Robert Lewis Stevenson expressed an important sentiment regarding friendship. He said, “So long as we love, we serve. No man is useless while he is a friend.”
Jesus, however, lifted friendship to a new and holy level when he spoke to his disciple before they moved quickly to the Garden of Gethsemane. This was during a time of great joy on the part of the disciples. Jesus’s Messianic processional into Jerusalem had occurred only four days before. Yet, Jesus knew that within 24 hours he would die one of the most cruel deaths known to mankind.
During the passover supper, Jesus spoke. He said, “Greater love has no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:13 and 15). While the world values and understands the importance of friendship, Jesus put it into a different category. He is our friends. We are the friends of God. We have access to the most confidential communications that develop within the Godhead. At this point in time, friendship became a holy act of God’s love extending into the world.
In addition, because we are friends with God, his love through us can embrace every individual. Therefore, we can be lavish with our friendships.
Studies and common sense tell us there are three levels of friendship. They are casual, close and committed. Casual friends are people with whom we have only occasional contact. Nevertheless, there are common interests. We are probably concerned about each others’ personal problems. Yet, a lack of contact determines that there is little that we can do for each other or about our daily missteps or misgivings.
The second level is close. With these folks, there is regular contact. We are willing to be vulnerable, though there may be little opportunity to test that vulnerability. There is some shared knowledge of abilities and character qualities. You share interest with a close friend. In addition, there is sensitivity to the likes, dislikes and weaknesses of each other.
In a committed friendship, the two friends enlist each other to devoting quality time. There is mutual value in this nonverbal contract. While the qualities of a close friendship exists within a committed relationship, there is also freedom to correct flaws. Each person experiences the joys and risks of transparency. For a committed friendship, there is mutual enrollment at this level of friendship.
Within the mentally challenged community, there is often a lack of intellectual ability to distinguish between a casual friendship and a committed friendship. Relationship boundaries are blurred. I don’t allow my members to call me “Mama” or “Grandma.” These titles denote a closeness that I can never achieve in their lives. I’m not their parent and I never will be.
When a man or women within our cloistered community attends five or six days of retreat or camp, they almost always will be paired with a volunteer whose intellectual abilities falls within the “normal” range. The volunteer’s main task during the week is to become friends with the person who is mentally challenged.
It becomes an important week within the life of both the volunteer and the person who is intellectually disabled–but it is not a time in which a close or committed friendship can be developed. After a week of “hanging together,” sleeping in the same cabin and sharing mealtime, there is a bond that issues into a friendship but unless it is taken to the next level, it can never progress beyond the boundaries of a casual friendship. This does not mean that the volunteer cannot feel a sense of value that will change his life forever.
It is much like a short-term missionary experience. We vacation in another country, working hard while experiencing the joy and sorrow of a people for a week or two. Then we go home, leaving the consequences, the commitment and hard day-to-day endeavors to the people who live in the country where we visited.
As we approach Camp and Retreat Agape that is held at the end of May, there is an anticipation of the work that lays ahead. There is also knowledge that lives will be changed. We see our members leaving camp who have renewed their vows to the Lord through the worship experiences. We ask our volunteers to hang out with our members,though no one is assigned to any particular person. Therefore, the friendships which develop and deepen are typically within the membership. Our members “hang loose” with each other and talk for hours. They fish and share the joys of catching the big one. They do things that may be off-limits to them most of the year. They drive go-carts and go on boat rides, play pool, work on crafts and traverse the water slides.
Friendship is a delicate ballet of hard work, commitment and time. Within the confines of the Church body, friendship should not be taken lightly because of Jesus’ injunction to us. “You are no longer servants. You are my friends.”