I had an interesting Facebook exchange this week. My growing-up neighbor posted a meme that said, “You never forget the neighborhood kids you grew up with.” I was tagged, along with my sister and several friends who grew up in the ‘hood. It prompted a brief, but interesting conversation about our favorite backyard memories – playing kick the can, riding forbidden mini-bikes, and boys spying on girls sleeping backyard tents. We were friends because our parents had all decided to buy houses on the same three-block stretch of land in our small Midwestern town – a particular set of circumstances that helped define our childhoods.
It got me thinking about friendships, especially the ones that seem rather unlikely . The world’s earliest writings contain several stories about deep friendships formed for the vaguest of reasons. Occasionally, the circumstances can be identified, but sometimes, there just a connection between people that is simply both precious and lasting.
In the Old Testament, there is the friendship between Jonathan (who was Saul’s son) and David.
When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul…. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his felt…..(1 Samuel 18:1, 3-4)
It’s not really clear why Jonathan and David shared such a close bond, but they remained steadfast friends until Jonathan died. Jonathan even saved David from death by the hand of Saul on more than one occasion.
Then there is the story of Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth. It’s not clear why one daughter-in-law left, but Ruth chose to stay, famously claiming,
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die –
there I will be buried.
Jesus, of course, had many friends who traveled with him throughout Galilee and Judea. Shortly before his death, he said to them,
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. If do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:12-15)
Again, it’s not really clear why those future disciples regularly “left their nets” to follow Jesus? Of course, it doesn’t really matter.
As is often the case, Biblical themes show up in much of the world’s ancient literature. From the Buddhist tradition, we have the tale of the lonely elephant and the hungry dog. The elephant belonged to the king. His every need was met in luxurious, royal fashion, but he was lonely. He began to share his evening meal with the hungry neighborhood dog. Soon they became the greatest of friends. The elephant’s keeper eventually tired of this ridiculous companionship, so he sold the little dog to a passing farmer. The elephant grew despondent, losing his appetite and his energy. Once the cause was determined, the king announced a reward for the dog’s return. The farmer was handsomely paid; the elephant and the dog lived happily ever after.
This story is an ancient Jataka Tale. The originals were first written down in the 4th century BCE and may have been told by the Buddha himself or by his disciples. Despite morphing over the centuries and across various cultures, the tales still represent ancient Buddhist teachings. In this case…wise people know that friends often appear in the most unlikely of places. Today, hundreds of Jataka Tales can easily be found in print, on the internet, and on You Tube, and they’re perfect for kids. The Elephant and the Dog, and another tale about unlikely friendships in the animal world, The Hawks and Their Friends, may be among some of the oldest tales ever recorded. And why not? Modern photos of unusual animal friendships may be all the rage on the internet, but odd friendships are as old as human communities themselves.
Rumi, the great Sufi poet, who lived in the 13th century CE in Persian, penned his own version of a lovely, but unlikely, friendship. Here’s the first part of that poem, called A Mouse and a Frog.
A mouse and a frog meet every morning on the riverbank.
They sit in a nook of the ground and talk.
Each morning, the second they see each other,
they open easily, telling stories and dreams, and secrets,
empty of any fear or suspicious holding back.
To watch and listen to those two
is to undersand how, as it’s written
sometimes when two beings come together,
Christ becomes visible.
The mouse starts laughing out a story he hasn’t thought of
in five years, and the telling might take five years!
There’s no blocking the speechflow-river-running
all-carrying momentum that true intimacy is.
Bitterness doesn’t have a chance
with those two.
Even when my kids were in preschool, they were clearly drawn more readily to some kids than others. Occasionally, I could figure out why, but more often than not, there was some connection between them that I was unable to discern. If I really think about it, I suppose the same is true for my own life. So here’s to those unlikely bonds in our lives that bring us joy, happiness, protection, and wonderful memories – even if they make no logical sense.
Babbit, Ellen C. Jataka Tales I & II. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2008. Print.
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: Harper One, 2007. Print.
Nagaraja, Dharmachari. Buddha at Bedtime: Tales of Love and Wisdom for You to Read With Your Child to Enchant, Enlighten, and Inspire. London: Watkins Publishing, 2008. Print.
The Essential Rumi: New Expanded Edition. Trans. Coleman Barks. NY: Harper One. 2004. 79. Print.
[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]