This summer has given me pause to reflect on friendship.
Memories of friends were stirred because I had two 50-year high school reunions to attend. Of course, I had my Class of 1973 gathering here in Alpena in July, which assembled several hundred of the 600-plus Alpena High School classmates who “processed” with their mortar boards in a solemn ceremony packed in a sweltering gymnasium many years ago.
“We’re the best there’ll ever be, we’re the class of ’73,” we used to chant. Yes. It was a surreal experience being united with people who shared that sentiment. I’ve gotta admit, some of us were gazing long and hard to recognize our “friends.” They looked so old.
Earlier in the summer, I attended a similar gathering at a rustic pheasant hunting camp in South Dakota. Before my family moved to Alpena in 1970, we lived in a tiny town (Emery) on the rural prairie for five years. I have remained in close contact with many of those friends for decades.
Gathered in that hunting camp, of the 31 classmates who shared every single course together and played every sport together as well as participated in every other possible activity together (because, if everyone isn’t involved, the program falls apart), 26 showed up. Not a bad turnout, given that three of our classmates had died in the intervening years. There, I knew everybody and could call out names without struggle.
Both gatherings were wonderful experiences, but the relationships were very different and I’ve thought a lot about the qualities of those friendships.
If you’ll permit me, I’d like to explore some of the spiritual dynamics and the shaping of the relationship we call “friend.”
Some of my friendships existed in high school because we found a “complement” in the other. They were good at things we were not good at. We filled in strengths that they didn’t have. Together, we were more productive and more complete. It’s the concept of yin and yang.
Some friendships, like Moses and Aaron in the book of Exodus, were yoked because of strength and weakness. Moses needed Aaron to do what God called him to do.
Some friends are formed out of our need for each other to do and be things we are not. I have had many such friends in life. It has been a relief to make a friend who was good at something in which I had no competency.
Some friendships are formed for survival.
I recall 10th-grade gym class. There was another awkward 15-year-old boy (let’s call him Jim) in my lifetime sports physical education experience who was a lifesaver for me, and I believe the feelings were reciprocal. We absolutely clung to each other as we were put through the paces, whether it was square dancing or some game that felt a lot like torture or the dreaded locker room shower gauntlet. Jim and I were friends in order that we might survive.
I put Ruth and Naomi in that category from scripture. They really needed each other, perhaps Naomi more than Ruth.
“Where you go, I go, and where you stay, I stay (Ruth 1:16).”
I am grateful for all the friends who helped me survive during adversity.
Some friends are of the chemical sort. You can’t explain it, but you are drawn to them. Friendships like that don’t take long to figure out. Those are the friends whom we “love.” We might refer to them as “soulmates.”
When I look to the Bible for that sort of friendship, I come quickly to David and Jonathan. Within their friendship, there was loyalty and sacrifice in the face of opposition and threat. There was transparency and vulnerability (remember that Jonathan laid down and gifted to David his royal robe, his armor and sword, as well as prized possession of bow and arrow).
For those rare friends, we sacrifice. And a very few friends like that are shaped by what scripture calls “covenant.” They are bound by mutual promises of loyalty and care for that person and even for their children and their children’s children. Generational friendship.
My life has been blessed by a couple of friendships like that, but they are rare, and are indeed a gift of God.
Jesus once said that He no longer called us servants, but friends (John 15:15).
What kind of friend was Jesus referring to? Well, I think he was talking about the last sort of friendship upon which I’ve been reflecting — the covenant friend, the sacrificial friend, the soulmate-friend. He said that “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13).”
Now, that is sacrifice.
That, according to Jesus, is deep friendship.
Jesus Himself showed us that kind of friendship which is sacrificial and self-giving.
I believe that, without thit quality in friendships, the world stops being a very good place to live. If no one gives sacrificially of themselves, then society falls apart. That kind of friendship makes for being a good citizen. That is the kind of relationship that was demonstrated by the first responders at 9/11. It’s also part of having a strong family. It makes for the best governance, in which those elected to offices of responsibility give sacrificially of themselves, rather than simply taking.
My prayer for our community is that we would continue to forge strong friendships. My hope is that you find yourself surrounded with every kind of friend, but, most of all, that we would discover in someone the friendship that includes sacrifice and self-giving.
And may we all know Jesus as Friend.
Warren Hoffman is a 43 year veteran of pastoral ministry and considers himself a native of Alpena. He is married to his ministry partner and beloved, Laura Hoffman.