Remembering my friend Don Lewis

Almost exactly ten years ago, in the fall of 2011, I found myself eating breakfast with Don Lewis. I was a bright-eyed first semester student at Regent College, full of earnest, barely coherent questions, wanting to understand how my evangelical upbringing fit within the larger story of the church. Don was a church historian whose work on evangelicalism, I would later learn, made invaluable contributions to our understanding of this modern renewal movement. But on that October morning, we didn’t talk about history or evangelicals at all.

Don had asked me–a brand-new Regent student not in any of his classes–to grab breakfast. What started with coffee, eggs, and toast took over the whole morning. By the time we were done, Don knew my life story. Back in his office, Don put an arm around me and sat with me in long, quiet prayer, murmuring thanks to God for “my friend, Paul.”

From that morning on, that’s who I was to Don: “my friend.” When I ran into Don in the atrium, “Good to see you, my friend.” When we’d catch up on Skype: “How are you, my friend?” When I started to make my own small contributions to the historical guild, with a huge smile, “Amazing job, my friend!”

A few days ago, on October 19, Don Lewis died, suddenly, without warning. After forty years of teaching at Regent College, this faithful saint went to meet his Lord. Since Tuesday, tributes have been pouring in from former students, many of them echoing my first thought upon hearing the terrible news: I’ve lost a friend.

It turns out that Don had a lot of “my friends.”

You can read elsewhere about Don’s remarkable influence as a church historian, his tireless work in the Anglican communion, his dedicated teaching over forty years. He left an indelible impact as a scholar, professor, and churchman. What is truly immeasurable, however, is the work Don did over eggs and coffee, or sitting his office couch, with hundreds of students like me.

Photo credit: Regent College

I suspect that I wasn’t unusual among the young men who found themselves in Don’s office over the decades: successful students, very comfortable in the realm of ideas, fairly good at reading and arguing about things–oh, and entirely unavailable emotionally. I came to Regent eager to study, to figure out my theology, and to go on to teach or lead or change the world one way or another. I was also completely cut off from my inner life. Buried deep inside were pain, trauma, disappointment, anger, and all sorts of other feelings far too unsafe to confront, let alone talk about. There were parts of my story that virtually nobody outside of my immediate family and one or two friends knew, and I did my best to ignore all this and get on with things. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I wasn’t just emotionally inept, but actually had no emotional life at all.

But with one or two questions, followed by a gentle, unwavering gaze, Don opened up my story in a single morning.

As I’ve reflected in these last few days on what it meant to be friends with Don, and talked with others of his friends, I’ve become aware of how many gifts Don gave us.

Don gave the gift of care. He was much more interested in who you were, and what you were going through, than any of your ideas or accomplishments (or his accomplishments, for that matter.) He carefully attended to many who didn’t even know they needed it, especially young men and pastors. And he had a remarkable capacity to carry people’s burdens, while also helping them find the further care they usually needed. I would never have started therapy without Don’s encouragement and recommendation, and I know I’m not alone. It’s not an exaggeration to say that hundreds of marriages, families, and churches are healthier because of Don’s caring friendship.

Don gave the gift of presence. Somehow, while teaching, leading at Regent and in the church, and producing important scholarship, Don still had seemingly unlimited time for long one-on-one meetings with students. Any time you walked by Don’s office, the odds were good you would see him in conversation or prayer with one of his friends. And if John Wesley and other early evangelicals were itinerating pastors, Don Lewis was an itinerating friend. While other scholars travel to prestigious conferences and important meetings, Don went on long trips across the continent and around the world just to spend time with former students. During his preaching tours, Wesley rode some 300,000 miles on horseback; I’m fairly certain Don easily outdistanced Wesley on his trips to see friends.

Don gave the gift of gratitude. He loved to sing, especially hymns of praise and thanks. Most conversations with Don, and virtually every prayer, circled back to gratitude. Don thanked God for everything about his life and yours: for your families, for your parents, for your spouse, for your work. Prayer with Don was a Spirit-filled litany of thanksgiving. And spending any time with Don was to be reminded of all of God’s good gifts–especially the good gift of you, Don’s friend.

Finally, Don gave the gift of prayer. He rarely let one of his friends escape a conversation without praying with them. And this prayer was transformative. In prayer with Don, you were brought into God’s presence. You experienced God’s love. In prayer with Don, you were reminded that you were a beloved child of God.

Now, this child of God has gone home. The man who embraced so many, wrapping his sweater-ed arms around us in prayer, has entered the loving embrace of his heavenly Father. What a joy for Don. What a loss for the many he called friends.

When a twenty-five year old me first breakfasted with Don Lewis, at that point in adulthood I had shed tears only twice. Thanks in part to the good medicine of Don’s friendship, and the healing God worked through him and others since, I’m more able to cry these days. So I’m unashamed to say that this week I’ve shed many tears, tears of sorrow for this loss, and tears of gratitude for the gift.

I bless you, Lord, for my friend, Don.

Eternal rest grant unto Don Lewis, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon him.
May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God,
rest in peace.
Amen.