Not until I became a parent did I realize the priceless value of friendship. When Sharon and I began raising our children, we learned quickly that succeeding in school, making certain sports teams, or exceling with musical instruments for our children paled in comparison to making good friends. We delighted when they invited friends to our house or when they visited their friends after school. We could see they were more content and less anxious when they had good friends in their lives. We realized that friends were gifts from God as valuable as anything we could name. When is the last time you dropped to your knees and thanked God for the dear friends you have in your life? What would you do without them? Or, if you need a good friend, asking God for a trustworthy and grace-filled companion is one the most pleasing requests you can make to our heavenly Father. Christmas is the story of God coming to earth to be our ultimate and best friend forever. He does not want to be seen as a distant and unapproachable God. On the contrary, 2000 years ago, he walked straight into our living room and made a home with us. This Christmas, if this is something you have not yet done, may we give thanks for the inestimable gift of friendship with God. We need it now more than ever.
Last summer, I went on a whitewater rafting trip in Idaho with some of my best friends from childhood and high school. We had a phenomenal time recalling old stories around the campfire at night and riding the rapids by day. However, what we did not expect was getting very close to our guides who not only led us but joined our community. Two of the guides were veterans from the war in Afghanistan. In fact, they became guides as a part of their recovery from the traumas of war. They told us that four times as many American military veterans have died by suicide since September 11, 2001, than those who died in combat. PTSD and the traumas of war have caused a massive and disturbing amount of mental illness for veterans, a phenomenon we are now beginning to understand in a more constructive way. Our guides told us a group of veterans in Washington DC with the Sierra Club have recently discovered that outside recreation and community building exercises proves to be one of the most effective preventative therapies for depression and suicidal thoughts. Suddenly the purpose of our whitewater rafting adventure became much broader. We became instant friends with these war veterans as we listened to their stories and bonded with concern for their pains and hardships.
When Sharon and I married in 1996, we chose the following passage in the Bible to be read at our wedding ceremony. To this day it guides our waking thoughts and actions:
“Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
We choose to believe the third cord mentioned in this passage refers to our Lord, Jesus Christ. Together with him, each other and our friends, few things in life can defeat us.
King Solomon, most likely the author of Ecclesiastes, also wrote numerous wise sayings that we call proverbs. He was a big believer in having, treasuring, and nurturing good friendships. He said:
“A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need.” (Proverbs 17:17)
“There are ‘friends’ who destroy each other, but a real friend sticks closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24)
When we go at life alone, without a good friend by our side, or when our spouse is not our best friend, life can be very difficult if not impossible. As I have mentioned in other essays, the number one killer in the United States today is loneliness. People are literally dying because they are living alone, often believing alluring but false and destructive messages that a friendship can be found virtually on social media with little effort on our part. Without thinking, we are building higher fences around our houses and declining more invitations to join local communities or organizations. We are tempted to think that we can go at life alone. But nothing could be further from the Gospel truth.
Fifteen years ago, I attended a meeting in Chicago where a famous Coptic Orthodox priest gave an important speech for the Church worldwide. In the crowd, I recognized a young man I had not seen in since 2003, Younan Shiba, an Iraqi Presbyterian pastor. I had last seen Younan in Cairo, Egypt, when we both attended a mission conference of the Egyptian Presbyterian Church. I warmly embraced Younan and asked what he was doing in Chicago. He told me the harrowing story of how Al Qaeda militants threatened his life in Baghdad, forcing him and his family to leave Iraq and settle elsewhere or be killed. By God’s providence, he and his family ended up in a suburb of Chicago near to my home. Younan told me he was working the night shift at Home Depot; he, his wife and two daughters were learning English and their children were trying to find schools that would accept them. Over the course of three years, by God’s grace, I helped Younan transfer his ordination from the Presbytery of Baghdad to the Presbytery of Chicago. Since 2008, he has become active in outreach efforts with Arabic and Aramaic-speaking populations in Chicago. Through his satellite TV and radio broadcasts he now ministers to refugees and displaced people from the Middle East all around the world. A deep friendship has developed between his family and mine.
After three years walking closely with his disciples, teaching them everything he knew was essential about the Kingdom of God, the Bible tells us that Jesus gathered them one last time for what we call their Last Supper. The Gospel of John captures the words Jesus spoke that evening in his Farewell Discourse. There were numerous themes he addressed, but chief among them was the importance of friendship and the infinite value of abiding in him and one another no matter what life may throw at them. In essence, he was telling them to stick together in friendship and let nothing drive them apart or tempt them to become isolated and go at life alone. Stay together in community, with each other and with God, were some of Jesus’ last words to them.
Jesus said, “I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me…. This is my command: Love each other.” (John 15:9-15, 17)
God wants us to do everything in our power to remain in friendship with each other. Sometimes that might mean admitting we were wrong and seek forgiveness or forgive others for what they have done to hurt us. From God’s perspective, friends are worth more than gold; they are more valuable than having all the wealth, fortune, and fame a person could ever want. Jesus asks us to hold onto our friends, meet with them often and abide with them as much as we can. Above all, Christ is our ultimate friend, the one we need to meet and talk with the most every day. His love is everlasting.
We are asked, too, to notice the lonely, hurting, displaced people in our lives who need our attention, presence, and love. The greatest gift we can give another person is not something that can be wrapped and placed under a tree. It is the love in our hearts and the presence of our souls which our family, friends, and neighbors need the most. This Christmas, be aware of those who are looking for friendship. It might be someone living alone, who doesn’t have friends, or may have just returned from defending our country in war, or suddenly displaced because of terrorism or an oppressive government, or simply are in the latter years of life without family. Seek them out and become their friends. It is what God wants us to do. He does not want anyone to go at life alone.
When you picture the nativity scene this year depicting the birth of Jesus, consider what a wonderful and odd community of friends gathered around the manger. Shepherds, angels, choruses from heaven, magi from Persia, sheep, cows, and panicked parents who could not find a hotel room – they were all there together forming the first Christian community recorded in history, adoring the newborn Messiah, and forming friendships among each other that would last all the way until today and for eternity.
My family and I send our friendship to you and your family and friends and wish you a very Merry Christmas and blessed New Year!