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Josh Hamilton and the importance of friendship

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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Josh Hamilton hits off a tee during workouts at Surprise Stadium, Surprise, Arizona, April 28, 2015 (Credit: USA Today Sports/Rick Scuteri)

Josh Hamilton is back in the news, as he was traded from the Los Angeles Angels to the Texas Rangers. Hamilton signed with the Angels after the 2012 season, but has struggled to produce at the level the Angels were expecting, and has suffered several significant injuries as well. What really prompted the trade, though, was Hamilton’s recent drug relapse. Having battled drug addiction for years, Hamilton self-reported the most recent relapse, and was not significantly punished by Major League Baseball, but Angel’s owner Arte Moreno, already frustrated with Hamilton’s lack of production, became increasingly angered by Hamilton’s off-the-field actions.

Without getting into all the details of how the trade went down, on a very basic level the Angels desperately wanted to get rid of Josh Hamilton, and the Rangers desperately needed to improve their batting. Hamilton has always fascinated the sporting world, because he embodies that classic baseball myth of The Natural. Just watch his record-setting 2008 All-Star Game Home Run Derby performance, where he crushed 28 home runs in one round. In a sport that has always been in love with the home run, Josh Hamilton is a natural.

But make no mistake, the Rangers are not getting the same Hamilton that led them to two World Series appearances. The 2015 Hamilton is recovering from a shoulder injury, and is approaching the latter stage of his career age-wise. But chances are, he will still hit a few home runs for his old team.

The Hamilton story has always been front-page news in the sporting world, and this recent turn of events just adds to the overall lore. But what captured my attention was something Hamilton said during his introductory press conference with the Rangers just a few days ago. After answering the perfunctory questions about his expected performance, he was asked about his support group, the one that he has had with him throughout his career with the Rangers and Angels. He stopped for a second, thought about his response, and then told the reporter that as part of the transition back to Texas he was going to restructure his support group back to the way it was when he was still with the Rangers. Evidently, after signing with the Angels, the support group changed and that laxness helped to create the conditions for Hamilton’s relapse.

It’s strange to hear a ballplayer discuss how much he needs a support group to help him stay focused in his life (and away from drugs), but as I was listening to him I began to think about why it’s so strange. It’s strange because our entire American ethos is built upon individualism. We subscribe whole-heartedly as a nation to the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, so we find it odd that one of our heroes, one of our baseball archetypes, actually needs others if he is going to be able to stay on the field.

Eugene Peterson, in his fantastic book Practice Resurrection, warns of the treacherous results of uncritically imbibing individualism by describing it as “The growth-stunting, maturity-inhibiting habit of understanding growth as an isolated self-project.” Instead of individualism, what we really need is a better appreciation for community in general, and friendship in specific.

In American culture, we tend to gravitate to romantic love (eros) and familial love (storge), and C.S. Lewis’ book The Four Loves helps paint the picture for the difference between the different loves. One of the most underappreciated loves, in his view, is Friendship (philia), which is characterized best by mutual affection between equals. Lewis says, “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it…”

There is a tremendous need in contemporary culture to recover the importance of friendship. We simply cannot go through life isolated and alone. But as Christians we are called on step further. Friendship is wonderful, but spiritual friendship has even more value to it, because we are called to point each other to Christ’s work in our lives (Hebrews 10:24).

So what is the difference between friendship and spiritual friendship? Eugene Peterson, in another excellent book, Working the Angles, again helps us understand the difference. In spiritual friendship, there is a recognition and attentiveness to the other person, remembering that:

1) God is always doing something: an active grace is shaping this life into a mature salvation;
2) Responding to God is not sheer guesswork: the Christian community has acquired wisdom through the centuries that provides guidance;
3) Each soul is unique: no wisdom can simply be applied without discerning the particulars of this life, this situation.

As we reflect on God’s incredible gift of friendship, about the joy, perspective, life, and support that true friends provide, let’s always be aware of how God calls us to encourage and love one another. Maybe there is someone who needs your attention today, who needs an encouraging word or just a listening ear. This is the gift of friendship.