Among the VIP’S in my life are my wife, Gail, my closest personal friends, people with whom I share a common call to ministry, and a broader circle of significant people who may or may not share my view of faith. Among these people is Seth, a Jewish professor of law, who fives in our New York City apartment building.
He and I frequently walk together to the Roosevelt Island tramway.recent Supreme Court decisions, legal ethics, and the use of logic in argument. Seth stretches me because he’s a thinker. I feel as if I was never taught to be a thinker, that I’m always playing catch-up ball. Friends like Seth enjoy helping me do it. Incidentally, it helps that Seth does not share my view of God or of faith.
He accepts no empty words, no phrases I’ve used for so long that I’ve forgotten their real meaning. And he’s not worried about saying something that would offend a preacher’s ears. My agenda with Seth is simple: I like him, and I learn by tapping his mind. I just ask questions when I’m with him. One day he gave me what I consider a high compliment, coming as it did from him:
“Gordon, you ask great questions.” I enjoy having relationships with people who are quite different than me. I grew up in a system that suggested one spend time only with those who were candidates for conversion. The problem with this hit me with force one day years ago when I was conversing with my neighbor while we stood watering our lawns.
I was thinking how nice it would be to know him better. But then my childhood mechanisms kicked in. I actually found myself thinking, I’d sure like to get closer to this guy, but he’s a life-long Lutheran, and there’s no way he’d ever come to my church. So there’s no point in pursuing this relationship. I came to realize I had been groomed inadvertently to evaluate people’s worth on the basis of their potential to fit my agenda.
From that day forward I’ve worked at developing relationships for nothing more than the joy of natural friendship and seeing myself as part of the broader human community. If things naturally move beyond that to issues of faith and conviction, terrific! And that has in fact happened.
My change in thinking was one reason I struck up a friendship with Mohammed, an Iraqi from Baghdad who managed a cafe in New York City. From time to time we would sip coffee together comparing our worlds: his Islamic world and my Christian one. The day the bombs start dropping in Baghdad, I stopped by the cafe and waited for him to finish his shift.
“This has got to be an awful day for you,” I said. “Your family is over there, the bombs are falling, and you probably can’t tell anyone around here what you’re going through and expect them to understand.” “You’re right,” he said. “I can’t tell anyone that I’m from Baghdad. So I say I’m Swedish.” I made a comment about his dark eyes and his Middle Eastern complexion, and we laughed. “Well, I know where you’re from,” I said.
“And I want you to know that you’re my friend, and I’ll be praying for your family today. Let me know the first minute you hear word from them.” Mohammed wept. On days like this, I thought, it’s not hard to have a ministry when I don’t have to be anything but a cool source of water.
I’ve learned the joy of simplicity in relationships with people from all walks of life, and I’ve discovered opportunities for ministry as a serendipity. And then there are good friends, fellow learners and “growers.” I have accumulated a personal wealth in friends across North America, with whom I intersect regularly on the phone or by fax: we share book titles, interesting articles, and insightful experiences. In this cadre are three or four special friends whose worth to me cannot be estimated.
Friendship became a high priority at midlife, when I realized career achievements were worthless in contrast to being part of a network of friends who challenge each other to grow to become more useful to the kingdom. Contemporary Christian ministry can contain a cruel payoff if one is not careful. One day I found myself asking, “Now that I’ve spent the better part of three decades moving around the country at the invitation of congregations and in response to what I perceived to be the call of God, who will be there for me when I am dying?”
I realized that most of a pastor’s friendships are dovetailed into his or her role. Change the role and most of those friendships terminate. So who will be there, and where will they be, when you are no longer a pastor and you have another decade or two to be an old person? Who will share your aging years? Who will sit with you.