In today’s Morning Prayer, the commemoration is about a guy who wrote a book arguing that it’s okay for Christians to have particular friendships — to prefer one person over another, to allow and pursue natural affections and affinities.
I think we have to make allowance for our natural affections and particular friendships. Even more — I think we can encourage, foster, protect, invest in, value them.
What’s trickier is to understand our obligation to those we do not feel any affinity for. We are to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” and to “do unto others as we would have others do unto us.” At times I have feared that this combination means I have to make myself available as the intimate friend of anyone who wants me to be. I don’t fall into that trap quite as much anymore. But I still wonder at times what exactly it means to love my neighbor, and, if I were in her shoes, how I would want her to treat me.
One thing is that I don’t think it’s possible or good or obligatory to do charity / pity / project “friendship,” where we try to be friends with someone we don’t really like very much. We are called to be kind to that person, yes — to serve and bless them, yes — to see them as the bearer of the image of God and precious to him, yes. To be their friend? No — that’s not what friendship is. Friendship, at least the way it seems to be defined these days, implies some degree of natural affection. And I don’t think anyone really wants pity “friendship” — they know it’s not real, or if they don’t know it’s not, they would be mortified and hurt to find out. People want to be loved precisely for their particular selves, and not as yet one more identical object of agape. (I don’t think I quite get agape, eh? It seems… impersonal.)
Sometimes I am leery about people who seem to be kind to everyone equally. What if I mistake their neighborly kindness for affection and friendship? I have made that mistake before, and continued pursuing people who, in hindsight, seem to have tried to give me the message that friendship with me is not really what they were offering or interested in. I think maybe I’ve made the opposite mistake, too, and stopped pursuing people who really were interested in friendship with me but honestly didn’t have much time available or weren’t good at reaching out to plan things or whatever. (There’s also varying levels of friendship, although sometimes I think it would be helpful to have different words for them; perhaps some friendships really are just about being pleased to run into one another occasionally, while others flourish more on regular and deliberate connection.)
Such mistakes have also made me sometimes leery about how I go about being kind to others — how do I show kindness to someone I do not want to be friends with? When or if someone mistakes my momentary kindness for an offer of friendship, how do I most gently and respectfully disillusion them? Or how do friends navigate it when one of them wants more than the other one? Etiquette, or at least common practice, seems to call for distancing, making excuses, being less available — which seems polite but ambiguous. (Sometimes I wish people were able to just say to one another, “I don’t want to be friends” or “Once a week / month / year is enough” or something along those lines.)
Jesus had some particular friends while on earth… I am glad I did not live at that time and place, for fear that I would have been one of those who followed but never got close, or perhaps was blessed enough to have one amazing encounter but no more, or who may have been told not to follow but to go back to my own place.
In today’s Evening Prayer, the psalm is 104, which praises God for many aspects of nature, from water to plants to animals. And near the end are two verses (32 and 34) that I remember singing as a round in InterVarsity — the setting is, I think, by Nori Kelley:
Let the glory of the Lord endure forever
Let the Lord be glad in his works
I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live
I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.
I love these simple songs with simple but meaty words — singing words like this can have a centering, grounding, perspective-giving effect.