The friendship was high risk. Jon had everything he could ever want at his finger tips. He was the son of the wealthiest and most powerful person around. His life was set. The only potential problem was his best friend Dave. Dave was an amazing young leader. At first, Jon’s dad had treated him like a part of the family and even invited Dave to come live with them. But, as the Dave gifts and skills became more apparent, and as he become more and more popular, the more Jon’s dad reacted. His outbursts became more and more irrational, even violent. He hated that Jon continued to treat Dave as his best friend. Jon’s dad was once the one everyone talked about. He was the one that pulled a bunch of rag tag people together and built a company that was the envy of all around him. Dave put everything he had built in jeopardy, so Dave had to go - and had to go now! The problem is that Jon stubbornly refused to give up on his friendship; he would not turn his back on his friend. Jon’s dad seethed because he knew that if things continued to progress Dave could claim the corporate leadership role that has always been intended for Jon. But, Jon, in his heart of hearts, knew that Dave was the better leader and was the one God had chosen for the task. So, even though it could – and would – cost Jon everything, he remained committed to his friend.
Does the story sound familiar? It’s one our children looked at in Sunday school this morning. It is the great story of friendship you encounter in I Samuel chapters 19 and 20. As story simple enough to speak to children can also speak to those worn by life’s years. Jonathan and David’s story paints the picture of a friendship that was deep and abiding, where both valued the other so highly that they were even willing to risk their lives for one another.
What price would you be willing to pay for a great friendship – a life giving friendship – for a real friend that trusts and values you? My Facebook account tells me that I am now approaching 1000 “friends.” But let’s visit reality; most of them are not truly friends. Most are acquaintances or people that passed through my life in an earlier era. Some are other pastors that share our heart for the world. But, really, how many are really friends? How many are deeply invested in my life and welcome me to deeply invest in theirs? How many truly care about me? How many pray for me? How many share life with me?
One of our deepest needs is for community – to connect, to related, to belong. We are intended to be in relationship with God and one another, but somehow it seems that we continue to struggle. I think there is a cultural value that pushes us one direction while our heart pushes another. Let me try something with you. I would like to take a quick poll. Here’s the question? Would you prefer to be seen as independent or dependent? If you would prefer to be seen as independent please raise your hand. If you would prefer to be seen as dependent would you please raise your hand?
(Predictably, the majority will vote of independence.) I am sure the results of our little poll do not surprise you. Our culture teaches and values independence. Our cultural story is filled with images that re-enforce this value. From Spiderman to Batman, from the Green Hornet to a character in a John Wayne western we see played out the picture of one against the world – and in our culture, the one wins. We love those strong independent heroes. Our language also re-enforces an independent spirit. We are told to “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps” and people proudly boast that we are a self-made man or woman. Our culture celebrates rugged individualism. The problem is not independence. The problem is that our tendency is to embrace an unhealthy independence. It tells us that it is our story – our career – our house – our way. This unhealthy independence can give way to selfishness, self-centeredness, and a growing sense of isolation.
In a time when we have never had more ways to connect with one another, our reality is that more and more of us are struggling with isolation. Lynn Smith-Lovin, a sociology professor at Duke University, and one of the key researchers involved in conducting this in-depth, comprehensive study, says the findings indicate that one fourth of Americans reported feeling that they have nobody with whom they can discuss their innermost thoughts, worries and woes."[i] Recently a non-profit in Vancouver, Canada did a community survey that caught them of guard. The Vancouver Foundation set out to determine what issues people in the community felt it should be focusing on. The non-profit distributes tens of millions of dollars annually to needy groups across British Columbia. Foundation CEO Faye Wightman expected the survey of community leaders and various stakeholders would produce a predictable list of issues such as poverty, homelessness and affordable housing. While they were certainly matters that people were concerned about, Ms. Wightman and her colleagues were shocked that the top issue on the minds of the majority of those being interviewed was not one that had been in the headlines: the growing sense of isolation in Metro Vancouver. [ii] We are not created to live in isolation. The harder we try to make it on our own the more we experience the pain of isolation. We find ourselves struggling in seasons of grief and find anger and agony rather than healing. When we face life crisis, alone we feel its full weight and find ourselves spiraling out of control. We want to be as independent as possible, all the time trying to make it work alone, only to discover again and again that a weight carried alone is almost unbearable.
The reality is that we need each other. In fact, how we love each other – engage with one another – connect with one another – support one another is a direct reflection of our faith in Christ. In John 13 we hear Jesus proclaim; 34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The apostle John describes what that looks like: 16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth….23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them.
This is a radically different picture than our rugged individualism and unhealthy independence embraced by our culture. The Scriptural call is to a loving self-sacrificing generous way of life together. We not only need each other, we are called to model the very love of Christ in our relationships with one another. It is easy to call someone “friend” but to keep them at arm’s length. It is easy to say that you care for someone but keep the relationship shallow enough where it demands a little as possible from you. It is something very different to love one another – to pour ourselves into each other – to be sacrificial for one another – the way that Christ models for us.
The apostle Paul adds his voice to our conversation with words in Galatians 5. He proclaims; 13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. 16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. Paul wants us to understand that the purpose of our friendships – of our love for one another- is not so that we can exploit each other but rather to serve one another humbly. Paul has seen it over and over again, and so have we. We are weary of people that use and abuse those they call friends. They exploit their friendships for what they can get out of the people around them. It is a one sided relationship that is counter that everything Scripture has to say about what an authentic friendship found in faith should look like. We are meant for more.
In the passage, Paul still goes further, echoing Jesus, that to love each other and our neighbors with the same kind of love we desire from others. We are called out of our unhealthy independence to an intentional interdependence rooted in the love of Christ. We are invited into intertwined lives of love born in the heart of God. We are compelled to reach out of our isolation and engage with one another. We long for a sense of belonging – a sense of community, but the first step is to make room our in lives for others. Instead of just looking for community we need to take the lead and embrace others to help create a safe and sacred space where love can flourish and an authentic sense of community can thrive. These kinds of relationships become holy because Jesus in the middle of them. In the mid 12th Century the grand old Abbot of the Rievuaulx Abby in Central England wrote a significant piece entitled Spiritual Friendship. He described an authentic Christian friendship this way; “the friend clinging to a friend in the spirit of Christ becomes one heart and one soul with him.”[iii] The reason that Jonathan and David were willing to risk their lives for the sake of their friendship is that they had become one heart and one soul with one another. We desperately need to fill our lives with friendships like these founded in faith. We desperately need to be this kind of friend.
Are you tired of feeling alone while surrounded by a crowd of people? Are you weary of coming to church broken and broken hearted and wondering if anyone knows or if anyone really cares? In your search for significance, are you ready to claim significant relationships rooted in the love of Christ? Are you ready invest in others and allow them to invest in you? It’s time to let go of our embrace of rugged individualism and our unhealthy spirit of independence – that “I can do it myself” worldview and open our hearts and lives to others. We need them. They need us. We need each other. Our world needs to see what real love looks like. If we can create this kind of culture our city will beat down the doors to get in and we will rush here every Sunday – ready to be loved – ready to love. This is what God has intended for us all along.
[ii] http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/alone-so-alone-in-vancouver/article4201039/ Last updated Monday, Sep. 10 2012, 10:46 AM EDT
[iii] Aelred of Rievuaulx, Spiritual Friendship. Trans. Lawrence C. Braceland. (Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN, 2010), p. 75.