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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Before the Dawn

Today is the day we refer to as ‘Good Friday’. The day where we celebrate how Jesus died all those years ago. It seems strange to celebrate a death, especially one so agonising. To stop and recall how one man died on a cross, must seem like foolishness to many. How can a death be a victory? Why do we remember the scars, the hurt, the pain of one man? In part it’s because that cross was meant for us, that death should have been ours. We know the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), our rebellion could never go unpunished by a just God. Today we celebrate that we have been spared, that one perfect man died for us all. We rejoice because we know what came with the dawn of Easter Sunday.

But that first Good Friday, was not one of celebration. Jesus’ friends and family must have thought this was the end, as they watched the man they had loved and followed, die in pain and misery. Surely it was all over? There would have been weeping, shouting and raging at God. Grief raw and consuming, ripping wounds in their hearts. The mother who watched her baby die before her eyes, in the worse way imaginable. The disciples, who believed they were going to liberate the Jews, left with the bitter taste of failure in their mouth; on their own, with no teacher to lead the way. This was where they found themselves before Sunday dawned.

I think for us too there can be times in our lives where we find ourselves waiting before the dawn. Confronted by fear and failure, grief and pain. Waiting for our Saviour to return, but not knowing when He will come. We can feel alone, lost and abandoned. We doubt, we rage, we mourn. As we wait in the darkness of this world, before Jesus returns again in glory. Living before the dawn.

Good Friday will be to many a day full of a mix of emotions. Sorrow tinged with joy. Hope mixed with heart ache. Longing and relief. We can see echoes of so much of our lives in this one day. A day full of emotion and brokenness, so human and yet so far beyond our understanding. A day of darkness with whispers of light to come. We wait before Sunday dawns, waiting for the glorious sun rise bringing with it the wonder of the empty tomb, of Jesus’ return. Sin will be defeated, death will loose it’s sting, we can have new life and hope.

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Yet today we wait before the dawn. Maybe you’ve been waiting here for many months. Waiting for the light to break through, for victory and hope to come. Waiting to find that tomb empty; for that loved one to return, or that problem to be defeated. Let me tell you that dawn will come, that night will come to an end, just as it did for the disciples. Know that the war is  won, even if you still find yourself in a battle. But today, on this Good Friday, the church around the world will wait with you, waiting together, before the dawn.

Love Will Conquer

I’ve spent the last weekend down in Southampton, visiting some of the friends I made during the three years I studied there. It was wonderful to spend time with people who know me well, with all my insecurities and struggles. I was always going to miss them, when I moved to Bradford. But with everything that happened over the summer, it’s been even harder. We’ve been through a lot together, and they are all precious to me. Saying goodbye again was difficult.

It got me thinking a lot about love, the beauty and the heartache of it. One quote that we heard a lot in Norway was that ‘grief is the cost of love’. As simple an idea as it is, it helped me to process my grief. We grieved because we loved James. In that sense it wasn’t something we had to fear, it was the other side of love, the price we all have to pay. There were days that followed where I did wonder if the cost was too high, whether love was worth the pain. Considered if perhaps it would be better to keep my distance, to shut the doors of my heart and not take the risk. But what is life without love?

Paul writes ‘And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love’ (1 Corinthians 13:13). You would expect him to put faith above all other qualities, after all it’s pretty essential to build a church. But instead he writes that love is first. Maybe because without love, neither faith nor hope can really flourish. The way we love is a reflection of God’s love for us, ‘we love because he first loved us’  (1 John 4:19). It should be the foundation of our families, relationships and churches. Without love life looses it’s colour and purpose.

In society we idolise romantic love, above all other forms and expressions. We long to ‘fall in love’ and find someone who loves us passionately and completely. Sometimes we can be so busy searching for this kind of love, that we loose sight of all the love we already have in our lives. The friends and family we love and are loved by. And as we look for that person who would take a bullet for us, we somehow forget that someone already did. When Jesus died for us.

We only have to switch on the news these days to see how much hatred, fighting and war there is in the world. It can seem like the darkness is winning. How can love stand against so much evil? I think we have to remember that for every act of hatred there will be many more acts of love and kindness. It just doesn’t make for exciting news. And love can overcome. In this country and around the world today there will be people giving their lives to not only love those close to them, but to serve the least, the lost and the broken. People motivated not out of greed or personal gain but love. This is what CAP aims to do.

As I thought about this post one bible verse kept coming into my mind, from Song of Solomon 8:6:

Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death.”    

As I look back over the past year I can see this to be true, love is as strong as death. I saw it as we stood and remembered James on that mountain in Norway. I felt it as we sat together at his funeral. In all the times we laughed and cried together. The way we loved each other through our sorrow and brokenness.  You see, love doesn’t give up, it endures through the heart ache and pain of human existence. Not even death can defeat it.

As I write this, I miss those friends I’ve left behind down south. I’m back in Bradford now. In a place, that if I’m honest, still doesn’t feel like home. Where friendships are younger and will need time to grow. I don’t know what the future holds, what may be around the corner. But I’m finding that the thing about love is that it makes you braver than you would be on your own. It gives you the courage to move forward, knowing they are cheering you on. Love transcends distance and can reach you not matter how alone you feel. Right now, knowing that I am loved and that people believe in me; is enough for me to take a deep breath, put one foot in front of the other and keep going.

No matter how difficult this life can seem, or how bleak the road ahead appears, don’t loose heart. Love will conquer, and it will win over evil every time.

Beauty and Ashes

It appears to be New Year’s Eve once again, it’s crept up on me a little bit, probably partly because I’m not feeling too well today. I don’t normally enter into the New Year festivities, but I do enjoy taking a bit of time out to reflect on the year that’s past and think about what is to come. For me it’s a way of closing one chapter of a book before I start another.

As I think about 2013, I find myself feeling ever so tempted to cross it out in my mind as a lost year. To lock it away in a box marked too difficult to think about, to try and dismiss this particular chapter altogether. It would be just too easy. Because in some ways this year has been marked by the ashes that settled on my life when one young man fell off a mountain. A single moment in the thousands of moments this year has brought, but one with the power of an explosion, leaving shockwaves in so many lives. When James died I found all I could see were the ashes, the burnt fragments of memories that would never be, words that would never be spoken, goodbyes that would always be too late. The devastation left behind when someone looses their life so young. Those ashes of grief clouded my vision, and I struggled to see past them. There were times when I couldn’t see God or understand how he would let this happen. Some days I still struggle. 

But now looking back, with some distance from that mountain, I can see just how much beauty the year contained. So many precious moments of friendship, that I still treasure now. Times of hope, laughter and joy. New and beautiful memories that somehow grew from the fertile soil of loss. I can see God at work in my life, even if it was not in ways I would have chosen. The hardest thing to grapple with at the time was how life just went on, but in time I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of how life continues. The world is always changing, no two moments will be the same. And whilst there will be nights that are black and painful, the sun must rise eventually. There will be endings but also new beginnings, as I’ve found as I started at CAP. A brand new place, not without it’s difficulties, but also full of opportunities, new friends, a new church family and a chance to make a difference.

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I didn’t expect to be able to look at my Norway photos again, once we got back on English soil. I expected it to be too painful, that I would be struck by James’ absence from all of them. But strangely they are incredibly precious to me, and have come to symbolise to me hope and beauty, in the midst of loss and pain. The above was taken on the same mountain where James lost his life, at the time I could barely recognise the beauty for the ashes clouding my view. But now everytime I see it I am struck by how a scene so stunningly beautiful, could be found in a time of such sadness.

I know I am not the same person as I was 12 months ago. I’ve changed in some strange ways that I would not have chosen. I cry more easily, not just at sad moments in films but also in happy moments, or when I find a piece of music especially beautiful (or I discovered at Christmas, when the little children sing the first verse of Away in a Manger on their own…still a little baffled). I worry more for friends and family, and spend more time on what ifs and worst case scenarios. But other changes are more welcome. I know the value of friendship and community more, I try not to take the people in my life for granted. I am stronger than the girl who entered this year, somehow braver and more grounded. The things that would have scared me before June have less power now. I have a different perspective, less superficial, less earthly. My faith was tried and tested, yet it endured and somehow grew and pulled me through.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who will have found themselves looking back at this year and seeing only ashes. Whether they be lost loved ones, or burnt dreams, jobs that were lost or illness that descended on you or your loved one. Maybe it’s too soon to look under the ash and see what remains, too early to see beyond the devastation. But I challenge you that there will have also been moments of beauty in this year. Try not to let them get lost beneath the ash. Our lives will be made up of both beauty and ashes. It would be foolish to pretend it’s all sunshine and flowers, and it would be sad to only hold onto the ashes. Instead why don’t we hold them both, and marvel at how they can exist together. And how God can bring beauty from our ashes.

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me…to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion- to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning”  Isaiah 61:1-3

Happy New Year x

The Joy of the Lord

This post has been floating around in my head for weeks, and I thought I would finally give it the words it needs to form. The move to Bradford and working at CAP has challenged me, not just as a person, but also in the way I view my faith. When you work in a Christian environment it’s inevitable that you will find yourself feeling a pressure on your faith to be a particular way. CAP culture is one of joyfulness and positivity, and I must admit it’s been something I’ve struggled with, especially after the events of the summer. Several times these past few weeks I’ve heard a particular verse from the book of Nehemiah quoted.

Nehemiah was the old testament prophet who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem after Israel’s exile. He had completed the wall and Jewish exiles returned to fill the city once more. Nehemiah gathered all the people together and read out the book of the law of God given to Moses, they were taught and worshipped God. Then Nehemiah said to them:

“This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve for the joy of the Lord is your strength” Nehemiah 8:10

In Christian communities we often take this verse, or in particular ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength’, and then extrapolate from it. By taking this verse in isolation, we construct  communities based on the dangerous idea that Christians should be happy all the time. Because that’s what this verse means, doesn’t it? And as this idea goes unchecked and infiltrates our churches and Christian groups, we end up with communities where people interact from behind a carefully constructed mask. We’re afraid to show other people that we struggle too, hiding our weaknesses and flaws. Our struggles and heartaches become something for the safety of our homes, just so we can show the world that we have joy, we have it sorted.

I know I lack joy. I know it’s supposed to be overflowing out of me, but some days it’s not even trickling under the surface. And when I can’t match the joyfulness that seems to be expected of us as Christians, there’s a part of me that wants to shut the doors and stay at home. Part of me that feels like maybe the communities I’m a part of, would be better off without me on those days. If I’m really honest, this is where I am today.

The thing is, if Christians really are meant to be permanently joyful, then we exclude a lot of people from the gospel. We shut the door on the depressed, turn our backs on the bereaved, and send the sick and hurting elsewhere. And in doing so we loose the power of the gospel. After all the only reason Jesus is good news is because he came to save the broken. If he came for the people who seemed to have everything sorted out, then that would have been bad news for most of us. Jesus didn’t come for the Pharisees who hid behind their religious traditions, pretending everything was okay, whilst people suffered around them. He came for broken people like you and me.

Neither did Jesus shy away from sorrow. When his friend Lazarus died, Jesus did not give his sisters platitudes and tell them it was okay, he was in a better place. Instead we read that “Jesus Wept” (John 11:35), and he didn’t wait until he was alone to do it. Then in the garden of Gethsemane we find a man whose soul was ‘overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death’ (Matthew 26:38). The most influential men in the bible, great figures like David, Moses and Paul, had much heartache and pain in their lives. Reading the Psalms you can’t help but wonder if David was himself depressed. These men didn’t hide away from their pain, instead they embraced it and took it to God.

Life hurts, we always have God with us and on our side, but that doesn’t guarantee us an easy road. We are not exempt from suffering, in fact we enter into it as we decide to follow Jesus. I don’t believe our Father calls us to paper over the hard times with a layer of false positivity. He wants us to be real with Him, just like the psalms, taking our sorrow to Him whilst acknowledging his sovereignty. Before we can build honest and genuine relationships with each other, we have to start with God.

So what does it actually mean for the joy of the Lord to be our strength, if it’s not about being happy all the time? I would argue that this ‘joy’ is deeper than just a surface level emotion and it only comes from God. I think it is a knowledge and a hope that ultimately we have been rescued and saved. Our future is secure and we have a Father who loves us and won’t abandon us. This is the joy that sickness, heartache and pain can’t steal. It endures in the dark of the night when we feel lost and are hurting, and it sees us through into the light again.

For me this contrast of joy in the midst of the struggles of life, can be summed up in one very special photograph. This photo was taken in Norway last summer, where we lost our friend James. Several days after James died in a hiking accident, we decided as a team to climb back up the mountain where he had last been seen alive. On the top we shared memories of him together and we took this photo of the group to send back to his parents.

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I can see the pain in our faces. I remember the crushing sorrow and brokenness that we felt on that day. But in those faces I also see a hope, a hope because we knew where James had gone. Yes we missed him terribly, but we had the assurance that he had started his most exciting adventure yet, in heaven. And whilst that didn’t stop the tears from flowing, nor did it mean we understood why it had happened; it did give us the strength to go on. We were ‘hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed’  2 Corinthians 4:8-9.

This is the joy that I believe this passage is talking about, the joy that our world desperately needs, now more than ever. The assurance that no matter what life throws at us, God is in control and will see us through. It is not neat or tidy, or based on Christian platitudes. It is raw, honest and real. It can open up the doors of our communities to the hurting and the broken. It is our strength.