Brian and I have been friends ever since our ordinations in 1973. We were clergy members of what used to be called the Southern New Jersey Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. More than that, we were friends — two guys who enjoyed each other’s company as we strove to serve our churches to the best of our ability.
In the early days of our ministries (around the mid-70’s), Len Rowell, then Conference Program Director and an indefatigable visionary, secured what amounted to a home videotape system for the Conference. Len believed that video — at that time, only starting to make its appearance on the consumer technological stage — could enhance the way annual conference sessions were conducted. (Time proved him right. The TV Ministry of the Greater NJ Conference is a huge undertaking these days.)
Len called on Brian and me to operate the system by recording the sessions on VHS tape, then racing to the back of the venue (at the time, First — now St. Peter’s — United Methodist Church in Ocean City, NJ) where a tape player and TV were set up, and tossing the tape in the player so the clergy and lay members could watch for as long as they cared to relive what had just happened moments before.
I still remember not understanding all the fine details of operating a video camera. I was accustomed to Super 8 cameras, where you had to hold the “on” button while filming, and, when you released the button, the camera would shut off. So, I did the same thing with the video camera at Conference, thinking that, when I released the “on” button, the camera would shut off. Well, that’s not how video cameras worked: rather, you were supposed to tap the button once to turn it on, and then tap it again to turn it off.
So, I sat there, pressing the button for the duration of what I wanted to record. When I was finished, I set the camera on its side on the floor. Unbeknownst to me, the camera was still rolling. Imagine the perplexed looks on the faces of the folks who watched that tape when they saw nothing but several pairs of sideways shoes! Hey — the audio was great. The visuals didn’t make a lot of sense, however.
Brian and I recorded a radio spot for the appearance of a widely-known speaker. My wife Evelyn and I attended his weddings. He and I tried hard to set regular times aside to meet for lunch. He came down from wherever he was serving at the time, and I traveled up from wherever I was serving at the time and met in what was generally a mid-point for the two of us: Mastoris Diner in Bordentown.
Brian was someone I felt I could confide in without fear of betrayal. We often shared our personal struggles over those lunches in between the jokes and our views on what was happening in the denomination.
So it was with no small degree of foreboding that I received the call from Laura Sunday a week ago (Sept. 29) that Brian’s health was deteriorating and that, if I would like to see him, it should be quickly. At one point, Brian came to the phone with a curious comment: “Hi, Karl. I’d really appreciate it if you to say a few words tomorrow.” I had absolutely no idea what the heck he was talking about! I always assume that I’ve missed something or forgotten something when somebody says something like that, but I finally said, “I’m sorry, Brian, but I’m a little confused.” He said, “That’s OK — I’m a little confused myself.” I think he knew his time was short and had his mind on his memorial service, trying to put in place some of the details.
I went to Care One in Wall Township, NJ, the next day. Brian was quite lucid, talking with several former parishioners who had come to visit. When I walked in the room, he greeted me by name and introduced the others in the room. For the rest of the time I was there, Brian was a fountain of information, recalling situations and names connected with his churches, the Annual Conference, and so on. The only detail he seemed not to grasp had to do with his service. “So, when is the memorial service?” he asked. I thought of two things to say, but only shared one: “Well, unless you’re like Stephen Wright [the comedian], we don’t know. Stephen said he knew when he was going to die because his birth certificate had an expiration date.” The other thing that came to mind was, “Not to be blunt, Brian, but that’s kind of between you and the Lord.” It was strange how he somehow didn’t grasp the fact that a memorial service doesn’t happen until after someone has been called home. Other than that, he was a delightful conversationalist, recalling details that most people would have forgotten.
Being with Brian and knowing it would be the last time I would see him in this world was strange, but we left the visit with a prayer and the knowledge that at some point, we would, in fact, catch up with each other in eternity.
God called Brian home last Friday (Oct. 4th), which, in itself is a weird kind of irony, since “10-4” means “over” — “done” — “finished,” recalling the words of our Lord Jesus who said, “It is finished.” There’s a special kind of blessing one receives for being part of the final days in the life of a friend. Another for knowing that one’s friend is now at peace.