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Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone; Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you. 

Those are the opening lines to the folk ballad Fire and Rain, the 1970 song that established James Taylor as one of America’s up-and-coming rock artists. 

His state of mind was precarious.  Struggling with depression and a downward spiral of dependence on alcohol and heroin, he had moved to London to jump-start his fledgling career.  While recording his first album overseas, the parents of his childhood friend Suzanne Schnerr committed her to a mental health facility.  Upon her release, she threw herself in front of a train. 

Taylor’s friends, fearing for his emotional stability, waited six months to tell him the news.  He was rocked by the tragedy, since he himself had spent nine months at a similar facility.  Fire and Rain became a means of expressing his anguish. 

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.  I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end.  I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.

Taylor recruited another young songwriter to play the piano for the song’s recording session.  Her name was Carole King.  Struck by the poignancy of the lyrics, she composed a song of her own.  It was a personal response to Taylor’s admission of loneliness: You’ve Got a Friend

When you’re down and troubled and you need a helping hand, and nothing, oh, nothing is going right.
Close your eyes and think of me, and soon I will be there to brighten up even your darkest night.

You just call out my name, and you know, wherever I am, I’ll come running, oh yeah, baby, to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall – all you’ve got to do is call – and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.

King’s song mimics life.  It begins in a minor key, then shifts into major chords as it communicates the hopefulness of friendship.

What is the first thing in the Bible that God declares to be not good?  God says, “It is not good for people to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18)  None of us is wired to go through life flying solo.  To “win” all by ourselves is to lose. 

Reflecting on the power of relying on other people, sociologists speak of two kinds of friendships.  There are Friends of the Road – those who walk with us for a season of life.  That might mean a friend from grade school; a pal at summer camp; a college roommate; a neighbor from your first apartment; or a colleague from your first job. 

Friends of the Road come into our lives for a time.  Then we go our separate ways. 

Friends of the Heart, on the other hand, never really leave – even when we’re apart.  Even if we should be separated by many miles and many years, Friends of the Heart can seemingly pick up right where our last conversation left off.

So which kind of friend is better?

That’s easy:  It’s a tie.  Sociologists agree that Friends of the Road and Friends of the Heart may be different, but both are priceless.  Any kind of friend in any circumstance is worth celebrating.

Which brings us to a third, stand-alone category: Friendship with God. 

Is such a thing even possible? 

Across the spectrum of the entire Old Testament, only two characters are described as being “friends of God.”  One is Moses (Exodus 33:11).  The other is Abraham (Isaiah 41:8).  Since Moses and Abraham are arguably the two most important figures in the history of ancient Israel, it would seem to be off-the-charts presumptuous for anyone else to claim, “You know, God and I go way back.” 

That’s why Jesus’ statement to the Twelve in John 15:15 is so stunning:  “I’m no longer calling you servants, because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.”

What words appropriately describe the dozen men who walked with Jesus for something like three years?

They were his apprentices, learners, or disciples – that is, students of his way of life.  They were also his apostles – the “sent-out ones” charged with sharing his message with others.  From yet another perspective, they were his servants – an honorable word in that culture that described their loyalty to him as Master. 

But Jesus blows all those categories apart at the Last Supper. 

“Don’t ever think of yourselves again as mere underlings.  Or as contract workers.  We’re friends.  Since friends ‘do life’ together, stick close to me.  I want to hear your secrets, your disappointments, what you dream about, and whatever else is on your mind.  That’s what friends are for.” 

But what if you’ve utterly failed to hold up your end of the bargain when it comes to walking with Jesus?  You’ve been distracted.  Or bitter.  Or bored.  That would seem to preclude any possibility of friendship.

Jesus, however, hasn’t thrown in the towel.

In Matthew 11:19, his enemies – as part of an ongoing attempt to savage his reputation – come up with what they think is the ultimate putdown.  They accuse Jesus of being “the friend of sinners.”

Which is just about the best piece of news any of us could ever hear.  No matter where you fall on the spectrum of spiritual failure, Jesus is offering his hand.

Will you take it?

In a world that can overwhelm us with fire and rain, we will never find a closer friend.