It is hard to believe that yesterday was the 5th anniversary of our dear friend James Witham’s death. Some will remember well that he lost his life in a hiking accident while on a short term programme with us in Norway. This day was a significant moment the stories of many who knew James not least ourselves. Three years ago I wrote a post entitled “Grieving for a friend – Remembering James.” So for some weeks now I have been hoping to find some time to write some more on this and it has not been until this week that I have found some time to do that! below are some reflections as I think back over the past 5 years.
1. The Fragility of Life
In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps. Proverbs 16:9
‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9
As I have reflected over the years about what happened to James 5 years ago God has helped me to see the numerous way that things could have worked out differently and yet didn’t. For one James wasn’t even supposed to have been on the trip but he had joined us at the last moment. God had opened up the way for him to come. For another that very morning 5 years ago we had presented various options for where we could hike and it was in fact James who had championed this particular hike. We could easily have been hiking elsewhere. Thirdly there are plenty of verses particularly in the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 73:2, 94:18 and 121:3) which speak about God supporting people when their feet were slipping. Indeed the following verses were sent to us during the period of uncertainty after James went missing.
9 If you say, ‘The Lord is my refuge,’ and you make the Most High your dwelling, 10 no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. 11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; 12 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. Psalm 91:9-12
God could have protected James; He could have made sure that his feet did not slip or commanded his angels to guard him. Yet God did not intervene but instead chose to take James home. Surely He does establish our steps and both His thoughts and His ways are above ours. Life is fragile. One moment life is flourishing and then it is snuffed out. God has ordained for us the days of our life. What an encouragement to make the most of the time we have!
…all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. Psalm 139:16
The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. Psalm 103:15-16
2. A Lasting Legacy
When I think about legacy I think about a story in the Bible about Absalom, one of David’s sons. He was David’s 3rd son and was quite the popular prince! Move over William and Harry, Absalom was quite something. He was the son David would have really liked to become King. He was good looking (2 Samuel 14:25-26) and once a year cut his hair because it was too heavy! He was a real hit with the ladies and when he rode through the town young men fought for the honour of running with him. Absalom was heir to the throne and was much loved by his father but he blew it. He conspired against David and ended up dead. Then all that was left of him was a monument in a graveyard because he had no son to be remembered by – his line died out.
During his life-time Absalom had taken a pillar and erected it in the King’s Valley as a monument to himself, for he thought, ‘I have no son to carry on the memory of my name.’ He named the pillar after himself, and it is called Absalom’s Monument to this day. 2 Samuel 18:18
It makes an interesting question to ask ‘what are you going to leave behind when you die?’ The two things in this life that last are “people” and “God’s Word”. The latter is complete but we can contribute much to the former. When I think of James I think of a young man who left quite the mark on people. You could see that from the numbers of people who attended his thanksgiving service. You can still see that in the lives of the people who he touched and continues to touch five years on. James was a very clever guy and brilliant mathematician and yet his willingness to go out of his way to help others was second to none. For me James’ heart for people was one of the things I remember most about him. He was particularly fond of our eldest son Benjamin and there are lots of photos of the two of them, often with Benjamin hoisted up on his shoulders.
3. An Inspiring Example
In the New Testament there are many exhortations to follow someone’s example. In fact Paul often uses this kind of phrase to provide a model to follow for the people to whom he is writing:
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. 1 Corinthians 11:1
Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. Philippians 3:17
I am amazed at how James’ passing has led to a number of folk choosing to follow Jesus. God has used even the tragedy of losing James to bring about good in the lives of others. During his days at University James became passionate to know and follow Jesus and to encourage others to do the same. He said what he thought and you knew that when James said something he meant it. He was always willing to have a go and not afraid to get it wrong. The story of James’ life is an inspiring example for all of us to learn from and follow. Why? Because he was seeking to follow Jesus and he was having an impact on the people around him. He was living out a genuine faith in his Saviour, Jesus Christ. His was a life that made an impact on people: he was hard to forget!
For our family losing James was a significant time. It was the beginning of what has been a tough 5 years for us and in particular for Debbie who has struggled with her health during this period. Early on I felt God remind me of a promise He made in the Old Testament; a promise which has always been significant for us in our ministry as God promised to give people in exchange for our lives devoted to serving Him.
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour; I give Egypt for your ransom,Cush and Seba in your stead. Since you are precious and honoured in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life. Isaiah 43:3-4
It seemed in those early days that God was promising to give people in exchange for James who He had called James. Over the years we have seen many more great folk coming through the student ministry and learning to follow Jesus with much the same passion and fervour as James did. Indeed at the thanksgiving service James’ parents established a fund with the Navigators to help future students experience something of what had helped James: during the past 5 years this fund has helped countless people to travel to Norway and experience something of God.
Losing James soon became a catalyst to sharpen the vision of what we are doing in ministry; to give our lives to help more people like James to know, love and serve Jesus Christ. We pray that James’ life would continue to encourage a generational movement of such disciples. God is good and also did something special for us. Having spent a total of 3 months in Norway that summer we returned home expectant of how God would continue to give us people in exchange for our lives. More than that I also felt God had promised me specifically to give someone in exchange for James. I just didn’t expect that to happen in the way that it did. When we returned home we found out to our surprise that we were expecting a child, Jacob. What a blessing both he (and later Aaron) have been to us.
I trust that my ramblings have been an encouragement. For those of us who knew James we will all have things that we particularly remember. There will also be certain ways in which James’ life continues to touch our own. Whether we knew James personally or not I hope that hearing about his legacy and his example will inspire us to walk closely with Jesus for all the days that He has ordained for us. I finish with the preceding verses in Isaiah 43 which in light of whatever life brings our way will always be true for us as the people of God.
But now, this is what the Lord says – he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. Isaiah 43:1-2
Thanks for reading
Above Photo: UK Team doing Press-ups in James’ honour at a short service we held at Fuglesteg (near where James died) in June 2013.