I don't remember how it started... some defining moments are also memorable; that first date, your wedding vows, graduation, your baby's first cry... others are more fuzzy. Sometimes you don't realize how important something is or will prove to be until years later, and by then the details may have blurred. That's how this was. Hold that thought.
Shift now to me coming back from Canada a second time. It'd been 5 months since my last visit, and this time it's been a much easier homecoming. There are 2 main reasons for that. The first is that God is faithful. He provided this second chance to visit out of the clear blue; completely unexpectedly. I've seen Him so graciously let me be reunited with my dear friends yet again, and I have every reason to believe that He'll do it again, in His kind providence. He loves it when "brothers dwell together in unity!" The other reason that it was easier is that my friendships, rooted in that Faithfulness, are stronger, both "here" and "there." Since leaving that first time and leaving now I've remembered the nature of intentional friendships-- in Biblical terms you might say I remembered the sweetness of covenant faithfulness. God's love for His people is honest, forever, always, no-matter-what, never-giving-up, forgiving, deep, and full of laughter. It loves as-is and it transforms. It's amazing. And people who are loved like that start to, are called to, love others like that. When people start loving each other like that, it's totally super-natural, and amazing. As we all know, natural friendships just don't always last.
In God's mercy, I have had the privilege of having experienced covenantal love, extended to me by a hand with human skin on it-- more than once, actually, now that I'm married. But before I met Ryan, and before we ever uttered a public covenant to love each other permanantly, I met Chris & Val Powell. I'd just finished my freshman year of college, and was living back at home. I remember my sister Nicole & I chatting it up with Chris, actually-- this new Canadian who'd come down for seminary. He had a wife, but we hadn't met her yet. She was a physical therapist who commuted to work up in NC (about 45 min. from Greenville, SC). Being a future pastor & his wife, I guess they decided to practice some student ministry on us, =D, and Nicole & I ended up over at their place to watch Anne of Green Gables and have supper. I don't really remember meeting Val, and I only vaguely remember that supper. We laughed a lot, but then I usually do if I can help it, especially when my sister is around. At some point after that meal I started thinking about that commute Val had to make every day, and had the idea to call this new person in our church to keep her company on that drive. I'm sure those first phone conversations were short and somewhat forced; I mean, we didn't know each other at all... I am amazed at my own gall looking back on it, to be honest-- but somewhere along the line, we became friends. And then really really good friends. And then best friends. And it was like anything is when it's fresh and new, be it a hobby, relationship, or setting-- it was fun, easy, exciting, and full of potential. Lots of laughter and ridiculous inside jokes; long phone calls, random packages in the mail... But we'd had good friends before, and lots of surface friends too. Neither of us was naive enough to think that a friendship like ours would automatically grow or even just last. We all have had friendships that withered through hurt feelings or waning interest. So, and finally, here I am back to my opening paragraph: we made a covenant.
I don't really remember it, honestly. Maybe Val does. It wasn't solemn or ceremonious. There were definitely no slain animals involved... not even a certificate or a handshake. But we promised, to one another and before God, that we would never let sin cause a rift in our relationship. If distance or time caused our friendship to fade, so be it, but never sin-- instead, we would confess, confront, and forgive. On one level, that should be every Christian friendship, right? But it isn't... and so we promised. And that promise has changed my life quite deeply.
Over the years, we have by God's grace kept that promise, and it's been amazing. Tim Keller says Christian friends should extend "befriending grace-- they always let you in, and never let you down," just like Jesus. 'Befriending grace' is always seeking to build others up, to make them closer to that blueprint the Spirit has of them... grace that seeks with every word spoken or deed done to help others along towards the glory they will one Day be as we both finally gaze unveiled at The Glory. That's what my friendship with "my Valerie" has been, of course imperfectly. We sin and we hurt each other sometimes, but there's freedom to be ourselves, and to be loved & treasured amidst even sin or failure. There's someone whose prayers can be tailor-made for me, whose encouragements and rebukes or cautions have a chance to go much deeper. There's still a lot of laughter, and there's always a shoulder to cry on.
Each time we are together and things go "right back to normal" it's a reminder that promises made based on His promises last. It's a reminder of how community isn't scary the way I tend to think it is. My last visit to Toronto was a push to me to try and plant seeds for those kinds of covenant friendships here. By God's grace, I have been renewing my efforts to look at those around me, especially in my home church, through eyes that have seen befriending grace here on earth. I think it's beginning to bear fruit-- the thought that it can sure made my homecoming easier... I pray fruit keeps growing!