Gratitude for so Great a Cloud of Witnesses

FamilyBy Matt Sapp

Have you ever noticed how the right people end up in the right place at the right time in your life?  Every so often I stop to count my blessings, and one of God’s greatest blessings is each person God has put in my life.

According to the writer of Hebrews, we are surrounded by a heavenly cloud of witnesses who cheer us on in our race through life. I’m grateful to them and to God for their presence and influence in my life.

I’m grateful for the mentors among us.  I attended Founder’s Day at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology last week. While I was there I spoke with professors, pastors, and former bosses.   I talked to fellow church ministers, some who started their ministerial journeys with me and some who are further down the road.

All of them smiled, shook my hand, gave me a hug, and said something encouraging. These are people who in one way or another have invested themselves in me or are sharing in my experience.  Connecting with them encourages me.  Their kind words mean something to me. They fill me up, and I am grateful.

I’m grateful for the young people in our midst.  I went to Six Flags with students from Heritage recently.  Teenage enthusiasm is infectious. They are open and honest, and they haven’t quite learned to be cautious and closed off yet.

Young people trust the world and believe the best about people.  They still know that things will work out okay in the end.

We sometimes laugh when children are afraid of Santa Claus or monsters under the bed.   But adults build all kinds of imagined fears that box them in, too.  Teenagers, on the other hand, live in that magical, mystical middle, unencumbered by fear.

It’s refreshing. You can learn a lot by hanging out with teenagers.

I’m grateful for family.  That includes family I see in person or talk to on the phone or by text message.

My family includes close friends too.   One friend sent me a funny email when I needed a laugh.  Another sent a text message about a new rock band in Atlanta.  Each touch reminds me that there are people out there willing to share their lives with me, that I am not alone.

Even when we don’t feel particularly lonely or isolated, friendship is encouraging.  We are, all of us, gifts from God to one another.

I’m grateful to be among church family. One woman who’s been like a grandmother to me for 34 years came to church to see me last Sunday.  She lives in Acworth and had to make arrangements to be away from her Sunday School class.   Now in her 80s, she still teaches preschoolers every week.

I’ve known my current church family for less than a year now, but I know how lucky I am.  They choose each day to reflect the love and graciousness of Christ in their encouragement and affirmation of me, so I work each day to live up to and into the shared vision that we’re building together.

The people in our lives make a difference. Ultimately, it’s our relationships with others that determine the quality of our lives.

I’m incredibly lucky to have relationships that bring health and balance to my life.  I bet you have similar relationships in your life, too. Take some time to think about it.

I bet you’ll discover that you’ve got more people on your side than you ever imagined.  That’s what I’ve discovered. Here’s my advice: Treasure those people.  Be there to encourage and support them, too.  And thank God every day for them.

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Clergy as friends? An ongoing debate about friendships within a church

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Several months ago, an article by M. Craig Barnes in The Christian Century caused a stir when he asserted that it is impossible for pastors to befriend parishioners.  Letters to the editor followed and gave Barnes mixed reviews.

In the article, Barnes argued that pastors, set apart in ministry and called to lead the church, cannot maintain friendships in the church to which they are called.  Certainly, relationships are close-knit and pastors and parishioners share many experiences, but this is not to be mistaken for an intimate friendship.

A pastor still has a particular (and peculiar) calling in each parishioner’s life: to correct, disciple, nourish, guide.  A shepherd is effective by being shepherd, not by pretending to be one of the sheep.

Not so, says his critics.  Pastors are called to lead, but they are also called to befriend others in a posture of humility and service.  Pastors are not the professionals they once were, and pastors who try to wield their titles lose connections with others and, eventually, churches.  Did not Jesus tell his disciples that they were his “friends” (John 15:15)?  What makes ordained ministers so special?

In This Odd and Wondrous Calling, the Reverend Lillian Daniel understands this sentiment, but argues that pastors who befriend parishioners will find it impossible to snuff out the role of pastor entirely.  A pastor can try hard to drop the frock, lose the collar, toss the tie; but, at the end of the day, the pastor will always be one.

She recalls a situation in which a friend started attending her church.  Over time, she saw the relationship evolve, and she was too entrenched in being a pastor to be a friend at the same time.  As she tells it, “As pastor and parishioner we now had a relationship centered in a community, we would no longer just sit on the steps and talk about nothing.”

I, too, have found this to be my experience (and I have tried awfully hard to shake the “pastoral” role, trust me).  My nature is to be friendly with all parishioners.  I don’t hesitate to call any one of them friends, I give hugs freely, and I am certainly closer with some more than others because of similar interests and age.

My church expects me to define–and keep–boundaries appropriate for ministry.  They expect me to have my ear to the divine Voice that brings comfort and, at times, prophetic criticism.  After all, people have pastors for a reason.

Many a church pastor are going the way of Barnes’ critics and even refuse salaries so that boundaries with parishioners are less rigid.  Many pastors think that being too “professional” is a lonely, unsustainable road which costs one too many friendships.  Instead, they seek to be “relevant” to a generation that champions relationships over religion.

Yet, for many people who attend such churches, there is something missing in their spiritual walk.  In being friend, the pastor does not provide the much-needed role of shepherd for her community of faith.  Eventually, the community has trouble finding its way.

No doubt, Jesus called his disciples friends, but he is also ultimately the one who will judge all people upon his return to earth (John 5:25-30).  We can connect to Jesus in an intimate way, but eventually he will stand before us because he has a calling to fulfill too.  Pastors will always strive to balance the role of minister with friendship; and, for as long as they strive, there will always be a debate as to whether the two types of roles are compatible.  An odd and wondrous calling indeed.

Lack of friendships in economy only adds to isolation and depression

When we consider our economic downturn in the United States, we immediately think about lack of jobs and money.  As I talk to more people, however, I learn that the glaring casualty from America’s recession is a loss of friendships.

One might assume that the prevalence of online networks, such as Facebook or email, would increase friendships and support systems.  Just the opposite is occurring, and friendships seem to be in a recession too.  As a pastor, I hear of just how lonely some people really are in their life.

My own unprofessional research finds that loneliness stems from one of three reasons.

One reason is job loss.  When people get terminated from jobs, friendships are ruptured and dependable support systems fracture.  Many people move to find new work, and new employment brings them into environments in which other employees have little in common with them in the first place.  Underemployment dampens the energy and inspiration needed to find new friends.

A second reason is the demand of caregiving.  More parents and grandparents take care of children or grandchildren, thus isolating people in their homes and filling up already-too-busy schedules.  Add doctors appointments, careers, and the simple act of grocery shopping for ever-larger families, and the time for building deep, tried-and-true friendships becomes extinct.

Third, we live in an aging population.  Just look at the obituary section, and you get the feeling that more of our friends are passing away each day.  Many are our best friends.  Since we do not have time to do community-organized events or get established in a well-paying, predictable job, there is no way to make new friends when we have face such loss.

With the loss of friendships, we forget that making friends, as challenging as it is, is actually a spiritual discipline that’s as important as prayer or fasting.   The loneliest among us need a sense of community and spiritual support, and perhaps our yearning for friends is one of the ways God is calling us to befriend others.

Friendship was a part of Jesus’ call to discipleship in John 15, when he said, “This is my commandment: that you love one another…I have called you friends” (v. 12, 15b).  Elsewhere, Jesus modeled friendship as a way to rest and relax (Luke 10:38-42).  Friendship is not something to surrender, but a way of life to cultivate in order to make it one day at a time.

The notion of friendships has been around since the beginning of time.  In the earliest days of creation, God saw that it was not good for humans to be alone (Gen. 2:18).  Proverbs 27:9 states that “the sweetness of a friend is better than one’s own counsel.”  David lamented over the death of his friend, Jonathon, whom he loved more than any other (2 Sam. 1:26), and sought to befriend Saul’s family as a result.

In the early church, friendship continued to be an important spiritual discipline.  The earliest monasteries were founded in order to provide spiritual friendships in the midst of social upheaval.  Celtic Christianity saw friendship–or “anamcara”–as a necessity in growing closer to Christ.

Perhaps the key to building friendships is not necessarily wishing for more time in the day, but creating a discipline to make time in the day.  Unplug the computer and call a friend on the phone.  Write a hand-written letter instead of email.  Commit to share a meal with other like-minded families once a month. Schedule a vacation with a friend in your Dayplanner as you would a doctor’s appointment.  Break bread together and see friendship as another sacrament that fosters divine interactions.

You never know, your loneliness-inspired devotion to friendship might be the answer to another lonely person’s prayer.