Fred Johnson, Requiescat in pace

tree silhouetteHe was an Episcopalian priest. But to leave it at that is a little like saying a Lamborghini is a car.

I struggle to find the right word to describe Fred. Not raconteur. Not provocateur. Not curmudgeon. He was a critic, but a lover. He had a cynical streak, but deeply loved people. He was one of the most incisive critics of the church and yet deeply loved the church.

Above all, Fred loved conversation. He was a philosopher at heart that wore the garb of a priest and theologian. He was an Okie by birth, a Sooner by education and an undergrad philosophy major, I think. Not much strong church connection as a youth. But somehow he found his way to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church and spent most of his ministry at a parish just north of New York City. I didn’t know him there, but I do know that the Okie in the tony suburbs of New York was not to be ignored.

He was a politician in the best sense of the word. While serving as rector of an Episcopalian parish in a heavily Republican district, he was also deeply interested in politics and ran for Congress several times as a Democrat. He told me the story of how he got involved in Democratic precinct politics, payed his dues, and was finally given the go ahead to run for Congress. He never had any pretensions that he would win, but he counted it as a victory when he did better than anyone expected and even made the Republican incumbent sweat a couple of times. He was bound and determined that the word get out about how we have the responsibility communally to care for one another — even in a district where it was anathema to speak such nonsense.

That we would have become friends is so unlikely. I was a conservative Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod pastor in my 30’s. Fred was a liberal, retired Episcopalian priest in his 70‘s. I was about as boring as they come. Moved to Florida from Missouri, had a stay at home wife, two small children, and drove an ancient Volvo 245 tank. He was a retired Episcopalian priest, as liberal as anyone I’d ever met, was divorced after 40 years of marriage, remarried, lived in the Naples Tennis Club and drove a royal blue Corvette.

So, just how did it happen? He had started a weekly bible study for clergy. I was not part of the original invitation. One of my Lutheran pastoral colleagues was a part of the original group.  Steve was ELCA, and I was still in the much more conservative Missouri Synod denomination. Steve mentioned to Fred that he thought I might be interested in this group, a weekly discussion and study group that valued serious theological discussion. Fred called and asked if I wanted to join. I can hardly imagine the consternation of whether he really wanted to invite an LCMS pastor to join the group!

I did become part of the group, and it stretched me unbelievably. Fred articulated theological positions that I had only known by caricature. And the more I got to know him, the more my mind became open to the possibility that I didn’t have all the answers.

The thing about Fred was that he was always thinking critically. Not in a mean or demeaning way, but in a way that wanted us always to peel away the layers to get closer to the truth. I’d talk about my position and he’d push back. He’d lay out his position and challenge me to offer critique. He was just never, ever satisfied with easy answers or with the status quo. He always believed that more dialogue, more critical thought could get us closer to the truth.

Strangely enough, we didn’t maintain very close contact after I moved away. I’m not good at maintaining long distance friendships, and apparently Fred wasn’t either. Shortly before I moved away, his second wife, whom I had known, died of brain cancer. Fred had the good fortune to fall in love again and asked me to come down and officiate at his wedding. I visited Naples a couple of times after that. When I visited, Fred was the only person I really wanted to see. And though we didn’t stay in very close contact by phone or email, when I visited it was like we were picking up where we had left off yesterday.

About 8 years ago, he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. It wasn’t due to the overuse of alcohol, but a genetic condition, as I understood it. (But have no illusions; he was an Episcopalian priest; happy hour was a sacrament.) He gave up alcohol. Then a few years later he was diagnosed with cancer. The treatments for his cancer were limited because of his compromised liver. In the end, the cancer went into remission and the cirrhosis got him.

Fred was a friend. A true friend. A deep friend. It’s my experience that the pastoral vocation is a lonely one. We are around people all the time, but cultivate few deep friendships. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of those friendships I’ve had, and I wouldn’t need my thumb or all of the fingers. Fred was a friend. A true friend. A deep friend. And my heart grieves for the loss.

2 thoughts on “Fred Johnson, Requiescat in pace

  1. Rodney Pendleton

    Jim,
    I have observed your journey for many years from a distance. We are like-minded in many ways. I have my issues with LCMS, but my friends keep me hanging on at Bethany (your vicarage church). I may be a closet Episcopalian, as many Sundays, when Linda and I do not have responsibilities at church, we sneak down to the National Cathedral, or Pohick Church (George Washington, George Mason, and George Fairfax were on its first Building Committee) for worship. I do not comment on every blog article, but I avidly read each of your posts. I especially enjoy your sharing of both your journey and your thinking as we navigate through life. If you get back to this area, Linda and I would love to see you!

    Thanks again for your always thought-provoking prose.

    Rodney P.

    Reply
    1. Jim Honig Post author

      Rodney,
      It warms my heart to hear from you. And thank you so much for your kind words. We think of you so often. We haven’t been to DC in ages, but when we do, you will be on our list. Our love to everyone!

      Reply

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