How Are You Fixed For Friends?
John 3:33-34The most popular TV show in America is set in a bar in Boston. The name of the TV series is the same as the name of the bar—Cheers. It has been the most popular TV show for the last several years and has been in the top five most-watched shows for seven or eight years. Cheers is the story of a very unusual group of people who gather at the bar every day after work to kibbutz, to chat, to trade war stories, to tell a few jokes, to blow off steam, to commiserate with one another, and generally share their lives with one another.
There is Rebecca, who owns the bar along with Sam, the former pitcher for the Red Sox. There is Woody, the ditzy bartender and Cliff, the prodigal postman. And of course there is Norm, who evidently fulfills his mission in life by sitting on a stool and drinking beer. Then there is Carla, who chases every man she can find. Finally, there is Frazier, and Lillith his wife—the resident psychiatrists who explain everything, sort of.
It’s really a very simple TV show. Nearly all the shots take place in the bar. Rarely do the characters venture out of the bar. The plots generally revolve around romance or somebody’s personal crisis. The episodes are not intellectually demanding nor do they call for a huge emotional investment by the viewing audience. Cheers is a true situation comedy.
Yet, there is something that touches a very deep nerve in the American public because each week tens of millions of people tune in. All they really do is sit around and talk about their joys and sorrows, their victories and defeats, their good times and their bad times, their problems at home, and their dreams for the future. That’s it. That’s really all there is. When you put it that way, it doesn’t sound very profound, yet Cheers touches something deep within us. They talk about life and we tune in to listen.
Do you remember how the theme song goes? “You wanna be where you can see that troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everyone knows your name.”
“He Was A Great Marine”
I was reminded of Cheers when I read a story in one of Chuck Swindoll’s books. He tells the story of an old Marine Corps buddy of his who became a Christian after he left the Corps. Swindoll said he was surprised when he heard of his friend’s conversion:
He was one of those guys you’d never picture as being interested in spiritual things. He cursed loudly, drank heavily, fought hard, chased women, loved weapons, and hated chapel service. He was a great Marine.
When Swindoll finally met him, his friend told him how he had come to Christ. Then with a look of sadness, he put his hand on Swindoll’s shoulder and bared his soul:
Chuck, the only thing I miss is that old fellowship all the guys in our outfit used to have down at the Slop Shoot (Greek for tavern on base). Man, we’d sit around, laugh, tell stories, drink a few beers, and really let our hair down. It was great. I just haven’t found anything to take the place of that great time we use to enjoy. I ain’t got nobody to admit my faults to… to have ‘em put their arm around me me and tell me I’m still okay.
The words hurt because they are so true. Swindoll goes on to quote from Bruce Larson and Keith Miller (The Edge of Adventure, p. 156). Ever wonder why so many people are pulled to the neighborhood bar? Here is their answer:
The neighborhood bar is possibly the best counterfeit there is for the fellowship Christ wants to give His church. It’s an imitation, dispensing liquor instead of grace, escape rather than reality, but it is is a permissive, accepting, and inclusive fellowship. It is unshockable. It is democratic. You can tell people secrets and they usually don’t tell others or even want to. The bar flourishes not because most people are alcoholics, but because God has put into the human heart the desire to know and be known, to love and be loved, and so many seek a counterfeit at the price of a few beers.
With all my heart I believe that Christ wants His church to be … a fellowship where people can come in and say, “I’m sunk!” “I’m beat!” “I’ve had it!” (All quotations from Chuck Swindoll, Encourage Me, pp. 17-18)
No wonder we like Cheers. It’s not because it’s set in a bar; it’s not because we secretly want to drink. No, the real reason runs much deeper than that. It’s because Cheers is a place where you can go and tell the truth, be yourself, and not be rejected.
No wonder it strikes such a deep chord within us. “You wanna be where you can see that troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everyone knows your name.”
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?
Do you have any place like that in your life?
To Know and Be Known
Let me give you my thesis right up front: It is hard to be a whole person unless you have friends in your life with whom you can be yourself. It is virtually impossible to become mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy as long as you live without any close friends who know the real you.
To know and be known, to love and be loved, to care and be cared for—these are our deepest human needs. That means having a few people gathered around who know you through and through. That means knowing others deeply and intimately, and it means letting them get to know you in the same way.
Let me probe this area with three simple questions:
A. Is there a group to which you really belong? I’m not asking how many groups you’ve joined or whether your name is on some membership list. I’m asking whether there is any group anywhere where you can hang your hat and say, “This is my place and these are my people?”
B. Are there people around you who know you totally, warts and all? This is a crucial question because we live in a city teeming with people—over seven million of them. Do any of them really know you from the inside out? Do any of them know the dark side of your personality, the part most people never see?
C. Do you have to give an account of your life to anyone? Is there anyone in your life who asks you the hard questions about the way you spend your time or your money? Is there anyone who asks you about the way you live your life, the way you treat people, the way you walk with God? Is there anyone at all like that in your life? Or are you basically just a free agent floating through life, doing your own thing, never letting anyone get close enough to check up on you?
If you don’t have a group, and if don’t have a few people who know the real you, and if you aren’t accountable to somebody for the way you live, you will never discover what Wholly Living is all about. You will go through life struggling with problems that could be overcome if only you would dare to let a few people get close to you.
Not a Solo – But a Symphony
There is nothing more important that I can say to you than this statement: God never intended that you should live the Christian life by yourself. He intended that the Christian life would not be a solo, but a duet, a trio, a quartet, a quintet, a choir and a mighty symphony. He intended that as you join your life with other people, they would help you and you would help them.
How is it with you? Do you have a few people in your life who really know you? Or do you always wear the mask, the costume, play the game, because the show must go on? Are you accountable to anybody for the way you live? Or are you just doing it all by yourself?
One reason you may be struggling right now is because you don’t have a group, and you’re not close to anyone, and you’re not accountable to anybody. God never intended that his children would live like hermits. He intended that they would live together, and that in living together, they would help each other along the way. It is God’s will that we live together as brothers and sisters in a family relationship so that we could love each another, encourage each other, admonish each other, hug each other, pick each other up when we fall down, rejoice together, weep together and correct each other when we make mistakes.
Too Busy For Friends
It’s not easy to live this way because it runs against the grain of American culture. Although we hunger for close relationships, we live in a way that makes it easier to keep things on a very superficial level. Researcher George Barna describes the inner tension we feel:
America is a nation in which the yearning for strong friendships far exceeds their existence. The majority of Americans feel that they do not have enough close friends. Among the reasons why we struggle with building and maintaining significant relationships are the high level of transience, which tears us away from those whom we have become friendly with; our inability, as a nation, to effectively communicate with each other; the fragmentation of our schedules, which makes sharing time together difficult; and the shifts in attitudes that make us less willing to make commitments to long-term relationships. (The Frog in the Kettle, pp. 70-71)
Put it all together and this is what you have: We move too much, we don’t know how to talk to each other, we’re too busy, and we’re unwilling to commit ourselves to long-term relationships.
No wonder we’re lonely.
Simon and Garfunkel caught the mood of modern America when they sang, “I am a rock, I am an island. And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.” That’s us. That’s the way we are. Strong. Tough. Self-reliant.
But on the inside we’re hungry for deep relationships, and thirsty for real friendship.
Let me repeat. God never intended that his children live that way.
We live in a lonely world. People go to bars because they can’t find what they’re looking for in the churches. If you think people go to the bars to get drunk, you’ve missed the whole point. They go because they are hungry for relationships. Alcohol is a side issue. They drink in order to ease their loneliness and loosen their tongues. But the real issue lies much deeper.
Cocooning and Burrowing
Are you familiar with the term “cocooning?” It’s a term the social observers use to describe American life in the 90s. It refers to the fact that Americans are using their homes as a way to escape from contact with the world. Cocooning is what happens when you use your home like a medieval castle. You let down the drawbridge, go to work, come home, cross the drawbridge, raise it, and fill the moat with water. You sit down, turn on the TV, read the paper, and then go to bed. The next day you do it all over again.
One result of cocooning is that people don’t really get to know other people. They never let anyone get close enough. Only the special few get invited across the drawbridge. Everyone else is “Hi, how are you? Good to see you. Sorry I don’t have time to talk. Gotta run. Bye-bye.”
But cocooning will soon be replaced by something called “burrowing.” That’s a term coined by Faith Popcorn. I’m not making up that name. Faith Popcorn is a very prominent observer of market trends in American society. In her just-released book The Popcorn Report, she says burrowing is the next logical step beyond cocooning. The difference is this. When you cocoon, you at least come out of your house from time to time. But with the advent of personal computers, more and more people are working at home. That trend will only increase in the next few years. Burrowing means you work at home, you play at home and you order your food to be delivered to your home. You hardly have to leave your home for anything. As a result, you never form any close relationships because you don’t have to. Your home becomes the ultimate escape from other people.
That’s where we’re going in the next few years. Which means that, when you factor in the other pressures of modern society—such as the disintegration of the nuclear family and the rising tide of divorce—we’re going to be seeing more and more people who are lonely, fragmented and disconnected.
It goes without saying that we’re going to see more people like that in the church. We already have more lonely people than anyone suspects.
What does the Bible have to say about this? So much that I don’t have the time to cover it all. At its heart, the Bible is a book about relationships—how people relate to God, and then how people relate to each other. It is not going overboard to call the Bible a textbook on relationships. It begins with the vertical—how you rightly relate to God through the death of Jesus Christ. That’s always primary. That’s where the Bible begins. But it also covers the horizontal—how ordinary people learn to get along with each other.
The Bible talks a lot about the horizontal because that’s where so many of us need help. This is a broken world, and so many of us are broken-world people. We’ve been bruised and battered by relationships that have gone sour. We’ve known the pain of failure, the bitterness of mistreatment, the heartbreak of abuse. The Bible doesn’t sugar-coat that reality. It faces it fairly and squarely with the result that broken people can come to the Bible and find not only a diagnosis, but also a prescription. Not just an analysis, but also a way out of their misery.
As important as the doctrine of the Bible is (and it is vitally important), it is much more than that. It’s also much more than a collection of religious truisms and nice-sounding verses that are cross-stitched and hung on the wall. At its heart the Bible is a people-book that tells us how we should get along with one another. From beginning to end, the Bible is jammed full of stories of men and women relating to each other—sometimes in good ways, often in very bad ways. You can find plenty of good examples and you can find plenty of bad examples. It just depends on where you want to look.
The books of the New Testament—especially Paul’s epistles—are filled with very pointed instructions on interpersonal relationships. If you want one suggestion for personal study, go through Paul’s epistles and study the “one another” verses. Whole books have been written on that subject.
What Was Jesus Thinking About?
For our purposes I want to zero in on just one tiny fragment of the New Testament teaching. I want us to concentrate on what the Lord Jesus had to say about how his followers should relate to each other. And even that subject is much too large for one sermon. So let’s narrow the field of inquiry down to the very end of his earthly life. In fact, let’s concentrate on the night before he was crucified.
It is late on Thursday night, and the Lord Jesus has gathered in the Upper Room with his disciples. He alone knows the truth about what the next day will bring. The awful truth of the Cross hangs over him like some thick, dark cloud. No doubt the disciples sense that things are not going well, but they still have no clear idea what is about to happen.
When trouble comes, we go without thinking to the people who mean the most to us. All of us have various circles of friends. Some are very casual, others we know better, others are close friends, and still others are in the inner circle we reserve for intimate friends. It is to that circle of intimate friends that we turn when life seems to collapse around us.
It was true of Jesus. When he was on earth, he dealt with the thousands and with the hundreds. He was fully at home speaking to large crowds. But when the shadows were darkest, he wanted only to be with that group of 12 men who had been closest to him. They alone had been with him from the beginning. They had seen the miracles, heard the parables, walked the dusty roads of Palestine. They knew his heart like no one else. They had been with him when he had been accused of being filled with demons. They had heard the slanders, and still they walked with him. When others had left, they had stayed. Now as the sand slips from the hourglass, they are the men to whom Jesus turns in his moment of deepest sorrow.
One question plays on the mind as we ponder Jesus and his men in the Upper Room: What was on his mind on the night before he was crucified? What was he thinking about? What concerns filled his heart? After all, it is in the extremities of life that our priorities are most clearly revealed. When life tumbles in, we not only find out what we are made of, we also find out what we believe in and what we care most about.
“Stay Here and Watch With Me”
There are at least three passages that seem to answer that question. Each passage sheds some light on what Jesus was thinking about less than 12 hours before he was crucified. One is in Matthew, one in Luke, one in John.
A. Matthew 26:36-38. The scene has shifted to the garden of Gethsemane on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. Jesus has returned to this favorite spot for one final moment of prayer. He does not come alone.
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
The story itself is very familiar to us. What follows is a story we have heard many times. Jesus faces the awful reality of the cross and cries out, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” That much we already know. But perhaps we have skipped over an important observation. Jesus wasn’t alone in the garden. His three best friends were with him. That’s the point of verses 2-3. Leaving the rest of the disciples behind, he asks Peter, James and John to go with him while he prays. He even specifies that they should stand guard while he prays. They are, he says, to “Keep watch over me.”
The lesson is clear: As Jesus wrestles with the greatest agony of his life, he wants his closest friends to be there with him. He doesn’t want to go through this by himself. It’s not a question of his divine ability. He was the Son of God with supernatural power. He could go it alone if he had to. He proved that when he faced the devil in the wilderness. But now, at the climactic moment of his life, he wants his men to watch with him, to stand guard as he agonizes over what is to come.
Was he afraid? No, not in the normal sense of the word. But he knew, with a kind of knowing that we do not possess, what crucifixion would mean for him. He saw the horror of what was about to happen, and the sorrow of it all almost overwhelmed him.
And he did not want to face that alone. He wanted his friends to be there with him.
There are some things that only one person can do. No one else could face the awesome burden of sin he was about to bear. But he did not want to be alone as he steadied himself for the task.
Please don’t skip over this observation. It’s a crucial part of what was on his mind in those last few hours.
B. Luke 22:28-30. The scene shifts back to the Upper Room. Jesus has just shared the Last Supper with his men. Now a discussion breaks out about who is the greatest among all the disciples. Jesus answers by reminding them that he came to serve, not to be served, and therefore that greatness in the kingdom is determined by lowly service to others. We pick up the story in verse 28:
You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
The final act has been set in motion, the die has been cast, all the players are on the stage, the wheels of injustice slowly grind away. Evil times have come. Even now Judas is on his way to betray the Lord Jesus. The hour is late and the soldiers are restless. Soon they will have their prey.
But before the final drama unfolds, Jesus said something very significant to his men—"You are those who have stood by me in my trials.” He remembered that his men had been with him from the beginning. They had seen it all—the good times and the bad, the miracles and the controversies, and when thousands of Sunshine Disciples had left him, these 11 men had stayed by his side. They were not much to look at from the world’s point of view; they weren’t educated or powerful or eloquent. They didn’t have much to recommend themselves. Maybe we wouldn’t have picked them as part of our support team. They were mostly blue-collar, country types who felt a little uncomfortable in a big city like Jerusalem. They were fishermen and farmers and tax collectors and political zealots. They really didn’t have that much in common. In fact, in other circumstances they might have never met each other.
But thrown together by their allegiance to Jesus Christ, over the years they had become a team. Now their Captain looks at them for the last time and says, “I haven’t forgotten that you stood with me when everyone else ran away. That means a lot to me. I’m going to tell you something that you won’t fully understand right now. But later on, you’ll look back on this moment and remember my words. The day is coming when I will have a kingdom of my own. It’s hard to believe right now, but it’s true. Better days are coming. And when those days come, I won’t forget that you stood by me in my darkest hours. I’ll make it up to you in ways you can’t even imagine. When that day comes, you’ll not regret your faithfulness, just as I tell you that I have not forgotten it. You will be with me in my kingdom, eating and drinking and ruling the people of Israel. I know that may sound like wishful thinking right now, but don’t forget that I told you these things. Nothing means more to me than this: You were with me in the time of my trial.”
And isn’t that what friendship is all about? You find out who your friends are when you really get in trouble. We all have friends who are glad to see us when the sun is shining, when we have money in our pockets, when we have a job, a family, our health, and good fortune. That’s not bad, because we’re like that to some people ourselves. You can’t be life-and-death friends to everyone you meet. You just can’t do it. It’s not humanly possible.
But when the chips are down, and the world is falling apart, and your plans have come to nothing, you soon discover the difference between acquaintances and friends. True friends stay with you when the going gets rough. They don’t check out just because you are down on your luck.
Jesus is saying, “Men, there are lots of people who like me and lots who don’t like me. And there are many who haven’t yet made up their minds. But you men made up your minds early and you’ve never changed your minds. You are my true friends because you have stayed with me to the very end.”
3. John 13:33-34. These verses are very familiar to us. Jesus has just shocked the disciples by washing their feet. That bothered them because Jesus, the Master, washed the feet of his followers. They were visibly bothered and baffled. But there is more to come. Jesus is about to break some shocking news to them—news of his impending death. As he begins to break the news to them, he also gives them a very special instruction.
My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
We have heard about Jesus’ words for years—Love One Another. This “new commandment” is not very new to us. We’ve known about it forever. But did you notice the qualification Jesus puts on his words? “As I have loved you.” We probably tend to overlook that in our rush to get to the part we understand. It looks at first like some kind of throwaway line—"As I have loved you.”
What does it mean? We are to love each other in the same manner and in the same way as Jesus loved us. His love for us is to be the standard by which we love each other.
Before I go any farther, let me stop and draw two conclusions from these three passages of Scripture. These two conclusions are part of the answer to the question, What was on Jesus’ mind on the night before he was crucified?
1. He didn’t want to go through his agony alone.
2. He wanted to make sure that after he was gone his disciples would love each other as he had loved them.
Ten Thousand Angels
But that raises a profound question, doesn’t it? How did Jesus love the world he came to save? How was his love demonstrated?
The answer goes something like this. He loved the world with total vulnerability. He gave himself so com-pletely that the world turned against him. He loved the world so much that he was beaten, mocked, bruised, abused, hated, reviled, slandered and insulted. In the end, the very world he came to save turned against him. Finally, they nailed him to the cross.
We know that. We’ve heard it for years. But there’s a deeper point here. Jesus had the power to stop people from hurting him and he chose not to use it. He didn’t have to take the abuse. He didn’t have to allow the mockery. As the song says, “He could have called ten thousand angels to destroy the world and set him free.” That was his prerogative. He was the Son of God. All the power of the universe was at his disposal. One word and a legion of angels would be dispatched to his aid.
But he chose not to do it. That’s how he loved the world. With total vulnerability. He loved the world so much he was willing to be killed for the world he loved. The Pharisees thought they had outwitted him, but they could do nothing without his willing consent.
He said, “Go ahead. Spit on me. Curse me. Mock me. Beat me. Kill me. Do what you wish. But I still love you. Nothing you can do can make me stop loving you.”
The Only Place Where Love Can’t Hurt You
That is the standard by which we are to love each other. We are to love each other enough that we are willing for our brothers and sisters to hurt us if necessary. What does it mean? In the body of Christ we are to have some friends gathered around us who are close enough to hurt us from time to time.
Does that sound like a shocking statement? It might seem that way. Nobody wants to be hurt by their friends. We all want to be surrounded by people who will make us feel better about ourselves. The very idea of having friends who will hurt us seems absurd. Friends don’t hurt each other. Friends build each other up.
But that’s not the whole story. If you want to live in a world where no one will ever hurt you, you picked the wrong planet on which to be born. You don’t even have the right solar system. You’re in the wrong galaxy. It doesn’t work that way.
Ponder carefully this sentence: The price of loving someone else is the willingness to let that other person hurt you. If you are not willing to be hurt, you will never know what true love is all about. Loving someone means making yourself vulnerable to deep pain and sorrow. That’s the price of love. If you won’t pay that price, you’ll never know what true love is all about.
No one ever said it better than C.S. Lewis:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable … The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers … of love is Hell. (The Four Loves, p. 169)
As long as you say, “I’ll let you come close, but I won’t let you hurt me,” you’ll never know what real love is all about. Love means opening yourself up to the possibility that someone else may hurt you deeply.
I make only one application, but it is crucial. In the body of Christ we ought to have the kind of relationships where we love each other so much that we are willing to be hurt if need be.
I admit it’s easier for me to say these things than it is to live them out on a daily basis. Theory is always easier than reality.
Our problem is simple: We don’t want to let people get closer because we fear that if people really get to know us, they won’t like us. Some of us have known so much rejection in life that we are frightened to death by the possibility of letting someone get close to us. What if they find out what we’re really like? What if they discover how horrible we really are? What if they learn all about our checkered past? What if … What if … What if … And so we go through life “What ifing” ourselves to death. And we never allow anyone to get close to us.
The Naked Truth
Most of us are petrified about the possibility of someone finding out what we’re really like without the mask, without the the costume, without our Sunday clothes on, without the mascara, without the Rolex and the $400 suit, without the fancy car, without all the trappings we throw around us. That thought frightens us to death.
We’re scared to death that if people find out what we’re really like, they won’t like us. So we keep everybody at arm’s length. We fill our lives with superficial relationships because it’s the safest way to play the game.
It’s always easier to say, “God knows all about my problems and that’s enough.” That’s also a very safe thing to say. As long as God knows, you’re safe because he’s not going to tell anybody. You can live any way you want as long as God is the only one who knows about your life. You can struggle with your problems forever, because if God alone knows, he’s not telling, so you are completely safe.
“No Deal. It Doesn’t Work That Way.”
Let me say it as plainly as I know how: You will never grow in the Christian life as long as you keep your brothers and sisters at arm’s length. As long as you keep people at a “safe” distance, you’ll stay just the way you are. That simple fact explains why some Christians go for years and years without growing. That explains why some people repeat the same dumb mistakes over and over again. That explains why some people struggle for years with problems that could have been overcome. They tried to go it alone, and God says, “No deal. It doesn’t work that way.”
As long as you keep your friends from getting close to you, you will live a stunted life spiritually. One major way you grow spiritually is by letting other people get close to you. It’s not the only way, but it’s one crucial part of the process. It’s so crucial that if you leave it out, there will be parts of your life that will always be underdeveloped.
Spiritual growth becomes possible when you let other people get close enough to you to say the things to you that you need to hear—whether you want to hear them or not.
Please understand one thing. I am not advocating that you become intimate friends with 500 other people. That’s not possible, or necessary. You don’t have the time or energy to be close to that many people. Most of the people you know won’t be your intimate friends, and that’s okay. But if you know 500 people and none of them know you intimately, then something is wrong somewhere.
The AA Way
In this series, I have often mentioned the work of Alcoholics Anonymous. I do it because I am an admirer of their program. And not only their program, but all the other 12-step programs that are helping men and women find freedom from debilitating addictions.
The 12-step programs work because they are essentially compatible with what the Bible says about human nature. Those programs stress personal responsibility, confessing your faults, making amends for your wrongs, and admitting that you can’t solve your problems by yourself. They teach that winning the victory over addic-tion is a day-by-day process that lasts for a lifetime. All those things are entirely biblical.
Nothing is more biblical than the notion that you can’t do it alone. You need the help of others to find your way out of the pit of addiction. You can get better. Thank God it is true. But you probably can’t get better by yourself. You need the help of other people.
Specifically, you need the help of God working through other people. That’s not humanism. It’s biblical Christianity. It’s not that God can’t reach you directly. He can. But most often he chooses to reach you through other people. Or, to put it another way, many times the only way we can hear the voice of God is when he speaks to us through other people.
We need each other in order to get better.
Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill
But we’d rather skip this whole part. We’d rather not admit we did anything wrong. It’s easier just to stonewall each other. You’re familiar with that term, aren’t you? It comes from the Watergate hearing where certain witnesses would simply refuse to answer questions or would refuse to admit they did anything wrong, no matter how slight.
That, I think, is the most tragic thing to come of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confrontation. No one dares to admit they might be wrong. On Friday, Senator DeConcini questioned Professor Hill at length and ended by saying, “So you blame him (Clarence Thomas) for all these problems?” “Yes, I do.” Then Clarence Thomas came back to deny flatly, categorically and unequivocally that he had ever said or done anything Anita Hill alleged against him.
Nobody dares to say, “Well, maybe I am exaggerating a little bit,” or “Perhaps my memory is fuzzy on that point,” or “It’s possible that I did make some off-color comments.” Nobody dares to say it. You can’t. The tiniest admission of weakness would be the ultimate expression of guilt. Nobody admits to anything. As a result, we’re not sure who is telling the truth.
She can’t dare to say, “Perhaps I am stretching the truth.” He can’t dare to say, “Perhaps I made a flippant, off-hand comment at some point.” Nobody dares to say anything like that. You can’t do that. That’s not the way the game is played. You’ve got to be strong. Admit nothing. That’s what stonewalling is all about.
That might be good politics, but it’s a lousy way to live your life. You end up denying everything, never admitting the possibility that you might have contributed to your own problems.
Two Contemporary Applications
There is much more that could be said on this subject. My brief words have only touched the tip of the iceberg. As a church, we need to investigate this whole area more thoroughly because there is more truth God wants us to discover. For the moment, let me offer two contemporary applications—one for our church corporately and one for each of us to consider personally.
1. This Teaches Us Something About What the Church is
Supposed to Be.
The truth about our deep need for friendship teaches us something about what God intends for Calvary Memorial Church. We are not supposed to be a museum for plaster saints, but a hospital for broken people.
Yesterday at the New Members Seminar someone asked me about my vision for this church. I gave them a long answer. Let me give the Reader’s Digest version to you.
My vision for this church is that God has called us to be a lighthouse for Jesus Christ throughout the near-western suburbs of the city of Chicago. When I look at our church, I see so much potential for the kingdom of God. We have resources other churches only dream about. God has placed so many wonderful people in our midst, people with great gifts and abilities, people who are able to dream great dreams for God.
I see us as one part of God’s plan to bring the gospel to this region. As we let our light shine in the prevailing moral darkness, men and women are going to be drawn to the light. In particular, I see broken people coming into the lighthouse in the years ahead. I see a whole army of hurting people coming to the light that shines forth from this place.
Single moms and single dads. People broken by abuse and addiction. Men and women whose marriages have failed. People with AIDS. People struggling to find answers for life.
My Dream for Calvary
My dream for this church is that when people come into this place they won’t just see a bunch of smiling plaster saints, but they will see real people, and they will feel at home. “You wanna be where you can see that troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everyone knows your name.”
My dream for this church doesn’t have that much to do with buildings or budgets or staff or programs or numbers. Those things are just tools to help you reach people with God’s love. Those things are means to an end, not an end in themselves.
My dream is to see this church become a lighthouse where broken people can come in and be mended. Where hurting people can come in and be healed. Where suffering people can come in and be comforted. Where people who’ve run aground on the shoals of sin can come in and find forgiveness through Jesus Christ.
Let me share two words that sum up what I want for this church. I want us to become a caring community. That’s very important. The church as a caring community. Not just an organization. Not just a business. Not just an institution. But a community of believers who truly and deeply care for one another. That’s my dream. That this church will become a place where brothers and sisters will say, “Come on in. You’re welcome here. There’s a place for you here at Calvary.”
But it won’t happen as long as we keep each other at arm’s length, and play church, and put up the deflector shields, and wear all our masks so that no one can ever get close to us.
In short, this church ought be a place where broken people can come in and meet other broken people and together all of us broken people can get on the journey with Jesus Christ. As we journey together with Jesus he can begin to put our lives back together again.
That’s what the gospel is all about! Jesus Christ takes broken people and he makes them whole. O God, give us that kind of church.
2. This Teaches Us Something About Our Desperate Need
I ran across this quote a few days ago by George Eliot. It admirably describes the nature of true friendship.
Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pour them all out just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.
any friends like that in your life? Do you have any friends to whom you can unburden your heart, knowing that they will not be shocked no matter what you say? Do you have anyone in your life with whom you can share the deepest secrets of your heart? Are you a friend like that to anyone else?
Do you have anyone in your life to whom you can spill the beans, the good with the bad, the ugly with the beautiful, knowing that you are completely safe because they will keep the good and forget about the bad? How blessed you are if the answer is yes; how lonely you must be if the answer is no.
Nobody Walked Away Clean
Jesus said, “You are those who stood by me in my trials.” Those words are very precious to me. They mean more than I can say. Those words have meant something to me in the last few years that they have never meant before.
I have learned through personal experience that your real friends are those who are with you in the time of trial.
It was not so many years ago that I found out who my friends really were. I was going through the hardest time of my life. It was a period of personal failure. The details don’t really matter, except to say that I came to a point where I had faced opposition and accusations for years on end. There were bitter words and misunderstanding and eventually a church split. In the end, everything was covered with mud. Nobody walked away clean. After that, there was exhaustion, depression, and the deepest discouragement I have ever known.
Not that I didn’t have people who loved me. I did. But in my discouragement I couldn’t see it or feel it. All of life was gray to me. I would get up and go to work under a cloud all day long. Days became weeks and weeks became months. Weariness overtook my soul. All joy was gone.
Toward the end I came to the conclusion that I needed to make a change for my own mental health. I couldn’t believe that I was doing myself, or my family, or my congregation any good. So I decided to make a change. Other pressures intervened to make that decision difficult.
As I look back on those days, all I can clearly remember is overwhelming weariness. At the end, I only knew one thing: I was never going to be a pastor again. Never would I put my family through such pressure. I felt so unworthy and so dirty from what I had been through. What church would ever want me?
We know that under pressure we often do and say things we deeply regret later. That happened to me. At a crucial point, I lost my temper and said some terrible things to some people who loved me. It was the angriest I had ever been in my life. All the terrible pressure of months suddenly came pouring out of my mouth. I said things I would be ashamed to repeat here.
I found myself not long after that at the bottom. More hurt than I have ever been. Angrier than I have ever been. Angry at them, angry at myself, angry at a long series of circumstances I could not control. Angry at God for letting this happen.
The Worst Pain
Unless that has happened to you, you can hardly understand what I am saying. There are many kinds of pain in life, but perhaps the worst is self-inflicted pain. When you look at yourself and wonder, “How could I have done that?” So many emotions flow through the mind. Anger, guilt, frustration, rage, humiliation, despera-tion, and most of all, fear. Fear that you have ruined your own life. Fear that you have no future. Fear for what people will say or think about you when they find out what you have done.
It is at a moment like that, that you find out who your friends are. When you are lying face down in the mud, and your sense of failure seems so great, you suddenly learn who really cares for you.
God sent a number of friends into my life to help me. One was Andy McQuitty. Andy had been my associate pastor for several years before leaving to go pastor a church in a neighboring town. We had become very close friends. He knew me better than anyone on earth besides Marlene. We had been through the battles together. We both had some scars to show for it.
When we met together, I told him what had happened. As I told him, I remember that my hands were still shaking with anger and fear. I told him in complete detail everything I had said. Then I told him that I knew I would never be a pastor again. I was shaking and I was crying as I poured out my story.
He looked at me and smiled. Then he said, “Ray, you’ll be a pastor again. Don’t worry about that. God is not finished with you yet. But there are some lessons he wants you to learn, and you can’t learn them any other way. When you’ve learned those lessons, you’ll be back in the pastorate. And you’ll be better than you ever were before.”
I didn’t believe him. Pure and simple, I didn’t believe him. But his were the first words of hope I heard when I was face down in the mud.
A Friend in Need
Over a period of about five months, every time we talked he said the same thing, “Don’t worry. God is taking care of you. You are going to be okay. God still has plans for your life.”
I hadn’t seen Andy since coming to Calvary a little over two years ago. Then he walked into the first service this morning and sat over by the organ. When I saw him, I started crying while we sang, “Children of the Heavenly Father” because I remembered what Andy had done for me. Nobody here at Calvary besides Marlene knows what he means to me.
After the service was over, I met him in the narthex, we embraced, and I started crying all over again. Then I put my arms around Marlene and Andy and hugged them both. I said, “There are two people in all the world who got me from where I was to where I am. And I’m hugging both of them right now.”
Do you have any friends like that in your life—friends who love you even when your face is down in the mud? Do you have anybody like that in your life? And are you like that for anybody else?
How are you fixed for friends?
It’s hard to be whole unless you’re going to let a few people get close enough to you that they can help you become a better person. I know the truth of this sermon from personal experience. I’ve been on the other side. I know what it’s like to feel so rotten that you think you are finished for life. And I know what it means to have a friend who picks you up and helps you get back in the race.
Together We Get Better
God is calling us to become less of an institution and more of a caring community. And he’s calling us as individuals to dare to open up to each other so that we can help each other get better—through the power of Jesus Christ.
That brings me back to my basic point: God never intended you to go through life all alone. He never intended that you would face your problems by yourself.
But there is hardly a problem we couldn’t solve if we decided to face our problems together. There is hardly a difficulty we couldn’t overcome if we decided to be honest with each other.
This is the hope of the church. That as Jesus works through you, he helps me. As Jesus works through me, he helps you. As Jesus works through each of us, he helps all of us as we help each other. Through that process the Lord Jesus helps us move beyond our brokenness into health and wholeness and holiness. In the end, as the Lord Jesus works through us to help each other, we individually are changed into his divine image.
That’s what the gospel is all about. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another.” It is the mark of the church—that we truly and deeply love each other.
A Place to Begin
There was a time when I would not have shared the things that have happened in my own life. It seemed too personal. And in truth, I don’t speak of them very often. But then, when the time seems right, I am glad to share how God used other people when I felt I had failed the Lord.
I have learned that you can’t get from where you are to where you want to be without somebody caring enough to help you get there. If you try to make the journey all alone, you probably won’t make it. It’s just too tough. But if you are willing to let someone get close enough to help you, they can help you make the journey.
But where should you begin? Let me suggest seven simple steps:
1. Take a Friendship Inventory of Your Life. Do you have any close friends right now? Are you letting people get close to you? Name your friends. Write them down one by one. Take an inventory and see where you stand.
2. Join an Adult Sunday School Class. Does that sound trite and simple? It shouldn’t. Adult Sunday School classes are a good place to begin. Join a class and begin to develop some relationships.
3. Get Involved in a Small Group. Right now we have between 20 and 30 small groups at Calvary. Many of them are looking for new people. All you need to do is call the church office for more information. It is the testimony of many people that they first learned to develop close friendships by sharing together in a small group setting.
4. Open Your Home to Others. Knock a hole in your cocoon. Start burrowing out instead of burrowing in. Nothing can quite take the place of inviting people into your own home. There is an intimacy about it that makes it easy to develop close friendships.
5. Make a Phone Call. This one isn’t hard at all. Perhaps you could begin by calling someone up this week and saying hello. Perhaps you could give them a word of encouragement.
6. Write a Note to a Friend. Too shy to use the phone? Fine. Write a note. Most of us don’t get enough personal mail anyway. You could go a long way toward building a friendship just by jotting down a few words and using a 29 cent stamp.
7. Hug somebody! If you absolutely don’t know what else to do, give a friend a hug. Sometimes a hug means more than a thousand words, a dozen letters or two dozen phone calls. A hug says “I care about you” in a very personal way. It might be the very thing that someone needs from you this week.
My point is simple, and also very obvious. There is something you can do that will make a difference in your own life. You don’t have to stay lonely. You don’t have to feel cut off from everyone else. You don’t have to go through life alone.
O God, help us to become people who deeply care for one another. May we love each other deeply and profoundly. May it be said of us, as it was said of the first Christians, “Behold, how they love one another.” May the lonely people all around us see our love, and so be drawn to the light of Christ. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.
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» SEE SERMONS IN THIS SERIES
Is It Becoming Easier to Say "I Was Wrong?" Luke 15:21
How Are You Fixed For Friends? John 3:33-34
Are You Living By Creative Risk? Matthew 4:22-32
Are You Excited About Your Future? John 8:1-11
Do People Feel Important Around You? John 13:1-17
Do You Have the Courage to be Happy? Matthew 5:3-12» Index for this sermon series