Forty Years Ago
I must be getting old. Fifty-six doesn’t seem that old but I’m constantly amazed at how long I’ve known people. In Ashburn, Georgia in the early sixties, few people moved. The kids with whom I attended kindergarten also graduated with me. I could probably list fifty people on my Facebook friend list who were classmates. That’s 52 years of friendship with each one. Wild!
In spite of knowing everyone at Turner County High School, I started my sophomore year in a constant state of loneliness. I didn’t realize it at first. My best friend of five years, a guy I’d spent hours and hours with both in and out of school, began making life choices that took him in a different direction than my life choices. He partied; I worked (and sometimes studied). We never had a falling out. He and I simply drifted apart as our lives went in different directions. Even though the separation happened in a passive manner, it was still separation and for the first time in my life, I found myself without a close friend. I still think about him often and wonder where he is and how he’s doing.
Oh, there were other friendship options and I was truly friends with many many people but no one really knew me, knew my heart. I was friendly, polite, jovial even, but I was lonely. It was from this loneliness, that I began to pray for a friend, a genuine friend, a friend who would like me in spite of my foibles, failures, and flaws. What were my options? It wasn’t like a new kid was going to appear out of the blue in this tiny town.
But God… (I think that’s my father’s favorite phrase.)
In spring 1978, First Baptist Ashburn, a church I didn’t attend, called a new pastor, Bob Zbinden. Rev. And Mrs. Zbinden, affectionately and forever called Mr. and Mrs. Z, moved to town. They had four kids, a daughter in nursing school, twin boys in tenth grade, and a daughter in eighth grade. Zack and Kelly and I quickly became inseparable. We didn’t even have a single class together that first quarter, but somehow began to eat lunch together.
We hung out at youth group. We talked long into the night. We prayed together. Mostly we sang together. I earned my musical bona fides singing with Zack, Kelly, and Mark Mercer. The twins inhaled bowls of fresh vegetables at my mom’s table. For two summers, Mrs. Z fed me lunch almost every day. Our lives became intertwined.
Zack and I drove Kelly to Shorter College and helped him move in. (I swear to this day an angel repaired our car on the way.) I’ve had dinner with Kelly in Chang Mai, Thailand where he works. We’ve been in each other’s weddings. We’ve watched each other’s kids grow up, marry, and start their own families.
My wife and I have developed a close friendship with Melanie Zbinden and love spending time with her. She’s full of love and joy and spreads it to those who have the privilege of knowing her.
Zack attended Georgia Tech while I went to Emory but we both went to First Baptist Atlanta where we continued to sing together. One Sunday about 35 years ago, Dr. Charles Stanley asked us to remember our most desperate prayer and how God answered it. After the early service, we were in Sunday School assembly in the college department and I pulled Zack aside and told him how lonely I had been and that I had been praying for a friend when he and Kelly moved to Ashburn. I told him for the first time that he had been a direct answer to my most desperate prayer. We both were tearing up. Mary Beth, the youngest Zbinden saw us and had a look of shock on her face. I remember asking her what was wrong and she said, “Well, it’s not every day I see my brother and his best friend crying!” We just laughed and didn’t offer an explanation. (So, Mary Beth, here’s why.)
March 18, 2013 December 28, 2018
In short, in my most desperate hour, God answered my most desperate prayer with a family that helped shape the direction of my life. Thank you Zbindens for your love, your care, your influence. May God continue to bless and multiply your family.