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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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.

Singleness and Being Whole

So it’s been a little while since I’ve written here. I’ve had another little writing project on the go, to do with one of my favourite charities. I will hopefully tell you about it in due course, once everything is confirmed. For now I’m going to leave you guessing.

It’s that time of year where everyone is thinking about their relationship status. Everything in the shops becomes pink and heart shaped, and even the most content of single people start to wonder what they might be missing.  I’ve been considering writing this post for a while. One of my house mates got engaged on Friday and another has just entered a relationship. So like it or not being single has been something that has been on my mind recently. 

We live in a society driven by sex and relationships. Singleness is not a desirable state. Among young Christians there is perhaps an even more intense pressure to meet someone and get married. From what I’ve seen of my generation in the church, on the whole we get married young. In fact since starting the internship at CAP, three interns, my age or younger, have got engaged to their boyfriends or girlfriends. Working in a Christian charity, where plenty of people my age are either married or considering it, can be a challenging context to be single.

There are many great things about singleness. For one you have a lot of freedom. When I made the decision to move to Bradford, ultimately it was my choice to make. I didn’t have to weigh up someone else’s needs and desires. I felt like it was where God wanted me to go, so I went. I am also blessed with a lot more free time (not that it’s necessarily felt like it recently) and I can choose how I spend it. As I’m not investing all my time and energy in one person, I have time for my friends and my church. But perhaps the most significant thing is that for me, when you get beneath the surface, my family unit is me and God. At times this is can be lonely and difficult. However, most of the time it draws me much closer to God than I would otherwise be. If I have a problem He is my first point of call, the one who listens to me through the tears and comforts me. I know what it means to be physically alone, but equally in the same sense I know I’m never on my own. God is my anchor and foundation. I’ve learnt to look for my security and hope in Him, rather than in another’s arms or words.

That’s not to say that being single isn’t difficult sometimes. Since moving to Bradford the biggest thing has been loneliness. I am someone who likes to connect with people, to have deep and meaningful conversations, and those kind of friendships take time. There have been weeks when I’ve been heavily burdened and not had anyone to share it with. Another challenging part of being single can be the way people react to you once they settle down. Most of my friends have handled this transition well and have taken great care to keep up friendships and keep caring. But I have also been hurt by rejection, getting deleted from Facebook or ignored because you’re at a different life stage, and loosing those friends who no longer have time to communicate with you any more. You see when a friend settles down, I am happy for them (unless I think they’re really bad news). I’m happy to hear about that special person and to share in that excitement. I am not jealous. Yet at the same time I am wondering whether they will be another one who will drift out of my life because you’ve found ‘the one’. Friendships are precious to you when you’re single, and it hurts to watch people disregard them so freely once they meet someone.

There is one harmful message that society, and at times the church, is giving out. A message that you are not whole until you have found your spouse. People use the term ‘other half’ to refer to their partner, as if without them they are only half a person. Maybe that is how it feels when you find that person who ‘completes you’. But where does that leave those of us who are single? Can we not be whole on our own?

I would say that as humans we all have this hole within us, a feeling of incompleteness, a longing that we can never fulfil. We can try and fill it with a relationship, but ultimately another human being with their own hole and brokenness will not be able to fill our emptiness. And we cannot expect them to. If our identity depends on another person then we add a unreasonable amount of pressure to a relationship. I would argue that it’s only in God that we can be truly whole, regardless of whether you are single or married. The hole and the longing within us is a reminder that we were created to be in a relationship with Him, to know his love and grace in our lives. Our security and identity has to come from who we are in Him rather than in another man or woman. No human being can match up to God. We are His first. And we will always be His, even after everyone else has left our lives.

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My identity does not revolve around whether or not I’m single. When I look at who I am, I am so many other things before I get to single. That doesn’t mean that one day soon I wouldn’t love to meet someone and settle down. But in the mean time I know that I am whole and loved just the way I am. I am God’s precious daughter who he loves. I know he has good plans for me and if those plans involve me staying single then I will keep trusting him. Because one thing I do know: there will never be anyone who knows me as well as my Father does.

” We love because he first loved us”      1 John 4:19

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?