Will Miles, Ph.D., is a minister and pastoral counselor who lives in Alaska.
THERE HE WAS, standing before me spouting heresy. As a 21-year-old seminarian who had just graduated from a Texas Baptist college with a degree in religion, I knew the odor of heresy when it wafted before my keen nose. These radical, irreligious statements were patent nonsense and I could endure it no longer. I challenged him in class with a mixture of boldness and fear, righteousness and trepidation. I felt compelled to expose his errors, point out the truth to him and my fellow students and be vindicated before God.
I challenged him, and he responded with graciousness. I glared at him, and he smiled at me. Like a heavyweight fighting a lithe judo expert, I was thrown off balance. I was ready to scale his battlements with the ladder of my logic. Over the previous four years I had engaged in intellectual combat with my professors; I knew how to sting with a clever remark and how to defend my points. This was new, however. He softly, graciously and lovingly responded to my challenge. He, this heretic, knew his stuff. He could quote Plotinus, restate the ontological argument, and show the apparent fallacy of Cartesian thought. I was shocked, impressed, confused, intrigued and attracted.
He drew me to him by his warmth for me. He walked the talk; he lived the faith; he enfleshed the principles. He lived out his favorite biblical phrase, "to speak the truth in love." By the end of the year I was won over and now, fifteen years later, we still correspond regularly, affectionately sharing our insights.
He not only spoke of truth and love, he lived a life that pursued truth and embodied loving behavior. In addition to his degrees in music, theology, psychology and scientific research, he was a bibliophile. His talk was spotted with quotes from contemporary novelists, medieval mystics, and Buddhist sages. One way of expressing his care for me was to give me books he had read or reviewed and wanted to pass on.
He cared enough to confront me. One day I spent an hour absently paging through a book as he lectured on the stages of childhood development. As I walked out at the end of class his shadow whispered (in my ear lest anyone else hear and I feel ashamed), "Will, I didn’t like your interruption; please don’t do it again." I was shocked, embarrassed, guilty, and afraid. Did he still like me? Was I to be rejected, cast out? Have I failed the test of friendship? Is there grace? To my relief, at the next class he went on as if nothing had happened. I experienced a moment of grace, and learned that friendship can take confrontation when "the truth is spoken in love."
During my three years at seminary he was the only professor to invite the class to his home. I felt honored and important. He was not just a brilliant professor, but a man who lived in a house, was married to a warm lady who talked with a Southern accent, had two sons, and played chess with his neighbor. He was a mortal like the rest of us. I was surprised to see that he didn’t live in a beautiful mansion befitting his status, or even in an upper-middle-class subdivision. Rather he lived in a small, two-bedroom frame house with a white picket fence and a garden. Instead of appropriate status objects, he had flowers. After that I was even more curious about this socratic person who lived humbly, talked intelligently, and walked with love.
I decided to take a huge risk and invite him and his wife to our small studio apartment with its rented furniture. Would he, The Prof, come to such a lowly place? To my happiness and my wife’s anxiety, they accepted with delight, as gracious as always. At the end of the evening they declared the experience wonderful. I beamed with delight, and my wife sighed with relief.
We wrote to each other as I endured six more years of graduate school. When I wrote that I was graduating with a sigh of relief rather than a shout of joy, he hit the mark by responding that graduating is like taking off a hair shirt.
After several more years at my new job in Alaska, I went to visit him as he was retiring. He had aged, with graying hair, flaccid facial muscles, and brown age spots on his hand; but he was as bright, witty and charming as ever. I experienced early grief at the impending loss of a dear friend.
Last year I invited him to come to Alaska to lead a conference and spend a week with us. As our house guest he was still the incarnation of graciousness. As he shared his personal stories as a World War II chaplain, I felt as if I were listening to the father I wished I had had. The transference was deep. The prodigal son had found a gracious father. Theology came alive.
I reflect on our evolving relationship. We moved from ideological opponents, to professor/student, to mentor/disciple, to friend/friend, to father/son. Each stage brought out our uniqueness, and the relationship we now share is a rich mosaic, a whole composed of all these aspects. I can only guess what might be next, as we both grow older and death draws near.
It is a reassuring as well as tantalizing finding that persons with a rich friendship life literally live longer than those who are isolated and friendless. The same principle holds, we suspect, for societies.
Christine Leefeldt and Ernest Callenbach