What are Friends?

I read this story about a 5-minute unexpected conversation that created a relationship between two strangers.  It causes me to ponder what it means to be friends…

There I was all settled into my aisle seat near the back of the plane. Others were still boarding.  A couple who was clearly together caught my eye.  On an impulse, I offered them my seat, so they could travel next to one another.  When I looked around I realized that all that was left was the middle seat right behind me. I climbed in over the man on the aisle, opened my book, plugged my ear-buds into my phone and settled in to read and listen to some favourite music and settled into my flight.

Forty-five minutes later our plane landed in Raleigh.  I wasn’t getting off, but everyone else was.  Up to that point, I had shared no conversation with the woman by the window other than to tap her arm to see if she wanted a soft drink when the flight attendant couldn’t get her to raise her eyes from the magazine which seemed to have her undivided attention. Only as the rest of the passengers shifted in their seats, anxious to get on to various destinations, she looked at me sheepishly as she pulled a grocery bag out from under the seat in front of her.  She offered then that her sister had asked for the kind of hot dog buns which split on the top. She’s turning sixty on Monday and it’s all she wants.  With just a couple of sentences spoken, I picked up on the sharp edge of her New England accent: one shared by family as my dad had roots in Massachusetts.  Before we knew it we were sharing all sorts of details about our lives.  In five minutes time I learned that her mother just turned 80 and lives with her younger sister and her husband.  That her dad had died the year before.  During his last years in a nursing home her mother visited him every day. I heard about her disdain for winter, but their grandchildren are there and they won’t be quick to move away from them.  I learned that she has her great-grandmother’s very extensive shell collection in her home… and that on a first visit last summer, a grand-niece of her husband’s thought her name should be “Shelly” instead of Chris.  And she wasn’t the only one talking.   It was an utterly easy and unexpectedly rich conversation I shared with a stranger that afternoon. And I found I couldn’t help but wonder if given the chance to really get to know one another, if we might just be ‘friends.’

What makes friends, friends?  What are the necessary elements for us to consider another person a friend?  Do we choose friends or does it ‘just happen’?  I suppose there are people we connect with deeply, who seem to be on our wavelength or understand us and we them.  Perhaps it’s things we have in common, like experiences, interests, views and perspectives (ideology) or a purpose and dream.  Friends are diverse, and I find connections in surprising places.  There are people who I have been surprised to encounter and engage in conversation and life experiences, people who are very different from me and come from a very different place, background and place in society.

So, what is friendship really about and why/how do we call people friends?  I’m not sure I know the answers to these mysteries, but I sense that they are important ideas and questions.  Friendship is obviously about relationship and relationship is grounded in trust, respect, love and there are elements of self-giving and even self-sacrifice for friendship.  The elements of loyalty and self-sacrifice, of this unequivocal love is obviously reflected in the animal world – I know especially about dogs, whose love, faithfulness and loyalty is unquestioned.  This week we will celebrate the life of Elizabeth, a member of Ebenezer Church.  She died suddenly over the weekend and I can’t help thinking about her beloved dog, Tex, who went everywhere with her.  He accompanied her to church and everywhere else as an important companion in her life.  He will be grieving as well, as dogs do.

How does friendship grow and develop?  With our dogs, they bond through trust with humans.  They have a deep, deep need to bond and to relate, to trust and to love in return.  Their lives depend upon our goodness to them.  Is it the same with friends?  Do we understand how we depend upon each other, how we need the companionship, the interaction, the sense of belonging with other people?  I recognise that friendship grows as we open ourselves to one another, sharing stories and personal information as we journey deeper into a relationship of trust and openness.  As we share more deeply who we are and feel the acceptance and trust of another we begin to trust and love ourselves more fully.  The path to human maturity lies through being loved and loving, of growing in our awareness of ourselves in relationship with others.  If we never learn or allow ourselves to share who we are we will remain disconnected from others, unable to engage and discover the depth of meaning and life that comes through relationship and love.

This week we read a fascinating passage (John 15:9-17) where Jesus calls his disciples and followers, friends.  They are not servants, creatures or anything else – they are friends of Jesus and therefore of God.  He challenges them to love each other as he has loved them.  Further, he says that no greater love has a person than to lay down their life for their friends.  Like much of John’s story of Jesus, there is a convoluted, circular movement where Jesus speaks about being in the Father and the Father in him and me in you and you in me…  This is the confusing, wondrous mystery of God who is a relationship of love between Creator, Christ and Spirit.  They dance this circle of creative, self-giving love that flows out into all the world so that we are in God and God in us and we are invited to become one with one another, loving each other as God in Christ has loved us.

It is a story of sacrifice and self-giving love that finds joy and wonder in giving to the other.  It is a story that challenges the divisions and barriers that we find are erected between ourselves and others who are different.  I have occasionally watched ‘Australian Story’ or ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and find fascination in hearing a person share something of who they are at a deep enough level for me to be challenged and change my attitude to some of the people who have exposed their lives on this show.   Some of these are people I thought shallow or uninteresting…  Their story reveals a beauty and humanity that connects with elements of my own story such that there is understanding and openness.  Whenever I have looked into the eyes of another person, no matter how different, and listened to their story, I am changed, and something happens between us, a connection and the fragile origins of friendship.

This is the wonder of what we call Incarnation – God revealed in flesh (as one commentator puts it: God moved into our neighbourhood and lived among us).  God comes to us and lives along side us in flesh and blood and calls us friends, trusting, loving, understanding and travelling with us.  In small and large ways we are loved and invited to love in return for this is the deeper reality of being human and finding meaning in life.

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By geoffstevenson

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