Saturday, August 31, 2013

Stewardship of Enduring Friendships

One special blessing in this new chapter of life (I’m avoiding the word “retirement”) is realizing that true riches are measured in enduring ‘currency’ more precious than gold which is perishable (1 Peter 1:7).   My Tribute to a Rich Uncle highlighted the enduring elements of his true richness– fatherly interest and concern, a listening ear, and an affirmation that my pursuits were worthwhile and important to him.   

More recently, I’ve discovered true riches in the cultivation of enduring friendships.  Telephone, e-mail, and Facebook work well for connecting and staying connected with long-time friends.  However, for me, social media do not provide the glue necessary to sustain relationships beyond the “acquaintance” level.  I agree with the statistics reporting that most people have many acquaintances but only a few close friends.  One of my goals now is to give greater attention to deepening some "old friendships" that have languished over time.  But first, let's consider some biblical teaching on friendship.
The New Testament account of Jesus Christ’s relationships with men and women reveals different “levels” of friendship. Here, we find two Greek words most commonly translated “friend.”  The first is
hetairos, meaning an “associate” or “companion.”  This denotes a relationship without strong sentiment or close affection.   However, a “dear friend” (philos) is one for whom there is strong affection (Gr. phile).  For a “beloved friend” we purposely ‘do good’ as a result of an ‘affectionate conviction.’  Jesus was involved in both levels of friendship.

When one of the twelve disciples, Judas, approached Jesus to betray Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said, "Friend (hetairos), do what you have come for (Matt. 26:50)."  But, regarding Lazarus who experienced a fatal illness, Jesus said, "Our friend (philos) Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep (John 11:11)."  The Jewish leaders must have witnessed Jesus’ compassion toward sinners, for they considered Him “a friend (philos) of tax collectors and sinners (Matt. 11: 19).”

 During His 3-year ministry on Earth, the friendship of Jesus and his disciples advanced from the level of acquaintance or association (hetarios) to one of
strong affection (phile) and endearment (philos).  After Judas departed from the gathering in the upper room, Jesus expressed the level of His affection toward the remaining disciples as recorded in John 15: 12-15 (NIV):  

“My command is this:  Love (agapao) each other as I have loved you.  Greater love (agape) has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (philos).  You are my friends (philos) if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants (doulos), because a servant (doulos) does not know his master's business.  Instead, I have called you friends (philos), for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

Note that this deepening relationship was not because God’s love (agape), already infinite and perfect (1 John 4: 8), was deepening over time, but because His followers were growing to love Him more.  I am learning from this study that endearing friendships require agape love which, in turn, is based on faithfulness and commitment, and upon knowledge and communication.

Love is ultimately a gift from God, and apart from His grace, there is neither love nor enduring friendship.  Christ communicated the depth of His love when He foretold that He would lay down His life for His disciples (John 15:13).   In return, the strong and growing affection of Jesus’ followers toward Him is represented by Peter who exclaimed, Lord, I will lay down my life for You (John 13: 37).  

After comforting and encouraging His disciples concerning His impending death and departure, Jesus explained that love toward Him will be evident by their commitment and obedience as illustrated by the branches of a vine that must faithfully abide in order to bear fruit (John 15: 1-14).

In addition to love and commitment, the deepening friendship between Christ and His disciples was based on knowledge.  In John 15:15, the Savior declares His intent to reveal to them more of those things the Father had made known to Him.  The relationship Jesus was defining is one in which His disciples could know or recognize (as in Gr. oida), more and more of His will and purposes.  Earlier, as recorded in John 10, Jesus used the same word, oida, in the context of sheep that know or recognize the voice of their shepherd and they obediently follow him. 

Today, Jesus invites us into an agape love relationship with Him that deepens according to our commitment when we withhold nothing from Him, even our lives; a friendship in which we learn to recognize and follow His voice through the discipline of prayer and reading of His Word.  This three-fold, love-commitment-knowledge, relationship is what Jesus means when He commands us to Abide in Me, and I in you (John 15:4) so that you can bear much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing (v. 5).  As you abide in me, Jesus says, My person and power through the Holy Spirit will abide in you resulting in much fruit—God’s love, joy, peace, etc. (Galatians 5: 22-23). 

Out of our intimate, abiding relationship with Jesus, He promises, If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it (John 14: 14).  This relationship is not one in which Jesus poses as the “central bank” and gives us an ATM card for anything we want.  Rather, He is describing what will happen when our beloved friendship with Him, characterized by love and faithful commitment as evidenced by our communion with Him through His written Word and through prayer leads us to ask in prayers that are in harmony with what Christ stands for (i.e. His Name).  The fruit of this level of ‘beloved friendship’ is the servant stewardship God rejoices in.

The servant steward recognizes that he or she is not the vine (John 15: 1).  The true vine is Jesus upon Whom the steward is utterly dependent.  Nor is the steward the Gardener (or Vinedresser, v. 1).  The Gardener is the Father God.  Instead, the steward is a branch of the vine, submissive to the authority of the Gardener.  Yet, the Gardener calls us to be fruitful stewards, or “gardeners” (small “g”) in His image by cultivating friendship relationships as sons and daughters; and, perhaps later, as husbands, wives, parents, teachers, pastors, scientists, lawyers, and government or civic leaders.  Each of these roles ultimately involves the stewardship of friendships that grow out of our abiding friendship with Christ.

The level of friendship possible through God’s love, commitment, and knowledge is not easily achieved—I speak from my own faltering efforts and from my continual need of God’s grace and forgiveness.  My wife is my witness, but she is also my most cherished gift and focus of learning how to be a beloved friend. 

I believe God wants us to view friendship as both the “core responsibility” and the personal side of our larger responsibility to Him as stewards.  The quality of human stewardship rooted in Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:15-25 depends on the quality of relationships, especially friendships, from the very beginning. 

Lloyd and I on a memorable Sunday afternoon in May
In March, Lloyd and I were able to communicate through Facebook, and we agreed to get together sometime this summer. Lloyd was a gracious friend to me at Garaway High School, Sugarcreek, OH.  We met as freshmen in 1961 as a result of a school consolidation.  Our graduating class was to become part of “the class of 1965” much referenced in historical reflections of the “turbulent ‘60’s.”

This summer I have been blessed by occasions to renew my friendship with a high school friend, Lloyd; and, a college friend, Roger.  My relationship to both of these men had been weakly maintained over the years.  Geographic separation and the priorities of our careers and family had made closer friendship impossible.  Thankfully, all of this is beginning to change this summer.

Lloyd was a quiet, handsome, young man who was greatly respected at school for his academic ability and wit.  Like many of our classmates, Lloyd and I were both disciplined in our study habits, most of the time.  However, Lloyd’s circle of friends and acquaintances was much broader than mine because it included football and band.  In spite of this difference, he never deliberately excluded me from that larger circle. Consequently, and as we look back, we see that God used our friendship to sharpen each other academically and socially as “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17).

On a Sunday afternoon in Mid-June, I was blessed by a visit from Lloyd.  We spent the afternoon relating to each other our testimonies of how God had worked in each of our lives since high school.  I was amazed at how much there was in common about our spiritual responses to God’s work in our lives.  As a result of that afternoon of fellowship with each other in the conscious presence of God, our friendship was renewed through our common interest in the enduring richness of desiring to know God better and to witness of His grace and truth at work in our lives and future goals.

In the mid-1960’s following our graduation from high school and the enrollment in colleges distant from each other, I had mistakenly allowed our friendship to languish for lack of communication.  The challenge of getting accustomed to residence and classroom settings on a college campus came to me with the necessity of making many new friends.  I am only now realizing what friendship treasures I allowed to go by the wayside as a result of the thrill of a new chapter of life for me.

One of my new college friends was Roger, a man who had been in the armed services.  Being a few years older and wiser, Roger became an important tool of God in my life.  Although Roger’s major was chemistry, and mine was comprehensive science, we had many courses in common.  His maturity and commitment to getting serious about cracking the books was just what I needed to establish good academic commitment.  As our college careers progressed, we were each blessed with relationships with the respective women we would eventually marry; and, we exchanged the honor of being one another’s best man on our respective wedding days.

Roger, Yellow Trillium, and I
Although marriage and our respective professional careers would take its toll on keeping close as friends, one academic area that Roger and I shared in common was botany.  Our common interest in plants continued to be a link that maintained our friendship from a distance over the years.  I was blessed to hear of Roger’s travels across eastern North America to study the plant genus, Trillium.  On several occasions, Abby and I were able to visit Roger and his wife, Margaret, at their home and to see some of Roger’s live plantings of Trilliums, some of which he transplanted from far-away places.

Now that both of us are entering retirement (There, I said it!), we have shared several blessed times together as have our wives.  Communication about common interests and enduring values has deepened our friendship which I treasure greatly.  Roger has demonstrated two qualities that been a blessing to me.  First, he has shown me how to give a gift that would be a blessing to his friend.  When he and Margaret visited us in Wooster in May, Roger unwrapped a gorgeous Yellow Trillium, Trillium luteum, from a population he has maintained in his backyard.  Now, I have this Trillium in our backyard as a growing reminder of our friendship.

Pawpaw Tree with Twist-Tie to Guide Its Growth
Roger has demonstrated a second quality of a good friend; namely, ability to provide candid and edifying counsel over the years.  His example and forthrightness was instrumental in helping me to take seriously my academic, moral, and social responsibilities.  Interestingly, my friend provided an excellent metaphor of his role in my life during the May visit to our home.  When I showed Roger my Pawpaw tree, Asimina triloba, given as a gift as reported in earlier blog entries (Search Oikonomia under “Pawpaw.”), he immediately set about repositioning the stem and branches in relation to my tree stake so that its growth would be enhanced.  I trust that my growth in Christ will be enhanced by a responsiveness to the molding and shaping influence of friends.

As I seek to renew long-term friendships, I am thankful for the inputs of both Lloyd and Roger to my life, and for the reminder that I also have a “stewardship of friendship” responsibility toward them.  May my friendships and those of you the reader be deepened as we have here considered the role of agape love, mutual commitment, and knowledge in our stewardship of these “enduring riches.”