In reviewing the year that has just ended – a practice I find more helpful than making Resolutions for the year ahead – I find that, as usual, any good I have been able to do, and most new thoughts and insights have come from friends.
“What a Friend we have in Jesus” is a rousing old hymn, with the best advice: “Take it to the Lord in prayer”. But I cannot claim to be a friend of the Lord of eternity unless I am a friend to his brothers and sisters here and now.
So I have gone through last year’s diary, giving thanks for my friends. The wonderful thing is that I have had visits here in Philadelphia from friends from almost every part of my life and every place I have lived: friends from my two childhood towns, Hawick and Galashiels in the Scottish Borders; friends I made at Keble College, Oxford and my seminary, Cuddesdon College; from Edinburgh and my parish of St Michael & All Saints; from Inverness; from London, Gibraltar, Sweden and Italy from my various parishes and ministries in the Diocese in Europe.
Faithful friends are essential especially for those of us who are unmarried, but they are just as much needed by married couples. There is nothing sadder for me than to minister to a widow or widower who tells me that he or she loved their partner so much that they were everything to each other, and now that the partner has died, they have no friends at all. The mutual love of two people bound together in marriage is a lovely thing, but if one’s spouse is not also one’s best friend, something vital is missing from the relationship, and if one’s spouse is one’s only friend, there is a deep unbalance.
When Jesus was asked about a pretty ludicrous marriage problem (a new film, maybe? “Seven Husbands, One Bride”) he said that in heaven there will be no marriage or giving in marriage. I used to think this a little hard on married people who were consoled at the death of their partner by the faith that they would be reunited in the world to come. But then I grasped the fact that until quite recently – and certainly in our Lord’s day – marriage was a transaction between two men, the bridegroom and the father of the bride. The bride’s wishes often played no part in the deal.
So I understand this saying of Jesus to mean that in heaven there will be no need for marriage, since he also said: “I no longer call you servants, but I call you friends”. All of us will be transformed into friends of God and will live in the dynamism of his love. This will not diminish any of our earthly loves and friendships, but will purify them of any selfishness and deepen them immeasurably.
And of course Heaven is not just for after death: it can begin now – but only if we have good friends. So I hope 2010 brings along a whole bunch of new ones!