Sunday, 30 October 2016

That's what friends are for

One of my favourite childhood films was “The Jungle Book”, the Walt Disney version. I loved it so much that I didn’t go and see the remake that came out last year, for fear it my ruin my memory of the original. We even had an album of the movie soundtrack which I used to love to listen to on a Sunday afternoon at my grandma’s. I loved the songs, so many classics.

One of my favourite songs came back into my memory the other day. It was sung by the quartet of vultures who had a more than passing resemblance to the “Fab Four” “The Beatles”. They sang it to Mowgli who was feeling very lost and lonely in the jungle, without any friends. The song was of course “That’s what friends are for.” Composed by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman

"That's what friends are for!"

Friends and friendship have been on my mind quite a bit these last few weeks. It
was sparked off by a posting by my oldest and maybe dearest friend on Facebook. It had taken him months to pluck up the courage to do so and it touched me and many of our mutual friends deeply.

A few months previously he had been diagnosed with a form of Asperger’s Syndrome and had written this post to let his friends know. He talked about many of his struggles with certain aspects of communication throughout his life and apologised if he had ever offended anyone of us. The many responses from friends, of some 40 odd years of life, were beautifully moving. He is a deeply loved man and the reason for this is that he has always been a caring and loving friend to so many people, if a little “different”, from the so-called “norm”. He certainly has never done anything to offend me. I cannot say the same about me offending him by the way.

As I read the many loving and supportive posts I remembered our friendship and the many friends we had shared together. Going right back to second year at Batley Grammar school. I remembered going to watch Leeds United, our first terrifying encounters with the opposite sex and making music together and many other years that followed. We have not been as close for the last dozen or more years, but my goodness we shared so much together. When I think of many of the friends we shared and hung out with we were mostly misfits, never quite the norm. They say birds of a feather stick together, I think that there is a lot of truth in that.

As I remembered all the many friends I have shared over the years the quality that stands out the most is the level of acceptance of one another, despite all our peculiarities. This still stands today. Joan Chittister was so right when she said “Acceptance is the universal currency of real friendship. . . .It does not warp or shape or wrench a person to be anything other than what they are.” Acceptance is the true sign of friendship, radical acceptance of one another, exactly as we are. Perhaps that’s what a truly open religious community is, a collection of real friends. Friends who accept one another exactly as they are.

I think the greatest blessing of my life has been my friends. I have many friends, loyal friends and loving friends. Friends who have stood up for me and loved me at some pretty dark times in the past.

Friends have always stood up for me, going right back to primary school. I remember an incident when I would have been about 11 years old and had just begun to be allowed to do sport again. I was pretty useless, but very determined and others appreciated this. I remember there being an inter schools cross country event and all the schools in the district entered. Each had to pick a team and this was selected over a series of races. I wanted to compete, I don’t know why today as there was no chance of me getting into the team, on athletic ability. Each week though I ran in the race and each week I scored few points, certainly not enough to qualify, but I stuck at it. It came to the final race and I went for it. I was not doing well enough though as another lad who also wanted to run was ahead of me. Then something amazing happened. The star athlete of the school decided to help me out. He did it in a rather unsporting way by convincing this other lad to let me beat him and thus qualify at his expense. I do not know to this day why he did it, but I will never forget Darren’s gesture. Yes I felt bad for the other lad, but I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to run in the team. We ran, we didn’t win and I didn’t come last, actually about half way, better than I could ever have dreamed of. I just ran and ran as best I could across the muddy fields, lap after lap. I even lost one shoe half way round but just kept on going not daring to stop to pick it up for fear I wouldn't be able to begin again. One lad crossed the line a little after me with my shoe in his hand looking rather puzzled. I just grinned and thanked him as I claimed it back. I can think of countless other times when friends have been there for me, protected and helped me in so many ways. Other times when they have encouraged and spurred me on to be a better me. Too many to mention here today. It happened recently after something I posted on line, which irritated someone, who became quite critical of the comment and me personally. I chose not to respond to the criticism, but some of my friends did. Their responses were beautiful and touched me deeply. I am a lucky man, to have been blessed by so many good and loyal and loving friends.

Thank you

I have always been blessed with wonderful friends…What about you? Perhaps that’s something to think about…the friends who have blessed and continue to bless your life…

There is a phrase about friendship that has always irritated me, “Merely friends”, or “We are just friends”, as if being a friend wasn't important, didn't matter. Friendship matters oh so much. Friends are the people we share our lives with, who in so many ways make our lives what they are. Friends are, to quote Fredrich Buechner, the people we choose to “make part of our lives just because we feel like it.” There is no such thing as “Just friends”

Aristotle said, “What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”

A friend is someone you can trust, you can rely upon, someone who will be there for you. Certainly my friends have always been there for me. We have laughed and we have cried together. We have enjoyed some wild and crazy times together and we have grieved as we have lost one of our number. I have lost a lot of friends over the years, far too many.

A friend will stand by you of this I am certain, but that does not mean they will not criticise you or hold you to account. My best friends have shown this kind of love to me during my life. In fact sometimes your best friend is the one who is unafraid to call you out when you are wrong, when no one else will. This is the kind of friend who will help you learn life’s lessons.

Emerson also wrote, “Let us approach our friend with an audacious trust in the truth of his heart.”

This brings to mind the following tale:

From "The Heart of the Enlightened A Book of Story Meditation: 250 stories from many religions and cultures on spirituality" by Anthony DeMello

"There was once a rabbi who was revered by the people as a man of God. Not a day went by when a crowd of people wasn't standing at his door seeking advice or healing or the holy man's blessing. And each time the rabbi spoke, the people would hang on his lips, drinking in his every word.

"There was, however, in the audience a disagreeable fellow who never missed a chance to contradict the master. He would observe the rabbi's weaknesses and make fun of his defects to the dismay of the disciples, who began to look on him as the devil incarnate.

"Well, one day the 'devil' took ill and died. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief. Outwardly they looked appropriately solemn but in their hearts they were glad for no longer would the master's inspiring talks be interrupted or his behavior criticized by this disrespectful heretic.

"So the people were surprised to see the master plunged in genuine grief at the funeral. When asked by a disciple later if he was mourning over the eternal fate of the dead man, he said, 'No, no. Why should I mourn over our friend who is now in heaven? It was for myself I was grieving. That man was the only friend I had. Here I am surrounded by people who revere me. He was the only one who challenged me. I fear that with him gone, I shall stop growing.' And as he said these words, the master burst into tears."

A friend helps you become a better person, certainly my friends have helped me to do so, they have spurred me on by their example and encouragement and occasional criticism. This was a central claim of Aristotle’s “Ethics” who envisioned an escalating competition in goodness. He suggested that people try to do their best so as to be valued and respected by their friends thus inspiring them to do likewise.

Friendship is a key component of Buddhism. This is illustrated in the following tale a friend recently sent me:

One day while the Buddha was out walking with his attendant Ananda, who declared, “Teacher, to have companions and comrades on the great way is so amazing! I have come to realise that friendship is fully half of an authentic spiritual life.” They continued walking in silence when eventually the Buddha responded. “No, dear one. Without companions and comrades, no one can live into the deep, finding the true harmonies of life, to achieve authentic wisdom. To say it simply, friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.”

Could this be true? Is friendship the whole of the spiritual life?

Jesus said to his disciples, in John’s Gospel “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything.” To me this what a true relationship with God is about, friendship. Something that we are meant to mirror in our lives. This if you like is the Kingdom coming alive in our lives. We gain knowledge of the spiritual life through living in such an intimate relationship with God, with life and with one another.

I’m with the Buddha and Jesus, I believe that friendship is the whole of the spiritual life. In fact to live spiritually is to truly be a friend to life. This is how knowledge is truly revealed. This is the kingdom of love, coming alive in our lives. This is how we make our lives a scared space. This is how we manifest love in our lives, by being a friend to life. This is what being a part of a spiritual community is. Becoming a friend to life and to all that we meet.

It begins with radical acceptance. To accept those we meet as they are, exactly as they are. This does not mean we don’t point out when someone is in the wrong, no it just means we love and accept them right or wrong. It’s also about raising one another up through our example. You see by being the best we can be, in loving friendship, we automatically encourage our friends to be the best version of themselves that they too can be.

So my friends I invite you to join with me in the sacred space of friendship. I invite you to remember the friends you have known in your lives, the ones that touched and sometimes broke your hearts, the ones who accepted you just as you are and the ones who inspired you to be the best you, you could be. I also invite you to be the best fiend you can be to life and thus inspire all that you meet on your journey through life, to be the best version of themselves that they can be too.

Let’s become good friends, not just friends, not merely friends…Let us become friends to one another and friends to life…

I'm going to with this lovely tale from a short term friendship from Kent Nerburn ...some friends are just passing through...

From "Small Graces: The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life" by Kent Nerburn

“A Neighbour and a Friend”

"I see her standing in her front yard, glowering. She is jabbing at a patch of offending leaves with a rake.

Myra is ornery, hard to like. Raised on the plains of North Dakota, she asks no quarter and gives none. The world as she sees it is full of fools, damn fools, and crooks. I am not sure into which category I fall. Our relationship has been an uneasy truce. Though we are neighbours, we have never become close.

“She had a hard life. She’s got a good heart,” I tell myself. “Treat her with kindness.” But it is not so easy. She turns every conversation to herself, berates people that I know to be gentle and generous, and shoots at cats with buckshot.

I would dismiss her altogether if it were not for Craig, and the lesson he taught me long ago.

Craig passed through my life briefly but intensely – much the way he did everything. He was one of those people who brought energy and life into any room he entered. He had an uncanny ability to focus his entire attention on you while you were talking, so you suddenly felt more important and more responsible than you had before he was listening. He made you better by being around him. People loved him.

One autumn day we were sitting together; half talking and half working on some now forgotten projects for our graduate degrees. I was staring out the window when I noticed one of my professors crossing the street. He had been away all summer and we had not parted on good terms. I had taken great offence at some suggestion he had made, and had in turn given great offence in my answer. We had not seen each other since that day.

“Damn it,” I said to Craig. “I don’t want to see him.”

“Why not?” Craig asked.

“We don’t get along,” I said. “The guy just doesn’t like me.”

Craig looked down at the passing figure. “Maybe you’ve got it wrong,” he said. “Maybe you’re the one who’s turning away, and you’re just doing that because you’re afraid. He probably thinks you don’t like him, so he’s not friendly. People like people who like them. It’s that simple. Someone’s got to break the cycle.”

His words smarted. I walked hesitantly down the stairs into the parking lot. I greeted my professor warmly and asked how his summer had gone. He looked at me, genuinely surprised. He put his arm over my shoulder. We walked off together talking. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Craig at the window smiling broadly.

It was so simple, yet I had never seen it. I was coming to all my encounters with a fear that others were judging me, when in fact, they were worrying about how I would judge them. We were all living in fear of each other’s judgement, while the empty space between us was waiting to be filled by a simple gesture of honest caring.

Craig understood this. He knew that all we need is to open our hearts and show a genuine concern for others and what is important in their lives.

That was what made him so special. He basked in people like basking in sunlight. Their lives warmed him and they loved sharing themselves with him.

Myra has gathered the offending leaves and dispatched them to a pile in the corner of her yard.

“Damn leaves,” she says as I pass.
“A conspiracy between God and gravity,” I respond.
Then I think.
“That’s a pretty sweater,” I say.
She snorts.
“If I didn’t have a wife,” I continue,” we’d go out dancing.”
She snorts again. I continue on my way. But as I pass, I see her push an errant strand of hair back into place and adjust the collar on her sweater.
She looks around to make sure that no one was watching, then returns to her raking.

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