Friendship as Both Natural and Virtuous (Eleventh Sermon in Series: Preaching from a Humanist Bible)



Today I begin by sharing with you a description of “friendship” that I am almost certain you will never forget.  As far as I know, this quote is anonymous. I think you will understand why, once I read it to you.  “Friendship is like wetting your pants. Everyone can see it, but only you feel the true warmth.”
I want to propose to you today that the word “friendship” never needs to be attended to or modified by an adjective.  A friend who is a friend does not need to be described as your true friend or your real friend. There is no such thing as a friend who is anything other than a real friend; if the person is unable to function as a real friend then she or he is no friend at all. “Acquaintance” is not a bad word, you know.  The word “friend” should only be used of a proven friend, never of a mere acquaintance.  William Blake:

“The bird a nest,
the spider a web,
the human friendship.”

I grew up hearing that a human’s best friend is a dog, and I thought about that every time I watched one of the several heart-rending episodes of “Lassie.” I am certainly a dog lover and have thought of several dogs I’ve had as best friends. This must be one of the reasons I like Wikipedia’s definition of “friendship” so much:
“Friendship is a type of interpersonal relationship that is found among humans and among animals with rich intelligence, such as the higher mammals and some birds. Cross-species friendships are common between humans and domestic animals. Less common but still of note are friendships between a non-human animal and another animal of a different species, such as a dog and cat. Individuals in a friendship relationship will generally welcome each other’s company and often exhibit mutually helping behavior.”
Limiting our considerations today to human friends, I recall the first advice I was given about friends.  This advice came from my Mother who said, “To have friends, you must show yourself friendly.”  That is certainly true; it’s good advice.  At the same time, though, most of the lasting friendships with which I’ve been gifted began rather incidentally–meaning I didn’t go out and pick someone from a crowd deciding to make him or her my friend by showing myself friendly.  Well, I did, but it backfired.  Today we call that stalking, and it may not work out so well for you or the person whom you’ve decided to make your friend.
Friends usually have mutual interests, compatible personality styles, and similar values.  This isn’t always the case, but in my experience it is even though just because two people have mutual interests, compatible personalities and similar values a friendship between the two people is not guaranteed.  There must be on the part of each a desire to be with the other person, an enjoyment of her or his company.
Indeed, there are different kinds of friends.  I noticed not so long ago that beloved Facebook had to contend with that reality.  Someone who is trying to “friend you,” meaning trying to get you to say yes to her or his request to be added to their list of friends leaves you with the responsibility of deciding just what kind of friend the person making the request is to you.  Originally, there were two possible responses to those who asked to be recognized as your Facebook friends:  yes or no.  And Facebook, as I recall, promised to help the request disappear so the person being cyber-rejected as an online friend could save face and avoid heartbreak.  Now, there’s still a basic yes and a basic no, but if you choose “yes,” you must designate where this person actually fits into your friendship hierarchy.  These are my interpretations of Facebook’s options.  At the top of the list is “Great Friend.”  In the middle is “Basic Friend” or “Just Barely a Friend.”  The final option is where you want to put those who narrowly escaped having their friendship requests denied altogether.
A Great Friend is someone whose every post and indication of whereabouts you want to read, and you want that person to have access to the same information from you.  In the case of a Basic Friend, you tell Facebook to send you about half of that person’s posts; you don’t need or want to know everything about this person, and you don’t want the Just Barely a Friend to have everything you post–just a few things here or there.  An Acquaintance gets only major life change information about you–a move, a name change, a change in relationship status, and so on.  That’s as much as you want an Acquaintance to know about you–even though that person may think of you as the best friend of all time.  This is much better than trying to do essentially the same thing with the only a telephone and a variety of ringtones, one of which you attach to the names of those in your directory to whom you are only willing to talk under very limited circumstances.
I’m thinking now of a group of “come hell or high water” friends.

“Thank you for being a friend,
Travel down the road and back again
Your heart is true;
You’re a pal and a confidant.
And if you threw a party, invited everyone you knew
You would see the biggest gift would be from me
And the card attached would say, ‘Thank you for being a friend!'”

Fictional though they were, the wonderful Golden Girls showed us week by week that friends could differ, differ strongly, even argue vigorously, and still be friends.  I think of a friend as someone who is naturally interested in my joys and in my pain, who is never judgmental, who participates in initiating, who will take time to let me talk, if I choose to verbalize anything about either good times or bad times, and–most significantly will be there for me in person–not via Skype or trauma texting, but physically–no matter what.
Bill Withers:

“Lean on me, when you’re not strong,
And I’ll be your friend;
I’ll help you carry on,
For it won’t be long,
’til I’m going to need somebody to lean on.”

Not utterly altruistic, but reciprocity ain’t bad.


My paternal grandmother died when I was a freshman in college.  Prior to that, death had visited our family only once–when my beloved Uncle Paul died suddenly at the age of 49.  I was shaken up, and I recall that not one person I’d grown up with, gone to school with, called my friend showed up to express condolences.  A new friend did, however.  We’d only known each other a partial semester, but he drove from the college down to Knoxville, a thirtysomething mile trip, just to stand in line, when it came his turn to greet me to shake my hand, say, “I’m sorry for your loss, David,” and then to give me a quick hug.  That meant the world to me, truly comforted me, and warmed my heart because I’d experienced in his gesture, in his presence true friendship.  He graduated from our college a year later, and, sad to say, I haven’t seen him since.
I did find him by phone a few years after my graduation.  I discovered that he was living in Texas, trying to make a living as a pianist.  Things weren’t going so well even though he was a magnificent pianist and even though he changed the pronunciation of his last name from East Tennessee “LUT-trul” (actual spelling, “Luttrell”) to “Lu-TREll.”
He wasn’t particularly thrilled that I’d called, though he was polite enough.  He gave me the highlights of what he’d been doing since graduation; I did the same.  I gave him my phone number; this was before email.  He never called me, and I never used his number again either.
Too bad we can’t say, and know it to be true, “Once a friend, always a friend.”  There are few, so very few, “forever friends.”
There are two stories about how David became a part of King Saul’s staff.  One, King Saul was in the market for a court harpist, and to the surprise of all Saul’s emissaries the perfect candidate came from among some shepherds who weren’t the kind of people you’d normally go to if you were looking for someone to serve the king close up and personal.  Still, David was summoned to the palace and interviewed by King Saul.  David was well spoken and smart, and he made all the other harpists who’d been vetted for the job pale in comparison during the audition part of the interview.  The King was on board all the way.
The other story has King Saul very interested in David’s courage and fighting skills.  He had seen David slay the giant Philistine, Goliath, and he wanted him placed in a leadership position with his, Saul’s, military.  I said earlier that most lasting friendships I know anything about were built over time, but truly there is the rare friendship at first sight just as there surely is love at first sight.
David came to Saul, and Saul pretty much told him that he was being hired for a military job, and it was a job to which he couldn’t say, “No.”  Literally, David couldn’t say, “No.”  Saul ordered him to take the position, and David had no choice but to do so.  After getting his orders, David turned to leave Saul’s throne room, and he ran into Prince Jonathan, heir apparent to Israel’s throne.  Immediately, somehow, they knew that they’d be forever friends.  The writer of the book of First Samuel fills in a few, just a few, of the details of how this lasting friendship began.

“…the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul….Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.”

Powerful and nearly beyond comprehension, but the friendship proved to be exactly what it seemed from its beginning.
Most people who hear the first part of the amazing story of Ruth and Naomi love the story, though that might not be the case if they ever bothered to read the rest of the story.  The first part is stirring nonetheless.  Ruth had been Naomi’s daughter-in-law, but Ruth’s husband died as had all other males in Naomi’s life except for maybe for a few in another country.  The younger woman had become a devoted friend to her bereaved mother-in-law, and Naomi was just as devoted to the friendship.  One day, however, Naomi told Ruth that it wasn’t her responsibility to give up her own life and a potentially productive future taking care of an old woman who was once her mother-in-law.  Ruth said, “Your age is immaterial to me as is the fact that at one time we were connected only by our relationship to your son whom we have now lost.”
Naomi said, “I appreciate that, but I won’t stand for it.  You need to get out of here and go to a place where you can meet a nice young man.  You need to marry again and build your own family the way you’d intended to do when you married my son, Mahlon.  When Ruth responded, Naomi knew she had lost this argument so she never said anything else about it.

“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

So beautiful.  You can hear it hundreds of times and still find yourself at the point of tears, witnessing the power of friendship.
There’s another May/December friendship talked about in the stories the ancient Hebrews told and passed along to their children and grandchildren.  This story involves the greatest of the ancient Hebrew prophets, Elijah, and his protege, Elisha.
Elijah is at the end of his earthly life, and he knows it.  Everyone seems to know it.

“Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.  Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Stay here….’  But Elisha said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So they went down to Bethel.  The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha and said to him, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I know; keep silent.’  Elijah said to him, ‘Elisha, stay here….’  But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’  Then Elijah said to him, ‘Stay here….’  But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’  Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.’”

Not money.  Not prestige or power, but more of the spirit of his friend, Elijah’s, intertwined permanently to his, Elisha’s.  If I am your friend, I will stay with you to the end.

Jesus heightens the stakes, “Greater love has no person than this, to lay down her life for her friends, to lay down his life for his friends.”  I’m sure in combat situations there are innumerable accounts of one soldier taking a bullet or a grenade knowing full well that she or he will die, but in the process save the lives of others in the unit.  Serving together and under such dire circumstances, they have inevitably become friends.
Six years ago, there was an extraordinary act of courage on a battlefield in Iraq.  The story has floated to the top of the stack again because an unspeakably courageous soldier was under awarded.  He is deceased and didn’t do what he did for his friends for any kind of recognition; his family, however, given his remarkable sacrifice wants him to get the highest of all awards for combat courage.
I’m paraphrasing a story from news.  A roadside bomb detonated ripping through the fuel tank of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which ignited like a blowtorch. The seven men in the vehicle were knocked unconscious and had no chance to escape the fire.  But the gunner, Sgt.1st Class Alwyn Cashe (pictured at the top of the post), somehow crawled out of the metallic fireball. Though wounded himself and drenched with flammable diesel fuel, he pulled the vehicle’s driver out of his seat before the flames got to him.  Cashe dragged the driver to safety.  Then he went back.
Cashe was a 16-year Army veteran.  He was not a novice in any way.  Still his own uniform caught fire as he desperately tried to open the Bradley Vehicle’s hatch.  By the time he got in, all he had on was his body armor and helmet; the rest of his uniform was in ashes or had seared to his skin. With help, he carried one of the dying men out of the fire and back to overwhelmed medics.   And then Cashe went back again.
He moved another friend to safety.  And he went back yet another time.  There was nothing more he could do this time, though.  Sgt. Cashe was the last of those injured in that fiery attack to be evacuated from the scene; he insisted on walking off the battle field in his own strength without any help from anyone.  Rushed to a military hospital, doctors said he was suffering from second and third degree burns over 90 percent of his body.
Cashe spent the next three weeks at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio trying to recover as most of his men died one by one in adjoining rooms. Of the seven he helped evacuate, five could not survive the burns.  After the destinies of the seven men, his friends, were set, Sgt. Cashe himself died.
Les Miserables, the musical:

“At the shrine of friendship,
Never say die.
Let the wine of friendship
Never run dry.”

If you were to take up a research project on how many lasting friends the typical American thinks she or he has, the largest number you’d likely find is 5.  Most people say two or three, and some few say if you have one lasting friend in life you are wealthy.  Don’t let that come across as bleak to you because when you think about how any relationship of significance requires time to nurture and develop you realize that there isn’t unlimited time most people have to do that.
Some would-be friendships in which we’ve invested eventually show us that they aren’t good for us, but rather are bad for us.  Susan Barash calls “bad friends” toxic friends, and she says they need to be gotten rid of as soon as possible.  This has nothing to do with being judgmental; it does, though, have to do with an honest, healthy, assessment of the relationship, and toxicity you don’t need.  Jesus himself is credited with saying, “Don’t cast your pearls before swine.”  This little parabolic saying can be applied in a number of ways, and I think we’re using it here in a legitimate way.
Barash says there are eight reasons to end a connection you thought was a friendship.  Any one of these should compel you to disengage from the person with whom you honestly thought you were building a friendship.
1) If your so-called friend is jealous of another person who is important in your life or jealous of any of your accomplishments, buh-bye.  Warning sign.  It can only get worse from there.

2) If your so-called friend is someone else’s doormat, she or he may have chosen you as the rescuer.  You are being used.  Get out the back, Jack, and keep yourself free!

3) Oops, you’ve fallen into the habit of using her or him in return.  The future is no brighter.

4) Something of great significance happened for you, and your so-called friend was no where around to help you celebrate or to comfort you if the event were a sad one.

5) One day you awaken to face the truth.  This would-be friend is ultra needy, and she or he is draining you.

6) You discover that you don’t share nearly as many significant values as you thought you did.  In time, she or he is violating your standards.

7) Not that it’s all about you, but, honestly, you’re getting nothing out of the relationship–nothing healthy, that is.

8) Your so-called friend is hurting someone else and/or is involved in something illicit.  Count yourself an accessory.
Still, healthy friendship is vitally important to most people.  It potentially enhances their health and their enjoyment of life.
Hear this excerpt from the Book of Concord in A HUMANIST BIBLE:

Concord 8:3-5
…the clear indication of virtue, to which a mind of like character is naturally attracted, is the beginning of friendship. When that is the case, the rise of affection is a necessity. For what can be more irrational than to take delight in objects incapable of response?

Grayling, the compiler of A HUMANIST BIBLE, says, then, that friendship doesn’t grow because of mutual interests or similar values; at most, that’s a start.  He says a friendship takes off when people with common interests and values have genuine affection for each other and understand the necessity of reciprocity.  One-sided friendships don’t work any better than one-sided marriages.

Pursuing healthy friendships, though, is virtuous.  It’s also natural for most personality types; hermits, not so much.


Comments are closed.