Tuesday, July 20, 2010

MRS GREN : On Friendship

Recently, I have been reflecting on friendship. Regardless of whether you are a social extrovert, who recharges in the company of many others, or a social introvert, who recharges on your own or with one or two others, everyone needs a few close friends – even Jesus had three close friends among his wider group of disciples.

There are seven properties that are true of every living organism: movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion, and nutrition. These physical properties have spiritual parallels, which I have written about here. However, it strikes me afresh that they have particular outworking in the context of friendship, for what it means to be a good friend. That is what I want to consider here (it will help to have read the earlier post on MRS GREN first, for context).

Friendship comes in a variety of expressions, or seasons – and all the more so in a highly mobile society. I have friends that I get to see on a (more-or-less) weekly basis in my immediate context; friends further afield who Jo and I make the effort of travelling to spend an evening with once a month (because, for the kind of reasons I am exploring here, it is worth it); and friends who I no longer get to see on a regular basis, because we live in different countries, but whom I keep in touch with (love facebook). Each has had its season – whether short or long, recent or in the ever-growing past – of regular face-to-face contact.

To attempt to maintain all my friendships at the same level would be unsustainable. And some are for a particular time, and others are for life. But not only do my friends move: my friendships move me. That is, my perspective on the world, on life, on God, on the church, on society – on anything and everything – changes, and it changes more than anything else through the relationships that God has brought into my life, at various points. Good friendships help me to follow after God more closely – to be, and be known as, God’s friend. Stagnant or unhealthy friendships don’t help me grow. And it is not that I can only be friends with those who share my own views on God: my views have been challenged and enriched, my perspective has moved, through the friendships of those who do not share my views – whether atheists or agnostics, Christians of very different persuasions, or (though I lack this among my friends at the present moment) those of other faiths.

How has your perspective changed as a result of a friendship over the past twelve months? Can you identify friends-for-now, and friends-for-life? If so, give thanks for both (we need both); if not, ask God to provide what you lack.

Physically, respiration is to do with the process of carrying oxygen – the fuel of life – to every cell in the body. Spiritually, the discipline of prayer is the means by which the Holy Spirit enlivens us. In the context of friendship, we ought to ask: does this relationship speak life to me? or, do I speak life to my friend? When I have spent time in this person’s company, do I feel more alive, or, do they feel more alive? The reality is that, as we all face struggles in life, there will be times when we are giving out more than we are receiving and times when we are receiving more than we are giving out – and that is okay. But if as we reflect on a friendship we realise that it is a relationship that speaks death to us rather than life – a friend that encourages us in life-destroying thoughts, words, or actions – then that is a good indication that it is not a healthy relationship for us to continue to invest in.

When did you last pray for your friends? What might you use as a prompt to prayer? (Facebook statuses make good prompts.)

Living organisms need to be sensitive to the stimuli in their environment – light, water, the presence of other organisms (possible predators, or prey), pollution...Spiritually, we are called to be aware of certain changes in our environment: to identify and interpret the clues as to what God is up to as his Spirit brings life out of death and order out of chaos; and as to what the thief is up to as he comes to steal and kill and destroy (John 10). In the context of friendship, we need to be sensitive to the ways in which Jesus is bringing life in its fullness, and the presence of the thief. We are called to listen to God for our friend’s future, and to speak into their life prophetically, calling what is declared of them in heaven to birth in the present. This is to see their full potential – and not just from a worldly perspective (“you can be anything you put your mind to” – as opposed to “you will never achieve anything”) but from a heavenly perspective (“I think God might be calling you to be [this kind of person] and I’m telling you so that you can weigh that, ask God to confirm it if it is right”). It is also to see those things that stand in the way of them fulfilling that potential – clues include recurring patterns that run down family histories – and to speak prophetically into those situations, too, that God might redeem curses and release blessings.

What do you hear God saying about your friends? Are you willing to speak into their lives, and stand with them in the fight for their identity?

Growth does not occur by attending to growth, but through indirect effort: where the other indicators of life are healthy, healthy growth is a consequence. Likewise, we should not necessarily be seeking to grow through our friendships – this is to see friendship as a means to an end, to risk using people – but a healthy friendship ought to result in our growth.

God has an intention for who he has created us to be, as a unique person and in the context of our relationships. And it is in the context of our relationships that we discover our identity, and grow into it. Our closest friends are those who know us most fully, and who will encourage and challenge us to keep on becoming the person we are called to be. On the other hand, an unhealthy friendship will flatter our ego, encouraging us to stay just the way we are now, ‘warts and all’ – ‘keeping it real’ rather than putting to death what is unhelpful and nurturing what is good.

In what ways have you grown into your identity in the past twelve months, and who has stood alongside you and supported you in that process?

Living organisms have the capacity to reproduce, albeit in a variety of different ways, and albeit that this capacity is not fulfilled in every organism. In the context of friendship, the principle of reproduction reveals to us that friendship is not intended to be self-serving, but rather friendship enables us to invest ourselves into the lives of others. A healthy friendship is not defensive and inward-looking – like two mirrors placed opposite each other, referencing themselves into infinity – but is secure enough to be open to others.

Many plants reproduce by cross-fertilisation. Likewise, one way in which our friendships can be reproductive is by bringing different friends together, to see what might come of it (this is the basis of social networking). But this requires of us that we overcome the fear that our friends will get on better with each other than they do with us, and we will be left friendless...

Are your friendships overly-exclusive? Who are you introducing to whom?

Physically, the processes of life have the by-product of creating toxins, which need to be dealt with; otherwise, in time, they compromise and even endanger life. Spiritually, toxins build up within us – toxins such as resentment, anger, disappointment, gossip, pride, lust – and these, too, need to be dealt with. The spiritual process of excretion is confession and extending/receiving forgiveness. In the context of friendship, I have known so many friendships where toxins have been left unaddressed until they have built up to such an extent that the friendship withers and dies, or explodes spectacularly – often with an impact on surrounding relationships. Our society tells us that it is better to tell everyone else how hurt we have been, how wronged we are, than to deal with the matter at its root. But Jesus tells us to sort out such matters quickly, face-to-face; bringing in a mediator if this fails to resolve the problem.

A healthy friendship is marked by the regular practice of extending and receiving forgiveness, for the hurts that are unavoidable by-products of life. Unhealthy friendships may be marked by a lack of this practice (constipation) or by an excessive compulsion to seek forgiveness (diarrhoea), which indicates insecurity.

Do you regularly extend and receive forgiveness in your friendships?

Living organisms require nutrition, and face problems through under-nutrition (not enough food), mal-nutrition (the wrong sort, or balance, of food), or over-nutrition (too much food). Mature organisms also learn to feed themselves, whereas infants are dependent on others to feed them. Spiritually speaking, we must learn to feed on God’s word, which comes to us in various forms including the Bible, testimony, and prophecy.

In the context of friendship, a loving friend will not stand by and collude with eating disorders. However hard, however costly, to love someone is to fight with them – in the face of the messages society bombards us with – against anorexia or obesity. This is as true on a spiritual level as it is on a physical level: as friends we need to support one another to ‘eat’ healthily. And that includes sharing with one another where we discover good food, or the means to prepare good food for ourselves (much of what I post on my blog is to do with teaching people principles by which to prepare and digest good food, spiritually speaking).

What does your spiritual diet look like? Are you sharing good things you have discovered with your friends? What have they shared with you?

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