10 July 2008

Is Friendship an Office or Station in Life?

I've been thinking carefully about friendship for several years now, especially since I was asked to write about it for Higher Things in 2004 and then to speak on relationships more broadly at the "Dare To Be Lutheran" conference in 2005. Such considerations are hardly hypothetical, ethereal or esoteric, but quite personal and existential. For all of that, though, the "what" and "wherefore" of friendship still strikes me as rather fluid, amorphous, and difficult to grasp with any consistent clarity. I keep searching for how to get a handle on this aspect of life, but maybe there isn't one; or maybe it's as variable as our friends and our friendships tend to be.

I confess with Dr. Luther that "good friends" are among God's good gifts of daily bread. I have noted in the past that the Holy Scriptures set forth the friendship of David and Jonathan as an example for us, for instruction, reproof, correction, admonition and encouragement. Our Lord Himself, on the night when He was betrayed, pointedly described His relationship with His disciples as friendship; which is typified throughout the Holy Gospel in "the disciple whom Jesus loved." Elsewhere, it is revealed that Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany were His friends.

Clearly, there is a theological significance to friendship. That should hardly seem surprising, if not for the fact that we tend to trivialize these things. Children know it very well, and they are less shy about expressing it than adults. My friends and friendships have always been among the most precious and important things in my life, not only when I was a little boy, but in my youth and in adulthood no less. The ancient philosophers recognized and acknowledged the special importance of friendship, too, as did C.S. Lewis in his marvelous book, The Four Loves.

Our friends are people we love, and it is a shame that we do not speak that way more freely and faithfully. "Love" in modern American English is much abused. It is used in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of things, but, so far as I can tell, it is not often used to describe friendship. We speak of loving foods and sports and music and movies, but not our friends; probably because, when it comes to other people, "love" is too quickly equated with romance or used euphemistically for sexual relationships. Our English word is narrowed in its scope to that of eros, with little room left for the profound agape and philos of the Holy Scriptures. People love their pets, and they love their lovers, but they "like" their friends. There is a sad impoverishment in that language, which, I suspect, betrays the poverty of our sinful hearts. But the specifics are elusive to me.

It seems clear to me that friendship is not a "vocation" per se, certainly not in the proper sense of that terminology. We have come to use this word "vocation" more broadly than we probably should, but friendship still doesn't fit even the broadest stretch of the term. We have no external "call" to be anyone's friend, far less any permanent assignment to such a relationship. Leastwise not if we are to mean anything specific by "friendship." As Christians, we are called to love one another, and even to love our enemies, but those commandments do not define what friendship is. I have suggested in the past, and I still believe, that friendship is the particular context in which we regularly exercise our love for the neighbor, whereby we are also trained in the way of love for others, too. As finite creatures, we are not capable of loving everyone all the time. Our circle of friends is comprised of those neighbors whom we love with tangible service and assistance; not to the exclusion of all others, but as our normal expression and embodiment of that which is universally comprehended and accomplished by Christ Jesus, our Lord.

If friendship is not a vocation, then is it possibly an office or station in life? That's one of the key questions I've been pondering for a while now, but I think the answer has to be, "no." There is obviously a connection between our friendships and our particular place in life, but not in a direct or necessary way. In fact, there is a freedom to friendship that resists the very notion of a duty or obligation. It is a joke when we tease that we are being paid to befriend someone. True, we are obliged to love one another; that is a divine commandment. Yet, Christian love, like that of the Father for us in Christ, flows not from compulsion but in freedom. Thus, friendship not only embodies the law of Christian love; it also embodies the freedom of a mutual relationship, as the Lord our God created us to live in faith and love toward Him, not as slaves but friends.

C.S. Lewis writes eloquently of friendship as the companionship of those who share common interests and common pursuits; a bond that is formed by a common commitment to some shared passion. Whereas "lovers" gaze upon each other, friends walk side-by-side, shoulder to shoulder, eyes ahead on a mutual destination. I like this definition of friendship very much and have found it to be helpful and instructive. It rings true in my experience. My closests friends surely are those with whom I share important aspects of life. So, for example, many of my nearest and dearest friends are fellow pastors, with whom I share a special kinship even if they happen to live and serve far away from me. Likewise, my wife and I share friendships with other married couples, and our family friendships gravitate toward other families with children of the same age, especially other homeschooling families. These are ways in which, it seems to me, the strongest friendships are rooted in our vocations and offices, without actually being an office or vocation. The more significant and permanent the connections we share with our friends, the more solid and pervasive our friendship with them is likely to be.

That much has seemed fairly clear and even obvious to me. It's a pretty satisfying picture of friendship, so far as it goes. Yet, it doesn't paint the whole picture. Or, rather, it presents a two-dimensional picture but not a full three-dimensional model of friendship. There are people with whom we share many important things in common, who aren't counted among our "friends." We all have colleagues, co-workers, associates, acquaintances, classmates, or what have you, with whom we regularly interact, who simply don't belong to our circle of "loved ones," not in the special sense of friendship. Evidently, there are other factors involved in addition to mutual pursuits. I suspect there are also differences along these lines between the friendships of men as compared to those of women (and again in the case of friendships between men and women), but I'm not prepared to think out loud about those dimensions of the topic at this juncture.

There are some people who seem to have a special knack for friendship. I'm not one of those people, but I assume that everyone could easily think of examples. Some people have a certain charisma about them, which makes them attractive and easy to love. I'm not talking about "sex appeal," but a kind of charm that is inviting and comfortable and fun to be around. Then again, there are other folks who have a selfless and loving way about them, who are always pouring themselves out for their neighbors. These people may or may not be "attractive," but they simply befriend whomever they encounter. There are also those rare individuals who span both of these qualities: who have the charisma to attract friends, as well as the grace to befriend everyone around them. I've known a few people like that along the way, and I frankly stand in awe of them. In both respects, there is a personal character involved that lends itself to friendship, which seems to be as instrumental as the proximity of professions and pastimes.

I'm afraid that I don't possess either sort of knack for friendship. As vitally important as friends have always been to me, friendship doesn't come naturally or easily to me. I'm too selfish and self-centered, and I consequently try too hard or not enough. I'm either overdoing it, in the hopes of trying to make people like me, or I get too caught up in my own pursuits and tend to neglect other people. My interests in life are limited in number and narrow in scope, and yet I am passionate about them in a way that is all-consuming; which, unfortunately, makes me rather tedious and boring. I'm not describing any of this to offer an excuse, but as a way of wrestling with myself and trying to identify where I need to do better.

I often admonish my children that, if they want to have friends, the best thing they can do is simply to be a good friend. That's a case in which I need to hear and heed my own good advice, and take it to heart. Whining and pouting and complaining with self-pity is no way to go about winning friends, irrespective of one's age. It's certainly not attractive or becoming. Gracefully going about one's life, serving one's vocations and befriending one's neighbors along the way, that is not only a more effective "strategy," but a far better and more satisfying way to live.

So, as I have been considering these various aspects of friendship, here are several specific things that have come to the forefront of my mind:

First of all, I am incredibly grateful to my friends for their friendship, especially because it is largely a consequence of their gracious kindness. In fact, I am amazed at how many people are so patient with me, who befriend me and bear with me, even though I am a difficult person to love. It has occurred to me, from that perspective, that my friends provide a good example for me, and by their love they enable me to be a gracious and charitable good friend toward others.

Second, I have come to realize more clearly that friendship can't be forced or manipulated. It is a mutual relationship of love that is lived in the freedom of faith (in the Gospel). Yet, this freedom of friendship does not free me from responsibility, but frees me to befriend and serve my neighbor in love, whether or not that love is reciprocated. In this way, friendship becomes a special example of the way in which Christians are to live in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another. That seems simple and obvious enough, and yet I am chagrined at how easily I approach friendship seflishly.

Third, I remain intrigued by the connections between my vocations and stations in life and my friendships. There is more to be explored in this area, and more to be learned, but already my perception is that my offices and friendships can mutually inform and benefit from each other. That is to say, friendship can serve not only as a training ground for loving my neighbor in general, but as a training ground for loving my wife and children and serving my congregation. The way in which my friends and I love and serve each other can therefore teach me how to be a better husband and father and pastor. Similarly, the particular ways in which my various vocations direct me to love my family and my parishioners can provide some useful guidance to my friendships, as well. Obviously, I have a unique relationship with my wife and my children, which is not shared with anyone else. Still, there are aspects of friendship analagous to familial life, and my vocations teach me how to love my neighbors as fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters (especially in Christ, within the household of His Church). Even more directly, the Word of God that I am given to speak as a pastor to my people, certainly can and should inform the Word of God that I am given to confess in all my relationships. Anyway, that is where my thoughts have led me thus far in my contemplation of friendship.


Susan said...

That paragraph about how we don't say that we love our friends. I know what you mean. There was one time we were having company, and I did something that I knew two of the fellas would really appreciate. And due to weather, it turned out to be rather inconvenient. So we were joking around about why I was soaked from the rain, and I teased, "Well, you just remember this if ever you doubt my love for you!!" Whoa -- the use of the word "love" suddenly brought an uncomfortability to the situation. I guess I'm not supposed to say that I "love" a dear friend who's a guy, even if it's perfectly clear that it's proper Christian brotherly love, even if his wife is right there agreeing.

There are not many people I will say "I love you" to, but it's not just reserved for immediate family. But sometimes I wonder if I'm still too free with saying it.

Moria said...

I think your understanding of friendship in relation to vocation, office and station is well-thought out. Jerome Neyrey suggests a different understanding of friendship in his SOCIAL WORLD OF LUKE-ACTS, that of patronage: the socially, politically, or financially privileged person has "friendships" with the less advantaged, in order to improve their position and gain honor for himself. That is probably a fair depiction of the ancient Roman understanding of friendship. But I think your description of friendship, at least from a biblical perspective, is much closer to the truth.