Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Load Just Got Heavier

This story starts in June of 1978 when I graduated from college. There was a bunch of us who hung together, Mike, Clyde, Cindy, and Deb. Mike and I were graduating, and Cindy's folks came to see Mike graduate. They brought along some folks from Cindy's church, Grace Baptist Church of Laurel, MD--including the new pastor there, Colin Smith. He was just a couple years older than us.

The guy was a walking party waiting to happen.

After graduation, I went to MSU, got a Masters' degree and after that got a job with the gubmint. The job was near Laurel, and six weeks after my wife and I were married, we moved there. It was an adventure, living away from home, getting settled in a strange place, and making friends in a new church, Grace Baptist Church where Colin Smith was pastoring.

We lived out there for three years and it wasn't unusual for Mary and me to spend a Friday evening with Colin and Anita watching Kurosawa movies in Japanese with subtitles. Sunday nights after church we'd go to the parsonage and play Rook and eat pizza. I played the best Rook of my life back then.

One Sunday night instead of Rook at the parsonage, we went for ice cream sundaes. We'd gotten nicely settled in and Anita started counting kids. They had five kids all five-years-old or younger. She came up one short. The youngest, little Colin, had been forgotten at church!

Another time Colin took a community-ed class in Chinese. He told the story that at the end of the class the teacher took the class to an authentic Chinese Restaurant. But when they tried to order in Chinese, the waitress gave them a dumb look and said, "I don't understand you. I'm Korean." He'd tell stories with such obvious glee that it was impossible to be around him without having a good time and feeling the lightness of his spirit.

All this happened over 25 years ago. These pleasant memories are a treasure.

But the year 2002 was generally an unhappy one. I had been diagnosed with cancer and spent the previous year in chemo. My father, whose surviving cancer made me think I could beat it too, had his cancer come back. And he wasn't doing well. I'd been sick in January, been CT-scanned, and biopsied to see if the cancer had returned. The results were due the next Monday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Colin Smith had gotten his PhD in ancient languages at Cornell and was teaching Old Testament Hebrew at Baptist Bible College of Clarks Summit, PA. And the Dead Sea Scrolls were on display at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Colin and a dozen of his BBC students therefore came to Grand Rapids to look at them.

This entailed finding housing for Colin and Anita as well as the students. Colin's daughter-in-law just happens to be a Grand Rapids native and the daughter of some friends from Trinity Baptist Church. The bulk of the students ended up bunking at their house and we got a call asking if we had an extra bedroom for Colin and Anita. OF COURSE WE DID.

Thus, they stayed with us. It was the first time we'd seen Colin and Anita since we'd left Maryland over twenty years before. He was a lot grayer than I remembered and I suppose I was, too. But the humor and quick wit and merry spirit were just as I remembered. We spent Saturday night sitting around the kitchen table and had a wonderful time. It felt like no time had lapsed before. We just picked up our friendship where we'd left it back in 1983.

That Monday we took off work and went to see the Dead Sea Scrolls with Colin and his students. It's a lot more fun to go through an exhibit like that with a PhD expert in such things who can read hieroglyphics and who summons a bright student, points to a 2000-year-old scroll of Psalms, and commands the kid, "Read that." It was a thoroughly wonderful, carefree afternoon.

Did I mention that I was waiting for cancer test results? We got home and there was a message on the machine. I called back, the test was positive, the cancer was back. Dad had died of cancer the October before. I went into a funk.

But that weekend, having seen the Dead Sea Scrolls that are thousands of years old, having seen Colin and Anita, having been blessed by their fellowship. It contextualized the bad news and made it bearable. And we bore up under it.

That weekend my kids, Jane and Dan, got a chance to meet Colin and see his BBC students. They were impressed, Jane almost went to BBC. (She's saving the world another way.) Nevertheless, when Colin Smith and some other guys went to Lake Ann Baptist Camp to hold a week-long seminar for teenagers, Jane and her friend Lindsay went to learn from him. They were less impressed by the other preachers there.

Just this last Friday, Jane's friend Laura got married. Laura's sister is that same daughter-in-law of Colin Smith, and her husband Colin's son, Ben, was there. Looking at Ben wrangling his son, Bond, I thought of how Ben has the best of Colin and Anita. We spoke at the reception and he has that same quick wit and sense of humor. I was reminded that I missed my friend, Colin Smith.

This long rambling discourse started in 1978 and it comes back there. My friend Cindy, who introduced me to Colin Smith way back there in Ohio, called this afternoon. She said she had been speaking to her parents. They told her Colin Smith died today. Oddly, this weekend I reflected, for no reason, upon the demise of other friends. My mom and dad and other family members. None struck me as hard as news of Colin's passing.

When my Dad died, my step-sister's husband said that he was quite a guy. That's true. I told him then that Dad set an example, now its up to us to set example. I look at my college professors, my pastors, my parents, and I see that I stand on their shoulders and they are giants. When giants like Colin Smith leave this world, they leave a gap for others to fill.

What is the Colin-Smith-shaped void in this world tonight?
Here's a better description than I can write.

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