A Tribute to My Friend, Justin
~ Justin Searles ~
“The mystery of one man is too immense and too profound to be explained by another man.” –Henri J.M. Nouwen
Yet, this is my attempt to try.
Every youth group has that one kid; that one guy that you can always count on to do or say something totally ridiculous. He isn’t attention seeking, yet there’s no question he’s the life of the party. Everyone loves him, even if they don’t really know why.
Every school has that one kid; that one guy you can always count on to be there for you in your struggles. He’s the caring soul, the shoulder to cry on, and at the end of the conversation will always make you smile… even if it’s just a little. Whether it’s a well-timed crack of a joke or maybe just the way he smiles back at you, he made you feel as if everything really was going to be okay.
No one ever knows the things that go on in his mind, the feelings he has, and the emotions that flood his conscience. He’s always willing to take on the extra burden of another's sorrow, he’s always smiling. The kind of guy who appears he could never break. It isn’t that he has it all together, but he doesn’t have to. In fact, that’s what makes him so fun and unique to be around. You never really know how the time will go. He is the helping hand; the knight that rides in at the right time.
The epitome of a guy many would love to be, the guy many would love to hang around with.
Justin Searles was that guy.
It is never easy to get through times of loss. And it is all the more difficult to capture- in a few paragraphs- the greatness of someone’s life, all the more when their life was closely entwined with your own, and when the greatness was too grand, and the life too short.
I met Justin over a decade ago when he came to my church. I knew what it was like to be the new guy and his mom was one of my small group leaders. I reached out after his mom introduced us, and we immediately clicked. I quickly found out that he didn’t need me though… because it seemed that he clicked with everyone.
He was an incredible joy to be around.
I don’t mean to paint a perfectly rosy picture though. For platitudes and fantasy won’t do here. Justin wasn’t perfect. He didn’t need to be. He was who he was and that was more than enough for any of us. He was a gentle giant, a man with a heart too big to handle. He spoke his mind, a trait that could get him into some trouble… nonetheless is a trait we all came to respect him for.
“If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” –Sirius Black, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Justin was always bigger than everyone, he was solid. He was a great person to have to back you up. And he knew it. But he never let that make him a bully. He was a protector. He didn’t seek power. He sought peace.
As a kid in elementary school, he was offered to be a safety patrol and turned it down so that he could be a peer counselor instead. Justin didn’t need the yellow belt and badge to feel like he could be helpful. He didn’t need the power to enforce rules. He used his inner strength to treat the souls, the human-ness of each person.
“Compassion is born when we discover in the center of our own existence not only that God is God and man is man, but also that our neighbor is really our fellow man.” – Henri J.M. Nouwen
Justin understood this to a T.
Life beat him up at times, but isn’t that the story of all of us? Life beats us all up at times, what matters is how we respond.
I’ve heard it referred to as “the bounce”. When you hit rock bottom you find out what you are made of…
Justin, well he was a super ball.
He bounced back higher and higher each time.
He bounced until he couldn’t anymore.
We all wish his final battle would have turned out differently, but I have come to believe that no matter what death may take from us, it can never win. Everything can be redeemed. A life lived so well, a life given for others, a life so precious to so many will always mean more than one single moment.
“For I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
–Apostle Paul, Romans 8
One thing is for sure, Justin loved. And he was loved. And it is that love that transcends any kind of separation that binds us all together today and forever.
One word used over and over to describe Justin is the word, “consistent.”
He was the same guy everywhere, what you saw is what you got. It wasn’t long before all of my friends saw that in him too.
Before I knew it, Justin was “that guy” in the youth group. You know, the one who would always be the last person clapping… awkwardly… but there was absolutely no shame with him. Every now and then he would battle it out with me over who clapped last.
If we had laser pointers you better believe the red dot on the screen was coming from his direction… and if there was leftover pizza (or really anything), he was there, making sure no food was wasted.
He was the first to do a belly flop at our pool parties, the first to “borrow” the keys to Brian’s office (our youth pastor), and of course… the ultimate prankster.
I think that was our greatest bonding experience.
If we had a motto together it definitely would have been the motto of Fred and George Weasley and the Marauders from the Harry Potter series (our favorite book series): “We solemnly swear that we are up to no good.”
It wasn’t uncommon for Brian to find us in his office rearranging things, hiding his phone, flipping his computer screen upside down.
One time during a lock-in, Brian had his keys on him the whole time and made sure his office remained locked.
That didn’t stop us.
Justin lifted me into the tile ceiling and I crawled through a very small opening and dropped down on the other side of the office door. We were determined to use that extra toilet paper and redecorate the office.
Of course, there’s the famous Watermelon helmets that we would concoct.
It consisted of a carved out watermelon half filled with all different sorts of ingredients… Popcorn butter (Justin’s favorite ingredient), PB&J, bread crumbs, whipped cream, chocolate fudge, milk, pepperoni… really whatever we could find.
We would secretly and abruptly ‘crown’ someone with this helmet… most of the time it would be Brian though we would settle for some other unsuspecting youth sponsor from time to time too.
I remember every Sunday afternoon talking football with him, what we thought of the NFL games, our predictions for the college bowl games… he was convinced that the Florida Gators were going the National Championship every year, one of the few things that we could never agree on.
We set up the chairs and organized dodgeball just about every week at youth. Every so often we would be tasked to set everything back up for Sunday morning as well. We made chair set-up a race and devised the quickest strategy to getting them done… that is until they started paying us hourly to do it. We found ways to slow it down *just a little bit* then.
After all, we needed the money for CiCis and Gator’s Wings.
I could write so many different memories, pranks, and moments we had together where everyone else just rolled their eyes. From the moments when we found ourselves on the church roof, just because, to raiding Brian and Summer’s refrigerator, dyeing our hair different colors at CIY conferences, creating new ways to drive our pastors crazy, dodgeball glory, football practice, bowling with a frozen turkey, and all the serious moments in between. Justin made my teenage years a thousand times more fun just by being my friend.
We were there for each other during the break-ups, the school projects, the long drives to and from camps, the sweat, the tears, all of it.
He was the definition of fun and caring.
That was another favorite topic of conversation. We had our fan theories, and we argued over some of the most intricate details of that world. That was us though. Nerdy, you bet. I wouldn't trade it for anything.
We were both at a conference in Illinois when the seventh book came out. My parents picked up my copy from Borders at midnight and once we got back I started reading it. My family and I were leaving for a mini-family vacation the next day, so I had nothing to do but read. It was glorious. I would know all the things we spent so much time talking about first. I had the Spoilers!
Now even though I had a day’s worth of reading jump start on him, he still ended up catching up to me. His family met us at the beach condo we had for the weekend the next day and there we were, two sunburning book worms sitting in the sand.
We spent that whole weekend at the beach taking turns trying to finish it as quickly as possible… so that we could talk about it of course!
And as soon as we both finished, we started over with book one.
Buck-buck, Bible studies, Frisbee, High School graduation, Water Slides, him moving into the dorms at Florida Christian College while I was moving away to Ozark Christian College, Video games, his call when I went through the darkest time in my life in Missouri, the midnight movies, his help when Joplin was hit with the tornado, his help with my side lawn business…
...My thoughts are all scrambling to remember everything we did together.
Though we drifted the last few years because of the different directions life took us, we still knew the other was just a phone call away for anything.
As I watched on facebook all the different posts and comments from his coworkers at Disney, college friends, and neighbors; I know that they got to know the same Justin I knew.
Justin loved people. People loved Justin. There is nothing that can change that fact.
The truth is, there will be an emptiness in our lives from this point forward. We will think back over our memories of Justin, hold tight to them, but then we may begin to feel a sense of loss.
I do not believe that loss is the correct word to describe this though. When something or someone is lost, it means we don’t where they are, we can’t find them. But we do know where he is. We do know where to find him. Look inside. He’s there. To quote Justin’s favorite movie, Rafiki the Baboon tells Simba to… “Look harder, He lives in YOU.”
We find Justin in our memories. I find him in some of the memories I have shared, you will find him in the memories you have. Deep within, he’s there. He’s there waiting for you with a smile on his wing sauce covered face, laughing.
We also find rest in the hope of the promise of God, in that Justin is not lost, because I know exactly where he is, safely in the arms of Jesus.
I knew Justin as a man of faith. He entrusted himself, his hopes and his future to the God of the universe revealed to us in Jesus. Because of Justin’s faith, I have faith, that what the Bible says is true. Although this was not the will of God for Justin’s life. Although we wished this could have transpired differently. Although there is pain and hurt and an emptiness for us all to wrestle through… we can know that Justin is healed. Justin is free. Justin is alive in Christ… and he is awaiting a day of reunion with us.
There will be a day with no more tears, no more pain, and no more fears.
There will be a day when the burdens of this place, will be no more, we'll see our friend face to face.
But until God brings that day, Justin, we'll hold on to you always.
~~~ Rest in Peace, Brother ~~~
For those of you who may be struggling, know that there are always people listening. There is always another way out of whatever circumstances you are struggling with. You are important. You matter. You are created with a purpose and there is always hope. Never give up.
Below are some resources for you to reach out for help, please do:
Below are some resources for you to reach out for help, please do: