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Remembering when 'friend' meant more than a sidekick

During one of his grim moments in the valley of the shadow of death, the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote to his wife:

“Oh my affectionate Emma. I want you to remember that I am a true and faithful friend to you and the children.”

We read those words today (and they can be found in "Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith") and ask: What am I missing here? If you look up synonyms for the word “friend" you get “buddy,” “colleague” and “chum.”

Was Joseph saying he and Emma were great pals?

And what are we missing when Joseph said that friendship was one of the "fundamental principles of Mormonism" and it would one day revolutionize the world?

The truth is this: We are missing how much the word "friend" has been devalued.

Many polls show that people have many friends, but not many have a close friend. One notes that some 2.5 million British men recently said they have no close friends they could turn to in a crisis.

Friends today are associates. We have work friends, golf chums, book club buddies. When our interests or residences change, we change our friends. We buzz from friend to friend way bees buzz from blossom to blossom.

One guy I know has 2,000 Facebook friends. I tried to find my photo in his “friends file.” It was like looking for Waldo at a Jazz game.

No, when Jesus says “Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends” in John 15:13, he’s not talking about Facebook. He’s talking about friendships with a spiritual component. He’s talking “covenant friendships,” where God is the third friend in the relationship. Such friendships are filled with sacrifice, risk, loyalty and honesty. Both he and Joseph are talking about friendships that have more in common with marriage than just hanging out.

And that is what we’ve lost. The depth and breadth of true friendship.

The question is: How can we get it back?

Fast-forward 175 years from Joseph Smith, the first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Last week we bid adieu to a master teacher of true friendship.

During the funeral services for President Thomas S. Monson, the 16th president of the LDS Church, speakers mentioned the wonderful things he modeled for us: How to serve, how to focus on "the one," how to treat the less fortunate.

But hidden in each example, it seemed to me, President Monson was also modeling how to be a friend.

The friend he visited regularly for decades was mentioned, as was a cherished friend in Germany. President Monson climbed five flights of stairs with a bad foot just to greet the man.

With prophets, there is a spiritual element to every friendship. Almost every friend is a covenant friend, with all the loyalty, sacrifice and spiritual bonding that entails.

Story after story in the Monson canon points to that fact.

He was a man showing us what we've lost.

In 1844, Joseph Smith’s life was in great danger. A plan was hatched. Joseph would head west to prepare the way for the Saints, like John the Baptist. He’d be a prophet in exile, like Ezekiel and Daniel.

It all made perfect sense. The horses were saddled and supplies had been packed.

Then came a letter from his wife, Emma, saying the good folks of Nauvoo, Illinois, felt he was forsaking them.

That’s when Joseph said, “If my life is of no value to my friends, it is of no value to me.”

He wasn’t talking about his “fishing buddies.”

He was talking about his spiritual brothers and sisters in Nauvoo.

President Monson, as he neared death, could have uttered that same phrase with the same power and passion.

That, for me, is the crown jewel of all the legacies the man left with us.