Bonding Over Spurgeon: A Model Friendship for Young Men

Young male friendships have always been important, perhaps especially in today's culture.

From that moment, John and Lawrence, who was one year younger, became close friends. Lawrence had grown up mostly unengaged in matters of faith, but a Baptist friend had invited him to some evangelistic meetings, which he attended. There, the thing that impressed Lawrence most of all was the seriousness his peers seemed to have toward the subject.

 

In the fall of 1978, nineteen-year-old John Geiger began classes at the California State University – Fresno, often referred to as Fresno State. As Fresno was only about an hour’s drive from his home in Visalia, he commuted. Although he was young in the Christian faith, already John was more inclined toward ministering to the needs of soul rather than body. Prior to that year, John had considered following in his father’s career path, as a physician. In order to help prepare for the ministry, John decided to major in Communication.

Sometime later, a fellow Communication major, Lawrence Kersten, a Fresno native, had heard from one of his professors about a student he called “Alaska John,” a moniker earned in the spring of 1979 when John missed a week of class in order to help one of his brothers drive their oldest brother’s truck home from Alaska. Later, Professor George Diestel told Lawrence, “You need to meet Alaska John,” but he apparently left it at that, offering no further assistance.

In time, Lawrence found himself at the university library facing an assignment that required him to do research on someone. He made a passing remark to several other students standing nearby, “I wish I could do some research on someone interesting, like Charles Spurgeon.” John was among the students within earshot and immediately perked up at the mention of Spurgeon. “Oh, you read Spurgeon?,” John queried. Indeed, Lawrence had begun reading of the life and ministry, as well as the sermons, of the beloved nineteenth-century English Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

From that moment, John and Lawrence, who was one year younger, became close friends. Lawrence had grown up mostly unengaged in matters of faith, but a Baptist friend had invited him to some evangelistic meetings, which he attended. There, the thing that impressed Lawrence most of all was the seriousness his peers seemed to have toward the subject.

Years later he recalled his attitude at the time had been, “You mean this stuff is true and you’re supposed to pay attention?” And from that point, the Lord began a gracious work in Lawrence’s heart, on the one hand revealing his own sin to himself and, on the other, convincing him from the Bible that by trusting in Jesus alone for pardon, he was thereby credited with Christ’s perfect record (justification).

In the other half of the great transaction known as the gospel, Lawrence’s own record of sin was credited to Christ. The apostle Paul described it in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

By the time Lawrence met the Alaska John he had heard about, he was already wrestling on his own with the practical working out of his faith in Jesus Christ. And John was doing something similar as well. In 2019, Lawrence described the basis of their four decades-long friendship:

We bonded as young males becoming men, wanting to be genuine, authentic, Christian men who are not heretics, not ashamed of our lives. . . . We bonded over ideas . . . and we spent a lot of time talking about themes like justification, and sanctification . . . each of us would be reading something and we’d share it with the other. . . . We just took it seriously . . . . Each of us was a voracious enough reader that we were really wrestling with trying to do the right thing . . . [and with] who we were, and what the faith meant, how it all worked.

Both of them were reading various thinkers and theologians in addition to Spurgeon, including A. W. Tozer and J. C. Ryle. John and Lawrence were building what they called “our great dead men’s shelf,” which consisted of the works of Christian writers, especially from 19th century Great Britain, that had stood the test of time. In many of those books, they discovered another world in “what was expected of the normal Christian life” in the previous century.

Lawrence added, “The great thing is . . . for both of us, we were bonding over really the most important thing in our life. . . . We weren’t bonding over football or certain hobbies, we were really bonding over the thing about which we were the most passionate, that was our faith.”

For those important discussions, the two often went to a favorite burger joint in Fresno called Spanky’s, where they might spend two or three hours together. Going for a “Spanky burger” became a regular, much-anticipated, and fruitful time as John and Lawrence talked about life and how their faith impacted it.

Sadly, in June 1982 Spanky’s was robbed, and the proprietor was shot and killed during the robbery. John had just graduated from Fresno State, while Lawrence had one more year to finish his bachelor’s degree. While their friendship continued, Spanky’s had closed and so had the first and perhaps the most consequential chapter in John and Lawrence’s relationship.

In later years, John settled in Alabama and Lawrence in Texas. Both found their spiritual home in the Presbyterian Church in America. John became the headmaster of a classical Christian school in Montgomery; Lawrence earned a doctorate in Communication and taught for a time before moving to Dallas. They sometimes coordinated their trips home to see their families in California so they also could see one another. In 2000, Lawrence married. John, who had graduated from seminary and been ordained to the ministry, officiated his friend’s wedding.

During their studies of Spurgeon, they learned the Prince of Preachers had suffered excruciating pain from gout for many years. For relief, he traveled to Menton, France. John and Lawrence made it their goal to go there together someday. In 2017, John was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. When Lawrence talked with John on the phone after the diagnosis, he said, “It doesn’t look like we’re going to get to Menton.” As Lawrence shared with me in the fall of 2019, and with unexpected emotion, John had replied that “he didn’t want to go there without me.” It was something they had talked about for thirty years. Such was their friendship as brothers in Christ.

The pastor-theologian over whom they first bonded forty years earlier, Charles Spurgeon, had this to say of Psalm 134, which begins, “Behold, bless ye the LORD, all ye servants of the LORD, which by night stand in the house of the LORD”:

We have now reached the last of the Gradual Psalms. The Pilgrims are going home, and are singing the last song in their Psalter. They leave early in the morning, before the day has fully commenced, for the journey is long for many of them. While yet the night lingers they are on the move. As soon as they are outside the gates they see the guards upon the temple wall, and the lamps shining from the windows of the chambers which surround the sanctuary; therefore, moved by the sight, they chant a farewell to the perpetual attendants upon the holy shrine. Their parting exhortation arouses the priests to pronounce upon them a blessing out of the holy place. . . . The priests as good as say, “You have desired us to bless the Lord, and now we pray the Lord to bless you.”

Young male friendships have always been important, perhaps especially in today’s culture. May our churches learn to encourage our young men in the rising generation to pursue such friendships in the Christian faith as modeled by these two “Pilgrims [who] are going home”; indeed, to a better-than-Menton home.

Forrest Marion is a Ruling Elder at the Eastwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Montgomery, Ala.