I was in the mall on a recent Friday morning, a quick stop between the post office and the gym, because sometimes my life is like this.
Except for the mall part. (I actually hate going to the mall, due to its uncanny propensity to awaken desires for things I don’t have and didn’t even know existed until I entered the mall.) So I don’t go to the mall unless I absolutely have to–and on this particular Friday, early Christmas shopping compelled me. The quickest of errands. In and then out again. I knew exactly (well, nearly) what I was after. I would only be five minutes. Ten, tops.
I was halfway up the escalator when I heard my name and turned and saw my friend Kyle coming along behind me.
(Yes. His last name is McManamy, and if you haven’t tried that aloud yet, you should. McMANamy. See? There. And you should also say it again. It is wonderful to say.)
Kyle is a friend from church. He is the minister to our college students and, living where we do, surrounded by universities on every side (pardon the hyperbole), that means his ministry is large and busy. He and his wife are very busy ministering to and serving and enjoying the college-population of our church.
Meanwhile, we Stevensons are very busy in our ways doing our ministering and busy-ness things, which means that most interactions with the McManamys include conversation about how we really ought to get together. These conversations take place in the church foyer or in the parking lot, or once–between Mary McManamy, Emma and me–in the Back-to-School section of the Target.
Once Kyle said of us that we are among their favorite friends that they never spend time with.
To which we answered, Likewise.
But once–that Friday–Kyle and I had a conversation at the top of the escalator in the mall.
I was in a hurry. I was in and then out again, remember? I had to get a thing (or a pair of things) and then be on my way.
Kyle, on the other hand, was leisurely. He was waiting to meet someone. On that Friday morning he had that rare commodity: Time.
So he walked with me. We went to the specific store. He helped me pick out the things. He helped me find a good deal and commended me on my selection and waited for me (browsing the sunglasses?) as I paid for them. And he walked with me back to the escalator.
That Friday was a beautiful morning. Sunlight was sliding through the high mall windows; it was glinting off the (early) Christmas decorations. I was happy to see Kyle, happy to be checking items off my list, happy to have taken the edge off my Christmas shopping–a new goal (to get Most of It Done by Thanksgiving) that wise mothers all around me have long since realized and accomplished but which I have only recently awakened to, being slow like that.
I don’t remember what had comprised our conversation (other than the shopping). I don’t know what we did in the way of catching up. But there at the top of the escalator it was time to part ways, for me to be off to the Next Thing. To say farewell to I-Never-Spend-Time-With-You-Kyle.
Then he turned and said he wanted to ask me a question. I wasn’t allowed to give it much thought, he said. He wanted whatever came to mind. I should answer it quickly. I could have fourteen seconds, tops.
“What is the essence of friendship?”
Fourteen seconds, my eye. The essence of friendship? How to distill such a priceless abstraction within fourteen seconds–in the mall or anywhere else?
I thought of my best friendships, of what makes them work, of how long they have worked, and why.
I thought that “love” was both the obvious and the non-answer–because one can love where friendship does not exist. Indeed, one must. But friendship rests on something else, and while love is there, love is not friendship’s substance.
If one does actually “hem and haw,” if hemming and hawing is a thing, then that is what I did.
Meanwhile, Kyle waited.
He waited in that way that Kyle has: fully engaged, patient. He watched me with a smile brimming on the edge of his eyes, pleased and unbothered. Unlike me–remember?–he wasn’t in a hurry that morning. He would take whatever it was I had to say; he was confident I would say something good. He thought absolutely the best of me–that much was clear, is clear, with every interaction I have with him.
I wanted to say: Why are you asking me this? This is not a typical question for a shopping mall. It is not, in fact, a typical question at all. Moreover, I have to get to the gym–because sometimes my life is like this.
I thought he might have a reason, but also he might not. This question is actually the sort of profundity one can expect from Kyle: a rather stunning thing of substance that he makes quietly present in the middle of the ordinaries. It is, with Kyle, even in passing, a warm hello and honest interest, and a residual sense that he very much likes you.
It’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? to be liked.
I thought of something, an answer to his question. I wasn’t sure it was right– but it seemed profoundly true. It was unsettling to say so, lest I was wrong, but I only had fourteen seconds. I said,
“Deep mutual regard.”
Because where love forgives and forbears (and certainly does so in friendship), one can love where one regards little or ill or even not at all.
But a friend is one you heartily like, one you think very well of. Whose advice or perspective is helpful, valuable, even invaluable. Whose foibles or failings are easy to overlook–or forbear–because you esteem her so highly.
Yes, one can regard another in this way and not have it reciprocated–but that is mere admiration.
In friendship, you like each other very well. Very, very well. Each–to the other–is profoundly valuable, deeply important, uniquely precious.
Deep Mutual Regard. That’s what I told Kyle was the essence of friendship, and I agreed with myself. Yes, I thought. That’s right.
Then Kyle explained: the college Sunday school class has been discussing one’s relationship with God. Kyle had saved the thoughts of Thomas Aquinas on the subject for last, and Aquinas held that our best relationship with God was one of friendship.
Which would mean that, if my explanation were right, we are meant to be in a relationship of deep mutual regard with God.
Standing there at the top of the escalator in the sun-soaked shopping mall, I was stunned to consider that God would have deep personal regard for me.
Everywhere around us, the mall cried, “Christmas!” Shining bells and balls and strings of lights, evergreen-wrapped railings and an enormous and sparkling tree–
All of it, whether we like it or not, regard it or not, know it or not,
coming to us because of the birth of a baby
who became a man who is also God
who sees every living person who has ever lived
with the Deepest Personal Regard.
The life of His Son is His invitation that we Try Him Out and see if we can’t deeply, personally (mutually) regard Him, too.
I had to go. The escalator beckoned. The required items were ordered, were bagged. The clock ticked. The car waited (somewhere) in the parking lot.
But I thanked Kyle for his companionship and–far better–for that moment of (Yes, it was!) worship at the top of the escalator in the sun-ridden shopping mall.
I returned to my car, and I went to the gym, and I was changed yet again–because God’s friendship does that always in the most beautifully satisfying of ways, even if it only requires fourteen seconds.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.