I have to admit it. I am on a bit of a nostalgia kick this week. A couple of weeks ago I attended my 50th high school reunion and I am still amazed at how much fun it was. Then the following day I went to a conference in St. Louis where I lived after I left the convent. That Sunday evening a group of 5 of us gathered to break bread: 2 former roommates and 2 women with whom I worked, after 40 years of absence. It was great fun reminiscing and catching up. Then this past Sunday my former mentor when I was deaconed 29 years ago and his wife had dinner with J and me. They have just moved to TX. We haven’t seen each other in years either.
Friendship is an awesome thing. I have always had friends, but had not realized just how I have been formed by them. I don’t have many friends at any one time, but the ones that I have had have allowed me to grow and change. They have allowed me to be who I am without too much criticism. But I have been molded by all of them. They draw me away from the very human tendency toward self-centeredness and drag me into that wonderful place where I can see so much more of life than when I am stuck in myself. It is friendship that is the antidote to what some call ‘original sin.’
This week one of those friends sent me one of those chain letters (which I loathe) that asked if I had a dinner party with the 8 most important women in my life, who would they be? I didn’t respond to the chain letter, but I did develop a list of the people who have been signatory in my life. The only problem is that they aren’t all women and the table is a bit larger. They all aren’t all single either. Some are coupled and it has been their ‘coupled-ness’ that has shown me what it means to live out my own vocation as a single person in community.
While writing this sermon I just had to phone one of those friends who was instrumental in bringing me to faith. She was a friend who got me to open to God’s grace and God did the rest. She didn’t tell me how to love God. She didn’t tell me what I needed to believe. She just said, “Pray.” She knew that God would do the rest. And God did.
Friendship is like that. Friendship is the kind of relationship that bids us to be ourselves and yet encourages us to be more. It is the kind of relationship that is different from family whose intimacy is by virtue of birth, adoption or marriage. Friendship is that relationship of give and take that allows you to be an individual yet never quite leaves you there. Friendship invites one to be interdependent, but is quite comfortable with allowing you to lean on the relationship when it is needed.
In the Gospel of John while at the Last Supper before his death, Jesus calls his disciples—his students or followers-- ‘friends’ for the first time. He brought the relationship from a hierarchical one into a communal one. Jesus did not stand on the pretense of domination that is at the center of all hierarchical models. Jesus was different from those whom he called to follow him, not because he was God but because he was trying to teach his followers that there is a better way to live. A teacher is always “above” or “beyond” his/her students. But at the last, Jesus was no longer asking them to learn, but to live into the kind of love that calls forth their own individuality, their own well-formed personhood in order to spread the word that God is love. He empowered them to become peers with him. That is what friendship does. The relationship of friend is one that calls us to go forth, to share the love and caring that has been well-honed in the friendship. True friendship is never afraid of losing or being lost because no matter how long you are apart, it is always possible to pick up the friendship again.
This is why I am adverse to titles for clergy. I think that the role of the priest or pastor is less the Imago Christi and more that Christian who as friend shares that walk of faith with those he/she pastors. I sometimes wish we could just call each other ‘Friend’, like the old Quakers did. But that title too, became a way to avoid the crucible of intimacy to which Christ’s love draws us. Titles keep us from the intimacy of friendship. Any time we avoid the difficulty of entering into the dialogue, or sharing of what it means to be human, we miss the incarnated love that Christ has for us. The disciples, as usual, didn’t quite get it. They called him ‘Lord’ rather than step into the life-changing and life-sharing intimacy of friendship.
Jesus calls us to be friends just as surely as he did his disciples. He calls us to that peer relationship that models peace with one another. Friends don’t have to be ‘right’ with one another. We don’t have to have a ‘leg up’ on the other. We are invited to enter the holiness that comes from the love that signals the power of equality in friendship. And it is that in-fleshed equality that speaks the freedom that we recognize as “Salvation”, “Redemption,” or “Righteousness.” [And if I really want to reference what it means to be “Mother”, it is this kind of intimacy that sends me out to live out and share the love God has loved me with.]
I am trying to contact my friends this week just to touch base, just to remind myself of how blessed I have been to have them as friends. I don’t have to go into why I am calling them; I am just giving thanks in my own way for those who have fashioned me into the woman I have become. It isn’t maudlin nostalgia; it is that crystal clearness of a meditation on what Jesus did when he moved God’s love into friendship.
Friendship is the paradigm of Christian relationship. And it bothers me that I have over 500 ‘friends’ on Facebook. I can’t possibly be ‘friends’ with so many. But I also know that there are those who follow me online who count me as friends because they have allowed what I have said or written to impact them in their relationship with God. I don’t even know who they are—some of them. But I don’t think that matters. God will do with what has been said between us to be used to love others.
The threat of a virtual Church does not bother me. But there comes a time when friendship does have to become real. The Christian life cannot be lived solely on the internet. Christian living is how we deal with one another in the Incarnated love of one human being to another.
Sometimes a ‘friend’ from miles away can call me to be a better community member to my very real roommate, or a better aunt or sister to my family or a better pastor to my flock. Those ‘virtual friends’ can often help me to go beyond the laptop in my love for humanity to be a better neighbor or a kinder person before coffee. But those ‘far-off friendships’ demand a touch with reality, even if it is nothing more than a telephone call.
The intimacy of the Incarnation demands that we know each other in reality because human intimacy has consequence. It requires struggle to work out the boundaries --the give and take that polishes the relationship. Christianity is lived in real time. It is an incarnated—an in-fleshed faith. It is not for nothing that the people who were of the children of Abraham took the name of Jacob after he had wrestled with God—Israel, means one who has struggled with God. A faith based in the friendship with the Holy One is patterned after the necessary struggle that comes of being imperfect beings working out in ‘fear and trembling’ the salvific friendship with the Holy.
The friendships of my life all have the mark of the Holy about them. We have all wrestled with one another. And like Jacob we too are all marked by that wrestling. Sometimes I have limped and sometimes I have been able to click my heels.
But to all those who call me Friend, I say thank you.