I’m going to tell you a story, not of how things should have happened, but as they really did. I’m also going to tell you the way I responded—again, not as I should have, but as I in fact did. In other words, I’m going to tell you a story that is true.
Our family had moved from The Natural State of Arkansas to Colorful Colorado, where I began working in ministry alongside a good friend. I’d gone to college and seminary with him, and we’d always tossed around the idea of working together one day. Well, that day came and shazam! we were co-pastors, sharing the role and duties most people expect one man to do. What we found in no time flat was that co-pastoring works quite well in starry-eyed leadership books, but not so much in the flesh-and-bones real world. The situation went south, and a year to the day of starting my job, I resigned. I was hurt, my friend was hurt, our families were hurt, the congregation was hurt, and chances are good that God shed a tear as well.
I was hurt, my friend was hurt, our families were hurt, the congregation was hurt, and chances are good that God shed a tear as well.
As I stood before the people to vamoose, my exit was framed in the language of God is leading me somewhere else, which is simply code for Good grief, what just happened and what are we gonna do now? I left the church, my friend hung on for a while, and there was no attempt on my part to mend the fence. Sure, I should’ve done something, but sometimes when your wind gets knocked out, both flesh and spirit hunker down into strict survival mode. That’s not an excuse, but a reason. After a short time, I decided to stay in Colorado, he returned to Arkansas, and the old outta-sight-outta-mind principle kicked in, leaving us distant in both the figurative and literal sense.
For the better part of 10 years, there was no communication. Nothing. Nada. I prayed for him from time to time, sincerely, that God would prosper his family, and I thought about reaching out, calling, writing, making some movement to try and mend the fence. But sometimes it’s just easier to know the right thing and not do it. Brings to mind that loopy stuff Paul wrote about in Romans 7, doesn’t it?
Being back in Arkansas this past Thanksgiving kicked up thoughts of my forgotten friend. (That, plus I’m sure Jesus was tapping His foot: Uh, John, it’s been a decade, pal. Don’t blink or it’ll morph into two.) The divine Prodder was nudging me in ways that are hard to describe but impossible to deny. I returned westward with a decision to be obedient, although horribly slow at it, in a southerly direction. I was able to get my old friend’s email address via Facebook, and so I wrote him a note, with no expectation of response on his part—just to do right on mine. The bones of that note were two words: I’m sorry. In the blink of a decade, those two teeny-tiny, pride-pricking words hadn’t dropped from my lips, not once. But they did on that day, in that note, and I meant them. You might ask, But what about being quick to forgive? I know. All I can say is that God was patient with boneheaded me, not desiring me to stay spiritually stuck forever. In one sense, yes, I’d dragged my boots for many years. In another sense, maybe it took that long to be able to say those two words and mean them. Maybe. I’m not sure.
I’d love to be able to tell you that we immediately arranged to meet halfway at a vintage Waffle House somewhere along Oklahoma’s I-40 where we were happily-ever-after reconciled as a grandmotherly waitress called us both “Hon” and kept our mugs filled with joe, and the overhead muzak system oozed “Reunited and it feels so good.” But I can’t because that’s not how the story goes. What I can tell you is that my faraway friend responded graciously, and we’ve shared a handful of back-and-forth notes since then, each one just a few thoughts longer—each one hopefully bridging the distance and years. I don’t know that our friendship will ever be what it once was. But I don’t not know that, either. I do know that, for now, there’s something where—for a stinking, blinking decade—there was nothing.
I often wonder about some of our displays of forgiveness and reconciliation. Are they sometimes too much too soon?
I’ve no desire to give the impression that we can take our sweet time when it comes to saying I’m sorry. If I had it all to do over again, yes, I would’ve reached out sooner. Please hear me, from where I’m sitting now, a decade feels downright embarrassing. But at the same time, I often wonder about some of our displays of forgiveness and reconciliation. Are they sometimes too much too soon? Some sort of façade behind which nothing substantive exists? Is there a span of days, weeks, or years needed so the heart (or the gut) can catch up with the head, and then and only then can we speak words with blood in them?
I believe one of these days soon I’ll see my friend’s face—that somehow our literal paths will indeed cross. On that hoped-for day, I plan to walk toward him with a smile, an outstretched arm, and an open hand. My prayer is that he will do the same, and we’ll both smile, and shake our aging hands the way men do when it’s been far, far too long since they’ve seen an old friend.
Illustrations by Karolis Strautniekas