I’m sure you have a very special person in your life with whom you have your own unique relationship. My person is an older gentleman, Bob, and we’ve been friends for twenty years. In fact, Bob is my longest, continuous friend despite the fact that he and I have both been moving hither and yon across the United States for the past six years. Some people just occupy that special place in your heart.
Bob was on the committee who hired me at the last church I served full-time. I was at a large, prestigious church in the suburbs of Silicon Valley, and was looking to take a position in an aging, urban church in a dubious part of San Jose, California. It’s large, historic sanctuary had recently burned to the ground. It looked like a nasty lawsuit against the insurance company would ensue. The congregation was aging and dwindling. The homeless, mentally ill, addicted, racially diverse poor, and a small elementary school were the churches neighbors. Everyone thought I was committing career suicide. All except the handful of faithful parishioners, like Bob, who were excitedly bringing in new leadership for a new start.
Bob and his wife, Jan, were pillars of the church. They sang in the choir and were active in various ways in the church. Bob also played in the handbell choir, one of the few men. Let me tell you, handbells are A LOT harder to play that it looks! Bob, almost imperceptibly, counted because I’m not sure he read music. The men’s section of the choir, led by Bob and Merle, were always teasing me, adding in their own commentary during the children’s sermon that was only audible enough for me to hear! It took a very long time for the rest of the congregation to catch on to the antics of the bass and tenor sections!
Early in my tenure, Bob was diagnosed with colon cancer. We started spending regular time together during his year-long chemotherapy treatment. Cancer got Bob to thinking about his life and faith and, as usually happens when you start thinking about these things, questions and new thoughts surface. As his pastor, I was the accessible and safe person who knew him a little, and yet was outside the circle of family and friends who had known him for a really long time. He could explore and talk about things that he was thinking about without shocking (at least that’s what he was concerned about) the people who knew him. He was also an intensely private person and an engineer, so this whole realm of feelings and talking about his beliefs was new, unchartered territory for him.
There was one week during each month of chemo treatments when he felt like eating. That’s when we began our monthly lunch dates. When I needed adult volunteers for our after-school tutoring program at the elementary school, Bob signed on. He never missed even when he was feeling so yucky from the chemotherapy. Bob was always willing to do things for other people, but he did these activities for himself.
Bob and his wife traveled extensively, socialized regularly with longtime friends, and were very involved with their son and his wife, and daughter and her family. As you can imagine, his life was completely altered when his wife of forty-plus years died after her own battle with cancer. His loving family was most attentive and he still had life-long friends who stayed in touch. But, as with his cancer, he used this major, life-altering event to explore more new personal territory. He added acupuncture and psychotherapy, nothing his contemporaries were doing!
Although I was no longer at that church, Bob and I continued having lunch together. I invited him to my family gatherings when he was alone for holidays. We shared books we each were reading, music we were listening to, and rides to medical appointments when we couldn’t drive ourselves. I became his regular companion to the opera and theater when the attention of widows became a nuisance to him (smile). It was a wonderful treat for both of us. We’d have dinner and a wonderful evening out. By now we were mutually supportive of one another. I so appreciated his ability to listen, with wisdom and without judgment, as I was working through my own challenges. Bob was that special friend who knew me and supported me and cared for me, as I trust, I was the same for him.
Bob had a massive stroke when I was away on my honeymoon. We were out of the country and I didn’t know the extent of anything until I returned. Bob’s capable family was already making plans and arrangements. He had a new frontier ahead of him now and neither of us would be living in the same area any longer. Although communicating was difficult and I wouldn’t see him any more, I knew we shared a bond of the heart that would always be with each of us.
Bob died this week, at the age of 87. I will be forever grateful for his special gift of friendship, celebrate his well-lived life, and look forward to seeing him again on the other side of eternity. Blessings and love, my friend. Amen.