L. Gregory Jones and Kelly Gilmer: Cultivating institutions that nurture holy friendship
Shared practices that enable us to recognize the interconnected character of our stories and to re-narrate our lives in more life-giving ways must be at the center of our institutional DNA.
Throughout his life, Tsietsi Mashinini, a young black South African, had been told he had no value as a human being. That changed in the mid-1970s, when he found a discipleship group in a local Methodist congregation.
The people in that church befriended him, not just as casual friends, but as holy friends. They challenged his sense of having little self-worth. They encouraged him to claim his gift for leadership. They helped him dream of the end of apartheid.
Mashinini went on to become one of the leaders of the Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976, an event that South Africans name as pivotal to the beginning of the end of apartheid. His dream became reality with the election in 1994 of Nelson Mandela, four years after Mashinini died. June 16 is now a national holiday -- a day that has some of its roots in the practices of that discipleship group in which strangers became holy friends who worshipped, studied and prayed together.
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.
Initiated by God, holy friendships draw us ever closer to God. They do not develop simply through exchanging pleasantries before board meetings, passing the peace during worship or “liking” a friend’s Facebook status. These relationships require sustained quality time and are oriented not to casual updates about the moments of our days but to discerning and deepening Christian vocation and learning how to live holy lives.
How do we cultivate communities and institutions in which more people can discover the significance of holy friendships for their own lives, and offer such friendship to others? We do so through shared practices that enable us to recognize the interconnected character of our stories and to re-narrate our lives in more life-giving ways.
In “Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change,” Timothy Wilson calls this overall approach “story editing,” and he reports numerous social science studies that show the significance of such an approach. Wilson writes that story-editing techniques share three assumptions:
- We must see the world through others’ eyes if we want to change behavior;
- Our interpretations are not always set in stone and can be redirected; and
- Small changes in interpretations can have self-sustaining effects that create long-lasting behavioral changes.
The practices that sustain holy friendships are rooted in learning to see the world first and foremost through God’s eyes, so we can locate ourselves in the larger story of God. We need help from our holy friends, and we in turn offer such hope to them, in order to see God at work in our lives and in the world. Too often our own self-understanding is distorted by sin, by self-deception, by our participation in destructive mindsets, habits and practices. Holy friendships reorient us and stir our imaginations; Mashinini learned to narrate his story in the context of God’s love, and so empowered, he helped imagine a world whose effects have impacted the lives of millions.
Paul J. Wadell, in “Friendship and the Moral Life,” gives us a picture of what an institution that supports holy friendships can look like. He begins his book with the story of Mother of Good Counsel, a high school seminary in Warrenton, Mo., where he spent four years with 200 other adolescent boys living under “strange practices” and “baffling rules.”
Wadell recalls a transformative Eucharist in Advent 1968, six months shy of graduation, when the boys came to see each other differently -- realizing they loved one another and had transformed one another on their paths to discover whether they were called to become Passionist priests.
“Warrenton was a school of friendship not because it sought to make us friends, but because it presented us with a purpose that made friendship possible,” Wadell writes. “The intimacy we felt that night in Eucharist, and the transition from strangeness to kinship it marked, would never have occurred if we had not assented to a way of life designed to uncover whether that promise was ours. … One of the graces of Warrenton was that the discipline required for that discovery blessed us with an intimacy that so many years later still feels amazingly fresh.”
Like the discipleship group in South Africa and the seminary in Warrenton, the communities and institutions where we work, worship, play and rest bring together people who, without a shared purpose, may never have known one another. We can help those strangers become holy friends to one another through the practices of listening, reading (Scripture and other materials), crossing borders, praying, worshipping, practicing silence and breaking bread.
At the center of these practices is the commitment to create time and safe spaces in which faithful, and faith-filled, story editing can occur. Consider listening. How often do we really listen to those to whom we are speaking? Without discipline, our minds return to the past and jump to the future, missing out on the present. Faithful listening builds the trust that enables acquaintances to come to know one another more deeply. This practice requires discipline to set aside time on a regular basis to really hear a friend’s stories, and to do so with our hearts focused on how God’s Holy Spirit is working in and through them.
Study, through reading widely and crossing borders, opens our hearts, minds and souls to the stranger and reminds us that God-centered friendship draws us all into communion with one another. Studying Scripture connects us to the tradition that forms our lives as disciples of Christ and connects us to those who have walked in the way of the Light before us; it helps us locate our stories in the larger context of God’s story. Reading across disciplines exposes us to new ideas and ways of thinking and shows us the many ways God is present. Likewise, crossing borders, embedding ourselves in new places and with new people, sets our sights on the abundant diversity of the places, cultures and people of our world. It puts us in touch with the challenges we face today, as well as the places of hope.
Praying, worshipping and practicing silence are at the heart of our wider Christian community. Through these we intentionally listen to God, speak to God and give thanks to God. Often, some of our best story-editing insights are discovered through such practices. How often do you set aside time to participate in communal prayer, worship and silence rather than lead it?
Sharing a meal, or breaking bread, is a fundamental act of our life together as Christians. Preparing food and sharing it signals our care and nurture of another person. This act invites us into deeper discernment about showing hospitality to strangers and recalls the ways that Jesus invited all people to the table. There is a deep connection between sharing stories and breaking bread, reflected in the Gospel narratives, as well as in the lore of families and lifelong friends.
Taken together, this story-editing approach and the practices that undergird it enable us to connect with other people on the deepest of levels, sharing our fears and failures, our hopes and dreams. Wilson notes that “the best predictor of happiness is the quality of our social relationships.” He goes on to say that, even so, our perspective on the world can be shaped to make us happier. The key? Having a story about ourselves that gives us meaning, hope and purpose.
Holy friends help us edit the stories we are used to telling about ourselves: challenging sins, affirming gifts, dreaming dreams. Wilson’s story-editing techniques can be practiced by individuals; they include reflecting on upsetting events as though a distant observer, imagining our future lives and then writing down what it would take to get there, and doing good works that connect us to others and our best selves. Yet we are most likely to engage in such activities if we are part of larger communities of holy friends who accompany us to see the truth of our lives in its complex interconnections of sins, gifts and dreams.
Does your community or institution invite people into times of listening, reading, crossing borders, praying, worshipping, practicing silence and breaking bread? Our lives are about communion with God and one another, and these practices, especially when linked to the development of holy friendships, help us draw ever closer to God and God’s reign.
Kelly Gilmer contributed to this essay.