Ike and Tony became friends this summer while we were visiting my parents in California. By his age you would expect Tony to be friends with Ike’s grandparents (and he is), but Ike and Tony bonded over baseball and became true friends in their own right. You see, Tony played in the majors when he was young, and 7 year old Ike has recently fallen in love with the game. Obsessed really. He eats, sleeps and breathes baseball. And Tony was thrilled to participate — watching games, sharing stories from the old days, and making predictions for the future.
Tony doesn’t have much in the way of family. No spouse or kids, still missing his parents who he lost years ago. One day, a few weeks into this unlikely friendship, Tony mentioned to Ike that it was his mother’s birthday. So Ike asked Tony some questions about his mother. What was her name? When did she die? Her name was Jackie and Tony misses her terribly. Ike paused, looked upward, and sang “happy birthday” to Jackie. Tony was floored! He told the story with tears in his eyes to anyone who would listen. The baseball-obsessed wiggly 7 year old with the blue glasses had sung happy birthday to his beloved mother.
Ike’s father and I were floored too (trust me!). Where did that come from? How did our kid come up with that beautiful idea and did he have any idea how deeply that simple gesture would minister to this man? The only explanation is friendship. Tony and Ike had become friends, and true friends have a way of joining one another in the ways that matter most. As Tony says, “Ike and I have had a hell of a time this summer.” And that hell of a time was the foundation of a true friendship.
I love what C.S. Lewis wrote about friendship in his book The Four Loves. “Friendship…is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…’” It’s certainly a stretch to call Ike a man, but otherwise Lewis’s point accurately describes what happened between Ike and Tony. They connected over a commonality and discovered that neither of them were alone.
From a spiritual perspective, we can think of friendship using the two religious words “blessing” and “discipline.” First and foremost, friendship is a blessing. It is simply a gift from a gracious God who loves us. Think about it — we can’t force friendship. We can try, but it never works. We can act as a friend, we can make decisions about what it means to be a good friend, and we can certainly seek out and cultivate friendships, but in its truest sense friendship cannot be forced. Friendship is simply a gift to be received and celebrated. Our friends were given to us in love by a creator who knew that it’s not good for us to be alone.
“In friendship…we think we have chosen our peers. In reality a few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another…the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting — any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking no chances. A secret master of ceremonies has been at work.” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves)
Secondly, friendship can be understood in the context of spiritual discipline. Now don’t confuse spiritual discipline with self discipline. Self discipline is about controlling our impulses. Self discipline is that continual struggle to eat the right foods and keep our snarky comments to ourselves. But spiritual disciplines are practices that help us to grow spiritually. When we commit to practices of spiritual discipline, and engage in them on a regular basis, we are formed day by day into the person that God created us to be. Through spiritual disciplines we find our way into, what the Bible calls, “The fruit of the Spirit” — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (notice that self control is actually a positive result of practicing spiritual discipline!).
What’s fascinating is that normal, everyday activities can become spiritual disciplines. A walk around the neighborhood can be a spiritual discipline if you commit to it as a time, not only to get a little exercise, but to quiet the noise in your head and to recognize, celebrate and appreciate God’s presence. Your morning cup of coffee can be a spiritual discipline if you approach it as a moment of gratitude, silence, and reorientation. And friendship can be a form of spiritual discipline if we realize that our acts of friendship, simple or complicated, are not simply about us. Seeing friendship as a spiritual discipline reminds us that in cultivating friendships we are caring for the creation. We are watering a garden planted by God. We are joining our energy with the creative energy of God’s love. And anytime we do that we are engaged in what the Bible calls “the work of salvation” or “the coming of the kingdom of God.”
So back to Ike and Tony. As they enjoyed their unlikely friendship they were unknowingly participating in the life of God. Ike was bringing God’s light and love to Tony through his friendship. And that kind, retired baseball player was bringing God’s light and love to my squirmy seven year old, as they talked baseball and watched games together. Neither of them realized they were doing the work of the Lord. They were just being friends. Hanging out. Receiving and celebrating a beautiful gift, given to each of them by a loving God.