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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Presence in Friendship // Reflections on John 15:12-15

This is the second in a four part series on Friendship. The topics are inspired by each of the four verses in John 15:12-15 addressing friendship but are by no means an exegetical study. Instead, I let each verse serve as a springboard for discussion:
(12) This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (13) No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. (14) You are my friends if you do what I command you. (15) I do not call you servants any longer because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I call you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

"No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." -- John 15:13

To "lay down your life" is such a wonderful phrase. It's so peaceful, isn't it? Maybe it's just me but there seems to be a quiet determination and a gentle resolve in that phrase. It's not a violent phrase; you're not cutting your life down for your friends or destroying your life for your friends. You're laying it down, something that sounds as gentle as falling asleep.

It's a quiet heroism that Jesus displays. And he was certainly talking of himself with this verse, though not solely about himself. We know, of course, that Christ was called to literally lay down his very life for his friends - humanity. Christ recognized in all humans, a friend.

But was Christ speaking of his death with this verse? Yes he was. And no he wasn't.

Short of martyrdom, we can't expect to walk Jesus' path in such a similar form. Most of us aren't called to die for another human being. But is that all Christ was talking about? I don't know what the experience of death would be like but I can't help but think it's much more difficult to live for something than to die for something.

Christ had such love for his "friends" long before his death. He lived for their good - teaching, modeling, correcting, admonishing, opening, seeing, hearing, being present, and self-giving.

In our lives, we tend to think of marriage as the real "self-giving" but Christ experienced every human desire and mutual self-giving was something he participated in fully yet without marriage, not just in his death and resurrection but in his very life with the Holy Family - Mary & Joseph - and with his friends, the disciples. Self-giving isn't only the mark of marriage, it's the mark of friendship.

Laying down your life means finally taking yourself out of the center of it all. In meditation, practitioners are taught to see themselves from outside themselves, to be an objective third-party to their own thoughts and actions and to thus provide a "fair witness." Meditation helps people "find their center." The paradox of meditation mirrors the paradox of the gospel: to find your true center you must remove yourself from the center.

Christ was perfectly centered and yet he wasn't his own center. The Father became his center, as anyone who reads the gospel can see. He's always taking himself out of the equation or else putting himself in the proper context as a medium - "who appointed me your judge," "why do you call me good? Only the Father is," "everything comes from my Father."

Can we say the same? Can our friendships model as much and can we take ourselves out of the center of our friendships? If we did we would find that we are fully present to our friends.

Presence in friendship, full presence, means not having an agenda. That is, a personal agenda of what will come to you through this experience. Sure, I hope for good things from the present moment when I'm with a friend but I have to learn to stop trying to shape it into Sam's idea of that.

I've found that I'm the best version of "friend Sam" when I'm fully present. In fact, I often have to be caught off guard to do it. If a friend stops by unexpectedly I can welcome them, have a conversation or interaction, and then let them go on their way. The result is that I simply enjoyed whatever the experience was.

It's such a huge contrast to what normally happens of inviting someone over, having an agenda for what should happen and be accomplished by that time together, and then feeling that the plan wasn't followed or that it wasn't enough when it comes time to part ways. That is not being self-giving, and it is not being present.

We can be self-giving and "lay down our lives" when we have no agenda and no timeline, when we live in the now and not in the past or the future. Being present means giving and giving without expecting a return. It doesn't mean giving with abandon or giving too much of the wrong thing. You're not being generous by giving what is unhealthy for someone or for you. And perhaps that's one of the deeper mysteries about friendship.

Like Christ's death, true giving isn't spiritually unhealthy for you at all. When you're fully present in friendship, you never have to justify it or argue for it. You never have to say, "well, I know that this isn't the greatest, but dammit, she needs this from me!" (Or "dammit, I need this from her!") Being present in friendship doesn't benefit one and harm the other. It's never an unhealthy decreasing; it's always a healthy increasing.

So we don't have to feel bad about setting boundaries with friends or not doing what others want. But neither should we define friendships based on our own agenda, even if our agenda is to "help them." Some of the most difficult times with a friend are when they are suffering. The great spiritual thinkers realize that even in those moments mere presence, more than a solution, is the key. Henri Nouwen says that we're called to say only this: "I do not understand. I do not know what to do. But I am here with you." Now that is presence.

Like Christ, we have to let go of any timeline and be present. Jesus never expected his life to go the way it did but his fully present state allowed him to accept it. And like Christ, we'll find that this way of being, even if it goes against our agenda, is actually the healthiest for us because it means presence, giving, and true friendship.

Related Posts:
Intimacy in Friendship // Reflections on John 15:12-15

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