I’ve Been Thinking About Friendship

images-2I’ve been thinking about friendship. One of my weaknesses has always been an ability to move-through.

I‘m struck by a paradox of moving-through. Emotional attachment to places and people is a necessary skill for a priest to have, yet so is the ability to detach and move on. As a priest, one enters a community ready-made to receive you. New faces, new relationship possibilities, new situations and contexts rapidly fill the void left by previous leavings. Parishioners often like to remind me when I do something they don’t agree with that I am only passing through and they were here before me and will be here after I have gone.

I have to confess that being a priest enables me to connect more deeply with others, but at the same time, it has encouraged in me a kind of laziness when it has come to the maintenance of previous friendships, left behind after moving-through. I am increasing saddened by this awareness.

I’ve been thinking about friendship. Perhaps it’s a wisdom that comes with aging – the realization dawning more clearly that when it comes to friendship, there is little time for squandering and taking love for granted.

***

I’ve been thinking about friendship. Men and women seem to have different approaches to friendship. Friendships, their making and sustaining seem to have now become the social responsibility of women, who maintain friendships not only with one another, but facilitate the social worlds of their families, and especially their husbands and partners. While this is a situation that is particular to heterosexual marriage, the dynamic of one partner taking social responsibility for making and sustaining friendships is also something that characterizes relationships between gay men. In my long 40-year relationship, it’s largely been Al’s responsibility to nurture our mutual relationships with others.

I was born in 1955. In the world of my childhood and adolescence in the late 1960’s & early 70’s I remember my mother and father existing in separate social worlds. As the social world of women has greatly expanded beyond the traditional areas of home and children, changing expectations of marriage have also resulted in a shrinking of traditional spheres of male camaraderie leaving men more and more the passive participants in the social worlds their wives now create, organize, and sustain. In the NPR March 19th podcast Hidden Brain episode titled The Lonely American Man, a number of men reflect on the slow deterioration of their capacity for friendship. One man reports that when his wife is home, there are never enough hours in the day for all their social activities, but when she is away for more than three days, he rapidly becomes a hermit.

A new sense of the deficit of moving-through, and a growing concern about wider societal trends leaving many men emotionally isolated from one another gives impetus to my desire to revive some kind of men’s community at St Martin’s. It comes as little surprise that the Women’s Spirituality Group (WSG) flourishes while attempts to bring men into community together, continue to flounder. I am reassured to discover that this is not only the rector’s concern but is a concern more widely shared among the men of the parish.

On April 7th, 30 men came together to talk about hopes and expectations for a revival of a men’s community. On April 24th a similar number attended the first beer and pizza evening. On May 8th we plan a second of these dinners. At these events, men are recognizing and articulating their need to enjoy the company of other men; to eat together, to share experience, to grow together, and eventually, together to forge a vision of being of greater service in the wider community. To this end, St Martin’s Men’s Community (SMMC) is establishing itself as an umbrella under which men can self-organize according to different needs and interests.

Within the SMMC we have the level of the large group community. Here the process of being in a large group (30) encourages individual encounters.  The SMMC also fosters an energy for more intimate encounters in smaller groups. One example is the revival of something remembered with affection – the priest facilitated small lunch discussion group. Alongside this, flowing from the traditional concept of a book group, new possibilities for multiple reading (smaller than a book like an Op-Ed article) discussion groups are emerging. A third level of activity is service. This will take longer to emerge but will be the direct fruit of both the large social and small group learning encounters. As the community solidifies there is the future hope of SMMC sponsored service projects in the wider community.

As is the case with the WSG, the SMMC is one of our portals or gateway ministries because it is open to all men from far and wide, Episcopalian or not, who wish to participate in building Christian men’s community together.

***

I slipped in that qualifier Christian before the word community above. It feels controversial to have done so, for in the St Martin’s Community the use of Christian as a qualifier is often heard as an expression of an unwanted and undesirable exclusivity associated with Evangelical groups. Yet, what we are about is building Christian community among men. The thorny question is what is it that makes a community Christian amidst a raft of other social and service group possibilities?

In John 15, Jesus, building on his commandment that his disciples love one another continues to explain to them that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. For Jesus, this is not a generalized statement that in principle there’s no greater love than to lay down one’s life in the cause of friendship. Jesus is being very personal. He is teaching his disciples about his own willingness to give his life for them, as it turns out on the cross. He contemplates his own self-sacrificial death not simply as an expression of some lofty and high principle known only between the heavenly Father and his earthly Son, but as an intimate relational commitment to his friends. He startles them when he tells them:

You are my friends, he tells them. I do not call you servants any longer, because a servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends because I have shared with you everything I have learned from God. 

This kind of friendship is a revolutionary political action in a world of strict hierarchies of master and servant relations characterized by the use and misuse of differentials of power that characterize the normal tendencies or status quo in human societies. 

***

The life of faith is lived at the intersection of two axis lines – one horizontal and the other vertical. At the human level, we easily recognize that friends are accountable to, and for one another. On the horizontal axis, there’s mutuality in the responsibilities for one another shared among friends. Is this also true along the vertical axis?

Jesus teaches that the world will recognize us as his friends by the manner of our love for one another. He also teaches, that his friendship with his disciples flows directly from his friendship with God. This is how love flows up and down along a vertical axis revealing friendship-love as a core quality of the divine nature. In a few weeks, we will celebrate the deeper implications of this mystery on Holy Trinity Sunday.

It’s easy to get the relationship between the two axes back-to-front in the sense that many have and still believe that you must love God first then others second. After all, this is how the ancient Jewish commandment – love God as the first commandment and then love neighbor. Even Jesus restates this in the summary of the Law. But from a human perspective living into the reflection of divine friendship first requires viable blueprints and templates for friendship with one another. Developmentally, do we not learn to love God through the love of self and then love of neighbor?

Human beings, left to their own impulses tend towards developing friendships that usually bear the marks of self-interest. It’s easy to be friends with those we are attracted to. It’s easy to be friends with the like-minded, those who are like us. Human friendship tends to degenerate into exclusionary practices.

The connection between human friendship and Christian friendship lies in adding the dimension of the vertical axis an allowing it to inform and shape our expression of friendship with one another. Our belief that friendship is an essential quality of God reflected back to us confronts our tendencies towards the exclusivities that preserve so many evils in human society.

***

I’ve been thinking about friendship informed by the vertical axis which further transforms us into resurrection-story-shaped communities – where friendship empowers us to be no less than God’s future-arrived-in-the- present.

May [we] have the courage to listen to the voice of desire that disturbs [us] when [we] have settled for something safe and may the forms of [our] belonging – in love, creativity, and friendship be equal to the grandeur and the call of [our] soul[s].

My paraphrasing of lines from: For Longing [1]– a poem by John O’ Donohue

[1]

blessed be the longing that brought you here
and quickens your soul with wonder.

may you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
that disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.

may you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
to discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.

may the forms of your belonging – in love, creativity, and friendship –
be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.

may the one you long for long for you.
may your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.

may a secret providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.

may your mind inhabit your life with the sureness
with which your body inhabits the world.

may your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.

may you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.
may you know the urgency with which God longs for you.

 

 

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