Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
March 3, 2002
She was six years old the first time I saw the cute little girl who would become my bride 14 years later. It was the first day of school in September 1938. We were beginning the first grade together, two of the 30 students in Mrs. Oakley Melton’s class.
We had no idea that day that we would spend the next twelve years in school together there in the small town of Wetumpka, Alabama. Except for one year we were seated near each other. Seating was alphabetical and her last name was Brown. So in most classrooms we were both usually on the front row.
Dean’s long brunette hair did not catch my eye then like it would later when we were teenagers. As we grew up we became friends. Eventually we were both members of the same “gang” of 12 to 15 boys and girls who partied together frequently through our senior high years.
When we paired off as couples during our weekend gatherings, Dean and I were drawn to each other. Somewhere along the way I fell for Dean. Somehow I knew that she was “the one” for me. None of the other girls attracted me quite like this beautiful brunette who had won my heart.
Though we were not married until we were 20, we sometimes joke about having had a 14-year courtship. Now, as we approach the celebration of our 50th anniversary, we feel so fortunate to have known each other for 64 of our 70 years. For many years I have been humbly aware that Dean’s friendship is the greatest gift anyone has ever given me. I treasure it more than my own life.
The value of friendship did not dawn on me in my early years. I was aware that I had friends and was thankful for it. But many years would come and go before it occurred to me how blessed my life have been by the enduring gift of the friendship of other persons. In the autumn of my life I am convinced that friendship is the most precious gift anyone can give or receive.
This idea was reinforced by a conversation with Billy last Saturday. Billy was the best man in my wedding. We were roommates in college at Auburn. His focus was engineering; mine was English and journalism. After marriage and graduation we drifted apart.
Twenty years later we discovered we were living in the same city. We renewed our friendship. When our family moved to another city, we lost contact again. We never consciously gave up on each other; more likely it was the tyranny of the urgent that consumed our time, attention, and energy until none was left for long distance relationships. “Out of sight, out of mind” may explain it.
When I dialed the number I thought might be Billy’s, he answered and I thought I recognized his voice. I should have identified myself but instead my first word was a question: “Billy?” His response was a tentative “Yes,” and I sensed he figured I was selling shingles or vitamins. Quickly I identified the voice he had not heard in 27 years. His immediately warm response cheered my soul.
Within minutes our friendship was renewed as we shared current information about our children and grandchildren. We made a plan to get together soon to share the joy of seeing each other face to face. As our conversation ended I felt so blessed that the friendship of an old friend had not been lost. Billy had generously indicated that he also valued the renewal of our relationship.
That does not always happen. When our family moved back to Nashville after an interval of 12 years, I ran into my best friend during my seminary days at Vanderbilt. We met on the street, waiting for the light to change at an intersection. He responded coolly to my warm greeting.
I remembered that he liked to play tennis. I asked if he had time to play with me one afternoon. He was not rude but replied that he already had a partner he played with every week. I got the message. It was quite obvious. He had politely explained that he had no time in his busy life for me.
We walked away from each other that day with a sense of finality. We have never talked again. Right or wrong, the signal I picked up from him that day was that the bridge between us had been burned. He felt no need to rebuild it.
Perhaps my judgment that day was hasty. I tried to convince myself of that. Maybe my friend had a migraine headache that day. Maybe the pressure of a terrible personal problem absorbed him. Finally I concluded that I should respect his apparent wish that our friendship not be renewed.
For a while I struggled with his indifference and rejection. I nursed the hurt. Then wisely I decided one day to give it up. The hurt was healed. I embraced a deeper awareness that not everyone will treasure my friendship. But that does not diminish my worth as a person. On the contrary, it enhances my appreciation for the friendships that a few people do offer me.
As a pastor and a pastor’s wife, Dean and I have had the privilege of serving many different churches. In each setting our greatest reward was not my salary but the gift of friendship several people offered us. Pastors soon learn that many of their parishioners are content to offer only casual friendship. Some will not offer even that. A few may feel compelled to engage in a hostile relationship with their pastor. That is not unusual; it is simply the way life is.
This awareness must be tempered by the reality than no person can be a “close” friend of many people. The number is probably no more than eight or ten. We can, of course, serve one another in love and work together to achieve common purposes. We can bless one another with mutual respect and link our lives to accomplish common goals. Such a relationship can be treasured even though it does not reach the level of close friendship.
During nearly 13 years in Opelika my wife and I have been blessed with the gift of friendship that has been extended to us by many people. Some of those friends are in the church I serve; others are not. I treasure each one. I take none for granted. I have had the high honor of serving alongside some of the finest men and women I have ever known. Friendship was not required, but it was given, and in each case it was a gift, a precious gift.
None has been more precious than that given me by my staff at Trinity. We have worked together but even more we have laughed and played together. We have had our share of crises but we have survived, mostly because of the depth of our friendship. True friendship allows people to struggle through failure, disappointment, anger, and frustration, and emerge stronger and more mature. We have seen a stronger bond result from conflict.
The longer I live the more profoundly grateful I am for the gift of friendship, whether casual or close. No other gift is more precious. All other gifts pale by comparison.