30 May 2007

Fathoming Friendship

Friendship is surely one of the most profound and significant aspects of our life. Yet, I have always found it to be a rather mysterious thing, as well. To be a son and a brother, a husband and a father, and to be a pastor of a congregation, are stations in my life that are defined, established and governed by a clear Word of God. These relationships are my vocations in a very particular and unambiguous way. I know who my parents and my siblings are; I know my wife and children; I know the congregation to which God has called me. By comparison, friendship is far more subjective and amorphous. There is both a greater freedom to it, and a greater precariousness. A friend can pack up his toys and go home.

It’s not that friendship is forgotten in the Word of God. There is that marvelous example of David and Jonathan, as remarkable in its own right as the Greek legend of Damon and Pythias. As I recall, the patriarch Abraham is somewhere described as the friend of God Himself, as were Adam and Eve prior to the fall into sin. Better still is the way that Jesus calls His disciples His friends. Yet, even among His disciples, there is one who is distinguished as particularly beloved of the Lord. Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany are likewise friends of the Lord Jesus in a special way. Dr. Luther is right to include "good friends" among God’s gifts of daily bread, but what is it that sets apart some people as our friends? And what does friendship mean for us?

The kindergartner who comes home from the first day of school excited about her thirty-two new best friends is sweetly innocent and naive. By the end of the year, if not by the end of the first week, she’ll know better. You can’t be everyone’s best friend; nor can everyone else be your best friend. I’m not really sure what it means to speak of "best" friends, anyway, as each friendship tends to be unique and special in its own way. But it’s that whole finitude thing again. We don’t have the capacity to befriend everyone we know, far less the rest of the world! It wouldn’t work for all sorts of reasons. If you run your car off the side of a road, into a ditch in the middle of nowhere, there’s a pretty small circle of friends you’re gonna call for help, and vice versa. It’s a good thing, too! None of us is capable of helping everyone else out of such pickles. We’d only end up getting in each other’s way if we tried.

Man is created to live in relationship to others like himself. It is not good for him to be alone. A wife is the Lord’s preeminent provision of a helpmate to live and work alongside of the man, but marriage is also the origin and the model of all other human relationships. Marriage necessitates both the similarity and the difference between the man and the woman. Friendship finds its place mainly on the side of similarity. Marriage involves both a distinction and the closest possible union of two persons. In friendship, both the distinction and the union are less pronounced, certainly far less intense, and less definitive of the relationship. The man and the woman are created to be compatible and complementary to each other. With friends it is more a matter of comradery and cooperation. Husbands and wives often gaze into each other’s eyes, face-to-face, whereas friends are mostly side-by-side, engaged in some common activity, endeavor or pursuit. Your friends are those with whom you share the same interests, the same hobbies, the same values and goals. Your spouse is the one with whom you share yourself.

Friendship broadens the circle of those we love and serve in this world. For we ought not to be so consumed with love for spouse and children that we become selfish and turned inward on our families, to the neglect of our neighbors. By the same token, friendship also narrows the pool of those whom we are given to help and assist. We are to love even our enemies, especially through the forgiveness of sins and the charity of Christian mercy toward those who hate us. But even to suggest that we ought to love everyone in exactly the same way, would be to rule out doing much of anything for anyone. Our friends present us with an opportunity to do what we can, in love, within our limited capacities. What is more, in loving our friends we learn better how to love others, as well, and we exercise our capacity for love.

The freedom and precariousness of friendship, it seems to me, also contribute to this exercise of love. It is sadly far too easy to take our families for granted, because we know they’re stuck with us. But friendship depends upon a mutual effort, communication, give and take, which prevents us from being too wrapped up in ourselves and forces us to be more considerate of others. At the same time, it is a love that is given freely, not under compulsion or necessity. In that respect, it tends to run in the way of the Gospel, rather than under the burden of the Law. Hopefully, these characteristics of friendship are regularly translated into the loving service of our families, as well. In any case, good Christian friends will always be pointing us to the Word of God, to the Law and the Gospel, to repentance and faith.


Nat said...

The term "best friend" does occasionally illicit problems, especially when one is beginning to mature and their concept of friendship becomes more abstract. When I was a child I assumed, as I imagine most children assume, that a friend was someone you liked, and your best friend was the person whom you liked the most (incidentally, I also had no idea how marriage worked). But, as I grew older, I wondered if I was doing wrong to people by implying that they were better or worse friends than my other friends, or if best-friendship had to be mutual, etc.

As you said, each friendship tends to be unique and special in its own way. My friendship with you (for example) is quite different from my friendship with Zach, or with other MouthHousers, or with my own parents. Every friends shares some interests and does not share others, and in my vocations I am often required to act a certain way regarding some friends (you as my pastor, my parents as my parents, etc). There are young (relatively) children whom I would consider my friends, even if our conversations are not terribly intellectual.

In my experience it is even possible, by God's grace, to be friends with someone you don't really "like." (as you said, "...more a matter of comradery and cooperation.") There may be someone you worked with, someone who helped you out, or simply someone who was around when other friends weren't, with whom you formed a friendship. What's amazing is that these friendships - with people who may be utterly unlike you - tend to last beyond when they are "needed" or forced upon you.

I think when most people say "best" or "dear" or "good" friend, they mean someone to whom they would look in need, someone they trust. Given what you said about comradery and cooperation, I think this is a good way of putting it. If there is someone to whom you could talk if you were feeling depressed, that person is your good friend. There's no reason this shouldn't count for people who see to your physical needs as well as those who see to your emotional needs, but in modern America situations that threaten one's body tend not to arise as often as those that threaten one's mind (I mainly mean grief or depression).

("Best" is still a pretty tacky word, but it seems the most appropriate one when you're younger.)

DoRenaBeana said...

Excellent post Dad, and great comments Nat! I've been meaning to write a blog post on this topic for weeks, but maybe now I should just post a link to this. Haha...

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks, Beanie. It would be nice to see you post something on your blog, as your time permits. But I'm glad for your comments here, in any case, any time.

Zaripest said...

Although I'm late in saying it, this is, indeed, a very nice post. It nicely sums up a good deal of what you covered in your sectional at the HT conference in St. Louis a few years ago.

I've wondered, more and more, however, where the relationship of boyfriend-girlfriend fits in. I don't know of any passages of scripture that specifically mention this, and you didn't talk about it much in your sectional or your post, either. I've come to know that the relationship of a guy and a girl who are "more than friends" but not spouses, is rarely explained, or even spoken of, in very clear terms. I know from experience that it can be awkward and confusing, and that the longer it lasts, the more difficult it becomes to know exactly what it means, or what to do about it. Boyfriend and girlfriend seem to be essentially undefined vocations.

Looking back on my own experiences, I think that a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship should be much more of a relatively short, transitional relationship than a long-term one. Still, for any relationship, long or short, it seems to me like it should have some sort of a concrete definition. Especially, I think, in the case of couples who are engaged.

What do you think?

Susan said...

>>sums up a good deal of what you covered in your sectional at the HT conference in St. Louis<<

Hey, Zach, that's just what I thought! I appreciated the refresher course. But I noticed (like you mentioned) that a lot of the teens at Higher Things seemed to want more info from your dad on the boyfriend/girlfriend thing.

And yet, for some reason that I can't quite put my finger on, I think it's good that that's a somewhat undefined relationship. It's NOT a relationship that God has declared; it's not a station to which God has spoken a word which places you into it. Like you said, it is transitional. Getting hung up for a long time in a transition can leave people in an uncomfortable situation.

Unknown said...

Seeing so many of my 'friends' posting here, I can't resist joining the circle.

Due to the ages of my own children,
I think a lot about the girlfriend/boyfriend relationship too. And I agree that looking at it as a relatively short, transitional relationship is wise. It takes a huge amount of wisdom to navigate this stage of life, so I'm incredibly thankful to see you teenage boys right in there with Pr. Stuckwisch, thinking outloud.