WHAT WE NEED IS HERE:
REFLECTIONS ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life evermore. – Psalm 133
I have purposely chosen to put the theme of friendship last on the list of encouragements for spirituality as kind of the finale. Friendship is the part of my life which I feel provides me with the most spiritual encouragement. Friendships provide me with the most resources for hopeful and creative living. Friendships are what best help me to go on, to move forward, to feel alive.
I remember after I had gone to Mennonite World Conference in 1991. It was a time of some discouragement, and I was working through why being a Mennonite should be important to me. Theology, tradition, ethics, service, national and international connections – these factors all felt significant. However, I was coming to see holes in all of them. Then I started to think about all the different friends of mine I had seen at Winnipeg. People from different times and places in my life. Diverse people, with different beliefs. People from different generations. These were all my friends, though. I realized that deep down, that was why I wanted to continue to be a Mennonite. Friendship. It was – and is – through my friendships that I find life as a Mennonite Christian.
This awareness of mine has a theological basis. We see it in Matthew 11. Jesus is quoting some of those who opposed him and criticized him. “They say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (11: 19). Other texts tell how Jesus did indeed befriend such people and ate with them. He shared table fellowship with these outsiders, the mark of friendship. In a genuine sense, this act of Jesus reveals what God is all about. “Jesus’ invitation to the outsiders to join him as friends at the table [represents] the God of Jesus…who invites us to table to eat together as friends.”
Jesus gives a classic statement of this in John 15. “I do not call you servants any longer. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father” (v. 15). Friendship is the essence of the our relationship with God – and with each other. This assertion about friendship fits with a basic affirmation of the Bible. God has created human beings in the image of God. That is, people are created for fellowship with others, for friendship which enhances our creativity, our self-respect, our strength for living.
Sallie McFague, one prominent theologian I am aware of to write about friendship, makes an asute comment, though. “Friendship is an unplumbed mystery we believe we understand until we begin to think about it seriously.” Then we realize it is similar to explaining how you ride a bicycle. You know what it is when you do it. It comes naturally once you have mastered the skill. However, you can not really say precisely what it is you are doing in any clear detail. If you do not know how to do it, you might find it difficult to learn, especially the older you get.
Friendship is crucial to human well-being. However, I can not define it clearly. One image of friendship I like states “friendship does not abolish the difference between human beings but brings that distance to life.” Friendship works by allowing us to remain ourselves, while also experiencing the differences we have with other people. We see these differences as factors to enrich us, to complement our distinctives, that we might find in others more fullness and awareness of what life is about.
It is upon friendship that healthy social institutions depend. Only in the context of friendship may groups of people function in ways which foster both unity and diversity. Robert Bellah writes “a civic order, a ‘city,’ is above all a network of friends. Without civic friendship, a city will degenerate into a struggle of contending interest groups unmediated by any public solidarity.” This is the point Psalm 133 makes as well. “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (v. 1). Such living is like precious oil and dew in the desert. Friendship, even if we can’t define it real clearly, is crucial for spiritual life. To flourish as human beings, we need friendships.
Yet, friendship is not easy. It is hard to make true friends, hard to keep them, in our modern society, and maybe especially hard for men. In part this is because our culture tells us to see friendships as inefficient frivolities. Spending time just for the enjoyment of it with friends might detract from “getting ahead.” Plus, our culture does not encourage us to display emotional vulnerability. Even when people do extol friendship, they are thinking of “how to win friends and influence people.” That is, friendship becomes “an occupational tool for entrepreneurs, an instrument of the will in an inherently competitive society.”
I remember several years ago getting a surprise phone call from an old high school friend. I had not seen him for nearly ten years. I did have positive memories of him. He was a good guy, very fun-loving. So when he asked if we could get together I said sure. He and his wife showed up, and took Kathleen and I out for lunch. We had a pleasant time, though I was beginning to feel a bit suspicious. His smoothness and friendliness impressed me. He was this way more than I remembered. Then after lunch we went back to our apartment, and my old friend brought along a brief case. When we sat down, he asked us to imagine what we might do with a lot of money. The spiel began, and it took us quite awhile finally to convince him that we were not interested in joining his Amway network. When he gave up, he was still cordial. He said, let’s get together again, but we never did. He was sincerely friendly, I am sure, but as part of his business ambitions, not for the sake of true friendship.
If we overcome some of these pressures that make friendship difficult, then we are likely to discover that friendship also often results in loss. Ultimately, of course, all our friendships will end due to death. However, many end earlier, and that can be painful. Friendships might end with premature death, with major changes in one or both friends over time, or simply with neglect.
I have not experienced much death. However, I did lose one close friend back in high school. My friend Rod died in a car wreck during our senior year. I have thought in the time since then that he would have been the friend from my hometown I would most likely have stayed close to. He was one friend who read a lot. In fact, he introduced me to the Freddie the Pig books. As well, we often spent the night with each other, staying up until the wee hours talking about the meaning of life. Once, I remember him quoting San Francisco talk show host Ira Blue on why we can philosophically accept the existence of God. I didn’t buy it at that time, that was in my pre-conversion “atheist” stage. I still vividly remember coming down stairs that Saturday morning in December and my mom telling me that he had died. I also remember helping to carry his casket to the grave during his funeral. Such pain comes with the loss of a friend.
I recently experienced some more pain over the loss of a friend, though this was quite a bit different. Back in the seventies, I had a good friend who was kind of my intellectual mentor. We were in the same church and even lived together for awhile. We were both full of new ideas, constantly recommending books to each other, sometimes arguing, anxiously seeking ways to make Christianity relevant to our modern world. By 1980 or so, we had been drifting apart for awhile. Then Kathleen and I went to Indiana to seminary for a year, and when we returned our friend had moved to southern California. The last time we saw him was in 1984.
Then, over Christmas a number of years later, he was back in town and we had a chance to get together. Our visit was pleasant enough, but I felt that our common ground was long gone. If I have gone a certain direction in my thinking and life choices, I perceive that he has gone almost the opposite direction. I felt sad and depressed after our visit, at least in part grieving that our old friendship was history. Friends do change, and sometimes, at least, these changes result in the loss of deep friendship.
Another, more benign way friendships end is simply by neglect. I find this happens fairly often. If paths do not regularly cross, it takes effort to sustain a friendship. At least for me and some of my old friends, such an effort is rare. One of my college roommates lived in the same town as me for many years. Whenever we would get together we had a pleasant time. We continued to relate comfortably and meaningfully together. However, we gradually simply quit making contact. I feel sad about that.
Cultural pressures which minimize its value make friendship difficult. The experience of pain over lost friendships also makes it difficult. However, the alternative, not really having friends, is much worse. I was at a meeting several years ago of theologians. During one discussion, the talk got around to experiencing community. One college professor spoke emotionally about not experiencing community where she lived. Her main community, she said, was her books. She was serious, in tears as she said this. Books alone leave us lonely.
I think many pastors I know are lonely. Partly, this results from a skewed notion of friendship. One person reported that he does not feel that it is appropriate for him to “be one of the guys.” Something different is expected of him because he is a pastor. He needs to stand a bit aloof. Perhaps we can make an argument that pastors should look outside their congregations for their best friends. However, I perceive that when one gets into the habit, keeping one’s distance from people at church does not end there. One will very likely be in the habit of keeping one’s distance from everyone else. Many pastors I know do not have close friends anywhere.
Friendship is probably my biggest source of spiritual encouragement. To elaborate on why I say this, I will consider four aspects of this encouragement – spontaneity, laughter, compassion, and deep sharing. To illustrate these, I will give a “biography” of one of my closest friendships.
I first met my friend Steve Baker in 1975. I was not impressed at first – he says now that he was not either. He was a “back-slidden” member of Orchard Street Church, the group of which I was a zealous new part. He had longish hair and he smoked. He lived right next to the church building, so I used to run into him now and then. That summer we worked together for a few weeks helping a mutual friend. We realized then that we actually did hit it off pretty well. These first two aspects, spontaneity and laughter were at the center at that time.
Steve had a sense of humor and we soon realized that we could tease each other pretty freely. One example is from couple of years later, at my wedding. When it came time for me to put the ring on Kathleen’s hand, in my nervousness, I grabbed for her right hand instead of her left. In the reception line, Steve says, “So, it’s a custom in Elkton for the groom to shake the bride’s hand?”
We are most spiritually vital when we are most ourselves. True friends can help us to be free to be ourselves. This is the element of spontaneity, of feeling comfortable, of finding acceptance for who we are. Having at least a few people with whom we feel at least relatively free greatly helps us to be ourselves. It is kind of a discipline. Do we have people who keep us honest? Before whom we have no need to set up the “correct” image? My friend has always been pretty good about not letting superficial images impress him.
One way he helped me in the early days of our friendship was how he lived with his failure concerning our church. I know now that he felt pretty bad at the time. He felt he had not been up to the discipline of being the radical kind of disciple our church expected him to be. However, to me, he communicated something other than failure. Even though he was not up to fitting the image of the “correct” kind of Christian, he was still going to be a Christian in a way which best fit with who he was. He was not going to let his need to go his own way keep him from being friends with the people he wanted to stay close to in that church. While I did not exactly approve of his smoking, I did respect his honesty about it. He did not hide it. If I was going to be his friend, I could not be self-righteous and judgmental. I had to take him as he was. By challenging me to do that, he helped me to overcome my rigid moralism and be a freer person. His freedom to be himself helped me be freer to be myself.
Another aspect from our friendship from the start was laughter. I am serious when I speak of laughter as an important part of spirituality. True laughter from our gut is very healing. The famous experience of Norman Cousins has verified this in terms of physical healing. A well-known journalist, several years ago Cousins was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He chose to fight it by finding ways to make himself laugh – tapes of comedy routines, joke books, being around funny friends. He actually did beat the cancer and wrote a book about it, Anatomy of an Illness. This seems possible for me because I also find authentic laughter to be very theraputic, very powerful. Being with friends is my best souce of this kind of laughter. Laughing a lot in no way inhibits seriousness. In fact, I think being comfortable enough to laugh deeply together helps us to be comfortable enough to share deeply of more serious parts of life.
A key insight for me when I did my soul-reaching following my experience at Mennonite World Conference came when I thought of an experience I had there. One night, two of my friends, David Myers and John A. Miller, and I stayed up until about 2 a.m., talking, watching football, drinking beer, and laughing. The next afternoon, David led an extraordinarily moving workshop before several hundred people on how his congregation has faced the AIDs crisis. After the workshop, David, John, and I got together again and this time talked very seriously. I thought, yeah, that’s great. We are free enough with each other to be very frivoulous, simply to have fun, to laugh. Almost in the same breath we talk deeply about some of the most heart-wrenching issues. We have continued to have talks since then that have been even more heart-wrenching. However, we still find time to laugh together too.
Besides spontaneity and laughter, the third aspect to friendship I want to mention is compassion. This aspect of my friendship with Steve took awhile to emerge. Certainly, when either of us touched on concerns we showed care. However, we did not get into these areas too much. I think now that this was largely because we were pretty young and were not yet as in touch with the pain in our own lives. So we didn’t have that much to share with each other.
Up through the early ’80s, Steve and I pretty regularly spent time together, usually over lunch. He is not much of a letter writer. When Kathleen and I left for Berkeley to go to school, with the likelihood that we would not be back living in Eugene, Steve and I pretty much lost touch. He did not even send me an invitation to his wedding.
When we did return to Eugene, Steve and I re-connected, but we did not have a regular routine. Then, in 1989, he heard through the grapevine that I was going through a major trauma. He called me up, and we started getting together regularly again. His initiative stemmed from his concern and compassion, traits I hadn’t been so sure before that he had. We talked more personally. I became aware of more of the pain he was experiencing in his life. Empathy and shared struggles were now part of our friendship in ways they had not been before. Our times together became more nourishing and encouraging for each of us.
In reflecting on this development, though I believe we both sincerely wanted to be friends before, our friendship lacked compassion. Partly, I expect he did not feel a lot of compassion for me because I apparently did not need it; my life was going so smoothly. When he became aware of my trauma, he felt compassion. With his willingness to act on that, our friendship changed dramatically. Friendship is a major arena where we do experience compassion from others. Friendship is one of the major arenas where share compassion with others. Experiencing compassion gets us very close to the heart of God.
Most of the time Steve and I have been friends, I have never felt we had that much in common in our deep-seated life projects. He has been pretty marginal in his church involvement. He has argued against pacifism and has not been particularly interested in theology. He’s an artist who likes some of the “finer things” in life. We shared sports, some general poltical concerns, and many common friends and acquaintances. We are now discovering, though, that we actually do share a great deal in common in our life projects.
Partly, I think this is because we have both kept changing and evolving. We have more in common as a result of this than we used to. However, also, by sharing on the other levels – spontaneity, laughter, and compassion – we have learned to know each other on a pretty deep level. We have become more free to share deeply. We share a common approach to self-awareness. We both desire the integration of our political concerns for peace and justice with our personal concerns with understanding the roots of violence within ourselves. We had never known before how much of the same music we like.
According to Robert Bellah, true friendship has three components. Friends must enjoy one another’s company, be useful to each other, and share a common commitment to the good. Common commitment to the good is the most difficult and most often neglected component.
From my experience with Steve, and this has been true with a couple of other friends, that common commitment to the good had to emerge over time. In several cases I can think of, I would not have expected that to happen. In part, this was because I was so cock-sure of what “the good” was – activist pacifism to change the world. These guys were skeptical of that, which I felt limited our potential as friends. However, somehow the relationships continued. Then as we grew closer we realized that maybe that common commitment was there, in part because my sense of the “good” evolved and broadened. At any rate, now such a common commitment, even if not overtly stated as such, stands as a major part of my closest friendships.
Ultimately, friendships offer important spiritual benefits. They help us to be ourselves, to laugh, to experience compassion, and to move onward toward living out our deepest beliefs and dreams. In all these ways, they help us to know what it means to be in relationship, the way God created us to be. In all these ways, they help us to find encouragement and live more creatively.
Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 168.
McFague, Models of God, 158.
Josipovici, The Book of God, 168.
Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Stephen Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985), 116.
Bellah, Habits of the Heart, 134.
Bellah, Habits of the Heart, 115.