COVID took Bert Bryan’s life on Saturday, January 2, 2021.
You might not know Bert. As I thought about him last night, I had to admit that I didn’t know him that well either. We belonged to the same church for almost 20 years. I was in his home once or twice. Over two decades, we had at least a few conversations that lasted more than 10 minutes.
Even though we didn’t know each other that well or really spend much time together, I would still call Bert a “close friend.”
That is the best tribute I can write about him. He had a gift for making a casual acquaintance feel like the closest friendship. To meet Bert just once was to feel like you had a new best friend. My closest friends never greeted me with as much attention, excitement, interest, or warmth as Bert did on any given Sunday. Bert greeted every person he met as if he heard “Hail to the Chief” playing in his head for them. He asked questions and leaned in to listen to the answers like a man on a first date. He received your good news as if you were telling him he had another grandchild on the way. He received your bad news like it was his own. Even strangers found out that, whatever they were going through on the day they met Bert, he was in it with them.
If all of that is remarkable, what is even more remarkable (because it is so rare) is that Bert seemed to remember even the people he met only once. Every time I crossed paths with Bert, he asked me about something I shared with him the last time we talked. Even if weeks or months passed in between meetings. After catching up with Bert, I always wondered: “Has he been praying for me by name this whole time? How can he remember so much about me? How does he have time to pray for me?”
Scientists say that human beings can really only have about a dozen very close relationships. We just don’t have the capacity for more.
It is a testament to Bert Bryan that, when he died, hundreds of people all over the world posted tributes to him on Facebook. Hundreds of people who might have known him even less than I did said about the same thing about him: “Bert Bryan was my close friend.”
He had that gift.
The Book of Genesis, Chapter 2, Verse 7, says: “Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”
The Hebrew word for “breath” is also the word for “spirit.”
It is the same word that appears in Genesis 1:2: “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
The word “wind” is the same word from which we get “breath” or “spirit.”
So, in the beginning, the Spirit of God moves to change a “formless void” and deep “darkness” into a wonderful world. The Spirit of God moves to change dust into a “living being.”
Where the Spirit of God goes, life and wonder spring up.
Much later, Jesus of Nazareth taught that this “wind” is still moving in the world, still creating life and waking us to wonder. He said: “The wind (spirit) blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit (wind)” (Gospel of John 3:8).
You cannot see the Spirit, but you can see the effects of the Spirit as it blows through. You can see life and wonder springing up and know that the Spirit of God is close by.
To meet Bert Bryan was to feel a breeze from God. Every encounter with him was like receiving the “breath of life.” When Bert was around, the air felt cleaner, lighter, more rich with oxygen. Through Bert, the Spirit of God was remaking the world one human encounter at a time.
We may not be able to see Spirit, but every one of us who spent even a few minutes with Bert Bryan got to feel Spirit. People who knew Bert even a little know that, when they were breathless, Bert gave them the sweet oxygen of God.
The breath may be gone from Bert’s body, but the Breath he breathed is still breathing in the thousands of people Bert loved even just once in passing.
May that be said of each one of us when our time comes.
Grace and peace.