Saturday (20th June 2015) marks the two year anniversary of the death of a friend, James Witham who was tragically killed in a hiking accident in Norway while taking part in one of our Summer programmes. Somehow a whole two years have flown by! As I did last year I have been taking some time to remember James and think back upon his life and the impact he had on those around him. James was a remarkable young man full of such passion, enthusiasm and promise. He was the life and soul of the party and in his own remarkable way he left his unique mark upon all that he came into contact with. We miss him dearly although in many ways the last two years have felt something of a blur.
On Saturday night we will spend some time fairly informally with a few good friends remembering, celebrating his life and praying for James’ family and loved ones.It is still good to remember and I am deeply encouraged when I think about James’ life. Much of James’ story of faith (which you can read more about here) epitomises the essence of the calling God gave us to work with students some 10 years ago. Wherever God leads us in the coming years we trust that God will give us many more people like James who would develop a love for Jesus and the gospel with such enthusiasm.
Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 writes “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” So what does it mean to grieve like those who have no hope? The back story of this chapter are concerns raised by the Christians at Thessalonica about those who already died. There was clearly an expectation in the early church that Jesus was coming back soon (something that should still be our longing and expectation today) and the concern was that such people would miss out. In contrast Paul says that those “who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep” (v15) and “the dead in Christ will rise first” (v16). Our hope is that one day all of us, both the ‘dead in Christ’ and those of us ‘still alive’ will be raised with Christ and “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord for ever” (v17).
Isn’t that a fantastic thought, that we will meet the LORD and be with Him forever. If we believe in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour we already have a relationship with Him. After all John records Jesus praying “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). If eternal life is about knowing Jesus then eternal life has already begun. Death is no longer the end but merely the start of the next phase. A few weeks after James’ death I wrote in my journal, “this is reality, it is the reality we face. Death, loss and grief is part of real life.” For the past 10 years we have worked with students and ‘generally speaking’ this is not a demographic who have often had to face up to the realities of death. Neither is it something that I have often faced either although earlier this year I was saddened by the sudden and unexpected loss of another friend from University, James Barton. Dealing with grief has brought the harsh realities of the life to the fore but it has also highlighted for me the reality of eternity.
Again this is something that we often neglect in our thinking. Pete Grieg in his book ‘God on Mute’ comments that…
“The contemporary Western Church at large seems to me to have little belief in the afterlife. We are so temporal and comfortable. We can perpetuate the delusions of our own immortality for longer than any previous generation, but ultimately, unless our death comes instantaneously in earthly life, we must think about such things. We will be poorer if we do not. And so I have begun a solemn pilgrimage that some might deem a little morose. My aim? To envision eternity with Jesus.”
As part of my study on Hope I have been reading books on a variety of subjects including the reality of Heaven and I must confess that I am starting to get very excited about the prospect of the New Heavens and the New Earth. It is so easy to breeze through life feeling excited about heaven for the future while being just as content (if not more so) living in the present. My guess is that if we feel that way then we haven’t really discovered a vision for eternity. We don’t have time to get into it here but such a vision should excite us to the core of our being – that is our hope and our future.
Much of course has been written on this theme; below are merely a handful of comments on this:
- “If I find in myself a desire which nothing in this world can satisfy, the most likely explanation is that I was made for another world.” C.S. Lewis
- “We begin to wonder if some pain and sorrow in this life is not used in God’s providential hand to make us homesick for heaven.” D.A. Carson
- “The twists and turns of life have a way of reminding us – we aren’t home here. This is not our homeland.” Max Lucado
- “Heaven is that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch.” C.S. Lewis
One day we will be raised to life in God’s new heaven and new earth but we experience the anticipation and foretaste of that life here and now. Tom Wright says “We can enjoy it here and now (always partially, of course, since we all still have to die), genuinely anticipating in the present what is to come in the future.” Both James’ (Witham & Barton) are enjoying that reality already – they are already with Jesus and enjoying being in His presence.
After our time in Norway two years ago a friend (who had never even met James) told us that she had had a vision of James on the mountainside. Some of our group were there grieving and suddenly James appeared and boldly declared “I’m not dead. I’m alive in Christ.” Oh how true that is and what an encouragement to think of our dear brother at home with His LORD.
Could we identify with Paul in Philippians 1 when he said… 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.
Surely to ‘depart and be with Christ is better by far’ but for now Christ has work for us here and now which He has prepared in advance for us to do. Our challenge is to live each day in the eager expectation (and subsequent readiness) of Christ’s return while making the most of the opportunities that the LORD gives us.
Dear James, we miss you and miss having you around but we are looking forward to catching up with you soon. Much love.