Why Friendship?

The day Callie was baptized dawned bright and warm. The sun doesn’t shine reliably in England, but that spring morning shafts of amber light slanted through stained glass in the little Anglican church, as if God were smiling. The priest lifted Callie, dressed in her new white dress, above the font, dipped his hand in the water, and made the sign of the cross on her forehead. I stood nearby, beaming with pride and praying silently for her.

“Parents and godparents,” the priest said, “the Church receives Callie with joy. Today we are trusting God for her growth in faith. Will you pray for her, draw her by your example into the community of faith and walk with her in the way of Christ?” Alongside Callie’s godmothers, I answered, “With the help of God, we will.”

A few weeks earlier, I’d been washing dishes at my house when the phone rang. I mopped the suds from my hands and answered. It was Callie’s dad — my good friend Jono — on the phone. Would I consider, he asked, being Callie’s godfather, a witness to her baptism and a help to her parents as they sought to raise her in the Christian faith? “Think and pray about it,” Jono suggested. I felt honored and — suddenly — drawn deeper into the circle of his and his wife Megan’s friendship.

A few days later, I said yes to Jono’s request, and I wrote an email to him and Megan, describing for them part of what their request had meant to me.

Not being married myself or having kids, I have often thought of Jesus’ words to Peter, when Peter says, “See, we have left everything” — including wives and children? — “and followed you.” And Jesus replies, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”

I take comfort from this — that, in Jesus’ economy, leaving the prospect of being a husband and father myself does not mean being without a family. Surely part of what Jesus means is that in following him we discover a new family: In the church, I as a single person can have new brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and children…. I can say that I’m very happy, and very honored, that part of God’s surrounding me with new family is his bringing you two and your kids into my life.

When I think about the question in the title of this brief reflection — “Why Friendship?” — I find myself remembering this experience with Callie. On the one hand, Jono and Megan’s welcoming me into their family through the baptism of their daughter gave me a new assurance of being loved. It forged a deeper commitment to one another; the sacrament of baptism created a bond of love reminding me that, whatever I might feel as a single person, I did belong to one family at least.

On the other hand, though, my becoming Callie’s godparent offered Jono and Megan the reminder that, in their roles as husband and wife and as parents to their two children, they were not alone either. Marriage and childrearing wasn’t something they were expected to do on their own. They needed the support and encouragement of friendship just as much as I did, albeit in a different form, and by standing with others at the baptismal font, they said so.

Friendship strengthened each of us in various ways. For me, it offered a place to pour out love, to serve someone else rather than remaining fixated on my own interests and concerns. (Just this past week, I dropped a birthday gift in the mail to Callie. Not having a biological or adoptive daughter myself, I was glad I had someone whom I could introduce to the whimsy of Mo Willems’ books.) For Jono and Megan, on the other hand, my friendship was, I hope, a reminder that they, too, are called to love beyond the circle of their own marriage. Their love, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, is meant to be a parable of Christ’s love for the church — and for the watching world. Being friends with me (among others) gives them the chance to reenact that parable, to let their love extend beyond the boundaries of their own nuclear family.

So why friendship? In a world where love can often seem in short supply, where marriages may sour and dissolve, where single people — some of them with no prospect of marriage or parenthood — can easily be forgotten and fall through the cracks, friendship may offer the hope of relationship, the hope of belonging.

The historian E. R. Dodds, in his book Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, paints a picture of the difference friendship made in the earliest days of the Christian faith:

Epictetus has described for us the dreadful loneliness that can beset a man in the midst of his fellows…. Such loneliness must have been felt by millions [in the centuries immediately following Jesus’ life]—the urbanised tribesman, the peasant come to town in search of work, the demobilised soldier, the rentier ruined by inflation, and the manumitted slave. For people in that situation membership of a Christian community might be the only way of maintaining their self-respect and giving their life some semblance of meaning. Within the community there was human warmth: someone was interested in them, both here and hereafter. It is therefore not surprising that the earliest and most striking advances of Christianity were made in the great cities—in Antioch, in Rome, in Alexandria. Christians were in a more than formal sense “members of one another”: I think that was a major cause, perhaps the strongest single cause, of the spread of Christianity.

Maybe it could be such a cause again today, too.

 

1] E.R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), pp. 137-38.

 

Wesley Hill (Ph.D., Durham University) is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.

Image by mconnors from morguefile.com.

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