Met up with some old friends when I was back in Penang for the Lunar New Year. I have known LS since our pre-university days (1972–1973). I have known her husband, JC, since Standard One (Primary One). That means I have known JC for more than half a century. He remembers that in one of our earliest meetings I had stabbed him with a pencil. I don’t recall this at all. What I do remember is JC helping to tie the shoelaces on my Bata school shoes. I was a doofus who took a long time to learn many basic skills, like using chopsticks, and tying my shoelaces. There was one occasion when my shoelaces came undone. He didn’t laugh at my inability to tie them. He just tied them for me.
We walked together in the years that were to follow. He wasn’t a follower of Jesus when I first met him but he eventually became a brother in Christ. I walked with him when LS had a brush with breast cancer and was healed. He walked with me when Hee Ling, my first wife, had cancer, and during the days after she went home to the Lord. We swapped parenting war stories. Globalisation meant that we didn’t always live close to each other. (Right now I am based in Singapore, he in Cambodia.) But we would meet up when we could and always there would be the gracious acceptance and warm encouragement. For more than fifty years now.
Last Sunday I preached on the friendship of David and Jonathan from 1 Samuel.
When David had finished speaking with Saul, Jonathan committed himself to David, and loved him as much as he loved himself. Saul kept David with him from that day on and did not let him return to his father’s house. Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as much as himself. Then Jonathan removed the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his military tunic, his sword, his bow, and his belt. (1 Samuel 18:1–4 HCSB)
This account of the first meeting between Jonathan and David portrays some key elements of friendship. The first is attraction. There is some mystery to this. Why did Jonathan choose to commit himself to love David? Maybe he saw in him a kindred spirit. After all they were both young and brave warriors. But the Bible doesn’t really tell us. I do not know why JC, and the other good friends that followed, chose to care for me. I have long believed that friendship is a gift. You can’t really make it happen. But you can receive it with gratitude.
At this point in 1 Samuel, the friendship seems more one way. Jonathan seems to be the more active participant in the friendship. As their story unfolds however the relationship becomes more reciprocal. But it is understandable that Jonathan initiates. After all, he is royalty and David is the son of a farmer, one of Saul’s subjects. But Jonathan expresses one of the key elements of friendship: a friend commits himself/herself to sacrificially bless a friend. Jonathan commits himself with a covenant and he blessed David generously.
There are those who see Jonathan and David in a homosexual relationship. I find no erotic dimension in their friendship. Perhaps it is an indictment of our friendless age that deep same-gender relationships are often assumed to be homosexual in nature. Whatever our views on the homosexual issue, we should all champion deep friendships. True friendship is life giving. In his book, Becoming Friends, Paul J. Wadell gives us four key benefits of having good friends:
First, perhaps the most fundamental moral value to friendship is that friendships teach us how to care for others. (67) Second, good friends teach us about ourselves, including aspects of ourselves we might prefer not to know. (69) A third gift of good friendships is that our friends help us stay committed to the most important goals, projects, and aspirations of our lives. (71) Finally, our friends can free us to live more hopefully and truthfully. (73) [Paul J. Wadell, Becoming Friends (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002, 67–76)].
From my perspective, as I begin the third third of my life, I fully amen the above. The JCs of my life have done all that in my life and more, and I pray that I have similarly blessed them.
Followers of Christ should appreciate the importance of friendship, and spiritual friendship in particular. I thank God for all my friends, Christian and non-Christian. Spiritual friends in particular give me critical help in my journey with Christ.
Ordinary friendships are generally characterized by intimacy, trust and mutual enjoyment of one another. Spiritual friends share those qualities of course, but are also characterised by another element: spiritual friends actively help us pay attention to God. [Mindy Caliguire, Spiritual Friendship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007, 17)].
I met JC and LS over lunch. We toasted friendship, clinking our glasses together, well actually cups of bubble tea, saying “to friendship”. That afternoon, I suddenly felt very sad. As we grow older, a day will come when one of us will have to say goodbye and go home to the Lord. Then I remembered that we were all friends of Christ and for us there will be no final goodbyes.