One of my best friends in college was Mark Bryan. He was a cheerleader and dated Mickey Mouse. Yes I said it he dated Mickey. His girlfriend was the official person who donned the suit of Mickey in Disney World. She was a very cute woman. She was who if you were looking for someone to don the Mickey uniform would choose. Of course I had to as Thomas with the resurrected Jesus see the proof and was humbled when I realized my friend dated Mickey. He also came from privilege.His father was the equivalent of a chief of staff for Alabama governor Fob james. He had a stepmother who he did not like but neither did he despise her.
He was also my soul mate in college. He too was a religion major and he was way too fluent in Hebrew. We took what classes we could together and we were study buddies. He was a scholar at Hebrew and I passed. I was better at Greek. He was more of a traditionalist theologian and I was more of a on the edge of the deep end.
We were both avid weightlifters and spent hours in the gym pushing each other. He was shorter but more muscular. We studied and then we lifted and then we played. That was essentially what we did for each other pushed each other to stretch our minds and bodies. We were weightlifters on a dorm floor of Nerds yet we were the experts on the subject of religion and philosophy so we were held in awe. We knew on a Christian campus how to speak Christianese better than anyone. We fit in on the nerd floor because we were not quite nerds but we were outsiders looking at the world through different glasses.
We did not fit in with the other religious students. We were always willing to go on tangents of belief. Not because we believed them necessarily but we wanted to wear that point of view for a while to see how it fit. This disturbed the convinced believers. But because he was always excelling in the academics and I was always excelling at the other point of view our beliefs were held in suspect but respect.
Mark had a pastoral manner about him. He took interest in people to nurture their spirit. Part of his persona was to keep a ministerial distance from others. I always rankled him by ignoring his distance and getting in his space. But this rankling was what he liked about me. He was very confident. This made sense. He came from prestige, he was a great scholar, built, and a handsome cheerleader. And of course there was the mythical girlfriend who was the actual Mickey Mouse.
One of the things we loved to do was hike. And we hiked a lot. If the weather was good we would glance at each other and skip the next class and drive out to Oak Mountain State park. A park that at that time was not developed but was over ten thousand acres. The other religion students often looked at us in disbelief when we skipped class to hike. But we grinned and said god was not only found in a classroom but in the glory of the world. We encouraged them to come with us but they were not convinced God was in the woods. There was a waterfall that dropped into a pool that we swam in on more than one occasion. We often hiked for hours and never saw another human being. We seldom stayed on the trails. We were young and confident we could always find our way back to the car. After the hike we would go to his parent’s home for supper.
On one occasion Mark proved to us how a miracle in the Bible could be possible. We were hiking but did not want to get our feet wet. But we were trailblazing a trail along a creek, which meant we had to cross the creek several times. To keep our feet from getting wet we would grab huge boulders and toss them in the middle of the creek and step on them so that we would not get our feet wet. We needed an extra big boulder and we use our well gained weight room strength to pick up a boulder to toss in the creek so that we could jump from the edge of the creek to the boulder and to the other side. In the middle of the toss the wet boulder slipped from my hands and came crashing down into the creek onto Mark’s foot. And then the miracle happened. In an amazing feat Mark screaming words that should not come from a religion student’s mouth, walked on the water in a blink of an eye to the other side. I looked at him writhing in pain on the other side and realized I must too walk across the water so I stepped out in faith and went kerplunk. My feet were totally soaked and his were not. As I said he was the traditionalist, his faith was greater than mine. His foot was also fractured. But Mark manned up and we walked back to the car. To keep his foot from swelling anymore we walked in the creek to let the cold water work its magic. He declared I dropped the rock on purpose. I declared that he was Peter the rock that from which the church was made. He declared me not funny. I declared him Jesus for walking on water. He grimaced and gave me a look that said 'shut up'.
We had many conversations about where we saw ourselves in the future. We felt called but could not see ourselves as pastor of a church. But we always saw ourselves together taking on the world. I was the revolutionary he was the quiet man changing inside so that he had something to offer the world. We often except for the presence of the other felt lonely. We often felt inadequate to our call but a word of encouragement from the other would sustain us in our inadequacies. We were for a brief moment a mooring for each other.
Mark was an aesthetic and even claimed he was a virgin. Which I found no reason to doubt until Mickey came around and they seemed very comfortable in each other’s arms. Mark had traveled to Israel once and loved it. He wanted us to go together after graduation. He had devised a plan for us to go and stay for at least a year. We would live in a kibbutz. They would apparently let people come and live with them but they had to stay for a year. This idea became his obsession. It was not mine. He was constantly cajoling me to sign up. I demurred and offered excuses. He made his arrangements and was frustrated that I would not go with him. This began to create a subtle rift between us. He felt like I was betraying him. I felt like he was going into the middle of the desert to never be found again. I also knew he would like to disappear into the world. He had a lot of family and self-expectations that were on his shoulders. Our frustrations were in part we knew if he went down this path we would probably never see each other again. We were soul mates but the time had come to part ways. We were young but our futures were diverting quickly. We had been the sanity for each other in a country that prided itself in its religiosity yet had more of a cultural and taught religion than anything else. We were two men who wanted to live religion and experience the Eternal.
The last day we were together we laid out our challenges for each other. We pledged to each other that we would always be who we had revealed to each other we were. He left for the kibbutz. I never heard from him again. He disappeared into the desert. I got engaged a year later and went to seminary. These many years later I have traveled in directions I never saw coming and done things I would have never imagined I would do. Yet throughout it all I have tried to remain true to the young student of religion that I once was. In those times when I betray myself or grow tired of the struggle I imagine a John the Baptist figure coming straight from the desert with his Mickey Mouse girlfriend and kicking my butt. With that thought I return to myself.