Do you or have you ever had someone in your life that you can point to and say, ‘Without them, things would be different. Without them, life wouldn’t be so wonderful?’ I have so many people that I can think of who have made a difference in my life-enriching it, deepening its meaning, and adding joy. Of course, there’s the opposite, and then everyone in between. Today, though, I want to honor someone whose been a kind of hero to me. He never wore spandex—not that I know of. He didn’t have adamantium claws—that would have negated all those wrestling matches instantly. He certainly couldn’t fly faster than a speeding bullet—Superman needs a safety belt on a plane, after all. No, instead, he was possibly one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and for seven years, I’ve been in the ranks of people from around the world who have missed him greatly.
So, today, I want to honor his memory by telling some of our story of this unlikely hero. And I’m going to deviate from what I usually write to share with you some personal elements. (To my Twitter follower who recently posted how much she wishes author’s shared more about their personal lives, consider my fedora tipped to you.)
I first met Bobby at our university bookstore. By then, I was already having my doubts about Christianity and a loving God, but I kept them to myself, percolating in an ever-gathering mass of hurt. It’s ironic, because I was in the pre-Seminary program. (Every say, “what, what?” Some of my friends from that university, when we talk, still ask, “Are you in Seminary yet?” I have to laugh.) Anyway, we were both getting books for Greek 1. It was kind of serendipitous moment, and funny enough, the very first thing—and the very last thing—I noticed about Bobby were his eyes and smile. The scary thing for me was I felt like I looked into the eyes of Jesus. (No, he looked nothing like the Western imagery we’ve become so used to!)
Bobby let off a huge grin as he introduced himself. There was something special about him. Kind, fun, adventurous, deeply spiritual. It scared the Chihuahuas out of cynical old me. I grabbed my book, said hi back, and rushed into line. Guess who followed?
From there on, our friendship began in the rigorous Greek study group. I still remember how, in a lounge, our first conversation came when everyone left and another very close friend of ours feel asleep on the couch. It was ancient Koine Greek, after all.
We hung out in the same circles—our close friends were all the same, including my now-wife, Sarah. Eventually, this group began meeting for Bible studies, dinners, rubber-band, chocolate chip, and water gun (or hose) battles. During one such hangout, I’m not quite sure what provoked it, but we ended up chasing each other around a dorm, only to meet on opposite ends of workout room with a mat (pre-Zoomba days). Honestly, you could hear the trumpet’s bronze blare, the snorting of two bulls. We charged, resulting in the bet tackle any linebacker would be proud of. That’s when I learned I needed to get lower to the ground when tackling.
I can safely say I had never been kidnapped before Bobby, his girlfriend, and Sarah called me, notified me to be prepared for a kidnapping, came to my apartment, tied a tie around my eyes, and took me to the car. After a harrowing journey into the Nebraska countryside, we pulled off onto the side of the road. This is when any good movie hero will struggle against their bonds, somehow outwit their captors, and escape by a thin, dangerous margin. Yeah… not me. We watched the stars. They’re incredibly beautiful away from the city. I was released without ransom.
His parents lived near mine, so we’d road trip out of Nebraska back to Missouri, spending countless hours talking, chatting, analyzing music lyrics, or on one such occasion, trying to memorize the beginning of Romans 5, which had a lot to do with suffering. We’d stop at his old college and I got to meet old friends, visit his old haunts.
Bobby loved Jesus. Jesus defined him—not in one of those scary, pushy types of ways—or we’d never remain friends. No, he truly believed that Jesus was real, that Jesus loves everyone no matter how much they might feel otherwise. He believed Jesus was the answer to all the questions that we humans have come up with all these years. Bobby was smart, intellectual and yet overflowing with fun. This wasn’t some half-baked, medium rare type of faith. Jesus meant something to him.
Thus, when I began to openly admit my doubts and left the pre-Seminary Program, to the shock of my friends, many started to distance themselves from me. Bobby and my wife (then ex-girlfriend) especially remained closed. I confess the only reason I went to church was to spend time with my friends. More than once, during the sermon or communion, I’d slip into the back. Since it was an old urban small congregation, they didn’t have the fancy TVs broadcasting everything in this “narthex”. More than once someone would head to the bathroom, step out to get something. I didn’t receive judgmental glares—only looks of concern, smiles. Sure, they wondered why I was pacing or sitting out there—but at least I got an extra 30 minutes with my friends a week. With a busy schedule, that was glorious, especially listening to A Prairie Home Companion on the way back.
Bobby remained convinced that my issues, that what grew into hate for Jesus and Christians, could be answered by the love of Jesus. He and others tag-teamed—look, I know you all conspired, and I thank you for the generosity and care. They showed me love. We had less discussions, because they knew where I stood on issues and instead tried demonstrating the answers, rather than lecturing them. Bobby and Sarah both led the charge on that. Sarah especially received a lot of grief, and I must say, to all of my former friends who told her just to give up and let me burn, so to speak, she was right, you were wrong. That woman my wife is a brave, strong woman for sticking to her convictions, belief, and what she knew God was leading her to do…especially when she finally stood alone.
Anyway, they rubbed off on me. Certain passages of the Bible began gnawing away at my intellect. Passages that simply couldn’t be rationalized or scientifically explained away. Passages that cut to the core, provided meaning and deep, deep hope.
On February 25, 2007, I called Bobby up to answer a question he’d given me. I told him to come over, I needed to talk with him. Funny, how seven years later, I may not have a bad cold but my left side sure hurts. Later that afternoon, he came by. We talked for some time, and I just felt the urge to tell him what I was thinking.
“You’re right. Jesus does love me.”
His eyes lit up, he grinned so greatly. We prayed, we talked more, we even sang a hymn… off tune. Oddly enough, there was a finality in the air. I couldn’t place it. His girlfriend later told me she had felt the same, and so had others. We all knew something was wrong but couldn’t figure it out. After a hug, Bobby was ready to go. He had to go play basketball and there was a Bible study he wanted to catch that evening. I do know that he called Sarah, told her what I had said. As Bobby left my house—hey, I lived and moved around in Nebraska. College student. As Bobby left, that same light was in his eyes, that same wonderful smile. I can only imagine it like Moses leading the Israelites and headed up to a mountain, from where he could see the Promised Land.
After he left, I cried. I tried calling someone. Something was wrong. It felt like Bobby and I had just said goodbye.
Four and a half hours later, at least, with a hurried knock at the door, my fears were realized. Some of our friends were there. “Joshua, we have to go to the hospital. Bobby’s dead.” I remember their hands reaching for me like out of a bad zombie movie. I realized I had fallen over. They grabbed my coat. One on each side, we went to their car. There was no Prairie Home Companion playing. No laughter. Bobby had died during the basketball pickup game—literally making the shot. His last words were “oh no” and the paramedics were fifteen minutes late, even though the hospital was about four blocks away. His heart had stopped.
I went into the ER room with a staff member from university and one of those friends. I stared at Bobby’s cold face. Someone had combed his hair. It had been loose earlier that day. Then I realized, yes, that had been goodbye. Like a foul ending of a chapter or a TV show season where the author kills off your favorite character (Game of Thrones, Lost, Battlestar Galatica), but far more real. Far more intensive.
I would like to tell you that there was a happy ending to this story immediately. That my life changed for the better. That’s not true. Much more happened. A faith based on a promise to someone else is very shallow, and by Easter of that year I became very bitter—“Bobby’s dead, but you’re alive,” I told Jesus during worship at the same church. “I want nothing to do with you.”
Of course, he wanted something to do with me. At a graduation lunch, Bobby’s mom approached me. She took me to the side. “Bobby called you his best friend,” she said. “It would mean so much to him to know you loved Jesus and wants you to go to heaven.” From anyone else, I might have been offended—but not from them. They were kind of like my surrogate parents. Bobby and I were much like brothers by the end. I knew they loved me like he loved me only a fraction of what Jesus loved me. It took a long time for me to be willing to receive it, but those words clung deep.
After I finally decided a relationship with Jesus was worthwhile—oh that’s a long story—I moved down to Texas. I felt as though I had to carry the mantle of Bobby’s life, of his ministry. He was so passionate about people in India—he’d traveled there with a group from university. One professor I was particularly close to told me how, every time they turned around, someone would ask, “Where’s Bobby?” There he was, talking and playing with children, chatting with an untouchable, intermingling with crowds. They had to keep a leash on him—not really! Just kidding! He loved people. Period.
You know, I don’t have to be Bobby. I don’t have to carry on, believing the world lost something so precious that it would never know. Truly. I get to be me—with all my quirks and my own passionate interest areas.
At that time, we didn’t know about sex trafficking, children soldiers, how neurochemistry plays a huge role in sexuality, or even how agricultural methods could change not just our diet, but the economy and climate change. We had no clue. The most we knew was from our interactions with others—about India, about trauma of growing up in war-torn Jordan or Sudan, about Rwanda, apartheid, about the pressures of being a Christian in Lebanon or family life in Japan. We learned this from our professors and our friends. Now, I know.
Now, I get to be me. I live a life as best as I can, dealing with myoclonus, being a husband, father, son, friend, brother, author, geek, and a cerebral Christian. (I believe science, philosophy, and faith—religion, so to speak—are compatible and complementary.)
I don’t have to be Bobby Maesson. I can’t. In no way could I ever fill that role. I spent some time trying. What I can be is my quirky self. And I can love others. He taught me that. In a strange way, he also taught me how to suffer, something that is immeasurably beautiful in light of my current illness. Romans 5:1-11 was almost prophetic. I never did memorize it, no matter the hours we spent on one car ride trying. Yet, it’s meaning isn’t lost on me. Nor was the meaning of this wonderful, brotherly friendship.
Today, seven years ago, my brother died. Yet, he left a legacy of love, truth, and comfort. I do look forward—crazy Christian part coming—to seeing him again. I do believe I will. Because he was right. Jesus loves me. He loves you too. When we discover that, we’re on the way to fully discovering ourselves—and wouldn’t the world be a marvelous place if we all discovered who and whose we are.
Thanks for reading, my readers and friends. I love you.
My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves.
– 1 John 3:18 (The Message)