Remembering My Friend Chris Mitchell
We began to do this regularly throughout the rest of my undergraduate career—meet and talk about Tolkien and Lewis and the other Inklings and biblical theology. I remember going out for lunch on my graduation weekend with Chris and my younger brother. I wanted Lance, who was by that time more of a devotee of Tolkien than I was, to meet Chris, and Chris obliged, displaying that same sparkling, zany intensity I'd seen on my first lunch meeting with him. It endeared him to me even more.
The next year I was living in Minneapolis. Loneliness like I'd never known before (or since) was eating away at my confidence and happiness. I had just begun to come out to a small circle of close friends. Only a few weeks earlier, for instance, had I first told a peer (rather than a pastor or mentor) about my homosexuality. But I wanted and needed more support. On a whim, I drove the six hours down to Wheaton and, on a typically dismal Chicago winter day, I sat in Chris' office and told him about the loneliness. I told him about being gay and wrestling mightily with what that meant for my future. I read him excerpts from my journal, asking for his wisdom and insight and empathy. At some point in the conversation, I remember him saying, "I think I know the mind of Christ on human sexuality, but I don't know how best to be your friend on this journey. We'll find out together from here on out." (He later told me that that conversation—and our many, many follow-up ones—led him to a more sensitive, nuanced pastoral approach to homosexuality.)
I describe the end of that conversation in my book Washed and Waiting:
Out of all the things Chris said to me in response that day, one of them sticks out. With compassion in his voice, he said: "Origen, the great Christian theologian of the early church, believed that our souls existed with God before we were born. What if he were right? I don't believe he was, but imagine for a moment if he were. Imagine yourself standing in the presence of God, looking down from heaven on the earthly life you're about to be born into, and God says to you, 'Wes, I'm going to send you into the world for 60 or 70 or 80 years. It will be hard. In fact, it will be more painful and confusing and distressing than you can now imagine. You will have a thorn in your flesh, a homosexual orientation that is the result of your entering a world that sin and death have broken, and you may wrestle with it all your life. But I will be with you. I will be watching every step you take, guiding you by my Spirit, supplying you with grace sufficient for each day. And at the end of your journey, you will see my face again, and the joy we share then will be born out of the agonies you faithfully endured by the power I gave you. And no one will take that joy—that solid, resurrection joy which, if you experienced it now, would crush you with its weight—away from you.'
"Wesley," Chris said, looking me in the eye, "wouldn't you say 'yes' to the journey if you had had that conversation with God?" I nodded, and Chris lowered his voice almost to a whisper, his eyes flashing deep care and concern, "But you have had it, in a sense. God is the Author of your story. He is watching, supplying you with his Spirit moment by moment. And he will raise your body from the dead to live with him and all the great company of the redeemed forever. And the joy you will have in that moment will be yours for all eternity. Can you endure knowing that? Can you keep walking the lonely road if you remember he's looking on and delights to help you persevere?"
Chris died on Thursday evening, July 10, 2014, on a trip to Colorado to be with his daughter, son-in-law, and grandkids. It was unexpected and stunningly untimely: he was 63 years old. I can't say how much I miss him, how bereft I feel of one of my most loved friends.
There are so many memories. We drove up to Crail in Scotland once, a little fishing village on the North Sea where Chris lived when he was getting his doctorate at St. Andrews, and he was like a kid again, pointing out to me all the places where he used to walk and explore. I remember taking him to Wheelbirks Farm in Northumbria with my fellow Durham postgrads and the joy I felt introducing him to my community. I remember a night at my house when our mutual friend Brett Foster—whom I met and came to love through Chris—gave an impromptu poetry reading, with Chris seated next to him on the couch, brow creased in meditation. I remember nights at The Perch, as Chris had christened his study above the garage at his house in Wheaton. Brett was usually there, along with other Wheaton faculty. Chris was generous in pouring the single malt. The conversation ranged widely and never seemed to lose steam.