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“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” (John 15:13).

Our familiarity with this verse may mask the rather surprising choice of words employed by Jesus to capture and express the essence of sacrificial love for others.

One’s friends?  What about a husband laying down his life, giving himself up, for his wife?  Granted, Paul will declare that such a commitment to one’s spouse reflects Christ’s ultimate love for His bride, the church, but Jesus doesn’t use the husband and wife picture here.  What about a parent, a father or mother, risking his or her life or taking a fatal blow so that their child may be spared?  Again, while this is an undeniably definitive expression of agape love, Jesus passes over it in favor of one’s friends.

Why did Jesus choose to focus on friendship?   Is it because not all people are married or will marry?  Is it because not everyone has or will have children?  Is it because every single one of us needs to value and treasure the blessings of friendship?  Jesus wasn’t married, and He didn’t have children.  But, He had friends: a wide circle, an inner circle, tax collector and sinner friends, beloved friends like Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (John 11:5, 11), and, for a time, a best friend named John (John 3:28-30).

The cover of the September issue of Christianity Today asks the question, “Why Can’t Men Be Friends?”  This question is explored by two feature articles, “’Til Death Do Us Part” by Wesley Hill and “I Didn’t Marry My Best Friend” by Kate Shellnut.  Both authors shed significant light and offer unique perspectives on the subject of the deep need for friendship among Christians, even, and perhaps especially, among believers who are married.

Kate Shellnut tackles the ubiquitous matrimonial mantra, “I married my best friend,” a phrase “now so standard in romantic rhetoric that we forget it’s not part of the traditional [wedding] ceremony.”

Here are a few notable nuggets from Shellnut’s pushback against this common expression of conventional wisdom and popular sentimentality.

Marrying your best friend is enough of a cultural expectation that if I admit I didn’t, people might pity me.  But here’s the secret: I’m actually the lucky one.  I have a husband who isn’t my best friend.  And I have a best friend whom I’m not married to.  They play different roles in my life and I need them both.

The phrase implies that, since married people have each other, they don’t have best friends anymore and don’t need them.  And it exaggerates the risks young couples already face: setting up unhealthy expectations, looking to each other as the sole source of fulfillment.  It also relegates best friends to the realm of singleness.

Even if couples don’t announce that they’re marrying their best friend, many newlyweds live out this philosophy, dropping out of the friend-making game once they have a ring on their finger.  Sociologists find that these days, we typically form our most meaningful friendships prior to age 28.  Not coincidentally, that’s also the average age we get married.

I didn’t marry my best friend.  Instead, I married my husband, with all of my best friends beside me to celebrate.  It was the happiest day of my life.  I got – and still get – to have both.

Wesley Hill opens his case for Christian friendship by appealing to a statement from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, expressed in a letter from prison to a treasured friend.  Bonhoeffer wrote that, unlike marriage and kinship, friendship “has no generally recognized rights, and therefore depends entirely on its own inherent quality.”  Hill describes how intimate friendships, so important in our youth, decline as people, particularly men, grow older.  “Afraid of being perceived as gay or feminine,” men often withdraw from close friendships with other men, and “afraid of crossing boundaries of propriety,” many never develop meaningful friendships with those of the opposite sex.

Hill identifies himself as a gay, single, celibate Christian, who is committed to the traditional Biblical understanding that marriage is a union between a man and a woman.  He writes, “When I contemplate a lifetime of celibacy, I know I want committed friends who will walk beside me on the journey.”  How much easier would that journey be for Hill with the love, support, and encouragement of numerous devoted Christian friends, both men and women, married and single?

My heart was touched as Hill wrote:

I need people who know what time my plane lands, who will worry about me when I don’t show up when I say I will.  I need people I can call and tell about that funny thing that happened in the hallway after class.  I need to know that, come hell or high water, a few people will stay with me, loving me in spite of my faults and caring for me when I’m down.  More, I need people for whom I can care.  As a friend of mine put it, you want someone for whom you can make soup when she’s sick, not just someone who will make soup for you when you’re sick.”

I have been blessed throughout my life with incredible friends, both male and female.  I have great memories of grade school friends in Louisville and Richmond, Kentucky, with a missionary stint in Monrovia, Liberia, sandwiched in between the two.  I had wonderful high school friends in Lewisburg, Tennessee, and Montgomery, Alabama.  Thanks largely to Facebook, I am still in contact with several college friends, both from Faulkner University (formerly Alabama Christian College) and Lipscomb University, including my roommate from Lipscomb with whom I have been blessed to visit annually for the last few years.

In the 26 years since my marriage to Kim, our lives have been greatly enriched by our relationships with friends (some hers, some mine, and some ours) in Tennessee, Hawaii, Alabama, Texas, and now Oklahoma.  I am grateful that our commitment to our marriage has not required that we close off our hearts and lives to others through meaningful and needful friendships.

During our nine years with the McDermott Road church in Plano, Texas, my heart became closely knit together with several brothers in Christ.  These relationships were forged in the context and crucible of a rapidly growing church plant, with all the attendant excitement, sense of mission, constant adjustments, and periodic challenges along the way.  Our time together was both extensive and intensive, resulting in close, intimate friendship.

I have been similarly blessed with friendships over the last five years of my life, especially in developing relationships with some men who are several years younger than myself.  It took me a while to accept that, now in my early 50s, I can be an encouraging older brother/mentor/friend/confidant to those whose lives are at points a decade or two or three behind my own.

Among my friends, there is none closer or dearer to me than Jeff Watson.  If I’ve ever had “a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24), it is Jeff.  In 2009, although he had only known me for three months, he took a day off from work to help me move into our new home in Tulsa.  When Mom passed away in 2010, Jeff drove Kim and the kids from Tulsa to Alabama, stayed for the funeral, and then drove my car back to Oklahoma for me.  He has taken care of my lawn and garden on numerous occasions when I’ve been out of town.  He has ridden shotgun with me on distant speaking engagements, just to provide company and encouragement.

Jeff and I took a quick “man trip” to Tennessee a few weeks ago, visiting a few family members and friends, attending the Diana Singing (a subject matter worthy of its own post sometime in the future), and taking in several sites on a “Pyles family history and nostalgia tour.”  As I droned on and on about relatives, ancestors, farms, memories, cemeteries, and other places of significance to me, Jeff not only listened carefully and patiently, he asked follow-up questions just to make sure he had the facts and stories straight.  Who does that?  Who cares enough to even want to remember such things?  A true friend!

Friends like Jeff and Deanna Watson are not just like family to us; they are family.  They have blessed our lives in immeasurable and incomparable ways, not because of the duty of blood, but because of the choice of friendship and the gift of love.

Among the places Jeff and I visited was Ebenezer Hollow in the extreme southern portion of Marshall County.  Non-existent as a community for decades now, Ebenezer was the place to which my Pyles family forbears migrated from North Carolina nearly 200 years ago in the early 1820s.  Ebenezer is a special place to me; rugged and remote; wooded hills; a peaceful place of connection for me to people I never knew, but whose blood runs through my veins.

Ebenezer means “stone of help” (I Samuel 7:12).  Samuel, the priest of Israel, set up a memorial stone, commemorating the Lord’s faithfulness and deliverance, and named the stone Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

Today I raise a memorial stone to friendship.  Like Samuel, I call it Ebenezer, “stone of help.”

To my friends, old and new, far and near:  I would not be where I am or who I am without your help, your encouragement, your love, your compassion, your kindness, and your forgiveness!  Thank you!

Make sure your friends know how you feel about them!  Celebrate them!  Praise them!  Encourage them!  Support them!  Journey with them!  Be there for them!  Laugh and cry with them!  Tell them that you love them!

Kent Smith, a dear friend and brother in Christ, went home to be with the Lord in the early hours of last Thursday, August 30, after a courageous and inspiring battle with T-cell lymphoma.  Kent touched the lives and hearts of so many people in so many different ways over the course of his life: as a son, brother, husband, father, grandfather, farmer, cotton ginner, AIMer, youth minister, teacher, preacher, worship leader, elder, deacon, missionary, storyteller, author, encourager, co-worker, and friend.

Kent and Paula had just placed membership at the McDermott Road church when my family and I joined the work of that congregation in ministry in September of 1999.  We were still meeting in the facilities of the Waterview church at the time.  Kent would soon be serving on the Steering Committee, a group of seven men who provided leadership for the congregation in the early days of the church plant as it transitioned to its own facilities in north Plano.  Kent’s very obvious faith, maturity, giftedness, and passion for Christ resulted in him being asked to serve among the congregation’s first elders.  He served well, exhibiting the heart of a true shepherd.  As deeply as Kent felt called to serve as an elder, he, along with others, demonstrated great spiritual strength, courage, and humility in willingly stepping aside from that role of servant-leadership when they believed that it was best.  That selfless act of love for Christ’s church helped to ensure the ongoing stability, spiritual health, and numerical growth of the congregation.  True to his nature, he continued serving in a variety of other ways, right at the heart of the life of the church.  He had a special place in his heart for the work of Christ in Honduras and the Rio Grande Valley where he was involved in numerous mission trips. 

Kent had an extraordinary ability to connect with people’s hearts and lives, a gift that was just as effective in the affluent northern suburbs of Dallas as it had been in rural West Texas.  He loved to teach, especially by exploring how faith in Christ translates into daily life.  He communicated so naturally through stories from his own life and experiences.  When Kent told a good story, it became a great story.  Many of these anecdotes and insights are included in his book, Everyday Christianity: Life Learned Lessons and Observations from an Ordinary Man

Kent was noted for the nicknames which he lovingly gave to family members and friends.  He even nicknamed himself “Grumpy,” which was an immediate and enduring hit.  Kent dubbed me “R.P.”: Reverend Pyles.  He would often call me at the church office about 11:30 in the morning and say, “Hey, R.P.!  If you don’t have any plans for lunch, why don’t we go get ourselves a sandwich?”  Kent had a unique cadence and inflection in saying the word “sandwich.”  Any attempt to explain it in written form would fall short of adequately capturing it, so I won’t even try, but it was quintessentially Kent.  We had many such spontaneous lunch dates.  Kent used to say, “Tim stays awfully busy, but, if you want some of his time, all you have to do is wave a couple of tacos in front of him.”

Kent will be on my mind quite a bit this week.  On Wednesday, I am driving to Abilene to share a lesson with the Oldham Lane church.  On at least two previous speaking engagements there, Kent rode shotgun with me.  Although he had somewhat of an ulterior motive in being able to share a brief visit with his sister who was a member of that congregation, he provided great company on the drive and helped to pass the travel time with a lot of laughter.  We would get to Abilene in time to eat at Cracker Barrel before the service, would stop in at Sonic on the way out of town for something cold and sweet for the road, and would roll back into the Metroplex about 11:30 or midnight.  Our last trip was in July of 2008. 

Among other things that I have scheduled for this Thursday on my return journey from Abilene is a round of golf at Stevens Park in the beautiful Kessler Park area of Oak Cliff.  Kent and I played our first round together there on March 31, 2000.  The date is memorable because it was the Friday before our first Sunday worship services in the new, modular building at McDermott Road on April 2.  The previous Tuesday evening, we had dodged tornadoes which inflicted extensive damage in downtown Fort Worth, Arlington, and Grand Prairie and had threatened to scatter our deca-wide modular all over Collin County.  It was a very exciting but quite stressful time, so Kent suggested that we escape for an afternoon of golf.  Stevens Park was already my favorite course in Dallas, and Kent became the first of my McDermott Road friends to accompany me there.  We would later add Coyote Ridge in Carrollton, Stewart Peninsula in The Colony, and Plantation in Frisco to the course rotation.           

I last visited with Kent and Paula in their home last April.  Though our time was rather brief, it was very encouraging, which was par for the course with Kent.  I was unable to attend Kent’s memorial service last Saturday, but I heard that his son, Josh, and son-in-law, Chad, did an amazing job in honoring and celebrating his life.  All of us love our families, but Kent had an exceptional affection for Paula, their children and their spouses, and their grandchildren.  He was so very proud of each and every one of them.     

When Kent encountered challenges in his life, he always faced them with perseverance and hope.  Setbacks were only temporary, and light always followed the darkness.  There was always a way forward.  Even cancer wasn’t allowed to have the last word.  He utilized his illness just as he had used his entire life, to glorify God and to draw others closer to Jesus. 

Kent shared a message at McDermott Road on July 29, a month before his death, in which he beautifully communicated his faith, his hope, his confidence, and his conviction that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  He didn’t just preach it; he lived it.  You can hear and see Kent’s message by clicking here and scrolling to the bottom of the page.

Thank you, Kent, for leaving such a powerful testimony and lasting legacy of faith and hope for your family, your church family, and your friends.

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