Losing some friends is like taking in the disappearance of a mountain.
Just why that is the case is difficult to say. It may have something to do with the depth and the duration of the friendship.
It may have to do with that sleight of hand by which we all live – which takes for granted the permanence of a friendship in a world where nothing endures – unless, of course, you believe in resurrection.
The friend-as-mountain experience is probably a combination of all these things.
But there is another reason, related to the others, but different. And that is the character of the friend.
Some friends – a few friends – are so completely devoted to others, to something else, or to both, that their lives echo and reflect something larger. Not in a way that extinguishes their individuality, not in a way that hides their humanity or the struggles and sorrows that attend that journey – but the kind of devotion that forever points beyond themselves. That kind of devotion was the one that shaped the life of my friend, Billy (William James) Abraham.
To be sure, to know Billy was to know something very different from a mountain.
I teased him about being an irascible Irishman and about being a man spoiling for a fight and ready to accommodate others who wanted one. But, in truth, everyone who knew him knew that his passion for debate was thread-through with a gentleness that could hardly be called combative. That old fashioned word, “winsomeness,” lay just below the surface in everything that he said, and you knew that Billy was interested in something more important than winning an argument.
Likewise, everyone knew how much energy he brought to his work. If you spent any time with him in his office, the conversation always turned to the work that he had ahead of him. And – if this image makes any sense – talking to him was like being in the presence of a whirling dervish sitting in a desk chair.
And everyone who knew his fashion sense was aware that getting him into one of those perfectly attuned GQ pictures that linger out there on the internet was a real departure from the norm. The norm being shorts, FUBU socks, and Birkenstocks.
But Billy was mountain-like, nonetheless, and his devotion was the key. Everything in his life pointed to his experience of the living Christ, his passion for the church, his devotion to the spirituality of John Wesley, and his commitment to faithful, academic rigor. And it found its point, not in self-aggrandizement (which is a common, academic predilection), but in his work on behalf of his students and Methodists here and around the world.
There is a reason that so many pictures of Billy are of him alongside his students. Like the pictures we take on vacations, with mountain ranges in the background, those he nurtured, discipled, and supported had their pictures taken at his side, because his life pointed to the God who found him and spoke his name.
It is not hard to discover why he lived in this fashion. In his own words, he described the bedrock of his life and work as encounter with Jesus, midwifed by the Methodists that befriended him and his family in their darkest and most difficult hours. It was that experience on which the mountain was built, and that is why his efforts and the impact of his friendship will endure.