I’ve written a lot about friendship over the past few years, and I’m not entirely sure that’s coincidence. Things have been consistently… well, shall we say challenging, for lack of a better word, and I’m not joking when I say that I don’t know how I ever would have gotten through any of it without the kindness, caring, and compassion of truly amazing friends.
It’s been three and a half months since I decided to take a break from going to church on Sundays, and during this season, I’ve found myself reflecting often and with deep gratitude on all the ways in which I have been truly blessed in friendship. In the absence of the built-in society that comes with attending Sunday morning worship services, and being temporarily without a car for awhile, spending time with friends has become, by necessity, a very intentional activity. It requires planning (and sometimes a bit of creativity) to make getting together possible.
But the very intentionality of it – and the lengths to which my friends will go sometimes to make time with me a priority – has left me so deeply appreciative of them. It’s still hard to believe that it was over a year and a half ago that I was writing about the heartache of losing a community that had meant so much to me, but it is as true now as it was then: I still surely have one.
Driven by curiosity, I used Bible Gateway’s search tool to find a list of instances where the word “friend” is used in Scripture the other day, and discovered something I think is pretty fascinating:
The night before He died, Jesus said to his disciples, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15, NIV)
A few weeks later, Peter says as he’s preaching, “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.”(Acts 13:38, NIV)
And then suddenly, friendship became the language of the church.
Paul, Peter, and John wrote heartfelt letter after letter to the churches, and the words “dear friends” appear often in reference to the people receiving the letter. When someone visited another church, he or she was often introduced as “my dear friend.” Friendship – with God and with each other – became a hallmark of the early church.
* * * * *
I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple of weeks about this metaphor I’ve been using all summer: “breaking up” with the church. It’s just a metaphor, and it’s not a perfect one. It worked for me this spring because it expressed some truths about where I was in my own personal journey. Taking a break from Sunday mornings has been the absolute best and healthiest thing for my own walk with God. I needed some space – some time to think, and to be, and to heal – without having to manage anyone’s emotions for awhile, especially my own. I needed an ending – or at least a nominal one.
But I went into this season knowing that it was just that – a season – and that it wouldn’t be forever. Knowing that to be true was the very reason I had the courage to step out into the wilderness of being “unchurched” at all. This a definitely a road less traveled – but I’m an introvert, and part of how I’m wired as a person means that it takes me awhile to process things. I’m also a writer, and writing about things is how I figure out what I think about them. So those three things put together factor highly into why taking some time off to be alone, to think, and to write was the next right step for my personal journey.
But I’ve felt the dissonance all summer. I even wrote about it in April:
“I still love the Church, and I still want to live my life with a community of people who love Jesus and put feet to their faith, and I don’t know how that fits with this. But both realities exist. So here we are.”
I do still very much believe, as Bill Hybels so often says, that “the local church is the hope of the world,” and that it’s important to be a part of one. I love the Church (with a capital C – meaning the entire Bride of Christ throughout all times and places), and I know that there is a place for me within her still. But I have no real idea what that is, or how to find it. And in all honesty, that’s another reason why I’m out here, sorting through my theology and ecclesiology. The books I’ve been reading this summer have been helping me work through some very real questions about what the church even is.
Sarah Bessey’s book, Out of Sorts, gave me permission to embrace this season I’m in – to lean into hard questions and honest conversations about what has and hasn’t gone right in the church, and in my experiences of it. My journey has been eclectic – and my experience in each church family I’ve been a part of has been very different, and each has had its benefits as well as its flaws – because let’s face it, people are human, and we’re likely none of us going to get it 100% right this side of heaven (tho I don’t think that means we shouldn’t try). But I’ve always loved the eclectic-ness of these experiences; they’ve taught me that there’s room for a diversity of opinion and expression, and to recognize that commonalities between denominations and non-denominational faith expressions are often greater than the points over which we may sometimes differ.
Lauren Winner’s Still reminded me that there are serious benefits to a liturgical life lived in community, and that while this season away from structure is good and right and necessary for right now, it is, as I’ve said, simply that – another season. I picked up my copy of Still again this summer, not because I personally felt like I was going through a crisis of faith, but because a friend was reading it, and wanted to discuss. And I found, as I read, that I’m starting to miss church. Not Church so much – because in all honesty, my friends have truly been the Church to me this summer – but church. Sunday mornings. Liturgy. Hymns. Being a part of traditions that have lasted hundreds of years.
I’m not ready to go back yet; it isn’t time. But I like that I’m starting to miss it.
* * * * *
Jesus said, that same night in the garden before He died, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13, NIV) And while He meant that quite literally, I think anytime we lay down our lives in any way for someone else, whether it’s going out of our way to be there for a friend even when it’s really inconvenient, or giving up something we wanted or needed to make sure someone else is provided for, we’re truly loving others in a way that honors Him.
I am blessed beyond measure to have friends that really know how to (and actively do) love people. They have been the hands and feet and heart of Christ to me this summer. They’ve lived into the proverb: A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity. (Proverbs 17:17, NIV) They continue to “show up” again and again, even when it costs them something, and they allow me the privilege of showing up for them, too.
So if friendship is the language of the Church – then I say, we’re living it. We are – in some strange, beautiful, mysterious, and microcosmic way – the Church.
"Often when you think you're at the end of something, you're at the beginning of something else." —Fred Rogers via @momentumdash
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"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." Einstein