Monday, August 30, 2010

Thoughts on Friends: A Commentary

Yesterday, a young friend of mine, Kalie, posted a blog on "the importance of friends." This is a topic upon which I have been reflecting for the last couple of years. Kalie basically qualifies her friends categorically: romance, best friends, seasonal friends and, I assume, just friends. These are fairly common categories and I appreciated her insight into each one. One of the categories struck me however, "seasonal friends." She states:

Sometimes friends are just for a season. This is kind of difficult for me to accept, because I really like permanence. I usually tell my close friends that they are stuck for life. It's true, because I really hate letting friendships subside. But, I truly have seen God place people in my life for a time, when I needed them or they needed me. And then we drifted apart, and you know, I think that's okay.

I agree with Kalie - I really like permanence too. I want to know that my friends will be there for me. I wonder, if I could ask her, if she is really "o.k." with this state of 'seasonal' friendship... I don't ask this question to be critical, but because it is something with which I am really struggling right now. As a man (now I'm qualifying!), I like things black and white, yes and no. Are you my friend, or not? Thus the idea of "drifting apart" is a bit repugnant to me. I want my friendships to work and I like investing in them. Indeed, earlier in her post, Kalie makes a statement about the very nature of friendship maintenance:

It[friendship] requires love, work, time, investment, giving of yourself, vulnerablility, honesty, kindness, acceptance and usually forgiveness from time to time.

I absolutely agree with this statement. So I wonder, are 'seasonal friendships' really friendships? Doesn't this mean that we have not actually invested in these relationships as we should, by definition, in order to maintain them as friendships? What's scary about this to me is that - taken to its end - it could mean that we sometimes enter into pseudo-friendships in order to get things from one another. It's simply a beneficial way of entering into a relationship to get something we want and then letting go once we have received it. But is that friendship?

Now I understand drifting apart - life circumstances take us all sorts of places - but does this mean that we are 'seasonal friends'? I also agree with Kalie that God brings people into our lives for a reason and then, for whatever reason, we are taken out of close proximity with them - but does this necessarily mean that they were a seasonal friend?

30 years ago, Sue and I were trombone players from competing schools. We became friends. We even went out on a couple of dates - by that I mean two. Once with another person and once to the "Rooster Days" fair in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Friend dates, if you will. She truly was a great friend to me. Then I moved to Houston. We went off to college and life took different turns. Then, 30 years later, she found me on facebook. We've reconnected. We've shared stories of marriage, family, careers and faith. It was as if the 30 years just dissolved away. I could say the same of my friend Brent. Since we reconnected about 5 years ago, we have kept a steady, regular, twice a year or so correspondence and have even visited one another several times. Although, it would seem that these two could qualify as seasonal friends, I don't think so. I think we are simply 'friends'.

If I might add to Kalie's assessment, I would say this:

I believe 'friendship' is something we choose. It is rudimentary 'phileo' - brotherly or friend love. It is a choice we make to care. Due to time, context and character similarities (or dissimilarities) we 'become' friends with people. The power of these friend/relationships ebb and flow. A best friend today can be just 'a friend' tomorrow, depending on time, context and character change. Nevertheless, they remain a 'philadelphian' until we choose to release them from that relationship. [But is this really possible? Once your heart has invested in a relationship of any kind, can you actually 'release' them? I say this because I have this sneaking suspicion that 'love' makes them a part of you...]

I believe that Christ asks us to 'befriend' our neighbor, in spite of our differences so that our world will be transformed into the Kingdom of God. But Kalie is right - to have this type of friendship - or really any type of friendship - requires, "love, work, time, investment, giving of yourself, vulnerablility, honesty, kindness, acceptance and usually forgiveness from time to time." But isn't this what the Kingdom is all about?

Kalie, this old professor thanks you for making me reflect once again on the deeper things of life!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

internal or external?

As of late, I have been thinking quite a bit about why churches cease to grow. Some well-intended people do not think that 'growth' should be a category by which the fitness of the church is judged; this defense, however, is usually an attempt to justify complacency or more often comfort. When looking at our 'blue print' - the Scriptures - for guidance, however, we find that the church indeed is mandated and even designed for growth. Thus, the non-growth party is simply misguided. For those of you who follow this blog regularly, you know that I have attempted to cast the church, as Paul has, as a "body". The failure of the church then becomes an issue of "health." A failure to grow is attributed to a variety of factors, but more often than not, it is because the members have become complacent and even rebellious in their attitudes towards health. It is like the person who has treatable cancer, but still refuses to stop smoking or working around cancer-causing materials.

But church health is more than just disease or accident. It's about focus. The church as a whole must have a singular vision. That vision may have several components, but it is still just one vision. The vision is to live in obedience to Christ. The components of that vision are to: love God, love neighbor, love one another and to make disciples. Neglect of any of those components means that the church is not seeing clearly and is bound to fall into problems. Most of today's churches then to skew their focus in one of two ways - either they have turned their focus internal or they have fought to keep it external.

The internally focused church tends to focus on keeping members satisfied. At first that focus tends to be on facilities accessibility, but then it turns into a focus on carpet colors, worship times, worship styles, worship service length, whether one should dress for church or come casually. The internally focus church is concerned about providing its membership with what it craves in order for those members to remain 'satisfied'.

The externally focused church places its resources at the service of the vision. This means part of its resources are used to promote love amongst the members (koinonia), love to God (worship), love to neighbor (evangelism) and making disciples (didaskalos mathetes). Ultimately, the eternal focus requires a shift from making ourselves the center of our understanding of the church, to God's understanding. This is difficult, but necessary.

The internally focused church, is comfortable but often in tension; the externally focused church can be uncomfortable, but exciting. The internally focused church wants to make you or at least some of you happy; the externally focused church wants to please God. The internally focused church doesn't want to 'offend' anyone; the externally focus church will always be offending someone. The biggest difference is that the internally focused church is willing to sacrifice the hard work of evangelism for the sake of a satisfied fellowship, while the externally focused church is willing to sacrifice personal comfort in order that the lost might be found and that the blind might be able to see. Where is your church's focus?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reflections on Faith & Culture in the West: Montana

Recently, I made a trip to the "Big Sky"state - Montana. In the popular "southern" imagination, Montana is simply 'Texas North' - a land of cattle ranches, farms and mountains. We learned this mythology from Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" with its bittersweet ending in the land of the Big Sky. The reality, however, is much different. Like Texas, it has its own geographical areas and divisions. But unlike Texas, the natural beauty of the northern range of the Rocky Mountains has created a stratified population that consists of recreative wealth and land owners, followed by an educated middle class and a lower service populace. Of course, this may describe anywhere in America, but more so in Montana. The natural beauty simply draws interest from all quarters of the populace.

What interests me though, more than the natural beauty or even the people, is the nature of faith practiced there. The natural beauty helps in this area. It helps people ask the question of God in general - but because of the beauty, the answer has to be robust. If God is real, then details are important. Thus the God that Christians worship is Father - Son - Spirit. But how so? What does this God look like? What does this God expect? How can does this God participate in my day-to-day reality? How do I participate in this reality? So in terms of Christian faith and practice, the reality of the risen Christ and the experience of the Holy Spirit are important aspects of the Christian life. There is no baptized culture in Montana, although you can see elements of the 'bible belt' there. It is still fairly secular and Christians must walk with integrity in order to influence the population with the gospel. Yet, unlike other places I have been in the United States, there is a tremendous openness to Christ and even a desire to know the living God in a powerful way. So the confessing Christians I have met are what I would call, "sticky Christians." They know what they believe, they want to know more and they aren't going anywhere. Christ is Lord.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Dennis Whitley: 1936-2010

My great uncle Dennis passed away this past Sunday. He was the youngest of my Grandmother Smith's siblings and the father of two of my favorite cousins. He was one of my father's favorite relatives - indeed they were born only a year a part and practically shared a childhood in Verden, Oklahoma. It is not my intention to write an obituary; rather, I write this blog as a tribute to "family."

My uncle Dennis lived in Tulare, California most of his life. He was a math teacher in the Tulare school system. He didn't start out as a Californian though. He was reared in Grady county, Oklahoma and attended college at Central State University. He met my Aunt Donna there. They had two daughters, Shelley and Lauri. They have three grandchildren between the two. After graduate school at the University of Oklahoma, they went to California to teach in the 1970s. At least this is how I recall it. During the summers, he would drive big rigs full of agricultural products. He also fixed air conditioning units. I can recall three times in my childhood, all in the 1970s, visiting my Uncle Dennis and Aunt Donna in Tulare. It was a hot little town. We went swimming in the local pool, took trips to the coast, went to Knots Berry Farm and Pismo Beach. Most of the time, I hung out with my cousins, playing games, eating Baskin-Robbins ice cream and just goofing off.

The most memorable times I had though were with my Uncle Dennis. On my second visit, he took me to "coffee" at his favorite restaurant. I don't remember the name of the place off the top of my head, but it was a "Denny's" or a "Stuckey's" or some such place. Nevertheless, he had coffee, I had a coke, and we talked about family life back in Oklahoma. My parents had divorced and life had become difficult for a 12 year old. So he went to bat for me when I couldn't bat for myself. That meant the world to me. On my last visit with him, about 11 years ago, we sat on the swing in his back yard, a swing that my father had painted for him years ago, and swung. As a matter of fact, I remember swinging with my dad and Dennis once when I was a boy. My dad was doing most of the talking and Dennis most of the swinging, until finally my uncle just laughed and said, "Well hell Jody" why don't you just...." and then stated what we were all thinking, but had never had the guts to say it! My Uncle Dennis loved to swing, talk and laugh. Usually just swing though. It was the ritual. He would swing, and if you wanted to talk to him, you would swing too.

I inherited that love of the swing from my Uncle Dennis. There are times when I like to go out on my back porch and just swing. It helps me think through the situations in life. It helps me relax. It helps me get rid of extra energy and find the rhythm of life sometimes. More than anything, it reminds me of my Uncle Dennis. When I look at new homes, I always look to see if it can accommodate a swing. Porch swings seem to be a "Whitley" character trait, if you, my readers will let me use it like that... When I swing, I swing hard too... drives Melissa crazy; but sometimes, you just have to swing until the stress melts away.

That I can recall, my Uncle Dennis was not a complex man and did not have a complex faith. He loved his family, his girls and his grandchildren. He did what he had to do. He barbecued a good steak and was fun to be around. He enjoyed his relatives for the most part... He lived and he died. But I don't want his passing to escape notice. He made a difference in my life that I will never forget. I am proud that he was my uncle and that he taught me the love of the swing. Rest in peace Uncle Dennis.