L. Gregory Jones: Discovering hope through holy friendships
Holy friends challenge the sins we have come to love, affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim and help us dream dreams we otherwise would not dream.
June 19, 2012 | Her death triggered an unusual outpouring of emotions from her close friends. They felt that they had lost more than a good friend; they had lost a part of themselves. They grieved for her and her family, but more deeply, they also grieved that they had lost a crucial part of their own lives.
What had they lost? She was that special kind of person who had known them so well that she had offered them invaluable perspectives on their lives, had helped them see problems and opportunities in fresh ways, had helped them imagine new possibilities -- she had helped them love more profoundly, think more clearly, feel more deeply. She had helped them become better people.
And they too, her. They had helped her recover a sense of hope when she was down, and they had helped her flourish as the person she had struggled to become. Together, they had come to treasure each other, for they knew that life was much fuller, that their lives were much more faithful, because their relationships had been woven together so beautifully.
They had become holy friends for each other.
This story probably reminds you of your college roommate, a beloved neighbor, a group of childhood friends or a close colleague -- that person or those people who have helped us discover what 1 Timothy 6:19 calls “the life that really is life” (NRSV).
What constitutes holy friendships? Holy friends challenge the sins we have come to love, affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim and help us dream dreams we otherwise would not dream.
It is nice to have friends and acquaintances who challenge sins we already hate; it is like piling on in football. Great fun, but it doesn’t make a difference. What we really need are people around us who know us well enough to challenge the sins we have come to love. This is especially important because we often describe those sins we love in ways that make them sound understandable, even virtuous. “I am doing the Lord’s work” might be discerned by a holy friend as “I am a workaholic.” A holy friend can challenge such a description by noting that, in Exodus, even when the Israelites were building the tabernacle, they were commanded to observe the Sabbath.
We need people who can help challenge the sins we have come to love, but if that is all they do, we most likely won’t enjoy having them around. Who needs a killjoy?
Holy friends also affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim. It is nice to have people affirm gifts we already recognize; such affirmation is flattering -- but it is not news. “You are a fabulous host” is not news to someone who devotes significant time to practicing the art of hospitality. Something transformative happens when someone helps us see potential in ourselves we cannot yet see: “I see your gift for young children. Rather than serving yet again on the finance committee, what if you are being called to develop a new initiative to help pre-K children get off to a good start in underresourced neighborhoods?”
This can be as unnerving as having sins we love pointed out to us. Who wants to lean into gifts we are afraid to claim? After all, isn’t there a reason we are afraid to claim them? Change is hard, but when others illumine hidden potential in our lives, and offer ongoing support as we lean into that potential, we discover hope, and are empowered to embody it.
These friends also help us dream dreams we otherwise would not dream. Sin and brokenness cause our lives and our imaginations to constrict. We don’t aim for much because we are haunted by the past or stuck in the comfortable mediocrity of the present. Holy friends serve as vehicles of God’s reign to help us set our imaginations free for the future. Who knows what God might have in store for us -- as individuals, for our communities, and for initiatives we may not yet have even conceived, much less embodied?
Holy friends help us envision and articulate the significance of Ephesians 3:20: “Now to [God] who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine ….” How often do we believe that God’s power is at work within us, not only to accomplish all we can ask or imagine -- which itself would be beyond what most of us dream of -- but to accomplish “abundantly far more” than all we can ask or imagine?
Yet whether we are thinking of personal dreams -- where youth in crisis discover that gangs and prison don’t have to define their lives, that they can become part of a flourishing community and have meaningful education, jobs and families -- or institutional dreams -- where networks of new institutions re-imagine life together for a city -- holy friends help us dream dreams we otherwise would never dream.
In “Change or Die,” Alan Deutschman notes that people rarely change on the basis of the “three F’s”: facts, fear or force. He says it is the “three R’s” that enable people to change: relate, repeat and reframe.
Holy friends offer us ways to reframe our lives through challenging sins, affirming gifts and dreaming dreams. They help us repeat new activities as we lean into a new way of living our daily life, because it takes time to unlearn sin, to learn to claim gifts and to cultivate big dreams. And they offer paradigmatic new forms of relating that enable us to discover the hope to which we have been called.
Cultivating holy friendships involves quality time together -- and quantity. There is no substitute for regularly scheduled blocks of time to discuss ideas, share hopes and fears, and engage films or novels together.