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9 min read

From the barber’s chair: the friendships that open us up

Adrian and Neal recall and recount tales of friendships and what made them work so well.
Three men walk down a path, the middle one talking and gesturing while the others listen.
Centre for Ageing Better on Unsplash.

Adrian

As life moves on, I began to realize how important my friendships are. Half the people that I grew up with are now married with kids and the other half are still living their life independently. We all have our own paths in life, and I believe whichever path you take, those whom you consider friends will support you and your decisions no matter what. 

As I went through my issues in 2019, I had nothing but support from my family and 

friends. It wasn't easy for me to be open with my struggles because I felt that everyone would look at me differently. I received nothing but support from everyone then and when I returned to work. They were all there, waiting to book their next cuts with me. From the beginning of my return I knew, then, how important my clients were to me. I wasn't just their barber; I was their friend whom they continued to support even during one of the craziest times in my life.  

Trying to stay afloat during a global pandemic was not easy; honestly it was one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with. I knew I had to be as strong as I could be so I could help my loved ones stay positive and their heads held high. 

During these times, I worked as much as possible. At every appointment with a client, they showed support and always checked in with how I was. I used all these opportunities to help myself by speaking what was on my mind. Sometimes they would even open up to me and share what was going on in their lives, positive or negative. These times were much needed therapy sessions at every appointment. Being vulnerable helped me so much and it also helped my friends share what was on their minds; they opened up to me. 

When I finally felt right to open up about this incident it was with people who shared the same struggles. They understood and never once judged me. 

Growing up we were taught never to show any fear or emotion. I grew up in a rough area where if you showed weakness, you could be the next target to get bullied. I didn't realize until about four years ago how that way of living was wrong. That way of living haunted me for years.  

Going back to my childhood, there was an incident that shaped my teens and early 

adulthood. I was touched inappropriately by a member of my family and thankfully someone came home so it didn't go further than it did. I never spoke about this incident because I didn't realize the severity of the situation as a young boy and how it would affect me in my later life. You would never think a family member would do anything to put you or harm you in any way. Even as an adult I never said anything because I did not want to get judged or have people put a label on me that wasn't true. When I finally felt right to open up about this incident it was with people who shared the same struggles. They understood and never once judged me. 

These were people who I just met but I felt like I had known them for years. I opened up to them more than I had opened up to my childhood friends and family.  

This is where I discovered the meaning of friendship. I was never judged and looked at differently. I was the same person to them, and I was accepted no matter what. What a great feeling. I began to hold my friendships close as I had the confidence to share so much with everyone. One of the first clients whom I felt comfortable with opening up with was my friend Neal. I remember going over to cut Neal’s and his sons’ hair and I always left feeling purified. I can honestly say that Neal is one-of-a-kind and I'm so lucky to have him by my side. Neal has seen me at my lowest and never once has he ever judged me. 

He and his family have shown nothing but support and just truly care for our friendship. This is where I discovered the meaning of friendship. To me, the meaning of friendship is endless love no matter what the person or persons are going through. You never judge but try to point your friend or loved one in the right direction. Always support and be there when you can. We can take for granted those friendships and lose sight that they are the ones that would be there with a simple phone call or text. 

Today I cherish all my friendships and I'm there for those who were there for me when I was at my lowest. I will do anything in my power because I know my friends and family would do the same for me. 

Neal

Thirty years ago, there were a little over 600 websites, two years after the World Wide Web debuted on the global stage. Today, there are a little over two billion websites. Yet, with all of our connectivity, loneliness is endemic. The social isolation that ensued during COVID-19 only exacerbated what was latent in our body politic. Yet, whether pre-, peri-, or post-COVID, the level and depth of loneliness is staggering. While many people have social media accounts, and the ubiquity of smart devices keep us all connected 24/7, one’s number of “likes,” “friends,” “followers” belie what is experienced in silence: we live, and move, and have our being in lonesome existence. We seek to be known and loved, but our career pursuits and dreams of having families leave us feeling alone.  

They desired someone or a few who could understand them, who desired to understand them, to love them.  And to love them not for a quid pro quo, but just to love them for who they are. 

For eight years I served an affluent congregation in one of America’s most affluent ZIP codes. Business acumen, political gravitas, excellence in duty, and elegance in program execution were the values and expectations of the community and congregational context. It was a wonderful ministry, where I learned much and where I had to engage my gifts and skills in deeper ways. God opened up spaces for me to minister within, love and be loved by people who were successful in their industry.  

When that ministry concluded, two separate congregants asked to meet for a meal. Each of them shared that they appreciated my season of pastoral ministry and they hoped that we would continue staying in touch, perhaps become close friends. They realized that they had spent decades forging business relationships, raising a family (for one of them, navigating a divorce of a second failed marriage), and having careers. Now in their mid-/late fifties they looked around and saw the absence of relationships of any meaningful depth. Sure, there were the business lunches, dinners with friends and cocktails with other couples. But in their mid-life, they sought authentic friendships. They desired someone or a few who could understand them, who desired to understand them, to love them.  And to love them not for a quid pro quo, but just to love them for who they are. They said that they experienced a semblance of that in my eight-year ministry with the congregation.  

What was I to do with their request? I had already left the employment of the church by then. They and I had to part ways as I was no longer their pastor. If anything, we were friends, and would remain so, but I could not commit to the level of depth they desired. I told each of them, gently and pastorally, that two decades ago, when I was newly married and starting my pastoral vocation, I intentionally forged a wide network of friendships. Not just for my work but for emotional and spiritual support.  But among this network, there was that small few whom I can count on one hand who are the A-Team of friendships. Those friendships were cultivated over many years – a couple of them over two decades – as we have been intentional about being in each other’s lives. We would stay in touch and would find opportunities to see each other, carving out precious times wherever we were in the world and whatever demands were on our plate.  That intentional commitment meant being willing to be vulnerable. It meant taking the risk early on to open up my heart with guys I deeply trusted and who entrusted their hearts to me. 

The Message version of the Old Testament wisdom sayings of Proverbs says: “Friends come and friends go, but a true friend sticks by you like family.” 

It’s that quality of friendship that is most needed more than ever. It’s the God-shaped heart that takes the risk to love and be loved. It’s the kind where you can whisper to your friend the sacred longings, hopes, dreams, and fears of your heart 

I didn’t want to deflate the spirits of my two former congregants. But neither did I want to over-promise, to commit myself to investing the time and energy in cultivating the depth of friendship they sought. I told them let’s stay in touch and we left it that. It’s been over a year since those sacred conversations and there’s radio silence.  

In reflecting upon those conversations, and in similar conversations with many pastor colleagues and fellow dads who are not pastors, loneliness is, indeed, endemic. It’s tragic and it’s sad. As we can’t be deep friends with everyone, there is a yearning and longing for the depth of friendships that my former congregants sought. People seek that authentic depth of desiring to be known, of being listened to, of being received and welcomed into one’s heart without having to prove anything.  

As Jesus was nearing the end of his time with his friends (his disciples), he emphasized how important it is to love one another. He even washes their feet to demonstrate that even the Son of God will humble himself because he loves his friends. He teaches them what he means when he calls them friends, when he regards us as his friends, and not as servants. This is what Jesus our friend said,  

“I 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” 

The late Earl Palmer, an American Presbyterian pastor, taught from this passage. Palmer observed that Jesus regards us as his friend by virtue of the fact that Jesus allows us to be in the company of him and the heavenly Father as they have a conversation about the secrets of God’s heart. In other words, only to his friends will Jesus whisper the Father’s heart because to do so is to entrust the treasure of the One who loves him into our own heart. That by doing so, we are let into the heart of God. 

It’s that quality of friendship that is most needed more than ever. It’s the God-shaped heart that takes the risk to love and be loved. It’s the kind where you can whisper to your friend the sacred longings, hopes, dreams, and fears of your heart. It’s, likewise, receiving from your friend the same: being entrusted with the treasure of their heart. And it’s also experiencing joy and delight in being with each other, even through online technology, whether it be for a 15-minute coffee or for a whole day at the tennis courts or sharing corny jokes that no one else appreciates but they do.  

Friendships are gifts of God and gifts from God. The ability to open up our hearts and lives to others is a gift of and from God as well. In doing so, we reflect a bit on what Jesus shows us what love is about, what it takes to love, and what it means to be loved.  

The wise words of philosopher and poet, Henri-Frédéric Amiel, encapsulate well what is needed more than ever:  

“Life is short. We have but little time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us. So we swift to love, make haste to be kind.”  

Article
Belief
5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?