Fellowship

anne and diana

I’ve always loved the story Anne of Green Gables. After watching the movie for the first time, I wanted to move to Prince Edward Island, wear lace and satin dresses with puffed sleeves, and travel through iridescent winter snow in a sleigh. For those of you that don’t know the story, Anne of Green Gables tells the tale of a little orphan girl who is adopted by an elderly brother and sister, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. Anne is dramatic, dreadfully obnoxious about the hatred she has for her own red hair, and absolutely endearing in her charm. Shortly after Anne moves in with the Cuthberts, Anne meets and becomes friends with her raven haired neighbor, Diana Barry. Anne, with her typical flair for words, proclaims Diana as her “bosom friend” and a “kindred spirit.” The two best friends live their childhoods and eventually adult lives together loving each other and encouraging each other in all circumstances.

Growing up, my kindred spirit was my brother. We did battle together as toddlers and in early childhood sharing traumatic experiences living in a children’s home and then later foster homes. Our scars bound us for life. As we grew, our relationship never faltered. Because Scott was my twin, we could do the spooky twin thing by thinking alike and finishing each other’s sentences. We had our own language and inside jokes. Scott would simply make a facial expression, and I would comprehend a reference he was making in just that one look. My response to these sly funny expressions was usually to bust a gut laughing. My poor confused parents were always asking in reaction to these giggling outbursts, “What are you laughing about now, Julie?” Try as they might, Mom and Dad never did comprehend our “twin speak”. Scott recently moved hundreds of miles away from home. However, we are still intimately connected often sharing similar thoughts, observations, and emotions at the same time regardless of the distance.

While fictional Anne and Diana and very real Scott and I have all enjoyed the benefits of having a bosom friend, I submit that there is a level of relationship even deeper than that of a kindred spirit: fellowship. Fellowship requires a spiritual bond among those who have been given God’s Name at their spiritual rebirth.

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”(John 3:5)

Children of God share the same Heavenly Father. We have a commonality that is difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it. I’m determined, however, to try.

During the summer after I graduated from college with a degree in education, I searched diligently for two things: a teaching job and a Christian friend. I hustled all over town dropping off resumes throughout the months of June and July. Many days as I drove to yet another school dressed in casual business attire, I prayed for a Christian friend. I was still wet behind the in this faith walk with Jesus, and I needed someone to council and walk with me. A week before the start of the 2003-2004 school year, I still had yet to find a job or a new friend. I was desperate.

In a last ditch effort to find employment, I got out a giant phone book, opened to the blue “government agencies” section, and started calling schools with names that began with the letter “A”. I asked over and over again as I moved down the list, “Do you have any openings in the social studies department?” Over and over again, I got a negative response. Finally, when I called a school named New Beginnings, the receptionist answered with a surprising, “Yes, we do. When are you able to come in for an interview?”

I interviewed the next day and knew intuitively before I got a call back that the job was mine. God had saved this position just for me. By the end of the week, the principal of New Beginnings showed me my new classroom, and I began painting the room a sunny yellow color in an attempt to make an inviting place for students. It was in this school working at my first “grown up” job that I met Lacheena, my first Christian friend.

Lacheena was the English teacher down the hall who also happened to serve as an associate pastor at a local church. Cheena was very open about her relationship with God. Not one to waste an opportunity, I pounced on the chance to learn. In fact, I probably drove her nuts with my wide eyed persistence those first few months. As our relationship blossomed from coworkers to friends, we began to spend more time together. She invited me to a Gospel concert where I delighted in exuberant African American style worship for the first time. Cheena and I began going out to lunch together almost daily. New Beginnings was located within blocks of “The Circle”, or the epicenter of Indianapolis. We hopped around downtown trying different cuisines and having great conversations. Every day at lunch that first year, Cheena would prompt me to pray when the food arrived by saying, “Bless the food Julie.” Always I declined because I was afraid that my simple prayer would sound silly or trite compared to Cheena’s eloquent prayers. Instead of judging me for my refusal, my friend would simply nod, thank Jesus for our meal, and proceed with lunch. One day, however, I bravely assented to praying before we ate. I prayed. Cheena cried.

Eventually, I began attending Lacheena’s church not caring that I was one of three white folks in the congregation. I brought my Bible to work daily as my faith grew, and we’d encourage each other with Scripture. We fasted together. I danced with her on the church’s praise dance team. My daughter Zoe and I went on vacation with Cheena, her son, and her nephew to Orlando. When I wrecked the rental car in a driveway after the trip to Florida, she hugged me and let me cry over my silly yet costly mistake. When I discovered something new in Scripture or in prayer, I called her. When I had a bad day, Cheena always listened to my plight. When I gave birth to Noah, she came to pray for my son. Simply put, we walked together for two years.

One day during this season of my life, my mother asked me over a cup of Chinese black tea why I liked Lacheena so much. I needed no time to answer this important question. I simply answered, “She’s real, Mom.”

Before I met Cheena, I wrongly thought that I had to be perfect to be a Believer. Growing up, I went to church every Sunday and saw folks dressed up in their Sunday best never recognizing that they were also wearing their Sunday masks. I wrongly thought that these church goers had it all together. As a little girl and then a teenager, I inwardly compared their imagined perfect lives to my messiness and knew I would and could never measure up.

Then came my friend Cheena. She wore no masks. She was open about her struggles, and testified to God’s grace and love. She found freedom in Christ, and because of the Lord’s goodness, Jesus used her to open my prison doors so that I too could live free. Her example crushed any doubt that God could love me for me, brokenness and all. It was only then that I was able to break out of religion and its mandates that bark out orders to “work” for a relationship with God. I exchanged this religious slavery for Jesus’s extravagant grace. Finally, I understood what this verse really meant:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Because of my friendship with Cheena, I was made better. A part of my soul was healed. God’s Word became flesh when Cheena’s life’s testimony displayed the truth of Ephesians 2:8-9.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)

Eventually job changes, a marriage, and Lacheena’s relocation to Kentucky caused a needed shift in our close friendship. These God directed changes would grow our faith even more. However, no matter the distance or time, we will always be eternal sisters.

The above (hopefully) demonstrates the fundamental difference between the world’s definition of friendship and God’s sanctified version that He calls fellowship. Friends love each other just as they are. Those in fellowship love each other just as they are, but they also spur each other on to do better. Fellowship builds up character, honor, justice, and love through brave transparency.

A few years down the road after drinking that cup of tea with my mother and trying to explain unexplainable fellowship, she and I signed up to take a women’s Bible study together. After the third or fourth session, mom exclaimed with childlike wonder, “These women, Julie! They are amazing!” I smiled and nodded knowingly in the passenger seat as we drove home. Mom saw perhaps for the first time in her life what true fellowship looked like throughout the course of the study. Fellowship is richer and fuller than anything worldly relationships have to offer.

Just yesterday as I was working on this post, my mother approached me at my desk at work to talk about what happened during her last Sunday’s church service. A man with a terminally ill spouse openly sought refuge in front of the congregation. He testified that he could not have imagined being anywhere else during such a difficult time. This grieving man was prayed for by his spiritual brothers and sisters and enveloped in tangible supporting love. Mom was moved to tears even a day later as she relayed all she had seen and heard.

“Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

A final illustration to bring the point home…

A few weeks ago, I texted my neighbor “Amy” to ask if she wanted to take a walk. If you have been reading my blog at all, you know that Amy is an outspoken atheist, humanist, Christopher Hitchens loving post-modernist. Although we obviously have differing worldviews, I love her dearly and pray for her almost daily. It is a strange friendship, but one that I cherish. Anyway, she agreed walk with me. Actually, Amy gracefully glided down the path (the girl does triathlons for fun) while I huffed and puffed to try to keep up with what she probably thought was a painfully slow pace. As we walked, she talked about work relationships, and I chatted about a project that was occupying the majority of my time. At some point, the topic of conversation moved to friendship. Amy loves her girlfriends and cherishes girl time. Although she has been married for five years, she still cultivates these important friendships and makes them a priority. In fact, she declared, “If (my husband) were to ever do me wrong, I would run to my girls. They will always be there for me.” As I was silently pondering the implications of this philosophy, she observed the wheels turning in my brain. When I continued to say nothing in response, she prompted, “Wouldn’t you go to your girls too?” I answered with a simple “yeah” because it’s true. I would go to my girlfriends for support. However, what I did not say was that my friends would advise me so differently in her hypothetical circumstance that I found it difficult to equate the two. For example, if our spouses “did us wrong”,

Amy’s friends would say, “We’re here for you. We love you.”

My friends would say, “We love you, but Christ loves you more.”

Amy’s friends would say (especially if the issue were infidelity), “Forget about him. He doesn’t deserve you anyway.”

My friends would say, “While Christ does allow divorce when your partner has been unfaithful, He also asks us to pursue reconciliation. Those who have been forgiven much are asked to forgive. 70X7! (Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times? Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Matthew 18:22)

Amy’s friends would comfort her with a night out and maybe even buy her a cocktail. They might even have a few choice words for her husband.

My friends would pray with me and for me. They would also pray for Jason. They would love him too.

In addition to our very different views of friendship, I was also quietly concluding as I walked that Amy and I have very different views on marriage. She hangs on to her autonomy, while I ask God to unite Jason and I. I believe that Amy’s friends and her own very modern independence, whether she is consciously aware of it are not, are her backup plan just in case her marriage fails. With God’s grace and teaching, I have surrendered all backup plans in favor of Jesus’s plan for marriage that makes two become one flesh.

The crux of the friendship v. fellowship matter is this: worldly friends counsel us to do whatever makes us happy. “Follow your heart” is the supportive friend’s motto. In contrast, Godly friends counsel us to strive to be more like Jesus. This usually means the denial of self, the suppressing of thorny emotions that can easily tangle us up, and loving the way God loves through the power of the Spirit. Finally, fellowship is most beautiful because all who share in it and break bread in Jesus’s Name know that our relationships will never fade away. We all will be together in paradise one day.

The Apostle John said to his readers, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3)

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