Almost always the blogs I write are primarily biblically-based explorations of Christian theology. Often they are motivated by the positivity that saturates this church we love. Sometimes they are light and humorous. This one, however, is different. Personal. Even somewhat painful. But, if you live long enough, it is undeniably pertinent.
I have lost four friends in the past year. To a person they were individuals who meant more to me than words can adequately capture. They occupied crucial spaces in various seasons of my journey to this point. Jim was my best friend during middle high, senior high, and college. We lived next door to one another. We played sports together virtually every day. He had a brother ten years his senior, and I was an only child. So, Jim and I were like family. We trusted each other. We laughed constantly. We shared our dreams that no one else knew. I hosted a radio show for four years, and he did a team of comic characters on it. He was too young to die.
Ralph was my next-door-neighbor when I pastored my first church after graduating from seminary. I was unmarried and would have spent a lot of nights having one-sided conversations with my Saint Bernard had it not been for Ralph and his wife, Blanche. They more or less adopted me. As a minister, I had numerous night-time meetings. As Mayor of our town, so did Ralph. But when we both had nights off, you could count on finding me at their dinner table and then watching TV with them as the evening grew late. I saw Ralph a few months ago. He was living in a health care facility. As I exited his room, he said, “I love you, Michael. You’re like my own son.” I assured him I would be back to visit again. Ignoring that remark, he repeated, “I love you, Michael.” I think he knew it was our last visit.
Don was a friend of many years who was a confidante to me and a kind of unofficial uncle to my younger son. Don was a man of inexpressible grace, irrepressible humor, and inexhaustible wisdom. I officiated at his wedding to Sara, who is also a dear friend and a colleague in ministry. I saw Don a few months ago when back in NC and told him I couldn’t wait till next time. He died last month before a next time ever came.
Recently I officiated at the memorial service of Alex. He and I were like brothers for twenty-four years. He taught me the fine points of Italian food, red wine, and jazz music. He was a brilliant historian and philosopher. Most of all, he was someone who was there for me every week since 1992. Even with five hundred miles between us, not a week passed that we didn’t communicate. When I think of the word “friend,” Alex’s face comes to mind. I saw him the week before he died. He could no longer speak, but he could hear. So with him, at least, I was able to say the things I needed to say. But he was too strong a person, too vital, and too alive to leave that early. As my wife says, “He occupied a space too large for anyone else to fill.”
Four friends in one year. To be sure, I have suffered previous losses like my parents and grandparents. Those wounds were deep, and the memories are constantly there. But, however painful those losses are, they are also predictable. It’s the way the cycle of life is designed. But when you begin to lose friends, many of whom are contemporaries, then grief and mortality take on new meanings. In a certain sense those words are frightening. The pages of the calendar turn with increasing rapidity. Sickness and death are no longer words you can choose to ignore, as we did in our youth when we all felt invulnerable and immortal. As Alex sometimes said, “I don’t think any of us are going to get out of this alive!” It was a funny line. It was also true.
But in another sense, though the losses are painful, the memories are inspiring. Each person reminds us of years that were enriching and invigorating. They remind us that true wealth is not a matter of how much money you possess but rather of how many friends you can name. They remind us that the shared journey is the meaningful journey. They remind us that life is bigger than death – that memories and legacies, impact and influence live on in ways that death cannot destroy. They remind us of the assurances that faith imparts, that surely God does not create lives of such meaning and dignity for “a time” but for “all time.” There simply has to be something beyond what our mortal eyes can see. I find particular comfort in the promise Jesus made: “Whoever believes in me, though they die, yet shall they live.” (John 11:25) And in that statement from our faith, we are also reminded that in whatever comes next, reunion is a legitimate hope. Those whom we have “loved and lost” a while are not necessarily lost forever. In some form too grand for our minds to conceive, we may once again see familiar smiles, hear familiar voices, and resume familiar friendships that were not ended after all.
And so we go on, don’t we? We move forward after losses, never forgetting those who made us what we are. We move forward, open to the possibility that other friendships will emerge for new seasons of life yet to come. And, we also move forward honoring the memories of those we loved by emulating them and trying to be as caring a friend to others as they were to us. Thus, between “what was” and “what is yet to come,” we move forward, thankful that before loss there was love.