What's in a Name...Tag: Reflection on the Loss of an Older Friend

nametagI don't like name tags. I think they're kind of tacky, sometimes literally tacky. Other times they are attached to pins that leave tiny holes in one of the few really nice dress shirts I own. Presumably I would wear such a nice shirt because it lends confidence on occasions when I would be expected to meet or introduce myself to new people. Thus if I am mentally prepared to say, "Hello, my name is Tim," wearing a name tag seems a bit redundant. But in all honesty, I just don't like them. All this is to explain why for years now there has been a tag pinned to the center of a small bulletin board next to the desk in my office. It's surrounded by business cards, photographs, and little love notes from my daughter. Inside the plastic placeholder the actual tag itself has yellowed considerably with the passage of time and in fact it's out of date. My name hasn't changed, but my job has. Nonetheless the tag has not moved and now...well, now it's even less likely to. The name tag on the bulletin board was given to me by one of the elders here at the church, not long after I first arrived on the scene some 15 years ago. It seemed to me that he had launched a personal crusade to ensure that everyone was adequately labeled during any church gathering. I was equally annoyed and thus determined to resist wearing my tag which led to several inquiries as to what had happened to it. Whenever I feigned forgetfulness my elder friend was undaunted, handing over a black magic marker and "Hello My Name Is..." label of which he always seemed to have an ample supply. Normally I would begrudgingly write my name and in protest stick the tag on some unorthodox part of my being, usually a pant leg.

Whether or not he ever caught on I didn't know, but evading the name tag became sort of a game to me. It was never really as fun as it could have been because no matter how many times I tried to elude him or pasted a name tag to the bottom of my Nikes, this dignified, older gentleman never seemed to take offense at the antics of the young wiseacre. In fact as the years went by I daresay all our name tag altercations actually served to foster an unlikely friendship. As normally occurs when you engage your nemesis I began to learn this person had a lot more to offer than Sharpies and office labels.

He was a retired colonel in the United States Air Force, having earned among other honors the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was the consummate family man, married to his wife for more than 60 years and fiercely proud of his kids and grandchildren. Loyal to the church and ever generous he and his wife invited the youth group to their lakeside home on numerous occasions, where I learned two things. One, the Name Tag Nemesis also loved his ski boat. Two, he possessed a quicker wit than I had ever given him credit for.

One of those muggy July afternoons with the youth group at the lake it was my turn to ride on the inflatable tube pulled behind the boat. With teenagers eager to see me meet my demise lustily advocating for hyper speed, I tightened my drawstring and mounted the tube determined to brace for ten minutes of G-forced water skimming. In so doing I apparently failed to distribute my weight appropriately, thus as the boat accelerated (rather quickly I might add) the tube plunged under water. Not sure what to do but not wanting to bail, I went with it. Eventually the drag was too much and the rope snapped just as I had finally decided letting go was preferable to being force fed thousands of gallons of lake water in the space of a few seconds. As a result the tube stopped immediately and my face, still traveling at a brisk 25 m.p.h., hit it square.

Later that afternoon as I sat on shore mildly dazed and mentally reviewing the terms of my health insurance, my dignified, elder friend came and sat down next to me, wondering how I was doing. "I'm fine I think. My wife gave me a couple little blue pills...Aleve or something like that I guess." He paused for a second, then looked at me as if gravely concerned and whispered low enough that no one else would hear, "Are you sure she wasn't trying to slip you some Viagra?" No one was able to figure out why we both suddenly began laughing so hard. But that was when I knew that not only had he caught on to my name tag evasion game all those years ago, he had been playing right along with it.

It was an extremely busy week last week; coaching responsibilities at the high school, a mid-term exam, and it was my turn to preach. Thus when I heard my name tag friend was in the hospital I kept tabs on him from a distance via other friends and a colleague, but I didn't visit myself. It seemed all was well and he was back home with his wife by Thursday. But Friday night they rushed him back to the ER and then on Saturday he was flown to a bigger hospital in a bigger city where he died during emergency surgery.

Thus the name tag on the bulletin board has not moved, and now...well, now it's even less likely to.

That tag will remain there for some time longer as a simple memorial to man who left a legacy of faith, family, and love of neighbor the likes of which we should all aspire to. I feel a certain sense of pity, not for myself but for those so unfortunate as to have never been "annoyed" by someone of such stature. Age segregation is one of the great tragedies of the modern American church. Upon reflection on my experience I'm blessed to have had the privilege of working with a generation younger than me while simultaneously being regarded as suspicious by two or three generations older than me. If I may be so bold as to speak for an entire congregation I should say that regardless of which generation we are a part we will all miss our friend. But all our tears will be only selfish. In little more than a week on Easter Sunday, while we are celebrating Christ's resurrection our friend will have already experienced it first hand, not because he was perfect and always wore his name tag, but because he was a faithful servant of our Savior.