Weekly Edgework #31 - Jan. 31, 2005

Ode to a Friend

I have many acquaintances but few friends. You are one of my friends. Before I met you I had tasted true friendship. Back in my student days. In the black ghetto of Harrisonburg, Virginia. There the little white church on Broad Street had gathered together a rag-tag group of PhDs, those on social assistance and most of us somewhere in between. It was an experiment in community. It was not a strong community as people calculate strength. Indeed it was weak. But in our weakness we came to understand the necessity of being open and vulnerable with each other. Perhaps that is why true friendships emerged.

For the first time in my adult life I had a hand-full of true friends. I learned that it was safe to bare my soul to them. Even to speak of the pain in my soul. Or other secrets of the heart known only to me. I also learned that it was possible to enter the heart of another. It was not a mutual admiration club. We challenged each other and sometimes that hurt. But we learned the truth of the proverb, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). That experience in the late 1970s became the fertile soil out of which has grown my vision of true community and true friendship.

Since those days my journey of life has taken me down many highways and rabbit trails. I have had much opportunity to connect with people. To teach. To preach. To dialogue. To search together. To serve others in various ways. And as I proceeded on my way to this present moment I carried with me the benchmark of friendship I had known at Broad Street. At times I came within a whisker of finding true friendship again. But I have learned that true friends are hard to find, especially when vulnerability is not on the table. One must penetrate the five feet of protective turf surrounding most hearts for true friendship to emerge. And those last five feet are the hardest part of the journey toward friendship.

The year after my father died I was studying in Vancouver. During that time I had to process the fact that I had never really penetrated the last five feet around my father’s heart. Instead I had lived in a cloud of alienation, denial and pain. This journey broke my body, my emotions and my spirit. I found help from a counselor, but I knew if I was to find life again I would need true friendship as well. And I found it in the circle of a group of people, most of who were on similar journeys to mine. Soon it was okay to open my heart to them, to embrace their unconditional love and to allow them to pray in my stead when I was too weak to try. I discovered again that true friendship is not dependent on knowing another for a long time. When openness and vulnerability emerge, true friendships can pop up life daffodils in spring.

It is now at least three years since I found you – a true friend who met and surpassed the benchmark made at Broad Street. You invited Ruth and me to a care group to study together the book, “Hiding from Love”. On the first night you shared your personal story – a story filled with longing and searching. But also you described how you were beginning to taste the sweet nectar of grace and unconditional love. You spoke of the alienation you still felt with your 95-year-old father. Of the anguish of losing a son in a terrible fire in the wreckage of truck. Of the lessons you had learned along life’s way. The antennas of my heart recognized the signals of potential friendship – Broad Street style.

And I have not been disappointed. We began to meet regularly. To share our respective stories. Our fears and joys. Our pains and hopes. Although we came to those meetings of the heart from very different pathways, we soon realized that we had arrived at similar conclusions about many things. I discovered, that although you had been a trucker most of your life, you had been reading widely throughout those years. I soon recognized you to be one of the best educated persons I knew, as well as one of the mo st transparent and vulnerable. I felt safe in your presence. So I have told you some secrets of the heart that none other knows about. You are my friend.

I like to call you my mentor. But you don’t like that. You say our friendship is a mutual thing – that we learn from each other. Maybe that is the way of true friendship. Mutual friendships of quality end up being mutual mentorships. In any case, you have done so much for me! You have encouraged me to keep asking questions few people ask. You have helped me paint images of hope for the church and for broken humanity. You have helped me recognize more clearly the presence of sham, and how to say, “Bullshit!” with holy fervor such as I might have expected from the prophet Jeremiah. You are my friend.

Now you are facing surgery to remove a kidney sporting a cancerous tumor. When I first heard the news an arrow pierced my heart. Later, when it was discovered that the cancer had not yet spread and that the prognosis is good for a complete recovery, that same heart leapt with hope and joy. Since the news broke, we have met and talked openly about our vulnerabilities. We spoke of our mortality. That one day life as we know it now will end for both of us. My prayer is that we will still have many years to walk together down life’s winding pathways. I hope and pray for this because you are a friend of sterling quality – the kind hard to find on this side of the heaven.

When I think of you I am reminded of the words of John Oxenham in a poem he calls, “The Highway”.

To every man there openeth A way, and ways, and a way And the High Soul climbs the HighWay, And the Low Soul gropes the Low. And in between on the misty ftats The rest drift to and fro. But to every man there openeth A High Way and a Low. And every man decideth The way his soul shall go.

One thing I know, Roy. You have chosen the High Way, and because of that we are friends indeed! I know one other thing. That once the time comes for us to say goodbye – and may that time be many miles ahead – I will grieve like I have never grieved before. That is so because you have been a friend like I have never known before.