May 8th, Jesus as Friend, with Rev. Kally Elliott
A Part of the Series:
May 8th: Jesus as Friend, with Rev. Kally Elliott.
Shortly after moving to Long Island, I found myself standing in the elementary school playground, waiting for dismissal. I looked around at the circles of other parents standing there waiting for their kids. Most were women dressed in expensive workout clothing or fancy jeans, hairstyled, makeup carefully applied. And because it was Long Island, all of them had perfectly manicured nails. And yes, I could see them from a distance.
These women all stood in tight circles, speaking animatedly to one another. I stood alone, wondering how many years these women had already been friends, wondering how long it would take me to find a circle in which to stand. And then I spotted her big Orange Crocs on her feet, an old College sweatshirt, and mom jeans before they were in style, bushy hair that she had mostly swept into a ponytail, no makeup whatsoever. Standing alone, and I knew right away she was my person. I kind of side inched my way toward her so as not to look desperate, and as I got with an earshot, she struck up a conversation with me.
I was thrilled I no longer had to stand alone, which was good because I was quickly regressing to the insecure middle school version of myself.
Her name was Karen, and we became friends. Pretty good friends. We ended up having some significant things in common Besides preferring comfy pants and messy buns and knowing what it feels like to stand on the outside of a circle. Author Glenn Doyle writes about circles, and she writes, if you are standing with other women in a circle and there is a woman standing alone in your Circle’s vicinity, the thing to do is to notice her, smile at her, move over a bit and say Hi, come join us. Even if she decides not to join your circle, even if she looks at you like you are crazy, inviting her is still the thing to do.
This advice is for both your literal and figurative circles. Widen your circle. Leave space. Always leave space. Father Gregory Boyle talks about Circles of Compassion, where we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased.
We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless at the edges. We join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable, so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.
Father Gregory Boyle calls this kinship. Jesus calls it friendship. As he says goodbye to his disciples shortly before he is to be crucified, he leaves them with these words, this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends.
If you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer because the servant does not know what the master is doing. But I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father. You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit.
Fruit that will last so that the father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. Now, I’m sure you’ve heard of the good old boy network, right? It’s prevalent anywhere, but it works especially well in the south. Our family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, right after I graduated from seminary so that I could take a job as a pastor.
We figured my husband could find a job after we arrived. But as we quickly found out, Knoxville works on the who you know. Or better yet, the who your Daddy knows basis. Our parents, our daddies lived in California. They didn’t know anyone in Knoxville.
We were on our own. But the good old boy network is nothing new. It existed back in Jesus’time. In the ancient world, friendship was based on who you knew, to whom you owed debt, to whom you were obligated, with whom you were political allies. It was transactional.
You do something for me, and so we’re friends.
Jesus turns this notion on its head. No longer do I call you servants because the servant doesn’t know what the master is doing. But I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father. See, no longer do we stand outside the circle. Jesus opens that circle, creating space, inviting us in.
It’s not a good old boy network any longer. It’s mutual. It’s reciprocal. It’s sharing life together. It’s real friendship.
Civil rights activists Caesar Chavez once told a reporter who commented to him, wow, these farm workers sure love you. Shevas just shrugged and smiled and said, the feeling is mutual. And that’s the whole point. Jesus came to reveal the heart of God. Jesus calls us friends.
From the beginning, we were created for friendship with God and each other. In Genesis two, we hear the story of the story of creation, how friendship is in our very DNA. God reached into the dust, creating man, breathing into him the breath of life, and then reaching down and taking a rib from the man to create woman. Some interpretations of this story say that God created humans because God was lonely. I don’t know if that is true, if God was lonely.
But if Jesus reveals the Earth of God and Jesus calls us friends, it would make sense that God wanted some friends to be sure. God knew that man could not survive without woman. So there’s that. From the beginning, there was a sacred circle of three woman, man, God, and as Christians, we claim that God is one, but God is also three. It’s a concept that messes with my mind.
It’s the Trinity. God, Christ and Spirit three in one, God. In seminary, we were introduced to the idea of the Trinity existing in a circle instead of the usual hierarchical triangle where God the Father sits at the top. Instead, the three God Son, Holy Spirit were in a circle, even holding hands and dancing around. It’s a different image, one that is joyful and equal.
But there’s another image I like even more. It’s from a painting by Andre Rublev of three women sitting at a table with a meal in front of them, and you’ll notice they’re not sitting in a full circle. It’s more of a Horseshoe. They’ve left a space, and it’s almost like you are sitting at the table with them. Mother Christ, Spirit, Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
The circle of friendship is not complete without you, though. In her book Freeing Jesus, Diana Butler Bass tells us about two little boys, one named Connor and one named Christian. She writes, In August of 2019, at the beginning of the school year in the United States, a photo showing two little boys holding hands went viral. Connor, an autistic boy entering the second grade, was going to school alone for the first time. Although the bus trip went well.
When he arrived at the school, he froze with fear and started to cry. He hid in a corner, unable to walk into the building. Christian, another boy, saw Connor and went to comfort him. Then he took Connor by the hand and led him inside the building. He found me and held my hand, and I got happy tears, Connor later told a reporter when asked about Christian.
He was kind to me. I was in the first day of school and I started crying. Then he helped me and I was happy, Connor’s mother said. Christian is Connor’s first real friend, and Christian’s mother explained. They have an inseparable bond.
Diana Butler Bass continues. Like millions of others who saw the photograph and read the story, I felt for cleansed, unable to hold back tears of joy. I also laughed because who would believe it without a picture? A white boy named Connor huddled in a corner and a black boy named Christian Christian reaching out to help him. It was an updated American parable, a rewrite of Pilgrim’s promise for an age of racial anxiety and political division.
As I looked at the photograph, she wrote, it seemed an icon for these days, a Jesus tenderly leading a frightened boy toward a new world. This is friendship. The hand extended to you taking hold of that hand. You taking hold of that hand. The hand extended to you is the hand of Jesus.
Sure, it’s not the literal hand of Jesus, but it is Jesus hand, and it comes to us in many different ways, most often in the hand of another person, the hand extended to us in our time of need. Saint Teresa of Avala once said, God has no hands but yours. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which made me remember all the times I have experienced friendship, the friendship of Jesus through the extended hand of another person. I don’t remember talking about mental illness when I was growing up.
It wasn’t something that my family would discuss at the dinner table, and I definitely don’t remember hearing about it at Church. Mental illness was rarely on my radar, and a little bit I did know about it. It always happened to other people. It wasn’t until I was an adult, just as my husband and I were getting into the thick of child rearing with three young boys, that serious mental illness became a lived reality for my family. As the stress of new babies and financial needs and job pressures mounted, it became too much and my husband fell ill, resulting in a serious mental health crisis.
Trying to figure out what was going on with him. Frightened and wondering how to get help, any illusion of control I had was suddenly stripped away from me. The crisis drove us deep into chaos and shame. For the first time in my life, I remember praying for God to fix it and realizing that this might not be fixable. All of a sudden, serious mental illness became not just something that happens to other families and other people.
Mental illness became something that happened to my family. Mental illness became personal because of the stigma around mental illness, because I was full of shame. You mean we’re not the perfect family? I used to want to keep our crisis a secret, but that was impossible to do, and I’m so glad that it was because it was the extended hands of others that literally saved me and my family. It was the hands hugging and holding me.
It was the hands changing the diapers of my babies and holding on to their chubby and grubby hands as they took them to preschool. It was the hands cooking and bringing casseroles, warming them in my kitchen, pouring me a cool drink. It was the hands making phone calls and rubbing my back. It was the clasped hands of those fervently praying. It was the hands that held me up when I wanted to collapse.
And it was the hands of my husband, his hands that grasped for his very life and for our family, the hands that finally gripped health and life. Jesus said, you are my friends if you do as I command you. And His Commandments is to love, to love one another as he has loved us. God has no hands but yours. That friend of mine, Karen, the woman with the Orange Crocs who let me stand with her on the school playground, the one I told you about at the beginning.
We became pretty good friends and I said we became pretty good friends because we had some significant things in common. Well, her teenage daughter lives with mental illness and as she stood alone on the playground, she had just returned from committing her own daughter to the psych unit at the hospital. She was scared and had no one to talk to about it. She didn’t share that with me as we stood there on the playground. It was only after we had stood together several more times that we finally met for coffee and she shared with me about her daughter’s mental illness and how it was affecting her and her family.
But as she told me her story, I felt like once again a hand was being extended toward me. I decided to take her hand as I shared with her my own story. God has no hand but yours. How might we extend the hand of friendship to those experiencing mental health challenges? How might we grasp the hand of friendship when we are the ones who need a hand?
When Jesus extends the hand of friendship to his disciples and to us and when we reach and take his hand, everything changes the circle. Widens I have called you friends. Amen.