LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP

FEBRUARY 14, 1999
R.M. FEWKES

"You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am, I'll come runnin', to see you again. Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you have to do is call, and I'll be there....You've got a friend." (Carole King)

I don't know about you, but I for one am delighted that the impeachment trial is over and that congress can finally get around to working on issues that affect people's lives, such as the question of whether Tinky Winky Telly Tubby is promoting a gay life style. As Jerry Falwell has noted the little fella is purple, has a triangle on his head, and carries a red pocketbook, presumably a dead give away. Parents be warned--protect your children from the heinous influence of Tinky Winky. I fully expect that there will be a congressional hearing on that issue in the near future. In the meantime I am delighted that today is Valentines Day and that I can devote my pulpit reflections to the theme of love and friendship.

The ancient Greeks had a number of different words for love. There was "eros" for erotic love, "agape" for spiritual love, and "philia" for friendship love. Valentines Day is usually associated with the notion of romantic love which implies an erotic element. This morning I would like to consider the meaning of friendship love or philia, which is a love based on reciprocity and affiliation. Love between friends is a love between equals. It is also the basis of a good marriage relationship which includes eros along with philia.

It is possible of course to have erotic love without friendship, which is based mostly on lust, but it is hardly enough to make a good marriage. If your spouse or mate or lover is not also your best friend then there is little hope that such a relationship will last or endure. Of course, to say that friendship love is a love between equals does not mean that there are no differences between friends. Quite to the contrary, sometimes the concourse between friends or lovers can get a bit testy if the relationship is an honest one. Emerson said that the last thing he wanted from a friend was "a mush of concession." Better, he declared, "be a nettle in the side of your friend than his echo. There must be very two before there can be very one."

I like the story about Adam walking around the Garden of Eden feeling very lonely, which some of you may have read in my recent column. God asked Adam, "What is wrong with you?" Adam said he didn't have anyone to talk to. God said he was going to give him a companion and it would be a woman. He said this person will cook for you and wash your clothes, she will always agree with every decision you make. She will bear you children and never ask you to get up in the middle of the night to take care of them. She will not nag you, and will always be the first to admit she was wrong when you've had a disagreement. She will never have a headache, and will freely give you love and compassion whenever needed. Adam asked, "What would a woman like this cost me?" God said, "An arm and a leg." Adam thought for a moment, then said, "What can I get for a just a rib?" The rest is history. Adam got someone with a different point of view and so it is in all human relationships even among the best of friends.

Friendship is a fundamental human need, but we hardly give it much thought except to realize that true, enduring, open and honest, loving friendships are a rare and precious gift. For most of us deep and sustaining friendships are few and treasured and the capacity for them limited. It is just not possible to have or be that kind of friend but to a small circle of persons. But it is from that small circle that we are enabled to extend ourselves and our human sympathies to a larger though less intimate circle of genuine friends and acquaintances whom we truly enjoy seeing from time to time--in church, on the street, in the post office, at a town meeting, on the job--and beyond such as these is that much larger impersonal circle of the whole human family with whom we identify in thought and imagination, but can never know in reality.

In one sense it could be said that the Christian church was founded upon the principle of friendship-love as embodied in the way that Jesus had come to care for his disciples, not as servants and slavish followers, but as friends. He had shared his most intimate thoughts and prayers and beliefs with his disciples and was willing to lay down his life on their behalf if need be. In the reading from the Gospel of John he charges them to love one another as he had loved them. Thereafter, the mark of those who would be his future followers would be the expression of that love in the community of the church and among the needy in society and the world. The Quakers, who call themselves Friends, made that kind of love the very basis of their religious fellowship and the modus vivendi of their thought and action.

Jesus was not the first to define spiritual friendship as the basis of religious community. Gautama the Buddha listed the marks of a true friend as one who "guards you when you are off your guard and does not forsake you in trouble; who even lays down his life for your sake; who restrains you from doing wrong; who enjoins you to do right; and who reveals to you the way of heaven." He enjoined his disciples to be that kind of friend to one another as he had been to them, sharing with an open hand everything he had learned with whomever would accept it.

"What a friend we have in Jesus...", the words from the old Gospel hymn, are not meant to be merely a mystical affirmation of an inward relationship to Christ in prayer, but more importantly, I think, an imperative to friendship-love in human community as modeled in Jesus' intimate relationship to his disciples and in his healing ministry to those in need. What a friend we have in those whose very selves are centered in a Christ-like mind, a Buddha-like compassion, a spiritual reservoir of magnanimity, kindness, respect and understanding. "I can get by with a little help from my friends", sang the Beatles in their well known song. The church as a spiritual community of friends challenges us not only to "get by" but to "get with it", to learn to be a friend even to those we might not normally befriend in day to day social intercourse.

Seen from this perspective we can say that true friendship has a spiritual basis, it is a gift from God as Emerson implied, and is rooted in the Ground of Being itself. It is noteworthy that Moses was portrayed in the Torah as having a special relationship to God that was more intimate than any prophet had ever had before. It was said that "the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend." This was quite a new concept to put forth in a time when God was thought to be more feared than loved or revered. I am reminded of the words of American philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, who said that the concept of God is one that evolves from God the enemy, to God the stranger, to God the friend. Put in a more naturalistic context we could say that human beings have the capacity to befriend the universe, to have a sense of reverence, caring and respect for the source of life itself, and to feel that one is befriended by life in return.

In the New Testament the Gospel writers sought to portray Jesus as one step closer to God than Moses. He was not only God's servant and friend, but God's only begotten Son. Moses was a friend, but Jesus was family! Centuries later Universalists outdid Jesus by saying that we're all family, all of us, the whole human race, are sons and daughters of God. There's a spark of the divine in every human soul. We all have it within us to be friends of God, and more than friends, to become sons and daughters of the Most High which inwardly we already are. The difference between a Jesus and a Moses or a Mother Teresa and the rest of us is not a difference of kind, but of degree, the degree of realization of our human connection to ultimate reality and to one another.

You can translate this into theistic or humanistic language, or both. What is important to realize is that human friendship does indeed have a spiritual basis in reality and we often find our friends in the context of a value forming religious community. I don't know about you, but some of the best friendships I have formed through the years have come through my association with the Unitarian Universalist religious community. Of course the fact that I am a UU minister and religious professional would tend to bring this about, but I suspect that many of you have found meaningful and enduring friendships through the fellowship of this church. By no means do I mean to imply that we should only have friends who are UUs, far from it, but to say that the spiritual values we share of Reason, Freedom, Tolerance, respect for persons, reverence for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part, are impetus to the kinds of friendships we form both inside and outside the church.

Emerson tells us that "the only way to have a friend is to be one." And to be one is not all a matter of sweetness and light. Friendship is sometimes put to the test of conflict of opinion and the risk of anger and severance of relationship as in marriage ending in divorce. Martin Marty, writing in the Christian Century, notes:

"People who have friends take on another set of problems. They have egos that collide with other egos, wills that clash with other wills. Their drives will not always match the desires of others within their circles of friendship....One partner may make unreasonable demands on the other, or spend too much time chewing an ear and expecting counsel. We do friendship a disservice if we overlook these problems."

Jesus once told a story of the importunate friend who made unreasonable demands to borrow three loaves of bread late at night from a friend whose family was all asleep and was himself disturbed from sleep. He began to refuse the request out of anger and frustration, but finally to be rid of the unwanted intrusion into his peace of mind and body he gives him what he asks. Sometimes friendship is like that. We give begrudgingly out of a sense of obligation. We feel put upon, but if we can't impose upon our friends who on earth can we impose upon? But for the sake of that friendship we should not do so except out of necessity. Even friendship has its boundaries of job and family and resources and the needs of privacy which we should not impinge upon thoughtlessly or needlessly, but if we ourselves draw those boundaries in such a way as never to allow sacrifice or inconvenience on a friends behalf, then we should not be surprised if our friends are few. Friendship, says Martin Mary, "is a strenuous form of human activity." It is, we might say, both boon and burden.

One of the burdens of friendship is that it is sometimes laced with the green of envy. We may find it hard to fully rejoice in the good fortune of our friends if that good fortune makes feel inadequate or inferior in comparison. It may be a bit of a reach for us to rejoice in the job promotion of a friend when we ourselves have just been downsized and unemployed. Gore Vidal confessed to this sin when he wrote, "Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little." Or as Emerson put it, "I hear what you say of the admirable parts and tried temper of the party you praise, but I see that, for all his purple cloaks, I shall not like him, unless he is at least a poor Greek like me."

Not all friendships can endure through the years, but the capacity to be and become a friend can grow and mature throughout our lives. Aristotle says, "We need friends when we are young to keep us from error, when we get old to tend upon us and to carry out those plans which we have not strength to execute ourselves, and in the prime of life to help us in noble deeds, for thus we are more efficient in thought and action." The need for friendship is perennial in all seasons of the human venture.

Some friendships, very few, last a lifetime, others come and go, pass through our lives for a spell, then fade away. Think of all the friends who have touched our lives over the years, who walked with us for awhile, then moved on, went their separate ways, and whom we will likely never see again. Still they are a part of who we are, and we of them. Martin Marty says, "The mind is not able to register nor the heart capable of storing all the positive contacts we have had through the years. We have to sort, to eliminate, to let go and let drop....Letting friendships fade and die may be part of a natural passage or (even) a call of God."

Still, I think, we carry within us the images of all those who have been formative of our personal identity. Even if we never see some of them again they remain imprinted within the soul, a symbol of our larger emerging selfhood. I find that some of the friends of my youth pop up in my night dreams from time to time, reminding me as Emerson noted, "A friend is Janus-faced; he looks to the past and the future. He is the child of all my foregoing hours, the prophet of those to come, and the harbinger of a greater friend." I am constantly discovering the images of old friends in new friendships formed, finding the universal in the particular, the particular in the universal. Friends and loved ones move in and out of our lives, but the capacity to love and to form friendships ever remains.

The center of that capacity to love is deep within us. If we could touch that center we would befriend our essential selves and touch the eternal spark of life that animates all living beings. Jesus of Nazareth, I believe, touched that center of being, as have many other prophets of the holy before and since. That spark of life is a community forming power that calls us into human relationships of love and justice. It speaks through us and within us and its message is simple and clear: "You've got a friend. And the only way to have a friend is to be one." Help us, O Spirit of Life and Love, to befriend our essential selves and the same in others, and in all things to befriend you who are the source of life and love within us. Amen.