The Gift of Friendship
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It appeared my world was being turned upside down. Everyone I knew would continue without me. Everything before me was unknown and exaggerated to the greatest negative results in my mind. All the events which had made it possible for me to feel a part of a community were for naught.
In July of 1985 my father was transferred by his company from Oak Brook, Illinois to Fort Worth, Texas. The circumstances behind the move were related to him and the president of the company not being able to get along. My father traveled frequently with work, and I guess when he was in town his boss preferred not to see him as well. My dad was a good salesman so keeping him around but creating separation must have been the plan.
I remember when my parents sat my brother and I down to share the news. It was shared as a new adventure and the big stories of Texas were included to make it sound exciting. All I could envision were tumbleweeds and cowboys.
On our first visit to Texas in May of 1985 to look for a home, Fort Worth was much like Abilene, Texas is today. Old and drab with very little downtown activity. This was a shock after seven years growing up around the Chicago, Illinois area. Our first couple of nights we stayed across from the Fort Worth Water Gardens and there was barley a soul walking the streets. I felt this was going to be a huge disaster.
My parents purchased a spec home which was to be completed by August and my father let us celebrate with them by giving us some Champagne. I also think to distract us they announced we would be going on vacation to Hawaii for two weeks in July. I drank enough to make me sick the next day.
At fifteen years old my mind was racing with the fears of all things new. I was a dweeby kid. I had just had my braces taken off, had a wealth of acne, dark thick glasses, didn’t know how to pick out any stylish clothes and wore my hair like a rejected Beatle. I took what teasing I got, but somehow, I was able to build two great groups of friends, those at my high school and those on the other side of Wheaton, Illinois at the church we attended. My school friends were mostly Catholic and attended church elsewhere. I was the lone Baptist in my school circle of friends.
My faith was centric to my life at a young age. I was bold for a kid and brought my Bible to school and kept it on my desk on full display. I was pleased to talk about Jesus with my simple theological understandings. In the 80s this got some attention, but not much. I led a Bible study during lunch hour once a week and at the time I thought I was on a mission to save Catholics from their false religion. This is no longer a belief a hold.
At the same time, because this group of friends at Glenbard South didn’t know my friends from church, I tended to sample some of the worldly things that I found curious. Girls, cigarettes, and Playboy magazines. This may sound tame to a young person today who have access to the world on their cellphone. At times in my young life, I felt I was living two lives and I felt much guilt over my behavior.
When I was fourteen, one of my school mates came over when my parents were out, and we made a solid dent in my father’s vodka. We stumbled about the neighborhood all evening. If I had been Catholic, I would have been in confession the next morning, and maybe this would have been good for my consistent feeling of guilt.
On the other side of town were my core group of friends. This group of young men were the people I looked up too. I wanted to be like them. At such a young age it appeared they had it all together. They were on fire for their faith and seemed to live it out as if it were part of their DNA. They were kind, inclusive, and knew how to have good clean fun. They were available and encouraging. They were everything I felt I was not, yet here I was hanging out with them regularly. We went to concerts, the parks, hung out, and had lunches and dinners at each other’s homes. We all had grown up around each from about nine years of age.
There was this amazing turning point in our friendships during my eight-grade year. A moment that solidified our connections. Our church had a winter retreat at a camp in Michigan. It was an area along the shores of Lake Michigan with massive sand dunes. The winter snows had covered the area and we hiked, sled and tubed in-between sessions.
This was one of the first times I had been around high school aged kids. They seemed so much older and mature. Some of the seniors seemed to be the size of Goliath in my mind. But they were approachable, supportive, and kind. I was in the middle of a coming-of-age weekend.
This was not my first retreat with my eighth-grade friends. During middle school we had two previous winter retreats. In seventh grade a gentleman named Greg Speck was the speaker for the weekend. His sessions seemed to speak directly to me, and I bought all his tapes and would eventually memorize his sermons and do them myself at Campus Life retreats for other students. In seventh grade the friendships started to grow into something more adult – something more personal and important. I discovered I loved to sit and talk about ideas with others.
This eighth-grade trip however included something very different. A visit from the Holy Spirit.
Now if you’re not a Christian, stay with me. You can ascribe your names to some of these experiences or a psychanalysis if you wish.
As a Christian I believed in the Holy Spirit, but as a young person, I did not have a strong intellectual understanding nor a wealth of experiences. The Holy Spirit in Christianity is a being who makes up a triune God. There’s the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and they act and think together but perform different roles in their relationship with each other and those outside of themselves. We’ll discuss more about them later.
I was sitting in a session at camp when I felt something come over me. About three of my friends said they had felt it too. We were praying and it was if I was being pushed down to the ground. As if God were showing his greatness and I was not low enough in my bowing before a throne. The whole group was moved in different ways.
After we prayed, I got up and went to the piano and started playing a song I had heard by Ronnie Millsap called, “What A Difference You’ve Made in My Life”. Everyone gathered around me and started singing as they locked arms. In the moment I was taken that I could do anything that might bring people together. But there I was with my friends, these grown-up high school kids and having an existential experience. I don’t imagine anyone else remembers that night like I do - if they remember it at all.
I saw a video of this moment for the first time in 2020. Every emotion rushed back to me, and I was amazed there was a visual recording of such an important moment to me. This was the defining moment of my entire life. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would set the stage for my most important pursuits.