Yearbook, Bible prompt compassion for friend lost to AIDS | Commentary

“Love the hair!’” the kids commented this week as they thumbed through my high school yearbook. They pointed out our polyester bell-bottomed pants and the way we parted our long, straight hair in the middle, the enormous collars and our platform shoes. When I mentioned that I wore shoes made by Candies, an extremely popular shoemaker at the time, and they flashed that great look of teen amazement. Turns out the same corporation is still around, making fashionable shoes for young women in their teens and 20s that commonly feature sandals with wooden soles.

Some things never change.

It is during the first couple of weeks each June when I experience the urge to peruse the pages of my high school yearbook and think back on my eventful senior year. Prompted by graduation merchandise featured in stores and the eagerness of graduating seniors to see their own annual, I get the biggest charge watching students thumb through the pages and write with intensity messages to their classmates.

And while even I can giggle about our dorky high school styles, I must at some point take my book and head to a quiet corner to read the messages.

“I never want to end our talks about growing up and all,” a dear friend wrote in the back of my yearbook on a page I reserved just for him. As I gaze at his senior portrait and read over his message to me, I recall our shared adventures that taught me about true friendship. While we never dated, we studied together on a regular basis and hung out nearly every day. We drank shots of espresso when it was not yet popular, dissected the lyrics of Joan Baez, and learned that trust brings out the best in people.

It is with no small amount of tears and deep sadness that today, 31 years later, I mourn the death of this precious man, whose life was cut way too short by AIDS.

It has been 27 years since AIDS was first detected in California and New York. The impact on most of us, both personally and as members of a global community, is astounding. Today an estimated 33 million people live with HIV/AIDS and 25 million have died from AIDS since 1981. Young people under the age of 25 account for half of all new HIV infections. Women account for 50 percent of all adults living with HIV and for 61 percent living in sub-Saharan Africa. African children orphaned by AIDS has reached a staggering 12 million.

The face of AIDS has changed for me. It’s no longer simply a big city or gay disease. It has pre-empted the lives of people who contributed to my childhood in wonderful ways and fills my consciousness when I give a spin to the globe that sits in our den.

I wish I could have told my friend how much I treasure the respectful way he approached our friendship. I wish I could have offered a matured and compassionate response when his health deteriorated. But my buddy died before I learned he had developed full-blown AIDS.

So it is out of respect for his memory and the people who live with AIDS, who work and worship beside us here in Western Washington, that I re-examine my perspective on yearbooks and memories, love and compassion.

My biblical concordance lists 75 separate references that involve compassion. One of my favorites is found in Mark 1:40 where it says that when Christ came upon a man with a skin disease, He touched and healed him because He was filled with compassion. Christ’s response to this leper at that time in human history was quite revolutionary and certainly unqualified. Regardless of this man’s circumstances, he was no less valuable to God and warranted His touch by simply being alive.

“For as long as I live in this world I want to say, ‘Thank you!’” my dear friend says at the close of his letter in my yearbook. They are his final words to me and serve as a constant reminder as I measure my personal responses to my world in 2008 and the people in it. I’m prompted to ask:

Is my own thankfulness to God witnessed in ever-flowing compassion because God’s love ever flows to me?

Do my words and actions reflect a compassionate, loving heart?

I certainly hope so.

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