Jesus is a friend.

December was a hard month and its effect continues to creep into my days and the days of many I love. We lost a friend, so we are all learning together — again — that grief is exhausting. Complicated. Soul-stretching.

I have learned that in the midst of loss, Jesus is often the one friend wise enough to simply be present without comment. Although, I have to say I wish he’d speak up a bit more. Some days, it frustrates me, his quietness. I interpret it as rejection because I am a broken person desperate for someone to fix my pain, to clear the fog, to say something in 280 characters or less that will make all the rest of it make sense. But no matter how much I beg, manipulate or argue, Jesus keeps his posture — quiet, but solidly present. A faithful friend. Which, of course, is what I need most even when I don’t know it.

Years ago, another friend of mine lost her husband. They met in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and became followers of Jesus. I never got the sense Christian life was easy for them; it was so different from what they’d lived for so long. When you’ve lived a lifetime trying to fill an emptiness with alcohol, all your relationships incubated in the petri dish of addiction, it is reasonable to wonder if Jesus is just another way to be disappointed.

But hard as it was, my friend and her husband discovered Jesus was the one thing that worked. He saved them from self-destruction and fed them a kind of healing nothing else had been able to offer. He was the only one patient enough, kind enough, to hang in through the valleys to the feasts on the other side. And Jesus was the one who taught them to be friends with each other. When my friend’s husband became ill, they leaned on Jesus together and discovered he was enough. Just days before he died, my friend’s husband, laying on his deathbed, turned to her and said, “You know, it really is true: what a friend we have in Jesus.”

Yes, and amen. Surely it is no coincidence that it was precisely in his death that Jesus taught us some of the more profound lessons in friendship. Among his final words to his followers were these: “I no longer call you servants; I call you friends” (John 15:15). And then he picked up the cross and pointed it at all humanity — like a kid on a playground choosing his team — inviting all who would choose him in return to become his friends.

Not servants, but friends.

Christ’s friendship is an act of grace. Brian Edgar, in his book God is Friendship, writes, “It is a profound, unexpected, gracious and powerful promise” (p. 28). It is richer than servanthood, beyond what we can earn. The friendship of Jesus offers the joy of intimate presence, one to another, deep calling to deep. It is Jesus being willing to be with me in my grief without words — unjealously, unswervingly, peacefully there. And it is Jesus who teaches me to be a friend to those around me.

But I’m a pastor. Subtlely and not so subtlely, pastors are taught to detach from personal relationships for the sake of building the Body of Christ (this may be especially true of itinerating pastors). Books upon books indoctrinate us in the art of boundary-making as a mark of good leadership. Jesus, meanwhile, says things like, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Maybe both things are true. Maybe there is a place in healthy leadership for giving our hearts to those in our communities.

Perhaps it is not just okay but a mark of holiness to discover the place of friendship not beyond but in the midst of ministry.  

Indeed, that also has been part of my grief — that I haven’t learned sooner how to be a better friend to those who have chosen to live in community with me and to do so as an act of ministry in the best sense of that term. As Edgar says, “Christian friendship is to be transformative. It is a loving ministry that transforms us into the image of our friend Jesus, and enables us to be friends and reflectors of Christ’s character to others” (p. 172).

As he so faithfully does, God is redeeming this season by teaching me things I could learn no other way.  He is revealing the power and beauty of friendship as he offers me his whole heart and proves himself a faithful friend. And he is modeling the kind of friend I can also become, so that in the valley of shadows there is beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning.

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Suicide and the Enemy of Our Souls

Yet another acquaintance lost his life to depression over the holidays. Such loss leaves everyone devastated on multiple levels. When devastations like suicide drop into our lives, we’re left with far more questions than answers, not to mention the guilt and so often, such a sense of powerlessness. Stretching to make sense of a tragic event, we tend to grab at answers only to find straw.

Some years ago, another friend lost her sister to suicide. She wrote to ask, “Do you think it is possible that the enemy has kept me down and in such a battle for the last year or two so he could keep me from being there for my sister?”

This is how I answered that question. Maybe it will help someone who is plagued with the same or similar questions:

Dear friend,
So good to hear from you and good to hear your heart. I appreciated so much that you took time to share with me where your thoughts and struggles have been in these last few weeks. I’ve been praying for you and now I know how to pray more specifically. It sounds like you and your family have been under attack in a lot of ways, much more it seems, than your sister’s death. I’m so sorry.

I loved one statement you made in your note. You said that even if you and your family let your sister down, Jesus never did, and even his faithfulness didn’t make a difference in her decision. That’s profound. A great insight and spot-on. I’m glad to hear that you’re dealing with the inevitable guilt in such healthy ways.

And the guilt is inevitable. It is such a sick, sad after-effect of suicide (every suicide, I’m guessing). I sure wish those who end their lives could know just what a burden they leave the living to carry. What a sadness, for all involved. God, your sister, your family, you … everyone grieves this loss.

I don’t have a great answer to your question but I’ve been thinking about it for the last 24 hours and praying about what is truth, since that’s what you are seeking. I probably only know things you already know, but here’s where my mind has been as I’ve prayed for you.

The first thing I know about the enemy is this: He is not creative. That is a character trait of our Father but not of the enemy of our souls, who tends to work in very predictable, non-creative ways. There is no genius about him. Just evil, hatred and lies.

The second thing I know about the enemy is that he is lazy. While our Father is dynamic (always moving, always working to transform us into his likeness), his enemy is lazy and again, predictable. The enemy’s one goal is to get all eyes off God; and he will expend the least energy possible to get the job done. There is no art to his craft, no beauty. His biggest weapon is lying. He speaks lies into people’s lives and hopes for devastation or at the least, to wreak havoc.

I also notice that the enemy of our soul works within systems (things like racism, socialism, atheism, etc.; even some forms of religion), but only because he has discovered that within these systems he can take down more than one person at a time. I don’t think of him as purposefully systematic (although he may stumble into systems and exploit their weak spots) or as having great forethought and strategy. For that reason, I see him as acting more individually and randomly. In the absence of a system, he uses whatever presents itself as most convenient.

What we know is this: Because he is lazy, he was clearly capitalizing on your sister’s depression by speaking lies into her spirit that magnified her sense of hopelessness or despair. He wore her down and eventually wore her out. In her pain, the enemy managed to separate your sister from the support systems that might otherwise have buffered her against his worst. He may have used co-dependence (hers or others’) to keep her from claiming her identity in Christ. Maybe he was able to keep her mired in memories that kept her broken and unhealthy.

Or maybe he just made her think (or used the depression to make her think) there was no hope.

As her sister, you would have given anything to be more than you were in her darkest days. To know more. Anyone in that situation would feel the same. And it would be tempting to find your place in the midst of her despair, even if only to say that the enemy separated you from her when she needed you most. That’s a normal and natural thought, I’m guessing.

Be wary, though, of putting yourself into her equation. This is her story, not yours. As humans, we tend to see things with us at the center, or at least close to it. But what if the realization you’re wrestling with is not that you could have done more (“If only I’d been more present, less busy …”) but that you didn’t have power to do more? What if, no matter what your personal circumstances, your sister’s mental illness was beyond her ability to survive it?

It boggles the mind (doesn’t it?) to acknowledge just how little power we actually have in the face of some cancers, some accidents, some mental illnesses. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus said, because the world is fallen and we’re imperfect and it is simply the case that not everything can be fixed this side of heaven.

Some things happen in spite of us and when it comes to mental illness, some things can’t be explained. Reason doesn’t apply. One plus one doesn’t equal two for a person whose mind is ill. Maybe there was no amount of time or energy anyone could have given until your sister was free of the illness that conquered her. Until we’re in the presence of Jesus, I doubt any of us will understand just how personal and complicated that battle was for her.

Thanks for sending the picture of your nieces and nephew. There is family here to love, family here to breed hope. I love that even in the midst of your grief, God is sending signs to assure you that there really is no such thing as no hope. Jesus is our assurance of that.

Your sister may be gone from this world, but her life matters. As you continue to listen and look, I believe God will give you signs of assurance — that in ways we can’t begin to fathom, she is in his care. Suicide is not the unforgivable sin; I have to believe that God’s mercy takes special care with those who are not just bruised but mentally broken by this life. His hand is over your sister’s soul, much like his hand was over Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair.

Peace to you — Carolyn

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