The Ones That Love Us Never Really Leave Us

First a little warning: I’m aware that for those of you who know the weight of today this may not be an easy read. I needed to write this, but it might be that today isn’t the day to read it, and that’s okay. Look after yourselves.

In many ways today is just another day. Just one of the three hundred and sixty five that fill our year, full of it’s own challenges and possibilities. I’m sure many things happened on June 20th 2013, children were born, couples got married and friendships blossomed. That day will mean many things to many different people.

But for me, it was also the day we lost a dear friend James in a hiking accident, whilst we were away on a trip to Norway. I was on the trip with James and some other friends. As we started our trip, nestled at the foot of beautiful Norwegian mountains, we didn’t know tragedy would strike that day.  I had no idea the words I exchanged with James would be our last, didn’t realise I was saying ‘goodbye’ instead of ‘hello’. I thought we had hundreds of ordinary days to come, that I had time for all the words I’d meant to say. I didn’t think tomorrow would be too late.

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I felt just a fraction of the damage that day left, I know I experienced only a small part of that grief. A grief that was felt then, and is still felt today. I also know that for me, and for many others, June 20th will never be just another day.

Two months after returning from Norway I moved to a place where no one had ever known James. I realise to the new friends I have made he has become ‘my friend who died’. But that isn’t who James was, he isn’t defined by his death. Rather we love and remember James because of the way he lived.

He was the friend who always had time to help you with your coursework, even if he was overloaded with work himself.  Without his patience and willingness to explain a topic, I’m not sure I would have graduated with a 2.1 degree in Mathematics. He showed me what it means to be selfless and generous. And he was a loyal friend, a friend who really cared, and  listened to the answer when he asked you how you were. James had a passion and enthusiasm for life that was contagious. It was him who inspired me to take up photography, after he let me borrow his camera on a trip away. He had a joy and love of life that I admired and aspired to.

I don’t think I ever saw James do anything half heartedly, whether it was in his studies, hobbies or friendships, he gave it everything he had. And he was dedicated to growing in his faith, committed to following God as closely as he could, eager and excited to learn new things about Him. James was all these things and so much more. I can see he taught me so much through the way he lived his life, even though I did not realise it at the time.

And writing this I miss him, as all who loved him do. It still hurts to know we won’t see him again this side of heaven. But the beautiful thing about relationships is they change us. When we are loved by someone they give us a piece of themselves, and we are shaped by that investment. That change cannot be reversed. I see so much of James in those friends he has left behind. I see the way his life has impacted and improved our own. That whilst in one sense he is gone, in another sense he is so present to all of us. We will carry James with us into our futures, carry everything he taught us. Though he is not with us in person, I know he will continue to influence my life, mould the person I will become. He can never be forgotten.

Today is going to be tough and painful for so many of us. For some it may feel like too much to bear. It would be so easy to make today about death and loss, darkness and despair. But if James has taught me anything it’s that today should be about life. About the wonderful and inspiring way he lived his, the ways he continues to inspire us.

As you read this I will be travelling down to Southampton, to spend this day with some of James’ friends. There may well be tears, but I know there will also be laughter, as we celebrate all that James was. I thank God for loaning us such a brilliant friend, knowing he is now home where he belongs, at the start of his greatest adventure. As I look into the faces of some of those people James loved, I know I will see his fingerprints over their lives, see how knowing him has changed us for the better. How his influence will be with us for years to come.

And once June 2oth has passed us by again, I’ll continue to carry with me all James taught me. I will do my best to grab life with both hands like he did, to live my life without regrets or ‘maybe tomorrow’. To seek to know God more, to learn and grow in Him each day. I will strive to be compassionate and generous with my life, to be a loyal and caring friend. I will continue to capture as much beauty as I can through the lens of a camera, thinking of him as I do.

Each of us who loved him will carry a different part of who James was with us, letting it live on within, treasuring the memories. And as we carry him with us, until we see him again, we can know he hasn’t really left us. The ones that love us never do.

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Blessed

It’s been a difficult week. Mainly because it contained one particularly challenging day. You see, on Thursday we had a whole staff conference, which involved not only head office staff coming together but also everyone who works in CAP centres across the country, nearly 600 people in total. I suppose I came into it with a fair amount of trepidation. I’ve been struggling on the internship recently, feeling frustrated with some aspects of it, and unsettled. I love the work CAP do, but I haven’t always felt a part of it, after all I am only an intern. So whilst excitement was building around the office for the conference, I was apprehensive, afraid that it would be a day when I’d feel like even more of an outsider.

The conference itself was a struggle for me. It was well run, with lots of hard work and effort having gone into it. But having 600 people in an enclosed space, with all the expectation that I felt to be the sociable extrovert that I’m definitely not, made me anxious to a level where most of my energy went into attempting to stay calm. With varying degrees of success. My inner introvert was exhausted by the end of the day. I thought the whole experience would be lost on me.

However, I returned for the evening reception. And as I sat there, I was struck by how God has provided for me since moving to Bradford. I looked around at all the different head office teams and realised there wasn’t a single team that would be a better fit for me than the team I’m in. None of them would have made me feel as welcomed and as valued for who I am, and no where else would I feel as free to be myself at work. I thought back over the day and could see all the wonderful people who had looked out for me and supported me when I wasn’t at my best. I could see that God had woven just the right people into my life in Bradford. The right friends both in and outside of CAP. Friends at work who ground me and bring stability, joy and laughter into my day. And a church family who have accepted and loved me from day one. That night I was able to see that no matter how difficult this past six months have been, this is where I belong right now.

It’s strange that out of what was probably the most challenging day of the internship so far, I come away with a clear sense of how blessed I am. Maybe in the same way the events in Norway caused me to look around and appreciate all I had in Southampton; perhaps I needed this anxiety-filled day to open my eyes to all I have been given here. As I drafted this I was sat on Ilkley Moor, with the sun on my back. Surrounded by so much beauty, that I had to take the time and space to appreciate it. I realised that I have been so busy looking back, that I have missed the beauty and the blessings that are right in front of my eyes.

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Today I know two things: life may never be easy, but nevertheless I am blessed.

‘There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven…a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.’ Ecclesiastes 3:1, 3-4 

Asking The Right Questions

It has been a very busy week, which means that this has been the first chance I’ve really had to write, since this post came to me a week ago. The week before last I spent a couple of days visiting a local CAP debt centre, experiencing what it’s like on the front line, with the centre managers and debt coaches who go out every day to see clients. Whilst I was there I saw clients who had found themselves in debt for different reasons. For some problems with budgeting were the root cause, whilst for others life had simply dealt them a difficult hand, and they were dealing with it the best they could. Whatever the reason, we aren’t there to judge them but to help them the best we can.

What I struggled with the most, wasn’t that people could get into such debt,  but that they could end up so alone. That the weight of shame and fear could be so much, that they wait years before telling someone and getting help. Client’s often come to CAP when they’ve reached rock bottom, when after years of going it alone, they just can’t keep it up any more. For me the saddest stories are those from clients who only found out they were in debt when their partner committed suicide, after they just couldn’t carry the burden alone any longer. Whatever the situation clients often feel like they are completely on their own.

It makes me wonder how many people in their lives noticed something was wrong and didn’t say anything. Were they really that good at pretending? Were there a procession of missed opportunities to listen or to help? Or have they always been as alone as they feel?

I suppose everywhere around us there will be people who find themselves drowning in life. Whether that be because they are crushed under the weight of debt, battling poverty, illness, difficult life events or bereavement. There’ll be families across the UK with empty cupboards, facing a hungry Christmas. There’ll be people who don’t know how to face another holiday season without their loved one. Many thousands feeling lost, alone and hurting. These people will be our friends and neighbours, we’ll find them in our churches and workplaces. And whilst many of these people may suffer in silence and struggle to ask for help, that doesn’t mean they aren’t desperate for someone to offer it. It doesn’t mean they aren’t waiting for someone to throw them a lifebelt. There is nothing lonelier than struggling on your own.

It’s got me thinking, in our friendships and relationships, are we really asking the right questions? Do we ask people how they are out of politeness, or do we really care and listen to the answer? Are they just the words we say, or are they measured and intentional? Do we notice when the people in our lives aren’t themselves, and do we take the time to really stop and find out why?

I think sometimes we forget how powerful words are. We can be so quick to use them on small talk or the weather, or to gossip about who’s dating who. We get so caught up in the normality of everyday conversation, that we forget that those same words, have the power to throw someone a lifeline, to show them that they’re not alone. We can’t rescue people, rarely can one person wade in and save the day. But we can ask the right questions and really listen to the answers. Then maybe just maybe we can help people to save themselves.

My life is marked by those people who asked the right questions and listened to the answers. I remember all those conversations, they remind me that I’m not alone. They encourage me to keep swimming even when it seems like the current is too strong. I’m not sure where I would be if no one had dared to ask.

According to the Samaritans, one person dies by suicide somewhere in the world every 40 seconds. Every 40 seconds. It’s difficult to even get your head around it. That’s one million people every year, the equivalent to twice the population of Bradford. Utterly heartbreaking. I don’t know what it would have taken to pull those people back from the brink, it might be that they were thrown a hundred lifelines and threw them all back. We can’t torture ourselves with the cruel gift of hindsight. But equally we must not forget that every single one of those lives was precious to God and the people who loved them. And equally precious are the lives of all those who will find themselves on the brink in the next year. They may well be people in our lives, people we know and love. Again we cannot expect to be able to rescue people on our own, there are unlikely to be any quick fixes. Nevertheless we have to be open to asking the difficult questions and being prepared to listen. To show people that they aren’t alone and that their story doesn’t have to end here. To hold out hope to those who can no longer hold it for themselves.

The thing is, CAP will be here to help those people who find themselves trapped in debt, and we’ll strive to reach as many people as we can. But there will be countless more drowning people, carrying the weight of many different problems, who we won’t help. What would be truly wonderful, is if we could build communities that could catch people, that would notice when people first got out of their depth. Communities that asked the right questions and threw out lifebelts to the hurting and the desperate, in their communities and outside of them. Communities that loved no matter the cost. After all, isn’t that what our churches should be?