You are not permitted to download, save or email this image. Visit image gallery to purchase the image.
I'm sad this week. I'm sad because we've lost Jim.
It's been a hard year actually, first with the death of Chris* in January and now Jim*, recovering in hospital one day, gone forever the next.
Through my church I'm a supporter of a group of men known as The Way Up. The group started because there were men facing mental and social challenges, some of whom knew they needed God's grace in their lives.
There were volunteers willing to walk alongside, humbly directing their attention upwards. In 2008 I offered help, feeling not a little foolish because I couldn't envisage what useful contribution I could make. But what I felt was God's prompting to "lean in" anyway and offer hospitality, interest in them as valued folk, whatever.
Since then I've come to know the chaps (as I call them) and have walked with them a little way. And in the process I myself have received love and grace.
Life isn't straightforward for the men in the group: there are upsets with the law and flatmates, money's in short supply, alcohol and drugs are a temptation, often they're isolated. Life in short can be an enormous struggle with no obvious resolution in sight. The Way Up "alongsiders" supporting them know above all that this is a long journey.
Jim was a solitary individual with long, bleached blond hair, a hesitant (and charming) way of talking and a penchant for squatting in unusual places, e.g. doorways or a corner of his own sparsely furnished living room. Sometimes he would lie down during a meeting, from which lofty position he would pose questions. He was always smoking.
At my house the rule was you had to smoke outside. Once my sons spotted him squatting just inside the front door, smoking. The problem was the door was shut. They didn't have the heart to point this out.
My mother, diagnosed with Alzheimer's while in Dunedin for a few months in 2009 and absolutely no respecter of personal status, thought Jim was fabulous. The warmth was mutual.
Over the years Jim wormed his way into my heart. I came to admire his acceptance of, even contentment with, his own often problematic lot, including as he put it the "curse of schizophrenia". He loved Joan Baez and Simon and Garfunkel and would produce his stamp collection with a flourish. He asked after my family regularly, and gave me the singular honour of dubbing me his "Mum". He would continue to show up for Sunday lunches despite his own health difficulties and sometimes poor spirits.
Although gentle, he was a straight shooter when necessary. Every now and then he'd say of my cooking, "Lunch wasn't up to your usual standard, Jenny!" Initially his candour took me by shock, but I learnt to laugh and say humbly, "I'll try harder next time."
Jim found his way to Jesus, commenting often on the fact that we belonged to one another as members of the household of God.
The year my mother was visiting, Christmas was at my house and the sun beat down uncharacteristically. We carried our dessert outside and sat on the grass, the ice cream melting before our eyes. Someone produced a guitar and we sang. We were a group of Way Up men with various challenges, my family of sons, the leader of the group with his own unusual family grouping and my often-befuddled little mother. I looked around at the ragtag company, now drinking mugs of tea. "This is wonderful," I said, wanting to mark the moment's size and significance.
"This is family," said a guest. And in that instant I knew it was so: the chaps had become my people, my family.
This is the challenge, I think. God calling us to embrace new relationships far from the madding crowd of money, and status, and stuff. Calling us to let people into our lives and discover that we're meant to be together. The revelation for me has been that nothing about our Sunday lunches has to be perfect; all we have to do is make a place at the table where people can be seen, heard and loved.
Henri Nouwen says that the mentally handicapped - but I think this could mean anyone with challenges - "reveal God to us and hold us close to the Gospel".
I believe this, that a divine exchange happens. Even as I open the door, I receive. I see the resolute patience these men apply to their problems, and recognise my own life's blessings. I hear their prayers and I'm challenged to show similar openness to the grace of God. They extend friendship to me. They give me love, pure and simple. The Way Up chaps have indeed expanded my concept of family and belonging. They've shown me that one can live with contradictions and setbacks, and life can still sparkle.
Now, I'm comforted by the thought of Jim's entry into the hereafter. I have no doubt that right now he's squatting in a corner of heaven, free at last, and whole.
*Not their real names
-Jenny Beck is a keen member of Dunedin City Baptist community.