Remembering My Friend Chris Mitchell
When I stepped off the train in Oxford, Chris was standing there in the station waiting for me, his face breaking into its characteristic goofy grin when I landed on the platform, but he didn't stay still longer than it took to give me a tight hug. He pivoted as soon as he released my shoulders, grabbed one of my bags, and sped toward the rental car. We were already late for the adventure he had planned. We were going to drive from Oxford to the little village of Wolvey in Warwickshire, roughly 115 kilometers away, to look for a tombstone.
When Chris was growing up in Oregon, his family employed an Englishman named William Alcott Bailey as a part time gardener and handyman. Chris learned the value of hard work, he said, from Bailey. He learned how to work with his hands and see a yard project through to its finish, but, even more, he learned how to take ownership and pride in his work. He learned those things, specifically, from Bailey. And now, in between his other responsibilities in the UK, lecturing and researching for a new edition of one of C. S. Lewis' books, he wanted to go looking for Bailey's grave, as a way of paying tribute to someone that, in retrospect, he viewed as essential to the arc of his childhood. He knew Bailey had spent his childhood in Wolvey, but that was about it. Whatever leads he had had petered out there. We'd just have to look for the tombstone, assuming that Bailey would have wanted to be buried where he grew up.
I wish I could capture the simultaneity of Chris' fiercely serious fixation on this task and his boyish, smiling enthusiasm for being on a quest. It wasn't unusual for him—that combination of zeal and playfulness is what had made me want to be friends with him from the beginning—but it was what made Chris unique. And I wasn't the only one who loved him for it, but, nonetheless, I treasured the feeling that this particular glimpse into it was mine. This was a special trip for just the two of us, a way for me to learn more about my friend's upbringing and to delight in what made him happy.
We never found William Alcott Bailey's grave. We traipsed around the overgrown C of E parish cemetery, uncovering some Baileys that Chris was convinced were his Bailey's relations, but as far as we could tell, there was no "William Alcott." Undeterred, we went to the pub anyway to toast him. At the Blue Pig just down the road—I still remember sitting across from Chris at our table by the window, with the glint of summer evening sun caught in our pint glasses—we hoisted our ales "to William Alcott Bailey and his good memory." Afterwards, we lit pipes and walked the length of the empty fields behind the pub and talked. The conversation was vigorous, spirited, meandering, as it always was with Chris, with both of us talking over each other at various junctures, stalled only by moments of concentration for an occasional relight.
Chris later said that trip to Wolvey cemented our friendship. I inwardly beamed whenever I heard him tell the story—as I did many times in the intervening years—to others.
That was the summer of 2008. Six years earlier was when I first met Chris. I was in my second year as an undergraduate at Wheaton College, and I'd just read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. Chris was a scholar of Tolkien (and the other Inklings), and, with all the cheek of youth, I sent him an email asking if we could get together and talk about Middle Earth. "Be prepared for a whirlwind of energy when you meet Chris," my English professor told me, chuckling, when he heard that we were going to have lunch.
We met in the college dining commons. As I recall, there weren't many preparatory pleasantries—I doubt Chris learned that day what year I was, what I was majoring in, or where I was from—because we dove right in. Within minutes he was talking animatedly about the Ainur and Ilúvatar and Genesis and the Protoevangelium, and, almost as soon as it began, our hour was up. I promised to email Chris again.
The next time we met, again for lunch at the college dining hall, we picked up where we left off. I talked about the theology I was reading (N. T. Wright's narratival biblical theology) and how it might connect to Tolkien's vision. Chris talked about his reading of Genesis 1-2 and what he interpreted as the primal human hunger to be echad (he always used the Hebrew)—to be "one" with each other and reunited with our Creator. I confided in him my thoughts about how to harmonize the Genesis text and evolutionary biology, thoughts I wasn't sure would be welcome with certain others at Wheaton, and I remember him saying, "Of course you're thinking about evolution, because it's a narrative!"
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.
If Chris wanted to hoist a pint to William Alcott Bailey at the Blue Pig in Wolvey, England, then this reflection is my raising a glass to Chris. He was as fine a Christian as I've ever known, and he showed me the gentleness and wisdom and love of Christ when I most needed it.
That winter day in his office, when I first disclosed my secrets to him, he ended our meeting by pulling Dorothy Sayers' cycle of plays The Man Born to Be King off the shelf. The scene was the visit of the Magi to Mary and the newborn Jesus, and Chris read some of the lines from Balthazar, one of the Magi:
I speak for a sorrowful people—for the ignorant and the poor. We rise up to labour and lie down to sleep, and night is only a pause between one burden and another. Fear is our daily companion—the fear of want, the fear of war, the fear of cruel death, and of still more cruel life. But all this we could bear if we knew that we did not suffer in vain; that God was beside us in the struggle, sharing the miseries of His own world. For the riddle that torments the world is this: Shall sorrow and love be reconciled at last, when the promised Kingdom comes?
And then Chris read Mary's reply:
These are very difficult questions—but with me, you see, it is like this. When the Angel's message came to me, the Lord put a song into my heart. I suddenly saw that wealth and cleverness were nothing to God—no one is too unimportant to be His friend. That was the thought that came to me, because of the thing that happened to me. I am quite humbly born, yet the Power of God came upon me; very foolish and unlearned, yet the Word of God was spoken to me; and I was in deep distress, when my Baby was born and filled my life with love. So I know very well that Wisdom and Power and Sorrow can live together with Love; and for me, the Child in my arms is the answer to all the riddles.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. His next book, Paul and the Triune Identity, is forthcoming from Eerdmans.
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