Bob Miller and I met on the first day of our freshman year at Kent State University. We lived in honors dorms across the quad from each other, and one of his first roommates was a friend that I went to high school with. We were in the big bunch of freshmen that tend to walk around campus in packs until they feel safe enough to venture out alone.
Somewhere in the conversation and side comments that happen in groups like that, Bob picked up on the fact that I was a committed Catholic. And he, deeply involved in his Assembly of God church, had questions. We met for lunch and talked through dinner. Several times.
That was the beginning of an intense friendship that helped us weather our college years and that launched us into the rest of our lives. We were both a little young for our cohort, a month apart in age and a year younger than most everyone else. We were both geeked out on religion and were steeped in our traditions. But Bob also had an incredible aptitude for curiosity and questions. He was a born researcher and a brilliant scholar. And so, he asked me questions about my faith – about how we interpreted the bible, and how we came to faith, about sacraments and salvation and liturgy. And I had answers. Answer after answer after answer. Still, if Bob wasn’t satisfied, he’d go to the library and do more research and come out with more questions.
I’m not sure that anyone up to that point took my faith more seriously than Bob did. We met at a time when our dramatically different faith traditions held a bit of overlap. My involvement in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal helped me to relate to his Pentecostalism. Together we formed a little prayer group at the Catholic Newman Center. I introduced him to friends of mine involved in the Catholic diocesan youth ministry that I was involved in, and he made a retreat with us. And he was hooked.
We shared friends and faith. We sang in the university choir together. I was his sponsor when he became a Catholic the next year.
Bob majored in history, and I majored in journalism. By senior year we had met the people would each marry a few years later. Life got busy and complex as we made our way to graduation and set our trajectories to where we were headed afterward -- he to grad school and me to a newspaper job.
Nearly 40 years passed. Over the decades we kept in touch through occasional phone calls and letters and a few visits. Facebook took up a lot of the slack. He earned his PhD in biblical and near eastern studies and became a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures. He wrote 11 books, and most recently was a professor of the theology at Catholic University. He wrote songs and played in a band with his best friend Jon, who became his roommate during Sophomore year. He and his wife Anne Marie became third-order Franciscan. They raised four boys.
It was the kind of friendship that I could look at from afar, glad that Bob was doing good things in the world, that his gifts were active, and his word was doing its good and faithful work. The world was a good place because Bob was in it.
For the last eight years Bob battled, survived, struggled, and danced with cancer. In recent months he spoke of regularly meeting with “sister death,” friends and family said. I’m sure he interrogated her thoroughly and pummeled her with questions, before making his peace with her. Last week, the dance ended. He died the day before Thanksgiving surrounded by family and friends. I learned about it the next day on Facebook.
It was a blow that I’m still reeling from. Too young, too soon, too much still left to do, so full of life and faith.
In hearing the news, I was launched back in time to those heady days in the late 1980s – days when we were just beginning. He was formative in who I am, and who I became. I think I had that effect on him as well. It was an honor to know him then, and to be able to travel over those decades to witness what he became.
One of the great gifts of our humanity is our ability to see one another and to carry that vision for one another, over time over space. Sometimes it’s just a small glimpse, in this case just four years of Bob’s incredible life. But I knew him at a profound moment in our lives, and that is a precious piece to carry and to revisit.
Bob the Old Testament scholar chose a passage from 19th chapter of the Book of Job for the first reading at his Catholic funeral. It is one of the opening anthems in the Episcopal service of the burial of the dead, one I’ve proclaimed many times at such celebrations of life.
I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth, And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!
In those words, I can hear Bob’s voice, carrying the divine Word that does not return until its work is done. Even at the grave he made his song.
Give rest O Christ to your servant with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.