Monday, November 23, 2009

More Friends

To restate my last post in quasi-poetic form:

Circles of life, within without
We sit, stand, walk together and alone.
Someone said: We are human only with people:
Umuntu gumuntu ngabantu.
We seek our circle.

I have heard somewhere
We must all as they say
Fusion of self makes bad health.
I am because I am.

God says: “I am.” We are
Because God is, and God made us
To find ourselves in us,
And only so to find God.

I have heard somewhere of soul’s dark night.
Forced individuation, isolation, atomization,
Alone in darkness
Pulsing with life yet lost
In wilderness of One.

Soul’s dark night brings blessing
So they say
So I believe (and have found).
Forced to one’s need in awareness of need
The place of pain and life.

When we stand again and enter light
We cannot remain
We reach out our hands seeking
Communal life, pulses mingling and merging
In shared humanness, Ubuntu,
Life together.

If you love God,
Love brother, sister, neighbour, friend –
Else call God liar
And lose yourself as human.
In God we become each other’s
Bread and wine: Christ appears.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Over the past year I have spent a certain amount of energy in thinking about friendship. For whatever reason I have thought about the question of who my friends are probably more than I really need to. I know that others also ask this question: a facebook friend posted his status some time ago as “I’m finding out who my real friends are”; so here are some ideas that have surrounded the exercise, but without consideration of who my real friends are. (That question is one that does not belong in any public space!)

First thought: I was at a conference last February where one of the presenters described an idea behind the way that some emerging churches in Australia structure their lives: Everyone needs three circles of friends – a work circle, a community circle, and a church circle. These three circles are, of course, in addition to one’s own family circle. As I reflect on my own processing, I realize that I tend to overemphasize one or other of these circles. I sometimes try to load the whole of my friendship needs on to church, or on to work, or on to community (i.e., those people in my life who fit together as my friends, but are not part of my church family or my work group).

Friendship circles, especially in the individualized West, are usually not strong enough to bear the whole weight of any one person’s friendship needs. Therefore I need to nurture each one in its place and not call on any one circle to bear the whole load of friendship needs. Socializing with co-workers, involvement in a care group at church, and participation in interest-based groups all work together to supplement the foundation of care received from one’s own family circle.

Obviously for each person the blending of these three circles will be different, and there will be overlap as some people are found in one or two or all three of these circles. But the basic point remains: we lean on each other in ways that fit the respective places in which our friendship lives.

Second thought: We all bear responsibility for reaching out to others for our own friendship needs, and for inviting others into our circle for their benefit. Personality plays a huge part in this process: some reach out naturally, almost instinctively, while others struggle to reach out at all. Some need many people in their circles; some need three or four and find more than that stifling or draining. But in one way or another, we are all responsible both for ourselves and for each other.

I have experienced this dynamic in different places more than once. I find it relatively easy to reach out to others, but more than once I have stood on the edge of a new group wondering how to join in. I have been the one needing to be invited. I have also been the one looking at someone who wants to join a circle and speaking words of welcome while showing with my body language that the newcomer is not welcome. Of course, the newcomer reads the unspoken message and moves off soon enough.

Why do we sometimes close ranks like that? I can speak only for myself. I know that sometimes I think the newcomer is boring. Sometimes I think that he/she will get in the way of another friendship I want to nurture. Sometimes I’m judgmental. Sometimes I just want to be left alone. Since no one can be open to every one else all of the time, some sort of selection must go on. Friendship circles cannot be infinitely open, or they lose their ability to support and nurture those in them, and they lose their meaning.

But if they are simply closed, they become cliques, potentially destructive, whether at work or in the church, or in our communities. C. S. Lewis has written about the effect of the “Inner Ring”, the circle of people who are in the know and who wield an unhealthy influence in society. Somewhere between the infinitely open and the destructively closed, we need a balance in our friendship circles, inviting others in and yet remaining a healthy size. As one who has moved often, I see the difficulties inherent in maintaining such a balance.

Third thought: Friendship is one of the basic ways in which we love each other. Jesus often referred to his disciples as, “my friends”. Alongside the incredible love of God (agape) and the wonderful intimacy between a man and a woman in marriage (eros) stands simple friendship (philia). (One can add familial love or affection – storge – as Lewis does in The Four Loves.) Friendship is a basic way in which we discover God’s presence and in which we become fully disciples of God’s Son, Messiah Jesus.

That is, I believe, why we need more than one friendship circle: we mediate God to each other daily in the way that we treat each other – if we do so in genuine and caring friendship. To lack friendship, then, also means to be deprived of the full blessing of God’s presence in this world. God has made us so: that we mediate him to each other through our friendship.

Obviously this mediation occurs at different levels: with one person the friendship will be more on the surface, and with another more deep and full of meaning. Yet in every case it is truly God’s Spirit flowing through the bonds of friendship.

I wish I knew fully what I am trying to describe; but after almost 60 years of life on this earth, I know only that I need friends with every fibre of my being, and that I need to give friendship as deeply as I need to receive it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


We call it Remembrance Day, and we remember. I think back to 1968, when I was drafted for Vietnam. I received a four-year student deferment, and I was a CO, so in the end I went to Zimbabwe doing a three year term of alternative service with our church instead of going to Vietnam. Of course, others drafted with me whose number in the draft lottery fell below about 130 (mine was 113) went to Vietnam.

I think back to to another war, Desert Storm. Lois and I had just returned from Zimbabwe to find talk of war everywhere. In Zimbabwe nobody was talking about invading Iraq. In Europe on the way back nobody was talking about invading Iraq. In the USA that's all we were talking about. It was like entering an parallel universe. Or coming from one.

I think of the present military actions (may we call them "wars" now) -- in Iraq and in Afghanistan, with the horrible shooting on an American military base. A counsellor who needed counselling and who acted out our worst fears, the enemy within.

I rarely wear a poppy -- more a matter of not thinking to put it on, or not thinking to put on MCC's alternative poppy. My poppyless state is less a statement than a lack of care about dress. But today many wear the poppy, not to remember war, but to remember those who fight. We all (or almost all) pray for peace. We all (or almost all) recognize that war comes when what we want fails. "War is hell": so said a soldier.

So we remember together. Our own brushes with war, and with all the other forms of violence in our world -- whether against children, or abused women, or through oppression and poverty. The acts of war and violence that plague or planet, the disease of our race: people made in God's image, fighting and destroying the image of the Creator.

As we remember war, we remember and pray also for peace. We work for peace. We want the Shalom of God's presence, life full and running over in place of hatred and death and separation. I wish God's blessing on all who work for peace in our world, whether sharing my convictions as a CO or somewhere around the world with the American or Canadian military -- or in the many armies of our world. God keep and guide us all.

Monday, November 02, 2009

More Thoughts on Acedia

In earlier writing I have noted my experience with what we might call acedia. I am not yet certain that the term accurately describes what I experienced; it may be that I was closer to a simpler depression than I thought; but I think that the spiritual element found in acedia (also known as “sloth” in the seven deadly sins) fits my own case better than simply the process of trying to deal with aging.

The key aspect I see in acedia is a focus on self that makes life difficult. Christian doctrine teaches us that our centre is to be found in God. As the Westminster Catechism puts it: “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” If our purpose in life is to glorify and enjoy God, then self-centredness is one form of the first and primal sin, in which we dethrone God and enthrone self.

All of this is the most elementary material in becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “He who would be my disciple must take up his cross and follow me.” I have heard this text and many like it from my earliest days; but I’m a slow learner (or late in coming to any real spiritual and emotional maturity). So elementary or not, I restate some basic lessons for my own benefit. These lessons are variants on a theme: Let go of yourself; take hold of God.

The first notes the benefit of regular prayer. An old verse says it: “You must seek him in the morning if you want him through the day” (Ralph Spaulding Cushman, “The Secret”). I have said more than once that the regimen of early morning devotions I have often heard prescribed fits certain people better than others. I still say that; but I recognize that the appeal to personality type (you can’t expect an ENFP to be so regimented!) had become an excuse for not centring on God. The basic step over the past year of beginning the day with the Lord’s Prayer has been a small step. I have been surprised how big a step it has also proved to be.

From that small step grows a second and more helpful discipline, including prayer for myself, my family, my friends, and my own community. I am working at bringing regular reading of Scripture into the process. At the least I no longer can say that such a regular practise of discipline is antithetical to who I am. In fact, the very spontaneity of my daily life requires such discipline to construct a framework within which I can be most truly myself. Focussing on God at the beginning of the day makes me able to be God’s child more fully, which in turn gives me a real more substantial identity than the self-centredness of the past (a self-centredness that creeps all to close outside the door of my heart).

Third in the small steps towards God that I am taking is greater physical discipline. I have been exercising more regularly and carefully in the past months. It might seem that a focus on physical well-being would turn one’s heart and mind towards oneself and away from God. That can happen easily enough. So the way that I exercise becomes more important. I am experimenting with a rhythm of combining exercise with TaizĂ© music – not everyone’s cup of tea (or glass of wine), but it may be mine.

A final step for now is to plan specific ways that I interact with other people. Inviting friends and acquaintances into our home for a meal; accepting greater involvement in our congregation’s life; playing chess on a Tuesday evening with friends; having a young person in the grip of despair over for coffee; genuinely listening to people in the dining hall (how often have I wanted them simply to listen to me?) – there are myriad ways in which one takes the focus of oneself.

I am a neophyte at this discipline. I recognize that I still take my mental and emotional temperature all the time. Perhaps we all do to some extent; but I want to find the kind of fulfillment that the Westminster Catechism describes, and I know that such fulfillment requires an intentional awareness of God and of others to a greater extent than before in my life. I feel a faint resentment that full healing of my own sense of being crushed requires that I stop looking at myself, but I know that resentment and being ridiculous are closely allied. And I want to keep moving away from acedia towards Paradise.