The evolution of a friendship
The call came in at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. My best friend, Warren Stratton, was calling from his bed in the Intensive Care Unit of the local hospital. That Wednesday morning I had visited him when he greeted me with a request. He handed me a copy of Christianity Today, asking me to read the cover story for later discussion, a habit we both imposed on each other on a weekly basis. The cover blared “Young forever: The Juvenilization of the American Church.” So the call was to ask me to come Friday morning at 8:30 to talk about the article. As I rhetorically asked later at his eulogy, “Can you imagine two old geezers talking about that around a death bed?” That’s the kind of guy he was. That was the tone of our friendship. On Friday morning at 5:30, Warren died, cancelling our discussion. That is how I lost my best friend after fourteen years of nearly weekly coffee or lunch get-togethers.
When I returned to Bedford, New Hampshire, after serving the Mission Covenant Church in Orange, Massachusetts, for five years, I discovered that about half of the congregation was new at Bethany Covenant. Among the names I had heard prominently mentioned in my absence was Warren Stratton. So on one of my first Sundays back in 1998, I made a point to meet “the other Warren.” After introducing myself I said, “I’d like to get to know you, could we meet for coffee sometime?” He suggested a time that initiated the most wonderful and unique friendship of my long life.
Much has been written about friendship over the ages. I have been blessed by many great friends. But none matched this one. I attribute this to two things in particular: our attitude and feelings toward each other, and the sheer amount of time we spent together which allowed many good things to evolve.
Within days of Joan and Warren returning home from their Mediterranean cruise in early May of this year, I suggested to him that we write a book on “The Evolution of a Friendship.” His enthusiasm was not aroused. I suspect he may have already begun to sense symptoms of the pneumonia he came down with that eventually led to his death in June. However, feeling our experience was too meaningful to let die with him, I decided to write a portion of the story myself.
The details of our early lives about schooling, work, family and spiritual matters did not unfold quickly, but evolved gradually in the course of widely diverse conversations. At times a discussion subject spread over several sessions (equal to about 3 to 7 mugs of coffee). On occasion he would sit down with his coffee and say, “I have a question for you.” That would inevitably launch us into some extended, deep biblical, theological or church-related discussion. Before parting, one or both of us usually had an assignment for further study and thought on a subject we had merely uncorked.
Then there were times when I asked for an update on his numerous projects or would hand him a piece of writing to evaluate. One constant was that we always ran out of time. There was always the expectation of more from the other, and it was willingly attempted. Though, both of us being of advanced age, not every issue found resolution.
Hardly a session passed without an exchange of paper, something to read and discuss. With the passing of time our discussions expanded beyond subjects about church, the Bible and theology. He knew science and technology, I knew education and spiritual disciplines. He asked questions and I asked questions, resulting in a lot of cross-fertilization.
Our lives reveal both unusual commonalities and wide divergence of experience and knowledge. These enriched our banter considerably. But there was always the overriding sense of love, tolerance and a striving for understanding. Patience and forgiveness occasionally entered the picture, as well.
The prime fault that too often led us astray was disagreement on politics, more correctly on political philosophy. However, this was also the area in which much of our learning occurred. He specialized in facts and figures; I in causes and visions.
Over countless cups of coffee I learned how differently people think. Not just in differences of opinion, but more so in differences of perception and perspective. Information is treated and understood and interpreted based on one’s thought processes, more than simply with the “facts.”
I attribute these differences in thinking on a variety of factors, which have little to do with scientific data. These include personality orientation, life experiences, the sources of information, the willingness to think, the level of one’s openness to various ideas, the level of humility, and analytical skills.
One of the surprises for me has been how much I have learned since my friend’s death. Growing understanding of the meaning of friendship has spurred further reflection. It has been a living out of Henri Nowuen’s last sentence in his “In Memoriam” on the death of his mother. “Yet I know that I must be patient and allow her who taught me so much by her life to teach me even more by her death.” So it is with Warren. These have been his gifts to me of our still evolving friendship.