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Prayer for the week

14 September 2012

Helen-Ann Hartley on the richness and importance of friendship


Jesus, when you were on earth,
you had friends
who were especially close to you.
You knew what it was like to enjoy
their company;
you also knew what it was like
when they deserted you.
Please keep my friends
in your care.
Help me to be a good friend.

Anonymous, from the Lion Book of Children's Prayers (1977)

Sitting on my bookshelf is a well-used book of prayers with photos displaying 1970s fashion, its pages worn and crumpled. On the inside cover is a bookplate on which I have written my name. It must have taken me some time to write so neatly.

This book of children's prayers has remained centrally among my growing collection of resources for practical ministry. I may not reach for it every day, but it is within my field of vision, and I glance at it often. Some of my most enjoyable and profound experiences have been in school assemblies and at pre-school Easter and Christmas services, more recently accompanied by the real star of the show, Chris the Camel.

Being with the next generation - sharing, teaching, and enabling their faith to grow - is one of the most important things that I have done, I believe. Even my large inflatable CMS squeaky hammer has enabled me to talk to children about the manual labour of the Apostle Paul (my doctoral topic).

This prayer, written from a child's perspective, may appear simple in tone to sophisticated grown-ups, but at its heart lies a profound evocation of part of the Gospel story of Jesus's life. Jesus called his disciples; they followed him; they spent days and nights with him; they endured all sorts of ups and downs; they let their fears get the better of them, and deserted him; they saw Jesus ex­ecuted on the cross; and yet, beyond that, they encountered the light and glory of the resurrection.

There is a well-known passage in John's Gospel in which Jesus predicts his own death, his laying down of his life for his friends, and follows this by telling his disciples that they are not his servants: they are his friends. It is a passage that, like this prayer, focuses on love, commitment, per­sever­ance, and joy. We are reminded that life is not lived out in isolation, but in love one for another, and in friendship. Yet, in an age where social media allows us to befriend or de-friend each other, perhaps we have lost something of the richness of the meaning of friendship.

Signs of vulnerability are import­ant hallmarks of the Christian life. Prayer can make us vulnerable be­cause, as we delve deep into our desires and concerns, we encounter God, from whom no secrets are hidden, with open hearts.

The evocation of the shadow of the cross in this prayer is a stark reminder of the isolation that Jesus must have felt. We may well be critical of the disciples, Jesus's friends who abandoned him in fear and utter sorrow, but what would we do in such a situation?

But the shadow of the cross was replaced by the light of the resurrection. In our lives, we work with these seeming opposites: darkness and light, death and life, hatred and love. Such opposites are often displayed in our public media, and run deep in human experience. Yet it is God who is present in the spaces that lie in between the journey from death to life, from darkness to light, and from hatred to love. These spaces are God-filled, not empty and meaningless.

As we pray to be a good friend to others, we can give thanks for the friends who have sustained us in times of sorrow and of joy.

The Revd Dr Helen-Ann Hartley is a Dean of the College of St John the Evangelist, Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand.

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