Friday, July 11, 2008

Friendship Strained

Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him . . . they had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company (Acts 15:37, 39).

Ever had someone let you down?

Most of us, whether we’ve sung the words of the old hymn or not, know exactly what the hymn is saying when it asks “do thy friends despise, forsake thee?” Sometimes that’s what happens. It may not be intentional. It may not be malicious. Nevertheless, our friends can let us down. This is why friendship is risky and why many had just as soon not bother with it.

Jesus knew all about this kind of thing firsthand. Judas betrayed him. Peter denied him. Folks back in his hometown took offense at his first sermon and ran him out of town. On the night of his deepest agony, his closest three friends couldn’t stay awake to pray with him.

And the early church dynamic duo of Paul and Barnabas hit some rocky times as well in their friendship. They had tried to take Mark along on a missionary journey, but Mark got homesick and bailed on the endeavor. When it came time for the next journey Barnabas wanted to give Mark another chance. Paul said, “no way.” This difference of opinion broke up the team. God blessed their labors and continued to work through both men, but it’s hard to imagine that this didn’t sting, and deeply.

The answer to the hymn’s question is obvious. “Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?” The answer is “Yes, they do.” And if this is so, what are we to do with those strained friendships?

Let’s begin by admitting that every human friendship and every human family is fallen. This fact alone shapes how we do family life and friendship. It reminds us that our relationships are still stained by the reality of sin. All of us are inclined toward selfishness. We don’t love as we should. We do things we later regret and say things without thinking.

But here’s the surprise in this: our fallen families and friendships are the means by which God is honored. Strained relationships are the arena in which grace is shown to be real and forgiveness possible. In our strained friendships we show the world what God is like.

But we’ll never do this apart from a friendship with Jesus. Apart from the presence of Christ in us, we can’t put God’s grace on display. When our friendships are strained we fall back on the only thing that can hold our friendships and families together: the power of God’s very life in us.

We keep coming back to this same answer: There’s nothing better that we can do than take our strained friendships to the Lord in prayer. By the help of the Holy Spirit we get direction for how to forgive, we get the courage to confront, we discern what it will take to reconcile, and we also may learn how to move forward in different directions like Paul and Barnabas did. When others let us down, the hymn promises that we will find solace in Jesus. Maybe we just need to ask.

Grant us the grace we need, O Lord, to befriend those who have suddenly become strangers to us. Help us to know how grace works and what it means for us to extend it to others. In our fallen and strained relationships, help us to be more like your Son, in whose name we pray. Amen

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