The Gift of Friendship
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It appeared my world was being turned upside down. Everyone I knew would continue without me. Everything before me was unknown and exaggerated to the greatest negative results in my mind. All the events which had made it possible for me to feel a part of a community were for naught.
In July of 1985 my father was transferred by his company from Oak Brook, Illinois to Fort Worth, Texas. The circumstances behind the move were related to him and the president of the company not being able to get along. My father traveled frequently with work, and I guess when he was in town his boss preferred not to see him as well. My dad was a good salesman so keeping him around but creating separation must have been the plan.
I remember when my parents sat my brother and I down to share the news. It was shared as a new adventure and the big stories of Texas were included to make it sound exciting. All I could envision were tumbleweeds and cowboys.
On our first visit to Texas in May of 1985 to look for a home, Fort Worth was much like Abilene, Texas is today. Old and drab with very little downtown activity. This was a shock after seven years growing up around the Chicago, Illinois area. Our first couple of nights we stayed across from the Fort Worth Water Gardens and there was barley a soul walking the streets. I felt this was going to be a huge disaster.
My parents purchased a spec home which was to be completed by August and my father let us celebrate with them by giving us some Champagne. I also think to distract us they announced we would be going on vacation to Hawaii for two weeks in July. I drank enough to make me sick the next day.
At fifteen years old my mind was racing with the fears of all things new. I was a dweeby kid. I had just had my braces taken off, had a wealth of acne, dark thick glasses, didn’t know how to pick out any stylish clothes and wore my hair like a rejected Beatle. I took what teasing I got, but somehow, I was able to build two great groups of friends, those at my high school and those on the other side of Wheaton, Illinois at the church we attended. My school friends were mostly Catholic and attended church elsewhere. I was the lone Baptist in my school circle of friends.
My faith was centric to my life at a young age. I was bold for a kid and brought my Bible to school and kept it on my desk on full display. I was pleased to talk about Jesus with my simple theological understandings. In the 80s this got some attention, but not much. I led a Bible study during lunch hour once a week and at the time I thought I was on a mission to save Catholics from their false religion. This is no longer a belief a hold.
At the same time, because this group of friends at Glenbard South didn’t know my friends from church, I tended to sample some of the worldly things that I found curious. Girls, cigarettes, and Playboy magazines. This may sound tame to a young person today who have access to the world on their cellphone. At times in my young life, I felt I was living two lives and I felt much guilt over my behavior.
When I was fourteen, one of my school mates came over when my parents were out, and we made a solid dent in my father’s vodka. We stumbled about the neighborhood all evening. If I had been Catholic, I would have been in confession the next morning, and maybe this would have been good for my consistent feeling of guilt.
On the other side of town were my core group of friends. This group of young men were the people I looked up too. I wanted to be like them. At such a young age it appeared they had it all together. They were on fire for their faith and seemed to live it out as if it were part of their DNA. They were kind, inclusive, and knew how to have good clean fun. They were available and encouraging. They were everything I felt I was not, yet here I was hanging out with them regularly. We went to concerts, the parks, hung out, and had lunches and dinners at each other’s homes. We all had grown up around each from about nine years of age.
There was this amazing turning point in our friendships during my eight-grade year. A moment that solidified our connections. Our church had a winter retreat at a camp in Michigan. It was an area along the shores of Lake Michigan with massive sand dunes. The winter snows had covered the area and we hiked, sled and tubed in-between sessions.
This was one of the first times I had been around high school aged kids. They seemed so much older and mature. Some of the seniors seemed to be the size of Goliath in my mind. But they were approachable, supportive, and kind. I was in the middle of a coming-of-age weekend.
This was not my first retreat with my eighth-grade friends. During middle school we had two previous winter retreats. In seventh grade a gentleman named Greg Speck was the speaker for the weekend. His sessions seemed to speak directly to me, and I bought all his tapes and would eventually memorize his sermons and do them myself at Campus Life retreats for other students. In seventh grade the friendships started to grow into something more adult – something more personal and important. I discovered I loved to sit and talk about ideas with others.
This eighth-grade trip however included something very different. A visit from the Holy Spirit.
Now if you’re not a Christian, stay with me. You can ascribe your names to some of these experiences or a psychanalysis if you wish.
As a Christian I believed in the Holy Spirit, but as a young person, I did not have a strong intellectual understanding nor a wealth of experiences. The Holy Spirit in Christianity is a being who makes up a triune God. There’s the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and they act and think together but perform different roles in their relationship with each other and those outside of themselves. We’ll discuss more about them later.
I was sitting in a session at camp when I felt something come over me. About three of my friends said they had felt it too. We were praying and it was if I was being pushed down to the ground. As if God were showing his greatness and I was not low enough in my bowing before a throne. The whole group was moved in different ways.
After we prayed, I got up and went to the piano and started playing a song I had heard by Ronnie Millsap called, “What A Difference You’ve Made in My Life”. Everyone gathered around me and started singing as they locked arms. In the moment I was taken that I could do anything that might bring people together. But there I was with my friends, these grown-up high school kids and having an existential experience. I don’t imagine anyone else remembers that night like I do - if they remember it at all.
I saw a video of this moment for the first time in 2020. Every emotion rushed back to me, and I was amazed there was a visual recording of such an important moment to me. This was the defining moment of my entire life. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would set the stage for my most important pursuits.
Video from "The Cause" Provided by Steve French
Afterward, my close circle of eighth grade friends all agreed we were done with handshakes and would give each other a hug from now on when we first saw each other at church. It was determined that true friends should greet each other with a holy hug because we most certainly weren’t going to greet each other with a holy kiss. We talked all night and I felt I had discovered something new in my faith and unique and deeper friendships.
Over the next year our friendships would grow and all the trials and troubles that seem so big to a young person we would all talk through. I don’t know if our style of friendship was unique at fourteen years of age, but it sure seemed like it to me. I was always so energized after long conversations outside the roller rink, or a Bible study at McDonald’s or a Wednesday night at church.
These guys were also an escape for me. As any typical teen I was busy pushing the envelope at home as my dad was not the easiest person to get along with, however, I did not make it easy on him either. Being away from home I felt more at ease. Also, there was my guilty conscience and these guys talked me through some of my experiences and emotions.
Over the next year I was amazed and grateful that I had such a supportive circle of friends. Grateful to be part of a youth group with great leadership. Grateful to have friends at school.
Then my parents wrecked my world. I of course hold no animosity toward my parents today, but then, I was bitter towards them.
We returned from Hawaii in the middle of July. My father would go to Texas and begin work and ensure our home was set for completion. My mother would take my brother and I to Georgia where all our extended family was located, and we would finish out the rest of summer break there before heading to Texas on August 15th.
My friends had planned a going away party at Tim Tanner’s home a couple of days before we departed Wheaton one last time. If I remember correctly, it was me, Tim Tanner, Tim Simcox, Doug Rummel and Keith Johnson. We had all planned to stay the night.
It was an evening of food, hanging out, and talking about girls. Doug was dating a girl named Ruth at the time and we were probably all a bit jealous because she was super cute.
At some point in the evening as I sat listening it struck me - this was my last night with the guys. It was like getting hit with an emotional baseball bat to the back of the head. This was the 80s and there was no Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp. There was the mail which took two weeks to deliver and long-distance phone calls which parents could afford only so many in a month.
I knew these friendships would fade and these moments were never going to be experienced with this group of guys ever again. It was so final, like death.
I went outside on the front porch and just cried my eyes out. I couldn’t believe my parents would do this to me. I cried out “why?” to God and sat there feeling so extremely alone.
I don’t know how long I was out there. Tim Simcox must have noticed I was gone and came looking for me. He sat down next to me, and I voiced all the thoughts in my head through my tears. I wasn’t embarrassed. I needed to get it all out and sitting next to me was a trusted friend.
He had sat next to me for years in Sunday School, been there for countless retreats and church events, hung out and talked for hours at Taco Bell and McDonald’s, just sat together and listened to music when we stayed at each other’s homes, and was there the night I felt I had a purpose in life.
Yet here I was feeling as though it was all about to be lost.
Tim was an incredible example to me of living out your faith and his actions were much more mature than mine. More thoughtful. The summer before we had decided to meet in downtown Wheaton and go see a movie. When we got there, we found out the movie was rated PG-13. Tim’s parents didn’t let him go to PG-13 movies so he told me he couldn’t go in. I went anyway – what a lousy friend I was.
We went on a college tour trip the next June. On the trip were some girls I had never met. I was currently dating someone at Glenbard South, but on the trip, I started making out with another girl. Tim sat me down and said my actions were not cool and I needed to get my love life in order.
He was a good friend – when I was not.
Sitting on the front porch Tim didn’t give me any answers or suggestions. He just listened and put his arm around my neck and hugged me. We must have sat there in the silence for twenty minutes.
He was a hero that night. What fifteen-year-old knows how to comfort someone by just listening and being present? His example over the years and that evening before I was to leave Wheaton forever burned into my mind an image of true friendship.
Tim’s kindness, the night at winter camp, and my faith in Jesus were the catalyst of one of my life’s major pursuits…to intentionally build friendships.
Once you’ve encountered true friendship how does one go about recreating similar relationships? How does one keep from resenting others or becoming bitter when other friendships don’t add up or worst fail? Is it even possible to add and manage additional friendships and how many friends can one person manage anyway? Life is full of, let’s call it fear, that the best moments and relationships are in the past.
Arriving in Fort Worth I was certain I would never know friends like those I had left in Chicago. I never would because of age, place, and time. There’s so much a fifteen-year-old can’t know about the world. The search for true friendship would set the stage for something great in my life, and I hope the lives of others.
We arrived in Texas on August 15, 1985. It was 105 degrees when I opened the door at the Holiday Inn South on interstate 35 and I was immediately angry. We drove over to our home which my parents would close on in just a couple of days. I found everything wrong I could with the house. I was making it hard on my parents and I would continue to do this for the better part of a year and a half. I used outright rebellion.
I started my sophomore year just a few weeks later. At school and church, I had a new experience. No one knew me and it was a chance to start fresh. I would quickly change to contacts and lose the dark glasses. I would choose more modern style clothes and I got a better haircut.
I had no history, so I was not relegated to a group, and I wasn’t the dweeby kid of my late middle school and freshman year. I would build a network of acquaintances over the next year. No close friends, but people who were very different. I had a few of the jocks who liked to hang out with me for some reason, a few stoners who somehow thought I was chill, and I dressed a little preppy, so it seemed to get me some access to various social circles and some party invitations.
First Baptist Church in Crowley, Texas became our new church, and the youth and youth pastor were kind people. Unlike Chicago, almost everyone at church went to the same school so there was frequent interaction.
Relationships were simply social for most of high school and college. I think this may be true for most people. I was more concerned with dating in those years and by the time my senior year came around I had met Danae LeMond who I would marry six years later. Marriage was on our radar early on, even though we had much yet to figure out in life.
By college I had shed the social friendships from high school and only hung out with a few friends and not very often. Church continued to provide a funnel of people in and out of my circles.
Danae and I married in June of 1993 and there was something new in our lives, “couple friends”. Now friends came with their spouse, and this would be the typical set up for a couple of years.
I had lost touch with my friends in Chicago over the years. A year after I left, the letters stopped coming and no one called. Each of them had set off on the inevitable of their own life experiences. The old crew was now divided across the country.
By 1995 I thought frequently about my early friendships, and I had a desire to recreate them if it were at all possible. The example Tim had set never left me.
I invited David Rutherford to go on a long weekend adventure at the end of May with me to Lincoln National Forrest in New Mexico to camp and hike. He accepted.
David and his wife were one of our couple friends and we spent much time with them as we went to the same church and lived in the same apartment complex.
David would become another important individual in my life and in the stories of my friendships. Our trip to New Mexico would be the catalyst I was looking for to build unique and treasured friendships over the next three decades.
David and I at a Few May Club Trips
I was working in radio in Dallas and didn’t get off until late, so David said he would pick me up and we would make the trip to New Mexico through the night.
We drove through the dark with the radio blasting and turned it up and down with the conversation. Often, we rolled down the windows and I felt free from work and was glad to have a weekend break. David was even more excited to get away because he had a young daughter at home. We were escaping our lives for a moment and were escaping together.
We arrived south of Cloudcroft, New Mexico around 5 am and we drove his Honda Civic down gravel roads hoping to find some place to pitch a tent and get a little sleep. We were nervous because we lost a tire a few hours earlier and running on a spare. We weren’t sure how well the spare was going to hold on the rough roads.
We picked a spot near some massive pine trees and set up the tent and quickly fell asleep.
We didn’t sleep long and woke up just as the sun was coming up over one of the ridges. It was beautiful. We watched the sunrise and were speechless. We got our hiking gear, water and snacks and headed out for the day. We walked and talked. Rested on occasion and sat quietly.
Returning to camp we built a fire and cooked ribs as we discussed family life, politics, and religion. Our ideas aligned.
I had found another close friend again. We agreed next May we would take another trip and invite more guys to join us. We have done this successfully now for twenty-eight years and had over 100 men join us on the adventures.
I realized by the second year that our trip in May was a way to build experiences and develop friendships. We called it, “The May Club”. Every May for five days we head out for hiking, climbing, fishing, kayaking, and countless more excursions. We generally stay in a large lodge and enjoy evenings of food, drinks, games, and laughs. I had successfully recreated camp for adults. What was amazing were the conversations that took place through all the fun. Sharing life experiences and problems with an exchange of solutions. Debating politics and faith. Creating new connections and new opportunities and simply enjoying the company of others.
Most years the trip has 25 – 40 attendees each May. A total of one hundred guys have attended over our twenty-eight years. We added a Die-Hard trip most years for the extra adventurous in the group. This may include climbing a mountain or hiking in remote places.
I was twenty-five years old on the first may Club trip with David. It was another life changing event at another time of coming of age. I was a husband and within and year and half would be a father. It was great to have a friend to confide in as I was building a career and learning to be a dad.
My friendship with David would have a season of closeness and would change as we pursued different interest. He would come to May Club most years until about 2009 when the demands of his job as church pastor would pull him from old circles. We would check in on each other on occasion and it was always easy to pick up where we left off.
David’s career as a pastor was a conflict in his mind with the way The May Club would morph over the years. As I invited more and more guys there was more drinking and revelry. He shared with me his concern about appearances as it related to his career. I greatly disagreed with his view, and I’ll share more about this later.
In 2021 David became ill and was unable to recover. He died in September. His passing is an undefinable loss for his family and his church family. He was a kind man. I never heard his voice raise even when he was angry. He encouraged all those around them and was a comforter. He was selfless and giving.
I am most saddened when I reflect on him never being able to join us on a May Club trip again. I had hopes year after year he would return. I and others would call and encourage him to join us but after 2009 he would not attend again.
I started a tradition on the May Club trips called “Toast Night”. We raise a glass to the oldest attendee, the youngest, the longest attendee, the newest, etc. The first toast always went to David who we all called, “Dabida”. We thought David in Greek was Dabida and the nick name stuck.
This year, 2022, will be the first time to toast DabiDa with him not on this side of eternity. The toast this year will hold much more emotion and reflection. It will be a formal goodbye to a friend who taught me even more about friendship and who helped me create an engine for the intentional pursuit of others.
I’ve shared about Tim and David and their powerful impacts on my life because they were the shining examples of friendships in my life. As I became more intentional in the pursuit of others, I would receive assistance from friends I never met in person. Friends who I met from their written words in the past. Individuals who long before me considered the dynamics of friendship in a way I never could without their help. Men like Aristotle, Marcus Tullius Cicero, and Thomas Aquinas.
From the examples of Tim and David, from the well-developed thoughts of the ancients, and from my own experiences I want to share some ways you might pursue others with intentionality.
I began the journey of intentionally pursuing others from a desire to recreate the incredible connections I had experienced as a kid and out of loneliness. I would learn though, the pursuit of others is less about solving your emptiness, and more about helping with theirs.
Our world is in desperate need of true friendship. The technology designed to bring us all closer together is driving us further apart. Social media is used as a soapbox which never enlightens, it generally creates anger and fractions which lead to separation from others if they think differently.
Posts show us all living the perfect life when we are fully aware of our own trials, and as our resentment grows toward those who appear to have it all together.
Other technologies create more distractions and less time in the presence of others. More and more people now take classes online, work from home, and have countless items delivered to their front door to avoid going out. It’s easy to become cloistered.
Online gaming is now a social event as you build your world or fight your enemies, but seldom will we build a deep relationship with our comrade or opponent overseas.
People are waiting longer to get married. In doing so, they delay some of the elements which mature us in our relationships with others. Career growth or self-fulfillment become the goals before making commitments.
We are a much more mobile society, making it easy to pick up and move far away from the familiar. Moves can be made with great frequency. The pandemic has made it possible for us to “work from anywhere’. A culture of vanlife has people in constant motion showing the amazing scenery through the open back doors of the van along with a picture of a perfectly made vegan taco with relationships as brief encounters.
Parents are spending more time than ever before with their children. Select sports, and endless amounts of school functions and limited vacation time have parents forgoing friendships to shuffle children about - and to avoid guilt, they attend every function.
Mother and daughter trips or father and son trips seldom happen naturally. On some occasions they may be facilitated by a church group. Sons don’t get to see their fathers laugh, talk, and drink with their friends to provide them healthy examples of companionship and fun. Boy Scouts, Indian Guides, Awanas and other clubs which brought the generations together are fading away through woke philosophies and in part, due to a failure to deal with the horrible events of child abuse by outliers.
Our social clubs are vanishing.
According to the Survey Center of American Life, the number of people who say they have no close friends has grown to 12% in 2021 from 3% in 1990. In 1990 33% of people said they had 10 or more close friends, in 2021, only 13%.
In 1990 75% of people said they had a best friend. In 2021, 59% of people reported having a best friend.
Our politics drive us further apart. 47% of Republicans report having some friends who are Democrats. Democrats report to only have 29% of friends who are Republicans.
There are several things necessary to live a full life and friendship is a key ingredient. We are all clearly made to be in relationships. We are dependent upon one another to simply survive in the world. We need others to learn. We need others to feel fulfilled. We need others to share in experiences.
There are a few blessed souls who have a large personality, great intelligence, or extreme talent where the world flocks to be with them, this is not true for most of us. And even if people flock to you, life can remain a lonely journey.
If you have at times a sense of loneliness or feel a lack of deep friendships, you are far from alone. Very few people know what to do about these feelings, or how to pursue others.
If we sit and wait for relationships to find us, we may miss out on incredible relationships, great experiences, and the opportunity to serve others. The intentional pursuit of others is a noble pursuit so much so, the ancients dwelt upon on it and provided patterns for success. We have the opportunity to elevate and care for others and in the process improve ourselves.
The process is not clinical or formulaic, it is finding a purpose and a sincerity to serve others and replicating examples from the past. We can review the relationships of King David and Jonathan, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla, as well as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
Friendship begins with the intentional pursuit of others.