He was my first college roommate - Peter James Blackburn. Probably a year younger than me (since I began college a year after all my other high school classmates had gone off to college), a little taller than me, with glasses like me, and chunky like me. In the early days of my first year at Bible college, people would even occasionally comment that we looked like brothers. We weren't. We were so very different.
Having a roommate was a new experience for me. I had neighbors with whom I had played all during my young life. I had friends in grade school and in high school, many of whom I would see every day. But I didn't have someone I knew with whom I had to actually live. Now, in college, I had to be in the same room with another person. It was just different.
Actually, the setup in the men's dormitory was very interesting. Not only did we have roommates, we also had "suitemates". Each area of the dorm was broken up into suites, with a suite consisting of three rooms with two roommates each, a common kitchenette area, and a common combination of shower, basin, and toilette.
But you only lived in one room with one other person. The only bad part of that was you didn't get to choose who your first year roommate would be. I ended up with Peter James Blackburn.
PJ, as he liked to be called, was someone very different than what I was used to. He was very confident in himself - that wasn't too different, I guess. I had had other friends whose self-confidence oozed from them like spring sap running out of a tree. But what I had never encountered was a self-confidence in Christian circles that bordered on cockiness. It was like he knew of no one else who could be better than him, and somehow that rubbed me the wrong way from the start.
He was from New Jersey. As far as I can remember, I think he was an only child, although a vague impression I have is that he may have had a younger brother. I only ever remember meeting his parents once. He always seemed to have this snooty air about him.
That became painfully clear - and embarassingly so for me - when a fellow suitemate was in our room and we were discussing which Bible was the best Bible to use for our college studies. I had cut my Bible reading teeth in my early days as a Christian reading The Living Bible, a paraphrase which was written by Kenneth Taylor. Being a new believer, I had no idea the difference between a paraphrase and a translation. All I knew was when I read The Living Bible, I understood what the Bible was saying.
Well, the discussion began to turn toward our own personal preferences and when our fellow suitemate asked me what Bible I used, I pulled out my worn copy of The Living Bible. PJ snatched it up and thumbed through it and with a sneer and a degrading attitude sniped, "This thing? You use this trash? This isn't meat. This is baby food. I used one of these in order to start a fire at summer camp once." And then he flung it back down on my desk. From that point on, I found I didn't like PJ Blackburn.
I had never encountered a Christian who was so judgemental. I now know that one must be firm in their maintaining a stance for accurate Bible translation. I now understand the difference between a paraphrase and a translation. I now use the New King James Version for just that reason. But I also compare translations and paraphrases as well. But PJ was what I have come to see as "obnoxiously conservative" - a KJV-is-the-ONLY-translation-to-use kind of person, who finds great delight in making himself look better than anyone else.
After the "I burn Bibles like these" incident, I never spent any time with PJ outside of sleeping in the same room. I would study in the library during study hours. I moved furniture around in the room so I wouldn't have to look at him. I would hang an extra blanket in the bottom portion of my bunk creating a thick curtain so I wouldn't have to even look at him whenever I was in bed (our bunk beds faced his desk). I developed good friendships with the other guys in our suite - I avoided spending time with PJ.
One night, while in the library, I was working on a Bible Study assignment in 1 John. I was reading along in chapter 2 when verses 9 through 11 stopped me in my tracks.
"He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes."
It was as if someone had actually turned on the light in my heart. I knew I loved Jesus. PJ said he loved Jesus. That made us brothers in faith. But I found I hated him, and I found that everything he did just made me cringe. I couldn't study any further. I closed my books, and walked back to the dormroom. I had a lightness in my heart I had not had for quite some time. I was going to confess to my brother, and I had hopes that in confessing PJ and I could become friends.
I walked into the room and asked PJ if I could say something to him. He grunted an acknowledgement. I laid my KJV Scofield Edition Bible (which someone had loaned to me) in front of him open to 1 John 2:9-11. I read those verses to him and I stood next to him and told him I was sorry. I was sorry I had thought such bad thoughts about him. And as I confessed, I asked him if he would forgive me for not being a better roommate to him.
I guess I was expecting him to push back from his desk and look me in the eye and make me feel as though everything was good now between us. I guess I was hoping he would say he was sorry that he had said such mean things about my use of The Living Bible. I was ultimately hoping we could be good roommates - and good friends, too.
He looked at the verses, grunted something unintelligible, and returned to his studies. The room was silent. I felt tears well up in my eyes. I couldn't tell if I was forgiven or not. I felt like a fool. I returned to my desk, sat down, and realized then we would never be good friends. It was the first time I had ever encountered feeling like that. It made me feel so useless. I found I no longer hated PJ Blackburn; I found I wanted so much to be his brother...and his friend. But now, I felt rejection - and it still haunts me at times in my life even now.
Throughout the rest of the year, we hardly spoke. We fell into a pattern of avoidance that suited us both. He never said "goodbye" when we cleared out of our rooms at the end of the school year. I felt we would probably never see each other again.
That is until many years later, when, as a third-year student at Dallas Theological Seminary, I turned around from my mailbox one morning and there was PJ Blackburn, pulling mail from a DTS mailbox in the Student Center. Our eyes met briefly. He never acknowledge me. I don't know if he recognized me or not. He took his mail, closed the door to his mailbox, and walked away. I would see him occasionally walking across campus, or in one of my classes. He still had that "obnoxiously conservative" air about him. He was married now. I don't know if he had children or not. After I graduated from seminary, I never saw him again.
I often hear it said, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." Of course you don't. First impressions don't happen a second time, but years after I had confessed that I was wrong in hating PJ Blackburn, I felt I had done the right thing - and I found a measure of comfort in that. When PJ Blackburn appeared in my life the second time, the first impression I had of him remained, only it was different now. Now I felt only that I had done what I could to love him as my brother and be his friend as well. He'll always be, though, "the guy who burned Bibles."