I grew up in the type of Christian community that would frequently say things like:
"Work on your relationship with God above all else."
And, "If you let anything come between your relationship with Jesus, then your faith is off track."
For while the intention of such teaching was probably was something like, "Make your faith life as a priority" (which is probably something that would come out of my mouth, even today) what I heard in my head as child was, "You can't have friends who you'd count closer to you than God."
As if friendship was some sort of divine vs. human competition . . .
It was as if God could not be present to us in my friends. . . .
But as much as I grew to love the divine presence in my life as teenager and college student-- sometimes Jesus' presence (in a spiritual sense) wasn't enough for me.
I needed friends. I didn't think Jesus made me to be so lonely.
I'll say it again: I needed friends. Having Jesus in my life didn't take this from me as hard as I tried to believe it would.
But, the church seemed to keep saying "Pursuing close friends would make Jesus jealous."
When I was in seminary and the relational bolts within me began to shift, I had a spiritual director who provided a light bulb moment. She kept noticing how uncomfortable I became when friends got too close to me. And she was right, I didn't like the vulnerability that it required. I was scared in fact. I thought, was I somehow cheating on Jesus if I really loved my friends? Would people really like me if they actually knew me?
But then this was the sticking point that she offered: "You can only be as close to God as you allow yourself to be to other people."
Of course this is not an "always true" statement (for there are countless faithful folks called to the ministry of monastic life or even hermit life for the reasons of prayer and un-interrupted communion with God), but I think there's great wisdom in it.
We can only be as close to God as we allow ourselves to be with other people.
There's power in community isn't there? In deep and abiding community with others the real stuff of our life comes out.
And by this I don't mean community with friends you have dinner with causally once a month or friends from the bleachers at your kids' soccer games-- I mean authentic friendship: those who know what makes you afraid, those who have seen you cry uncontrollably and vice versa, and those who can look in your eyes and know you're stewing about something even without you having to utter a word.
With people like this, there's no hiding. There's no major missing puzzle pieces as to what makes you tick held from the other. There's no shying away from the most unlikable parts of our personalities. It's really honest living for sure.
And when we get this honest-- I believe, our God who is the author of all truth shows up!
Roberta Bondi in her book, To Pray and To Love writes this: "The fulfillment of our deepest purposes and profound longs for God can never be separated from our love of God's own images among whom we live."
We learn about God, she is says, as we abide in relationship with those closest to us. In fact, we are MISSING out on parts of the personality of God when we don't get close to others.
Bondi even goes as far to write that the lack of intimacy many of us have in prayer occurs because we've never really learned how to talk openly and honestly to others. If we can't talk honestly with another human being, how could we talk honestly with God?
Bottom line is this: one of the most spiritual acts you and I could pursue right now and in the weeks to come is deepening our friendships. It might be the single greatest thing we could do to learn how to be closer to God.
It has taken me many years to shake off the baggage of my childhood in this regard. But I'm so glad I'm in the process of re-wiring all of this within me.
In friendship we both get to learn about and practice what it means to abide in God's love. So anybody got a friend they need to call today? Or meet for lunch soon? I know I do.