“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven” Ecclesiastes 3:1 (KJV)
“Lord, make me know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am. Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreath; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Selah. Surely every man walketh in a vain shew” Psalm 39:4-6a (KJV)
“Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” James 4:14 (KJV)
My longtime close friend and fellow explorer of life’s byways, both real and imagined, Russell, passed away a week ago. Our friendship goes all the way back to the days of junior high school. My favorite memory from those days is the times we would spend riding our bikes through the woods exploring trails together alongside other good friends as if we were all some sort of heroic band of New World explorers boldly going where no man had gone before, to borrow Captain Kirk’s famous opening line from one of our shared favorite TV series, Star Trek.
It was unimportant and of no significance to any of us that the wild universe we were exploring was the wooded area adjacent to where we all lived. No, as far as we were all concerned we were on the outer reaches of the galaxy discovering strange new worlds just as the opening Star Trek monologue so enticingly beckoned us to do. It was a wonderful siren’s call and we were all willingly spellbound.
The only thing holding us back from our appointed mission on those Saturdays was the lengthening shadows of dusk that, sadly, occurred far earlier than any of us ever wanted them to in our sun-shielded galaxy of planets populated with towering, mysterious beings whose outstretched arms branched out and sought to capture, or worse, any uninvited explorers such as ourselves.
What exciting and amazingly uncluttered with life’s demands good times those were. As the song goes, “we thought they’d never end.” But, sadly they did come to an end. Russell’s dad was transferred to another state before we were able to embark on the next grand adventure of exploring the looming and mysterious galaxy known as high school together.
Years passed with no contact between the two of us. It wasn’t until decades later that we finally reconnected thanks to the internet. Russell took a chance and left an anonymous post on a social media site looking for people that had graduated in our year of graduation from our once shared hometown high school. I stumbled over his post one day and decided to take a chance and reply not knowing who was on the other end.
Imagine our surprise when we realized exactly who had just stepped back into our lives after such a long and silent absence. Oswald Chambers has a quote from his great devotional work, “My Utmost For His Highest” that I dearly love and that fits so well into the context of such an unlikely “lost then found” reunion between two friends: “Do you perceive mere coincidence, or do you discern the hand of God?”
As I reflect on the lasting effects and impact of our renewed friendship stemming from that unexpected reunion I am certain this was no chance or random coincidence. To think otherwise isn’t a viable possibility. How can a gift that keeps on giving owe its very existence to anything other than divine providence?
As cliché as it may sound our friendship was something akin to Lennon-McCartney, or perhaps Rodgers and Hammerstein. At times I’m sure it was also like Abbot and Costello, or Laurel and Hardy. Penn and Teller come to mind as well. In my mind Russell could’ve easily been either Lennon or McCartney while I, even on my best days, was merely a shadow of the other half of the team. Regardless of who was who all of these famous duos or teams shared a common bond of creative chemistry. Spontaneous combustion was just a lone spark away from igniting a burst of creative energy in each of these pairs. And so it was between the two of us.
Remarkably this close friendship was rekindled and forged fairly quickly over a relatively short period of time through emails that ended up spanning many years marked by only an occasional phone call. He loved to write. I love to write. It was that simple.
Russell managed to bring out in me a creative side that few others have yet been able to access. He had this ability of encouraging me to step outside of my comfort zone. I never feared rejection or ridicule when I did so. When I think of Russell the phrase “freedom to be me” quickly comes to mind. Each email volley presented a wonderful opportunity to boldly go where I’d never been before on a variety of subjects and yes, do so creatively.
We played off of each other with rare ease on a variety of subjects. His knowledge on a wide range of subjects never ceased to amaze me. Our email duet was reminiscent of that wonderful back and forth volley between banjo and acoustic guitar found in the song, “Dueling Banjos” and it always left us grinning ear to ear.
So many times on so many subjects, but especially so when it came to music, he would be the teacher and I would be the student. How was it possible for him to be so well versed and aware of so many artists and songs that I was not? I used to say to him, “Russell, there you go again. You’ve saved me from my Neanderthal existence by pulling me out from under my rock and into the light of day…thank you…again!” He’d always reply with a laugh, but not with the laugh of superiority. No, it was never like that. It was always the laugh of someone who delighted and enthusiastically embraced the joy of seeing another person suddenly experiencing the epiphany of a great beauty or mystery that has just been revealed. I loved how he expanded my otherwise flat, vanilla sort of world into an amazing multi-colored and textured sphere. It was obvious he genuinely loved being such a gracious guide.
“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.” Genesis 1:3-4 (KJV)
“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16 (NKJV)
I am thankful God sent Russell’s light to speak life into me. His light will continue to burn brightly within me. That warm glow I feel in my heart whenever I think of him and our friendship remains a great gift.
As I reflect on all of this I have to ask myself a few questions. “Do I speak and act in such a way that brings warmth into other people’s lives? Will that warmth continue after I’m gone? Do my words and actions say I truly understand there may not be another day beyond this one, and, most importantly, is there any glimpse of Jesus at all to be found in me by others?” In short, “What sort of lamp on a lamp stand am I in this dark and cold world?”
Eternal Lord, the time You have given each of us on this earth is short. Let us understand and embrace how truly fleeting our lives are so that we may humbly live in purposeful and joyful fellowship with You and with those You have so generously and graciously sprinkled into our lives along the way. May we joyfully walk the path You have set before us making the most of this day that You have given us realizing we may not come this way again. Today is the day to speak life into those whom You have surrounded us with, both those we love and who love us, and those we have only just met for there may be no other earthly day granted to us beyond this one. My friend understood these truths of Yours. May I understand them as well. Lord, I thank you for sending him my way, and into so many other lives as well. I thank you for the life-giving impact our friendship brought me and continues to bring. Because of my friend’s walk I can truly say it’s a life well lived if after that life is over here on this earth it continues to speak life into those of us who remain behind. What a marvelous gift! Thank you that my friend’s light was indeed a lamp on a lamp stand that spoke life into myself and others, all to Your glory. May we in turn pass along the light and warmth of Your love as well. In Your Son’s name, Amen.
“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” Isaiah 40:8 (NKJV)
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