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    a woman comforting a friend

    Friends, Mirrors, Prophets

    There’s more to friendship than inside jokes and chummy activities. Prophetic friends see our quality of character and expand our capacity for virtue.

    By Wendy Kiyomi

    October 3, 2023
    • Renee

      I’m so beyond glad Eric spoke into your calling as a writer. It’s all true, and desperately needed, this fresh bossy vulnerability. I have a prophetess friend who needs to hear exactly this. I needed to hear exactly this. ♥️thank you for following the call.

    • Allan Long

      This is absolutely wonderful.

    • Rindy Trouteaud

      And add to your brief resume..."a beautiful, complicated, utterly faithful human being."

    My first prophetic friend was Kate, a college classmate, who was Mennonite and pure in heart. She rebuked me for tampering with prices at a book sale we were organizing together our senior year. I had thought it didn’t really matter that I lowered the price of a book by a couple of bucks so that I could buy it later at a discount. She noticed, and she didn’t approve. I mostly shrugged it off, but for months afterward, I had little stabs of regret. She is a brilliant epidemiologist now and advises the World Health Organization on population disease prevention and probably doesn’t think about me at all. Yet, her willingness to see and speak at the time shaped my character more than either of us realized.

    Aristotle famously said that friends are our mirrors, showing us our moral qualities in ways we can’t discern on our own. Consider then, the magical mirror of Tolkien’s elf queen Galadriel, which reflects “things that were, and things that are, and things that yet may be.” Friendship is valuable as an Aristotelian mirror, but as a Galadrielian mirror, it has the prophetic power to reveal who we might become.

    That said, friendship is hard to talk about without sounding insufferably cloying. Friendship exists only in the binding content between two people – their mutual affection, their typical topics, their inside jokes, their little freaks. It’s all too particular and earnest for anyone outside the friendship.

    Also, I’m wary about subjecting friendship to a rigid taxonomic process. Friendship is a relationship of love freely given, and we run the risk of cheapening and constraining it when we try to fit it into defined categories. I wouldn’t want anyone going around with a flowchart trying to figure out whether so-and-so is a prophetic friend or not.

    Nonetheless, I have been blessed with a few friends who speak into my circumstances with what I can only call divine insight, and another of these is Annie. One day I called her, trying to hold it together but confused and hurt and ashamed and distressed after spending a morning dealing with threatening and erratic behavior by one of my children. After adopting three siblings from foster care, my husband and I had spent ten years trying to raise them well, only to find that their early hardships often seemed to trump our love and nurture. That morning, the child had finally gotten to school, and things had quieted down, but I quivered with something very near fear. I felt like I was a finger or two away from losing my grip on a life with any hope of pleasure or goodness.

    Annie listened carefully. She listened with all the particular fondness that our friendship contained, and then she spoke. “It is really painful when people benefit from your suffering and can’t see it,” she said. “But it’s really beautiful; it’s beautiful to God. Sometimes God brings people to see it, and I see it.”

    Like Kate in college, Annie saw what I was doing. She was an Aristotelian friend, “another self,” a companion who shared my values and experiences, and who reflected back to me my actions and my character. Annie gave me real-time feedback that I was doing hard work and doing it well. Her affection and proximal witness gave me a sense of moral safety, a kind of contentment that I was good enough and that I belonged.

    It just took my friend a couple of sentences to vault my situation into a whole new paradigm, complete with a new vernacular.

    She did much more than that, though. She revealed some hidden things, some true things. For starters, she used the term “suffering,” which seemed like a foreign word, something that pertained to other people, not to me. Then Annie called me and my presence to my children beautiful. Not cute and sweet, but beautiful in the way that Jesus with his sufferings is beautiful. It just took her a couple of sentences to vault my situation into a whole new paradigm, complete with a new vernacular. It stunned me.

    Annie’s words changed nothing about my circumstances but everything about me. She made me feel so durably cherished, so approved of, so meaningfully connected with Jesus and his redemptive sufferings in the world, so alive in what I was called to do next. She changed my global job description from lame-ass-family-failure to beloved-child-of-God-and-wounded-healer. Annie’s friendship was a ministry of hope.

    Prophecy is seeing and articulating reality from God’s perspective. Walter Brueggemann writes that prophecy “voices” God among humans. In Scripture, prophets recite the character of God as evidenced by his words and deeds, assess what’s going on for good or ill among God’s people, and reveal God’s purposes now and into eternity. Prophetic speech is often very bold.

    Prophetic friends are there to see and reflect the quality of our character, and they expand our capacity for virtue. They share a vision of God leading us into a new calling and uniquely empower us to step into it. Prophetic friends show us “a world other than the visible, palpable world,” in Brueggemann’s words, which is the very root of hope. Prophetic friends keep us spiritually alive and kicking.

    Frodo and Sam are a great example. Frodo is an average member of an unimportant group who undertakes an impossible journey to destroy a magic ring, which holds the world in thrall to evil. His calling is lonely: once he accepts the Ring, he cannot give it away, not even to someone else to carry for a while. It causes him intense physical and spiritual suffering. Sam acts as his aide-de-camp throughout his travels, tending his supplies, dressing his wounds, and even lifting him when he collapses from exhaustion.

    Sam’s material help is important, but it is his prophetic voice that carries Frodo through the mission. Sam continually affirms Frodo’s capacity for virtue, encourages him in his suffering, and validates his calling in a way that makes it come true. He charms Frodo into believing that a happy ending is already underway because of who Frodo is and what he is doing:

    “People will say: ‘Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!’ And they will say: ‘Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he, Dad?’ ‘Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.’”

    “It’s saying a lot too much,” said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. Such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth…. “Why, Sam,” he said, “to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written.”

    a woman comforting a friend

    Carol Aust, Embrace 35Used by permission.

    Prophets speak not only about metaphorical hope, Brueggemann says, but also about “real newness that comes to us and redefines our situation.” Sam’s friendship has a procreative quality – it brings about something new in Frodo and through him, a new and magnificent outcome for all the world.

    This is a very different level of power than is commonly associated with friendship. Friendship may be thought of as something nice – even delightful – but with “no survival value,” as C. S. Lewis famously stated (“rather it is one of those things that give value to survival,” he explained). Even theologies of friendship sometimes treat it as a contingent relationship, one that flows downstream from other, more vital forces. Prophetic friendship shows that on the contrary, friendship is deadly serious, a matter of life and death.

    From a stark prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his best friend, Eberhard Bethge, and declared friendship as God’s special provision for the pain that “surrounds the irreversible decisions, the deeds, and the creative work of the grown-up man.” Bethge couldn’t free his friend or rescue him from death, but he was crucial to Bonhoeffer’s hope and spiritual vitality. His affection and approval preserved Bonhoeffer from the corrosive effect of suffering, and helped him keep his “infectious, playful joy, simply being fully human” and alive to God to the end.

    The sacrificial quests of both Frodo and Bonhoeffer, accomplished through friendship, have their reference in Christ. Jesus was a prophet who represented God and revealed his activity in the world. Jesus began his earthly ministry by forging human friendships and ended by establishing the church from those very friendships. Jesus sought friends not merely as an effective ministry practice, but also because he received spiritual benefit from their affection, moral support, and personal ministrations. As God’s son, he experienced a unique kind of belovedness, but even so, he allowed and even expected his friends to influence and sustain him spiritually. The fact that his disciples often failed him didn’t lessen his longing for them to watch and pray with him in his darkest hours.

    Jesus cultivated individual friendships with his followers. He spoke directly and often prophetically to Peter, Nathanael, Mary, Martha, and Thomas about their unique temperaments and role in God’s kingdom. Friendship was the medium by which Jesus called forth a new or latent reality in someone’s vocation.

    My friend Eric told me one summer day, in that imperious way of his, that I should think about writing as a vocation. My writer’s voice was distinctive – “bossy but vulnerable” – he said, and he thought I had important things to say.

    I was a scientist who was trying to raise three teenagers with intense needs. When I complained that I didn’t have the discipline, time, emotional energy, or ideas for serious writing, Eric challenged me to not let this vocation be “too beholden to what you feel you can or can’t do.” Writing had been part of my life from childhood, but his words let me dare hope in something new: I became a writer almost then and there. Two years later, I had published several articles and was getting heartfelt emails from strangers thanking me for blessing them with my words on adoption, suffering, and hospitality. Eric’s friendship was the way that God’s new purpose for my life came about.

    Friendship is inherent to the triune nature of God. Jesus’ atoning work fulfilled God’s promise to Abraham, who was expressly called a friend of God (James 2:23). On the cross, Jesus voluntarily endured the abandonment of God so that we could become friends of God forever. Seen in this way, friendship is both the means and the end of the gospel. “In the past, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets,” the author of Hebrews opens his book by saying, “but in these last days he has spoken to us through his Son” (Heb 1:1, 2). The Son has demonstrated eloquently how friendship is at the heart of his ongoing work of redeeming the world.

    Friendship, wrote Lewis, is the “most spiritual” of the human loves. It is a major way that I hear from God, a prophetic current running through my various callings, keeping hope alive in the face of gratuitous difficulties. “I wanted to let you know,” Annie spontaneously told me recently, “that you’re doing great, and your tender love for broken people around you is evident and powerful and beautiful. Love you, bye!” It was an earnest statement from a prophetic friend whose affection and approval are so important to who I am and who God is shaping me to be.

    Contributed By WendyKiyomi Wendy Kiyomi

    Wendy Kiyomi is an adoptive parent, scientist, and writer in Tacoma, Washington.

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