Friendship and Faith

I spent many years digging deep into the theoretical aspects of Christian belief. Fortunately, my steadily increasing age finally rescued me from this pursuit. My enthusiasm for somewhat detached intellectual considerations decreased in direct proportion to the number of candles I had on my birthday cake.

Instead, I found my faith in the midst of real life and real people. Births and deaths, triumphs and tragedies, and the relentless passing of time taught me more than anything I ever heard in a classroom, read in a book, or argued about in a seminar. The blood, sweat, and tears of ordinary human existence revealed to me a basic truth: friendship is at the core of what my beliefs are about. To be a Christian, one needs to know how to be a friend.

Friendship is a two-syllable word for a powerful connection. It is at the core of every bedrock relationship, including marriage. A lasting friendship depends on trust, fidelity, and love. It also depends on forgiveness – sometimes lots of it in repeated doses.

Jesus frequently spoke about love, but He rarely spoke about friendship. However, on the night before He was to die, Jesus told the men gathered with Him for their last supper together, “I no longer call you servants. I call you friends.” (John 15:15)

“Friends.” The distinction was profound, and carried with it many implications. Yet these same men – the ones Jesus must have loved to declare them friends only a few hours earlier – were fallible. They bickered, slept while Jesus sweated blood in the garden, denied knowing Him when He was seized, betrayed Him for money, and finally ran away because they were afraid. They disappeared when fear overcame them.

In every way imaginable, Jesus faced the horrors of a public execution alone. Yet, He must have forgiven His friends, because He loved them. He also returned to them, as He had said He would do.

Long before my spiritual awareness was elevated very much above saying grace over dinner or singing songs in Sunday school, I forged some childhood alliances. Some of those early friendships continue to this day. One dates back to 1952 when my sister — the greatest friend of my lifetime — was born. Other friendships include familiar voices of friends who knew my grandmother, and got rides from my parents to and from school in bad weather. They remain blessings of the most profound kind.

In good times and in bad, there is no music sweeter than the words of somebody who has loved you for so long that you can’t remember what life was like without them. In my darkest hour, I have had the breath returned to my lungs when my cellphone rang and a name appeared of someone I knew would have words to urge me onward. I hope I have been able to return the favor when my voice was needed to break the silence of despair.

Recently, a longtime friend, who was spending her final days in hospice, called me in the middle of a spring morning. I saw her number come up on the screen, and I pounced on my phone. “I’m calling to say goodbye,” she said. “I love you, and I’ll see you soon.” Two hours later, her spirit was set free from her failing body.

I’ve thought a lot about my friend since that day, and her gift of a few moments of her final allotted time on this earth. Earlier in the year, we had talked openly and often about the cancer that she tried so hard to outrun. And when it had become obvious that her days were now pointing towards heaven, we talked about that, too. There is almost nothing we left unsaid. We were friends.

I believe that true friendship is sacred, and requires genuine commitment. When a friend is crushed by something – whether it’s their fault or not – you can become the face of Jesus for them. Suffering can be eased by love that is offered without judging, without demanding answers – and without keeping a tally of who did what for whom, and when.

Romans 12:10 says, “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.”

I’m still working on being truly Christian. In the meantime, I turn to my friendships to remind me of the meaning of constancy and devotion. And I remember that love is from God, and that whoever loves knows God.