In the small, small-town-North Carolina Baptist church my mother attends, the pastor is fond of saying, "If you want to have friends, then show yourself friendly." That phrase is usually trotted out following the announcements when any number of area churches have submitted to the church clerk an invitation to some pastor's anniversary, special service, or celebration. It's his way of saying be friendly, support the efforts of fellow churches.
I like the saying for a number reasons. It's kinda folksy. Demonstrates a cooperative spirit between local churches. Captures a certain "do unto others" ethic I think Jesus would approve of. But probably mostly because it places some emphasis on friendship.
Friendship is really a lost discipline these days. My sense is that we all have our "good friends" or "best friends" from college or high school or even grade school. I just had ice cream with my oldest and one of my dearest friends who (or is it "whom"?) I met around kindergarten. Most all of us have that class of friends who through some powerful providence almost ex nihilo found lasting room and board in our hearts.
But, aside from this category of friends, I wonder how many of us have a rather passive approach to friendship. Friends "happen to us." Sorta like "falling" in love. One day we're walking along and the next we're "insto-presto" joined at the hip with a fellow walker "placed" in our lives for companionship.
I once heard Mark ask in a sermon, "When will you relinquish your passive approach to friendhips?" It was like a flash of cracklin' lightning. You know, the kind of lighning that both lights up the night sky and convinces you for a terrible moment that you actually hear the sound of the heavens rending. Yep, it was like that. I was struck. My approach to frienships was passive and I needed to let it go.
The Lord himelf said of his disciples, "I have called you friends..." (John 15:15). Friendship, it seemed to me, was an essential aspect of the Lord's ministry and of the gospel ministry of His apostles after Him. It was a promotion from "servants." And this friendship, he purchased with three years of teaching, re-teaching, serving, miracles, modeling, correcting, rebuking, and ultimately death and resurrection. My passive approach to friendships looked nothing like his active, life-giving, reconciling work for friendship. Nothing.
Then, the Lord gave me eyes to see that so many fellow saints were not only passive in their approach to friendships but positively starving for friends. And this inside the church, the body of Christ, among brother and sisters in Christ who had covenanted together to "exercise a watchful care over each other."
There were the single men and women struggling with the desire to be married, but in this Christian context somehow de-skilled when it came to interacting with each other and cultivating free, grace-filled, holy friendships. There were the spouses, husbands and wives, who wanted to be closer friends with their mates but found themselves aching for the intimacy of freindship. There were the pastors who needed friends to kick back with without fear of misunderstanding or the guilt of not producing or being super pastor. And there were the occassional folks who met in pairs or small groups experiencing the "accountability" of the group but somehow not fellowship.
When I stopped passively passing by the hundreds of faces and names each Sunday, I saw an immense need--the need for plentiful, deep, encouraging, relaxing, and Jesus-like friendships. We all had the need.
And graciously, the Lord showed us that the existence of the need was evidence of an opportunity. Like a good teacher Mark didn't just ask the question, he also posed some ideas. He encouraged us all to pray through the directory regulary. Using one page per day, pray for each member of the church. It's amazing how that contributed to a "knowing" that made more fertile the ground of friendship. A small band of members took the initiative to organize "MAC meetings" (meals after church) where anyone could join the group at a designated restaurant for a meal after the morning and/or the evening services. It was encouraging to see the 5 or 6 young single men cook a meal for 5 or 6 single women as a gesture of friendship. It was even more fun to hear that those men had no clue that the day they picked for the meal was Valentine's Day! But that little goof created laughter which trends toward friendship. I've seen deeply battered and sawn relationships mended and made whole, friendships restored through Spirit-led difficult work.
One of the most poignant moments in my ministry at CHBC occurred when I accompanied another brother to candidate for a senior pastor position at a church in the Middle East. The week went wonderfully well with all the necessary conversations about theology, church, preaching, etc. Then, one afternoon we were eating lunch at Chili's (in the Middle East!) with the lead elder and two other active men in the church. The conversation was buzzing right along when the elder stopped, leaned in, looked my companion squarely in the eye, and with bone deep tenderness said, "And I hope you know, that we offer you our friendship."
At least three things burrowed into my brain right that instant:
1. I had never before seen someone make such an explicit and genuine offer of friendship;
2. This man didn't want the prospect of friendship to be taken for granted or lost in all the many important discussions and so he relinquished any passivity; and
3. I wanted to be more like this man because there was something profoundly Jesus-like in his offer.
I've seen friendship form the nucleus for a wide-reaching ministry called Together for the Gospel. And I've personally benefitted from Mark's unusual giftedness at collecting relationships and sharing them with others. His friends have become my friends. From members there at the church to many co-laborers in the gospel around the globe. Perhaps that's a worthwhile aim for us all -- to not only cultivate friendships for ourselves but to give away ourselves and others in friendship. I leave CHBC with many, many more friends than when I arrived. And I pray I leave better equipped to give myself away to others in friendship.
I am a wealthy man. I have come to treasurely more highly that peculiar kind of love called friendship and to appreciate it enough to work on it more actively. Jesus is surely my model and the Giver of every good gift, and He has seen fit to teach me the importance of godly friendships through Capitol Hill Baptist Church. For that, I am eternally thankful.
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