Thank you for being my friends.
One of the descriptions of a church is a community of friends. Not just Quakers. But every denomination, congregation. So, to belong to a church community is to be ready to come into a commitment to friendship. To be ready to be a friend to others, and befriend yourself more deeply.
And we bring with us into community our experience of befriending - the joy and the sorrows of that; the successes and the failures – and hope to replicate the good stuff. We are always looking to replicate the good stuff.
But friendship generally speaking is under threat.
Our strength in being together, enjoying each other, learning from and supporting each other, is under threat. The good stuff is under threat.
And the threat is not peculiar to church communities, or us as individuals. It is across the board.
There is this torrent of ravaging, sweeping demand (the ‘demons’ of demand), running over the banks of our boundaries and attempts at constraint, and flooding into every part of our lives.
Demand floods our work places. Work is the site of so much of our identity, our self-esteem. And demand threatens to wash away the good, the enjoyment, in it.
Demand floods our family. The time we have to give to those we love never seems to be enough.
Demand floods our self-care. Our time and energy become so depleted that time alone – sleep, a book, a movie – wins over meeting up with friends. Time and again.
All these good things – work, family, self-care – in this context of raging demand pull us away from any structures of friendship that do not have the foundations to endure.
I knew two male friends who met at Primary School. Their friendship grew through the school years. They grew up together, went to Youth Group together, met Jesus together, supported each other through their romances and their endings. Strong cement went into their relational foundations.
Then one of them got married early, had kids early, and went into one of those careers where you come-home-at-9-pm early. The other friend, well, his life went elsewhere. And the strong currents pulled them in different directions.
Then one day – 30 years later – one rang the other up. It was like he was being swept out to sea and had his hand up; and he made a call. Life had taken a bad turn and he turned to his friend.
So, they lunched and caught up and remembered and supported, and they did it all again the next week. And on it went until it didn’t. More time went by, and then the other friend put his hand up. And so on, and so on, their relationship lurched along.
It’s not a great model for friendship. But it is really common among the men I talk to. And it is real. Some things you can control, and some you can’t. And the societal currents, those demons of demand, that make friendship difficult continue to be strong.
Biblical stories about friendship are few, and they are complicated. The way Jesus was written up in the gospels doesn’t give us much in terms of how to be a good friend. It seemed to be all about the Missio Dei (the Mission of God), rather than sharing, caring loyalty and love among friends.
The friendship of Naomi and Ruth was sharing, caring loyalty and love. But between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law in the context of the strong currents trying to pull them apart – currents of poverty, race (Ruth was a Moabite), and powerlessness (no male heir or provider). So, they clung on to each. And it has a happy ending.
The story of David and Jonathon, maybe the paramount story of male friendship in the Bible, is also set in the context of strong currents. Not the demands of time, nor poverty and powerlessness, but the political demands of expectation and loyalty.
David and Jonathon enter into a covenantal bond. Covenants in the ancient world were usually unequal (like marriage, like with Yahweh). Here Jonathon, being older, the son of the king, and thus superior in social rank, is the more powerful. Yet, the language used in the text points to mutuality in this covenant. They exchange clothing so that each carried around part of the other. There are no obligations to fulfill in this covenant. Later (2 Sam 1) David says of Jonathon: “Greatly beloved were you to me; your love... was wonderful, passing the love of women.” This was a deep friendship; and maybe homoerotic.
It was a friendship seen as socially subversive. Not because of any sexual bond between these two married men, but because of the class distinction – and most importantly the reaction of the king to the threat of David. Saul finds his son’s relationship with David deeply disturbing because he feels it violates this right to his son’s loyalty.
The story as a whole is disturbing because, though being the paramount biblical story of male friendship, the currents of power and politics prove too strong. It does not have a happy ending. David’s proclamation of his love was said at Jonathon’s funeral. It’s tragic.
Is then, given the strong currents pulling friends apart, there any hope for those seeking caring, sharing friendships of love and loyalty?
I believe the state of friendship is not all doom and gloom. With determination, resilience and a bit of luck, some of us have created barriers, sandbags of resistance against the torrents. Friendship is under threat – yes – but not gone under.
We can do it different. I have seen others do it different. And I have done it different. We can build deep, meaningful, and fun friendships that endure.
The first sandbag of endurance is knowing and protecting the right amount of time.
I have three friends with whom I go fishing. Which is a kind of male joke because rarely do we go fishing. And when do go fishing two of us don’t fish. We cheer the others on and crack jokes and eat their food.
We’ve known each other for a long time, and some have known each other longer. We all have some experience with church at some point in our lives, and we all have tried and keep on trying to make the world a better place.
We live a long way from each other. We don’t regularly email, Facebook, text, or even phone. Each year we go through a tortuous process of finding a three-day weekend to spend together. This process lasts a few months – I think communication via carrier-pigeon would be faster!
But we find it, and we get there, wherever there is this year.
Three uninterrupted days is about what it takes to exorcise the demons and resurrect and revitalize our friendship. We know it, we protect it, and we don’t try to meet monthly or twice a year, or for a week, or whatever. No, we’ve worked out, like good theologians, that 3 days annually is what it takes. Kind of like Easter. The right amount of time.
The second sandbag of endurance is getting past the dominance thing.
You know, that thing about who is the top dog, with the bestest house or bestest income or bestest family or jokes. There’s all that bravado and all that, and all that. I suspect this mainly a male problem.
And underneath the bravado of course is all that need for affirmation that we seek, want and need from our friends: Do you really think I’m really okay? Do you like me, even when I’ve screwed up, or don’t vote like you vote, or don’t believe like you believe, or – especially – when I am weak and vulnerable and tearful?
Friendship if it’s to endure needs to be a circle, not a pyramid. A pyramid structure exists to support the ones at the top. A circle structure means that we can all shoulder to shoulder stand together. One is hierarchical. One is egalitarian. One is for dominance. One is for friendship.
To be in a friendship that endures means you need to hold lightly to what the world of acquisition and success venerates, and hold tightly to the values of holding and supporting another, and if necessary, carrying one another.
The third, and my last today, sandbag of endurance is trust. We begin friendship by finding in our time together the right mix between listening and talking, doing and being. And when that balance is found, a balance that supports us both, we not only know we have a friendship we want to keep, but a friendship that generates trust.
Trust is a big word.
One of the legendary tales of friendship is from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Frodo, the small and tenacious hobbit is tasked with travelling to the desolate and dangerous land of Mordor to destroy the magical and destructive ring. Sam, despite Frodo’s protestations goes with him. And we, the readers/viewers, are given this metaphor of the power of friendship of these two wee souls, Frodo and Sam, overcoming through struggle and determination the vastly superior powers of evil and its lackeys.
‘Going to Mordor’ is therefore a euphemism for suffering. And who will go with you comes down to the real powers at work, at work in your heart. Who is the friend who your heart will choose to accompany you to the end? And my guess is your heart will always choose the one you trust.
I close with a quote from Mark Twain (one of the few of his without a twist in its tail).
When we think of friends, and call their faces out of the shadows, and their voices out of the echoes that faint along the corridors of memory, and do it without knowing why save that we love to do it, we content ourselves that that friendship is a Reality, and not a Fancy - that it is builded upon a rock, and not upon the sands that dissolve away with the ebbing tides and carry their monuments with them.