I Want to Be with You
Some fragmented thoughts on the miracle of friendship, growing beans, picking strawberries, and two new books
Thursday, June 10
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Hello, dear reader!
On Sunday, Tristan and I went to church in person for the first time in months. We drove from Michigan to Indiana, so that we could be present as the Rev. Christopher Palmer preached his last sermon at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis.
Chris, his wife, Katherine, and I went to seminary together. He and Katherine are moving to Texas, where she will pursue a Ph.D. in theology at Baylor and he will be associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Waco. I know a lot of pastors; Chris is one of the very, very few whom I’d trust and want to be my pastor. Maybe someday. For now, I’ll just say I’m glad he’s my friend.
Chris’s sermon on Sunday moved me, and it has stuck with me over these past few days. So I’d like to share some of it—and some reflections on it—with you.
Chris preached on 2 Kings 2, that weird and wonderful text in which the Prophet Elijah goes for one last long walk with his friend and protege Elisha. So much of this friendship happens off the page. We can’t know the long conversations, the meandering meals, the tiring journeys that Elijah and Elisha shared—the older man counseling the younger, the ways in which they confided in each other, how they learned together. But we do have the story of Elijah ascending to heaven on a chariot of fire, and we are told that the grief-stricken Elisha strikes the the River Jordan with Elijah’s cloak, parting the waters to create a miraculously dry path.
“It surprised me when I read this text how little of it is actually about the miraculous events,” Chris said in his sermon. Much more of the passage is about their relationship, Elisha’s insistence on staying with Elijah, and his sorrow after his friend’s vanishing. “Though we Christians tend to be drawn to the loud and audacious,” Chris said, “here it’s the quiet, poignant, ordinary rhythms of a very human relationship that are emphasized... Before a chariot of fire sweeps down, before the waters of the Jordan are split, God’s first miracle is the friendship they share.”
We can’t always entirely understand why friendship emerges or how it endures. Friendship is mysterious, and it can appear paradoxical. Friendship is both embodied grace and conscious decision, something that seems to choose us even as we have to choose it.
When I reflect on the most meaningful and enduring friendships of my life, it is indeed the quiet, the poignant, and the ordinary moments that stand out most. It’s the knowing look of solidarity and the gentle lean into my shoulder, offered without a word. Sometimes it’s presence—say, the strong G&T that appears without request and, if it’s Hendricks, with the proper cucumber garnish. Sometimes it’s absence—for instance, a meal made without any of the ingredients that they remember you just detest. It’s the gentle ribbing and the texted teasing. It’s the “tell me more,” which sometimes precedes a perfectly timed “But I wonder whether...” Later, you might forget the details, but you remember the feeling.
Of course nobody gets it right all the time—not your spouse, not your best friend. Because there’s always risk and there’s always struggle. A gazillion books have been written about friendship, yet we still struggle mightily—I still struggle mightily—to translate what’s on the page into our hearts and lives. We yearn to be known, yet we also fear it. We long to be loved, but we shy from the vulnerability that love requires. Perhaps many of us actually want fans, not friends. Maybe too many of us are seeking mere affirmation, not true belonging. Perhaps we’ve sought the ease of assent and agreement when friendship really demands resilient openheartedness and risky trust—a more difficult, more profound “yes.”
In friendship, Chris said, “we entrust ourselves into the hands of another.”
Trust is both hard and hard-won—and I suppose I heard this sermon against the backdrop of our society, in which trust is scarce and loneliness is epidemic. But I also received its teaching through the lens of lived experience, which reminds me how trust makes it possible to hear (or say) a hard thing, to know when not to say anything at all, to disagree without being disagreeable, to sacrifice oneself without feeling lost.
I remember the day after I first kissed a boy. During my sophomore year of college, I studied abroad and did an internship at the European Parliament in Brussels. I was still deeply enmeshed in conservative evangelicalism and was still trying to pray my way out of gayness. It’s not hard to read the situation now: I was trying to escape my life back home, including the suffocating theology, my fear of hell, and my girlfriend. And here was this fellow intern—I can barely type this without laughing—a blond, French, overly self-serious politics geek who was also a pole vaulter. Mais oui.
My friend and Brussels housemate Sara knew it had happened, even though I swear I never told her.
“It’s okay,” she said quietly that morning. “I’m here.”
Despite coming from a very different social location and holding very different convictions, she and I had forged a friendship over months of shared meals, frustrations with bureaucracy, and living under the roof of a terrible landlord. Somehow she came to understand the inner turmoil that I tried to keep hidden, could see the self-loathing coursing through my body, and tolerated a theology that she did not share. She didn’t try to talk me out of any of it. Well, later she did—she’s pretty stubborn. But in that moment, she instead just held the mess with me.
“It’s okay,” she said quietly. “I’m here.”
I remembered Sara’s words as I meditated on the words Chris preached from the pulpit: “Friendships don’t say, ‘I must agree with you,’ but ‘I want to be with you.’”
It’s okay. I’m here. I want to be with you.
I want to be with you amidst tension.
I want to be with you even when it might be uncomfortable.
I want to be with you in your fear, in your unspoken thrill, in your doubt, in your next-morning fragmentation.
I want to be with you in the small triumphs as well as the tedium of everyday life.
I want to be with you when delight surprises us but also when sorrow creeps in, when laughter erupts but also when tears abound.
It’s okay. I’m here. I want to be with you.
When I reflect on the times I’ve been able to say that to someone, whether through word or deed, I have to admit that I haven’t been able to do it on my own. Indeed, with my Reformed convictions, I’m convinced Chris was right in describing friendship as a God-given miracle: “It’s through the very workings of our human-ness—in our loving and pursuing, in our vulnerable friendship—that God meets us in another.”
But notice that the grace of the miracle also contains an answered invitation: A choice has to be made to receive the miracle, to participate in its fulfillment—and that might sometimes be the hardest thing to do. When someone says, “It’s okay. I’m here. I want to be with you,” you have to decide to say, “I want to be with you too.”
What I’m Growing: I get notes all the time from people who think I’m some super-gardener, when in fact I’m the kind of grower who forgets to label his seedlings, doesn’t always remember to water, and makes deadly mistakes all the time. My exhortation to you is just to try. Yes, you’ll probably fail at some of it; last season, I didn’t get one zucchini, or any chard, or a single sunflower. But there might also be some successes. Thanks to Tristan, I’ve learned to love beans; I hated them when I was a kid. So last year, I planted beans... and I got enough to make one meal—one single delicious but pathetically uneconomical dinner. This season, I planted lots more beans—six or seven kinds, with gorgeous names like Tiger’s Eye, Painted Pony, and Lina Sisco’s Bird Egg. It’s been wondrous watching them come up. I haven’t done much beyond put seeds in the ground, and here they are. Next week, I’ll put bamboo stakes in; like all of us in our adolescence, they need support, whether they admit it or not.
What I’m Cooking: We picked strawberries this morning! One of my favorite things to do with strawberries is to macerate them with a couple tablespoons of sugar (I like the brown, but white works too) per pound of berries, a tablespoon or two of balsamic vinegar, and some black pepper (two or three turns of the pepper mill should suffice, or a generous pinch if you’re using pre-ground... but why are you using pre-ground?). Let sit for an hour at room temperature, and the berries become a richer, sweeter version of their best selves. I don’t understand the science behind it, but while you figure that out, I’ll bake a pound cake, whip some cream, and stuff my face.
What I’m Reading: This New York Times story about Eric and Randy Park, the sons of Hyun Jung Grant, one of the women killed in the Atlanta shootings in March, wrecked me. The attention has moved elsewhere, the world’s outrage has shifted onto the next thing, and these guys are still left with their grief. Join me in praying for them as well as for all the families of those who were murdered.
My polymath friend Propaganda—rapper, poet, podcaster, artist, philanthropist, person who talks passionately about God and the multiverse and marijuana—released his first book this week. Terraform is as idiosyncratic and wonderful as Prop is. Here’s what I wrote in my blurb for Terraform: “What is this book? Is it poetry? Prose? Wild ramblings? Social commentary? Inspiration? Provocation? Yes. Yes to all of it.” Highly, wholeheartedly recommend. Experience it for yourself.
An invitation for you: Next week, What Is God Like?, a children’s book co-authored by the late Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner, debuts. On Wednesday, June 16, at 8pm Eastern time, a few of us, including Matthew, Rachel’s husband, Dan, Kate Bowler, and Sarah Bessey, will gather online to launch the book into the world. It’s free. Please join us. You can sign up here.
My friendship with Rachel was truly one of God’s miracles in which I was beyond lucky to participate. She, too, was a friend who disagreed with me, sometimes vehemently but always in the most loving, kind way. I’d love to hear about a beautiful moment of friendship in your life—or, if you’d rather, perhaps share how you’ve learned to be a good friend to someone else—or, if you’d rather, what your biggest obstacles to friendship might be.
If you are finding some value in these scribblings, I’d be grateful if you would share this newsletter with others. Rachel always told me I was a terrible self-promoter. So this is me trying to be slightly better about that. [Grimace emoji here]
That’s it for this week. As always, I’m so grateful we can stumble through all this together, and I’ll try to write again soon.