I went to college in Florence, Alabama—and like all college students every summer I’d pack up and go home. I’d always get my night auditor job at the Holiday Inn back and would work all summer to save money for the next year’s tuition.
I liked my summers. It was good to put away the books for a while. It was good to be with mom and dad and my siblings those three months—but finding a friend my age in our church was kind of hard. I mean, going from a college campus where you have tons of friends and tons of things to do together—to a place where kids my age were rare—well it was kind of a downer.
One summer—I think it was after my junior year—I crossed paths with a guy named Jeff Harris. I had known Jeff in High School. He had been led to faith in Jesus by a friend of mine and he went to my dad’s church—but I didn’t really know Jeff very well and when it came time for college we lost touch. Anyway, that summer we started “hanging out.” We had a lot of fun together and a friendship formed.
Speaking of fun—here’s an example of our adventures. One day Jeff decided to buy a car. He said he was tired of walking at his college and wanted to go back to school with wheels. The car he bought was past its prime—but it was still in good condition. In my day we referred to it as “an old lady car.” It was a big ford of some sort—I think it was built in the ‘50’s—and it had a steel body that pretty much made it invulnerable. It looked kind of like this. Now—Jeff’s car was not only heavy—it also had a huge engine. I think it was a 454 or something. Back then we didn’t worry about fuel efficiency because gas was only about fifty cents a gallon.
Well, one day, in order to help dispel with the “old lady car” image Jeff said he wanted to show me the power of the gas-guzzling engine that was under that steel hood. We were at a t-stop and were turning left—Jeff pushed the gas pedal all the way to the floor. All eight cylinders of that engine roared to life and tires started burning—and I felt myself pressed into the seat as it quickly gained speed.
But then Jeff discovered that whereas the engine was in good shape—the shocks were not. They couldn’t handle the turn at that rate of acceleration. The heavy steel-bodied car started rocking to the right. Jeff tried to regain control but in that instant he learned the steering had a lot of “play” in it. Anyway, for the next few seconds we went from one side of the road to the other—three or four times before Jeff had enough wherewithal to take his foot off the gas. Thankfully, there were no other cars on the road. When the car stopped and the color returned to our faces we laughed and laughed—but we never tried that again. We decided to treat his old lady car with a little more respect.
I could go on but it was a good summer—Jeff and I had a lot of fun. We challenged each other to grow spiritually—we prayed for each other—we chaperoned youth events at my dad’s church—and then when late August rolled around, we headed back to our respective schools. After that we lost touch. It was kind of like Jeff Harris dropped off the map. I mean, I’d ask mom how Jeff was doing—and she wouldn’t know. In fact, I didn’t hear from my friend again until about a year ago—when with the help of Facebook I found out what happened to him. Jeff married one of the summer missionaries who had come from Ohio to serve in Dover that summer. I remember her name was Gloria. She was a great Christian. Jeff and his new bride moved to Florence, Kentucky to be near her family. They set up housekeeping and he got a job at Sears while Gloria finished nursing school. Not too long after that Jeff felt called to the ministry of equipping believers. He went to seminary—probably about the same time Sue and I did. Today Jeff is pastoring a church down south. It was so good to dial his number and hear his familiar gravelly voice on the other end. Talk about a blast from the past! We had a great time catching up—e-mailing each other children’s pictures and grand-children’s pictures. Friends are a blessing aren’t they! How many of you have had—or have a friend whom God uses to bless your life?
Well, the sad truth is these days many people don’t. In fact, seventy percent of Americans say they have few if any close friends. Forty-three percent say they have only one person or no person they can confide in. Even in churches like ours some people kind of fall through the friendship crack and they feel alone.
Now, there are all kinds of reasons for a lack of friendship: longer working days, constant job relocation, technologies that isolate us—woundedness from childhood that cripples relational abilities—schedules that are too packed to allow time for friendships to grow—But the reason is not important—the truth I want us to grasp is that life is not good without friends. And it’s not just that the experience of life that’s diminished; we are diminished. We’re less than we could be without friends. We’re less than we were meant to be, because we were meant to be in relationships with people.
Do you remember God’s words in the beginning? Our Creator—our Designer—said, “It’s not good for a man to be alone,” and I don’t think God was just talking about marriage. I think He was pointing to the necessity of relationships with others. I say that because throughout His Word we see the importance of friendship emphasized. For example, Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 says, “Two are better than one. If one falls down, a friend can help him up, but pity the person who has no one to help them up” Jesus had a friend named Lazarus, and when Lazarus died Jesus wept. In John 15:15 He said to His first disciples, “I no longer call you servants—I call you friends.” Paul wrote to his friends in Thessalonica, “You are my glory and my joy.”
As I said last week, today we’re starting as series designed to help us be better friends. We’re calling it “Living Close.” In this series we’re going to look to God’s Word for friendship guidance—truth that will help us do a better job of living close—a better job of CONNECTING with each other. And when I say, “each other,” I’m referring primarily to Christian friendships.
Okay—here’s the plan. We’re going to shadow friends that we find in Scripture for friendship lessons. We’re beginning with a tale of two women: Naomi—and her daughter-in-law, Ruth.
We read about them in the book that bear’s Ruth’s name. Go ahead and turn there—to chapter 1.
Now—one of the remarkable things about this little book is that it’s written entirely from a woman’s point of view. In the first five verses, all the men are cleared from the stage as Naomi’s husband—and then her two sons, die. I can’t help but think of the movie Wonder Woman. Do you remember the opening scenes? The island of Themyscira is populated completely by women—Amazons. And the island runs perfectly. Without men there’s no war—no pollution—no hunger—no disease. Even the weather is perfect. It’s literally a paradise. In fact, in the comic version, I think the Island was called “Paradise Island.” I’m pretty sure the current feminist mindset had an influence on the movie script because in our culture many women would cheer a world without men—but in the ancient world, a woman without a man in her life was in desperate straits. I mean, Naomi must have felt helpless because there was no “social security system” — no life insurance. In those days a woman without a man was a woman without HOPE. She had no protection. She had no provision. She had no voice.
Let’s back up a bit. Naomi and her family lived in the time of the Judges. The Bible says this was a time when “every man did what was right in his eyes.” And the result was disaster—famine struck the promised land and Elimelech decided to move his family. To stay in the Promised Land meant they would risk starvation. Well, Elimilek and Ruth heard that the famine is not in Moab and that the ground there is very fertile, so they decide to relocate there—and we have to understand what that would have been like for them. Remember, the Promised Land was part of their identity as Jews. Each family had a piece of land designated to them that would be passed on from generation to generation. So, they wouldn’t just leave their piece of land for no reason. It’s part of who they were. It must have been absolutely desperate for them to pack up and move.
And Moab, the people of Moab were the descendants of Sodom which means it was a very pagan culture. Because of this, in Moab there was a lot of prejudice against the Israelites. After all, these people in Moab were the sworn enemies of God. So Elimelech and Naomi had to be at the end of their ropes to move there. It wasn’t an easy decision.
I think as they left Naomi thought, “Well, you know, I may have lost our home and my friends. But I’ve got my husband! He’s a good man and he takes care of us. And I’ve got my two boys. They’re healthy and strong. And, I’ve got my God. I’ve got my faith. So, with all this, I’m okay—even moving to Moab.” But when the get to Moab Elimelech gets sick and he doesn’t get better. He becomes weaker and weaker and eventually he dies. And here Naomi is, a single mom, a widow, in Moab, this hostile country, trying to raise two boys. It would not be unlike a citizen of today’s Israel living in Saudi Arabia. Well her sons grow up and fall in love with two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. And they get married and it seems like a great day! Two weddings, finally some good news for Naomi! But these two weddings are quickly followed by two funerals. There was no time for grandkids to be born. So, after losing her husband Naomi loses both of her sons.
She’s experiencing incredible GRIEF. Edgar Jackson defines GRIEF like this. He says: “Grief is a silent knifelike terror and sadness that comes a hundred times a day when you start to speak to someone that is no longer there. Grief is the emptiness that comes when you eat alone after eating with another for many years. Grief is teaching yourself to go to bed without saying ‘goodnight’ to the one who has died. Grief is the helpless wishing that things were different when you know they are not and they never will be again.”
I know that some of you know exactly what Jackson is describing. You know loss. You know disappointment. You’ve lost a spouse or a parent and have felt the “silent knifelike terror and sadness” of grief firsthand. You can empathize with Naomi. You know she was having a hard time. But—as I said, her experience was far worse than it would be for a woman in our day. This was a culture where a woman’s mission in life was to produce children, Naomi’s life’s work had just been wiped out. Her only real option was to return home to Bethlehem. Maybe some relatives would watch out for her. So, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to go back. They set out on the road that will take them back to Bethlehem. But on the way, Naomi stopped and told her daughters-in-law to go back, go home. They were still young. They could find someone else to marry. They could still make a life for themselves. It was a kind and courageous gesture on her part. And with tears in her eyes, one of the women, Orpah, took her up on it. She went back. But not the other one. Not Ruth. Ruth clung to her mother-in-law. And as she did she offered one of the most profound expressions of friendship found anywhere in all of literature. She said,
“Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from you. Where you go I will go. Where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God.” (1:16).
Naomi nodded a “yes” and there on that road those two women decided that they will make the journey of life together instead of alone. Wherever the road led, whatever was waiting for them, they would face it together. They would no longer be just mother and daughter-in-law bound together by marriage; they would be friends. And as we will see, out of that friendship God would shape their lives and lead them directly into His purposes. That’s a truth I want us to understand and embrace in this series. Christian friendships help turn the journey of life into a journey of faith. They help lead us to God and His purposes.
David Benner is a Christian psychologist. He’s written a wonderful book on this subject entitled Sacred Companions. He writes, “The essence of Christian spirituality is following Christ on a journey of personal transformation. The distant land to which we are called is not Heaven; it is the new creature into which Christ wishes to fashion us, the whole and a holy person that finds his or her uniqueness, identity, and calling in Christ.”
Well, Christian friends accompany each other on that journey. As they acknowledge their relationship with Jesus—He works in and through their friendship—works for their good and His glory. Friends experience Jesus’ promise in Matthew 18:20 where He said, “Where two or three are gathered in My name there I am in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).
Look again at the final verse in chapter 1, verse 22: “So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law.” Think of that word, “accompanied.”
When a soloist asks a pianist to accompany her, she’s not asking her just to bang out some notes on the piano while she sings. No, she wants her to play in tandem with her, so that the piano helps to carry the tune along, so it brings out the beauty of the song, so it heightens the impact of the song. In the same way, when you ask someone else to accompany you spiritually, you’re not just asking them to kind of tag along and stay in sight. You’re asking them to enter into life with you, to share the experience, to help carry you along, to bring out the beauty, to heighten the impact. So—Christian friendship is really a ministry—the “Ministry of Accompaniment.” That’s what we need to be able to do for each other. With that in mind, I want us to notice five characteristics of a healthy Christian friendship that we see in Ruth and Naomi.
NOTE: I am indebted to Brian Wilkerson for my outline.
(1) First, friends SHARE.
A healthy friendship between two Christians is not really like discipleship, where a more mature believer nurtures a newer believer. And, it’s not like mentoring, where an expert passes on wisdom to a protégé. It’s not like counseling, where one person offers advice to another. No—friendship is more reciprocal than those things. It’s a two-way street. Wisdom and strength flows back and forth. Friends relate to each other as peers, as fellow travelers, even if one of them happens to be older or wiser or stronger than the other. That’s the remarkable thing about this friendship between Ruth and Naomi. Naomi is older, and that’s a big deal in that culture. Naomi is the mother-in-law, which can be intimidating. Naomi is the Hebrew, one of God’s chosen people. I mean, Naomi holds all the clout in this relationship, and yet they relate to each other as peers. As you read through the book you see how they take turns initiating. They take turns being the strong one. They take turns offering wisdom and insight. When someone needs to provide food for the household, Ruth goes out to glean in the fields after the harvesters and picks up the barley that they left behind. And when she goes out and does that and finds kindness from a landowner named Boaz, it’s Naomi who helps her understand that Boaz is a relative of theirs—and explains how the customs work and encourages her to continue working in Boaz’s field. That’s how it goes throughout the story. They take turns. They share.
And, that’s what the ministry of accompanying is like. There’s a mutuality—a shared respect. If you’re in a relationship with someone and you’re always the one who makes the phone call, you’re always the one who asks the question, you’re always the one who listens carefully—you’re always the one who drives, you’re always the one who picks up the tab, after awhile it doesn’t feel like a friendship anymore. It feels like counseling or care-giving or babysitting. That’s not friendship—because friendship is reciprocal. It’s back and forth. You take turns being strong and being in front. And that same principle applies to the journey of faith. Christian friends share wisdom and strength with each other.
One thing we see Ruth and Naomi share—is grief. Remember they have both suffered a great loss—and one of the great benefits of friendship is to have someone who understands—someone to grieve with you. In fact, shared suffering can strengthen a friendship like nothing else. And again we see a back and forth here. When Naomi becomes bitter—we don’t see Ruth scolding her. Instead Ruth takes the lead role and goes out to glean. I think Ruth may have been grieving her husband’s death when Naomi pointed her to Boaz. In any case, one thing we see in the friendship of these two is this mutuality—this sharing.
Here’s a second friendship principle they show us.
(2) Friends are HONEST with each other.
Friends are able to tell each other what’s really going on. Friends are able to be their true selves—no pretending, no posturing, no fibbing, no image control. Friends—REAL friends—are HONEST. And let’s fact it—honesty can be a rare thing these days. This week I came across an excerpt from a book entitle, The Truth About Honesty, written by Dan Ariely. In it Ariely talks about our tendency to be dishonest when we’re in a tough spot. He writes, “Over the course of many years of teaching, I have noticed that there typically seems to be a rash of deaths among students’ relatives at the end of the semester. It happens mostly in the week before final exams and before papers are due.”
Guess which relative most often dies? Grandma. Continuing to quote the book: “[Another research study] has shown that grandmothers are ten times more likely to die before a midterm and nineteen times more likely to die before a final exam. Worse, grandmothers of students who are not doing well in class are at even higher risk. Students who are failing are fifty times more likely to lose Grandma than non-failing students. It turns out that the greatest predictor of mortality among senior citizens in our day ends up being their grandchildren’s GPAs. The moral of all this is, if you are a grandparent, do not let your grandchild go to college. It’ll kill you, especially if he or she is intellectually challenged.”
Funny—but there’s none of that with Naomi and Ruth as they go through an incredibly tough spot. Naomi honestly says, “I am too old to have another husband. It is more bitter for me than for you because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me.” I mean, poor Naomi is not in a good place right now. She is at the bottom of the bottom—but she feels free to be honest about that with Ruth.
Is there someone like that in your life? Is there someone to whom you can admit your failures and your fears and your disappointments and your hurts, even when they’re not flattering, even when they don’t sound Christian?
Later on in the book we read about how Ruth goes off each day to glean in the fields. She begins to develop a relationship with this landowner named Boaz. The Bible tells us that every night she tells Naomi what happened. And one day on Naomi’s advice, Ruth goes out and she asks Boaz if he might be willing to exercise his rite as a kinsman. He turns out to be a distant relative of the family, and he has the legal privilege of redeeming the land and rescuing the legacy of the family. And so, Ruth asks him to do that. With Naomi’s help she finds the courage to communicate her affection for him by uncovering his feet. To help you understand what happened on the threshing floor that night—it’s kind of the ancient equivalent of posting on e-Harmony. It’s like Ruth was saying to Boaz, “I’m available, in case you were wondering.”
Anyway, after that whole conversation, chapter two, verse 16 says: “When Ruth came to her mother-in-law, Naomi asked, ‘How did it go, my daughter?’ Then she told her everything Boaz had done for her.” Can’t you see the two of them leaning into the lamplight? I imagine that they talked like a couple of schoolgirls at a sleepover: “Tell me everything that happened. What did he say? And what did you say? How did he say it? How did YOU say what you said?”
That’s what friends do for each other. They are honest. They hold nothing back. Is there someone like that in your life, someone who will ask you, “How’s it going? I really want to know.” Is there someone in your life to whom you can tell everything, no matter how mundane it is or how personal it might be? We all need Christian friends like that. Friendship requires honesty.
That leads me to mention a third principle of friendship.
(3) Friends ACCEPT one another.
Acceptance means I’ll receive you where you are, as you are. There’s a lot of grace in friendship. It’s an undeserved deal—an “I’m your friend no matter what” deal.
As I said, Naomi wasn’t a happy person to be around. I mean, if you were looking for a traveling companion, would you choose someone who describes herself as a bitter old widow?
Imagine her Facebook profile. Status: widowed. Likes: none. Interests: being left alone. Friends: none. Naomi does everything she can to push people away from her. Her attitude was, “You don’t want to be around me. If you get too close you’re likely to get struck by lightning.” But Ruth accepts her anyway; she refuses to leave. In fact, she pledges never to leave.
Notice something else: Ruth doesn’t try to fix Naomi. She doesn’t try to cheer her up. She doesn’t say, “Come on, Naomi, you’re not so old.” She doesn’t try to correct her bad theology: “God is good, Naomi, all the time.” She just says, “Why don’t we walk together for a while and see where the road takes us.”
David Benner says that Christian friendship, “…is a place where others are accepted as they are for the sake of who they can become.” I like that. I mean, to be sure, Ruth didn’t want Naomi to stay bitter for the rest of her life, but it wasn’t her job to fix Naomi. It was just her job to create some space, some relational space in which God could work some healing.
Is there someone like that in your life, someone who accepts you right where you are right now?
Is there someone who wants the best for you but doesn’t try to force it on you? Is there someone who is your friend—even though you don’t agree on things?
Pastor Scott Sauls tells a story about an unnamed nursery worker who bumped into a first-time visitor named Janet who had dropped her two boys off in the nursery. Sauls writes: “After the service, while Janet was waiting in the nursery line to retrieve her boys, one of the nursery workers quietly approached her and said that there had been some issues. Both of her boys had picked fights with other children. Also, one of her boys had broken several of the toys that belonged to the church. In front of a room filled with other children and their parents, Janet scolded her boys and then screamed in a bellowing voice, ‘S—!’ Deeply ashamed and feeling like a failure, Janet got her boys and skulked out of the building. No doubt, we were never going to see her again. But that unnamed nursery volunteer called the church office that Monday and asked if I could check the visitor notebook to see if Janet had left her contact information. She had. I gave the nursery worker Janet’s address, and unbeknownst to me, she sent Janet a note. The note read something like this: ‘Dear Janet, I’m so glad that you and your boys visited our church. Oh, and about that little exchange when you picked them up from the nursery? Let’s just say that I found it so refreshing—that you would feel freedom to speak with an honest vocabulary like that in church. I am really drawn to honesty, and you are clearly an honest person. I hope we can become friends. Love, Unnamed Nursery Worker.’ The nursery worker and Janet did in fact become friends. Janet came back the next Sunday. And the Sunday after that. And the Sunday after that. She put her faith in Jesus and joined the church. Eventually, Janet became the nursery director for the church. Later on I would discover that when Janet started coming to our church she was a recovering heroin addict.”
That’s the transforming power of friendship! Here’s a fourth principle:
(4) Friends pay ATTENTION.
Attentiveness means focusing on the other person—their needs, their questions, their struggle, their mood—instead of focusing on your own. Attentiveness means listening to what the other person says without thinking about what you’re going to say next. Attentiveness means watching and listening for what God might be doing in another person’s life and circumstance. Ruth was attentive to Naomi’s need for companionship, and so she said, I’ll go back with you. Ruth was attentive to Naomi’s need for provision, so she said, I’ll go glean in the fields. Naomi was attentive to the fact that God had brought Boaz into their lives, and so she encouraged Ruth to pursue the relationship. Is there someone like that in your life, who pays attention to you and to what God might be doing around you?
And please understand—paying attention is hard work. To show you how hard—let me give you a test. PAY ATTENTION.
A bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
How many think the answer is 10 cents. Well, the thing about this puzzle is that it evokes this answer—an answer that is intuitive, appealing, and wrong. Do the math, and you’ll see. If the ball costs 10 cents, then the total cost will be $1.20 (10 cents for the ball and $1.10 for the bat), not $1.10. Remember the bat costs one dollar more. The correct answer is the ball cost 5 cents. The bat cost $1.05 which is one dollar more. If you got the puzzle wrong, don’t be discouraged.
I read this week that when given this puzzle half of students at Harvard, MIT, and Princeton gave the wrong answer. To get it right you have to slow down and pay attention. It takes concentration—and time. The same is true of this vital part of friendship. Paying attention takes time and effort. Here’s one more principle of friendship.
(5) Christian friends encourage each other to MATURE.
I know, that seems pretty obvious, but that’s what distinguishes this from all the other kinds of friendships. Christians help other Christians mature. Their faith in Jesus is a large part of their relationship. Ecclesiastes says, “Two are better than one, but a cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” That third person is God. And this is true in Ruth and Naomi’s friendship. Remember, Ruth has committed herself to the one true God. She’s left idol worship behind.
She ends up marrying Boaz—and having a son who would be the grandfather of King David. She’s part of the lineage of Jesus. And what about Naomi? Naomi, who was far from God and bitter in spirit, is restored to her relationship with God, little by little. In the final scene of the story, the once bitter Naomi is bouncing little Obed on her knee—a grandson. Her life’s work wasn’t a waste after all. Two women—widowed, childless, far from home, far from God—find their way to God and to each other and deep into the very purposes of God. That’s the journey of transformation, of friendship. DO you have a Christian friend like that—someone who spurs you on to love others—encourages you to be more like Jesus—helps you grow?
With Ruth and Naomi’s friendship in mind—how would you evaluate yourself as a friend? Are you accepting—honest? Do you pay attention? Do you encourage your friends to grow in Christlikeness? Do you share the load?