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I wish you could have seen Bill back in the day.

 

In college, he was one of those really spiritual guys with a magnetic personality, a real spark plug. A person who knew the Bible inside-out, who prayed with the eloquence of a Jim Elliot. When he led worship – sans band, unplugged, just him and his acoustic guitar before the fellowship group – he brought heaven, then the house, down. He was a spiritual lightening rod; whatever ministry he led glowed with spiritual urgency. Whatever event he organized – evangelistic coffeehouse, short-term missions – seemed especially anointed. A trailblazer with a prodigious gift of leadership, his fame spread on campus. He sent girls into a tizzy with his good looks and aw-shucks humor, but he never played it up. He dated, but (so I heard) with such humility and consideration that no one spoke poorly of him after the relationship ended. While others went to exotic locales for spring break, he went (unannounced and without fanfare) to the Bowery mission in New York for a one-week internship. He had dreams to be a missionary-doctor.

 

 

I had dinner with him recently. The last time we had seen each other was at graduation, over a decade ago. We were young back then, dreams and possibilities spread out before us like the expanse of the cloudless blue sky. God had a wonderful plan and purpose for us, after all. There was a shine in all our eyes. But that was back then.

 

 

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When I met Bill for sushi this past week, we talked pleasantries at first, spoke of our marriages, children, our jobs. He had gone off to medical school to pursue his dream of being a missionary-doctor. He had fallen for a girl during his first semester, and had married impetuously (his phrase), a few months later. Somewhere along the track of earning his M.D., his missionary dream derailed. He got a job at a prestigious hospital, moved into the suburbs. He works hard, he tells me, to keep up with his hefty mortgage. He likes to go fishing on weekends.

 

When we were in college, we’d get together for dinner once in awhile. Bill would always ask me the same question at the end of the meal. He’d ask, his voice earnest: how’s your relationship with God? That night, just as we were finishing dessert, I sensed him pause. He held the spoon suspended in front of him, deep in thought, troubled. Then he lowered the spoon softly to his plate, as if it had suddenly become too burdensome

 

“Do you still go to church?” he asked me.

I blinked in surprise. I do, I told him. I do.

He looked like he had more to say, and even opened his mouth to speak. But then he paused. His shoulders sagged a little. “That’s good. I’m glad.” He nodded, more to himself than to me. “That’s good.” He wouldn’t look me in the eye.

 

He seemed tired, exhausted. A shell of his former self. I thought to return the same question to him, but I knew the answer already. Some things just don’t have to be asked.

 

We ended the meal soon after that. He insisted on paying, and I let him after only token resistance. When I got home later that night, the family had all gone to bed. I walked in the darkness of the house, letting the silence seep into me. I checked in on my kids, tussled their hair. Then I lay down on the carpeted floor for a very long time, listening to the cadence of their gentle snoring. I thought of my friend Bill – hollowed-out, brow-beaten, so different from the spiritual wunderkind he’d once been – and something like sadness filled me.

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

I went to church the next morning. I looked at the other men in church who, like Bill, are in their 30s, are suburban fathers with a mortgage and children. I saw them take their place in the pew, sing, clap, say hello, fall asleep during the sermon, pop in a breath mint right afterwards. Go home. Start work Monday. Mechanical and routine. I saw all that, and a grayness settled into my bones that I have not been able to shake.

 

Because deep down, I do not think we are so different from Bill as we’d like to think.

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