James E. Copple
Friend. A difficult word often defined by platitudes and sentimental ramblings but rooted in a relationship with someone you know well and regard with affection and trust. I have had many friends, and most have come and gone, but affection and trust are good words to describe many of those relationships.
Recently, I was reminded of the value of one particular friend. We’ve been in-and-out of touch for 44 years, and there were never two people more unlikely to embrace the label “friend.”
We met in 1970, preparing for mission trips – I was heading to Bolivia, and he was heading to several countries in Central America. He arrived at orientation with all the trappings of a political and religious conservative. I, on the other hand, arrived with all the look-and-feel of a liberal intellectual from the Northeast. We immediately clashed on the orientation question: Was it the purpose of Christianity to fight Communism? Throughout orientation, we pranced around each other with a degree of suspicion but respect.
Several years later, we would find ourselves at the same seminary working on graduate degrees. He was the preacher, and I was the scholar. But those labels didn’t quite fit, because I, too, was a preacher and he was also a scholar. We graduated three years later. He won the annual sermon contest; I placed a distant second. I was selected by faculty as “Outstanding Student of the Year,” and he was a finalist. We followed separate paths to graduate school, preaching assignments and on to faculty positions at colleges and universities of our respective denominations. Occasionally, we would run into each other and would resume our life-long conversation.
Eventually, I had a major “moral” failure that forced me to surrender my credentials, and I went into hiding to try to rebuild my life. Everywhere I went, I felt the scarlet weight and mark of Hawthorne’s letter “A” around my neck. I had failed so many. During that time, six people reached out to me; asked if I was OK. My friend, Don Dunnington, was one of them.
Several years later, I had left my religious roots but maintained my faith. And when Don and I once again reconnected, we resumed our long conversation. Because of Don, and several others, it felt like I had returned home – not so much as a prodigal, but as a friend.
In the 10 years since, whenever we are in the same city, Don and I meet for breakfast or break bread at his home. We even journeyed together to a remote area of South Sudan. For the first time, it felt like someone in my universe really understood my passion to serve the poor. When I hear his name, my heart warms in the knowing, simply knowing, my friend is always there. Wherever I may be in this world, and in my life, Don is a phone call away.
In part, this “odd couple” relationship works because we trust and listen to each other; challenge one another; and share a genuine affection.
Don is a cancer survivor, and he is doing battle once again with this scavenger of life. When my wife was diagnosed with cancer, Don was among the first people I called. I wanted him to know, because I knew Don would understand how I was feeling. I needed to hear his words of comfort and support. His words and prayers were some of the most valued during that dark night of uncertainty.
Don is in recovery from surgery as I write about our journey in friendship. I am 1,500 miles away, but I am in that room with him right now, because the savior that redeems us both is the Center of our friendship. Don has many friends who love him like a brother. I am honored that he is my friend. There is no platitude, no sentimental phrase that describes my affection and trust for my brother. Some relationships, and some experiences, simply defy the limitations of language.
I have faith Don will prevail in this current battle, because my friend has taught me a faith that has lit and led the way through so many personal life struggles.
Don wouldn’t like this column – he laughs off sentimental gestures beyond those enduring conversations over a cup of coffee or a meal together. And true friendships don’t require scorecards or reminders. They just are. But we sometimes take friends for granted. So, today, I encourage you to honor your friends; let them know, simply know, just how much you love them.
I love you Don!
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