To listen to this message, click the play button below. It will take a bit to load. If you’d like to download the message to listen to later, please right-click the download button (control-click on a mac).

Message 12, Phileo Love, 2-21-10
By Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC

to view a pictorial video of Gathering friends click here then on third movie
©Doug Slagle, 2010; all rights reserved.

Friendship Love

Take a moment, if you will, to close your eyes and visualize ALL of your friends; this is, I hope, a beautiful image.  Now, from that picture in your mind, I want you to shift your focus away from any of those friends who might be a social network type of friend – like from Facebook – people you may not have met or who are simply friends of friends.  Next, take your focus away from acquaintance friends who you see occasionally but with whom you generally have only superficial conversations or activity based interactions.  From this shrinking picture, I want you to also focus away from anyone who you would not consider a close confidante and anyone whom you would not call in an emergency.

What should remain for you now are your closest friends, those in whom you feel free to confide your innermost thoughts, fears, and dreams.   This small group of people knows all about you—your successes, failures, flaws, and greatest abilities.  And while this group might be much smaller than your original image of friends, this is the group that really matters—they are the ones you might someday call at 4am and who would immediately be available to you.   I believe these are the people in our lives who are gifts from the Divine.  In your relationships with them, you experience Phileo love which is spiritual and mysterious and wonderful.

My question to you now is…If you were to also remove any of these few special people in your life who are a spouse, partner, close relative, parent or sibling, who would remain?

According to a study published in the 2006 issue of American Sociological Review, nearly 25% of Americans do not have even one confidante.  Nearly 10% list only their spouse or partner as a confidante.  The average number of close friends for Americans is 2 – and that allows for the counting of a spouse and partner.  Over 80% of Americans indicate that a family member is their only emergency support person.  Each of these figures represent a 50% decrease of friends since the last study was completed in 1986 and demonstrates a fragmenting of our social bonds.  We are becoming increasingly starved for close friends.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said about this topic, “The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, nor the kindly smile nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes when one discovers that someone else believes in, and is willing to trust, him or her.”

Over this past month of February Sundays, we have examined love from various angles.  In the past, we have too often referred to love in its generic meaning – having deep affection for someone.  But, as we learned when we discussed Agape, that form of love is more than just affection.  It is sacrificial and unconditional.  It asks for nothing in return and is often shown to complete strangers.  We called this Divine love but saw last week that Eros is also Divine.  It is a love that is passionate with strong desire and sensuality.  Nevertheless, God celebrates Eros in us and calls us to positively express it without shame. Ultimately, healthy Eros is about intimately connecting with another person both physically and emotionally.

These two previous Sundays bring us to today’s discussion of the other variation of love – Phileo or friendship love.  I believe this form of love is just as important for our spiritual lives as is Agape and Eros.  Indeed, Phileo is simply one more version of Divine love.  With a close friendship, we seek a personal bond with another person that is based on compatibility and practicality.  Friendship benefits both persons.  As the ancient theologian St. Francis de Sales said of Phileo love, “It is necessary that friends love one another, that they know they love one another, and that they have communication, intimacy, and familiarity with one another.”

De Sales took this concept further, though, and described Spiritual friendships as encompassing trust, equality and love.  In trust, each person is safe to be open and confiding with the other.  In equality, there is recognition that all are created equal in God’s eyes – the friends have strengths and talents in different areas but they are fundamentally equal with one another.  Neither assumes dominance or subservience.  Finally, in love, the two give part of themselves to the other as part of a mysterious connection.  As De Sales wisely said, friends can sit in silence and yet communicate profoundly and deeply with the other.

Phileo love offers one the opportunity to experience the bonds of relationship.  Love is both given and received.  Understanding and acceptance are practiced and mutually given.  Generosity is learned.  Communication skills are refined.  Trust is learned.  Indeed, friendships are the second relational connections we form as humans after the bonds we form with our parents.  For teenagers, friendships are the critical and most important relationships in their lives.  For adults, they are necessary for emotional and physical well-being.  We experience in them all of the struggles, joys and celebrations that we have in life.  Absent our motivation to simply love without condition as in Agape and lacking the physical desire we have in Eros, Phileo mirrors the Divine questions and mysteries we face.  Why is this person my close friend and confidante?  Why do I share such profound depths of feeling and connection with him or her?  Phileo is the Divine at work to bless us.  God so loves us that she sent us friendship.

The Bible describes one particular close friendship between two friends, a young David – of David and Goliath fame – and the son of King Saul, Jonathon.  While some see homosexual affection between the two, the emphasis is on the spiritual friendship between them.  Listen to the Bible describe the friendship of the two men, I quote from the NIV translation:  “Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself.  Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt.  David got up from the south side of the stone and bowed down before Jonathan three times, with his face to the ground. Then they kissed each other and wept together—but David wept the most.  Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship with each other in the name of the Divine, saying, ‘God is witness between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants forever.’  Then David said to Jonathon, “Your love to me is extraordinary, surpassing the love of women.”

In this passage, we see all of the hallmarks of Phileo love.  We see affection in the giving of material possessions, we witness respect for the other, loyalty, trust and the mystery of deep love and affection which David characterizes as greater than what he feels in Eros love for women.  This is Divine affection.  It echoes what we saw with Agape and Eros.  God desires for us to be blessed by the care, nurture and affection of Phileo love.

As we learned earlier, though, we are growing less reliant on friendships as a means for personal sustenance.  And this is detrimental to our health – both emotional and physical.  Recent studies show that heart disease, cancer and viral infections are greater among those who have few or no friends.  With the elderly, those with several friends are 22% less likely to die in any given year than those with few or no friends.  In a study of 3000 Australian nurses with breast cancer, women without any close friends were four times more likely to die of the disease than those who had several close friends.  While experts differ as to the reasons for these statistics, many speculate that close friends encourage friends to practice healthy lifestyles, they encourage their friends to seek help when necessary, they promote coping abilities in friends who are sick and, friendships create unexplained physiological benefits that are protective of good health.  A recent Harvard study showed that close friendships promote better mental and brain health as we age.  Those who exercise with a friend are more likely to continue.  Those who need to lose weight are often encouraged to do so by friends.  Overall, close friendships are shown to reduce stress, depression and insomnia.

If the Divine heart is to love and bless all humans, then it is clear that the Divine wants us to have close, intimate friendships.  God is found in Phileo love and we are the better for it.

But, there are cultural and contemporary challenges to us forming deep and close friendships.  There is little doubt that technology and the internet have come between us and meaningful Phileo love.  As much as cell phones, instant messaging, texting, the internet and social network sites like Facebook appear to bring people together, the opposite is often the case.  Technology creates a barrier between me and a friend.  I might hear you, or write to you or even see you in your online photos or skype video, but you are not flesh and blood to me.  You are millions of tiny electronic pixels and I can neither embrace you nor completely understand you.  I have often groaned at how I misinterpret someone’s e-mail message or text to me.  I might think they are angry or indifferent or no longer my friend.  The limits of technology inhibit real connection.  Even further, I am amazed at how many people want to collect “friends” on social network sites.  I have seen some people with over a thousand friends connected to their profile.  Do they really know a thousand people much less count each one as a close friend?  Could they simply run down the list during an emergency or personal crisis and ask any of them for help?  Beyond the photos and brief written profiles, do they know each other’s hopes, fears, frustrations and dreams?  It seems like a sad commentary that at a point when we are discovering our lack of close friendships, we are seemingly more connected than ever before via technology.

As I discussed last week in the differences between how men and women express Eros, this is most apparent in our friendships.  James Nelson, in his book the Intimate Connection, writes that women freely and openly share with close friends their innermost selves.  They laugh, cry and connect with one another in deeply personal ways.  Many women have several close and long lasting friendships.  Sadly, such is often not the case with men.  Richard Cohen, a Washington Post columnist once wrote: “My friends have no friends, they are men.  They think they have friends, and if you ask them whether they have friends they will say yes, but they don’t really.  They think, for instance, that I’m their friend, but I’m not.  It’s OK.  They’re not my friends either.  The reason for that is that we are all men – and men, I have come to believe, cannot or will not have real friends.”

Nelson examines the reasons why this is so and concludes that our culture is largely to blame.  Father’s do not model sharing and personal revelation with their sons.  Boys are taught to be in control, to be strong and to never show that they have needs or fears.  Father’s often relate with sons in ways that reinforce their strength while never revealing vulnerability.  And this echoes how men have friends.  Most such relationships are based on activities and hobbies.  Underlying such friendships is a sense of competition – a need to reinforce one’s ability at sports, or making money or winning women.  Very rarely do men make themselves vulnerable and open to another male friend.

Such intimacy is seen in our culture as effeminate and unmanly.  Indeed, a subtext in close male friendships is often the fear of homosexuality.  Men desire intimacy and the ability to share with another person but if that person is another man, most men are taught to pull back and refrain from going anywhere that might lead to feelings of deep affection.  Indeed, men often confuse Phileo love and Eros love.  For many people, the line between these two is very fine and difficult to discern.   But that difficulty must not restrain us from close friendships.  The Divine desire for us is that we experience the support, affection and Phileo love of friends.  Sadly, too many people in our culture allow the fear of Eros intimacy to prevent the formation of close friendships.  We fail to see the fullness of God’s desire for us – to embrace the full spectrum of love – Agape, Eros and Phileo – each expressed in its separate context.

For myself, close friendships do not come easy.  I too often suffer from the male disease of avoiding personal intimacy with another man in a way that does not lead to Eros love.  As strange as that might seem for a gay man, I don’t believe I have learned how to separate the two.  I have had a few close male friends over the years and I count one or two at the moment – besides Ed.  But they could be much deeper.  For myself, as is the case with some straight men, I find a better ability at connecting with women.  Even then, though, I often feel the need to not share weakness.  This message today is as much for me as it is for anyone.

While there are no hard and fast rules for anything I discuss here today, the cultural divide for forming lasting friendships is a disease we all face – men and women, gay and straight.  Some women will pull back from forming a close friendship with another man – again for fear of stirring up Eros.  The exception is when women form deep friendships with gay men because Eros is not a concern.  The stars align just right in these relationships as the fear of Eros and homophobia are not factors.

For gays and lesbians, the issue of friendships is also difficult.  While it would seem that women and men who are able to deeply connect with another of the same sex should have no problem forming friendships with other men or women, the opposite is often the case.  Interviews and studies show that just as in other relationships, Eros gets in the way.  Even if Eros love is not a possibility at all, people tend to confuse those intimate signals of affection and closeness in a friendship with sensual desire.  And then, too often, they pull away and return the friendship to a safer zone of superficiality.  And they are all the worse for it.

One of the most celebrated of friendships in recent times occurred just under forty years ago in, of all places, the NFL.  Those of you who are old like me may remember the TV movie entitled “Brian’s Song” which depicted the close friendship formed between two players on the Chciago Bears football team.  Gale Sayers was the star running back recruited out of college to alter the terrible running game of the Bears offense.  And he immediately did so.  Brian Piccolo was an excellent running back too but had the misfortune of also joining the Bears the same year as Gale Sayers.  Instead of retreating into rivalry and competition, since they both vied for a same spot on the team, Gale and Brian became close and deep friends.  And this was all the more unusual in late 1960’s America – even in Chicago – because Gale Sayers was African-American and Brian Piccolo was white.  The two became the first inter-racial roommates in NFL history.

During their fourth season with the Bears, Gale Sayers reached new heights as a star running back.  He was considered the best in the NFL.  Brian Piccolo, however, began to have a persistent cough and his health deteriorated.  Prodded by Gale to see a doctor, Brian soon learned that he had malignant and terminal cancer growing in his lung.

In early June of 1970, Gale Sayers was awarded the NFL’s George Halas award for being the league’s most courageous player.  At the same moment, his best friend Brian was returning home from the hospital for the last time.  At the awards dinner, Gale Sayer’s dedicated the award to his friend Brian Piccolo.  He said:  “You flatter me by giving me this award but I can tell you here and now that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. Brian Piccolo is the man of courage who should receive the George S. Halas award.   I love Brian Piccolo and I’d like all of you to love him, too. Tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.”  Two weeks later, Brian Piccolo died.

This story remains so resonant because of the men involved.  They are heroes of courage: Courage to defy the racial standards of the time and become best friends and roommates; and courage to defy the macho culture of the NFL and our society by not only showing close affection for one another but by proclaiming their love for each other to the world.

My friends – and I hope I can use that word freely here since most of you are like family to me –together, we sing the song of the Divine when we reach out to each other and to complete strangers with sacrificial and unconditional Agape.  We can experience the heights and joys of Eros without shame and with the understanding that such is a gift from the Divine.

With Phileo, as it is for all forms of love, the call from God is to build meaningful and deep friendships.  We accomplish that best by reaching out to others.  As we have heard, Philieo love benefits our health, our emotions and our souls.  We must move away from plastic and artificial friendships and open ourselves to self-revelation as well as self-discovery.  Friends make that happen.  Friendships are those mysterious and wonderful relationships that defy understanding but which nourish and bless us.  Dale Carnegie, the early twentieth century philanthropist, said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming genuinely interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

We cannot simply sit idly by and allow new technology or the increased isolation of others to prevent us from finding mutually beneficial friendships that allow us to be whole and complete humans.  We are diminished and hurt by our fear of close and intimate friendships.  For those people in our lives with whom we can and should experience meaningful connection, we must be open, self-revealing and honest in our emotions and affections.  There should be no shame in any form of love.  As we deepen the bonds with a friend, let us not shy away from real love.  Indeed, the lesson for us over this past month is not that we are showered with love all around us, but that we are to go out into the world and give it away.  May we all go in search of another person to befriend and then love freely, love openly, love wildly and love well.