I don’t eat on my knees, but maybe I should. Sitting down is so comfortable, that I sometimes lose track of time reclining leisurely at my table. All the time spent on my couch probably takes away from time I could be spending at the gym, and though I watch what I eat, I am not convinced my habits serve my overall health. After all, it has been said that we must “eat to live, not live to eat.” Health is the goal, not muscle tone or petite body types. Food is a means, not an end in itself. Friendship is also a means, as it prepares us for and sustains us in relationship with God. Indeed, it is through other human beings that we are able to most directly commune with the divine. Whether by taking communion or breaking bread, human friendship nourishes us and propels us toward our ultimate end, fellowship with God and one another in the heavenly city. Theologically grounded friendships require each person to pursue the highest good together, to do what they genuinely think is best for the other person. But in the now-not-yet world in which we find ourselves, barriers remain in place, severing us from full and faithful communion with others.
Under this state of grace that we are in, where the sin conquered by the cross still remains, spiritual food can spoil and relationships can degrade due to malnourishment. Culture suggests that we are all modular, autonomous beings, and that friends come and go when they no longer suit us. Or, on the other hand, we see friendship as an end in itself and do everything we can to avoid its loss. We starve relationships of the sustenance they need by things we do as well as by the things we leave undone. This spiritual eating disorder can threaten Christian friendship and undermine its ability to bring us each into common relationship with God and with one another. After all, friendship is not an end in itself, but the means to our end, God.
Five years ago, my brother was living with me. It was significant because we had been somewhat estranged as adolescents, but he deliberately made it a point to learn from me, and I also learned from him. He said something that proved a turning point in my life and my faith. He called me out for abusing God, for introducing my faith only when it was convenient. Though it was uttered in an argument, it was honest. It was loving and more importantly, it was true. When a friend harms others or themselves, overlooking the behavior for the sake of the friendship, it does nothing but promote blindness—allowing the planks in both of our eyes to remain. Avoidance of honest words is a form of hypocrisy that damages relationships, especially in the Church. I am so grateful for my brother’s honesty, for naming the damage I was doing to myself and to our relationship. His rebuke changed my life, maybe even saved it. He has never shied away from confrontation, and makes a habit of telling me that he would rather exchange blows than to leave things unaddressed. It is a poignant reminder that anger has its place as long as it serves a genuinely loving end.
The scriptures call us to rebuke when needed, to help others see their splinters, and to be prepared for receiving rebuke as well, to remember the plank in our own eye. To be kin as a Christian is to be ready to say and hear difficult truths about others and especially about ourselves. After all, brothers always fight, but they make up in the end. Right? Real friendship is fundamentally about honesty, however blunt, and the Spirit uses people we love to help us see ourselves for who we are. It is a careful balance that requires a lot of mercy and grace, and it is no easy task. The situation between my brother and I became complicated as we both began dating people and allocated less and less of our energy to one another. He had difficulty finding a job and struggled with getting by. Eventually, he moved away to find employment, and we did not part on the best of terms. Though we were still congenial to one another, congeniality sometimes masks profound pain and discomfort.
Recently, a very close friend of mine from seminary told me that I made him “uncomfortable.” He also felt that it would be unhealthy for him to take the initiative to restore the relationship. I had felt betrayed and hurt by his actions and inactions in the months prior and had attempted to patiently express my feelings of violation. My persistence and method of communicating was apparently what made him uncomfortable, even though it was a manifestation of my hope in preserving our friendship.
We had failed to feed one another spiritually, inadvertently keeping each other at a distance so narrow that we scarcely perceived our lack of actual communion. Our relationship had become spiritually malnourished. Our pain was mutual, as was our culpability, and naming things that we saw led to an indefinite suspension of our friendship. I am sure he is praying for me as much as I am for him. I may not like him very much right now, but I still love him like a brother and hope we both come to our senses.
My own brother, in the meantime, has not taken my calls in several years. He chose silence; the blows that he claimed to prefer have yet to find purchase on the cheeks now marked by the occasional tear. My brother is not my friend right now, but does that mean we are not one another’s keeper? Will God work in us yet? Numerous studies suggest that the number of intimate connections humans can sustain is relatively few, somewhere in the area of 150 people. The church is called to love uniformly, but how do we distinguish between brotherly, philial love and theological, agapic love? It was much easier to say goodbye to the person I knew in seminary, but I cannot ignore the fact that my brother is my flesh and blood, that there are pictures in my room with his face on them – and I refuse to take them down as an act of easy, yet false catharsis. The complicated feelings I have for him can’t be swallowed up by a false act of forgetting. If I wanted to, I could go to his address and force the issue, coerce him into acknowledging that there is something wrong—but would that be friendship? Would that be living to eat instead of eating to live? One would be living for the sake of relationship and the other would be closer to practicing the patient, prodigious love God calls us to, a love that lives with the tragic reality of our past. I must learn to be content with what I am given, like manna in the desert, for relationship “by any means necessary” is not grounded in love.
A Christmas baby, I grew tired of having birthday gifts “combined” because someone had forgotten to get separate gifts. So, for my last several birthdays I have asked for one thing and one thing only – honesty. Every year, I invite friends and family to reflect on my strengths and weaknesses, either in an email, handwritten letter, or even just a frank conversation. It saves them money and spares me a little ethical frustration – a win-win! I figure it is the best gift I can get, an opportunity to see myself for who I am and who I need to be. But it is not an easy gift, and fewer folks than you might guess take my offer. Most still opt for the combination gift, but those that dare to give me exactly what I ask for always surprise me, in telling me how great I am and in telling me how great I could be if I stopped being such a jerk.
Those letters and conversations are some of my most cherished memories, but they have not been easy. I have one framed and hanging in my room, not far from those pictures of my brother. They remind me of my humanity, of how complex and yet how loved I am. They remind me of the love I am called to embody. In my prayers at the foot of my bed at night, I get on my knees and ask for friendship, and in doing so I am making myself capable of being a friend. Living for friendships leaves an insatiable hunger when some spoil. Friendships for life have no “best by” date, it means trading quantity for quality; I may not always have food on my plate, but I will never turn away hungry. Friendship simultaneously requires and creates the kind of faith that Christians are called to. God only knows if I will ever hear back from those who I have hurt, or if I have the strength to hear from those who hurt me. I hunger for restored relationship, but I know that every week, on my knees, I am sustained by the bread of life, fed by friendships both weak and strong, nourished by the body of He who called us friends. I don’t eat on my knees, but maybe I should.
**Originally published Aug. 31st by The Washington Institute at: www.washingtoninst.org/6058/fed-by-friendship