jasonbwatson

February 3, 2016

Will you be my friend?

I was recently teaching my U.S. History students about life in the United States during the early 20th century. One of the points I made was the very close same-sex friendships were common at that time. Not coincidentally, I also explained that homosexual behavior was illegal at the time, even though there were urban areas where it was fairly common. This got me to thinking that close same-sex friendships seem fairly uncommon in 21st century America. I do wonder whether or not the increasing acceptance of homosexuality has anything to do with that, because there is no denying that those who are not homosexual may fear the perception of homosexual tendencies if they have very close–shall we say intimate (in the non-sexual, non-physical meaning)–same-sex friends. If that is the primary reason for the lack of such friendships that is another sad result of the increasing embrace of homosexual behavior and identity.

Still, I think there is more to the problem than that. I think it is far to say that there is very little instruction, in schools, churches or families, about what it means to be a friend. Sure, we teach broad-stroke lessons about being honest, sharing toys, not lying and so on, but, other than a series of devotionals on friendship that a colleague shared a few months ago, I cannot remember the last time I heard a message or a serious lesson on what it means to be a friend. Search “friendship” on Amazon.com and you will get some 86,500 results. Nearly 54,000 of those, however, are children’s books or works of fiction. Still, that leaves more than 32,000 books on the subject that do not fall into those categories. So what do those thousands of books have to offer?

Well, when I narrow down the results to the “Relationships” category and then request that the results be sorted according to “most reviews” the top results are the well-known How to Win Friends and Influence People (which is not exactly about deep, meaningful friendships), Tuesdays With Morrie (a heartwarming account of a specific friendship and the impact it had on Mitch Albom but, again, not really a how-to book on friendship), Jane Austen’s Emma (which really should be in the fiction/literature category), Matched (a science fiction/fantasy novel also erroneously categorized), An Invisible Thread (which looks like it may be interesting, but along the same lines as Tuesdays), and Little Women (again, miscategorized). Among the top fifty results it appears to me that only two are possibly anywhere close to what I have in mind when I say a book about what it means to be a friend and to develop a deep, meaningful friendship. Both of those, by the way, are about relationships in general rather than the unique relationship of friendship in particular. The books I found in my search that seemed they were about friendships specifically were all targeted at friendship among women. I did finally find two books that are focused on male friendships, and while I have read neither the descriptions seem promising. They were Breaking the Male Code by Robert Garfield and Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendship by Geoffrey Greif. The only book I found in my search–which was not, I will grant, exhaustive–that seemed like it might be along the lines of what I was looking for without being gender specific was The Art of Being a Good Friend by Hugh Black. I may have to check that out.

Last November Janie B. Cheaney wrote, “Stranded in a landscape of ferocious individualism, with families and communities falling apart all around, it might be time for the church to develop a theology of friendship.” I think Cheaney is absolutely correct, and her terminology gave me another search term for my Amazon quest. Searching “theology of friendship,” however, did not yield much either. There were some results–320 to be exact–but most of them were about two friends exploring their differences, about the trials of “celibate gay Christians,” about friendship with Jesus and about specific friendships, such as with a disabled individual. There were a few books that looked they may come close to what I was hoping to find but it was obvious they were not all that popular. Martin Marty wrote a book in 1980 called, simply, Friendship. It is available from four different sellers for the staggeringly small sum of one penny and it is sitting around 2.8 million on the Amazon bestseller list. Gary Inrig’s 1988 book Quality Friendship, published in 1988, seemed like another possible match. There are six sellers offering it at one cent, but it is some 2.3 million places higher on the bestseller list than Marty’s book. I was curious if there were any recent books that might approximate what I was hoping to find and I discovered that Adam Holland’s Friendship Established was released just yesterday–in e-book only, it appears. Skimming the first five pages of results revealed nothing else.

Where to look next? Google, of course. There I found the work of a fellow WordPress blogger whose blog is entitled Resolution 28 (which comes from Jonathan Edwards). It included an excellent post entitled “Theology of Friendship.” The author of the blog, identified only as “bc,” wrote this:

Yet there is a gaping hole in the church’s theology of friendship. Some may not know what genuine Christian friendships are supposed to look like, what they’re supposed to feel like. Even more disconcerting is that many people know mentally what good, Christ-centered friendships are supposed to be like yet half-heartedly implement those concepts into their own lives. We often hear stories of Christians who hold grudges, gossip, and take advantage of each other–I’ve seen them and I’ve been a part of them–and often times those associated are the ones who attend church regularly!  It seems that too often our friendships are characterized by actions–the giving, the smiling, and the joking–and not enough by our heart for one another. It’s admittedly easy to act like friends on the surface level and it’s surprisingly difficult to be a genuine friend.

That shows tremendous insight, and is exactly along the lines of what I was feeling and hoping to find addressed elsewhere. It appears he wrote six posts in his series on the Theology of Friendship and I look forward to reading them.

I am no expert on friendship, that’s certain. I surely could have been a better friend on many occasions in my life. Another point “bc” made in his post excerpted above is that pride is the chief reason why there are not more deep, meaningful friendships among men in particular, and I am afraid he is right. After all, a deep and meaningful friendship–an intimate friendship–is one which requires transparency, vulnerability, honesty, patience, forgiveness and more. Indeed, intimate friendship requires many of the same things a successful marriage requires yet without the physical intimacy and without the formalized commitment. Therein, no doubt, is part of the problem–anyone can walk away from a “friend” at any time. There are no strings attached, no contracts to break. When the friend gets on your nerves, or when being his friend becomes unpopular, inconvenient or difficult, why bother? That probably sounds cynical but I would challenge you to reflect on your own life, the friendships you have had, and then tell me you cannot count yourself among the guilty.

While I am no expert on friendship, I am fortunate to claim a number of true friends. Not a lot, mind you, and I do not think it is all that reasonable to imagine that anyone can–should?–have an abundance of intimate friends. But these are friends whom I could tell anything, I think, without fearing that they would abandon me. In fact, I feel confident that, if necessary, they would challenge or confront me, telling me I need to get my act together. I can also say that at least once in my life I was decent enough to be that friend to someone else, and never once did I regret doing so. Sure, there were some awkward times when I was not sure what to say and when I was not sure how he would respond when I did say something, but our friendship endured. Endures.

It was same-sex friendships that got me thinking about this subject, but I am not convinced that intimate friends must be of the same sex. Sure, there are some potential dangers in having an intimate friend of the opposite sex, but the same can be true of same-sex friends. In fact, among my intimate friends I have both men and women. The nature of opposite-sex intimate friendships could no doubt be explored at length, and perhaps I will tackle that someday, too. But not today.

For now, I encourage you to think about whether or not you have any intimate friends and if not, why not. I encourage you, if you are a parent, to teach your children what it means to truly be a friend. If you are a pastor, I encourage you to consider preaching on friendship. If you are not a pastor, I encourage you to ask your pastor to preach on friendship. Oh, and no matter who you are, if you ever do find a really good book on friendship, please share the title with me.

Here’s to friends.

July 24, 2015

Friendship

Last month Tabletalk magazine included a devotional entitled “True Friendship.” It was based on Proverbs 17:17, which reminds us that a friend loves at all times. The writer of the devotional, though, went deeper than that verse in examining what friendship really is. He started off reminding us of the tremendous irony of the day in which we live–the fact that “we live in a world that is both more connected and more disconnected than ever before. Smartphones, social media, e-mail and other technologies make it simple to stay in contact with friends and loved ones even when they live thousands of miles away. And yet, there is a dearth of true intimacy.” This is certainly true, and I have explored this phenomenon in this space before. Social media and other communications technology can be a two-edged sword, providing wonderful benefits but also tremendous problems. Some of those problems come from the comparisons that inevitably result from the almost constant viewing of Facebook status updates and tweets among our contacts. Some of the problems come from the fact that we can communicate with almost anyone instantly yet we seem to have deep, meaningful conversations less and less frequently.

Another of the problems is identified by the Tabletalk writer this way: “With the click of a mouse we can be listed as the friend of someone whom we have never met–and probably never will meet–in person.” I am sure I am not alone in restricting my social media “friends” to people I really do know, but there is a large contingent of folks who like to see how high they can get that friend number. (I also know I am not alone in having received numerous “friend requests” from people I have never heard of, perhaps only because we have one “mutual friend”). Are all of my Facebook friends intimate friends? Of course not. But at least I really do know them all. The writer also mentions the challenge these days of having a “close friend of the same gender without raising suspicions of homosexuality.” Wouldn’t it be tragic if the single-digit percentile of the American population that claims to be homosexual could have really warped our view of human interaction to the point that two men or two women cannot be close friends without being suspected of being sexually involved? Of course, the inverse has long been true, as well–there were suspicions of “something more” when a male and female were close friends. Indeed, I have heard some people suggest that a male and a female cannot be close friends without it leading to something more, whether that “more” be sexual behavior, inappropriate non-sexual intimacy or just confusion and hurt feelings.

The devotional writer states that Scripture “offers a key corrective” to the problems of human friendship by “offering us a high view of human friendship. [Proverbs 17:17] lauds the benefit of true friendship, a relationship in which we receive love from another at our best and at our worst.” I would suggest that precisely because of this, true friendships are quite finite in number. Some people have hundreds of acquaintances and scores of friends, yet when they hit a real crisis they do not know who to call because they have no true, real, lasting friends, friends who will stick with them through the hard times, come along side during adversity, believe the best and stay true through the worst. If you do have friends like that–and I hope you do–I suspect you could count them on one hand, or certainly on two. “Our friendships are harmed and often destroyed when our friends reveal their flaws,” the devotional writer states. “Sadly, this means that our friendships are often quite tenuous, prompting us to look for a friendship that is secure because it is not based on what the other person finds lovely in us. The only one who can provide this friendship is Jesus Christ.”

I would posit that the only one who can provide this friendship perfectly is Jesus Christ, but it is possible to have human friends that do not run away when we reveal flaws, when we fall flat on our faces (literally or figuratively), when we do mess up or behave like a jerk. Certainly we have all had friendships that ended suddenly when circumstances changed, whether they be grades in school, new friends coming on the scene, interests shifting, opinions conflicting or whatever. These were seldom deep, meaningful friendships in the first place. If, however, you have been blessed to have longtime friends who have remained your friends even through challenges, disagreements and screw ups then you are truly blessed, and you have experienced Proverbs 17:17 in a very personal way.

My recent hiatus from blogging was due to a family vacation. During that time I was able to visit two longtime friends, one whom I have known for probably twenty-two years now, I guess, and another whom I have known for seventeen. I do not see either of these individuals often. In fact, one I had not seen in three years and the other I had not seen in perhaps ten. One I stay in fairly regular contact with through e-mails, the other I seldom communicate with. Still, based on our longtime friendships and past experience in both instances, I believe I could confide in both of those friends and turn to each of them for help in a real crisis in my life–even if it was a crisis of my own making. I think I know both of them well enough to know that they would be honest with me if I messed up but they would also help me get out of the mess rather than walking away. Interestingly, going back to one of the points discussed above, one of these friends is male and the other is female. Both friendships have had bumps, including some caused by own stupidity at times. (It really is incredible how much harm our tongues can do, isn’t it?) Repentance and forgiveness are wonderful things though, and stupidity does not have to be a friendship-ender in true, meaningful friendships. I have hundreds of Facebook friends and untold acquaintances and contacts through personal and professional life, but I have a handful of real, deep, true friends. I am blessed and encouraged by them. Some are male, some are female. When we get out of the way of ourselves and put our own preferences and opinions aside long enough to realize that the world does not revolve around us, to recognize that the love Jesus has for us is based on absolutely nothing we could ever do to merit, deserve or sustain it, it is possible to have such friendships. It is not easy; like I said, you will probably not have many of them. Do not, though, let the fact that it is not easy deter you. Do not let possible questions of “something more” interfere with the development and maintenance of real friendships with others of the same or the opposite sex. Do not let Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and texting be your only connection with your “friends.” Do not run the other way when you find your friends are not perfect. After all, you are not, either. Neither am I.

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