Three of my best friends and I sat on a bench at the back of the chapel after vespers, after an evening of sunset canoeing and the kind of day that makes me expel an exhausted and contented sigh as I collapse in a heap. We were volunteering together as cabin counselors at the camp where we used to work. That night we sat together in the chapel and listened to our former camper, now all grown up, and the summer’s assistant director, sing the night’s lullaby. We leaned into each other, as Lucas sang, “If . . . your cup starts dryin' up . . . And your best is not enough . . . Just remember where you came from/And the joy that follows pain/You’ve got people in your corner/And a God who knows your name” (“Burn Together,” Andrew Shuford). I was sitting with the people in my corner, in a place where it is clear that God knows my name. These were the people who had seen me through hard things, and we were together in the place where we came from. The moment sparkled with grace.
My students talk to me a lot about feeling lonely and homesick. They tell me a lot of things that they should be telling their friends, but it sounds like none of them really know how to listen to one another. Even my social and gregarious students don’t seem to have friends in their corner, friends who are with them, friends who point them to God’s love. I could go on about the ways that social media and other screens have kept my students from learning how to make real friends and even generally how to be in relationships with other human beings, but that feels like beating a dead horse. Let me instead extoll the virtue of friendship in hopes that my students might find inspiration and courage to try making friends.
Friendship is a divine gift. God mediates God’s self to us through material things in the day-to-day, and a great deal of those mediations are through people. Yes, God can and does come to us through strangers who might happen to help us at the right time, or sometimes God comes to us through family, sometimes even through an enemy. So much mediation of God’s love, though, comes from friends. These are the people who choose to love us even when we’re frustrating. Families are supposed to love us regardless of how we mess up, even as we know families who don’t. Friends, however, choose to love and keep right on loving through our worst moments. We keep right on choosing to love our friends through their worst moments, too. What could be a better imitation of God’s love for humanity? When I am selfish and my friends see it but choose to stick with me, I have a glimpse of the way God sticks with me and the rest of humanity. When my friend has a life crisis and we stay with her through it, she has an actual experience of God’s love and steadfast presence in us.
Sometimes it’s the friends who are least like me with whom I have the most in common. On the outside, my friend Chris and I could not be more different, but we share deep parts of our souls with one another, and Christ binds us together in friendship and love. In her I see aspects of God I wouldn’t notice otherwise. Friends who are older than me give me wisdom and perspective; younger friends keep me joyful and full of life. In this I see God restoring all of humanity to harmonious relationship with one another again.
Even better than this incredible human friendship, Jesus calls us friends. In the farewell discourse in John, Jesus tells his disciples, “I don’t call you servants but friends” (John 15:15). Then, just to drive it home, after the resurrection when Jesus sees his disciples fishing, he calls out, “Friends, don’t you have any fish?” (21:5). Friends. We have friendship with God! Sonship and daughtership, yes, but friendship too. When was the last time I thought of being God’s friend? Someone God confides in, someone God loves by choice, even though he sees me in all my idiosyncratic glory, someone God delights in spending time with, someone God would want to frolic through meadows or paddle a canoe with. Or when did I think of what it means to be God’s friend: remaining always faithful to God, wanting to go for a hike with him, listening to whatever is on God’s heart?
Making and being a friend takes courage and commitment, but we are not alone. God makes us friends with himself and with one another, and in doing so comes to us himself. Who are the people in your community who need friends? Who might you choose in friendship that you don’t seem to have a lot in common with? Where can you give yourself to friendships that will lead you into the very heart of God? Where can you encourage friendships that will lead us all into the very heart of God? Wherever that is, I’ll meet you there, friend.