Friendship: From Piss Trough to Horse Trough

By Scott Keith


Because our expression is imperfect we need friendship to fill up the imperfections.”

– G.K. Chesterton,Illustrated London News, June 6, 1931

Recent events in the world of evangelical Christianity have illustrated for me what I already knew: men need more real friends. Or rather, it seems that men don’t have real friends at all. I think people who don’t know me well would say of me, comparing me to their perception of other people, that I don’t have many friends. Maybe they would be right, but in reality, I think that I have more true friends than most. What is not in great supply in my life are load upon loads of what most call friends but I believe are merely acquaintances. This can get confusing. For what is a friend if not just an acquaintance one sees more often than not? I don’t think that’s it. While it may be true that proximity and frequency are usually a part of the friendship equation, these things do not make friends. I think a friend is someone who follows you from the piss trough to the horse trough and back again. Friends stand by you through all of your embarrassing exposure, into your brokenness, and are on the other side when forgiveness is granted and brotherhood regained.

If you are a man around my same age or older, you have memories of peeing alongside other men and boys in what can only be described as a trough. For me this was most often at my little parochial school, Grace Lutheran School in Lancaster, California. In the men’s bathroom next to the 7th and 8th grade room was what can only be described as a trough for boys to piss in (there were open showers too, but that is best left for another blog). We could line a dozen boys up at that trough, no waiting in line, no halt of the story or conversation, just peeing and talking.


To women, I’m sure this seems somewhat outrageous. Yet at that trough we learned a lot about one another (beyond the vulgar and obvious). You see, the thing is, that at least while I was in school, there was nothing really weird about it. I was almost always next to my best friends while pissing at that trough. As I said, the conversation that had begun on the playground never needed to stop just because someone needed to pee. The trough provided camaraderie and an open forum. You’d be amazed at how free one can feel once everyone is “exposed” as it were; needless to say, all pretense disappears.

The first part of friendship, I think, is exposure. There is a bare and gritty honesty needed between true friends. These friends are not the people that we “poke” or label as “friends” on Facebook. These are the people who truly know who we are. Our friends know who we really are because we have either been laid bare or laid ourselves bare in front of them. When we sin, it is no surprise to them because they know us to be a sinner. After all, we have stood shoulder to shoulder at the piss trough. They know, then, when we need a trip to the horse trough.

Horses at trough

There is a scene in the movie Wyatt Earp starring Kevin Costner (yes, Tombstone is a better movie) wherein Doc Holiday is fighting with his girlfriend, Big Nose Kate. Kate is a prostitute, Doc is an alcoholic as well as a renowned killer, and the two are about to murder one another! Doc is drunk, as usual, and absolutely out of control. I have heard that we are all only three missteps away from losing control of everything. If that is true, in the scene, Doc is presented as if he had already taken about two and a half steps. Just then, his friend, Wyatt Earp busts into the room and breaks up the fight.

Yet Wyatt’s breaking up of the fight is not the important part. The important part is when Wyatt takes Doc downstairs and repeatedly dunks his head in a horse trough until Doc “comes to his senses.” It is at this point that Wyatt asks Doc, “What’s wrong with you Doc?” Doc’s reply is honesty borne of being exposed to and by his friend. Doc explains: “I am dying of tuberculosis, everyone who knows me hates me, I sleep with the nastiest whore in Kansas, and every morning I wake up surprised that I have to spend another day in the piss-hole world.” Wyatt’s response makes the whole movie for me when he says, “Not everybody that knows you hates you, Doc.” Doc then looks up at Wyatt, and if you watch carefully you might discern, as I did, that at that very moment the world is no longer a “piss hole” to Doc. Individually considered, there are not many important words in the sentence Wyatt proclaims to Doc. But strung together, Wyatt’s words become a proclamation of forgiveness, friendship, and finally brotherhood. Thus Wyatt’s forgiveness changes Doc’s world.


Friendship is exposure, brokenness, forgiveness, and brotherhood. We like to envision Law and Gospel as a set of complicated and systematized definitions that we willfully recognize, discern, and apply. Yet I often think that God didn’t intend Law and Gospel to work that way. Law and Gospel plays out in the everyday life of our relationships, and if we have actual friends, especially in those friendships. To our friends we are exposed, laid bare, have our heads dunked in the horse trough of the Law, only to be forgiven sitting in the mud next to that same trough. Both the Law and the Gospel come to us on the lips of another, sometimes even through our friends. The Law drowns us, and then we are made children and brothers again by the simple yet not simplistic proclamation of the Gospel. Thus if we have good friends, we often find ourselves living life from the piss trough to the horse trough. My prayer is that friendship be to you not a rare commodity.