Tributes to a Christian Wife and Mother

Iola Thomas 1941-2016.

A husband’s tribute, given by Geoff Thomas at the funeral of Iola Thomas, 27th October 2016.

I believe in God-honouring tributes to be given in Christian funerals, and enjoy them, and feel something is missing if they are absent. If I had to give you a text on which I had to defend my tribute to Iola then I’d justify what I’m going to say by these words found in the letter to the Romans chapter 13 and verses 7&8. ‘Give everyone what you owe him . . . if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow-man has fulfilled the law.’ I owe a very great debt to Iola, and so here I am obeying this apostolic exhortation in honouring and respecting someone very worthy of honour and respect, and discharging a debt of love to her, but also in this way to help the many people who have been her friends and family and supporters for so many years, and those particularly in the past weeks who’ve prayed, given understanding and practical kindnesses and written to us so very helpfully. I want to say a word of sincere appreciation for the nurses on Iorwerth and Banwy words in Bronglais Hospital, Aberystwyth. What they did for Iola and ourselves in the last six weeks of her life was immensely kind.

We have nine grand-children and two great grandsons, and for some of the younger ones their understanding of their Nain is a bit out of focus because of the particular illness that especially showed itself during the last five years of her life, though she had first developed dementia about ten years ago. So I want to blow away some of the mists from your minds and give you a clearer picture of your Nain’s great character and achievements that God’s grace had given her. This was nurtured in one way through her blessed upbringing, but then quite sovereignly by God’s loving generosity. What did she have that she had not first received from God?

Iola was born in the middle of the war in Blaenau Ffestiniog and it was a remarkable town. It was founded on one particular industry, that of slate mining (though the mines were called ‘quarries’). It was a town of work for men, men who worked in teams, drilling into the slate and inserting dynamite and exploding the charge and then bringing huge boulders of slate to the surface and then setting to and dressing those stones making slates of different sizes. It brought men together to support one another and trust one another because it was dangerous manly work. The very toil brought camaraderie and mutual recognition to them, their families and even the children of the town. But these people were also committed to the importance of education and to non-conformist religion and radical thought and the morality of the Bible. They’d talk freely and feelingly about these matters. Conversations and debate were vital to them in the days when radio was in its infancy and there was no TV. It had been a monoglot Welsh culture for over a millennium, though, strangely, the education was in the English language.

Iola’s father, J.R.Williams, was one of those Blaenau men, of medium height, strong, with a beautiful distinctive voice and stubby fingers, a delightful sense of humour, musical and religious, a conscientious objector, two of his three brothers becoming Congregationalist ministers. When J.R. was 14 years of age in 1920 he became a slate quarryman working in the Cwmorthyn quarry high above Blaenau, getting up at 6 in the morning and walking up a mountain a couple of miles to work – at 14. But in the 1930s he married Grace and she was restless about his continuing as a quarryman, and eventually they opened a jewelry and china shop called ‘Granville’ which they ran successfully until the end of their working lives.

But even more radical was a change in their beliefs when the Rev. J.Elwyn Davies became their pastor in Jerusalemn Independent Church and for the first time in their lives they heard historic Christian teaching, the theology of Bishop William Morgan, and John Bunyan, and Pantycelyn, and Thomas Charles. They admired their new pastor Elwyn and got on with him culturally; they were disturbed in a good way by this new style of ministry with his evangelical emphases, and one evening they invited Elwyn to come to their home and explain to them personally this message. Why was it necessary for God the Son to die on Golgotha? Elwyn spent an enriching couple of hours with them so that they grasped and believed the message of what the New Testament calls the ‘foolishness of the cross.’ We deserve eternal death because we are sinners but Jesus Christ the Lamb of God, because he loved us, took our guilt and gave his life in our place. So becoming a Christian was in fact not turning over a new leaf, and becoming a moral person but rather it was receiving this gift of forgiveness through our entrusting ourselves individually, in the first definitive response, into the hands of Jesus as our Lord and Saviour because of all he was and all he’d accomplished. Then, going on doing this every day, while living and while dying. ‘I am trusting Thee Lord Jesus, trusting only Thee, trusting Thee for full salvation, great and free.’

Rhiain and Iola grasped this truth for themselves in their own ways. With Iola assurance came in the first E.M.W. camp held in the summer of 1954. You know that the message of the Bible challenges us to consider whether it was all a matter of luck that this world – as we live in it and experience its grandeur and wonder – came about. Was it mere chance that resulted in it all? Was Beethoven and Rembrandt and Shakespeare and Christopher Wren and Saunders Lewis and Jesus of Nazareth the result of chance? Was it mere luck that had brought about Iola, or you, or me? Isn’t there design and rationality and glory and consistency and divinity everywhere in the cosmos? Don’t our consciences warn us and rebuke us when we are motivated and moved by lust and anger and pride and greed? Of course they do. That is the voice of God so that we are without excuse. We know God from what we see of him in the great monitor of the conscience he has placed within us; so he is a moral deity. But also in the firmament, the night sky and sunset and clouds of starlings and Snowdonia and Cardigan Bay; so he is an omnipotent deity, restrained only by his will. So we know that we are guilty and helpless creatures, one who must answer to the Almighty Creator, the God of light in whom there is not an atom of lust and pride and greed. We know of him especially through his Son Jesus Christ. Our uninventable Lord is the final and ultimate proof of the existence of God.

What hope then is there for us? Men love darkness, and God is light. The message of Jesus is that God has loved this sinning, dying, groaning world and given up his only begotten Son to incarnation, and proclamation, and to the sacrifice of Calvary and resurrection that whoever entrusts themselves to him can be pardoned and have everlasting life. So very simply that 13 year old Iola Williams of Meirionydd heard and understood the message during those days at the camp – as she had been hearing it from Elwyn Davies in Jerusalem Chapel each Sunday, and she believed in Jesus Christ, and she never doubted from that time on. It was an ordinary conversion. Why should she cease believing in God her Creator and Saviour when her heart and soul had been changed and made new? God was the most important reality in her life.

Of course back then she didn’t have a sophisticated and an intellectual faith. It was the trust of a young teenager, but no less real and enduring because of that. Now there were some things that took place in that first camp that made her unhappy. Some of the women officers came round the rooms at the end of the week and brought pressure to bear on the girls to make a decision for Jesus, to repeat a formula and so on. But there were others besides Iola who knew that that was not helpful or kind, that a line had been crossed, that people were trying to do what God alone can do. He is the one who illuminates our minds, and convicts, and gives life, and opens our hearts and makes us new creatures. And it is our privilege to cry earnestly to God through Christ, to ask him to give us such faith and life. So after that first camp such intrusive activities were henceforth rejected.

So Iola spent her teenage years in Ysgol y Moelwyn in Blaenau. She played hockey, and netball for the school, especially against their great rival, the Dr. Williams boarding school in Dolgellau. She and her sister played tennis in the town park in the middle of ‘Stiniog. She was head girl for two years and she took the leading roll of Clytemnestra the wife of the king in the school play Agamemnon by Aeschylus. She tried a scholarship exam for Cardiff University and won the scholarship. We university students all wore gowns to lectures in those years but Iola wore a special gown with a diamond shaped patch on the sleeve to show that she had won a scholarship. My first meeting with her was one morning at the end of September 1959 in a student prayer meeting at 8.40 in a little room high in the Cathays Park campus building where half a dozen of us students met each day before the first 9 a.m. lecture. This pretty new girl was there in a plaid dress, and she was different because when we kneeled to pray she prayed in Welsh. It was impressive.

She was a natural leader, intelligent, affectionate, without guile, spiritually minded and holy. She warmed every encounter by her presence. She could sign the doctrinal statement of the Christian Union in Cardiff with complete confidence. She became the woman-president of the C.U. She had chosen at university to study Biblical Studies as I had  – one year ahead of her. That choice was a mistake for both of us. Neither of us enjoyed the course and she would rather have studied Welsh.

Her one and only teaching post was in Gowerton Grammar School for Girls, but she taught for just two years, and at the end of her first year of teaching I returned from my three years in seminary in Philadelphia and we were married in ’64. That scuppered the plans of the Welsh U.C.C.F to have appointed her as the next woman’s staff worker for Wales. In September ’65 Eleri was born, and in November I began my ministry here in Aberystwyth and this is where we have lived together until last week.

Iola was not perfect. She didn’t like tea and refused to drink it. She hated driving a car, and soon gave it up. She could be outrageously outspoken in occasionally blurting out words about the English, but without malice. I felt marginalized at breakfast time as my four women planned and prepared for their day ahead. They won. That kitchen was theirs in the mornings. But she was a lovely wife and a great Mam. She was a woman of prayer, more prayerful than myself, I say to my shame. She had a card list of topics so that she prayed for me, for her daughters and the grandchildren every day, for friends, church members, preachers, missionaries, for Plas Lluest home for those with learning difficulties, and for the Christian bookshop where she worked each Monday afternoon. So she prayed for all of this through the week. You children and grandchildren have been prayed for boys and girls.

She read the Bible in Welsh and then she responded to what she had read by speaking to the God of the Scriptures in prayer, in all, for about half an hour or 45 minutes every day. She loved God, and never challenged his right to do for her and in her what he judged best, even in permitting her dementia to waste her away. She humbled herself before the God of all grace. Catrin can remember Iola coming back from the front room into the kitchen where Catrin was, with a red mark on her forehead, evidence that she had been resting her head on something and had been praying for some time in that posture. She prayed with the girls when she put them to bed and they prayed too. She prayed on Tuesdays in the mid-week meeting.

Iola led the women’s work in the church. Alfred Place had never had a pastor’s wife like her. She taught them the Scripture and the way of salvation and prayed with them and for them. The women’s work became a gospel work. She taught in the Sunday School. She was given to hospitality and invited students to the Manse for Sunday lunch (she was a grand cook) and she talked to them during the week when they came to her with their questions. She read constantly and widely, Christian books, but also Agatha Christie. She loved to be in North Wales and with her parents especially. ‘Are we going to America again this year?’ she would expostulate to me – with a twinkle in her eye – protesting, ‘I don’t know Anglesey!’ But the children loved going to the USA, and she did also if the truth should be known, and she had dear American friends whose friendship she treasured, from whom she received much.

Like all ministers’ wives she didn’t rain down complements on me after every sermon. Occasionally she would say, ‘That was good,’ and especially so in the last year. ‘Dai awn,’ she would tell me (that is ‘very good’). She would occasionally express some reservations or questions, but fortunately not very often. I am my own worst critic. Her affliction struck her grievously. There were times when she would cradle her head in her hands and say, ‘Oh my memory!’ and it was a great strain for us to see someone so vital and affectionate struck down with confusion for these last years. There was a rapid disintegration in the past 6 weeks. Her death was bitter-sweet. We were thankful that God took her to himself, but heart-broken that we would see her in this life no longer. She meant so much to us.

She was very cultured. She played the piano and she sang sweetly and clearly – I could hear her at times when congregational hymns were sung even from my place in the pulpit. She enjoyed concerts in the Great Hall and during the last couple of years she would hum along and try to conduct the music from her seat, but I grabbed her hands. She knitted terrific sweaters and cardigans. She did needlework and made bed coverings and embroidery especially placques marking the births of the grandchildren with their names and dates and weights.

Last week there would be moments on her bed in her deep sleep when she opened her eyes and seemed to be seeing something, and her face would light up in a smile. I am glad that that happened. I would expect such things to happen to those who are in Christ Jesus, but they also happen to people without any religion. I find no evidence in them today as some additional proof of the existence of her soul in God’s presence right now. It was not her experience of Christ that saved her; it was Christ. It was not her good life and prayers that saved her; it was Christ. It was not her joy that saved her, it was Christ. It was not even her faith that saved her. That was a mere instrument that enaabled her to trust in Jesus Christ for everything in living and in dying and in the glory beyond. Her presence at the feet of Christ today is all because of what Christ was and what he did and does do still. He once promised that whoever believed in him would not perish but have everlasting life. He was not a cruel deceiver, not self-deluded man, not mad, not a megalomaniac. He himself said, ‘The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.’ Iola was a mere believer in the Lord Christ, whose hopes of life everlasting were in the achievements and life and promises of Jesus Christ alone.

She was a wonderful person, and it was a privilege to be married to her, but all the ground of her hope of going to heaven and being forgiven was in the achievements of a far more wonderful prophet, priest and king, one appointed and commissioned by the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I commend her Saviour to you all, urging you to take him today, just as you are, not waiting until you are better or more worthy, but as you are now,  to him, just as he is now, the same yesterday and today, the Jesus of the gospels who waslked by blue Galilee and comes today a hundred yard from the Irish Sea where we are meeting, the one who has brought you here and who is with us today in mercy, the welcoming Saviour.

A daughter’s tribute, written by Mrs. Fflur Ellis.

How do I think of Mam? 

A Christian; among many other convictions, but this was number one. She was very serious in her concern for our souls. A godly and prayerful mother, who always took care in her preparation for Women’s Bible Study with commentaries all over the kitchen table; she sang clearly and strongly in church and gave clear leadership and teaching of the children in Sunday school.

Caring; constant in her love. Yet contained in her emotions – she was never particularly exuberant or downcast, always the same. If things, very rarely, got tense and she spoke harshly (in her view) she would come with open arms to apologise humbly – despite it probably being my fault . . .

Creative; gifted in her abilities and patient in her desire to be able to develop new gifts but always sitting down doing something: knitting, cross stitch, crochet, sewing, patchwork. She was patient in her teaching and encouragement of me attempting these too; it must have been quite disappointing and frustrating for her to have me as a daughter!  All the grandchildren got knitted jumpers, it got a bit more interesting for a while for her to have a grand daughter after the other eight were grandsons. All (I think)  had their birth cross-stitch momento. Each grandchild had their baby patchwork quilt made too. All lovely keepsakes for each to have. Many church members received similar hand made gifts too.

Cooking; we could depend on lovely home made food, more importantly she taught me how to be hospitable, not necessarily with lots of food or extravagant food but a heart willing to share and a spirit open in being flexible as various unexpected guests were added to our table, any time of day and time of year.

Christmas and Conferences. She loved the Christmas family time. It was an obvious period to share good news about her Saviour, to sing about Him, write about Him. She also loved being creative with Christmas crafts at the kitchen table, Christmas cooking. She loved Dad being the joker and going along with his Christmas chaos and hilarity. A wonderful hostess and such a splendid compliment to you, Dad, as a host. She also loved the annual Aberystwyth Conference of the Evangelical Movement of Wales and rarely missed a single meeting. The house was packed with the family for the week- often more than 18 of us.

The Creation; she loved nature, the trees, the flowers, the promenade, the starlings and the sea and the distant mountains, the seasons and their changing colours. That was one thing that never diminished completely though the Alzheimer’s spread. I guess the main reason she loved it was she knew the Creator and that His wonderful designs and beauty reflected His glory. I loved it when she came to stay in Cardiff with us because I knew my shrubs would get a pruning and my garden would be weeded. And she enjoyed doing it . . . Fab!

Cymraes, that is all things to do with Wales. This was very important to her, Radio Cymru, the Welsh channel, always on in the mornings as housework was done and S4C, the Welsh language TV channel occasionally in the evenings. She loved the Welsh language and would always speak Welsh to whoever had even a little Welsh. My husband Glyn’s Welsh certainly came on once he started to come to Aber! She was very encouraging to all Welsh learners. She was so capable in so many ways. Intelligent, well read, cultured, musical. She was always willing to help us with home work, especially practical projects.

Candid but never cruel. If advice was given or an opinion asked for, you could be assured of a candid response. She would say it like it was, like it or not but generally speaking you would see her advice was good and sensible. She was to be trusted and I never heard her break anyone’s council.

Just a few thoughts from my perspective. I did enjoyed writing about my dearest Mam.

 

 

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