Spiritual Friendships

One of my favorite aspects of ordained ministry is the friendships developed over the years.  As a United Methodist pastoral family who served in itinerant ministry for 23 years, we have developed a network of friends across our conference that feeds our need for social contact and our need for what I call spiritual friendship.  Spiritual friendship is more than acquaintance; it is an ongoing relationship in which we nurture one another's souls.  In spiritual friendships, divine affairs and human affairs intersect in such a way as to create moments of grace.  Although the Apostle Paul uses different language, he often speaks of spiritual friendship.  When he refers to Christians he has met in his missionary journeys, he calls them brothers and sisters in the faith.  He expresses deep appreciation and affection for these spiritual friends, and so do I.

When Cathy and I have had occasion in our lives to celebrate, we invite friends and family to surround us so that our joy might be multiplied.  And when the time to grieve has come, we have been grateful for friends who have offered a listening ear.  I am grateful for these spiritual friends, but the spiritual friendships I have had in my life go back well beyond my memory.  From the time I was born, there were folks surrounding me who shared in forming me spiritually.

There were many folks in my hometown of Elberton, Georgia, who taught me Sunday School, led my youth group, loved me when I was unlovable.  They were patient with me when I was intolerable.  They were graceful toward me when I had been anything but graceful to them. In word and deed they taught the scriptures, they taught me about Jesus, they stirred in my heart a hunger for Jesus Christ.  All of these folks are spiritual friends, because they fed my soul.

As we observe All Saints Day on November 1, we celebrate the great cloud of witnesses whose bodies have left this world, but whose spiritual friendships have shaped and molded us.  They have become part of the communion of saints that we celebrate when we recite The Apostles' Creed.  All Saints Day is a day to remember those who have entered eternal rest; and for me it is a day to give thanks for spiritual friends, living and dead, who have brought me to this place.  As Tennyson said in Ulysses, "I am a part of all that I have met."

Each of these spiritual friends wrote a memorable story upon my heart, and from their writings the story of my life is told.  I am who I am today because of who we were together yesterday.

Let me introduce you to some of my spiritual friends.  We can start at age four with Beverly Bond, who taught my preschool at her house and who was my Vacation Bible School teacher in the summers.  In her Bible School classes, we re-created the ancient villages of Galilee on a sand table with old-fashioned clothes pins painted to represent villagers.  She told the stories of Jesus, and they came to life on that table.  

Meet Beth Gaines who would gather our third grade Sunday School class around an out-of-tune piano played by Kim Phelps of the youth group.  We would sing about the love of Jesus, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the vitality of scripture.  She hugged us every Sunday, told us how wonderful God's love was, read the scriptures for us, and prayed with us.

I want you to know about Conley Taylor, my youth minister.  In a Blue Bird school bus, he took the youth all over the country to sing and to learn and to be together in Christian fellowship.  He had the patience of Job and a passion for ministry. We all knew that he loved the Lord.      

These are three of the spiritual friends who gave me deep roots for my faith in Jesus Christ.  Some of these friends are still alive today, and some are part of the church triumphant.          

The Apostle Paul knew that he, too, was shaped by his spiritual friendships.  In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul gave thanks to God for his spiritual friends at that church.  He singled them out for praise because their faith was growing abundantly.  Few things in life are more powerful than a person of growing faith.  When someone is growing in faith, their life bears fruit such that you recognize God at work in them.  Faith that inspires is faith that is constant, daring, and enduring. 

Meet Ed and Linda Baker who were members of a church I served in the Atlanta suburb of Snellville.  Ed is a civil engineer and Linda a school teacher; but after several mission trips to Honduras, this couple heard a call to the full-time mission field.  Leaving behind the security of good jobs, they signed up to go wherever the Lord might send.  They were assigned to Paraguay, where they operated the Aqua de Vida ministry--the water of life.  They drilled wells in rural villages bringing fresh, clean water, and they offered the water of life in preaching, teaching, and witness. Their faith inspires me because it is a daring faith--a faith that surrenders comfort and predictability so that they might be available for the Lord's use.  They spent most of their time in the mission field, so I don't know Ed and Linda as well as other members of that congregation.  Still, our spiritual friendship inspires me because their growing faith makes me a better follower of Jesus Christ.

Like all growing faith, the Bakers' faith is rooted in extravagant grace.  Ed and Linda are quick to tell you that in those early short-term mission trips they received far more than they gave.  In the lives of the Hondurans they visited, they experienced grace upon grace as they heard the testimony of people in poverty who had profound faith in the provision of God.  Ed and Linda's faith is born of God's extravagant grace.  Grace precedes all things, including faith itself, because grace is God's initial act of love.  Grace is perfectly embodied in the gift of Jesus Christ, and grace often manifests itself in the witness of spiritual friends who in their lives write memorable stories of grace and faith.

One of the greatest stories of grace and faith was written on my heart early in my life.  Kelle Coggins and I were childhood friends.  Our neighborhoods backed up to each other, separated by a creek bed that was our meeting ground.  We played together every day after school.  Some days we played in the creek catching crayfish and running through the woods.  Other days we would ride our bikes across town to visit her grandmother, whom we called Gagi.  At Gagi's house we ate peanut butter and bananas.  In the innocence of childhood, we loved to be together.

One year Kelle's family bought a side-by-side refrigerator/freezer with crushed ice through the door.  At that time no one had seen an ice-through-the-door freezer, so Kelle and I were drawn to it like moths to a light. We would go to her house to drink Coca-Cola over crushed ice and live the high life.  One day boredom got the better of us, and we went to her front yard and started throwing little ice pellets at passing cars.  At the time we were not aware of the danger.  For the most part, we were so lousy at throwing that we did no damage until we hit the car of Sara Maxwell, a librarian in our small town and the spiritual friend who taught me more about extravagant grace than I have ever learned.  A few minutes after we hit her car, Sara returned to Kelle's yard.  Kelle and I took off running to hide as if Sara didn't know us, our parents and how many overdue books we had at the library.  She called out "Kelle, Glenn!"  We stopped in our tracks to turn and face the judgment. 

"You gave me something, so I wanted to give you something," and with those words she placed a pomegranate in each of our hands.

Even as third graders we knew we had been touched by an angel.  We had received extravagant grace, and it was transforming.  For the remainder of childhood and now even as an adult, I am here talking about her remarkable act of grace.  I now know that this was just a woman in town fulfilling her divine call to be a spiritual friend, writing the story of extravagant grace and growing faith on my heart.  I am grateful that Sara answered the call to be a spiritual friend to Kelle and to me.

Spiritual friendship is a gift from generation to generation.  Each generation receives extravagant grace and a divine call to share that grace with others.  Beth, Beverly, Sara, Conley witnessed to their growing faith by their extravagant grace.  Through them God has called me to witness to my faith.  In the United Methodist Church, our liturgy for infant baptism asks congregants to promise the next generation to witness to our faith and to give grace.  People in worship on Sunday promise the baptized infant that they will be spiritual friends.  The parents accept their duty and privilege to live a life that becomes the Gospel, and the congregation promises to nurture the child's faith.  In my congregation I walk the child among the people and ask, "Will you teach this child in Sunday School and children's choir?  Will you chaperone the youth trip?  Will you promise not to give up on this child no matter how much the child disrupts your Sunday School classroom?"  The congregation dutifully says, "With God's help, we will."      

When we confirm that child in 8th grade and later celebrate the child's high school graduation, I use those occasions to check up on our progress as spiritual friends.  I ask, "Do you know these young people?  You promised to nurture their faith when they were babies.  How are you doing?  Did you teach their Bible School?  Did you make meaningful conversation with them in the halls?  Are you telling them about Jesus?  Are you modeling a growing faith?"           

All of us are eager for role models, especially children and teens.  They emulate those around them.  They need spiritual friends. 

We see children's hunger for a role model when they play dress up.  It is a precious sight indeed to see a little girl who has painted her face with Mother's makeup or a little boy in Dad's oversized coat or a child standing in shoes that look like canoes on the tiny feet.  There is nothing children want more than to grow up to fill those shoes.  When an adult walks down the street, children will often try to put their feet right in the footprint of that adult.        

I am grateful that spiritual friends walked in front of me and left giant spiritual footprints.  The next generation is counting on you and me for extravagant grace and a growing faith.  They need us to make large footprints so that they can follow in our steps.

On All Saints' Day I'll breathe a prayer of thanks for those spiritual friends who have gone before me, and I'll pray that you and I leave footprints of grace and faith large enough for the next generation to follow. 

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Will you join me in prayer.  Dear Lord, you lived a life so large that none could miss it by caring for those people thought to be so small as to be insignificant.  Grow my faith, Lord Jesus.  Grow my spirit so that I may live a life of grace.  Grant me opportunity to leave a spiritual footprint large enough to be seen and deep enough to matter.  Amen.