I've begun reading Aelred of Rievaulx's classic work, Spiritual Friendship, written in the Middle Ages as a Christian remix of Cicero's On Friendship (which I read earlier this year). Perhaps the profoundest line I've found so far is the simple beginning of the dialogue, where Aelred says to his interlocutor: "Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, is in our midst."
It is the nature of Christian friendship that the union of two people should lead them into the presence of God. Reflecting back on my own life, I can say that there has seldom been anything so spiritually formative for me as my seasons of deep, rich Christian friendship. Bible study, prayer, silence and solitude, service--these are all essentials, of course. But nothing has quite made them come alive like the intimate presence of others. When living in close community and friendship with other believers, my prayer, study, and service takes on greater power. Friendship lends a practical impetus to my spiritual formation--I tend to care more about what sort of person I am becoming when I am living in close communion with others--and it also lends a direction and purpose to that formation: the deepening of our fellowship and the active outworking of my faith in practical, relational ways. Christian friendship becomes both a source of fuel for spiritual formation and one of the goals of spiritual formation.
In the past few weeks I've been making more of a concerted effort to spend intentional time with Rachel. Instead of turning on the TV to watch the Red Sox in the evening, we've taken up the habit of reading out loud together. Right now we're reading through a collection of Dorothy Sayers' short stories about her detective hero, Lord Peter Wimsey. It has been a wonderful time to slow down together after putting Josiah to bed, to share a quiet journey into a world of imagination. It is interactive and creative (far more so than watching TV), and has drawn us significantly into a deeper experience of closeness these past few weeks. The time we spend in good, simple conversation--about life, relationships, God, etc.--has expanded since we started intentionally taking time to be together in the evenings. And, along the way, I've found my desire for God and for a life of holiness has expanded in corresponding measure.
There's something about friendship which, at its best, should draw us ever deeper into the presence of God. Our relationships with others and our relationship with God are inextricably linked. Our relationality is a reflection of the Trinitarian relationality of God, etched into our nature as an image of His fundamental nature. And when we pursue that relationality in godly ways, the promise of Jesus becomes manifest: "Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am also." We believe that Christ is spiritually present among all gatherings of his people, and I can testify that his presence is almost tangible in the quiet spaces of a deep and abiding friendship.
As a pastor, I interact with all kinds of people. One group that I'm particularly fond of is the sort of people who are "fixers" and "visionaries"--who are constantly seeing the problems with the way the church is now, and how we could be making it better. How can we bring in more people? How can we reach out more effectively to the community? Aren't there more programs we can be running? We need people who ask these questions--they keep us from a slothful acceptance of mediocrity. But we also need people like Aelred, who tell us to slow down and examine the nature of our church fellowship. Aelred points us away from seeing merely the problems and potentials of the church--he tells us that the church is extraordinary, here and now, because it is the union of the children of God and Christ is in its midst. No matter what problems might be present, when Christians gather together in the name of Jesus, that is a momentous and fundamentally important event, and it is endued and saturated with the presence of Christ himself. We must not forget that the mandate of the church points both outward and inward, and that it is a part of our mission to develop rich relationships of fellowship, mentoring, and friendship. For where Christians love each other, there is an active image to the watching world of the love and nature of Christ.