I think it's time now to define what friendship is. I don't mean it's time now just in this series I'm writing, but it's time now in the days in which we live to define this matter because people throw around the word "friend" like it's nothing. Facebook as well as other social media sites are hugely responsible for degrading the word "friend" into simply a category label. Now, thanks to Facebook, everyone can be your "friend". Your boss is your friend, your corworkers are your friends, your mom is your friend, that guy you knew in middle school who just posts pictures of his car is now your friend, and all the other 937 people on your list you never talk to are also your friends. Facebook has even made the word "friend" into a verb! Are you kidding me?! Now you don't just "add friends to your contact list", but you simply "friend" them. Ironically, I think this shows a meaningful separation between the word "friend" as a verb and the real word "befriend" which actually means to become friends with someone. Judge for yourself; which sounds more meaningful to you: to say "I friended him" or "I befriended him"? Just as sex becomes more meaningless and less special the more people you have sex with, friendship becomes more vague and meaningless the more people we flippantly call our friends. I think it's obvious how cheap and slutty our recent usage of the word "friend" has become.
I don't want to make any kind of chart for us to push people we know into various categories of friendship or levels of relationship. We can organize people like commodities on Facebook, but I don't want to do that here. I just want to clarify what true friendship is, regardless of who might fit into that category. A friend is someone you love and who loves you. Let's start there.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8a --
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
This is what friendship should look like. Love. We're not going to do this perfectly -- nobody is -- because we're not perfect. But when we or our friends break down in an area of this love, that is where we need to show more love, more patience, and plenty of grace.
Cozy loved me. But I fully believe that we were not meant to be in friendship together forever. I believe it was God's plan for us to part ways after some time. We had a rocky relationship full of ups and downs, but over all, he was good for me and I like to think I was good for him, too. We both made mistakes, for sure, but our hard feelings toward each other were usually dealt with in a quick and clean manner. We did indeed love each other.
I loved Thanh. But I made mistakes in our relationship according to this passage in 1 Corinthians. I kept record of his wrongs in my heart for a while. So when we started to separate, I became angry. I wanted more from him. I felt I deserved to get more from him -- more love, more attention, more effort to the friendship, more whatever. I was self-seeking. I had to take a step back and ask myself, "Do I really love him?" I did love him, but I made mistakes which showed my love was flawed. He made mistakes, too, but I'm not responsible for him. I can only deal with myself.
R and I loved each other deeply. But he became infected with a disease of the soul; some kind of shame or fear or anger. I'm not sure exactly what it was, but it drove him away from True Love. He was overcome by a desperate urge to satisfy himself in an attempt to heal himself or escape from his disease, so he did the most unloving act I can think of by committing suicide. Love takes effort and maintenance. I did not know how to love him the way he needed it in the midst of his sickness and I didn't have time to figure it out before he died. I don't blame myself in any way for this. It's just unfortunate. Still, I'm glad that I got to love that man while he was alive.
Pedro and I love each other, but we are both human and we are separated on this planet. We cannot love each other in this position as we would both like to. However, our hearts are right toward each other and with God. That is the most important thing.
And that's where true friendship is rooted -- in the heart. Not on Facebook, not in some category, not in some social label, not in how closely you live to each other. In the heart. And that's where love is rooted as well. And that's the part of us which the Holy Spirit fills and works in the most. As the Holy Spirit fills us, we can better love ourselves and love others. When love breaks down, friendship breaks down.
But true friendship is two ways. It's reciprocal. If it's one way, it's just love; although it may be deep love flowing from the Holy Spirit within us, it's just one-way love. God loves us and He's always loved us even before we knew Him, but if we did not come to know Him, we would still be lost and go to hell. It's when we come to know Him personally and nurture a relationship with Him that we are saved. If the love between two people is mutual, true friendship can blossom.
My children's godfather in America is a Chinese-American dude whom I shall call "Pedro" here because that name rocks, especially for a Chinese dude. Pedro was R's roommate/suitemate in college and I met him for the first time in February, 2007 when I went to visit R on campus. R had told me about Pedro a lot, so I was eager to finally meet him. I thought R and I had a cool, touchy-feely, affectionate man-love thing going on, but -- oh my goodness -- Pedro blew us both out of the water. With him, there was no such thing as personal space. He could pop anyone's bubble they placed around themselves. We slept together -- all three of us -- on a futon in their dorm the second night I stayed with them.
As I got to know Pedro more and more, I discovered that he wasn't just a flighty, emotional, affectionate guy who slept with other dudes. He was very mature, fully committed to the Lord, unashamed to talk about Jesus with anyone, and a devout celibate. He had no desire to get married or have a girlfriend or boyfriend or to have sex. He told me one time that, had Jesus not entered his life, he thinks he probably would have grown to be bisexual. But as it was, I've never met someone so asexual in my life. Not asexual... He masturbated, he acknowledged he had a sex drive, but his devotion to be single and celibate for the Lord's work was much stronger than his sexual urges. Perhaps because he was celibate this way, because he was totally committed to doing the Lord's work and being led by His Spirit, he loved others unabashedly, physically and through words, gifts, quality time, and acts of service. He had the five love languages mastered.
I've never seen someone love the way he loved; pursue men the way he pursued men; not with selfish intentions, evil ambition, desperately trying to get his own needs met, but with sincerity of heart and selfless sacrifice. He was completely considerate of other people's weaknesses and needs, concerned for their well-being, and constrained himself to meet them in their place of need, yet if he was free to do as he pleased, nothing short of actual genital contact was off limits for him. He was as flexible to the Lord's leading as I knew any man could be, and obedient without care for his own image or reputation.
I was living with R and his wife when R committed suicide. I still had to work my job there in Raleigh for another month, but we were losing the house and I had to get out. Pedro lived just a few miles away in a small apartment with his roommate/disciple (that's a whole other story for another time!) and I called him from the police station right after I found out about R's death. I told him what had happened and that I needed a place to stay, and without question he opened his door to me. I lived with Pedro for about five weeks -- five of the best weeks of my life in the midst of one of the hardest, most painful darknesses I've experienced. But he had to move to South Carolina to start a new job and I had to move to China again. When we moved out on the same day, it was the last time I saw him face-to-face.
But Pedro pursues. He works hard for relationships. That is his nature. We haven't met in three years, but he still has a place in my heart and neither of us are letting this relationship dissolve. We're far away from each other, we are both busy, we don't talk very often, but there's something between us that's holding on.
So now we have four men in the picture -- Cozy, Thanh, R, and Pedro. Cozy poured into me, but I outgrew him. I poured into Thanh, but he dropped out. R and I poured into each other, but he died. And Pedro and I live on opposite ends of the world from each other, but we're still knit together in heart. And through these four friendships, I have learned a lot about friendship, about love, about brotherhood, life, and God. As I continue this series on friendship, I want to explore some of these and I hope we can all learn and grow through this together.
Ecclesiases 3:1-8 --
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:a time to be born and a time to die,a time to plant and a time to uproot,a time to kill and a time to heal,a time to tear down and a time to build,a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,a time to search and a time to give up,a time to keep and a time to throw away,a time to tear and a time to mend,a time to be silent and a time to speak,a time to love and a time to hate,a time for war and a time for peace.
I can point to these three friends -- Cozy, Thanh, and R -- and others as examples of good friendships that went bad and I can get angry and ridicule them and put all the blame for the destroyed relationship on them and I might be right to. I did my part in the relationship, they didn't, so I'm right, and it's their fault everything went to hell. This is what a lot of people do. It's rarely ever our own fault; it's always their fault. And that might be true and we might be right in those cases. I don't know about you, but aside from these relationships, I can think of a dozen more in which I dropped the ball, I couldn't keep up with them, I didn't return their e-mails, I stopped calling, I didn't reach out, I didn't take them seriously, and although they might have tried to keep in touch with me, I let the friendship dissolve. It's all my fault. There are even more besides in which it was their fault and mine that the relationship ended. I can point my finger at a handful of people who let me slip through their fingers, but there is a room full of people pointing at me for my selfishness and neglect.
To those of you whom I've hurt this way, if you're reading this now, I'm sorry. I can only ask you to forgive me.
When a relationship ends, whether suddenly or gradually, if it really was the other person's fault, we have every right to blame them. Many times, we do. And we continue to blame them again and again for years. Every time we look back to that period of friendship and remember the good times, we then remember how it ended and we blame the other person for it, and we feel justified in doing so because, after all, it really was his fault.
Yes, and mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:3), regardless of how right that judgment is.
So, from the perspective of mercy, let me give a little more insight into my friendships with these three men. Cozy was my brother in Christ and I knew, no matter how much he irritated me, made sarcastic jokes, criticized me for various things, misunderstood me, and was oblivious to my needs, that God had put him into my life to sharpen me. Nobody could sharpen me the way Cozy could. He always seemed to say the right thing at the right time that annoyed me to no end but for which I was so grateful. He spoke God's words to me without realizing it, and they were hard to take sometimes, but they were good for me like medicine. I opened up to him and sometimes he welcomed me and comforted me, and other times he completely blew me off. Strangely, he opened up to me sometimes, too, in ways he never opened up to others. I loved that man. But the kind of relationship we had was not the kind that lasts forever. Cozy was in my life for a season when I needed a sharpener.
He asked me to be an usher at his wedding, but I couldn't oblige because I was moving to China. It wasn't just my moving to China that broke us up. I was growing and didn't need him to sharpen me as much as I had before. God used him in my life for a time, and then that time ended. I can accuse Cozy of being lazy and not caring enough about me after I moved abroad, but really, our relationship would have become strained anyway as I continued to grow if I'd stayed in Charlotte. Cozy simply was losing his job in my life, and that's a God thing; not Cozy's fault. Any hard feelings I might have held onto later I now see were ungrounded.
Thanh was another case. I spent more time with him on a regular basis than I did with anyone else. I gave him my time, I took care of him when he was sick, I taught him the Bible, I tried being affectionate with him, and I think I was the first guy he'd ever hugged. We went to the beach together three or four times, he never had a pay anything for it. I bought him meals and never minded it at all. I loved spending time with him. I loved him so much. I thought of him as my little brother in some ways because he was younger in the faith than I was, even though he was actually about a year and a half older than me. I opened up to him and he listened, but he never opened up to me about anything personal. Not really, anyway. He'd had a hard life at home, though, and his dad was an alcoholic, so I wasn't surprised he had issues in relating with people. I know that I was good for him. I worked hard for him from a true and pure heart. There was always a piece of me that wanted more from him, though, and I never got it.
I realized our friendship was starting to crack in June, 2008. My best friend R had just gotten married and I was the best man in his wedding, so I had to wear an orange tie. I bought a bright orange tie from a department store that was about thirty or forty minutes from my home and I kept the receipt because I knew I would wear it just once for the wedding and then return it for a refund (I'd asked the clerk at the store if I could do that and he said it was fine). After the wedding, my car wasn't working, so I asked Thanh to give me a ride to the store so I could return the tie. It had cost around $40, so it was worth the effort to go all the way down there for a refund, and it was the last day I could go to get a refund before the deadline. I remember that day well. It was a Saturday and I wasn't working and neither was Thanh. He lived ten minutes away and we were online at the same time, so I asked him if he could take me down to the store. He said he didn't really want to. I asked if he was busy. He said he wasn't. I asked what he was doing. He said just hanging out on Facebook. I asked if that was what he planned to do all day. He said yep. Finally I said that if he drove me to the store, I'd give him half the refund money from the tie -- $20. He said okay. So he came over and picked me up and we went, and I gave him $20. That was an awkward car ride.
We hardly kept in touch while I lived in China. I don't think he ever e-mailed me. I found out through Facebook that he was getting married (one of the worst ways of gaining information about a person you dearly love). I cried. When I went back to America for a few months, it was awkward. It was like I didn't know him anymore and he didn't care about knowing me anymore. Then, after moving to Japan, I decided to delete my Facebook account -- the only means by which he bothered to keep in touch with anyone -- and he basically said, "okay, bye." And that was it. That was the end. I sent out some mass e-mails over the next year or so to update people on my life here, and I got replies from his wife that sounded like she was all happy to hear from me, even though I'd never known her myself, and I never heard from Thanh again.
I can say that Thanh seriously dropped the ball in our friendship. And I'm right, he did. But if I hold that over him, I must then ask myself, did I really love him? Love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Cor. 13:5). Do I still love him? I remember his faults, yes, but I have come to forgive him. I do not hold these faults over him. Even though I would be right to judge him, I know I love him, so I choose to show mercy instead. Rather than continuing to blame him for the obliteration of our friendship, I go back to it in my memory and here in this blog so that we can learn from this experience. I know God used me in Thanh's life and it was for a reason and it was good. I will not curse him or regret anything I did. Love and mercy shall triumph.
Then there was R, my brother in arms. Like I said before, I've talked about him in previous posts, so you can read about him there. He killed himself. Rather than open up to me or try to find help, he killed himself. He was selfless and loving his whole life, but in a moment of extreme despair, he made a rash and selfish decision. I had to wrestle with anger against him because of that decision he made. I can't talk to him about how his action made me feel or demand an apology; he's dead. So, once again, I must choose to be grateful for the time I got to spend with him while he was alive, and I'm grateful to God for allowing me to be with him up to the day before he died. We can learn from this experience, too.
There was one more close friend I haven't mentioned yet, though, who hasn't let our friendship collapse. We don't talk very often, but we still consider each other to be very close friends. I didn't meet him at my church, but God has used him in remarkable ways in my life. In fact, he's my children's godfather in America.
When I was a kid, I had several very good friends. We played together every day and did the whole "I promise to be your best friend forever" thing, and even gave each other friendship bracelets as tokens of our promises. Yeah, most of my friends were girls. And then when I was twelve, I moved away, and our promises of eternal friendship vanished into the air. I suppose that's to be expected among children.
I didn't make anymore friends until I was 16 and started going to a new church. I made a few friends in the youth group there -- again, all girls and one guy who couldn't make eye contact -- but we were in high school then, and when people finish high school, they usually lose touch with all of their friends from that period, especially if they never went to the same school together. When I finished high school, I went away to be a part of YWAM for six months. When I came back, I didn't have anymore friends. I had developed incredible friendships in YWAM, but after those six months were finished, everyone moved away and we eventually lost contact with each other. We stayed on good terms, but I no longer had anything in common with them other than a shared six-month experience, so it was hard to maintain any relationships with the people I had grown to love. We tried for a while, but you know how these things go. People get busy, life happens, and one day you realize you haven't heard from so-and-so in a year and a half. "Is she still alive? Where is he living now? Whatever happened to...?"
I joined a new church after YWAM and made new friends in the small group of young adults there. That was another great time of my life! We worshipped together, prayed together, talked, hung out together whenever we could, watched movies together, went to amusement parks together. Those were probably the best friends I've ever had in my life, guys and girls together. But now I want to focus on the guys.
There were three guys I was closest with from that group: One, whom we sometimes called "Cozy", but you'd be wrong to assume that meant he was cuddly and affectionate. He wasn't. The next was an Asian guy with, like, four different names and nicknames, but I generally called him "Thanh". He wasn't a Christian when he first started coming to our group, but he eventually grew to accept Christ as his Savior. Lastly, there was my best friend I'll just call "R" here. I've mentioned him before in my blog. He killed himself in March, 2010.
I always said Cozy confounded me to no end. He drove me nuts, but I loved him. The Lord loved him and told me so and brought me to love Cozy in the same way. Cozy was a typical dude. He loved Jesus with all of his heart, but seemed rather oblivious to some of the glaring needs of people around him. He had his own struggles, but he didn't want to talk about them very much. He was a worker, always serving, always helping.
Thanh, like I said, wasn't a Christian when I first met him. We had a mutual friend who sometimes came to our small group meetings and she brought him with her one night. He was Asian and interested in Japanese things, so I hit it off with him right away. Like, that same night when he first came, we exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses. He was gorgeous, too. Oh my goodness... perfect teeth, beautiful smile, sparkling black eyes, short but strong stature, and a damn fine butt, if I may say so. He was really meek, though. It's not often I get to describe someone as meek, but Thanh was meek. Quiet, generally introverted, I think, but full of talent and strength. He was also a typical dude like Cozy was and didn't want to talk much about his own problems, and his heart was absolutely off-limits to outsiders. We became good friends and I helped disciple him some after he got saved, but he never opened his heart to me or allowed himself to be vulnerable with anyone I knew of.
Then there was R. He wasn't physically attractive, but he was my best friend, hands down. I've already talked about him before, so if you want to know more about him, look up my older posts. He opened his heart. He was real with me. He was honest and loving and affectionate. And he went to school three hours away, so I didn't get to see him as often as I saw my other friends, but we were still tight.
I spent over four years with these people, worshipping with them, hanging out with them, being their friend. I thought these were finally the friends I had wanted, I had needed my whole life who were stable and mature enough to stick around, who wouldn't move away or graduate and then forget about me. In fact, they didn't move away. They stayed where they were, pretty much in the same city. I think Cozy and Thanh still go to the same church I used to go to. It was I who moved away. I couldn't make a life in Charlotte, but I got a job in China, so I moved. I thought we'd keep our friendship going online through Facebook, e-mails, Skype, whatever it took. I wasn't going to just wave goodbye to these friends and then step on the plane and kick them out of my life.
These plans were okay for a little while. Then a few months later, riots broke out somewhere in China and the government blocked all foreign social media websites in the country to crack down on unregulated public discussions that might cause any future trouble. Okay, so Facebook was gone. But there was still e-mail. I sent out e-mails to my friends pretty regularly for the rest of the year. At first, I got tons of replies, but mostly from relatives. As time went on, I got even fewer replies from friends. Even when I sent personal e-mails to them, I usually didn't get any reply at all.
Cozy got married, like, the week after I moved to China. They have two or three kids now. Thanh got married later that summer to some girl I hardly knew. R had already gotten married the year before and I had been the best man in his wedding, but by this time, his wife was kind of running his life. I no longer had private contact with R. It was always R and Wife. I loved R, but I wasn't very close with his wife, so it was awkward to maintain a relationship with him if she was always right there beside him reading his e-mails and listening to his phone calls.
It was hard for me to accept, but I was quickly becoming to these men just one of their old friends... old and fading. I didn't want to accept it. I fought hard to stay in their lives, to keep them up with mine, to get real and personal with them. I asked them to pray for me about certain things, I asked them if I could pray for them about anything, I... I fought. I fought for them... And I got little response... and usually the responses came from their wives... and I lay on my floor and cried.
For a long time, I've been struggling with my place in the online world. I'm still struggling, but I believe I've made a bit of a breakthrough. This matters because the world I live in -- the world we live in -- is a technological world and we're all on the internet. If you're not on the internet, you're not reading this right now.
In the autumn of 2011, I deleted my Facebook account and never regretted it. I couldn't stand how my once in-person relationships had become isolated to Facebook. I still have issues with that and I still don't regret deleting my Facebook account back then. Last week, however, I opened a new Facebook account. I opened it because there are specific people I know in Japan who apparently use only Facebook to keep in touch with people, so if I want to keep in touch with them and keep up on some church activities happening around here, I need to be on Facebook. But once I got on, I thought it would be nice to also add some people I know exclusively online, so I've added them to my "friends" list as well. However, I'm not adding anyone I knew in America -- none of my family or relatives, none of my old friends, nobody I used to go to church with. I don't want any of them to know I'm on Facebook. That would be too much drama, too much mess, and I really don't want to get back into that. I like having fewer than 50 "friends" on Facebook. But since I opened the account, I've been asking myself, "Why am I back on Facebook?"
Last autumn I stopped blogging on Xanga, too, and resigned myself to using just e-mail and instant messaging to keep in touch with people. That was good. I liked that. It was hard sometimes, but it was good. It was good to put forth a little more effort to keep in touch with people I care about, and it was nice knowing the people who e-mailed me back took a little more time and effort to connect with me. There's so much visual noise these days, so many people posting and commenting online in almost every forum and few people are saying anything worthwhile. But when communicating requires a little more time and effort, you think more about your words and words suddenly have more value. I liked giving valuable words and receiving words from friends. They meant something to me. But now I'm back on Xanga, too, and enjoying it, yet still asking myself, "Why am I back on Xanga?"
Some other related questions I'm asking myself are:
1. What is my place on the internet? Where do I belong? What am I supposed to be doing on here?
2. Why do I hate and love the internet so much at the same time?
3. Obviously God has used the internet for good, so how can I be used by God on the internet for good?
4. Are internet-only friendships of any real value?
Some thoughts and answers I have come to for these questions are:
1. The internet has given me a place to throw ideas out and get feedback on them. This has been immensely helpful for me in my writing as well as my personal and spiritual growth. I suppose this is good for me, so I'm not sure I should give it up forever.
2. I hate the internet because it has cheapened and demolished relationships. It's addictive, it's self-serving, it promotes laziness, and there are pornographic pitfalls at every turn. But I love it because it opens doors to relationships that would have never been constructed any other way, it makes ministry possible in new and exciting ways, and people can find some real help and support. I want to be part of that support.
3. This is a question for God to answer.
4. I have probably wrestled with this question more than any other. Six months ago, I was almost ready to throw my computer out the window and say goodbye forever to everyone I knew online. I loved my online friends, and that was part of the problem. I loved them and became frustrated because I couldn't see them face-to-face, I couldn't hug them, I couldn't hear their voices, and I couldn't live my day-to-day life with them. I actually got a little angry about it. It got to me. It seemed so unfair to love people so much and yet they still lived thousands of miles away. I thought it might be better to ignore them all and just live my life here. So, I deleted my Facebook profile and stopped blogging.
But this week, and maybe even the week before, I've been struggling with these questions and more and I realize, at least for question number four on the list, I have a kind of answer. It's yes, internet-only friendships are valuable, but limited, and thus we must not allow ourselves to grow frustrated because of them like I had done. I have received so much support and encouragement from friends -- yes, real friends -- whom I know solely online, and I'm forever grateful to those of you who have played a part in that. Thank you. Not only that, but I know I have played a part in blessing other people online. I have been a friend to people who have needed a friend and couldn't find anyone around them they could trust. The internet offers us this ability to connect with like-minded people, people who need each other, people who need to know that somebody out there "gets" them, in ways that are simply not possible by any other means. God can use this! But we must be careful and not rely on our friends -- online or offline -- to support us in ways that only God can. I cannot stress this enough. If we turn to a thing for support more than we look to our Father, we will grow disillusioned and frustrated. If we abide in Him, however, then there is no limit to how much or in what ways He can use us to reach other people.
I'm online for you guys. For you men who struggle, you men who are tempted, worn out, and frustrated. I love you all and I want you to know the Father's love. Maybe you can't find anyone around you whom you can talk to, and maybe that's why you come online. May the Holy Spirit guide you. Why did I get back on Facebook and Xanga? Not just for my own pleasure, my own benefit, but for you, and to a higher degree, for God and His purposes. I have repented of seeking people to fulfill me more than God. Now may the Lord use me in whatever capacity He sees fit.