Friends Like This

My family and I were late to the party when it came to smartphones. We weren’t into texting yet, and really only used phones for calling, so flip phones worked just fine.

During our flip phone days, we found ourselves traveling home from Texas under a cloudy sky. As we approached the Kansas border, rain started falling, eventually becoming a deafening presence on the roof of our van.

My mom fielded several calls from a friend back home, calling with updates about the storm and giving us information that helped us “see” through the blinding rain. It will get worse, they told us. It was just a hard rain then, but at their advice we pulled over at a rest stop and went inside to wait with other travelers. The rain came down harder, with pieces of hail even, and the winds were crazy. We couldn’t see anything.

Messy Beautiful Friendship

After reading Christine Hoover’s From Good to Grace, I was excited to launch into her newest book: Messy Beautiful Friendship: Finding and Nurturing Deep and Lasting Relationships. As a church-planting pastor’s wife, Christine has many experiences with making new friends and working hard to make those relationships work. Her insights cover everything from our misconceptions about friends and friendship to healing from friendship hurts to learning to give and receive biblical friendship.

Through her book, Christine reminds us that friendship isn’t as easy as we think it is, and it will take work, but the encouragement of Christian friendship is worth the effort.

“May our friendships in the present day be received as gifts from God for us—but may they not be only for us. May they be signposts, guiding any who will stop and seek directions toward what our hearts innately crave most, pointing the seeker toward a Person and a place where all longings will be longings no more. For it is only in true Christian friendship that two people who are different in every way possible—race, background, language, personality, socioeconomic level—can love like this.”

Friends Going Somewhere

Friendship is a universally recognized gift. People from all walks of life, nationalities, worldviews, and life seasons find other people—typically like themselves—that they call “friends.”

What stands out about Christian friendship? How are our friendships different? Our sameness is found in our deepest convictions and our worship of the same God, though in our individual friendships, many of our other interests or passions can be very different. But what is it about Christian friendship itself that might be different from other friendships?

In the pages of Messy Beautiful Friendship, a quote from C.S. Lewis stopped me.

“The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends. Where the truthful answer to the question, Do you see the same truth? would be ‘I see nothing and I don’t care about the truth; I only want a Friend,’ no Friendship can arise—though Affection of course may. There would be nothing for the Friendship to be about and Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers.”

That’s it. That is how Christian friendship is different: our destination.

Friends as Traveling Companions

We may not think of our friends as traveling companions, but that is what we are, because while friendship can certainly include common interests and similar daily patterns, it is so much more than that. We are all going somewhere. As Christians, we know that friends are there to help us up when we fall (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10) and remind us of truths we might forget (Hebrews 10:24-25) as we journey to Heaven.

“We’re not at the supper table yet,” Christine reminds us, “and it’s going to be a long, arduous journey to get there.” Friends come alongside us on this journey through life, and in a thousand different ways spur us on.

You may have heard the overused question If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you?

How about this: If you were traveling on a long and sometimes difficult journey, what kind of friend would you choose to go with you? Are you that kind of friend to the travelers around you?

That Kind of Friend

Christine says it well. “When we sit side by side at the supper table, we will be celebrating that, by God’s grace, we made it to our destination. We made it because of Christ, we made it with the help of our friends, and we made it together.”

As we traveled home that torrentially rainy day, the dangers of flash floods and hail damage and being stranded on the side of the road were lessened because of a friend’s warning. A friend who knew where we were in our journey, shared with us resources we didn’t have (a weather radar map, primarily), and were quick to contact us to warn us of danger. A friend who, when hearing about potentially dangerous weather, thought about us, and spent time studying the weather radar to pass info on to my parents. As if they were traveling on the road with us.

Because, in a way, they are.

Growing Like a Baby

I remember holding him as he slept in my arms. Carrying him around the house, taking countless pictures of him doing the same thing, changing his clothes—all as he kept sleeping.

When my little brother was an infant, I loved giving him a bottle, trying to get him to smile, and taking him on walks in his stroller. He was just a couple of days old when my grandma reminded me that, quick as a flash, he would soon be a one-month-old. That’s forever away, I thought, and couldn’t imagine it coming so fast.

Now he is speeding around on his bike (sans training wheels) and using words like “stoked” and “insane” and “nevertheless.” It happened. Quicker than she said it would. How did that sleepy little baby turn into a funny and sarcastic eight-year-old?

It Seems to Happen By Accident

At what point does a baby become a toddler, or a toddler join the ranks of preschoolers? We say they are “growing right before our eyes,” but we don’t really mean it. Our vision can’t pick up the imperceptible growth that happens every second.

My two-day-old baby brother did not decide to grow. He didn’t choose to grow, or pursue growth as some kind of major life goal or something to check off his baby bucket list. He just grew.

Not Really By Accident

We feed the children and water the plants, clothe the children and fertilize the garden. But all of the things we do only encourage what is already there—we don’t give them life. They already have that.

The life bestowed on every boy, girl, man, woman, dog, cat, elephant, flower, tree, starfish, and sea anemone comes from God – the “Author of Life” (Acts 3:15). Not from anything we do. Not from anything we invent or create or try to come up with alone.

With all the care we give, we help to keep that child or flower healthy, but its growth ultimately comes from the life God infused within it. We are freely given the life, and we are freely given the growth.

Like a Baby

Our spiritual growth—like our physical growth—can be tough to measure, but God has provided an example for us in Scripture and in life.

“Like newborn infants,” Peter wrote, “long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2).

All my baby brother did was sleep and eat and repeat ad nauseam. Somehow he grew. When Paul wrote to first-century Christians, he didn’t tell them to grow. He told them to eat, knowing that spiritual food and nourishment would supply the growth they needed through the life God gives.

Like plants and children, our spiritual lives need nurturing. And like physical life, we can’t create spiritual life—God does that. We are given the life and we are given the growth. Freely.

Just like a baby.

Never an Accident

Ultimately, the favor of the Father shines on us like the blazing star that warms our gardens from light-years away. We can feed and clothe and water, but “God…gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7). We don’t have to “make” our children grow. We can’t even keep them from growing.

Similarly, the spiritual life breathed by God courses through us, growing us from the inside out in ways we don’t realize until much farther down the road. With healthy conditions—food, water, love, the favor of God—it just happens, like a miraculous accident. Which, of course, is no accident at all.

The “L” Word: 5 Ways Legalism Kills Community

Some friends of ours used to attend a different church. One with conservative beliefs and many children—two things close to our friends’ hearts as their own children were young.

But after awhile, our friends became concerned. A parenting book had been shared among the church members, and that was fine. Our friends had no problem with the book. But the other families in the church took what they read differently, and began parenting their children more strictly.

These churchgoing families had taken good intentions and developed them into rules to govern their children’s lives instead of engage their hearts. When our friends tried to share their concerns, they were silenced, and left the church under veiled accusations of disturbing the group’s unity.

  Continue reading The “L” Word: 5 Ways Legalism Kills Community

Refugees, Exiles, and You and Me

A friend of mine lived overseas for several weeks earlier this year. Not just overseas anywhere, but in the Middle East—in the land of refugee camps and Mediterranean food and, apparently, cold winters.

While she was in the Middle East, my friend visited refugees often, and told me later about their hospitality and eagerness. Families would regularly invite her and the missionary family she was staying with to eat with them – but would wait until their paycheck came in so they could afford to do so.

That floored me. They waited to get paid so they could turn around and buy food for somebody else? Somebody who didn’t “need” the food—not like they did. Who thinks like that?

3 Things Refugees and Exiles Have in Common

When it comes to our modern-day concept of “refugee,” the closest scriptural equivalent I could think of is “exile.” The word “exile” appears 90 times in the Old Testament, but only six times in the New Testament: once in the “Hall of Faith” chapter in Hebrews 11, twice in Stephen’s speech (Acts 7) before being stoned, and three times in 1 Peter (written to exiled Christians during Nero’s reign).

“And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:17-19, emphasis added).

While “refugee” and “exile” aren’t exact synonyms, they do have similarities:

Refugees and exiles live in a country that isn’t theirs. They understand “not fitting in.” Sometimes they don’t speak the language of the country where they live and they may not understand or adhere to the traditions, customs, holidays, idioms, habits, or worldview of the majority.

Refugees and exiles do not have citizenship. While we easily understand the consequences of this as far as voting rights and political say, for many other cultures, citizenship concerns so much more. For some, their identity is wrapped up in where they live and in the land they call their own. To be outside of the geographical area inhabited by their ancestors is to be in a deeper exile than we Westerners really understand.

Refugees and exiles know this is temporary. At least, that it should be temporary. Living in tents or borrowed and shared real estate is rarely anyone’s long-term plan. In biblical accounts, exiles always knew they would go back to their country as soon as they could—they would not claim this strange land as their home forever. The stories are even harder when these natural hopes are dashed and the months in a refugee camp stretch into years.

We Have Something in Common, Too

It goes without saying that modern-day refugees live a hard life. As we pray for their safety and for the salvation of those who haven’t yet trusted Christ, and as we seek out ways to be the in-the-flesh representation of God’s love for them, we can remember that we are refugees, too. And they have much to teach us about our own spiritual reality.

Maybe the readers of 1 Peter heard Stephen’s last speech (or at least knew of it), and they were likely familiar with the rich Old Testament legacy they were building on as exiles. Peter took that literal reality of first-century exile and folded it into a greater spiritual truth for the rest of time: In a way, we are exiles (or refugees), too.

“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God…” (1 Peter 2:11-12, emphasis added).

The difference for us is that we aren’t trying to go back. We don’t want to. We are going forward, on to a Promised Land we have never seen but know is greater than anything we have ever known. We know this earthly country isn’t ours. We don’t stake our hopes on our earthly citizenship. We know this place we call home is only a temporary place to stay for awhile.

“The message of the Bible,” Tim Keller writes in The Prodigal God, “is that the human race is a band of exiles trying to come home.”

We haven’t been home yet. But our spiritual legacy and the believers who have gone before us show us that the promises of home are greater than everything we’ll face to get there.

Christians, We Are Not Tourists

You would think we’d be more alike.

Growing up homeschooled (and 2 ¾ years apart), my brother and I spent most of our waking hours together. We did our schoolwork across the table from each other, racing to finish so we could dash off to one of our rooms to play. Every meal we fought over who would put silverware on the table and who would fill all the cups with water. We know each other in ways no one else can.

A couple of years ago, he went off on an adventure to study abroad for several months. Not wanting to miss this opportunity, I visited him in Germany for a week.

So there we were. We had been in the US all of our lives and had only traveled without our parents once or twice, but now we found ourselves navigating intercontinental flights and exploring on our own.

And wouldn’t you know it. We traveled differently.

As we walked down historic German streets together, I tried to document our entire trip for our parents and anyone else. He would mentally observe his surroundings and describe them in detail later (long after I had forgotten those details).

My brother and me. Being tourists.

“Stop taking pictures,” he would whisper to me as I tried to get a better angle of some random restaurant. He wanted to blend in with the locals and his main goal was to not look like a tourist. I was very comfortable in my identity as a guest and didn’t mind if other people knew, too. (And I figured it was probably obvious – at least with me.)

We were traveling through the same places. But differently.

Not Like in the Old Days

The first mention of “travel” in the ESV Bible is in Exodus 13, the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. It was a wait-on-the-Lord-every-moment kind of expedition, a cloud-by-day-fire-by-night leading to the Promised Land. This was not a joyride. Not a vacation. It was a journey, full of danger and deprivation and more danger. The Israelites would walk for miles every day through the Middle Eastern wilderness, all for the goal of the destination. The Promised Land.

“When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, ‘Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.’ But God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea…And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people” (see Exodus 13:17-22).

This intentional, difficult traveling is not what we think of when we plan a vacation. These days, we travel in relative ease and comfort, without the fears and frustrations travelers would have faced centuries ago. We usually have less of a goal in mind—while we have chosen a specific destination, we go there to visit and not to forge a new life.

Maybe it’s easy for us to forget that this modern 21st-century life is not intended to be a joyride. We are on a journey, too.

And sometimes we travel differently.

Here to Try It All

While I walked many miles on that trip to Berlin, my goal was to take in all the sights and sounds and experiences I could while I was there. To live in the moment.

I wanted to see and hear and taste and smell and touch and feel everything I could. I wanted to get up early and stay up late. The time was short and I will likely never pass that way again—I had to fill my time with as much as I could while I had the opportunity.

As Christians, we are called to live with purpose and wisdom wherever God has placed us for now (see Ephesians 5:15-17). We are to seize the moments of each day and fill them with obedience, leading to an eternal reward. Not experience. Not fulfilling our senses. We are not tourists in the journey of life.

To live with the goal of temporary experience or pleasure is to miss all the eternal treasures God holds out for us, if only we will reach for them. How are we getting to know Him better every day? How are we seeking Him? What has He taught us and shown us during the moments of our days? He is with us every moment of our journey, bringing eternal purpose to our daily experiences. If only we could always see that.

Just One in the Crowd

My brother, on the other hand, wanted to blend in and pass as a German. He wanted to be seen as someone who belonged there, someone who knew what they were doing and had learned to live in that culture.

But he didn’t belong there.

The Israelites were different from the people around them because their God was not like the other gods. We may be a few thousand years later, but we are different from people around us, too. Because our God is still not like the gods of this world.

We usually won’t fit in. And as others see how often we stand out, they will venture closer to see why we are different. Therein lies our opportunity to share with them why we are here and where we really belong.

All the Way There

We are called to persevere even when it’s hard, not to seek out only the pleasures of the moment. We are called to be “sojourners,” “exiles” (see Hebrews 11:13, 1 Peter 2:11)—we aren’t going to look like the locals.

To be sure, there is a balance to this: On the one hand, we don’t need to be unnecessary killjoys. It’s admirable to try to adapt to the culture we are living in as long as we don’t compromise our identities in the process. On the flip side, we don’t want to set unnecessary obstacles to the gospel in front of others—we shouldn’t be so preoccupied with living in the moment that we forget why we’re really here.

Even when it’s hard (it will be), even when we feel like the only traveler in a world of tourists (we’re not), and even when we fail miserably at finding the right balance (we will so many times), we will continue on. Because we’re going Somewhere. And God, our guide through every moment, will lead us all the way there.

“This Hill, though high, I covet to ascend,
The difficulty will not me offend:
For I perceive the way to life lies here;
Come, pluck up, heart; lets neither faint nor fear.”
John Bunyan