Goodbye Friend

A good friend of mine has recently died.  He happens to be English, so I have not seen him for some time.  He moved back to England.  Distance does not diminish friendship; it just makes it more difficult to spend one-on-one time in person.  We’ll call my friend, John.  I have known John for nearly four decades.  He was a fellow Quaker.  We had some things like that in common.  And there was much about him that was quite different than me.
I learned that John was an avid sports fan.  As a former athlete and sports fan, this appealed to me.  Very early in my time in England, John posed a question.  “Do you want to go with me to a football match?”  Affirmatively, I replied.  And so it was that I saw my first English Premier League soccer match.  It was at Aston Villa, one of the three Birmingham “major league” teams, as we would call them.
And so began my soccer----football education---in English.  I learned that the game was played on the pitch, not the field.  My education happened not only at the game, but soon thereafter.  My profound memory of that football match happened as we were leaving the stadium.  We emerged into a huge football hooligan brawl.  There must have been five-hundred younger fans from both sides engaged in a pitched battle.  Bottles, bricks and the like were flying like missiles.  We crouched next to a brick wall just beyond the melee.  I was scared, but John reassured that we would survive.  Suddenly, I realized he was not only a friend; he was also becoming a kind of mentor.
Because both of us were involved in higher education around the broad theme of religion, discussions were also breaking out about various issues of spirituality.  Because Quakers always begin their spiritual story with experience, rather than doctrine, I was intrigued to learn about John’s own pilgrimage.  Our personal stories are always revelatory.  His story did not disappoint me.
And so the real person, John, came to be a friend.  He was a bright, insightful Quaker scholar.  He was the Oxford-educated intellectual.  But he was a sports guy with interests as pedestrian as mine---a guy who grew up on an Indiana farm.  John was fun and funny.  He could be serious and, yet, he always had a twinkle in his eye and was ready for a laugh.  I found him to be both extraordinary and ordinary.
A pivotal point in John’s life was his experience of his father’s death.  John told me the night his father died, “I had to take a long look at myself.  I had to ask what I believed.”  To ask yourself what you believe is a profound moment.  John focused some on the fact that he was educated at Oxford University.  This is like being at Harvard---or even better!  John had to contend with whether he was “fully Oxford” or whether this was just part of his development?  His story became even more intriguing to me.  John’s story became a story of transformation.
Listen to his fairly long narrative.  Thinking about what trying to be “fully Oxford” demanded of him, he made a decision.  “The consequence of all this is that I parted company with my pedestal.  I saw through the system that had selected me and schooled me and given me its values and standards.  I prized my education highly, but came to reject what it had been for.  I discovered the joy of being ordinary.”  I loved this end-point: a joy in discovery he was ordinary.  As a farm boy from Indiana, I could relate. 
But his story did not end there.  He continues in a very spiritual fashion.  “These changes were set in motion the night I got back from the hospital…That night I came to know that as Christ was resurrected, so should my father live.  For the very first time, I had life in me.”  I find this very touching.  Even if I had no faith at all, I don’t think I could doubt the validity of his experience and even interpretation.  He had life in him and he knew why.  All this was behind John by the time I met him.  But it was also still in front of him, because he was still living out the consequences of the life he had in himself.
And now my friend has died.  So I can amend his earlier quotation about his father.  I expect that as Christ was resurrected, so should John now live.  I can affirm this in faith.  Clearly, I cannot prove it.  I hope it is true---for John’s sake and mine.  I am sure that John would have agreed with me that some form of life after death is not necessary to live a spiritual life here on earth. 
In death, as in life, John is a friend and mentor.  I can laugh at the fact we also were soccer buddies and baseball buddies.  To be spiritual should make us more human, not less.  That was one of my key learnings from John.  When people are popular, like he was, too often people try to imitate him and his life.  We were different enough, that I know imitating him was not an option.  Besides the spiritual key is to become all that God wants us to be.  That is our life’s work.
His life’s work is finished---at least, on this planet.  But his influence still is present---befriending and mentoring.  For that I am grateful.  And I can say, goodbye friend.

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