Take Time to Nurture Your Friendships

Friendships are an important part of our spiritual and emotional well-being. In April 2011, the United Nations officially recognized July 30th as International Friendship Day, although most countries celebrate on the first Sunday of August. This year, International Friendship Day will be celebrated on August 5th.

God often uses human relationships to guide our paths toward His intended purpose for our lives and to remind us to focus on what’s truly important. One example of this type of God-given guidance in my life was my rekindling of a long-time friendship with a fellow colleague whom I lost touch with for 25 years. Here is my story, in recognition of International Friendship Day. It is from my first book, God Revealed: Revisit Your Past to Enrich Your Future.

Not the First Job I Had Hoped For

When I graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1970, I moved back to Michigan to pursue a teaching career. I was dismayed to find a market cluttered with teachers, primarily because the Vietnam War offered a draft deferral for teachers. The application process was extraordinarily frustrating and demoralizing, with hundreds of applicants for every position. Just getting an interview was a major success, and securing a job seemed impossible.

The best job I could get was an entry-level position teaching largely remedial mathematics at Franklin Junior High School in the Wayne–Westland School District. Although it was less intellectually challenging to teach mathematics at the junior high school level, the younger students were far more impressionable and in far greater need of positive role models than were high school students.

As a result, I felt I was doing noble work and changing the world in my own small way — not only teaching, but coaching football, wrestling and track. I sensed I was doing the work God intended me to do.

Eventually I moved into more advanced math courses and also taught a beginning-level course in photography, which I pursued as an avocation. Not only was it something I loved, but teaching photography allowed me to spend each morning preparing for class in the darkroom in the school’s science wing. It was there that I met and became close friends with a number of science teachers — among them Warren Rysberg, who became my best friend among the faculty.

My Beloved Friend, Warren

Warren had a zest for life, an amazing sense of humor, and a presence and charisma greater than almost anyone I had ever known. He loved his work, his students and his fellow faculty members. We soaked up each other’s company and loved sharing our classroom experiences and our successes, as well as our failures in impacting students’ lives.

And we were tested. There was no greater satisfaction than realizing I had touched a student on meaningful levels and helped change his or her life. But few frustrations compared to the inability to touch certain students, a situation that could be very depressing.

Despite my respect, appreciation and affection for my teaching colleagues — especially Warren — I left that school after six years. I could no longer live with the uncertainty of getting layoff slips in the spring and not knowing until summer whether my contract would be renewed in the fall. So in the summer of 1977, I decided to move on. Given my strong mathematics background, I wanted to try my hand at the actuarial profession, and my young family and I moved to Boston.

It was a decision I would never regret, but as often happens with long-distance relocations, I lost touch with my former friends. Communication became less frequent. Many years later, after Warren and I had last been in contact, a mutual friend and colleague, Sue Johnson, Googled me and found out that I was working at New York Life Insurance Company. She called me and said, “Warren has cancer. He’s not doing particularly well; he’s retired.” She told me Warren would enjoy hearing from me, and she gave me his contact information.


A Reunion, After Many Years

Surprised by the strength of my feelings after such a long time with no contact, I contacted Warren immediately. His voice, too, surprised me. Not only was he in excellent spirits, but he was genuinely excited to hear from me. As if no time had passed, we resumed our easy conversation, catching up on what had transpired over the years and reminiscing about old times at Franklin with some of the more colorful students and teachers from that era.

We finally ended our conversation, and I told Warren I would be praying for him and his recovery. His cancer was late stage.

Warren and I stayed in touch, and in the process, I connected with another dear friend from my teaching days, Barb Duncan. Warren, Sue, Barb and I exchanged many emails, calls and cards over the next couple of years. I started to talk to Sue and Barb about the two of them visiting the New York area with Warren. He had always wanted to travel to New York City, in particular to go to Ellis Island to see if he could track down records of some of his ancestors.

The three of them made plans to stay with my wife, Sue and me in our home in Connecticut for five days in May 2005. From the moment the group arrived until the sad moment when they departed, the experience was a reunion of friends that was absolutely glorious and a timely blessing from God. Warren was his normal, ebullient self; had it not been for the chemotherapy-induced hair loss, I would not have been able to tell he was ill. His positive attitude, his appreciation for our friendship and his gusto for living were remarkable and inspiring.

We all took a private guided tour of New York City with an eccentric but fascinating city historian, had front-row center seats to The Lion King on Broadway and took a ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Warren was able in inquire about his ancestors.

In the sweetness of our arm-in-arm walk to the Statue of Liberty, I also felt the impending loss. I’d finally reconnected with my friend, and now he would leave me. And I thought about my own mortality and how I’d one day be saying my own good-byes. With my whole heart, I suddenly felt the value and great joy of true friendship and how the power and purity of God’s love can find expression in such relationships.

Most meaningful for me were the times during the five-day visit when Warren and I had a chance to be together privately. We spoke about his illness and prognosis. “Warren,” I assured him, “you are immortal. I’m sure of it. I know it through my faith; I truly believe in a glorious afterlife.”

Warren didn’t say a lot, but he later shared with me and others how important those reassurances were and how he derived such hope from my expressed certainty.

Warren Helped Me Realize What’s Really Important

Warren provided me with valuable insight during that visit, too. He told me, “Fred, you’ve got to stop and smell the roses. Why don’t you at least consider retiring early so you can spend more time with Sue and the kids? You need time to follow your passions while you’re still here.”

I shared with him my plan to retire early to attend divinity school, teach and write. “I love it!” he responded. "Do it! Do it without doubt or hesitation. You won’t regret it.

On the day of their departure, I had to leave very early to go to my office in New York City, so I woke at 4 a.m. to write Warren a note. One of the sentiments I expressed was, “I can’t tell you how much this weekend has meant to me. Seeing you again and enjoying time together laughing and reminiscing has been truly special for me and really very therapeutic. My own illness (workaholism) is in many ways more devastating and fatal than your cancer.” I ended the note with, “Thank you for reminding me what life is really all about before it was too late for me. Your friend forever, Fred.”

I maintained regular contact with Warren after that visit. Our friend, Sue, often visited him in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, helping him sort out his affairs and prepare for his death. His wife was in a nursing home. Sue kept me informed about Warren’s condition, so I knew when the end was near.

In mid-June of 2006, I called Warren. He was weak and heavily medicated, but his spirits remained high. Sue was there, and she put him on the phone. “I love you, Warren,” I told him. I love you, and I owe you. You were instrumental in my decision to retire at fifty-nine and attend Yale Divinity School. I’ve done it, my friend, and I can’t thank you enough for your trust in the strength of our friendship and for pushing me so hard.”

Then, with tears streaming down my face and a painful lump in my throat, I said, “Warren, I love you, and I’ll see you on the other side.”

A couple of days later, Warren passed away. I attended his funeral in Michigan, along with hundreds of others, in celebration of the life of a remarkable man.

The Lesson We All Can Learn

Our life’s journey is sharply defined by the people we encounter — especially those we ultimately consider close friends — who reflect God’s love through their loyal, supportive and enduring friendship. Unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced mobile society, we often change jobs, relocate and lose touch with those who are dearest to us. After more than 25 years of separation from Warren, God brought us back together in a way I never could have predicted that positively impacted both of our lives.

Time for Reflection

  1. In the busyness of our lives, it’s easy to lose track of former close friends. Which friends from your past meant a lot to you but you haven’t seen for a long time? Contact them today. Google them if you need to find out where they are now. Chances are, they will be thrilled to hear from you.
  2. What types of activities will you need to spend less time on to make more room in your life to renew and maintain friendships with close friends?
  3. If you could use more friends, begin participating in church-related activities to get to know like-minded people.