What I Learned About Friendship From Jesus
Feb. 10, 2019
Friendship has never been something that has come to me easily. I struggled with what I could say about the subject that would provide a meaningful message. While Clark was talking last week, I jotted down a few of my own experiences that were important to me, but I could not come up with an underlying message to connect them. While I believe in the power of story-telling, talking only about myself seemed too self-focused. I wanted to provide a spiritual foundation for my talk. I began searching the internet for what Jesus had to say about friendship and how friendship played out in his life. A lot of this material was too scholarly, too evangelistic, or too limited. I looked through Rev. Ed Townley’s bible interpretations and other Unity materials and I was still not finding the foundation I was searching for. Finally, I decided to look within to discover my own connections – how I understood Jesus’s actions and statements about friendship and then connect them with my own experiences, hoping that they would make sense to others as well.
So, to begin this talk I am going to take you on a journey of my some of my life experiences with friendship. Then, I will share some of my insights about Jesus and the role of friendship in his life. Finally, I will do my best to make sense of my own experiences based on how I understand the words and actions of Jesus.
I was four years old when I contracted polio. As a result, I spent a lot of my childhood years from the ages of 4-13 in hospitals for surgeries and rehabilitation. Since I lived on a farm in a rural county of upstate New York, these surgeries and rehabilitation took place in a hospital that was about 40 miles from my home. As a result, I was a lonely little girl who saw my family infrequently because of the expense of buying gas to travel that far and the time it took away from my father’s work on the farm. Making friends was even more difficult.
School was not possible during the recovery periods after each surgery; I was tutored at home by a teacher the school paid to assist me. As a result, I became a self-reliant little girl who learned to entertain myself but who never had any childhood friends other than my brother to play with. Times when I was able to attend school, I pretty much kept to myself and focused on my schoolwork. I do not remember other kids reaching out to me. I assumed that they saw me as different because of the braces and crutches I used at the time and my inability to run around and play games like they did. And because we lived in the country, there were no neighborhood children to get to know after school hours. So, I grew up without a sense of how to make friends and, I believe, some fear of reaching out to others.
In high school, I engaged in activities, such as playing in the band and attending basketball games. I was friendly with the students in my school and church, but although my surgeries were over and I was able to attend all four years of high school as well as church youth group, I still had no one I would call a close friend. Most of the students in my school were not academically focused. Only 3 out of the 25 students in my graduating class went on to a 4-year college. The boys went to work on the family farm or in factories, or they joined the military. The girls got married and had babies right after they graduated. Since I spend most of my time studying and making plans for college, we did not have much in common.
In college, I joined a sorority to make friends. It worked to some degree. I certainly had people to socialize with and talk to. Because the sorority house was a farther distance from campus than I could walk, however, I was not able to live in the house, which limited my contact with the women who did live there. There were a few sorority sisters who lived on campus that I became friends with, including my roommate. I also became involved in student government. The students in student government were interested in the things I was interested in, socially aware, and bright. We would stay up late discussing current events on and off campus, sometimes in bars and sometimes in the student government office. It was intellectually stimulating but rarely emotionally satisfying. When I finished college, I kept in touch with a few people for a few years, but no one became a life-long friend.
I met my first long-term friend in graduate school. We both lived in an off-campus residence hall we wanted desperately to get out of. It had none of the amenities of the residence halls we lived in as undergraduates. It was dark, dirty, and uncomfortable. She knew a woman in her major who was also looking to move, so the three of us rented a mobile home for our remaining time in our master’s programs. Jackie was warm, friendly, and intelligent, and I loved her Louisiana accent. We grew close as we dealt with our very selfish and self-absorbed third roommate who never cleaned or did the dishes. After completing our master’s degrees, she went on to law school and I went off to work in student affairs at a small college in northwest Missouri. We wrote, called, and visited each other during the summer. She fell in love during law school and moved to Kansas City with her partner to work in legal aid and, eventually, become a writer of novels and mother of two daughters. I went back to school to get my doctorate and pursue an academic career. Eventually, our communication dwindled to yearly Christmas cards. A year ago, Jim and I took a trip to Kansas City and I realized how much I missed Jackie, who still lived there. We got together for lunch and reconnected after 30 years. It was as if we were still master’s students. Later in the year, she and her partner stopped for lunch with us on their way to Minneapolis to visit one of her daughters. It’s our turn now. And just typing this makes me want to stop and send her an email.
I made my next long-term friend while I was working as a residence hall director at Stephens College. Lucy was a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology at the University of Missouri who was also working at Stephens as a part-time hall director. Based partially on our discussions, I decided to also get my doctorate in Counseling Psychology. We shared a close and deep friendship based on common interests and values for many years. I was devastated when she chose to take her life about 15 years ago and felt so inadequate that I had not seen the pain she was in. I miss her dearly.
While I was in my first year of teaching at Indiana University, I met Donna. She was a new residence hall director. We bonded over how much we hated all the social events we were required to attend and would stand in the corner of the room and talk to each other when we were supposed to be meeting and chatting with everyone else in the room. I loved Donna’s mind and her strong commitment to social justice. I learned so much from her. We remained close friends who shared time and ideas in person and over email for many years until she moved to Washington, DC, met the love of her life, and developed a close group of friends in DC. I was immersed in my faculty life and had met and married Jim. We remained in touch but not nearly as closely as we had. Donna developed ovarian cancer and battled it for many years. In her last year of life, I felt terrible about not being there for her and not being as close to her as I once was. Her partner, Patti, shared a wonderful insight that continues to give me comfort about this experience and others I have had. She told me that people come into our lives at certain times and we play an important role at that time. As life plays out, circumstance may lead us to become less involved in each other’s lives later. But we should never forget the love and caring we had at that special time when we were the closest of friends and always carry it in our hearts. Her words helped me to reframe my thoughts about friendships and to remember that they each remain a part of me in spirit. There are other friends, including my dear husband Jim, whom I could talk about, but we don’t want to be here all day so I will mention just these three who made so much difference in my life and opened me up to other meaningful friends later in my life.
Moving now to the second part of my talk, messages I received about friendship from the words and actions of Jesus. Because of time I will only discuss two of Jesus’s friendships: first, his friendship with Mary Magdalene and second, that with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Jesus first met Mary Magdalene when he rid her of seven demons. Today we might describe her ailment as severe psychological or physical stress, maybe PTSD. Because Jesus had cured Mary Magdalene, she became one of his loyal followers. She was a wealthy woman who used her resources to support Jesus in his ministry. She stood by him, along with his mother, while he was crucified. (Unity interprets the crucifixion as a challenging time in a person’s life.) She later went to the grave in which he was buried to anoint his body with oils and discovered he was not there. Mary Magdalene was the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection and to tell the apostles that he was alive (John 20: 11-18). Because of this experience, she is often thought of as the “Apostle to the Apostles”; the one who brought the message to the others. She is mentioned 12 times in the New Testament; more than any of the other Apostles.
Mary Magdalene’s friendship, as I view it, is based on respect and loyalty. By healing her, Jesus demonstrated to Mary Magdalene both his care and his power. She in turn, respected his abilities and repaid him by following him and sharing her resources with him. Her loyalty to Jesus continued to be displayed when she stood by him at the time of his crucifixion, when he was suffering and most of his other disciples had deserted him. Similarly, Jesus respected Mary Magdalene and demonstrated his loyalty to her by showing himself to her after his resurrection and asking her to tell the others that he lived. As I look back at my relationships, I cannot say that I really developed respect and loyalty to the people with whom I interacted until I met my friend Jackie in graduate school. Certainly, I had great respect for her, and for Lucy and Donna because of their values and intelligence and honesty. I was loyal to them, standing by them during difficult times just as Mary Magdalene stood by Jesus and they, in turn were loyal to me.
Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were other friends of Jesus whom he visited several times, as mentioned in Luke 10: 38-42, and John 11 and 12. They lived in Bethany, which was a long trip by foot from Galilee, where Jesus lived, and an area in which Jesus had been threatened. John 11:5 states that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” When Lazarus was ill, Mary and Martha visited Jesus and asked him to come to their brother. He told them that Lazarus was not going to die and that his illness as “for the glory of God.” After they left, he waited two days before traveling to Bethany to see him. By this time Lazarus had died and had been in his tomb for four days. When Jesus arrived, Martha rebuked him, saying: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:22). But demonstrating her faith, she added, “And even now, I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (John 11:23). When Mary joined Martha and Jesus, she was crying and also rebuked him for not being there to save Lazarus. Jesus was very troubled, and he cried because of the pain they were experiencing. At the request of Jesus, they led him to Lazarus’s grave, had them roll away the stone, and called, “Lazarus, come out” and Lazarus came out of the tomb alive. Jesus then went away to avoid those who were trying to arrest him, but he returned six days before his last Passover to visit Lazarus, Martha, and Mary for one last time. Martha served him a supper while Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him (John 12:2). Mary anointed Jesus’s feet with costly ointment and wiped them with her hair.
The friendship Jesus had with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary revolves around his true caring for them to the point of putting himself in danger to interact with them. Mary and Martha are honest and direct in sharing their displeasure with Jesus because he had not been there to prevent Lazarus from dying and Jesus wept as he experienced their pain. Mary valued his friendship so much that she used expensive ointment to anoint his feet, using her own hair to dry them. This story demonstrates that true friends are those who go out of their way to see, interact honestly with, and help each other. As I consider the three friends I have talked about, this was true. On several occasions Lucy and I went out of our way to visit each other, although we lived over five hours apart. Once she drove 2 ½ hours out of her way to rescue me when my car broke down on my way to see her. Similarly, I met her half way between our homes for a weekend when she really needed a listening ear. Conversations with Donna and Jackie were honest and heartfelt.
As you consider your friendships or relationships that never really became close friendships, I encourage you to think of the qualities that Jesus demonstrated in his friendships and what we can learn from them. Respect, loyalty, meaningful interaction, honesty, and helpfulness are qualities I saw as I considered Jesus’s friendships. This recognition helped me to better understand why I was unsuccessful in making friends, especially early in my life, and what qualities existed in those very special friendships I developed later. May this process of exploration assist you as you consider what friendship is really all about.