We were driving through the wretched state of Indiana (apologies to all your Hoosier peeps). My sister Cindy, our little blue Toyota Corolla that winced at every gust of wind whipping through those frozen Indiana fields, our cool cassette player that now magically ingested a high-tech tape that had a tail of wire leading to my Sony CD Walkman, and best of all, my 6'5" best friend from high school, Paul. Christmas break was over and the second semester for my freshmen year at Wheaton college was about to begin. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and President George Bush (Sr.) had his finger on the trigger. An anticipation of war was in the air, and our naiveté on the whole endeavor had been "edumacated" through the movies, where we always win and the bad guys are always bad. In other words, we had no idea what was about to happen, but hoped it would happen soon.
It was a little like high school weekends, except we never had to go home or call our parents. We also bought tons of tacos at 4 in the morning. Wheaton College was more than kind to allow my friend Paul to stay with us for a couple of weeks. My student id card somehow made it into his hands as we made three trips a day into Anderson Commons for breakfast, lunch and dinner (sorry, Wheaton… the check is in the mail). Introducing him to all of my friends was easy. It was Paul - the easiest guy to be around in the history of the planet. They liked him so much, he played on our intramural basketball team. We were good for those 2 weeks. Maybe his height had something to do with that, but it was also his "paulness" that allowed him to fit in so well.
My favorite memory of the whole trip was when the bombs started lighting up the sky in Baghdad. With no clue of the real consequences of that war or the 20+ years that have followed, I remember trying to lure him out of the dorm to go do something. His response: "Chad… man, I just want to watch the war."
So, we did.
I have had many guys call me "friend" over the years. I have only had one who I never doubted was my friend. In that way he reminds me of Someone else.
A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
It took me 20 years and hundreds of small "Paul" acts to feel the weight of that verse in Proverbs. Like a mosaic that is carefully put together to reveal a larger, more beautiful work, the small pieces of colored tile don't always tell the whole story.
I spent many a night at his house, trying some crazy but wonderful food combination. If there was a first for some of the finer tastes in food, it was Paul who handed me the spoon. Prime rib at Grady's. Burgers at Littons. Coffee at the pre-Starbucks coffee shop (almost always tucked into a corner spot at the mall). Home-made beef jerky. We tried (unsuccessfully) to open up a fish oil capsule. Paul had somehow convinced me that this was a good thing, but it ended with fish oil spraying our clothes. We made 10 packs of Ramen noodles because it was new to both of us and we had never had anything so wonderful. We made grape juice from Concord grapes. Then there was the case of grapefruit from Florida (no doubt a Christmas gift from some random church member), kept cold in the garage, just perfect for overindulgence. We owned that citrus.
Beyond the great food, we listened to great music. Paul had the perfect room for sleeping over. No windows meant total blackout for sleeping in on Saturdays. He would carefully place an album on the turntable (only called that if it's a good one - any others were just "record players"), complete with a killer receiver and oversized speakers for his little cubby of a room (thank you , Chuck). It was heaven to fall asleep in that space.
One thing topped them all though. Paul gave me a glimpse into Jesus. He loved Him and knew that he was loved. He also loved the letters, the prophecies, the gospels, the stories… the words of God. Something about the way he would spend time with those words compelled me to want to dive in with him. Paul was all about the environment: candle or lamplight, good tunes, comfy spot to read, cup of coffee. It made all the difference.
By the time I graduated, I had a small table setup in my room with the same: music, oil lamp, and Bible.
Wouldn't you know it… the Word Himself began to show up in my heart. All because of Paul.
When I faced difficult moments (in high school they seemed much bigger), Paul was there with more than his own words. I have long since forgotten what prompted an emergency defibrillation from Paul, but his quick jolt of Romans 8 got my heart back into the right place.
Romans 8. Chad, man… read it. I promise.
I did and have returned more times than I can count to those words of certainty:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ.
Paul called me a few weeks back. His sweet 7 year old, Lilah, was home. Her life-long health issues, now fully healed, as she entered the glorious presence of Jesus. She never spoke a word while on this planet, yet Paul would tell you she spoke volumes, libraries even, on the unconditional love of God.
Just like her dad.
I needed a Paul in my life. Someone to communicate the deeper things of Christ. Sometimes with words, many times without. Someone who would weather my fickleness as a friend. Someone who would forgive when I strayed into some horrible theology moments. A friend. A brother. The Lord made sure I had one.
Lilah needed a Paul. For those Daddy moments with a daughter that transcend words. Sacred, holy, eternal moments. A dress rehearsal for eternity to come. The Lord made sure she had one.
I sent him a text on the morning of her first day with Jesus.
She's dancing now, my friend.
His response carried the same weight as the guy who once told me to cling to Romans 8.