The past couple of years directed my thinking and longings to what kind of friend I want to be. Or maybe it’s more like what kind of person I want to be. They are hand-in-hand concepts. This is what I am thinking about going into the new year. There is such beauty and power in friendship. I want to be the kind of friend who helps see what’s real in both the beauty and agony of life, the kind of friend who shows up, who stays in the room, who sits and walks with, who loves enough to help imagine together the joy that is growing in the act of opening the door.
Opening the door to what? What does that mean? It means sitting with what’s real—both the joy and the agony of that realness mingle together there—listening, looking, and seeing what we so often miss. The invitation of beauty. The path of goodness that reveals truth. Practicing eternity. Seeing Christ in one another. It’s where faith walks. I want to be the kind of friend whose faith is genuine enough to believe on behalf of those I love. And I want to love more.
That’s a thing, you know. Like I said, friendship is powerful stuff.
The science of interpersonal neurobiology is revealing that. It’s the Neurobiology of We.
It’s in Scripture too. I never noticed it until reading Josh McNall’s book Perhaps, where in a small section he highlights the work of A.J. Swobota. It reveals the value of the faith of our friends. I’m re-sharing what I’ve reflected on from it before as it has been marinating in my mind, heart, and relationships. 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. In his book After Doubt, Swabota 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.
Right?! Just wonder about that for a moment. Or a day or a week or a year. A lifetime.
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
This is 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,” open the door, for them to keep their eyes on Christ through it. We may have to think outside the box some to get them there. Jesus may be crowded in their minds. Crowded by the imprisoning doors of legalism, doubt, idealism, 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.
And there I’m quoting from another wonderful book about the imagination by poet Malcom Guite called Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God. Books are friends too. 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’s 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.