“You’ve Got a Friend”

December 12, 2013

It was inevitable and necessary that I shave off my locks, to cut short the mess and discomfort of a tingly head and hairy shirt collars. When I told my friends the plan, one of them, Sandi, piped up, “I will shave my head, too. What time should I come over?” Astounded at the idea, and concerned for her welfare in winter, I tried to talk her out of it, but she was resolute. So at 8 p.m. last night, Sandi and Jim came cheerfully knocking at our door, and out came the hair clippers. By 9:30 we were both as bald as newborn babies.

Friendship—kinship—takes many forms, and this elegant and simple act of solidarity by a sister is a fine example. Sometimes it is important to know, as Carole King put it, “You’ve got a friend. Winter, spring, summer, or fall . . . all you have to do is call, and I’ll be there, yes, I will. You’ve got a friend.”

The outpouring of love and practical help by my friends in the last few weeks has been heartening and at times moving. Yesterday, Sarah sat with me, and through an afternoon of diversionary conversation we discovered many places of common interest, experience, family background, and spiritual encouragement. How wonderful is that?

At this time of Advent, I am reminded of a kinship that encouraged two women surprised by unfolding circumstances in their lives. The virgin maiden Mary had been visited by an angel telling her she would conceive by the Holy Spirit a child who would be Son of God. And oh, by the way, your cousin Elizabeth who was barren is also with child! So Mary, for reasons not given in Luke 1 where this account appears, dashed off to the hill country to visit her relative. When the two women met, blessings were exchanged, and even the next generation they bore rose in joyful greeting. They stayed together in mutual support and solidarity for three months, after which Mary returned to her hometown to await the birth of our Savior (Luke 1:24-56).

The gift of friendship, expressed as koinonia within the Christian community, is a lifeline for people who otherwise would feel alone with their maladies, surprises, temptations, and personal triumphs. Pastors need friends, too, but they are often isolated by their position and the inherent power dynamic that creates (necessary) boundaries with parishioners. Some pastors shun close friendships altogether, either because they are too busy to pursue relationships with people not in their congregation or because they are afraid to be known. To them, I say, find out who your true friends are, cherish them, and let them hold you accountable to an authentic Christian life even while “off duty.”

For the rest of us, friendship is no luxury either, but a necessity. And I am not just talking about electronic “social networks.” There’s a reason why my daughters needed to come and see me face to face at Thanksgiving, despite our regular texting and phone conversations over the previous three weeks. They needed to see in my eyes that I was not faking joviality on the phone or otherwise obscuring my true condition.

A personal visit is worth a thousand texts, so if my readers are reticent to make that effort toward a friend or loved one because they are concerned about what to say, what they might find, or how they might react, they should ask for that wonderful Jesus-compassion that sees through bald heads to buffeted hearts. I remember when I was first entering into the ministry life (before my ordination) and was asked by a fellow church member if I would visit a cancer patient with my guitar and sing her a couple songs. At the time—I was young and inexperienced at pastoral calling—I simply could not see myself doing that. I was afraid. I didn’t even know what I was afraid of, but I didn’t go. I knew this refusal represented a failure, or an immaturity, on my part, so I asked God to work in me. Since then, I have visited countless parishioners and have even been there at the time of their deaths, and have discovered the joyful, holy moments that come with standing alongside someone at their weakest. [And no, I have never offered to shave my own head as part of that ministry!] All that experience visiting others certainly prepared me for my own limp-along journey now, and my friends are showing me the grace and generosity that are strengthening my spirit and helping me to rest in Jesus.

It is Jesus, ultimately, who keeps saying to us, “You’ve got a friend…all you have to do is call!” Many times, that Friend shows up wearing your sunny face, bearing your yummy dinner, or bringing interesting topics for discussion. For this, I am deeply grateful.

 

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