George Eliot had a very high view of strong friendships, and she said with her pen:
Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness blow the rest away.
That is a very powerful image of true friendship, but we know at once that there aren’t many people willing to do what she describes. Many more people are like Oscar Wilde who said, “If you have something unkind to say about someone, come and sit beside me!” So many people love juicy gossip and the opportunity to pass it along, even if the spreading of the stories hurts someone they call their friend.
Chances are, all of us have made statements in the heat of some encounter that, later, we wished we hadn’t said. I’m not talking about a personal attack, which I think is a very different matter, but I’m talking about making a big pronouncement about what we will always do or what I will never do again, blah, blah, blah. Those who don’t know us well may take us literally. A good friend hears beyond any rough edges or overstatement in what we said in such a way that she or he is able to hear what we’re really trying to say, which may be nothing more than saying, “I’m exasperated with this situation.” The friend hears that part and throws all the other parts, preferred by the press, to the winds.
I’ve had friends in all my congregations and can’t imagine not having them in a church I’d serve, but an older, wiser pastor told me when I was first starting out in the biz that I must never forget that a pastor can’t have real friends in a congregation served. The reason was, he said, in the end you’re a paid servant, and you’ll never be one of them. I don’t agree fully with what he told me, but I surely understand the essence of his message and why he cared enough to pass along such advice to a novice. Still, I’ve had close friends in every congregation I’ve served with whom I trusted all of my nonpublic self, and most of the time I haven’t lived to regret it.
When Lynne Chappell was thinking of becoming a member of Silverside, which she did to our good fortune, she asked me several questions over a few cups of Luckys coffee. Lynne has a Greek Orthodox background with some Roman Catholicism thrown in. She wondered how I, in a church that is both small and nonhierarchical, related to my congregants, and I said, “Well, in my mind every member of the church is my friend unless she or he chooses not to be, and I don’t relate to members as their overseer or spiritual superior.” Can you imagine what a laugh that would be? A minister telling Silverside Church what it has to do. That might be a good basis for a sit com; it worked in England for a while with the show called “The Vicar of Dibbley,” but that would be the extent of it.
Here at Silverside, if someone is sick, that is my friend who is sick. If there’s a death, that’s my friend who has died. Given a small congregation, though we are growing, I don’t see any other way I could be a pastor in this kind of context.
In the Roman Catholic part of the Bible, the Apocrypha, that Protestants neither print nor use as a rule, there’s a good word on friendship from the book of Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with the Hebrew scriptural book called Ecclesiastes): “A faithful friend is the medicine of life.” I love that quote in part because I believe it’s powerfully true. Who among us has not been made stronger and healthier because of the person and power of a friend who would just not let us go, especially in a time of crisis or challenge?
When I was pastoring in New Orleans, I had in my congregation some of the people who’d made Southern religious folk sit up and take notice when fundamentalism proved lacking. There were lots of liberals and progressives around the church practically all the time. Just for the record, a progressive isn’t conservative, but isn’t as liberal as a liberal. A liberal has already walked away from both conservatism AND progressivism. They’re already out as far to the theological left as anyone can go. There are some nasty rumors going around that Silverside has liberals in its membership who do not follow the teaching of their old fashioned Bible preacher and teacher, Dr. David Farmer. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
Well, there were two aging theologues, and one was sick on Christmas Day. He was the amazing modern church historian, Dr. Penrose St. Amant; he was sick and in Baptist hospital. It was doubtful that his wife, Jesse, could make the long trip from Southern Mississippi to see her husband because no one was free to travel on a holiday with her, and it was too much for her to try alone. I told my wife that I was going to see him, just to wish him well. I think she wrapped up a small gift for him. When I arrived his friend and another great older theologue, whose field was pastoral theology, was already there. These men had been friends for years.
After some small talk and Christmas wishes the mood changed, Penrose who was ill, and who was both theologically sophisticated and filthy rich--not from working in theological education--he could have been in the finest hospital in the world with the world’s leading specialist on whatever his disorder was attending him. But there he was in New Orleans with his young pastor--that would be me--and his dear old pastoral counselor friend, and he said to Myron Madden, “Myron, I need a blessing.” And Myron who was kind of a macho man, tenderly put his hand on Penrose’s forehead, and he said, “I bless you, my dear friend, but the greater blessing by far is God’s blessing, which also comes to rest upon you in your health crisis.” Then each man prayed, and I wept. I believe in the power of presence and of blessing, but I also believe friendship is medicinal.
This is one of several reasons that we give a great deal of attention to the sick here at Silverside. The flower committee sends them flowers. The pastor sees them in the hospital if the HMO will give him time. Congregational friends write and call, and, today, they tweet too. We let our church friends know that we care about what they are having to endure and that we focus our prayers and positive energies on their getting well or, at least, well enough.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.
I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, who has sight so keen and strong
That it can follow the flight of song?
Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.
I am in an acrostic mood today so I’m using each letter of the word “friendship” to come up with one way of describing what is essential in, of all things, a true friendship, and I say “true friendship” because there are so many connections with others who call themselves our friends, but who in reality are anything but friends. Of course, there are many people who are desperate for friends and who, thus, award that title to the clearly undeserving.
A friend is someone with whom we can have fun. A friend may make us laugh and/or laugh along with us, making our laughter more robust. You can see a play or hit a sports event by yourself and thoroughly enjoy it, but attending with a friend can be twice the fun. Some friends ARE the fun; we don’t have to do anything special or go anywhere in particular. When we’re with them, fun just happens. Outsiders may not recognize the fun, but we know it’s there; and fun with that friend is one of life’s joys.
I’m not saying a friendship lacks a serious side; certainly, there are times when we should be serious, and our friends are precisely those with whom we want and need to be serious. Even so, the greatest fun most of us have in life is with our friends. Not a few friendships begin when we realize how much fun we’re naturally having with that person.
Friends, by the way, can also be kinfolk. In fact, I think one of the goals of parenting is to move from guardian, rules maker, and disciplinarian to friend. What better relationship to have with our own parents and our adult children than friendship?
Friendship is all about reciprocity. One-sided relationships can’t be friendships. If you’re the only one who ever proposes getting together, if you’re the only one who ever calls or visits, if you’re the only one who ever remembers your billfold when you meet for dinner, the person you’re dealing with is not your friend. No friend is better than a would-be friend.
In a conversation with a friend, both individuals speak, and both individuals listen. In the modern milieu, you could say that if you’re the only one who ever tweets or posts to Facebook, even if that person’s name is on your “Friends” list, what you have on your hands in an acquaintance, not a friend. Acquaintances are not bad, but they shouldn’t be mistaken for friends. Also, we have to say that not everyone we come across should become a friend. In order to invest properly in a friendship, time, thought, and energy are required. We can’t give every person we encounter that kind of attention; nor do we have the wherewithal to keep up with that amount of involvement from every person we meet. The number of true friends we can have is, of necessity, limited for this and a host of other obvious reasons.
We find our friends interesting. Others may or may not agree with us, but we find them interesting, which makes for meaningful conversation and shared activities. If not for the reality of interest, we’d dread rather than happily anticipate that phone call or that weekend train trip together.
I’m not a fan of opera. I know I immediately lose points with some of you because of that confession. I don’t hate it; I don’t even dislike it. I admire it. It’s just not high on my list of musts--even if the songs are sung in English or English subtitles provided. If there’s an amazing voice--a Joan Sutherland or a Mona Bond or a Pavarotti--I prefer a solo concert. However, if I sit with my friend, Ron Gretz, organist at my former congregation in Baltimore, I can love opera because of his vast knowledge on the subject and his unbounded enthusiasm for opera. It’s all FABULOUS, his favorite word, to him, and he is such an interesting person on that and a number of subjects that, for scattered, moments I become an opera lover.
A true friendship is enduring. It lasts beyond the week at summer camp and four years of undergrad study. A friendship travels with you from the time it begins through long periods of time or throughout your life.
New friends are important and are great gifts along the way, but old friends become support posts in living through the high points and the low points in life. We would be infinitely poorer without them.
The challenges of mobile societies put a strain on the traditional ways of living out friendships. There were times and places where people didn’t move around much, if at all, and someone’s friends always lived nearby. That still happens. There are people who are planted in one place for life. Both my sister and brother still have in their group of core friends some of the friends they had in elementary and high school. I envy that, though most of my better friends also left Halls Crossroads. There’s a sense in which I didn’t make many lifelong friends until I got to college. That’s where I learned that friends really are the family members you choose.
At some level, in some way, a friendship is nurturing. Friends encourage me when I’m down; friends strengthen me when I feel weak. Friends help me dream my dreams and make strides toward achieving them. Friends see my strengths and my weaknesses, but they focus on the strengths. Friends value me even in those rough patches where I’m not able to value myself.
Nurture comes in all kinds of packages. For big ole macho men, nurture is a big bear hug and an uplifting word that sounds something like this: “You sorry son of a gun, get your butt out of the gloomies and get on with your life.” Nurture also comes packaged as an understanding touch or an out-of-the-blue note. A nurturing friend shows up with a bottle of wine a few hours after you got the news that you were passed over for the job you deserved and were sure you had.
Back in the days of pagers--that was before cell phones, anyone remember that far back?--back then, I carried a vibrate only pager, and a dear friend of mine in Chicago paged me every Sunday morning right in the middle of my sermon. I knew he was thinking of me and wishing me well--and that he knew how seriously I took my preaching.
A friend is dependable--no if’s, and’s, or but’s about that. A friend does what she or he promises to do. If someone is your friend you never have to wonder about whether or not she or he will come through as planned. Someone who may or may not show up to help you move on a rainy day, after having promised to do so, is not your friend. Just so you know, I love all of you, but I will never show up to help you move on a rainy or a sunny day. Nor will I tell you I’ll be there. You can definitely count on me to pray that your move goes well, however!
A true friend knows when to show up or make contact without plans to do so. A friend is also dependably available when I reach out to her or him.
The way Jesus described ministry certainly applies to friendship. Visiting someone who is sick. Showing up during visitors’ hours when someone is in jail. Getting someone who is hungry something to eat. Getting someone who lacks adequate clothing something to wear.
Friendship is about sharing. Now, both parties may not have the same things to share; in fact, some of our friends may have nothing materially to share at all. This is to some degree connected to reciprocity. One friend may have some money to share when a friend comes upon hard times; the friend who gets the money may never have enough to share that way, but that person shares other resources such as time or skills.
If I have a spare room or a spare sofa and a friend needs a place to sleep, there’s no question about where she or he will be sleeping. If a friend is stranded and needs a ride, it’s already established who will be providing her or his transportation.
Friends share good times and bad times. Friends share good news and bad news. Friends share life stories of which they’re proud and life stories of regret and embarrassment.
Friends are honest with each other, and tact and timing are highly operative. Instead of saying, “That looks awful on you!”, a friend might say, “I think the pleated jeans are more flattering than the skinny jeans.” Instead of saying, “I think you’re being too critical of your daughter,” a friend might say, “I’ve noticed that your daughter responds really well to positive examples of how you want her to act in these kinds of situations.”
A friend can say, “Honestly, I have to have a night off to do nothing at all. I have to have a cough potato night to catch up with myself. I’d love to see that movie with you tomorrow evening or Saturday afternoon.”
The absence of honesty will lead to rifts in the friendship. If I tell you I want to or am willing to do something that I really don’t want to do or just don’t feel up to doing, that will lead to false excuses or avoidance.
I was studying group therapy in grad school, and in most groups we have allies, enemies, and people who just don’t care. I said in a session that I thought of the co-leader as a friend, and he shocked me by saying he didn’t feel the same way toward me because he didn’t think I’d be honest enough to trust him with my anger if we should ever have a serious difference. He said I only told people what they wanted to hear or what sounded nice. Boy, have things changed!
A friendship provides for appropriate intimacy. I’m not thinking of sexual intimacy although in our day the designation “friends with benefits” has come into existence. I’m thinking in terms of emotional intimacy. Pretense is completely absent; masks are removed, and if you are my friend I let you see me the way I really am, not the way I want to be perceived. I am willing to discuss with you topics I don’t bring up with anyone else. I trust you to hear me and not step on the bruises or the tender places. I trust you with my heart, and I allow you to open yourself up to me in just the same way.
Finally, friendship is pliable. Yesterday I performed a wedding down in Middletown. I wasn’t in a flexible mood, and none of the people there were my friends; in fact, I’d never even met the bride and the groom. The mother of the groom was 40 minutes late, and there we all sat. That was forced flexibility. For a friend, I’ll wait 40 minutes--as long as it’s not a pattern! If I love you as my friend, then things tomorrow don’t have to be exactly the were yesterday. This is a signal of both trust and growth.
I believe that Jesus had many friends. I think he thought of his male disciples as well as his female entourage as friends. Surely at the end of his earthly life, though,he had to wonder how vast his network of friends really was as so few showed up at his execution to support him--not because of their weak stomachs for violence, but because they were afraid Rome would suddenly decide that Jesus’ end was appropriate for his followers as well. Like Oprah said, lots of people want to ride with you in the chariot, but what you want are friends who’ll ride on a camel with you when the chariot breaks down.
Among Jesus’ best friends, though, none were in the groups that traveled and ministered with him on the road. These friends lived in Bethany, two sisters and a brother: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. There’s a chance that Lazarus may have been Jesus’ best male friend in the whole world, and Mary Magdalene along with Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, ranked way up there too. Lazarus died, and Jesus, according to the Fourth Gospel, raised Lazarus from dead-as-a-door-nail-death, restoring his earthly life to full force after several days in a sealed tomb.
If you read John’s Gospel literally throughout, I feel sorry for you because there are passages that beg for symbolic interpretation--such as the teaching that Jesus lived in heaven before he came to earth and this whole thing with Lazarus’ death is just too bizarre if you’re reading the story literally. John obviously tells the story to stress that God’s power through Jesus can heal the sick and more; it can raise the dead. The thing is, the story gets kind of sloppy. Jesus doesn’t make it out to Bethany to heal Lazarus before he dies so there’s a death, and Jesus explains to his companions traveling with him that Lazarus’ dying is no biggie because he can restore his life to him. In other words, Laz won’t mind dying for the cause because he knows I’ll bring him back to life pronto.
Well, we have no indication that Lazarus or his family knew Jesus would make it to Bethany so Lazarus goes through the experience of death, real death, and his beloved sisters cry their eyes out in grief--not knowing Jesus plans a great reversal. So when Jesus finally strolls into Bethany, the sisters say, “Some friend you turned out to be. He was as sick as a dog, and you knew it; yet you didn’t come to help him. You let our dear brother die; our hearts are broken, and the one you called your friend has now been in the tomb four days, well past the time life can be restored. How about healing him to begin with and not forcing him to suffer death at all?”
Jesus, acting too cool, calm, and collected at first, says, “Ladies, let us see if God’s power won’t fix this sad situation.” But before Jesus could get himself into a ministerial frame of mind, he lost it. His friend was dead at the moment, and there were no guarantees that God would restore Lazarus’ earthly life at Jesus’ prayerful request. I mean how many times had that ever happened?
Jesus wept. You bet he did. His true friend was dead; the guy with whom he could really let his hair down was dead. The brother of two women whose hearts were breaking was dead, and Jesus felt the pain of them all, along with his own pain. All he could do was cry himself.
Turns out in that case Lazarus lived again, but again not many of those who’d died had ever been resuscitated like that. Those at Bethany involved in the Lazarus scenario didn’t like the unnecessary risks. What if things had gone another way?
Fear not, my friends, this story was clearly a parable set in the life if Jesus itself, and the only part of the story with which we’re really to be concerned is that Lazarus lived again because of God’s involvement. That’s all the writer of John’s Gospel wants us to focus on. The story isn’t supposed to have the faithful gathered at funeral homes trying to raise the dead.
No one, especially Jesus, would have treated a friend like that. I think, “God is bound to hear my prayer and bring him back to life if he dies so let’s let him die and see if my assumptions are correct,” is playing games with both God and a dying friend. There is no friendship in this act. No way! Let’s get him, Lazarus, well now so he doesn’t have to die; then life will take care of itself. That’s what real people would have insisted on.
This is a carelessly told part of Jesus’ story by a Gospel that usually flawlessly tells the facts about Jesus’ life with which it is working. Literarily, the story of Lazarus’ resuscitation is supposed to point to Jesus’ resurrection to a life from which he would never have to die again. Lazarus had to die again; Jesus did not, according to the Gospel story. Even so, would you put a friend through this, especially without her or his consent? Absolutely not.
In another place, Jesus said the greatest love anyone could ever demonstrate would be to willingly lay down her or his life for friends. That’s exactly what Jesus was doing by refusing to stop preaching the message he had preached from the inception of his public ministry. Rome was eventually going to get him, and everyone knew it; there was nothing surprising about Rome putting an end to Jesus. The surprising thing was that Jesus, knowing the cost of preaching truth, wouldn’t stop preaching the message of a God who is unconditionally loving and a divine empire that would outlast the Roman Empire. He preached this message especially on behalf of his friends in the hopes that after his death they would dare to keep the message alive.
There isn’t any point in laying down one’s life for one’s friends just for the heck of it, just to say, “I did it.” There has to be some compelling justification for putting one’s life on the line for your friends; something powerfully important must be at stake for them if your life ends.
In history we’ve known of heros who took a bullet or a grenade to save a family, a group of fellow students, or a military unit. Holocaust survivors have told us of women and men who stepped into the line for the gas chambers to meet death quotas on a given day in order to give someone else a chance at life. Maybe a day’s delay would be enough time to save a life for good.
There are those today who risk freely donating a lung or a kidney to a friend, even a brand new friend. Do you not find that astounding?
Let’s agree that Jesus lived and taught in such a way as to make it clear that fair weather friends aren’t worth our sacrifices or our time, for that matter. We’re not here to serve only our friends, but also those who make it clear that they are not our friends. But serving friends is ok too as long as we don’t limit service to friends only.
This is the extreme gift a friend can give, but few will be asked to make that sacrifice. For most of us, being a friend is caring beyond our self-centeredness for the well-being of someone who thinks we are also worth their investment.