What does it mean to be a true friend?

This evening, around dusk, Chelsea Clinton will be married to Marc Mezvinsky on a private estate in mid-Hudson New York. It's not only the details of the wedding (dress, food, location) that have made the local tabloids and newspapers, but also the as-of-yet undisclosed list of guests. An article in the Washington Post today suggests that those who get invitations to the super hush, very elegant event will be elevated to the "Triple A List" of Clinton friends. And that after the wedding, people will be clearly designated into two categories: those who were at the wedding, and those who weren't. Being a "friend of the Clintons" is not something new. I remember being introduced to the acroynum FOB (Friends of Bill) during Clinton's presidency. Getting on the FOB list (and maybe even spending a night in the Lincoln bedroom) took social networking to a new level.

When Jesus talks about being a friend of His in John 15, he isn't offering entrance into a private club or social circle with privileges and prestige. Instead, he's talking about what it means to share His very heart and mind. Being a friend of Jesus means that we have bought into the plans and purposes of his Father, and share in the unity of the Trinity the desire to bring about the Kingdom of God-the reign of God's love. "I no longer call you servants," Jesus states, "but friends, if you do what I command." The commandment "Love one another" implies a servant/master relationship, but along the way, as the servant believes and acts out of the heart of the command, the relationship changes from one based on obedience to one that flows from a shared perspective. "Everything I have learned from the Father, I have shared with You," says Jesus. This knowledge, and acting out of it, makes all the difference.

I'm sure there are many good examples of servants becoming friends, but one that springs to mind is the relationship of Albert to Bruce Wayne in "Batman Begins." As a child, Bruce (Christian Bale) loses his billionaire parents to a senseless murder. The story unfolds as Bruce struggles to conquer his fears and create his own identity. This journey would be impossible were it not for the constant help of his butler, Albert (played by Michael Caine). A true servant of the elder Wayne, Albert so embodies the values of the family he's served for generations that he becomes Bruce's most constant ally and friend. The result is that Bruce is able to become the person his dad would have been proud of.

The guests on the coveted wedding list for this weekend are people who truly know and are friends to the bride and groom. God's friend list is unlimited - the only requirement, a commitment to love as God loves. To join with God as He creates a community of people who share His heart and live out of His love.
It's nice and cool inside the house; the air conditioning is doing yeoman's work in keeping our house comfortable in the heat wave this weekend. But, it's Saturday, and the idea of sitting at a computer upstairs (although the view from the window is delightful) seems to miss the Spirit of the Day. So I've settled in with my peach/club soda and my laptop under the cherry tree in the front yard in an attempt to keep my goal of a blog a week. This practice of writing is one attempt of mine at self-control and I continue in the hope that it will produce fruit of its own...

This morning Kara (middle daughter) and I went to our favorite spot on the Yellow Breeches to get in a morning swim. We bring our tubes, set in a ways up from the main gathering spot, and then paddle further upstream to where the water is a bit deeper and one can actually swim. It was a perfect morning, hot and sunny, and full of interesting conversation. As we headed back downstream, we noticed several flotillas of tubes, friends and family ready to set off on long meanderings down the stream. These lazy river gatherings often include not only tubes of various colors and sizes, but floating coolers of beverage, and perhaps even a dog along for the ride (or swim). 

This morning there was something new. An enterprising soul, dread locks a burnished orange, was launching a raft. Who knows where the actual raft came from? although Kara hazarded a guess that it was the top of some sort of dock. The owner had secured inner tubes to the front and back (bow and stern if you prefer) for additional buyoancy. A wooden crate was lashed to the floor of the raft, no doubt with sustenance inside, and by the time we reached our car, the craft was on the water. Paddling down the stream, lurching a tad from side to side, the adventurer was off! I had to smile. The creek was getting low, and I seriously doubted that this would be smooth sailing, but I had to love the sheer creativity of the guy. "I salute you", I said to the voyager, under my breath. "I salute you".

I walked to the back of the van to stash the tubes, and as I turned away from the car, once again I was stopped in my tracks. The mammoth trunk of a sycamore fig was planted squarely in my vision. The dappled beiges and greens and taupes created an exquisite mosaic of texture and color. I couldn't not respond. "I see you", I said to the tree. "I see you. You are beautiful. I notice."

I loved the movie "Avatar." I loved the beauty of the world and the gentleness of the people and the interconnectedness between the people and the world. I found it inspiring and thought-provoking. I also was struck by the phrase "I see you".  The Na'vi spoke this to another as a way of showing that they noticed and understood and honored. I find myself wanting and willing to slow down and open my eyes and ears to what's around me - to be present to nature and the beings, human and animal that live on it with me. To notice, value and respond.

This morning, as I was out on the creek, surrounded by spreading trees and darting birds, legs dangling over a tube, head tilted back to see the beautiful sky, I couldn't help but say  "Hooray for God!"  Which, being interpreted, means,
"I see You."
Not too long ago my husband convinced me to watch "The Incredible Hulk". I'm not much into "B" movies, and I was afraid this one would be too corny, but I was pleasantly surprised. The movie begins with Bruce Banner (played by Edward Norton) sitting in an attic apartment doing some deep-breathing, yoga type meditation. He's been undergoing training in the martial arts to gain control of his emotions and he is disciplining himself to be able to keep his heart rate down so that he can keep from morphing into "the Hulk" even if provoked. If the Hulk is unleashed, Banner will lose control, and perhaps injure those he loves. Later in the movie, the transformation does occur, however, his old girlfriend, Betty (Liv Tyler), is able to form a slight connection with Bruce even while he is in the Hulk form. This ability to integrate Banner and the Hulk persona is intriguing and Bruce begins to wonder if he should keep his superpowers and discipline himself to be in control of them rather than continuing to seek a cure. The movie ends with him doing the yoga again - but this time he's practicing raising his pulse so that he can become "the Hulk" at will.

Ever since I've been thinking about the fruit of the Spirit, I've puzzled over self-control. Oftentimes, I've equated self-control with discipline (something I tend to be less than enamored of) since discipline seems like something that you need to drum up yourself -e.g. get up in the morning and run two miles before breakfast despite the fact you're not a morning person and hate to run, or "just say no" to eating that second brownie even though it's warm and fudgey and calling your name out loud. So it's interesting to think of self-control as something that the Spirit is ready and willing to produce in us.

But what is the purpose of self-control? For Bruce Banner, in the Incredible Hulk story, self-control is a means of mastery over an incredible power. First, it involves making sure that unchecked emotions don't ignite the transformation into a being the he can't handle. Secondly, it involves developing a mental control that will be strong enough to harness the power of the Hulk so that this power can be used for the good.

As Christians, we are given access to the amazing power of the Holy Spirit. This power, which is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, is available to us to live in Kingdom ways and to do Kingdom works. I'm thinking that sometimes self-control is needed because we can block the power of the Holy Spirit. I may need to control my emotions, for instance, so that they don't keep the Spirit from flowing out in kindness or gentleness.

On the other hand, sometimes my emotions may be the instigator from the Holy Spirit to stand against injustice, or create a piece of art or serve tirelessly others around me. In this instance, self-control is needed to channel appropriately the energy that comes from the Spirit so as not to cause collateral damage or push myself beyond healthy limits.

I think there's more to ponder here and will take it up in the next blog...
It had been a lovely day. Seated at the shore of the Yellow Breeches (a stream near our house),  I was mentally composing a status update to my facebook page: Perfect day, checked out a new church, grabbed some Moe's burritos and explored a new park  in Harrisburg, came home to watch Spain win the World Cup, then a brief jaunt to the creek to do some tubing and reading in the shade. Tonight, friends coming for strawberry-blueberry cream cheese pie.

In and out of the noises of the creek, the gurgle of the ripples, the happy shouts of kids, and the slow scraping of kayaks being pulled up to shore, I heard snatches of a cell phone conversation. "What do I ever get out of this relationship???" a voice demanded.  "It's been this way, every day..." I surreptitiously glanced over my shoulder and noticed a young man on his cell phone, seated by the tree trunk a stone's throw away.  I tried to continue reading, but was caught by the anguish in his voice. Profanities streamed, frustration mounted, his voice rose.

We all long to be in meaningful relationships, this one seemed like it was heading down the tubes. I wished I could somehow make a difference, but we left while he was still on the phone.

Last night I was browsing a book recommended by a friend. It's written by a Buddhist, and although I can't concur with the underlying premise of Buddhism, I've found wisdom and freshness in some of Buddhist thinking. In seeking to find meaning in suffering, Buddhism teaches that we learn through our own pain to connect with the suffering of others. That we allow our hearts to be opened and soft to those around us in pain. In Romans 12, Paul will say "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep."

My perfect day had collided with the not-so-perfect day of a fellow human being. I pray the God who comforts all of us in our sadness sends His spirit of comfort to this young man. That would make it the perfect day.

There's a sign taped on the door to our garage. It states: "Close gently, please". I wrote it for myself after several reminders from my husband that in certain situations (all doors closed in the house, including the garage door) the house acts as a wind tunnel, and if I'm not careful the afore mentioned door will slam in such a way that the house will shudder. I, being fairly oblivious to this phenomenon, had to be convinced and then reminded, several times. At which point, finding it more pleasant to remind myself, I taped the note to the door.

Gentleness is another of those fruit that I find difficult to cultivate. It's not hard for me to feel like a bull in a china shop, or a labrador puppy in a canoe. Many ways to upset the balance, lots of stuff that may end up crashing to the floor.  So how can I get on board with the Holy Spirit in making me more gentle? 

Maybe the door is a good example. If I think of the door as an entity in itself, I get annoyed at having to slow down and close it gently. But when I remember that letting it slam affects the entire house, I have a metaphor that reminds me of our inter-connectedness. Lack of gentleness has repercussions. Like the man who yells at the wife, who yells at the kid who kicks the dog. 

And I think it's connected to values as well: if I can learn to value the house, and its integrity, it will be easier for me  to change my actions and habits. Likewise, if I commit to valuing the welfare of my community, I will seek gentleness, becoming open to noticing and responding carefully to the fragility around me. In this I will follow the path of Jesus, who "did not break a bruised reed or put out a smoldering wick". (Matt 12:20)

One of the summer's projects is to acquaint myself with two writers, Bakhtin and Buber, who explore the self as meaningless outside of community. Not so much that we let those around us define us, as that we come to know ourselves in community, in our interactions and conversations with others. 

I'm struck as I blog about the fruit of the Spirit, how they don't make much sense outside the context of community. It is true that we can be loving to ourselves, kind to ourselves, joyful at our own accomplishments, faithful to our own ideals. But the true power of this fruit is its ability to foster healthy relationships.

Friday night we attended the farewell party of a friend who was heading off to grad school. Listening to stories from those gathered and seeing the interaction that took place gave us a new understanding of this young man. At one point, a college roommate was remembering a quote that the guest of honor had written on his wall a few years previously. It had stayed with him, molding his own life and lives of others as he passed it along. You probably remember it, too, he said, and the two of them recited:
"Be kind. for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."   (Plato).

I looked at the assembled group - I didn't know everyone there, but I knew the stories of several. One couple had recently dealt with a son's debilitating illness. Another had been fighting valiantly to restore a broken marriage, replacing toxic air with that of restorative peace.  I struggle at times to keep the faith that joyful, creative community is possible.

In the midst of our days, we have the opportunity to extend kindness, to bear another's load for a moment, to offer a refreshing comment, to infuse the atmosphere with humor and good will. I can make the choice to respond out of what I'm feeling, or I can take a breath, and allow the Spirit to breathe kindness through me. To improve the oxygen level for myself, and for those around me.