I have been thinking about friendship a fair amount recently.  There are a number of reasons for this.  I have recently moved to Oregon from Pennsylvania and am separated from friends who remain “back east.”  In my research I am trying to better understand the friendships which helped to create international Christian organizations like the World Council of Churches, the International Missionary Council, and several other ecumenical and mission organizations in the early twentieth century.  People too often only see these as the bureaucratic structures they became.  Deep friendships and trust formed these organizations.  Bureaucratic gymnastics did not – or at least not as much.  I have also been moved by expressions of friendship and love at our new church and also among my children as they have sought to maintain friendships from Philadelphia and have begun to establish new ones in Oregon.  Even the start of Lent has brought these friendships to mind as I meditated last week on the conversation or silence shared by four friends descending Mt. Tabor after the Transfiguration.  (I preached on that story at two churches last week – my Oregon preaching debut!)  The study of Christian mission as well as Methodism throughout the world could surely be told also as a story of friendship in many different times and places. One of the most influential Christian tracts ever used by missionaries was written by William Milne and was simply called “Two Friends.”  It was very influential in China for a century beginning in the early 19th century.

I am deeply grateful for the true friends I have been privileged to know.  Out of gratitude, in this post I simply would like to post a few quotations on friendship from authors which I have come across over the years.

 The friendship is not reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out.  It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others.  They are no greater than the beauties of a thousand other men; by friendship God opens our eyes to them.  They are, like all beauties, derived from Him and then, in a good friendship, increased by Him through the friendship itself, so that it is His instrument for creating as well as for revealing.  At this feast it is He who has spread the board and it is He who has chosen the guests.  It is He, we may dare to hope, who sometimes does, and always should, preside.  Let us not reckon without our Host. (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 89-90.)

And what is a friend? More than a father, more than a brother: a traveling companion, with him, you can conquer the impossible, even if you must lose it later. Friendship marks a life even more deeply than love. Love risks degenerating into obsession, friendship is never anything but sharing. It is a friend that you communicate the awakening of a desire, the birth of a vision or a terror, the anguish of seeing the sun disappear or of finding that order and justice are no more. That’s what you can talk about with a friend. Is the soul immortal, and if so why are we afraid to die? If God exists, how can we lay claim to freedom, since He is its beginning and its end? What is death, when you come down to it? The closing of a parenthesis, and nothing more? And what about life? In the mouth of a philosopher, these questions may have a false ring, but asked during adolescence or friendship, they have the power to change being: a look burns and ordinary gestures tend to transcend themselves. What is a friend? Someone who for the first time makes you aware of your loneliness and his, and helps you to escape so you in turn can help him. Thanks to him who you can hold your tongue without shame and talk freely without risk. That’s it. (Elie Wiesel, Gates of the Forest )

As George Eliot writes of Dorothea at the end of Middlemarch: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” (George Eliot, Middlemarch, cited in Tom Palaima, “On the Power of Mentors” )

May these be sources of inspiration and encouragement for all who read them to face the challenge and beauty of being a true friend.  Challenge and beauty… I wonder if that is what the three disciples learned as they walked off the Transfiguration mountain with their friend, Jesus.

About Ben Hartley

Since 2021, I have served as the Associate Professor of Mission and World Christianity at Seattle Pacific University. I have served in similar roles at George Fox University (2016-2020) and at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University (2005-2016). I am an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church.
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1 Response to Friendship

  1. Rev. Tom Stark says:

    Dr. Hartley, Thank you for this post! I wish you the best in Oregon and I am jealous of the churches there who get to hear your words. Your timing was God-inspired as this week I lost my best friend suddenly and very unexpectedly. Our friends are too important to take for granted and to not consider the immense value is worth all the hard work and determination. May God bless you and your family in Oregon and safe travels as you remain connected to your friends “back East”.
    Tom Stark

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