Saturday, July 11, 2009


The painting is Pablo Picasso's painting Friendship, oil on canvas done in 1908.

I've written before about the issues of friendship, especially as it applies to the Christian male. This morning, during my Starbucks book time with my son, I started thinking about friendship again. The reason is a week from today my long-lost friend Bill and his wife Susan will be in town.

Bill and I go way, way back . . . even to preschool days. We were best friends then and remained best friends for the most of our lives. We became Christians together and were involved with the Navigators in college. However Bill could not keep his mind (or hands) off the girls so he faded out of the Navs. The Navs, in those days, strictly frowned on dating.

I went on to an intense Nav training center in graduate school, and Bill went on to PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) seminary. Eventually I went to the mission field. About the time we were coming home from the Middle East, Bill and Susan left for Australia. After a number of years they moved to South Africa and have been there for about a decade.

This type of friendship with Bill is rare, especially among men. When a relationship goes back so far you develop this sense of security where you can say about anything and know that the other person still accepts you . . . just as you are. After all, I’ve seen Bill at his worse and he has me.

About 11 years ago, when I was in the midst of being a complete failure as a Christian, Bill was one (and only) person I could confine in. It was my good fortunate that he was in the states at the time.

But here is my concern. I want to keep my expectations low. Part of me wants to pour my heart out to him . . . and his wife. Susan is also a good friend as well, with our good friendship going back to the undergraduate days.

The reason that I want to keep expectations low is the looking-glass syndrome (mentioned a few postings ago). Bill is a professor at a PCA seminary. The PCA is one of the most “certain” Christian denominations. They have virtually all theology figured out to the last letter and they are harsh on those who do not. I’ve seen my old PCA denomination excommunicate a pastor and members, not over the gay lifestyle or new-age spirituality but over Christian doctrine that is so complex that it is difficult even to put into words. Then here I am, no longer certain about anything, except the real, obvious fundamentals of Christianity. I have hunches about eschatology, but I would never be certain enough to argue with someone over it.

The last visitor that I had from my old Nav group was about five years ago. Betsy goes back to my high school days so she is a pretty good friend. But she, like Bill and Susan, are on an entirely different page than me now. She too is strongly PCA and has certainly in most things. I know this well because her son (Dan) lived with us for a few months and he is great kid but is certainly certain (should that be “certain2 “) about most things in life.

When Dan’s mom was out we went for along drive and spoke about the old days. Then I did the social blunder (the kind of thing I’m now fearful that will with Bill) I used the word, “luck.” I think I said something to the fact of, “Yeah, Denise and I were pretty lucky.”

Betsy seemed very concerned taking a trivial matter to a much higher plane asking, “You don’t really believe in luck do you?”

Sheepishly I answered, “Yeah . . . I guess I do.”

I know that when I was a good Presbyterian I would never have used the word “luck” or “chance.” We really believed that every cell in your body was constantly controlled by God and no event, no matter how minor, happed out of cause and effect in nature . . . or chance.

From that moment on, Betsey seemed a little concerned about my spiritual state.

I remember a similar thing happening the last time I saw their family. That time it was her husband Dave and both their sons. This was fifteen years ago when our kids were quite young. I can’t remember exactly what happened, but we were having a great time until the social blunder changed everything. I’m trying to remember what it was that happened.

I know that “the event” had something to do with my daughter Amy. She was about four at that time. If I remember it right, she came down from her bedroom, donning just a tee shirt and underwear to say good night (this was after being read to and tucked in) to her mom and me . . .and I’m sure to see our visitors. Dave’s two sons were about 8 or 9 at the time. After she left, Dave seemed very concerned and I wasn’t sure why.

The next morning at breakfast Dave made some comment that Amy seemed to be very comfortable about showing her body to strangers and that is usually “a bad sign.” I was perplexed. Then he asked a strange (and painful) question, “She hasn’t been sexually abused has she?”

I didn’t know what he meant by that. You see, the thoughts of a four year-old-girl “showing her body” in a sexual way wasn’t even on my radar. To me, it was an excited little girl who wanted to see these interesting friends one more time. And it was too hot to sleep in her usual flannel pjs. This was nowhere near as bad as my fundamentalist sister-in-law, who accused us of sexually abusing our son because he had mooned her kids (I shared a few postings ago). But it was still on the same track of thinking.

As a side bar, I don’t understand why Evangelicals seem to be hyper vigilant over sexual abuse of children but I keep hearing stories of where it is occurring within the Evangelical church (as it did in my church growing up). But that’s another question to look into.

So things were a little awkward for the rest of the visit with Dave and his two sons. I had this constant feeling that he was disapproving of our parenting techniques.

It reminds me of when we were on deputation as missionaries, traveling from city to city (raising money) staying with church family after church family. We only had two kids, Bryan and Daniel, ages four and two respectively. I kept hearing things from our host families (usually the wife) like, “I’m surprised that you let your kids watch T.V.” or “I’m surprised you let your kids have refined sugar,” or “I’m surprised you allow your kids to talk during dinner.” I knew that eventually someone would say, “I’m surprised that you allow your kids to crap and piss in their diapers.”

My vision of hell, isn’t Dante’s Inferno but being a perpetual middle-aged pastor of a very conservative (has all the answers about life) evangelical church where my family is in the proverbial fish bowl 24-7. In this vision, instead of being married to Denise I’m married to an evango-Barbie (beautiful but extremely shallow) woman and we have ten typical kids. So the kids have the things that you would find in spectrum of any ten kids, one or two with ADD, a couple with a tendency towards depression and maybe a girl with an eating disorder. The church expects them to line up like the kids in Sound of Music when their dad would blow his whistle . . . then take their seat on the front pew. I digress again.

It has been ten years since I’ve seen Bill. He has always had complete candor with me . . . venting about an extremely controlling missionary boss or flirty co-pastor’s wife. Of course I have always felt very comfortable sharing at the same level with him. I really hope that it is the same this time. I’ve always held up our relationship as being the ideal for Christian fellowship, where you can say absolutely anything (as long as it is true) and feel loved and accepted . . . like a real blanket of grace. I just hope that blanket is still there.


Don said...

Now its a small world. I was a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America PCA from 1976-1995, graduated RTS Jackson, Ms. Hope you have a great time together

Don in AZ

MJ said...

Bill went to Reformed in Phily and now he is working on a doctorate somewhere in N.C.

About four of my old college friends when to Jackson for seminary. I think one of them,Ed (Hopkins) went to Jackson around the same time you did, graduating in about 76.

Like a Child said...

The church we had a tough experience leaving was a PCA church. I was raised a S. Baptist. My family still is Baptist, and my mom always corrects me about using the word luck instead of blessed, and she is not Calvinist at all. Looking back, both S. Baptist and PCA folks were equally certain about opposing view points. No wonder I'm so confused

MJ said...

Like a Child, thanks for your comments. I think that is one of the most refreshing things about leaving Evangelicalism, that is the loss of certainty in all the trivial (some not so trivial) details.

I do believe in luck. Somehow we've gotten to the place that we can't respect God's laws of nature (physics probability etc.) because in doing so, we think we are reducing God's power.

I see a totally omnipotent God, but who did created the world with what appears to be chance build in, or, in some circumstances, where chance entered through the fall.

An example of the latter, is knowing that each time a cell divides, there is a very remote chance (based on biology and the effects of the fall) that cell could mutate into a cancerous cell. That is very different from saying that God gave me cancer to teach patience.