Month of great loss has reminded me to thank God for good friends
This is the first weekend of February, and I am glad to see the back of January. It has been a month of saying 'goodbye' to people who have enriched my life and are sorely missed.
Shortly after dawn on New Year's Day, my wife and I set off to drive from Belfast to Cork for the funeral of a much-loved friend.
We had met her and her husband, who was also greatly-treasured by us, nearly 40 years ago when staying at Renvyle House Hotel in Connemara. We were two young couples with growing families and, in the words of the song, "Those were the days my friend, we thought they'd never end".
She was a beautiful person and a talented artist, and when her husband died some years ago, we continued to stay in touch regularly.
Her funeral on January 2 at the little Anglican church in Carrigaline, near Cork, was immensely sad, and our hearts went out to her family, as we shared their grief. Now she has gone, but the memories linger on, and her lovely autumn painting of blackberries, which she gave us many years ago, has long had a special place in our home. It is now even more precious to us.
In the following weeks we attended the funerals in Belfast of three other people whom we had liked and respected.
Then, not long ago, a much-loved neighbour passed on. He was a saintly man, yet down to earth with a great sense of fun.
Though we mourn his passing deeply, we also give thanks for the blessings of having such good neighbours for so long, and our hearts also go out to all his family.
Though it was such a hard month, we found the Christian funerals comforting, with the assurance of life beyond death.
Friendship is a great theme of the Bible, and one of the deepest friendships was that between Lazarus and Jesus Christ, which led to the shortest sentence in the Bible: "Jesus wept."
This showed how Christ understood human grief, even though He literally had the power to overcome death itself.
Friendship is also part of the fabric of life in so many different dimensions. Think, for example, of the strong personal friendship between the statesmen Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D Roosevelt, which helped to cement further the special relationship between the UK and the USA, and which saved the world from Hitler's savage tyranny.
(Incidentally, you should make an effort to see Gary Oldman's spellbinding portrayal of Churchill in the film Darkest Hour, if you haven't done so already).
This past month also set me thinking even more deeply about friendship in general, and my firm belief that it is something which we should never take for granted.
I have long been impressed by Dr Samuel Johnson's observation that "It behoves a man to keep his friendships in good repair", and during December and January I have made a point of seeing a number of old friends, some of whom I had not met for far too long.
It was an enriching experience, but it required organisation and commitment from all of us. How many times do you say to someone "We must have coffee or lunch or dinner", and then both of you never get round to it? Sometimes you find, to your deep regret, that it is too late to do so.
Some people put much store by 'networking'. This is a term I dislike, because it does not necessarily mean friendship. Networking is a system of staying in touch with people, but often only out of mutual self-interest.
If you doubt this, think of the people whom you once thought were friends through working together, but who now look over your shoulder at a social gathering and seek out somebody who is more important to them now than you are.
Sadly, that's human nature, and these are the kind of people who think that you don't notice, but you do.
I always bear in mind the quote that "You can tell much from a man who stays in touch with his friends who can't do him any favours".
So, as we move through winter towards the promise of spring, wrap the warmth of friendships around you. Cherish your friends, and thank God that you still have them.