Saturday, March 5, 2011

Deep and Abiding Friendship

I was listening the other day to another pirate radio station, Ancient Christian Radio, and the person interviewed was Kallistos Ware, the once Anglican and now Orthodox Bishop.  He has an intriguing voice that is at once strange and familiar and he speaks with a deliberate slowness that is almost a forgotten reality in our fast paced world.  It was a very interesting exchange.  Amid the many topics covered, he was asked about same sex marriage and homosexuality in general.  His answers were both refreshing and yet courageous.

On the subject of same sex marriage, he nuanced his discussion with a view to the benefits of discouraging promiscuity (gay or straight) and that certainly there was a difference in kind between gay relationships that are exclusively sexual in nature and promiscuous and those that are more than sex and monogamous.  Nonetheless, he relayed how he has counseled such couples to refrain from the sexual component of their relationship and to live together in a deep and abiding friendship.  He admitted that this was the place where laughter usually ensued but not always.  He then spoke eloquently of the nature of friendship and of both the lack of deep and abiding friendships today and the crying need of such friendships and the loneliness expressed by so many.

Building upon his remarks, I have long expressed a lack of such deep and abiding friendships in my own personal life.  Both my wife and I admitted that our parents have had longstanding and the closest of friendships that have lasted pretty much a lifetime.  Something we have not known -- perhaps in part to the more mobile nature of our homesteads and in part to the different circumstances created by my vocation as Pastor.  It is not that we do not have friends.  We do.  It is that such friendships have tended to come and go and few of them have endured the passage of time or the distance of geography.

Where I spent the first nearly 14 years of my ministry (Long Island and then Upstate New York) we found a wonderful friendship and collegiality among the Pastors of our circuits and with other Lutheran Pastors.  We found this friendship even with people we did not share a great commonality of opinion or theological perspective.  It was both the foundation of our new life together as husband and wife and as a couple hundreds and hundreds of miles away from families and friends of our youth.  Even to this day, we retain a closeness with these folks (those still living) and though we are seldom together in the same place, our hearts remain ever so close, that the passage of time between our reunions is hardly felt in the bonds of our affection.  We simply pick up where we left off.

I often wonder why the social networking media is such a hit and why young people in particular seem to be so uninhibited with their secrets, fears, confessions, sins, and feelings on that media.  it occurs to me that perhaps the social networking media is the means of youth expressing their crying need for the deep and abiding friendships that they both desire and yet seldom know in the same way as folks of a previous generation.  Consider the difference between the long, personal correspondence of figures great and anonymous and how letter writing has yet to be replaced with any other medium.  Emails, facebook posts, and tweets are certainly quicker and more accessible than the forms of personal communication of the past but not necessarily as effective or fruitful in establishing, nurturing, and enjoying the intimacy of friendship.

Of course the interviewer brought up the witness of Scripture on homosexuality and there again it seemed that Bishop Ware had his hand upon it.  We seem ill equipped to accept the kind of deep and abiding friendship between David and Jonathan or Jesus and John that is intimate in every way but not sexual.  So suspicious are we of these Biblical texts, that we presume upon them our own views and thus deprive them of their significance and eloquence.  I believe that such friendships, or rather the lack of them, has hindered and even further marred our humanity.  We were created for community and communion -- both with God and with each other.  But our youth seem to wrestle with the burden of a loneliness that longs to be filled and yet they both fear expressing such friendship will be misunderstood or it will be rejected.

For all that have to bring us closer together, we continue to struggle with the kind of friendship that seems to have marked other generations or other places -- one that is richly reflected in Biblical theme and example.  Ware suggests that this is related to the issues of sexuality and gender before us today.  I think he is right.  Even within the congregation I have seen people come and go, in search of these friendships, and not finding them, fade from the assembly.  While it is easy to say that the community of God's people should foster and build such deep and abiding friendships, it is another thing all together to help people put them into practice.  This is ever more true in a place like Clarksville, Tennessee, where military and industry combine to make this a stopover and not a destination for many on the journey of their lives.

Perhaps this might also teach young men and women better how to choose a spouse and how to build a relationship before immediately introducing a sexual or erotic component into their relationship.  Here the TV and movies do not help us.  They often compress the more adult stages of a relationship into a few moments on the screen and so our children are often confused by what they see.  In a matter of a few minutes of lines and acting, people jump into the sack as if their relationship were fully formed and defined.  Now maybe this does happen but more likely it is not as quick or abrupt as happens on the tube or in the movies.  What we see is more often the beginning and the end, and not the longer stage in the middle in which friendship gives way to love and love gives way to commitment and commitment becomes public and accountable.

I watched the wonderful movie, The King's Speech, and one of the most heartwarming parts of that amazing story is the friendship that developed between two very unlikely fellows, in radically different stations in life, and especially with one whose life was shaped against such intimacy and not for it.  I will not disclose any details of the film but I think it ties to the discussion.

Clearly we need to help our children, especially boys, learn how to build and maintain the kind of deep and abiding friendships that help us become more fully the people that we were designed by our Creator to be.  Perhaps much of that which is energized by sexuality could be more positively directed in terms of such friendships, whose bonds of affection cover nearly every aspect of life but sex and eroticism.  Scripture speaks of this in such positive terms and we have all learned much in a discussion of loves that the Bible describes, of which phileo finds expression in friendship.

Just some rambling thoughts on a Friday afternoon at the movies...


William Weedon said...

What a profound and beautiful post. Thank you, Fr. Peters.

Anonymous said...

"I often wonder why the social networking media is such a hit and why young people in particular seem to be so uninhibited with their secrets, fears, confessions, sins, and feelings on that media."

I doubt the proportion of uninhibited young people has increased. Rather those who have such a disposition now have the means to be so much more visible. Social media enable that personality to project far and wide.

Anonymous said...

The social fabric of a parish is only
as strong as its interpersonal
relationships. A parish with plenty
of back door losses is a signal that
new families are not making any
meaningful friendships. Suburban
parishes in mobile communities need
to work hard at integrating newcomers
into meaningful fellowship groups.

Our parish has about 8 different
fellowship groups of married couples who meet in member's homes
on Sunday evenings once a month.
They have a Bible study and
desserts from 7 to 9 pm. It is an
excellent way to welcome people
into the parish.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful indeed. Moved me to tears.

Mark said...

Well said. Thank you.

Coming from a liberal mainline denomination beset by gender issues, I can testify to how much more difficult developing close friendships has become because, it is assumed, any deep and abiding friendship must (the assumption is) be sexualized.

This only leads to increased isolation and fewer friendships.

One question since I didn't see a link in your post: is the interview the archived podcast titled, "Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on Gender Issues in the Church?"

Pastor Jim Wagner said...

I too listened to Bishop Kalistos, and was touched by the wisdom of his response. It is unfortunate that the church, both conservative and liberal, has failed to develop a theology of friendship that might have given us a better response to our homosexual brothers and sisters.

I have often wondered how many heterosexual couples live together without genital sex, either because one partner is unable or unwilling to participate. My suspician is that the number is higher than most of us realize. Yet many of these folks remain faithful partners and often good friends.

I still have many friends from high school, although that is now more that 45 years past. A group of about 20 of us still seem quite close, although separated by many miles and often years at a time.

On another level, as one who is nearing retirement, where do I go? I have served this parish for nearly 25 years -- longer than I have lived in any other place, including the home of my parents. Most of my friends are in this (very small) community -- both within and without the congregation. Where is a long-tenured pastor to retire?