Tuesday, November 25, 2014

honoring a mentor-friend: John Mogabgab

At Ken's Sushi with John Mogabgab during a quick, 24-hour visit to Nashville in December 2012.
I thought of John often this past summer and intended to call. I wanted to know how he and his wife, Marjorie, were doing; how his lovely elderly mother, Babs, was faring; what editorial projects he was working on; and more. And I wanted to update him on the parts of my life that don't make it into newsletters. It had been a year since my last State-side visit and keeping up well via email between in-person visits wasn't John's strong suit. So I planned to call. But a summer full of apartment-hunting, moving, travel, and work, added to the 7-hour time difference, meant I never got farther than transferring his phone numbers from my US phone into my French phone in preparation for a spontaneous chat.

The last of my biggest summer travels took me to Togo for a week in early August, then on to Abuja, Nigeria to visit a friend for a couple days, and finally to Lagos, Nigeria to visit another friend. In Abuja I'd been mostly internet-less, so I was happy to fire up my smartphone upon arrival chez my friend in Lagos and connect to their wireless internet. Once connected, Viber alerted me to new messages from my American friend Nicole who is now living in South Africa and used to work with John.

The first message, sent the day I left Togo, told me Nicole had recently learned that John was gravely ill. The second, sent the day before I received it, carried the unbelievable news that John Mogabgab was no longer residing this side of heaven. He and I would not be having the catch-up chat I'd been planning for months now.

:'-(    :'-(

Sometime in 2003-ish when I was slinging espresso at a Music Row Starbucks in Nashville and was beginning (barely beginning) to launch my freelance writing career, I discovered that several of our customers worked at the Upper Room publishing house down the street. We began talking writing when they came for their daily (or more than daily) coffee. Finally, I one day gathered up the courage to ask Steve, the publisher at the time, if I could have a formal meeting with him sometime when I wasn't on the Starbucks clock.

He readily agreed. And when I arrived for the meeting, I discovered that he'd made plans to introduce me to many of his editors. That meeting led to a long-standing relationship with and a variety of work for the Upper Room. Unfortunately, John Mogabgab, the editor of Weavings spiritual formation journal, wasn't available that day.

But no matter, because when John next came to Starbucks, he apologized in his gracious, gentle way and suggested that we meet for lunch soon. We did. And what began as a one-off networking meeting morphed into a professional mentoring relationship morphed into a life mentor-friend relationship morphed into being an almost surrogate parent for a girl who lived not-so-near her actual parents.

Thus proceeded years of regular lunches together. Sometimes John's equally exceptional wife, Marjorie, was able to join us. Sometimes not. Most often we met in the cozy book-lined dining room at Alektor Café, a café-bookstore-gift shop run by an Orthodox priest, until it closed/relocated. Afterwards our usual choice was Ken's Sushi, where lunches with John transformed me from sushi novice to sushi lover.

John has been one of my most consistent mentors during the past decade of the windy vocational path I travel, the one that finally brought me to France two years ago and is often filled with big decisions that don't readily follow worldly wisdom. With his height and girth and thick gray-white hair and beard, his physical presence is strong, yet it's tempered by a scholarly gentleness. His relationship with the Lord runs deep but never descends into spiritual platitudes. His counsel is wise and never pushy. He acknowledges the challenges and paradoxes of faith but never seems disturbed by them.

One of my favorite quirky traits of John has been his capacity to reference just the right pearl of wisdom at just the right moment from just the right saint/great thinker/religious leader. Partly I'm enamored by it because remembering quotes is not one of my talents. I always picture his head as containing a giant quote Rolodex that automatically whooshes around (with appropriate Rolodex card-flipping sound included) and falls open to the perfect bit of wisdom for whatever I'm wrestling with. Part of what was beautiful about this quirk is the way it subconsciously reminded me that the beliefs I claim didn't just spring up yesterday. Along with John and all these others that he could quote, I'm part of a long, world-wide lineage.

Courtesy of my un-talent, I can't quote most of the great things John said to me over the years, but one question--a simple one, really, yet a profound one--that occasionally pops before me again at important crossroad moments and that I hope I never forget is this: "What can you do with your whole heart?"

That's a question I hope to continually hold before the Lord, pausing in thankfulness for John's influence in my life when I do.

John, I'm sad that my impending visit to Nashville won't include another visit with you! But thank you for your gracious generosity to me and for letting God work through you to give to me. Thanks for sharing your life and thus being a marker of God's faithfulness in mine.