Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Friends I have lost

From Proverbs:

The Memory of the righteous is a blessing…

Blessings are on the head of the righteous….

Whoever walks in integrity walks securely….
Proverbs 10

Two friends who exerted great influence over me died within the last three months. Memorial services were held last month.  They were about the same age, in their mid-80s, had lived very good lives and made a great deal of difference to a lot of hurting people.

One was a psychiatrist, the other was a banker. One was a child of privilege in New York City; the other grew up in a small dust bowl town in West Texas. Both had professional degrees from Harvard.  It was a long way from Throckmorton, TX. to New York City.

I first met the banker when he came to Harvard for graduate study. It was said in his obituary that he had gone to church with his wife of 60 years every Sunday of their life together. One  Sunday while at Harvard he came to the church where I was preaching. He was the chief officer of a bank  and later when he retired they called him the greatest banker in Texas.

So he showed up on Sunday, I preached the sermon, we observed communion as we do each Sunday and women presided at the table. This was 40 years ago and it was uncommon for women to take leadership positions among congregations in our tradition.  He noticed and when I took him back to the business school he asked how we had arrived at our practice. I explained. He listened. When he returned home he wrote me a long letter suggesting that we ought to rethink the matter. I explained again why we had reached the conclusions we had reached.

Later he told his son, a medical student in his final year of study, about us and when the young doctor came to do a rotation at a local teaching hospital he worshiped with us. Later when offered a residency in Boston the son and his new wife came and were part of our community. A trained accountant, his wife served as the treasurer of the church. Over the years our lives have intertwined through children, shared experiences and conversations.  His church home in Houston never found a public role for women but his son got the message.

My friend the psychiatrist, also studied at Harvard. We worked together for over a dozen years doing what I called community psychiatry. No matter how ill the patient, he never forgot the person. He was a humanist in the best sense of the word. He loved the outdoor life, the beauty of mountains, the power of a sunset but he was a stranger to the vagaries of church.

He was a highly ethical man, who listened carefully to the words that were sent his way and was invariably kind when helping parents work through tragedy. I counted on him in different circumstances and contexts.

When his final illness began to overtake him, I listened carefully having learned from him and reminded him what he had left as a legacy. I think I could have shared the 23rd Psalm with him, but the moment was never right.  I often felt I should have been able to give him more since I had received so much from him.

My banker friend wrapped himself in the flag of our country; my doctor friend talked of progressive politics and eschewed platitudes. Their extremes left me some middle ground to explore.

Both men were remarkable fathers, both men lived with integrity. As different as they were I knew I could talk with them and get a straight answer that I might or might not like. Their contrasting world views  broadened my world and gave me room to grow. They challenged me to think carefully before acting; they cautioned me to avoid simplistic solutions to complex problems. They took seriously my conclusions even as they expected me to defer to theirs.

The virtue of these two men is captured by the writer of  Proverbs; I benefitted from knowing them because they both challenged me offering a vision of integrity lived out in real time. They would have liked it if I had chosen their conclusions, but they were able to hear my own take on questions they had already settled. I have been blessed by their presence in my life and they are missed.

Let us pray:

Almighty God,  we give thanks for the varied voices we have heard in our lives. May we always appreciate those who challenge us and listen to us, those who take us seriously and those who have no room for our self-importance.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute