Trauma, two years on

It’s now 2 years since our friend and deeply committed member of the church I lead was murdered in Nairobi by terrorists at the Westgate mall attack. I’m not one of those people for whom birthdays and anniversaries and birthdays are a big deal; I understand that for other people they can be significant, but for me they tend not to be. The anniversary of my mother’s death, for instance, is one that makes little impact on me. I check in with my family to see how they are doing – but for me it’s not a big emotional occasion. Anniversaries do however make useful markers as to how we are doing on the never-ending journey of grief; they can help us to see not so much how life has gone on without the person we’re missing, but rather they can show how our life has reshaped and maybe even enlarged itself to encompass the griefs with which we live.

The anniversary fell on a Monday. Last year – the first anniversary – fell on a Sunday. At our church we used the opportunity to remember not only James, but all whom we’ve lost and for whom we wish to give thanks to God. We developed a simple process of each person taking a flower and placing it in a vase at the front of church as a symbol of our cumulative memories, grief and thankfulness. It was a moving and helpful process, which we undertook again this year on Sunday. Although I was aware of the emotion around the service, it wasn’t something I found personally difficult; it wasn’t until lunchtime on the Monday that I tuned into the fact that irritability, jumpiness, tears close to the surface but never actually happening and anxiety were all part of my reality. By the evening I was fully on edge, manifesting many of the symptoms of the post-traumatic stress I’m told by an expert I experience as a result of my leadership calling and work two years ago. My wife went out to run a brief errand, and I was a mess of anxiety until she was safely back home; three good friends had been away all weekend and I couldn’t rest until I found social media evidence of their safe return (I was too self-conscious to actually check in with them directly); sleep was a distant hope, so I read and listened to music until well into the night.

Acceptance is a part of any healing process. You can’t get healed of a medical condition unless you accept you have it in the first place and seek the prayer or treatment you need; it’s also a well-recorded part of the grieving process. For me, the 2 year anniversary marks a point of acceptance. Not so much of James’ death – I’m pretty sure I’ve accepted that – but of my response. When it was first mooted by someone who knows about these things that I was experiencing some PTSD, I was hesitant and resistant. It’s not as if I was in the mall when he died; he may have been a good friend, but he wasn’t family. But  – and this is important – what I’m learning to accept is that the role I was called to play at the time placed me in a vulnerable position. It meant I was, amongst those who are not family, in an almost unique position of living through the events with the family but unable to process my own emotional reactions to events concerning my friend. I was living it, but needing to put parts of myself ‘on hold’. Part of me had to pause, the other part had to run. I was involved, privy to much private information and some intimate, precious moments. I was in the story, deeply. Two years on I’m accepting that this PTSD is a normal reaction to the abnormal events in which I was caught up; apparently it’s not unusual for people in jobs like mine in situations like this one.

As a result I found this anniversary harder than the first one; a friend pointed out that this may because there are fewer socially normal rituals associated with it. Last year the anniversary was a draining but helpful flurry of events and conversations; this year ‘normalised’ it all more, which may be part of the difficulty. I don’t want to accept that the new normal; but I must, and I am. It’s a constant, tidal ebb and flow of acceptance and rebellion, of remembering and forgetting; but acceptance is now at least in the frame.

That, then, is where I find myself two years on. The same place; somehow more painful, but healthier.

Related to this post

Trauma, one year on

Stumbling towards resurrection’s launchpad

Like a thunderclap: words at the funeral of a friend

Trauma, 1 year later

A year ago we were hit by the full in the face with a trauma for which we didn’t ask, which we didn’t provoke and of which we had no warning. On Saturday 21st September, 2013, we received news that our friend and church member James Thomas was missing in the terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. 24 hours of hope, prayer, fear and waiting later we heard that he’d been identified as one of the first victims of the attack. He died from gunshots sprayed at random around the mall by members of the Al-Shabaab terrorist group. As far as we can tell from what we’ve been told, he’d been in the supermarket and had left a little before his colleagues; as a result he died, and his colleagues lived.

Living with this reality for a year is surreal. There are times when you forget it happened and life just goes on. Then something catches you – a mention of terrorism on the news or in a film; seeing his usual seat in church is unoccupied; discovering the things he’d left undone because he was going to pick them up when he got back from Kenya. If nothing else, this year has confirmed for me the reality that grief is a strange companion; the more so when the only person to blame at the end of it all is a hooded, anonymous young man bearing a gun and an ideology he can barely articulate.

Was it really a year ago? Wasn’t it more? Also this; it feels like it was only yesterday.

How can such different things both remain true?

My journey through this year has been personal; it has been that of a pastoral leader, in my care for others, too. Sometimes that’s offering comfort or silence; sometimes that’s thinking ahead ‘how could this be heard in the light of trauma?’; sometimes it’s planning ahead ‘what could happen or be felt next?’. Sometimes I find myself simultaneously working both in spite of and from the energy of my own grief. It’s a strange and divided sort of energy. As a community we remember, we help each other, we talk to each, we get on with things. It falls to me to lead and to accompany at the same time.

What remains true, then? For me, that resurrection wins. It always does. Randomly spraying weapons around a shopping mall is about as nihilistic a deed as you can imagine. Whatever the political or religious motivation, we mostly know that it makes no sense. It speaks to a view of the world so blackened with hopelessness that only the perpetrators can claim to make sense of them. Though they can’t. Not really.

The problem is, though, that these deeds always fail. Always. I’m not talking politically here – though I could be – but wider than that. It’s an act that seems like the final triumph of pointlessness. Yes, our friend died; no, it didn’t work. Despite our tears and anger, thousands on thousands heard about resurrection and still talk about those days as significant. Ghastly, yes; but also strangely formative in connecting us to a deeper reality.

This Sunday, the day on which the anniversary, we will engage in corporate acts of worship, prayer and remembrance.

It will be hard; there will be tears, I’m sure. There will be hope too.

Death, especially violent death, is awful. But a year on, resurrection is still winning. And always will.

In the box below you can watch the eulogy Colleen, James’ wife, gave at the funeral. You can read my sermon from that funeral by clicking here.



A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey Chapter 13: Remember … (Psalm 132)

This post is the next in our series based on sermons preached at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town on the Psalms Of Ascents. The Sunday we were due to cover this Psalm (September 22nd) was the day we found ourselves waiting to hear news of our friend and church member James, at that stage known to be missing in the Nairobi Westgate Mall terrorist attack. Due to the circumstances the sermon touched on the Psalm only briefly as we unpacked what that moment of waiting meant for us that day; so this post is not so much the adaptation of a sermon as it is a reflection on the Psalm in the context of the circumstances we are in a few weeks later. It focuses on the thirteenth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 133 It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.

I’ve long told myself that I have a terrible memory. In many ways, that’s true. My short-term recall is hopeless; my capacity for names  embarrassing for a pastor; my capacity to recall numbers almost non-existent.

Not the whole truth, though. I can recall vividly when and where I first saw the woman who would become my wife. Not because it was love at first sight – it wasn’t, for either of us. I was struck by her, sure. I remember the meeting, though, because of the story that followed that meeting. I can remember facts about sport, books, films, plays, holidays, meals – none because of the facts themselves, but because of the story that’s arranged itself around them in my mind. Stories matter deeply to me, lodging themselves into my being like a comfortable old pair of slippers on my feet.

The singers and pray-ers of the Psalms of Ascents had stories to tell. Stories of their individual journey to and from Jerusalem for the great celebrations of the community’s year. They had stories to tell of what had happened to them since their last journey. They had stories to tell of their community’s past – of Abram, of Moses, of Exodus, of David … and on the list would go, stories recounted and recalled on the way to worship, in the liturgies of the worship and the architecture of the temple. The stories would be told and retold, meanings uncovered and unfurled afresh and again as they were re-experienced with each new journey.

This next Psalm, number 132, was one of those. It prompted, through a series of verbal cues, a whole era of the people’s past.

Lord, remember David  (verse 1)

David. The man who helped find the Ark. The Ark of God’s presence.  A wooden box around which the esteem and identity of a nation revolved. A box which in its history provided proof that the presence of the living God was real and mattered. It mattered where God was and that God’s presence was not taken for granted or exploited like a magical spell. Psalm 132 doesn’t retell the story; instead it coaxes memory into life like a cooling cloth on the forehead of the heat-stricken.

So they look back and see what God has been and has done. Then the focus moves; from looking over the shoulder for reassurance they now look ahead with comfort. This God has always been with us, so He will do us well; the line of David will continue, God’s people will be provided for and blessed and rewarded. So they keept going, keep on keeping on because they remembered well. how God had been.


We’ve been doing much remembering over the last two weeks. As we’ve sat trembling with shock at the loss of our dear friend at the indiscriminately evil hands of terrorism, we remember. Where we were when we heard? Who he is, was (which is it? is or was). We remember him and retell his story in our lives. The hugs, the laughs, the arguments, the things done and left undone simply because he caught a terrorist’s bullet.

Grief is horrible. Grief plus trauma is nightmarish. Grief plus trauma plus an international news story is shattering in ways I can’t yet articulate. All of us close to this have been taken to undreamed of places over the last few days and that will continue for some time, maybe in some form for our whole lives. These are events which shift a life on its axis.

Yes, we’ve been doing much remembering. In doing so some of us ask of God why, some of us want to ask a terrorist why, some of us rage, some of us cry. Most us do all of these things and more, in seemingly random waves and cycles moving to their own inexplicable internal rhythm.

God did not protect James. No angel rugby tackled him to the ground as the bullets flew. The Spirit blows where it will, but that day it didn’t blow a bullet off course. So we rage and ask and long and so much more.

If this is where we finish then this is unbearable.

It’s not, though. True Christian faith both lives with this soul-searing reality and still never understands this life as the only destination. Not that this life doesn’t matter; it does, profoundly, and we are called to live it well. The life, though, is a journey to a new creation just as the pilgrims of the Psalms of Ascents were on a journey to temple. To where God’s presence is poured out fully on everything. That’s what we’re heading for. There is where we, with the Psalm writer, will see the poor finally and fully satisfied – so when we assist with that now we point towards what’s coming. There is where all who follow the One who came in the line of David will see what is right crowned with glory, what is evil and violent lie in filthy rags. There violence will have its place finally defined and completely limited.

None of that changes the direction of a bullet or the sting of a tear now. But it gives them an orientation, a limitation, a divinely electrified fence beyond which they will never move. We look back and see God has been, so He will be, even though now it may not feel like He is. I see that in my friend’s life and death.

God willing, I’ll see it in my own. Or somebody else will.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 5: Always More (Psalm 124)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 6: Nothing In The Way (Psalm 125)

A Guidebook For A Trick Journey, Chapter 7: Tell Us A Story (Psalm 126)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 8: God’s Glorious Inefficiency (Psalm 127)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 9: Grow (Psalm 128)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 11: On the uses and uselessness of planning (Psalm 130) 

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 12: Rest, dear child (Psalm 131)

Like a thunderclap: words at the funeral of a friend

I have been out of blogging action for a while. Initially this was due to post-holiday reintegration. Then my friend and church warden, James Thomas, was killed by terrorists in the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, on 21st September. This led to a maelstrom of events of grief, pastoral care and not a little media handling. I’ll post more reflections on this, alongside my return to a more usual pattern of blogging, on due course. For now I take up the blogging baton again with the full text of the sermon I preached at my friend’s funeral yesterday, Wednesday October 2nd, at Bishops Diocesan College, Cape Town. The service was attended by over 1,000 mourners.  

Texts: 2 Timothy 1:1-14 & John 12:20-26, read from The Message

James was visionary, funny, generous and reckless.

I mean all of that in a good way.

I think of the time of our first Easter in South Africa. We’d only moved from the UK a month previously. We hardly knew James and Colleen, but they’d still invited us to join in with a tradition of theirs, a Good Friday open house with coffee and hot cross buns. We couldn’t come because I had to undergo that oddly beautiful but taxing churchy version of the Comrades Marathon and lead a three-hour Good Friday service. Later on Good Friday I was lying in recovery at the house we were staying in, when the phone rang. It was James and Colleen, checking in with this minister they hardly knew to see how he was and how the service had gone and if we needed anything.

I think of another time a few months later. We’d got to know the family rather better. We were experiencing a tough and stressful time; and on this particular day James and Colleen were busy celebrating the marriage of their daughter Sarah to Scott. The phone went. It was James. “Shouldn’t you be at a wedding?”, I said, worried that something had gone wrong. “I am! It’s great! We’ve had the service and we’re on the way to the party” he chuckled. “OK … Um … you should probably not be on the phone to me”, I said. “Nonsense!” came the laughing reply. “I’m not driving, so I thought I’d call you and see how you are and tell you I’m praying for you today and that as we celebrate here we’ll blow away the darkness over you”.

How very James.

I think of his CV. Yes, really, I do. You may have seen it, or read about it recently. It contained the usual things and detailed his many achievements and successes. It couldn’t possibly cover the personal impact which he had on so many of us. There’s one odd thing about his CV, though. It has a section entitled “Nice Ideas I Tried That Didn’t Work Out”. Honestly. Who puts failures on his CV? An idea like great big airships with tour guides and orchestras in them to take tourists all over Cape Town. Great idea! Until you consider one of Cape Town’s dominant weather issues: wind … Or there’s one he told me about recently. However many times he told me I couldn’t quite grasp it. It involved, inevitably, lots of people. Peeling lots of vegetables. Every time he spoke about it I could see that he could see it, but I just couldn’t get my head around it.

If you knew James, you had almost certainly been exposed to one of his mad ideas. But sometimes they could take beautiful wings and fly. I think of the time we were talking about how to celebrate Christmas at St Peter’s. James talked about a big table groaning with food from the many different countries which are represented in our diverse little church. He talked of stories shared, cultures meeting, lives intersecting. And our little church made it happen. The table groaned with Christmas food from Kenya and the Cape Flats, from Mowbray and the English Midlands. The hall buzzed with stories of childhood Christmases from Edinburgh to rural mid-Africa, summer and winter celebrations. A man who sleeps outside embraced a British priest. James had seen it before it happened; he wasn’t able to be there on the day. But he saw it into being.

That was how James lived life, and nowhere more so in the context of his love for God, Jesus and His church. From his many, many years at Christ Church, Kenilworth to, in recent years, catching a vision for a rebuilding on ancient foundations at St Peter’s; to the individuals whom he invited to share his family life with Colleen and the girls; James saw what could be in people and places and so often he managed to will the new person, the new life into being by sheer force of personality and a profound resurrection hope that is deeper than mere optimism.

Optimism can be proved wrong. Hope, like that which James inspires in me, sees that the stumble, the failure, the optimism dashed is just a mile post, not the destination.

How awful that we are here. How unbearable to scan the pages of the Bible and search for something suitable to say. How soul-wrenching to prepare a talk I want with all my soul not to give.

How empty, how futile.

What a defeat. Yes. What a defeat.

And yet.

The greatest weapon evil can wield is a death like this. Violent and sudden like a thunder-clap on a clear summer’s day, it startles us into new reality. We ache with shock, tremble at what and who we miss, weep with Colleen, Sarah, Julie and Sipho. We fear for a new future without a man who could pull the future into the present. It feels awful to receive the blows of this weapon. Yet those blows are, for evil, self-defeating. Cut, wound, kill as they may they ultimately make evil’s loss greater, it’s defeat more total, it’s end more certain. Let’s think of the readings we heard, and that will shed light.

The first one, from an older man to a younger one, Paul to Timothy. A man with stories of adventures to tell, to a man just setting out. A man whose life had been turned from that of one who sought to murder Christ-followers, to one who wanted to see Jesus-churches to grow and flourish; he, to a man about to give the rest of his life to that same cause. 

Paul, the older man, tells of thanking God for the energy and life of Timothy every time he prays. He tells the wonderful story of how God’s work in Timothy was born – one neither he nor Timothy can take any credit for but that leaves the older man with a warm glow of fatherly satisfaction at what God had done and would do.

 So don’t be embarrassed to speak up for our Master or for me, his prisoner. Take your share of suffering for the Message along with the rest of us. We can only keep on going, after all, by the power of God, who first saved us and then called us to this holy work. We had nothing to do with it. It was all his idea, a gift prepared for us in Jesus long before we knew anything about it. But we know it now. Since the appearance of our Savior, nothing could be plainer: death defeated, life vindicated in a steady blaze of light, all through the work of Jesus.

2 Timothy 1: 8-10

Paul’s words, but James could be the writer there, couldn’t he? Looking at Sarah, Julie, Sipho, Scott, those gathered up into the family with him and Colleen. Looking at what he was able to give out of what God had given him. Stories are increasingly told of the ripples James’ life leaves, the people by whom he felt fathered, the inspiration he gave. Now we get the chance to tell those stories without embarrassing him. We wish we didn’t have that chance. But we do; and as we do so, we are inspired to keep going, others are challenged to do the same and we all get reminded of what a life fully devoted to Jesus can do.

This is the way of things. This is how God works. Not, and we must be clear, that Jesus willed the attack. Not that God inspired the shooting. He didn’t. The shooting, the attack remains utterly evil, totally cowardly, an offense to life itself. But the Christian God is One who deals in resurrection. The problem with resurrection is that you have to die first. God promises to those in Christ, resurrection; a life that transcends death, a reality that trumps the fading reality of walls and doors, shopping malls and guns.

Jesus spoke in our reading from John of this strange, painful, divine economy.

Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is, destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.

John 12 24-25

God does not wish for death or violence. Like Jesus at the graveside of his friend, he abhors death. Jesus at a funeral is described as ‘deeply moved’ elsewhere in John’s gospel. It’s a weak attempt to translate a powerful phrase in the original language. It’s the word used of a horse snorting in anger. That’s how Jesus feels about the presence of death in the world.

James reflected that.  He was a conscientious objector to forced conscription who carried a trumpet instead of a gun; hence the Last Post at the start of our service. I don’t know why God doesn’t stop things like this. Anyone who tells you they do understand is most likely talking nonsense.

But I do know that the God we see in Jesus shows us something bigger, fuller, deeper, truer than an answer. He shows us that life, resurrection life blooming out of the dry soil of death, is something that can not and will not be extinguished. Not now. Not in the Westgate Mall. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not in five years’ time when we still wonder why. Not in the new creation awaiting those who are in Him, a perfected creation where the old way of being with all its tears and illness and fear and pain and terrorism and murder and debt and death is no more and things are as God has always said they should and would be.

James would not allow us to praise him in an unqualified way. His CV with his list of things that did not work does not allow us to do so. He would say ‘Come on. You know I’m not perfect. How could I be?”

As we celebrate and honour James, we do so just as much with thankful stories as we do with remembering hurts we may have received from him and releasing forgiveness for things undone and unsaid.

We do that, because we in Jesus are called to something bigger, fuller, deeper, wider which encompasses everything, yet at the same time redefines everything.

There are tears.

There is hope.

The two sit together; the hope gathering momentum and energy to the point of a divine no return, the tears real and aching, but destined to fade when the new creation is born and hope flowers.

Click here to see my wife’s beautiful tribute to James in images and words

This is the full text of the sermon I preached at the funeral of my friend, James Thomas, at Bishops Diocesan College, Cape Town, October 2nd, 2013.