Before I begin, I should tell you that I took Dr. Judge quite seriously when she told me that some of you had requested that I give “The Results of God’s Friendship” talk at this retreat. It is not a subject that I can handle lightly, so please bear with me. I have known the Lord as my best friend for thirty years, and His friendship has transformed my entire life. Forgive me for wishing that some of you might come to know that same friendship, if you have not already.
I am going to sing for you a song I wrote a number of years ago, a song about what the friendship of Jesus Christ has meant to me. It is called Grace to Live. Beginning in 1979, I went through a series of nine knee operations to restore my ability to walk after a serious injury. It was not always clear that I would be walking again, but the Lord was faithful and here I am today.
In the middle of that trial, when I was bedridden with both of my legs in casts, I wrote the following song about what the grace of God meant to me:
I have now told you one story in word and song from my own experience of the Lord’s friendship and, before I finish tonight, I would like to tell you a couple of others. The first is the story of how I came to know the Lord. Why do I tell you these stories? My fervent hope is that they may help you understand, if you do not already, that an intimate, personal relationship with God is not just some otherworldly illusion. Christianity, and Biblical Judaism for that matter, are not at their core simply a collection of do’s and don’t’s, an assortment of religious duties and ceremonies. If I believed this to be the case, as once I surely did, I would not be a Christian today!
At its very essence, the Bible is the revelation of a God who is alive and well, a Divine Being who is not a figment of our imagination. It is we who are His workmanship, not He ours! This God is also revealed to be a Creator who loves human beings and desires to be loved by them in return, a Heavenly Friend who desires to have friends right here on Earth. He is as the book of Proverbs states “a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24)
I did not always believe these things. I was raised by parents who loved both God and their children very much. They were also wise enough, however, to know that their children would have to discover friendship with God for themselves. I went to church and to Sunday school, especially since my father was a minister, but I developed a pretty strong distaste for religion, through no fault of my parents whom I respected very much. I fell in love with books as a young child, reading perhaps 500 to 700 pages a week during the summer of my 6th year, and then reading the unabridged Moby Dick by the time I was seven. Later, as a young teenager, I read the writings of any philosopher I could get my hands on, reveling in the turn of a phrase or some clever idea. I was so much into philosophy that one of my social studies teacher’s, Mr. Brown, called me his favorite “little philosopher.” I took delight in a good argument, especially when answering those people who really thought they knew who God was—and especially if they had the audacity to claim that they knew Him personally!
I remember responding to some believers my age who were trying to persuade me that God knew the future, mine included. I thought I was very clever when I pointed out that God could indeed know “all things” without knowing the future—since the future did not exist yet! Not that I cared much back then about God or what He thought! God may have been very real to my parents, but He was quite obscure to me, not much more than an intellectual curiosity. I was also terribly self-righteous and quite short-tempered, though my friends didn’t dare tell me how nasty I had been until after I changed. The Lord has His ways, however, of getting through to us. In the Old Testament, Job’s young friend, Elihu, responded to Job’s self-righteous declarations by saying, “But I tell you, in this you are not right, for God is greater than man. Why do you complain to him that he answers none of man’s words? For God does speak—now one way, now another—though man may not perceive it.” (Job 33:12-14) I certainly did not perceive it at first, but the Lord was speaking to my heart in various ways long before I knew Him personally.
I don’t know if any of you have had the privilege of reading C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. It is a marvelous book, telling the story of a twentieth-century English intellectual’s conversion from atheism to a personal friendship with Christ. My heart leapt at a number of points in reading his account, responding—to use Lewis’s own words, “What! Have you felt that too? I always thought that I was the only one.” (Preface) God’s dealing with human beings is often direct and personal, known at least initially only to the individual in question. We are not therefore always aware of how many other lives around us He is working in, too.
C.S. Lewis was a scholar, writer, and teacher who, like me, kept himself busy reading volume after volume. During his perusals of great literature, ancient and modern, Lewis came across the writings of a couple of famous English writers who were also believers. Like me, Lewis began to find a God he was not even looking for! I quote from Surprised by Joy,
I was not a total parallel to Lewis in that I was never an atheist. But I definitely had more interest in the intellectual search for God through philosophy than a desire to really find Him, let alone become like those people who claimed to have a personal relationship with Him. A God who was too personal could interfere too greatly with what I viewed then as my right to myself. Evidently, Lewis felt the same way, because he wrote,
I had surrounded my soul with many a barbed wire fence by the age of 12, and many a “No Trespassing” sign. I wasn’t very happy. In fact, in the summer of that year, I stood in front of a mirror in North Carolina and cried out, “God, why does life have to be such a hell?”—not that I expected anyone to answer.
At least my life was my own—or so I thought. A “God” encapsulated in philosophical thought was a “God” who could be kept under control, one who could not cut across my self-will or tell me what to do—or be of much help, either! Lewis evidently had similar ideas, and wrote,
Thereafter, something very alarming happened to Lewis. He wrote, “Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. ‘Rum thing,’ he went on. ‘All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.'” Lewis was devastated by the comment. “To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man…. If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not—as I would still have put it—’safe,’ where could I turn? Was there no escape?”
This was one of those points I mentioned earlier at which my heart leapt when I first readSurprised by Joy decades after my own conversion. You see, we were both beginning to realize, he in 1926, and I in 1967, that God was after us. That is not exactly a comfortable feeling when you don’t yet comprehend the nature or motives of the Divine Being who is chasing you. The contest was also not exactly an equal one, especially in the mind of a person who previously regarded himself as quite self-sufficient, thank you very much! But the Lord caught C.S. Lewis and, in God’s kairos, His good and proper time, He also caught me. What happened next in Lewis’s life has remarkable parallels to what happened in my own. Here are his words describing it:
In the book of Revelation, chapter 3, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” I finally heard that knock on the door of my heart when I was fourteen years old in an old converted barn in New Hampshire, and then and there I received Christ as my personal Lord and Savior—and best friend. There was no preacher present that day, but there was an overwhelming sense of God’s presence in that room. There was also a deep conviction of my own sinfulness, and the marvelous release and joy that comes with knowing that one’s sins are forgiven. As John the Baptist testified, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) Like Lewis, I, the “man of snow, at long last” began to melt. I had decided six years earlier, at the age of eight, that I would never cry again as long as I lived. And I didn’t—until the Lord gave me tears in the summer of my fourteenth year. My life has never been the same since, and the Friendship that began that day is something that I would not trade for anything this world can offer.
We need friends! As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in Across the Plains, “So long as we are loved by others I should say that we are almost indispensable; and no man is useless while he has a friend.” God has put in us the desire to love and be loved though we can, if we so choose, bury those feelings deep under layers of anger, or resentment, or pride, or fear. Nevertheless, it is in relationship to God and to the people He puts around us that we find out most clearly who we are and why we are here.
I can also tell you, as one who is a little older than you, that there are experiences we all go through in life that will be difficult if not impossible to make it through without the help of friends. Above all, there is a great Friend in Heaven who knows and cares all about our troubles. In Matthew 11, Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid: you are worth more than many sparrows.”
These are extraordinary words, declaring that God is not the least bit like a clockmaker who wound up the universe, and then just turned His back and walked away from what He created. Rather, as Paul declared at a meeting of the Areopagus in Athens, God “is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being,” though we may be totally ignorant of His presence. I told you that I would tell you a couple of stories and here, briefly, is the second. None of you have been parents yet, but I can tell you that there are few things in life that will ever touch a parent more deeply than to see their little child suffer. Through that kind of experience, painful as it is, one may also catch a glimpse at least vicariously of the love of a Heavenly Father for His troubled and wandering earthly children.
Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City
A few years ago, when he was one, our son Matthew began to have difficulty walking. He would fall down again and again, seemingly for no reason. I had no clue what was going on, but my wife was observant enough to notice that Matthew’s right leg was bent inwards below the knee. Our pediatrician confirmed that something serious was going on, and sent us to the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. After a CAT scan and many other difficult tests, the doctors there confirmed that our little boy had an incurable disease where the lower bone of the leg collapses in on itself, until the leg is useless. There were longitudinal voids in the marrow, and the bending inwards of the leg that my wife first noticed was continuing. The disease was so rare that there was no cure—and no treatment! We asked everyone we knew to pray for our son, including many friends here at Sacred Heart. We even told the doctor that we had many people praying for our son. His response was that it “can’t hurt, because there is nothing that we can do.”
Several months later, I was sitting in the waiting room at HSS during one of Matthew’s medical examinations, when a Jewish boy about 13 years old walked into the room. He was on crutches and dragging one of his legs behind him—badly curved. I prayed for that boy as I sat there, realizing that he had the same disease as Matthew. I asked the Lord to spare our son from growing up with a leg like that, trying not to cry as the boy and his father sat next to me. The next time we saw our doctor, however, he announced that he could not explain it, but that the marrow in Matthew’s leg was complete, and that the leg’s curvature was reversing! Matthew still could not walk normally, and they wanted to continue to monitor his condition.
In April 1996, we were holding an open-air outreach on the Cross Campus green at Yale University, together with nearly a hundred students from Yale Students for Christ, InterVarsity, and others groups. As I was speaking, a little boy ran by kicking a soccer ball. Someone tugged on my sleeve, pointing out that the little boy was Matthew! Many of those students knew our son, and some had even babysat for him, so there were tears of joy on many faces that afternoon. The little boy who could not walk was running, and he hasn’t stopped running ever since! The doctor graciously told us later that our son was just fine and that we would not need his services anymore. What a friend we have in Jesus!
On the sheet of questions you have been given related to this talk, I quoted what Christ Himself stated are the two greatest duties God has given to those who would be His friends. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
God only asks us to do what He has first done Himself. As the Apostle John wrote, “We love him, because he first loved us.” And if He loved us enough to lay down His life for our sakes, He also calls us to lay down our lives for the sake of others. The greatest consequence of God’s friendship for us is not some spectacular martyrdom on our part or great deeds done on Heaven’s behalf, but that we be a friend to our Lord and to those He puts around us in our daily life, wherever God chooses to place us. Almost 2,000 years ago, the Apostle Thomas was sent to love the people of southern India and point them to the living God. Many there bear his name even today, including one of my best friends and fellow singers from Yale, Dr. Prem Thomas. Dr. Thomas is himself preparing to serve the Lord and people as a medical missionary. Mother Teresa recently completed her calling to serve the unloved lepers of India through the power of Christ’s love for them. Adoniram Judson was called to leave his native New England in 1815, and went to a faraway country where he was called to love the people of dark and brutal Burma. There is no one in Burma today who does not know at least something of what that man did for their country by the power of God’s love. I know this because I learned it through a Burmese student I met when I used to help with Bible Studies at Princeton.
If we will let Him so do, the Christ who was made broken bread for us will make us broken bread for others in a world that is full of needs and of needy people. In Matthew 10, Jesus states, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore to send out workers into his harvest field.” If the source of our love for others is only the limited capacity of our own hearts, we will soon run dry. But if we first come to know the boundless fountain of God’s love for us, we will be connected to a boundless source of love for others. In John 7, Jesus states, “If a man (or woman) is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”
I would like to close with a tune I wrote for the 133rd Psalm during a blessed summer in 1972, spent with other young believers from Harvard and Yale. Four of us had just had dinner with a reporter from The New York Times. He was writing an article about our experience as believers on Ivy League campuses at a time when such things seemed quite unusual. One of those young men, Nathaniel C. Nash, would later go on to become a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Thank God that believers, Jewish and Christian, are not so rare on these campuses today. In fact, I have been asked to speak next month at a gathering of believing Christians from a variety of denominations who are students at Columbia University. I was asked to speak at a similar gathering of about two hundred undergraduates at Yale just two years ago. The day before that talk, one of those four young men from that dinner in 1972, the Times European economic correspondent and one of my best friends, Nathaniel Nash, was killed in a plane crash in Bosnia. That young man helped me write this song about the unity and love that grows among men and women wherever God’s love and friendship is allowed to blossom:
Copyright ©1998 Christopher N. White
(Message given at Junior/Senior Kairos Retreat, Convent of the Sacred Heart, NYC, March 12, 1998)