Making friends has always seemed easy to me. It’s part of my nature it seems, to reach out quickly to those I encounter. In my heart, I don’t think I am natively an extrovert but you couldn’t tell if from observing me. It’s what is enigmatic about me, and what confuses some. How can someone who is so outgoing be so intent on seeking solitude?
I am quick on the uptake to reach out to those that I find sharing in my space. I am sure it was drilled into me by my mama to make others feel welcome. Maybe it was a defense against my own loneliness, making friends as insurance against the gathering isolation. Truth is, I love my solitude, but on my terms, when and how I want it. Yep, I figured it out in therapy that I was a socialized extrovert, an introvert that school and church taught me to work the crowd in order to get my value confirmed. That turns out to be a blessing and curse, a true dialectical tension in my soul.
So, I have a lot of friends that I have collected, people that I have met along the way. I keep a list actually that I review weekly. These are the people that have meant something to me at various moments in my life. I look at the list on Sundays and actually pray for them, each one by name. I don’t know how the cosmic lottery works with this prayer thing but I do it nevertheless. I name them singularly, with a prayer of blessing.
I remember my childhood friends, from Lakewood Heights and Carriage Colony. My neighborhood crew that resembles the cast of Sandlot still plays ball in my mind. The characters from College Park, Adams Park, and Lakeside that I played golf with in the hot Georgia sun. And the caddies in the caddy shack with their homespun wisdom are part of the cast of actors in my memory.
I count the folks who went to Emory with me, particularly my fraternity brothers. Living with them in the fraternity house taught me a lot about friendship as well as leadership, learning how to share space and time with people with differing talents and temperaments, and yet bonding over certain values, some holy, some perverse.
In reflection, a lot of my friends came out of church settings. The first was Oakland City Baptist where my grandfather took me to be a part of the “old men’s class”, called the Friendship Class. I would help my granddad lead the singing, which for those of you not versed in psychopathology is termed premature identity closure. My fate was sealed. These old men loved on me, and gave me a passel full of surrogate fathers. I found that I always “kept” an older man to serve as a mentor figure to point the way through the fog. It’s becoming harder to find that older person these days as I receive the blessing of years.
Dogwood Hills Baptist was where I learned about the darkness associated with religion, and the tell-tale gap between what we say we believe and how we live. In the sixties, it was most present in racism as our pastor was fired due to his stand on opening the doors of the church to blacks. Most of my friends were of my age, who shared the confusing journey into sexuality and what to do with ourselves. Sunday school, choir practice, Wednesday night suppers, and summer retreats were more about socialization and testing boundaries than true religion, but soul work nonetheless.
My crew at Decatur First Baptist changed my world. I took a job because of a maverick Baptist preacher, Bill Lancaster, who had the audacity to speak truth into tough, pressing social issues. My friend and roommate, Wendell Brigance, had a spirit of adventure and a love of life that was infectious, and pushed me to get real with my platitudinous religion. I had the best team of youth sponsors that joined me in trying to assist in the development of young people and of college students. And the kids I worked with were the best, looking back on those halcyon days. Decatur shaped my sense of church, and more importantly, community.
Same is true for the parishes I served. They became the treasure trove of friendship and collegiality that would make my time worthy. St. Luke’s in downtown Atlanta, the Cathedral of St. Philip, Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, even my Waterloo at Holy Innocent’s, in the East Cobb suburb of Sand Springs brought me many fine people to play with and interact.
My thinking today about friendship were prompted by two moments last week. One was a phone call from my best friend in Tyler, Texas, Dr. Dan Toney. The other was a call from the son of one of my best friends, Ron Lane, who had died after a struggle with cancer.
Dan called to tell me that his mother had died. Mama Toney, as she was known to me, was just a few weeks away from her hundreth birthday. She had been the organist at her home church in Cooper, Texas for a long time, from back before Jesus was a carpenter in Nazareth. Dan loved his mama, that has been clear to me since I first came to know him. He had cared for her in the latter years like a faithful son should. The call was not a surprise, I mean, she was OLD, even older than me. It would have been probably more of a surprise if he called to tell me she was still alive. So, the call was not a shock.
The thing that touched me was that my old friend Dan, who I love like a brother, would pause in the wake of his mother’s death to reach out to me. It was a sign of our deep connection that transcends time and space. It was a moment of meaning that happens rarely, but affirms a depth of linkage that affirms the power of the past, the magic in the now moment, and the promise of the future. That call from my old friend meant the world to me and caused me to smile, even in the face of death. I caught my breath in the wake of that call, thankful that I had such friendship.
The death of my friend, Ron, was one that was expected. His health had been in decline for some time. His family had gathered for an anniversary a month or so before and gave us an occasion to talk of his life and his expected death. He was eighty five years of age, by the damn calendar, but his spirit was timeless. He had a youthful verve that defied carbon dating, as his childlike enthusiasm rocked the people who shared his space. It came as no surprise to me that he was made “King” of his retirement residence as he has the type of personality that attracts others. He was one of those people I think of as “mayor”, a person whom attracts groups and provides a center of gravity that holds things together.
As a part of Dogwood Hills, he was one of the first adults that treated me like I was a person, not just a kid. I got a profound sense that he valued me and my being, which is a priceless gift to afford to a stumbling adolescent. Ron made me feel like I counted, that my thoughts were of value. He did this mostly by listening, which conveys value. I learned that truth from him and it’s what I tried to do with the kids I worked with in my ministry. He was my model.
I have three specific memories of Ron. The first was when I was in college. Ron invited me to join him at his favorite bar, Clarence Fosters, naturally located on fabled Peachtree Road. I remember him ordering his favorite drink, a Brandy Alexander, which felt so sophisticated to me as I ordered my obligatory 7&7. Ron had that kind of exotic air, like I was meeting Tennessee Williams for a drink to discuss the literary landscape. Faulkner, Flannery, or Faith were possible subjects for our conversation, a different agenda than most of my fraternity talk. Again, the gift was the accord given by time and listening, our talk around things that mattered. It was holy space that I valued, and then tried to recreate with others throughout my life, but it started there.
The second is a trip to the Southern Baptist conference center, Ridgecrest in the mountains of North Carolina. We were “forced” to stay in a hotel off site, “no room at the inn” as the story goes. It allowed us a pool and the opportunity to share a bottle of wine, which forbidden on the holy ground of Ridgecrest. T. Lee Stephens, our Associate Pastor, Ron, and I had come to attend a curriculum conference to look over possible resources for Christian education. As we arrived, we found the wine inventory to be quite limited at the Mini Mart, so we wound up with the WORST bottle of wine ever produced on God’s green earth. It was made by Gallo, if I am not mistaken, but it was a terrible type of sweet wine, Ron’s choice, called a Pink Chablis. This was horrible, but it became our signature gift to one another through the years at momentous times in our lives, such as my wedding, Lee’s coming to work with me in Tyler, and Ron’s retirement. It’s not that easy to find these days, which only proves that the universe does indeed bend toward a moral goal.
My favorite memory is from a time when I was leading a youth retreat at Folly Beach. One of my counselors had to bail at the last minute leaving me a small group leader short for the week. I called Ron and asked if he could fill in. In a Baylor Bear heartbeat, he said “yes” and flew into Charleston to come to my assistance. I picked him up at the airport in my green CJ 5 Jeep, with the proverbial rag top off. Ron threw his duffle bag into the back and down the highway we flew for him to meet my kids, his new best friends. Turning to the side to fill him in as we drove, I witnessed the unceremonious flapping in the breeze of his toupee, a sight that did not last long as he removed it before it flew away into the humid Charleston air. That is a memory that I can not “unsee”, thank God.
I have been asked to eulogize Ron at a memorial service at his Episcopal church a week from now. Preparing for that moment, my memories of Ron and other friends have been dancing in my mind. I have no doubt that I will fail in conveying his essence in the words I craft in the crucible of my writing about this marvelous mystery of a human being. But I hope I can capture just a breath of the grace he gave to me, the grace all of my friends grant as they give me the precious gift of connection called friendship.
I am most grateful. Gift, indeed.