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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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Friendship on the frontline | Creating space for lament, gratitude, and play

Jesus was famously called ‘a friend of sinners’ (Luke 7:34). He crossed every social divide. But today, many of us don’t have any close friends, be that inside the church, in our workplaces, or on our streets.

So, how do we practise friendship well, like Jesus and the early church did, as a witness to our lonely and fragmented world?

That’s the question this blog series explores. Over four articles, our contributors – Sheridan Voysey, Chloe Lynch, Corin Pilling, and Phil Knox – will have a conversation, responding to each other’s reflections as they ‘triple listen’ to wisdom from the Word of God, the world, and one another. The goal? To help our friendships flourish as whole-life disciples, wherever we are, whoever we are, and whatever we do.

The series also accompanies our Wisdom Lab: Friendship on the Frontline event, at which each of the authors will deliver a TED-style talk and bring together evidence-based insights and theological wisdom, making space for honest dialogue to inspire us to practise friendship in a more fruitful way.

In our first blog post, Sheridan Voysey helped us listen to our culture through Zara and Jez’s stories, so we can understand why deep friendships are so hard to sustain. In our second blog post, Chloe Lynch explored the centrality of friendship in the Scriptures and God’s mission in the world, helping us imagine what should be going on for Zara and Jez. In this third blog post, Corin Pilling – UK Director of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries – casts a vision to create a healing response rooted in spiritual practices of friendship with God and bearing fruit in forming communities of care in everyday life. Our final instalment will help us think about how to communicate the good news as a whole-life witness.

Our task, in response to Sheridan’s and Chloe’s articles, is to consider what inward change is needed for Zara and Jez to be Christlike friends on their frontline. And how might they seek outward healing action that makes for these transformational and authentic friendships?

Creating change: what is the story we are telling ourselves?

I’m certain many of us will resonate with Zara’s and Jez’s quest for something more. When we reflect on friendships, our needs intertwine with our gifts; and in finding ourselves part of the bigger picture of God’s work and initiative, we can be fragile and strong, both gift givers and receivers.

Trust and mutual relationship

In focusing on spiritual practices, Chloe’s reflection on Jesus’ relationship with the Father provides a helpful steer:

‘By relating to God in loving trust, Jesus did on our behalf what we could not: he reciprocated the friendship God was offering to humanity, with the result that we could now share in his friendship with God.’

In turn, this reminds us that relational richness is the fruit of the kingdom of God, revealed most fully in Jesus.

When we think of the nature of the kingdom of God, many elements contribute to wellbeing, harmony, and abundance. The New Testament concept of makarios adds further nuance. Translated as ‘blessed’ in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3–12), makarios might be better understood as flourishing: ‘Flourishing are the poor in Spirit as theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’

In this manifesto, Jesus calls us to co-create lives of flourishing. This moves the idea of ‘being blessed’ from something passive, to an active force bringing change in our relationships and institutions.

In western society, we operate in a highly individualistic and choice-driven context. Anybody whose freedoms are restricted will know autonomy should not be taken for granted. There’s a flipside, too. With greater mobility, our lack of closer family connections can result in us feeling atomised and disconnected. We carry a burden of responsibility for our own happiness, and an increased pressure on our relationships to meet more of our needs. Civic and family responsibilities can be more difficult to meet as we struggle to balance our schedules with adequate rest.

This vision of the kingdom of God, as lived by Jesus, offers a greater picture of mutual relationship than many experience. As followers of Jesus, we are invited to co-create a place for mutual flourishing. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, ‘None of us can be made whole ‘til we are made whole together.’[1] An aspect of co-creating flourishing relationships in our world is mirroring God’s shared friendship with us; we give, and we receive.

Jesus shows us a relationship with God that’s mutual and in which we’re invited to be kingdom co- workers (1 Corinthians 3:9). ‘We know our father’s business’ (Luke 2:49). This has profound implications. Even in situations where the pain of loneliness is palpable, friendship is kingdom work in which we’re not alone – it’s part of our calling. This offers a moment of reorientation. The Spirit goes before them and with them. The burden is not on their shoulders alone. They are invited to bring all that they have and are to the living God.

Prayerful responses to two different challenges

Zara and Jez find themselves at opposite ends of societal perceptions with their respective situations. Our society stigmatises loneliness on the one hand and rewards hyper-productivity on the other. We will spend more time unpacking Zara’s situation as she faces some significant challenges that require sensitive handling. I’ll explore how, in both cases, spiritual practices might help discern the right course of action. But only if we locate solo spiritual disciplines within a community of care, journeying together as friends of God.

Zara

For those seeking to be proactive on their frontline, identifying the part our emotions play is important so we can show up authentically. It’s entirely possible Zara views her situation without experiencing any of the stigma I’ve mentioned. For some of us, this might not be the case. Stigma might tell us not merely that ‘I am experiencing a problem’, but that ‘I am the problem’. At times like this, calling on trusted and empathetic counsel is needed.

I find the distinction between loneliness and isolation helpful: loneliness is a subjective experience, while isolation is objective. According to Age UK:

‘Loneliness is a subjective feeling about the gap between a person’s desired levels of social contact and their actual level of social contact. It refers to the perceived quality of the person’s relationships. Loneliness is never desired and lessening these feelings can take a long time.’

Of course, age is no predictor of loneliness. During the pandemic, the highest grouping reporting loneliness were older teens and young adults. In a world with so much choice and agency at our fingertips, our society might have us believe we are primarily at fault for being lonely, and entirely responsible for fixing this. Yet our resources and networks will change throughout our life cycle, as will our ability to access them.

Being wired for relationships means the pursuit of friendship also brings vulnerability.

John O’Donohue offers this insight:

‘Mostly, we do not need to make an issue of belonging; when we belong, we take it for granted. Merely to be excluded or to sense rejection hurts. When we become isolated, we are prone to being damaged; our minds lose their flexibility and natural kindness. We become vulnerable to fear and negativity… Our hunger to belong is the longing to bridge the gulf that exists between isolation and intimacy.’ [2]

In some traditions and cultures, obtaining mastery over one’s emotions is valued. For some of us, this might lead to suppression and desensitisation. Yet acknowledging that loneliness is common and a normal experience is key to showing up authentically. I’d suggest Zara allows herself to explore the range of emotions she’s experiencing in the safety of our loving God’s presence.

Exploring psalms of lament: healing action from God to us

The Psalms offer a way for us to experience lament and celebration. Theologian John Swinton tells us, ‘They remind us that God wants us to be honest about our suffering and give us language to articulate difficult experiences.’[3] As a first step, Zara might have a psalm she feels drawn to which mirrors what she wants to express at this time.

Collectively, we are still recovering from the pandemic. We may feel our difficulties are minor, but deprivations from our norm can be wearing over time. Ongoing low mood might indicate depression and require further support. If this is Zara’s experience, she might find it helpful to access The Sanctuary Course, a free resource to help explore mental health from a Christian perspective, and seek to work through this material with a group. This, or other resources, might assist her to understand her experience further, alongside professional help.

Returning to lament in the psalms, the affirmation of God’s presence in the dark times is one gift. For instance, Psalm 42 reads: ‘I cry to you, Lord; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”’ Enduring difficult emotions can be exhausting, as anybody experiencing ongoing depression will attest. Equally, psalms of praise can bring perspective and levity as we remember what we’ve been gifted with.

Practically, Zara might want to try writing her own psalm, based on the pattern of one she’s drawn to, exploring her situation as she sees it, with the invitation to greater hope. Next, she might offer this as a practice to lead others in – either in a church service or in an evening which focuses on the importance of corporate lament. Lament may not always be personal – it can involve the losses and griefs of the world we’re in, and this can invite a sense of deep connection with God and others.

Zara also needs wisdom to respond to her church situation. To stay, go, or initiate change? If she feels there’s potential for change, she might approach a leader to explore some ideas to help the community connect. Could Zara initiate a speed-friending event? In this, half the group is seated whilst the other rotates. Each gets to ask three questions, whether light or more searching. This can quickly create common ground and bonds to build a stronger connection. With an eye to their frontlines, they could then discuss, ‘What are the ways we can be more faithful in our friendship with those outside the church?’.

Moving to the frontline

As we continue to explore friendship on the frontline, let’s return to Sheridan’s definition of a friend as ‘someone I can talk to, depend on, grow with, and enjoy’, which requires vulnerability and consistency. As theologian Sam Wells notes, ‘We need to receive the mercy of others.’[4] Now, to achieve a friendship like this involves investment. Before friendship comes connections.

So, I would ask Zara to explore this question: What do I love? What do I like doing and experiencing? What do I enjoy in making and doing, or exploring, and what do I care about? How might I share that with others? If her contacts are sparse, Zara may need to get into some meet-up groups, like community classes, to build a frontline, which will take time.

Can Zara involve others in this conversation? How might a mixed group of people – those of faith and not – engage with this, including people in her workplace? Pooling talent and solutions brings energy. If Zara likes to cook, she could gather potential friends around the dinner table to explore the issue: ‘With the pandemic over, how do we grow friendship and connections?’. Meals offer spaces which are often generative. The group could start with looking at strengths and assets first: ‘Where does good connection and friendship already happen?’. Positive energy in a room means a greater capacity to tackle the problem: ‘How can we build better connections?’. The idea of ‘all in this together’ could make a life-giving space for this mixed group.

Jez

Jez’s situation is relatable to many of us. As a parent, business owner, and spouse he has thin margins. I wonder if he reflected on his friendship with Daniel through the concept of ‘mutual flourishing’, where that might lead him?

For Jez to live authentically, it’s important his friend knows and understands his faith. Jez might consider who else with shared faith can connect with them both. In addition to widening the circle with Daniel, Jez might benefit from a practice that’s the flipside of lament.

Giving thanks

There’s lots of evidence that gratitude practices work, in terms of boosting mood and positive wellbeing. They also offer a sign we’re wired to be grateful to our creator, and they’re useful for many who don’t share this belief.

Jez could initiate a shared gratitude practice with Daniel. This might start with Jez messaging Daniel with things he’s most grateful for and finds enjoyment in. Whether Daniel sees the hand of a creator, or not, Jez has offered something to open up deeper connection and a better conversation, framed around mutual flourishing. In turn, they expand the common ground on which friendship can be built.

Exploring play and community

So far we’ve explored bespoke spiritual practices –  lament and gratitude – that create change inwardly toward being a person who can sustain faithful friendships on their missional frontline. But what about external change? What kind of ‘healing action’ would make for fruitful relationships with those who don’t follow Jesus?

It’s easy to be all too serious about living out our faith in these challenging post-Christendom times. But I suspect Zara and Jez might benefit most from keeping it light by cultivating a sense of play. For some, a legacy of the pandemic is a survival mentality. During lockdowns, we were forced to focus on daily needs. We can forget what spontaneous and joyful moments can feel like when displaced by survival strategies.

When we play, we can find something God-given. Riffing off Jurgen Moltmann, Pete Scazzero tells us,

‘Play is not time out from work, and it is not rest time either. It is kingdom foreshadowing. It is a momentary escape into the future reality that God intended for us all. May God give us grace to resist our western culture’s overemphasis on work and play more for Him.’[5] 

So, if play is experienced in moments of spontaneity and joy, where does that show up?

  • I find this question sparks thoughts about play: ‘As a child, what activity would I be so immersed in that I would always be interrupted to do?’
  • Creative activities that are not focused on competency tend to be playful. In the depths of the pandemic, I made a commitment to doodling – it was freeing and fun.
  • Music where we are more focused on playing, rather than excellence, can offer a playful space.
  • Play in the workplace. An inspirational friend of mine declared Friday lunchtimes ‘hide-and-seek’ times; these proved a total tonic. This might seem ‘out there’, but perhaps there are ways Zara and Jez could offer light moments in their workplaces. Being playful means taking risks.

Play is an aspect of makarios. To flourish we need help to get ‘out of our heads’ and into our God-given bodies. Community choirs, for instance, were ubiquitous pre-pandemic, delivering a wonderful experience of connection. Re-creating these shared places to play is a fruitful way to practice friendship on our diverse frontlines.

There are co-creative possibilities in play. My favourite moment of play each year is ‘The Clapton Olympics’. One day in July I gather with this diverse community in a park in East London to play outdoor games –  the sillier the better! It’s multi-generational, and entirely fun.

How might there be play in Zara’s and Jez’s lives, and which situations, people, or activities offer this? How might Jez and Zara initiate as a colleague and a boss?

Community initiatives

Jez and Zara might also consider building community and friendship with people unlike them. A great example is Renew Wellbeing Cafés, where a group meets to share wellbeing activities, with an optional spiritual practice to try together. This becomes an accessible way to build frontline friendships, tapping into God’s delight in every person, even those quite different from us whom we wouldn’t naturally connect with.

Once a week at St George’s, Tufnell Park, my vicar and her household run an open house, where all are welcomed for a shared meal. Those who come experience gifts of companionship, giving, and sharing. Play is evident as each evening ends with a reading from Winnie the Pooh! The fruit of this is real relationships, though our backgrounds and life stories are widely different. And, in a group that experiences mutual flourishing, a place is created to love and be loved in return.

What might this look like in your particular context, where God has called you to invest in friendships with those beyond your community of faith? Is there a community initiative that Christ – the truest of all friends – would have you create, as you follow him in everyday life?

So, we end with these ideas that might spark more whole-hearted living and a renewed vision for an integrated gospel in their lives, worth communicating with their friends. But more on that in the final post of this series…

 

Corin Pilling
UK Director, Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries


Discussion questions
  1. How do we respond to the idea of friendship as a kingdom activity, with us as co-creators?
  2. How does it feel to understand ourselves as both givers and receivers in friendship when it comes to our intentions?
  3. What are those spontaneous and joyful moments for you? What difference might play make to your frontline friendships?
  4. Considering the practices named here, do any resonate as something you’d use?
  • Using the Psalms to explore your emotions, or experiences of loss, and writing your own
  • Trying a regular gratitude practice, for your own sense of wellbeing and connection to God, or to open up conversations
  • Asking a friend to reflect on when they see you most playful, thinking about a journal activity to explore this further, and giving more time to life-giving play
Helpful resources

Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong, by John O’Donohue (Bantam Books, 1998): a poetic exploration of our fundamental desire to belong, which constantly draws us towards new possibilities of friendship.

Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier,’ from Harvard Health (2021): a compilation of research findings on gratitude as a practice, with practical tips on ways to cultivate gratitude.

The Gratitude Initiative, led by Girma Bishaw: research and practices from a Christian perspective to encourage friendship and altruism.

A Theology of Play, by Jurgen Moltmann (Harper & Row, 1972): an intriguing exploration and call for a paradigm shift – from work to play, from necessity and outcome to freedom and spontaneity, from adult notions of purpose and goal to childlike enjoyment of God for God’s own sake, and from law to gospel. In short, it invites us to wonder the difference it would make if friendship and playful enjoyment were at the centre of our relationship with God and each other.

How Do Loneliness and Social Isolation Differ,’ by Age UK: a brief guide with public health information for the elderly, exploring the interaction of loneliness and isolation.

 

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 147.

[2] John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong (London: Bantam Books, 1998), xvi.

[3] John Swinton, interviewed by Joy Clarkson, ‘Inheriting Mental Illness,’ Plough (December 14, 2022).

[4] Sam Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto: Being With God (Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), as reviewed and summarised by Andy Goodliff here.

[5] This quote is Pete Scazzero summarising Jurgen Moltmann’s thought in A Theology of Play (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), in his Emotionally Healthy Spirituality blog here (March 27, 2013).

 

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