KAMPALA, UGANDA — At this writing, I am on the eve of my departure from Africa on my 37th trip to the big continent, visiting four countries West to East.
In recent days, I have been musing about just how valuable this series of trips has been for me: I have had my perspective broadened by exposure to another part of the world; I have enjoyed seeing many places tourists never set foot on; I have learned first-hand lessons on African culture; I have expanded connections with Africans in both Europe and throughout America.
Most strikingly, however, I have developed deep friendships over these 16 years and find opportunities to make new friends on every trip. And so, I have been thinking about the importance of relationships as I leave my friends on this side of the ocean one more time. Consider these thoughts:
1. What matters most in life is relationships. There are many demands on our time and energy in modern America. We have jobs to perform, property to maintain, products to purchase and bills to pay. Yet what keeps us emotionally stable are relationships we enjoy. We are not doing as well in that department as we might. One recent study showed that the average American has not made a new friend in the last five years. That is an amazing statistic. The art of engaging and keeping good friends, including family members, is one of the surest ways to keep ourselves on an even keel. This all comes clear at the end of life. Those who connect with many people have a blessed legacy that lives on in the lives they have influenced. Maintaining our connections to people is far more important than maintaining the things that often consume us.
2. Relationships that matter most are spiritually-based. My trip to Africa has proven to me once again that there is a special depth to relationships that have a spiritual dimension to them. The hundreds of church people we connect with in Africa on any one trip are part of a wonderful fraternity. Christians have a built-in brotherhood because they believe that the Holy Spirit of God indwells all believers and they have inner strength and character that unifies them even before they get to know each other. Once they start talking about their lives and their experiences, the common bonds of faith and spiritual community become obvious and the inner-connection between human beings is a remarkable thing to sense. It leads to the deepest of interpersonal relationships possible. I have felt that connection with those of similar faith almost instantly and it quickly deepens with continued conversation and contact. Spiritual foundations produce strong friendships.
3. Time seasons and enriches all relationships. As I think of 37 trips to Africa over 16 years, it is heartwarming to see how time itself has produced deeper, broader, more meaningful connections with people. The more years we spend in our friendships and family relationships, the more meaningful they can become. I have just explored Uganda for the first time with the help of one of leaders from Nigeria, Bishop Mike. He is a man I have known for 15 years and we have experienced life and ministry together in many settings both in Africa and America. This collaboration on this trip has been the crowning touch in our friendship so far. We understand each other; we respect each other; we enjoy each other’s company; we care deeply for each other. Those dimensions of relationship simply do not happen overnight, instantly. It takes time for us to develop deep feelings from the heart. In our instant-everything world in which we live, we need to learn the patience that it takes to really develop relationships over time.
We owe it to ourselves to evaluate the quantity and quality of the friendships we are fostering in life. It will help us to build a legacy of love in all of our relationships — the real stuff of human experience. The Rev. TimothyA. Johnson shares this space with the Revs.Rod Anderson and Trish Sullivan Vanni as well asspiritual writers Dr. Bernard E. Johnson, Nanette Missaghi and Beryl Schewe. “Spiritually Speaking” appears weekly.