The gospel of John reminds us of a simple concept: God is love. God embodies the sacrificial love that the Greeks called Agape. We often have difficulty imagining the magnitude of sacrificial love and we rarely take the time to closely examine our own love relationships.
Our society plays fast and loose with the word “love" and blends it with our emotions. Most people take love of others for granted. We rarely engage our intellect at all when we think about those we love and our commitment to them. Agape Love is more about how we act than about how we feel.
One of my own spiritual practices is to take an annual retreat, which includes a day of reflection on my relationships with those I claim to love. On this day, I use an exercise called “Circle of Friends," which is part of a retreat format developed by the late Father Frank Lordemann for use with military chaplains.
This exercise involves making a commitment to your friends based on whether they are part of your inner circle or a circle further from the center. There are behavioral descriptions for each circle.
- Intimate Friends Inner Circle is the group with whom you share your deepest secrets. You are in weekly contact with them, and they attend all the special celebrations in your life. You also call them every time you feel you are in a crisis situation.
- Close Friends Second Circle is the group that is just one step from the inner circle. You share many aspects of your personal life with them and often include them in your special celebrations. You are in contact with them at least monthly and will occasionally call them when you feel in crisis.
- Social Friends Third Circle is another circle further from the center. You share some personal information with them, and they do share an occasional social celebration with you. On a rare occasion, you might call them to help with a crisis, and you usually have contact with them about three to four times a year.
- Fourth Circle of Acquaintances is the group with whom you share very little personal information, rarely celebrate with them socially, never call them in a crisis unless they have some personal expertise, and only have contact with them about once a year.
As part of this retreat, I rank myself on how well I feel I have lived up to my part of the relationship. In other words, how well I have “loved" them. To keep it simple, I put a simple plus sign, equal sign or minus sign by each name. Then, I rank each of my friends on how well they have held up their end of the relationship and compare the two rankings, reflecting on each one and paying special attention to the plus and minus signs.
Years ago, I knew someone who I considered to be a close friend and I worked hard to schedule time for us to get together. I realized, however, that this person did not make time for me. Even when this individual moved out of state, I visited twice, but a reciprocal visit was never made. It became increasingly clear that this person was no longer interested in being one of my “Close Friends."
Friendships also can go in other directions. Friends who begin in the “Social Friend" circle can become “Close Friends." It also can be quite clear when friendships have moved on.
After I complete my assessment, then comes the hard part. That is communicating what I have noticed about our friendship with my “Inner Circle" and “Close Friends." We have a conversation about what we want our friendship to be going forward. These are tough conversations, but they have helped me to let go of friends who have moved on and to strengthen my relationship with friends with whom I share a stronger connection.
In John's Gospel, we are asked to evaluate our relationship with our Heavenly Father. If we were honest in reflecting on this relationship, we would probably place a plus sign next to God and a minus sign next to our name.
We are all like my old friend who didn't seem to be responding to my request for more time, more intimacy and more love. Like the Bible tells us, we condemn ourselves by rejecting God's offer of friendship, by not expressing our beliefs in our actions.
But that's okay. God continues to reach out to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and would love nothing more than for us to commit to a stronger relationship. So, where is God in your Circle of Friends? No matter your answer, you can be assured that you are always in God's “Inner Circle."