Back in the early days of the internet, before there was really anything to see on the web, there were things called “Bulletin Board Services” (BBS), which were pretty much what they sounded like: people posting ideas or questions and other people responding to them in long, and sometimes contentious threads. These forums were somewhat better than social media at fostering respectful debate and discussion, largely because they allowed you to write long and thoughtful responses. Nevertheless, you wouldn’t necessarily peg such forums as places where genuine relationship could develop.

But that’s what happened to me. I made a good friend out of someone I sparred with frequently in one forum called “Electronic Religion” on a local BBS.

I will confess that my first foray into this forum was a lot more snark than substance, but this one person—Ronn—engaged with me critically. He pushed me to defend my snark with substance and from there we developed a fervent but mutually respectful online rivalry. We disagreed on almost everything. I was the progressive, he the traditionalist. He was a fervent libertarian/anarchist, I the social democrat. He the Biblical inerrantist, I the one inclined to see poetry. But our conversations were always civil, respectful, and really fun.

When the BBS went the way of dial-up modems and AOL chat rooms, Ronn reached out to me and suggested that we keep in touch and keep the conversation going. And we did. We even got together once to go to church and then spent the next six hours back at my house talking about… well, everything.

We would get together every once in a while over the years, but as all too frequently happens when the burdens and cares of life pile up, the time gap between those visits grew longer and longer.

Ronn Neff
Ronn Neff, 1949–2021

It occurred to me the other day that I should drop him a note, just to touch base and see how he was doing. And today, I got a phone call: from his wife Susan telling me that he’d died last week from Covid.

I’m saddened by this news, not merely because of the loss of a friend I had failed to see often enough, but because of what that friendship had meant to me.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, is credited with saying, “Though we may not think alike, may we not love alike?” Whether he is the originator of that statement or not, the sentiment has long been at the heart of Methodism and certainly at the heart of my faith. I have long been proud of the fact that Methodism was not dogmatic and did not insist on its own correctness. The Methodist movement is one of only a couple of Christian movements over the centuries that has not insisted that it is the one true church. (Ironically, I once shared this fact with Ronn and he remarked that that was a sign of Methodism’s lack of legitimacy.)

But the fact that he could believe me to belong to a heretical, inauthentic sect at odds with the one true faith (Catholic), and that I could see him as embracing outmoded patterns of thought that did not sufficiently align with human experience, and nevertheless we respected each other, cared for each other, and saw each other as friends was a wonderful gift, and full of the grace of God.

We had not had a meaningful conversation in a few years outside the occasional email, so I can’t be sure whether our discourse would have survived the current polarized climate, but something tells me that it would have.

Ronn, had the ability to recognize the weaknesses in his own arguments. When I once asked him if there were any challenges to his anarchist views that he could see, he responded, “Yeah, plague.” He acknowledged that he hadn’t worked out how human civilization could respond to a plague without some kind of government intervention. (Admittedly, his comment has been on my mind a lot the last year or so.)

He still remained committed to his belief that no one should live under any government to which they did not personally consent. His belief system did not crumble because he hadn’t solved this problem. But the fact that he acknowledged that there was a problem was one of the reasons why our conversations were so meaningful.

It’s hard to have a real conversation with someone if you don’t think you have anything to learn from them. And if you think you’ve already gotten everything figured out and that your role in the conversation is simply to educate your less informed interlocutor, then there isn’t really any space for relationship.

Ronn pushed back on everything I asserted, he questioned every assumption. But his questions were sincere: he genuinely wanted to hear my answers. I don’t know that I ever persuaded him of anything, but I know that he was actually listening, not merely waiting to launch his own rhetorical counteroffensive.

I learned a lot from my friend Ronn. There are books I’ve read because of his recommendation. Perspectives I understand because of his sharing. Things he said that stuck with me long before I fully appreciated what they meant (“Race relations will never be solved until White Americans acknowledge that Black Americans are Americans”—that rattled around in my head for a good decade before it coalesced into a coherent understanding). As someone who enjoys learning, I am incredibly blessed to have learned so much from my friend.

But even more so, I am blessed by having had the experience of a friendship in which all our political, theological, and ideological differences did not become a barrier to relationship, they enhanced and enriched a relationship that was built on mutuality of respect and a healthy dose of authentic Christian love.

Farewell, my friend, and thank you for living out a model of Christian love that has often proved so lacking. The world is poorer for your loss.

Requiescat in pace.

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