~ In Honor of My Friends ~
A few years ago I wrote the forward to Edward Ross’ book, Looking for Friends: In All the Right Places, Baxter Publishing, 1999. It’s a good resource, otherwise I would not have endorsed it.
Solomon pondered the meaning of life and kept coming up with “this too is vanity” or “of no essential meaning.” As I ponder the meaning of friendship, I keep coming up with “this too is mystery.”
I was fortunate to be able to attend several meetings of the WW II holocaust survivors and of that war’s veterans. They speak of their comrades’ loyalties to each other and of their sacrifices. Such loyalties and sacrifices garner our awe and profound respect. Yet they meet perhaps once a year, not present to each other between meetings. Those meetings are characterized by fanfare and a celebration of shared experiences and their sentimentality is beautiful to observe. But I also see that shared experiences do not constitute friendship, however deep they touched the souls of those involved.
Decades ago, communications between friends were punctuated by time lapses of months or years. Our current technologies preclude the lapses as excuses, since we now can call friends in other countries on our cell phones while driving home from work, fax them, email them, and even use (lest we forget) the old standby of postal mail, which is still remarkably efficient and inexpensive in most nations, even those of the “third world.”
One characteristic of friendship I consistently experience is that of when I meet a friend “in the flesh” who may live a thousand miles away, there is no fanfare or period of “adjustment” in which we must reestablish the connections of our past. The meeting is more characterized by a sense of not skipping a step, getting right into a dialog in the present as though we had been visiting each other weekly. No discontinuity needs to be bridged. We do not need any time to recollect or reminisce about our past to remind us consciously of why we are still friends.
There is institutional friendship…those by virtue of belonging to the same corporation, ethnic or political group, or church. I get regular emails from the alumni associations of the universities I attended calling us together for a homecoming or local event. The assumption is that because we were from the same graduating class, we are friends. Not true for most of us. Many of those that do attend such affairs are motivated by the politics of who can “network” with whom to make deals to further their business and career interests.
I mention churches among those institutions because I found the test of friendship among the “believers” is when you leave that congregation for another, whatever your reasons. Those who never communicate with you again are betraying their basis of friendship on your affiliation. No authenticity in that.
What is it about friendship that transcends the bonds of denominational membership and religious affiliations? In my times of persecution and adversity a number of people respond so generously, many, as they say, putting money, activism, their physical presence, “where there mouth is.” They put their reputations on line, manifesting their faith into tangible activism. “Being still” and “trusting in the Lord” was not a call to only pray. No! It was a call to actualize their prayers and to become the hands, feet and voice of Christ. People of Christian and non-Christian faiths respond to my needs. Some Christians retreated while some non-Christians “stood in the gap” courageously. A few (that I call authentic rather than nominal Christians) sacrifice much for my family and me. And that sacrifice wasn’t based on mutually shared denominational affiliations.
This is prayer in action. St. James wrote, “You see that his [Abraham’s] faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (James 2:22-24, NIV).
While we need friends like we need love, friendship is not based on our need. Those that are constitute relationships that are self-focused rather than other-focused, and dissolve when the self-focused needs are no longer met by the other. That is a major basis of divorce.
Jesus had a most tender descriptive of friendship: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends…I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:13, 15b, NIV). Indeed, many do die seemingly for a cause or for another or a group. Many of those sacrifices are honored in the secular world but mean nothing in the kingdom of God unless they are motivated by love and a denial of self rather than egocentric heroism or glory. It’s important to reconcile Jesus’ words with that of Paul: “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3, NIV).
Those outside the kingdom of God can’t tell the difference. One nation praises a “fallen hero” who happened to be too close to a suicide bomber while the bomber is hailed as a self-sacrificing hero by his or her nation, both nations claiming to have the blessings of God.
A friend recently remarked that too many of our Protestant brothers and sisters are still living the Old Testament covenant where nationalism is a prevalent theme. Too many neglect to embrace in practice Paul’s declaration, “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:13, NIV).
This may be partially due to so many “independent” denominations and churches whose roots are in certain nations and their histories and whose pastors are virtual popes, but accountable to no international hierarchy or the sacred tradition of the early Church. Many such pastors quote the founding fathers of the US as though they had the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and are ignorant of (or at least never quote) the fathers of early Christianity such as Augustine, Polycarp, Ignatius and so many others in the “cloud of witnesses” of which Hebrews speaks. Maybe it is because we don’t know how to actualize 1 Corinthians 12:13 or want to because it talks of a Nation without borders, that of God’s kingdom.
In reconciling what Jesus said about the sign of true friendship as laying one’s life down with Paul’s contention that if one offers his body in sacrifice it means nothing without the landscape of love, we can debate this for hours and learn nothing except feeling pride in what we think we understand. I like to go to the source of authorities and languages, otherwise we will just debate words. The original Greek rendering of Jesus’ word for “life” was translated from the word “psuche” which is a term that combines the meaning of breath, spirit (abstractly or concretely), life, mind and soul. There is no mention of body! No need to debate what Christ meant versus what Paul meant! And what a profound insight into what my friendships are truly about!
Laying down their psuche is what my friends did for me and still do. That we can do daily for one another if we embrace the motivation of love. I wonder why I am friends with many for which there are no essentially satisfying reasons, though many logical ones can be offered. In that “why” lies wondrous mystery, one that is intriguing, inviting, probing and connected to the matrix of all mysteries like the labyrinth of passages of a deep and ancient cave.
I hope many of you can say the same thing I’m about to observe: My
friends are among the most faithful and self-sacrificial ones anyone can
have or hope for. They lay down their breath, spirit, mind and soul without
regard to the consequences or repercussions to their reputations, images,
or alliances with others. I dedicate this Reflection to them in my deep
gratitude. Regardless of their theology and religious affiliations, they
are the hands, feet and voice of Christ to me. I rejoice in that
mystery and love!
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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September 24, 2004