I think I’ve missed it all these years—the point of recovery and Christian spirituality—and it took a Roman Catholic priest and an Episcopalian author and editor to help me see my shortcoming.
Father Gregory Boyle is the founder and director of Homeboy Industries, the world’s largest gang-intervention and rehabilitation program located in Los Angeles. Boyle’s life is living testimony to the wonder that the ultimate goal of the gospel is NOT to reach people as much as it is to receive people, to be with the other over and against to give to the other. “Kinship” in a word.
In a similar vein, churchman and writer Rodney Clapp in his book, A Peculiar People, argues, “The final message (of Jesus) is not to serve. Rather, (he) directs us to be friends.”
This may sound simple, but it is deeply profound.
Serving assumes a position of power, control, superiority. It is contractual. It implies two distinct roles—benefactor and beneficiary. But friending is relational and, as such, egalitarian. It necessitates mutuality and thus, diminishes distance. Serving is good. It’s a start. But as Boyle notes, “It’s just the hallway that leads to the Grand Ballroom. Kinship (i.e., friendship)— . . . being one with the other.”
My whole life has been built on the premise of the superiority of service, . . . helping others (not that I am some star example of a servant). Of course, no one is going to argue that serving others is not good and necessary and biblical.
But I don’t think serving goes far enough on the love continuum. Serving the other falls short of love’s true aim which is to embrace the other, to take him or her into one’s life and befriend. Frankly, serving is much easier than friending.
And let me clarify: Friending is more than a click of a digital synapse as Facebook would suggest. It is more than being friendly.
Friending is about caring, sharing, and bearing. It is about a reciprocal love which seeks the good of the other. It requires trust, vulnerability, commitment, and time.
That’s what makes friendship so difficult.
I think friending might be the revolution Christ sought to launch. Friending might just be the way we truly change the world. After all, isn’t that what we long for most as communal creatures—to be loved, enjoyed, valued, and heard just as we are?
I love what Jesus says to his disciples on the eve of his betrayal: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends” (John 15:15).
Isn’t it interesting that one of the leading criticisms levied against Jesus (“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners,’” Matthew 11:19) might be the greatest compliment he received? Jesus could be friends with the best and the worst.
What Jesus could do, we are called to do.
The good news is that the reconciliation Christ offers enables us to not just to be nice to each other or help each other; it empowers us to be friends—to have closeness and share a common life together, to find richness and pleasantness in one another.
The message of the gospel is that God in his Son offers friendship to all—to the kind and unkind, to those who are like us and to those very different from us.
Herbert McCabe, a priest, theologian, and philosopher, distills the essence of Christ’s salvation when it will be fully consummated, “Heaven is people living together as friends—friends with each other, friends with God.”
But we need not wait until the next life to realize God’s intentions. We can’t. As God’s people, we are redeemed to be a sign and foretaste of God’s rule—a kingdom where rich and poor, black and white, old and young, liberal and conservative, queer and straight (and every other category of discrimination) are friends.
This is the good news (or should I say the “offensive” news?).
In my fifty year journey of faith, I think the questions, “What is recovery?” and “What is Christian formation?” are in essence, asking the same thing: “What does it mean to be human?”
And I think the answer is one and the same: Being a friend.
With the stranger.
Friendship is not only essential to our flourishing, it is central to our salvation. Kinship (friendship if you prefer) is the real gauge of mental health and well-being. Growing in one’s capacities to befriend is the metric of Christian maturity and the true barometer of recovery.
Yet real friendship is so rare today. Never in the history of civilization have we been more connected but so alienated and divided. The social-cultural forces pulling us apart are innumerable. May God help us.
If we are going to make a difference that matters, it will begin and end with learning to befriend.
It’s that simple and that radical.