“Pray for friends, and fun.”
The day before we drove 1100 miles to our new home and congregation in Palm Beach, Florida, my wife and I recorded a short video to say hello to our new community and invite them to pray for our journey south from Philadelphia. In the middle of recording it, our 8-year old daughter spontaneously hopped up onto our laps. So I put her on the spot: “What do you want our new church to pray for, Rae?”
“Pray for friends, and fun.”
In the moment, I didn’t think much about her response. But in the month and a half since, I’ve realized in a fresh way what a rich, sacramental grace friendship is.
Christians, of course, believe that God has woven our need for human community into the very fabric of creation. In the rhythmic poetry of Genesis 2, the refrain “it was good” punctuates the picture of all the Creator’s work — but then, a sharp disruption: “not good.” What’s “not good?” A human being, alone. We can’t be fully ourselves by ourselves.
Christians affirm that God, in God’s very essence, is a tri-personal community of loving relationship. The doctrine of the Trinity, of course, explodes our mental circuits, but it says at least that loving relationship is actually at the heart of all reality.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the picture of friendship par excellence is the bond between David and Jonathan. Despite circumstances that could have made them rivals, the rage of Jonathan’s father Saul, and threats to both their lives, their souls become knotted together. They even vow covenanted, till-death-do-us-part friendship to each other.
At the center of the biblical narrative, it is through sacrificial friendship that God rescues his beloved people once and for all. In the gathering darkness of his final night, with the cross looming, Jesus tells his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends…I no longer call you servants, but friends.”
I think we urgently need a recovery of the practice of Christian spiritual friendship in our time. Now twenty years ago, political scientist and Harvard professor Robert Putnam published his landmark book Bowling Alone, in which he details the decline of “social capital” in America over the last half-century. The fabric of our connections with each other is unraveling: we belong to fewer organizations, know fewer neighbors, are less connected to our own families than ever before. And if there’s anything the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying social-distanced isolation has taught us, it’s just how deeply we need connection with each other.
As I thought about my daughter’s prayer, it struck me that it’s largely been friendship that God’s used to bring our family through our last couple of years in Philadelphia and to our new post in Palm Beach. Friends who’ve prayed for us, listened to us, processed with us, taken care of our kids, fought for us, laughed with us, spent time with us, cried with us, spoken into our lives, packed up our house with us, celebrated with us.
We’re new here in Palm Beach, but it seems like God is answering little Rae’s prayer. We’ve had plenty of fun living in a tropical paradise, pandemic or no. And we’ve been deeply heartened by the warm welcome, thoughtful kindness, and open arms of the community we’re walking into here.
One of my favorite pictures of the power of friendship unfolds in Frederick Buechner’s novel Brendan, his masterful work of historical fiction based on the life of St. Brendan, a 6th-century Irish Christian mystic. In one juncture of Buechner’s story, Brendan and Finn, the narrator-character, meet another character named Gildas. As they sit with Gildas, he stands up from the table they’d been sitting around. Buechner writes:
“Pushing down hard with his fists on the table-top [Gildas] heaved himself up to where he was standing. For the first time we saw he [was missing] one leg. It was gone from the knee joint down. He was hopping sideways to reach for his stick in the corner when he lost his balance. He would have fallen in a heap if Brendan hadn’t leapt forward and caught him. ‘I’m as crippled as the dark world,’ Gildas said. ‘If it comes to that, which one of us isn’t, my dear?’ Brendan said…We was cripples all of us. For a moment or two there was no sound but the bees. ‘To lend each other a hand when we’re falling,’ Brendan said. ‘Perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.’”
My daughter’s simple prayer reminds me of how much grace God’s given as others have lent me their hand in friendship, and makes me want to stretch mine out in turn to the congregants, colleagues, and neighbors we’re meeting now. I think that’s probably what matters in the end.