An Ethic of Friendship

Ocracoke United Methodist Church

Wedding season is here. June, on a beautiful island along North Carolina’s scenic Outer Banks, means weddings. To be honest, I stay fairly busy in weddings throughout the year. Ocracoke’s unspoiled beaches, relative isolation, and natural beauty make it an ideal spot for couples to begin their lives together. Unlike other ministers and churches up and down the Outer Banks, I’m not in wedding business. I don’t run a wedding chapel. My ordination didn’t cost thirty-five dollars and wasn’t downloaded from “getordainednow.com”. Weddings, like baptisms and celebrating and Holy Communion, are an important liturgical part of my ministry. I require at least four sessions of pre-marital counseling. If you’re looking for marriage on the fly; I’m not your guy.

I’ve lost count of the number of weddings I’ve performed. Many of them were dramatic and memorable. Some I will never forget. If I had to guess, it’s got to be pushing one hundred or more services where I’ve officiated at the union of two people in Holy Matrimony. I feel like I know weddings. I’ve seen the whole range of emotions one might find a rehearsal and in the service itself. I’ve seen broken families mended, fistfights, way too many drunken people, and heard 1 Corinthians 13 more times than I’ll ever admit. However, there’s one thing I’ve never done at a wedding. I’ve never been in a wedding.

Yes, you read that correctly. I’ve never been in a wedding; other than my own, as the groom. I’ve never been a groomsman, best man, usher, or anything. Friends of mine (both members of Generation X and Millennials) have participated in wedding after wedding. Some people I know, when summer hits, are still on the wedding circuit well into their thirties.

As I considered the contrast between my professional work and my personal life; some questions came to mind: What my never having been in a wedding says about the friendships I formed during those crucial early years of adulthood? How does my lack of participation from the other side of the altar inform my work behind the pulpit? Were the people I thought to be my friends, those who excluded me from their weddings, really my friends in the first place? Has popular culture created an ethic of friendship which deems participation in a friend’s wedding the greatest honor one friend can do for another? Is friendship something we should be cultivating between husbands and wives not between the friends you ask to watch you get married?  It’s the old Aristotelian question:  friendship of pleasure, utility, and virtue?  Where is the virtue in asking your college roommate to buy a suit or wear a bridesmaid’s dress?

Contrary to popular culture, the friendships we form in late adolescence and youth are shallow. The outgoing president of our annual conference’s youth program admitted as much on Saturday afternoon when he said how many times he’s seen people cry the same tears and pray the same prayers after the same youth events. Our emotions, like our hormones, can be manipulated. It’s part of growing up. Once we’re back in the valley, what do we do with those experiences? How do we contextualize our spiritual encounter with God (and our friends) and put that knowledge to work in the wider world?

For some young people, it comes down to returning to those same places and maintaining those relationships. It’s important to achieve an equivalent spiritual high with the same people. Others, (and I’d say I fall into this second group) have no need to go back. When Thomas Wolfe told me I couldn’t go home again, I believed him.  We got what we needed and are ready to use what we’ve learned without feeling the constant need to recharge and reconnect with the same set of people. Recharging is important but it can be done the way the mystics did it on Iona or John of the Cross did it Spain. There are other ways to meet Abraham’s God.  I don’t know if I’m right or wrong here. I believe once I learned, saw, and encountered the reality of the living Christ I wanted to be in the world with tax-collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. I withdrew, in a sense, because those around me made me uncomfortable.

I liked taking Jesus with people who had no friends and their greatest needs were love, food, and shelter. Those who weren’t my friends welcomed me to their tables. They became my friends.  Much like Troy, in Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, they would ask “Who says that crap?” I would say Jesus Christ. I have been welcomed and blessed by good people in common law marriages. I was honored to share their table. I will tell you the truth: this means more to me than renting a tuxedo and going to any wedding.

I don’t know whether it’s easier for me to talk about love and sacrifice because I’ve never been in a wedding. We live in a world that will break your heart. The other person, the one about to become your “till death do you part” friend, will break your heart. The good news is that we live in a world of grace. It’s hard to see God’s grace at work if you’re only going from wedding to wedding and reception to reception. Grace isn’t readily visible at the happy ending before the closing credits. Grace is the hard work of daily living. I’ve seen grace at work in my life and in the lives of others. Grace is elegant but it’s not beautiful, made up, and picture perfect for a wedding day. Friends who come to a wedding, the best gift you can give your couple: grace to grow.

Yes, popular culture has created a wedding mythology. Whether it’s Bridesmaids, the Hangover, or Wedding Crashers, the media spreads an image of how expensive and elaborate a typical wedding ought to be. Membership in the wedding party is now defined as what it means to be a close friend of the bride or groom. If you participate in this event, you are an intimate, close, personal friend. We know this because movies tell us it must be so.  Have you noticed how much these “best” friends in movies “fight” and “hate” each other?

We want those we love to bless us with their presence when we make promises before God to love and cherish a person for the rest of our lives. Remember, it’s about you. It’s your life. From here on out, you are writing our own script with the person you love. Learn how to love each other. There’s no movie, pattern, or handbook for this. Your friends won’t be of much help.   No one has any easy answers.  It’s the day to day, practical aspects of learning how to love your best friend right beside you that will make all the difference in the world.

So yes, I was in one wedding. The bride asked me to be there. Well, we sort of asked each other.  She is my best friend and my moral compass.  And to quote Winston Groom, “that’s all I have to say about that”.

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