Friday, May 8, 2009

Are You a Good Friend?

In a dangerous mountain hike, I discovered what real friendship is
by Gordon MacDonald

Musings during a quiet evening: Three years ago I traveled with three close men-friends to Switzerland and spent eight days walking the "wanderwegs" of the Alps. One of those walks was high above Grindelwald. It was a beautiful day, and our spirits soared in response to the alpine grandeur. And so did our self-confidence. Rather than take a pathway that was realistic in terms of length and difficulty for three men in their sixties and one in his seventies, we chose one requiring much greater exertion. Not smart.

Three miles into the walk, my friend Al (the man in his seventies) became exhausted. Seriously so. Turning back was not an option. I proposed to the other men that they walk on ahead to the end of the trail and secure rooms for us in a berghaus (mountain hotel) since it would be impossible for us to return to our regular lodgings for the night. Al and I then sat down to plot our strategy.

I suggested that we take 100 steps and rest for three minutes, another 100 steps and rest for three minutes. If we were going uphill, he would lead; if downhill, I would lead. This simple routine, I thought, would give order to our situation. Al agreed, and we started walking again, now very, very slowly. We had three miles to walk in 100-step increments, and it took almost five hours.

Al and I walked arm in arm as two lovers might walk in the park. Most men are normally self-conscious about any kind of touching. But that day this was no an issue. I constantly spoke words of encouragement into the ear of my friend. I quoted Scripture, told stories, recalled sermons, intermittently prayed, frequently reminded him of experiences we'd shared over the years of our friendship. I thought of every word that described my friend, and I commented on each of them for him. Words like brave, quiet-spirited or humble, sacrificial, faithful, gentle, generous. Finally, just as darkness fell, we reached the berghaus the other men had found for us.

For the last three years Al and I (and the others) have spoken of that unforgettable afternoon when two old guys struggled to reach the end of the trail. We have often recalled the spoken words of encouragement, the shared strength, even the affection that came with the encouragement. I have never felt closer to another male friend than I did that afternoon. Often Al and I have said to each other, "If I live to be a hundred, I'll never forget that day."

This past month, I lost my friend Al to cancer, and I cannot describe the hurt of the loss. His wife, Lena, our other friends, my wife, Gail, and I (along with hundreds of others) stood at the edge of his open grave and grieved. At Al's funeral I told the story of our day in the Alps and the way we talked one another through a threatening experience. And I spoke of genuine friendship-the sweetness of Christian brothers (or sisters) generating mutual courage on the journey. Why, I asked, are we tricked into thinking that achievement and accumulation are the secret of success when, in fact, real success begins with the building of a few personal relationships which become so precious that you would die-without hesitation-for your friends?

I fear for too many in Christian work whose relationships (even marriages) are defined by some institutional function, relationships which will weaken and dissolve soon after the function does. Such people may recognize one day they have no one to die with, and dying alone is not a good idea.

Recently, while on a long flight, I read Nelson Mandella's autobiography. What got him through 27 years of imprisonment? His answer: "The authorities' greatest mistake was to keep us (leaders in the anti-apartheid movement who'd been arrested) together, for together our determination was reinforced. We supported each other and gained strength from each other.

Whatever we knew, whatever we learned, we shared, and by sharing we multiplied whatever courage we had individually. That is not to say that we were all alike in our responses to the hardships we suffered. Men have different capacities and react differently to stress. But the stronger ones raised up the weaker ones, and both became stronger in the process."

Sounds like 100 steps and rest, 100 steps and rest.

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