Sunday, November 25, 2012


Move beyond beholdenness and servitude to friendship in maturing spiritual and social relationships

Billy Fisher (left) and I have been friends since childhood.
Like numerous friendships I'm privileged to participate in,
along with a knowing familiarity and ever-surprising
discovery of wonder, there is a mutual trust, freedom,
and a readiness to guard the other's dignity.
I’ve been thinking about the nature of spiritual relationships.  If we--as we--claim faith in and relationship to Jesus, what is the nature of that ongoing relationship?

I’m struck by a current fixation on worship in many Christian settings and songs.  Sermons, articles, songs and events leave me with the impression that being a Christian is about groveling dependency and some persistent demand of God to be submitted unto and worshiped.

Yet, near the end of their apprenticeship, Jesus pointedly moved his closest disciples to a relationship of friendship.  “I no longer call you servants…I call you friends.” Check it out in John 15:14.

Jesus challenged his disciples to move beyond calling him "Lord" to calling him "friend."  He directs them beyond serving him to mutuality, beyond discipleship to collegiality, beyond dependency to responsibility, beyond worship to fellowship.

The trajectory of a grace-based spiritual relationship arcs toward friendship with Jesus, fellowship with God.

"With"--what a wonderful word and expression of relationship.

This isn't new, of course.  It's as old as Abraham.  "Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness--and he was called the friend of God."  Check it out in James 2:23.

Imagine becoming a lifelong friend of someone who saved your life.  Imagine someone was your rescuer--one who risked his or her life to save and restore yours, one to whom you will forever be grateful.  But now, that same person is your friend—listening, attending to, tuning in, walking with, abiding, guiding, counseling.  And you are his or her friend--there is commitment and mutuality.  You will always be aware of and grateful for his or her rescue, but the relationship has developed, grown and matured well beyond incessant beholdenness.

I'm privileged to encounter and participate in--receive and contribute to--more than a few friendships that extend across many miles and years. They are like gifts--each is unique in its origin and nature.  I can talk to any one of these friends about almost anything with considerable confidence.  We can go for months--sometimes years--without contact and then pick up on a thread of conversation and care that seems never to have been interrupted.  Along with knowing familiarity and ever-surprising discovery of wonder, there is a mutual trust, freedom and readiness to guard the other's dignity.  Because of this, we are able to share and say hard or difficult things when necessary.  I imagine this to be the nature of spiritual relationship with Jesus, of fellowship with God.

Grateful, yielding friendship more than commanded servitude describes the maturing relationship of faith.  I will ever be aware of and confess my dependence on Jesus' salvific work for me and for all, but  he has invited--indeed called--me and all who respond to him to friendship.

After journaling about this, I happened onto comments by theologian Jurgen Moltmann, quoted by Brian McLaren, regarding spiritual friendship.  To the traditionally understood titles of Jesus as prophet, priest and king, Moltmann suggests another:
"But the fellowship which Jesus brings people, and the fellowship of people with one another to which he calls, would be described in one-sided terms if another 'title' were not added, a title to describe the inner relationship between the divine and the human fellowship: the name of friend." 
"Friendship is a human relationship which springs from freedom, exists in mutual freedom and preserves that freedom... The many-faceted work of Christ...can be taken to its highest point in his friendship," for friendship is "the highest form of love." (in The Church in the Power of the Spirit, quoted by McLaren in Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammad Cross the Road?)
Next time you hear or sing along with a Christian song that goes no further than worshiping God and thanking Jesus for his rescue, remind yourself: that's where it starts, but that's not where it points. We aren't merely servants of Jesus; we're friends.  The difference is pretty significant.

Friendship as a spiritual relational development also has strong implications for how we "do" ministry and go about so-called "secular" community development.

A few years ago, I listened to Northwestern University urban community development guru John McKnight conduct a seminar on his now well-known and impactful principles and practices of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). McKnight ended the seminar by pulling out of his wallet a folded piece of paper. He unfolded and read it slowly: John 15:9-17. He repeated for emphasis: "I no longer call you servants, I call you friends."

McKnight's whole ABCD concept is based on becoming friends with God and friends with our neighbors--no matter their socio-economic status or resources or whatever.  We are to be neither lords nor servants (McKnight demonstrates how much "professional servants" cost those who are being "served" in the welfare and compassion industries.  What the lords don't take with them when they abandon urban communities, the servants divide amongst themselves). Instead, we are called to be mutually responsible friends.  The policy and practical implications are powerful.

Friends trump lords and servants every time--whether in spiritual or social terms.

I posted a blog piece--a prayer--a few weeks ago that precipitated this reflection.  It really is a twin to this piece.  A God-Wrestler's Prayer.

I look forward to your "friendly" responses.

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