The Power of Focused Friendships

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A number of years ago, author and pastor Eugene Peterson was called to launch a new Presbyterian congregation in suburban Baltimore.  

One of his obligations during the church’s first three years was to write a monthly report to denominational headquarters.

The initial part of the report was statistical: attendance, new members, financial receipts, and the like.  The second part was more reflective: How was he doing?  Did he sense God at work in his ministry?  Did he have any particular questions or needs?

Peterson gradually began to suspect that his superiors were carefully monitoring the statistics, but doing little more than glancing at the “softer,” more personal content.

So he decided to test his theory – and to have a bit of fun at the same time. 

The next month he dutifully reported all the numbers.  In the second part, however, he wrote that he had slipped into an alcohol-fueled depression.  One Sunday, in fact, he was so drunk in the pulpit than an elder had to finish his sermon.  He knew he needed some kind of treatment.  How should he go about finding it?

No response.

Next he cooked up an affair.  He wrote that he had fallen into the arms of a woman in his congregation.  They were found lying together on one of the pews by the ladies arranging the flowers for Sunday worship. 

What ramifications might this have for his ministry?

No response.

Peterson then wrote that he had been experimenting with hallucinogenic mushrooms.  When he introduced them to the congregation at the next serving of the Eucharist, “it was the most terrific experience anybody had ever had in worship.” 

He asked if this practice might violate any theological principles.

No response.

Peterson and his wife had a delightful time cooking up a new crisis every month.  When the three years came to an end, he knew he would need to have a face-to-face debriefing with the folks at denominational headquarters.  He couldn’t wait.    

The New Church Development Committee commended him for the health of his young congregation.  He had definitely hit a home run.  Did he have any further questions or observations before they released him from the committee’s oversight? 

Yes, said Peterson.  He wondered why they had never read the second part of his reports. 

“’Oh, but we did,’ they said.  ‘We read those reports carefully.  We take them very seriously.’” 

At that point Peterson blew their cover.  He pulled out copies of his reports and read them aloud.  For years he enjoyed mentally replaying their anguished attempts not to look completely irresponsible.

Peterson writes, however, that “the laughter and fun of those days…was cover for a deep disappointment.” 

He had learned that he was, and always had been, utterly on his own.  Institutions may say that they care.  But they rarely keep their promises.  This isn’t to say that the NCD representatives didn’t care, at least at some level.  But there’s a clumsiness, an awkwardness, an ungainliness associated with “spiritual direction by committee.”

What we really need to get through life are a few friends who know us well, love us unconditionally, and are willing to hold us accountable. 

It’s no surprise that the richness of the Christ-following life, as described in the New Testament, is represented by 59 “one another” or “each other” verses. 

One third of those verses speak to getting along with other people (Romans 15:7, for example, which calls us to accept each other).  Another third beckon us to love each other (like John 13:35, which flat out states that the visible “badge” of belonging to Jesus always comes down to love).  An additional 15% of the one-another’s call us to humility (like Romans 12:10, which urges us not to be haughty, but to be of one mind).  Still others invite us to provide mutual comfort and encouragement (Galatians 6:2, for instance, describes the power of carrying each other’s burdens).

What do all these verses have in common? 

It’s exceedingly hard to live them out while sitting face-forward in sanctuary pews on a Sunday morning – not to mention trying to monitor a church’s wellbeing by perusing statistical reports at denominational headquarters. 

The not-so-secret recipe for vibrant spiritual health is relationships – long-term, focused friendships in which we mutually open our hearts to God and to each other. 

As Peterson himself once noted, “We are not ourselves by ourselves.” 

Which means we can experience genuine intimacy with God and others who are in his family – even without the hallucinogenic mushrooms.