particular, caring for others.
I grew up on a strawberry farm, so living off the land drew me to the parables of Jesus about soil, seeds, sowing and reaping. It was in secondary school that my commitment to Jesus was galvanized by my public declaration of faith. Since then, I’ve always had great respect for children and young people who make a firm and public commitment to Jesus.
So how do you think that your childhood shaped your view of God and mission today?
I think the disposition of my parents, drawing their strength from God and living out their lives in a tangibly hospitable way, gave me a real sense of inclusion. I saw the way our family would embrace and feed people from all different backgrounds and it became an everyday experience that was very influential in my life.
You chose not to follow directly in your mother’s footsteps though as a nurse, what did you end up doing instead?
I’ve had an interesting journey, beginning as an early childhood teacher, which sparked a life-long passion for research. I stayed home for a decade while raising our four children and then pursued a research career.
My early work with inmate mothers and children in women’s prisons in England and several Australian states, taught me the invaluable life lesson of listening to those who are rendered invisible or simply unnoticed. For the last couple of decades, I’ve served the academic and professional community as a professor in teacher education.
While I have formally retired from the university, I still hold an adjunct position and am involved in a number of projects, including work with several organisations overseas.
What do you believe has been your most defining moment as a Christian?
I’ve had countless defining moments, the most poignant in recent times being with my husband Lindsay when he died. We were married for nearly 45 years and to be with him as he left his frail body to be with Jesus was a watershed in my journey of faith. Together with our children, I witnessed with my own eyes someone being ‘absent from the body, present with the Lord’. Though drenched in shocking grief, I am filled with hope in Jesus to heal and transform our lives.
You met Lindsay through a youth camp many years ago, how did your love of Camino walks come about?
After the children grew up, Lindsay and I embarked on lots of walking holidays, and had dreamed of doing the Spanish Camino. We were fortunate enough to do so and, once we started, we were hooked! We did Caminos in France, Italy and Portugal and it really helped us to cultivate a sense of walking with God. It was a physical walk, but also a spiritual journey that allowed us the time to breathe in and breathe out and to walk the paths that people had walked for centuries before.
The painting behind you is one that Lindsay painted of the Camino walk at Noosa, can you explain how that began?
The Noosa Camino project was really Lindsay’s brainchild, and it was a set of reflections from the Bible and prayers that people could pray as they walked through the Noosa National Park. Lindsay painted a series of artworks to mark the key points along the way, which he then included in his Noosa Camino website.
You have four grown children, how have you seen God work in their lives?
Of the many miracles I’ve witnessed, a standout is when our third child, David, was only five months old, battling for his life in intensive care. When faced with the gravity of his illness and the advice of the specialists that only a miracle would save him, we cried out to God to spare David. To the astonishment of the specialists treating him and to our relief, David survived and went on to thrive as a toddler, teenager and now husband and father of two boys. We are forever thankful to God for saving David’s life and truly grateful for those who cared for him so skilfully and lovingly. I remember full well a young intensivist sleeping all night on a mattress beside David’s bed to be attentive to his every move – a practice unlikely to comply with current occupational health and safety regulations!
We had no time to prepare, it was just one of those acute situations, well before social media or mobile phones to let people know what was happening. We really just had to give it to God and ask Him to heal David. It was definitely a watershed moment for us as a family.
How do memory stone events like that help you find encouragement to move forward during difficult circumstances?
I think they can prompt you to continue to trust God. You have to keep trusting God each day, beyond what you’ve seen Him do historically, and you have to keep practising that same stance of faith and trust for every new day and situation.
As the last few years have shown, you did in fact have an unexpected situation with Lindsay’s health diagnosis, how did you choose to face that together?
Well, it happened quickly. Lindsay was giving a lecture at the Queensland Art Gallery, felt a little unwell and then was admitted to hospital with a glioblastoma deep in the brain. This was a terrible diagnosis. We were there together, the first night in hospital, when I said, “Right, here’s an idea for a motto moving forward: ‘trusting God, embracing life’”. I really like ‘ing’ words (doing words) and trusting and embracing are both active and continuous. So, it seemed to work for us!
I guess when your faith is really tested, it’s one day at a time, moment-by-moment. You often can’t see even the whole day at a time or to be more precise, it’s moment-by-moment, seeing God’s grace at work in your life each and every moment of the day.
When Lindsay was in the hospital, he was just as active as ever in terms of sharing his faith. He presented downstairs at the hospital art shows in a shirt and tie before returning up to put his hospital gown back on and hop into bed. He shared the Gospel and prayed with visitors who were coming to see and encourage him and even ministered to the Chaplain who came to see him!
Yes, that was the irony really, that people came away being blessed from seeing him, right up until the end.
We know now that, sadly, Lindsay is no longer with us but with his Creator in heaven. What does it look like now, for you to continue that motto and still trust God and embrace life?
I think it’s important to embrace the emotions of loss, because it’s a part of life. More than ever, as I embrace the ebbs and flows of the emotions that have come my way, I do need to continue to trust God. It’s a wonderful comfort to know I can navigate difficult times, tears, confusion and absence as I continue to embrace life and all its challenges.
You have a wonderfully full and rich life with kids and grandkids, how do you walk out that loss with them through the various stages of grief?
I consciously try to raise their awareness and to model authentic faith and prayer. At Christmas, for example, we acknowledged that it was ok to feel sad, remember Lindsay and share funny stories – and by doing that, it gave us all permission to express what we were feeling in our own way.
How has your career in education prepared you for being a grandmother?
I’ve felt very privileged to begin my career as an early childhood teacher. What I loved the most was interacting with the children, observing them and learning from them. These early experiences stimulated my love of research. Now I apply this love of children to my own grandchildren. I love being a part of their lives.
How do you tell them about Jesus?
I’ve found the children to be open and receptive to God. Often they tell me about Jesus! Often, they’re the ones who lead the conversation, which is a tribute to their parents who have cultivated a love of God.
Are you intentional about sharing with people about Jesus? How do you make it a natural overflow of what you do in your life?
I see sharing faith and my trust in God as an everyday experience where opportunities present themselves. More than words, I think actions, attitudes and prayer are exceedingly powerful – never underestimate the power of those things. Most of all, Jesus gives hope: hope for today and hope for the future. This makes all the difference in everyday life, now and into eternity.
What does the future look like for you now?
I don’t know what the future looks like, but on a daily basis, it sure is interesting, in my family, my local community and the global community.
Spending time each day to consciously seek the presence of God is a priority. I do this best while walking or at least being outside. I value the spiritual discipline of intentionally listening to God through the Bible, being attentive to His voice and being empowered by His Spirit to put His words into practice. As well as the great online resources at Riverlife, I’ve tuned into Nicky Gumbel’s Bible in One Year and Pete Greig’s Lectio 365 since their inception.
Walking with God is something that I aim to continue and I’m sure Lindsay would be pleased to know that I’ve got a walk coming up in Tasmania with our daughter, which I’m really looking forward to!
To watch a short video version of this interview, click here.