“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
What does it mean to be a friend? What does it mean to be in relationship with another person that is not familial nor is it romantic? What does it mean to be a friend in such a transitory society, where one month someone can be here, and in the next, they could be on the other side of the world? Is real friendship even possible anymore?
It has been twenty years since the sitcom, “Friends,” first aired. By television standards, it was a remarkable success, running for a decade. Unfortunately, its depiction of social life and the growth of friendships was constrained by its format and offers an unrealistic understanding for most people and their experience. A group of six people is not usually going to stay that close together for that long. Even in this score of years, times have changed, and international, let alone national, mobility has increased, and most communities come together and disperse in just a few years.
It is not all gloomy news, though, for friendship remains. Or can remain. Because being a friend does not equate with proximity, but with intention, openness, and availability. To be a friend mean being a friend; it is an action, an orientation towards another person. It is first and foremost a listening, to hear their story and stories, to hear their heart and the pulse of their thoughts and life. From this listening, this hospitality of soul, all else follows.
To be a friend means to be open to the other. To learn from them, to be able to be wounded by them, as well as to have the power to wound them. Friendship is vulnerability that goes both ways. And in this openness, we are also open to God, because God speaks through our communities and uses us to speak to them. It is in this openness and from this openness that we love and are loved. It is painful, but it is good and true.
Finally, being a friend also implies being available. It does not matter whether you live a door or a country or a continent away; availability is not so much a physical availability, for coffee and a chat (although this too can be important); it is an emotional and personal availability that matters most. This kind of availability is sacrificial, since we take into our hearts others — but we are also taken into their hearts. Friendship is a reciprocal sacrifice of availability.
Jesus says that no greater love has anyone than this: that we lay down our lives for our friends (John 15:13). We lay down our lives through the sacrifice of true listening, the vulnerability of openness and hospitality, and the engagement of availability. Friendship is possible, but it is hard and can often hurt, but in the best cases it makes life worth living.