Perhaps is a pivotal word, a humble posture, and call to wonder in our great Lord.
That’s how I ended my last post, reflecting on Josh McNall’s new book, Perhaps. There’s so much in the book to reflect on, so many invitations to the theological imagination. But one area really sparked my wonder in God’s gift of friendship.
It is found in the chapter in which NcNall sets up guardrails to help us “say perhaps in faithful ways while avoiding crippling doubt and arrogant dogmatism.” One of the guardrails is “don’t go it alone.” Here he talks about cultivating community not only in our present but placing ourselves within the cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. It’s a good section. I’m not going to summarize all his arguments here; I want to sit in wonder over the gift of friendship that was opened up to me in it. And this has to do with real, embodied friendships in the present.
McNall highlights the work of another author in this small section that reveals the value of the faith of our friends. He is addressing times of doubt and deconstruction, but it could just as well apply to times of grief, lament, loneliness, and pain—times when we are so overwhelmed that we struggle to approach God ourselves. Doubt is certainly likely to creep up in these times. A.J. Swobota, in his book After Doubt, notes the role of the paralyzed man’s friends who bring him to Jesus that we see in the beginning of Matthew 9. We read,
“Just then some men brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. Seeing their faith, Jesus told the paralytic, ‘Have courage, son, your sins are forgiven.’”(Matt.9:2)
After seeing the faith of this man’s friends, Jesus tells him that his sins are forgiven—the much more important healing—before also telling him to take up his mat and walk. McNall quotes Swabota: “we all need a group around us [that] believes for us when we struggle to believe on our own.” That’s when I had to put my book down for a minute in wonder.
I know the comfort I have felt in being able to lean on the prayers of my friends. It really does give you courage, as Jesus exhorts this paralyzed man to have. But I am in wonder about how much of a gift friendship like this is and of how much of a great honor it is to be a friend. The paralyzed man’s friends were enacting prayer in a sense, bringing this man to Jesus. We see another example of this in Luke’s gospel when Jesus is so surrounded by the important people, another group of friends couldn’t get their buddy to Jesus to be healed. But they think outside the box “and they went up on the roof and lowered him on the stretcher through the roof tiles into the middle of the crowd before Jesus.
Seeing their faith he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”(Luke 5:19-20, emphasis mine)
Oh the power of the faith of our friends! This wonder has energized my prayers. I have hurting friends right now and I bet you do too. Perhaps our own faith in bringing them before Jesus will be an agent in their spiritual life and healing. Perhaps our own faith will help “lift the veil” for them to keep their eyes on Christ through it. We may have to think outside the box some to get them there, as Jesus may be crowded in their minds or via their other messengers by legalism, doubt, idealism, an unmoored piety, and what may seem like more important Christians. They’ve lost their imaginations as a “truth bearing faculty” that reveals glimpses of the beautiful reality of our telos. And so they don’t see Christ here and now.
I just read another wonderful book about the imagination by poet Malcom Guite called Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God. Highly recommend. That is who I am quoting from in the paragraph above. More to come on that, but I do want to make a connection with it here. Towards the end of Guite’s small book, he interacts with William Blake’s Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion. In the conclusion of that, Albion asks Jesus, “Cannot Man exist without Mysterious Offering of Self for Another”? You don’t have to be perfectly in line with Blake theologically to reflect on that! Now imagine this offering of self as a lifting of the veil that so clouds our vision, revealing the numinous glory that is really there. In this case, it is friendship. In the gospel story above, Jesus calls the paralyzed man friend. How beautiful those words must have been! That is why his sins are forgiven—because Jesus is his friend. Blake gets at this in his poem. Without Jesus as our friend, we have not love, and therefore life itself. As our friend, Jesus became like us so that he could usher us behind the veil and present us to the Father. The friends of these crippled men in Scripture sacrificed to bring them to Jesus. Their faith was singular. They gave of themselves to get him right to Jesus.
This Jesus gave his very life for ours, so that we will be raised with him. And so Blake says that “every kindness to another is a little Death In the Divine Image nor can man exist but by Brotherhood.” Christ’s brotherhood upholds us. His love. His friendship. His death and resurrection. His advocacy before the Father even now. In it we see that our own kindnesses to one another are that seed sown in the ground—a death of self, a gift of self, and an embrace of unity in Christ’s friendship. Wait and watch to behold what grows.
Perhaps we could live now as these friends we see in Scripture, provoking prophetic imagination for when we will all come before the face of Jesus. Perhaps then, on that Great Day, we will feel a familiarity, because we haven’t sought him on our own—our friends have brought us to him time and time before.