Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What are friends for? (Unedited version)

Published in the Fiji Times (Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan) on Wednesday 13th June, 2012

I remember when I was younger being instructed by my elders to have many acquaintances but few friends. These wise ones did not envisage the advent of social networking and its impact on what we consider friendship.

I don’t know whether it’s because I’m generally a friendly person, whether it’s because I’m a Christian minister, whether it’s because I’m away from home or a combination of all these and more; but the number of my “Face-book friends” has increased considerably over the last year. My wife suggests it is because don’t like to ignore the “friend requests” I receive. Maybe that’s also true. My last count of face-book friends was 3,049. Some of my friends, though have in excess of 4,000 friends. Some have only a handful – by choice I believe.

As a minister, I find social networks an important tool for ministry – not just for receiving and sharing news and information, or being part of a community even when I am physically absent from it. Some of my virtual and physical friends use it as a counselling tool. We can share our thoughts publically, but at the same time we can reach out to someone we feel will understand us, even if they are not physically present.

Some of my friends have multiple face-book accounts. I’m told one is for acquaintances, one for family and one for really close friends. My social life is not as complicated so I just have the one. However I wonder how many of these friends I have really met, conversed with and get along with. Simply put, how many are virtual friends and how many are real friends? Perhaps it is easier to have virtual friends than physical ones. I remember meeting a young Korean theological student and being told on introduction, “Yes, I know him. We’re friends on Face-book!” That also made me think about how sometimes our “profile-pictures” don’t match the real us. That is something that has been abused by the social predators who prowl the virtual world.

In Oceania, where our concept of identity lies in our relationship with others, where we live in extended families and are part of small (and big) communities, perhaps it is possible to have many people that we consider friends. Maybe not close friends; maybe not good friends; but friends nonetheless.

So what is true friendship?

Last Sunday, Rev. Sung-ok Ahn, who is the senior pastor of Gaepo Methodist Church, preached on friendship. His message was a reflection from two passages of the Bible. The first was from the book of Samuel in Old Testament which told the story of Johnathan, son of King Saul and best friend of David (who would later become king) who intercedes with his father to stop persecuting his best friend. The second passage was from the Gospel of John when Jesus tells his disciples that he no longer considers them his students but his friends and then tells them that, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13).

American President, Woodrow Wilson said friendship is, "the only cement that will ever hold the world together".

For me, true friendship goes beyond differences in opinion, culture and taste. True friendship sees the best in the other while acknowledging and accepting the flaws that are part of our broken humanity. I found myself nodding in agreement when I read a quote by Mother Teresa of Calcutta who said, "If you judge people, you have no time to love them."

The group War, ask the question, "Why can't we be friends?" as they examine the struggle for many of us to make friends with people we perceive to be different from us despite the similarities we have under the surface. The light-hearted lyrics point to a deeper message which reminds us that friendships do not have to be limited by culture, ethnicity, gender, social status or even age. 

I seen you walkin' down in Chinatown
I called you but you could not look around
Why can't we be friends?

I bring my money to the welfare line
I see you standing in it every time
Why can't we be friends?

The color of your skin don't matter to me
As long as we can live in harmony
Why can't we be friends?

I'd kinda like to be the President
so I can show you how your money's spent
Why can't we be friends?

Sometimes I don't speak too bright
but yet I know what I'm talking about
Why can't we be friends?

I know you're working for the CIA
they wouldn't have you in the Mafia
Why can't we be friends?

I like  "buddy" movies because they usually include an examination on the nature of friendship and the commitment required to maintain often complicated relationships. One particular series of flims is the "Lethal Weapon" series. Well I like the action and comedy elements also, I guess.  The film Lethal Weapon 3 features a theme song by Sting featuring Eric Clapton. I'm including the clip here for you to listen / watch, but the lyrics are what got my attention, apart from the great music of course. 

"If the night turned cold, And the stars looked down 
And you hug yourself , On the cold, cold ground
You wake the morning, In a stranger's coat
No one would you see

You ask yourself, 'Who'd watch for me?'
My only friend, who could it be?
It's hard to say it, I hate to say it,
But it's probably me

When your belly's empty, And the hunger's so real
And you're too proud to beg, And too dumb to steal
You search the city, For your only friend
No one would you see 

You ask yourself, 'Who'd watch for me?'
A solitary voice to speak out and set me free
I hate to say it , I hate to say it,
But it's probably me

You're not the easiest person I ever got to know,
And it's hard for us both to let our feelings show
Some would say, I should let you go your way,
You'll only make me cry
But if there's one guy, just one guy,
Who'd lay down his life for you and die
It's hard to say it, I hate to say it,
But it's probably me

When the world's gone crazy, and it makes no sense,
And there's only one voice that comes to your defence
And the jury's out, And your eyes search the room,
One friendly face is all you need to see
And if there's one guy, just one guy,
Who'd lay down his life for you and die
I hate to say it, I hate to say it,
But it's probably me ...."

 True friends are also forgiving, as many of us have experienced when our broken relationships are restored. However, true friends also challenge us to be better human beings. They call our bluff, even if it is done in a humorous or loving way. In the end we respect their honesty and accept the constructive criticism – even if it takes a long time. Martin Luther King Jr. shared a valuable truth on the impact of friendship on our responsible living: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." 

To come back to virtual friendship, last week I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of birthday greetings I received on face-book. In response, I share the following post on my facebook page to say thank you to the many friends who literally made my day:

This morning I climbed a mountain...well I walked most of the way (in my flip-flops). As is my usual practice every year, my birthday is my annual day of reflection so I though the mountaintop might help me get some perspective, seeing as I am in the second-last week of the semester and inundated with assignments.”

“I began the walk at the hour of my birth (Fiji Time) - it wasn't planned, that's just how things worked out (as they usually do in my life). Each minute I walked represented a year of my life and by the time I reached this year I had ascended - to the summit, not to heaven.

“I looked down, back along the path I had walked. I realised that not only did you - my friends, my family, my soul brothers and sisters - walk with me; you had carried me up the mountain- with your prayers, your positive energy, your affirmations, your friendship, your love. At the summit, you filled my cup and held it to my lips. You cheered as I drank deeply. You pointed out the view; you watched with me the new day, my new year begin. Thank you all for making this day special in your special way. With deepest love and appreciation for whom each of you are and what you mean for me.”

Value your friendships - whether you have many, or a handful. The best way you show your appreciation to your friends is simply to be a good friend in return.

Please enjoy this video clip of another wonderful song  - it's Dionne Warwick and friends feat. Stevie Wonder... "That's What Friends Are For"

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

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