Lewis B. Smedes on Friendship: Part One

My God and I
My God and I

Shortly after the passing of one of his closest friends, Lewis B. Smedes reflected on the friendship he had with Cal Bulthuis, Editor-in-Chief at Eerdmans at the time he passed away (Christmas Eve of 1971). In memory of Cal we are republishing in two parts Lewis’s moving reflection, first published thirty-nine years ago this month in The Reformed Journal.

Remembering Alvin Toffler’s warning that “we shall have to be content with ad hoc friendships in the future,” Lewis writes of what is now present day: “As we consume disposable products, we will increasingly have to settle for disposable friendships.” He wonders whether or not friends within the Christian community will survive this “disposability” syndrome.

What do you think? Have Christians settled for disposable friendships or have they survived the “disposability” syndrome?

Part two will be posted tomorrow.


A Word of Thanks for a Friend: Part One

Cal Bulthuis
Cal Bulthuis

That Cal Bulthuis was for so long Managing Editor — and, too lately, Editor-in-Chief — of the Journal was never the key to our friendship. None of us on the staff knew him only as a colleague. Each of us, in his own way, had a friendship with Cal that went beyond the Journal associations. He and I were close friends when the editors of this Journal were still our teachers and, in their own way, our private saints. And during these years when we worked together on the Journal, our friendship undergirded everything. So, while we all are going to hurt badly, journalistically, without him, what we are going to miss most is a good and gracious friend.

The last time I talked with Cal, less than a week before he died, we talked and prayed together about several things; but we also asked the Lord, when he came for Cal, to reach down gently for him. At least this much was given. The cancer that consumed him with terrifying swiftness left his mind clear almost to the end, and tempered his pain even as it destroyed his body. The Lord came gently to take this gentle man away to what he sometimes liked to call “the other dimension.”

But Cal’s death did not come gently to the many who were close to him in life. It came cruelly to his dear wife Joan and their four beautiful children. And because he gave himself so much to the rest of us too, his death leaves our lives with a most burdensome absence. I, among them, feel a hurt I cannot remember having ever felt before. Today, the day before Christmas, the day Cal went to God, I hate death more than I have ever hated it in my life. Yet, my tears mostly spent, what I feel more strongly is an urge to thank God for the delicately indestructible gift of Cal’s friendship.

We first met one morning on the front porch of Calvin College, where we used to go for a quick smoke between classes. It was right after World War II, and Cal was one of the matured GI’s who crowded the campus those days. We happened to find ourselves standing next to each other, so we lit up and started some small talk. Somehow, I think, we both had a quick sense that we could understand each other. We became friends right away, to remain close friends until today.

Cal had an uncommon grace for burden-bearing, and it won him an uncommonly large number of friends. How many people, through the years, have driven or walked over to the Bulthuis house whenever they had problems and hurts, we cannot guess. He was a kind of unappointed burden-sharer to most of his friends and colleagues. Many of them, as they read this, will rehearse their own debt to Cal’s wise, and never judgmental, counsel.

Alvin Toffler (Future Shock) warns us that we shall have to be content with ad hoc friendships in the future. Ad hoc friendships are built on the transient projects and tasks that we share for a while with others: they are not built on human relations, but on job relations. In the mobile life of the future, no job or project will last long for anyone, and friendships based on them will last no longer. As we consume disposable products, we will increasingly have to settle for disposable friendships.

This strikes me now as an unbearably sad thought. Will this really be the style for the future? Can there be no room for a Cal and Lew, Cal and Dirk, Cal and Henry, and all the other abiding relations that Cal created and sustained with real people apart from specific tasks? If not, I want to turn my back on the future.

Still, there may be something to it. Maybe the only place where real friendships will endure is within the Christian community. I cannot conceive of my friendship with Cal outside of a Christian context. Here was a person, a real person, who quietly, through my times of sadness, insecurity, indecision, stupidity, and minor victories, was willing to digest all of my ambiguity within his own soul. Both of us assumed the Christian framework we live in: he always practiced it. There was nothing ad hoc about this: no job, no task, no project could explain our friendship. We were kept together by a power working inside each of us, a power not ours, and yet very much a part of us. Friendship is not the same as Christian love, I know. One loves people who are not his friends. Yet, friendship these days is getting harder and harder to keep alive through the years without the substratum of Christian love. If the futurists are right, the Christian community may be the last place where persons can be friends as persons.

But I suspect the pinch may be getting even tighter. For Christians too are victims of the new style of life; they are, as a whole, part of the “disposability” syndrome. I work presently among as fine a group of Christian people as can, I think, be found anywhere. But we all were shaped within differing traditions, come from very different spiritual experiences, and are thrown (or led) together mostly by vocational concerns. We “happen” to teach at the same school. Friendship for the most part is ad hoc. And it is hard to create something deeper. I am truly grateful for the friends I have come to have here. But there is a difference. What is it?