God is Friendship: Personal Reflections toward a Spirituality of Friendship

[1] A journey of recovery awaits me. Along the way, I hope to find greater humanity and God amid old memories and smiles I have never forgotten.

[2] Soon, I will embark on a road trip with two old friends. I have not shared such intimate space with them for 25 years, or is it 30, or … could it be more? I fear so. I also fear five or six hours in the car may prove as awkward as my guilt suggests it should be.

[3] The reason for the trip is Todd, a third friend to whose home we will travel. We are going on what might be a final visit. A variety of liver diseases has sapped Todd’s ability to do much more than sit. His days are spent hoping and praying for a liver transplant that may not come.

[4] The four of us once spent countless hours together, talking cars, girls, school, angers, joys and ambitions during high school and for a few years after. Then college and emerging vocations scattered us in divergent directions, just as happened with millions of other American youth.

[5] One of us sought to be a physician and is now a clinical psychologist in Michigan. Another stayed close to home and farmed in Wisconsin, later moving into social services for which he had trained at the university. I quit college, made cheese, sold cars, worked in factories, returning to school after marriage to become a pastor in Nebraska and Kansas. Later I worked as an editor and now a seminary staff member. Todd worked in Missouri and Illinois as a marketer and communication specialist, starting his own business. He was the only natural entrepreneur among us.

[6] We each married and raised or are still raising families. We lost parents. Two of us lost children by disease and an accident. Two of us met the challenges of children with special needs. We changed careers or at least direction several times. We traveled broadly. All but one of us moved several times and made new friends or tried. Typically, we found it harder to do so with each move or change-at least I did.

[7] Through the years, we lost significant contact with each other. High school reunions became times of bittersweet nostalgia and yearning. We would promise to stay more closely in touch, but the promises went largely unkept. Neglect and guilt began to leave the bitter taste of resentment on those rare occasions when two or three of us unexpectedly found ourselves in the same place. On one occasion, resentment found expression, producing tension that now requires resolution if our relationships can be redeemed from the sad state of neglect into which we–into which I–have let them fall.

[8] Crippled by my life-long drivenness and anxiety about meeting the demands of the various vocations of my life, I have failed miserably in my vocation as friend. Time, distance, busyness and the fluidity or American life conspired to undermine friendships that had kept my soul from being crushed during a turbulent adolescence.

An American Story
[9] There is a word for this story-average. It is an American story. The mobility and individualism of American life moves us to seek fulfillment far from the homes and towns that reared us. We grow to see, learn and do far more than many of us expected was possible, but this comes at the cost of relationships that saved our lives when we were most inexperienced and vulnerable. We learn of the deaths of lost friends, mentors and nurturing neighbors from far off and long after the fact, leaving us to visit cemeteries to say ‘thank you’ to souls that blessed us for the journey.

[10] Little wonder that loneliness becomes our most intimate companion as we go our diverse ways. Narcissism, too, infects our souls, shrinking our field of vision to our careers, families, futures, time, quality of life–all the things closest at hand to which we must attend to get through the week. The banality of the immediate and pressing blinds us to what makes a life. Preoccupied with living, we fail to tend relationships of true mutuality that make and keep us human. Fulfillment of our humanity, after all, is not found in autonomy or mere self-actualization but in the mutuality of sharing minds and hearts, needs and gifts, joys and obligations. Being created in the image of a triune God means at least this.

[11] Fewer Americans find such fulfillment, however. In June 2006, the American Sociological Review published a study that revealed increasing social detachment and isolation. From 1985 to 2004, the number of Americans who say that they have no one with whom they can discuss personal or important issues tripled. During the same period, the average number of confidants Americans said they have dropped from three to two. Frankly, many men I know have a hard time naming one. Even if they can name two or three confidants, these relationships tend to resemble shifting acquaintances, not enduring friendships characterized by frequent conversation, shared interests and affection.

[12] This is hardly new. Harvard University’s Robert Putnam has been chronicling this change since the mid-1960s. He described a long-term trend of civic withdrawal and isolation in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone. Putnam cites a 60% decline in participation in picnics, family suppers, civic meetings and charitable organizations during the period of his observation.

[13] In the present internet age, we are connected with the lives, interests and activities of far more people than ever before. However, these wider ties seem both weaker and shallower, not to mention more easily abandoned. Digital connection allows far greater sharing of communication, but how well does it foster true human communion? It seems unlikely that human mastery of the digital universe will reverse the tide toward social isolation and neglect of sacramental human contact.

The Sacrament of Friendship
[14] The sacramental principle held by Lutherans, Roman Catholics and others holds that finite reality bears infinite wonder; created matter bears uncreated glory. We celebrate the appearance of God’s immeasurable mercy in created matter–water and wine, bread and words of absolution. Surely friendship also participates in the mystery of grace given in earthen vessels. Christian thought has long suggested this.

[15] “God is friendship,” wrote Aelred of Rievaulx, the 12th century Cistercian, paraphrasing 1 John 4:16. “He that abides in friendship abides in God, and God in him.” In the sharing of friend with friend, we participate in the Love whom is God, whether the name of God is invoked or not (Spiritual Friendship, Aelred of Rievaulx, trans. Mary Eugenia Laker, Cistercian Press, 1977, 1.69-70).

[16] Thomas Aquinas further suggests the sacramentality of human friendship in his treatment of the Trinity. Love and friendship exist in the triune life of God, as the members of the blessed Trinity exist in a community of relations of holy friendship and self-giving (Friends of God: Virtues and Gifts in Aquinas, Paul Wadell, Peter Lang, 1991, pg 15ff.). Human friendship reflects the loving, self-giving that exists at the heart of the Triune God. In friendship–and in all relationships of loving mutuality– we participate in the triune life of the God who is Love. These relationships are a means through which the One who is Love is incarnate in and among us to give life to the world.

[17] I have long wanted Lutherans to join centuries of Christian witness about friendship and lay claim to the sacrament of such relationships, attending to the ways they share the grace of the One who is the author of all grace. This would allow greater awareness of the Spirit’s presence and labor of life in all our relationships. Imperfectly and always shot through with sin and selfishness, the Spirit nevertheless poured out the grace of God’s enveloping presence and forgiveness in those adolescent relationships I now seek to recover.

[18] In high school, the prospect of sharing several hours in a car with my old friends was paradise. Our togetherness was an oasis of acceptance and familiarity in a world that provided few places where I felt I belonged. I could show up at their door, and they’d let me in. Their parents would welcome me at the supper table. Later, we’d retire to the backyard or bed room to talk and furtively smoke. Or we’d pile into an old Chevy and cruise the streets, free from the malicious taunts and intent of those who found us strange or unacceptable. We were safe with each other, and we knew it.

[19] Perhaps our impending road trip will allow us to listen to each other again. Maybe we can forgive and accept forgiveness for our neglect of each other. We’ve had to forgive each other many times before. And it is possible that we might stumble back into that safe space that once saved each of our souls from self-rejection and our self-destructive ways.

[20] If this happens, it will be because the Holy Spirit draws us together again by the same means the Spirit first used among us–our own crying need.

Sacramental Vulnerability
[21] We fly to each other on the wings of our needs. (The same is true of intimacy with God.) As in the past, human vulnerability now draws us into the same car with the same concern. Mortality rears its rapacious head and threatens the loss of someone we love, someone upon whom we once were intimately dependent for our own well being, our friend, Todd. We will set aside schedules that for decades have kept us apart-or so we said-from regular communication with each other.

[22] Human vulnerability draws us back to relationships that are–or at least were–sacramental. Through them the Spirit loved and supported us when we were 16, keeping our souls alive, making us more human, more capable of love, joy and redemptive suffering than we would have been without each other.

[23] Neglecting these relationships through the years certainly is a sin against my friends and an offense to God, the giver of all holy, life-giving graces. That offense likely prevented the Loving Mystery from giving me and my friends gifts through each other that would have lifted our burdens and allowed us-or at least me-to escape some of the loneliness and isolation to which I am prone. Fortunately, the Spirit found other ways and friendships to give the graces that are God’s good pleasure to give.

[24] But there remains a great sadness in this common American story. Millions miss fresh helpings of the sacrament of friendship, impoverishing their lives and the lives of those God loves through them. The Spirit labors to nourish, enlighten and sanctify us through all the circumstances and relationships of life. Thus, when we neglect friendship we turn from a sacrament of God’s loving presence. So it goes. As we age, we go our own ways and become proficient at hiding how much and how badly we need each other. This hiding is often mistaken for strength or maturity.

Friendship and Sanctification
[25] Friendship is also a field of the Spirit’s sanctifying presence. Friendship always invites us beyond individualism and narcissism, joining us in connections and commitments through which we participate in the lives of others.

[26] The process is both obvious and complex. Friendships draw us to care about the humanity and fulfillment of another. Once friendships are formed, our friends move us further beyond ourselves into wider fields of connection and concern. They introduce us to people they love and serve and to values and commitments central to their identities. This moves us beyond a narrow field of vision to fresh vocations of care through which the Spirit draws us to transcend ourselves and more fully join God’s labor of loving the world to life.

[27] Friendship is a participation in an ecstasy which lifts us beyond our own concerns so that we begin to dwell in the concerns and needs of others. Just so, friendships guide and correct us, inviting and calling us to mutual sharing of needs and gifts and to mutual accountability.

[28] It is to that long-neglected accountability to which I will soon travel. By means of human vulnerability, the Spirit again draws my old friends and me back to each other to relearn forgiveness and gratitude–and to find healing. Perhaps we can still surrender to this holy purpose. If so, I am sure we will share stories laced with the grace that once I knew in faces of three friends, even as I have always known it in the face of Jesus the Christ.