Good friends are hard to find. They are even harder to lose.
Thirty-five years ago this summer, we moved into a newly-built parsonage in a new development called Sand Lake Hills in West Orange County to start a new United Methodist congregation. The District Superintendent handed me a pile of cards with the names and addresses of people who had expressed some interest in the new church in a survey that had been done by the United Methodist Men.
As I left the house to start knocking on doors, Marsha suggested that I find a family with daughters for our girls to play with. She said it would be nice if they had a pool.
The home of Neil and Bonnie James was one of my first stops because they were right around the corner on one of the few streets I knew how to find. They had been Methodists in Ohio, were interested in the new church, had a daughter exactly the same age as our oldest, and they even had a pool.
Neil and Bonnie became some of the best friends we’ve had. They were charter members of what became St. Luke’s United Methodist Church at Windermere. Neil and I were charter members and successive Presidents of the Dr. Phillips Rotary Club. Bonnie and Marsha were actively involved in opening the new elementary school in the neighborhood. Our daughters grew up together. Today they live on the same street and their children are growing up together the way they did.
Friends like that are hard to find. They are even harder to lose.
Three years ago Neil, who played basketball in college and might have become a professional golfer, was diagnosed with a rare, debilitating condition called Lewy Body Dementia. As I write these words, he is under Hospice care and we are waiting for him to die.
If it’s true that men sometimes have a hard time sharing themselves in deep, honest, vulnerable friendships, I have been surprisingly and richly blessed. Neil was the kind of friend who always told the truth. He brought out the best in me and I can only hope that I did the same for him.
Faith was not easy or simplistic for Neil. He was a ravenous reader with a brilliant and questioning mind. The words that Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in memory of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, could also be said of Neil.
Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,
He would not make his judgment blind,
He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them: thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own;
And Power was with him in the night,
Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone…
Friends like that are hard to find. They are even harder to lose. But it would be even harder to live this life without them.
We will gather at the church Neil helped build to give thanks for his life, to face the painful reality of his death, and to claim the promise and hope of the resurrection in which we will all be gathered together again.