"Some friends play at friendship but a true friend sticks closer than one's nearest kin." Prov. 18:24 NRSV
I have been accused on many occasions of not listening. I can't deny these allegations. I will say that in these later days it's been more about not being able to hear than not listening. Those of you my age will understand what I mean. Whether that's an excuse or not can be debated. I do know without a shadow of a doubt that listening to someone is very special.
To listen to another, or to be listen to by another, is a measure of true friendship. But don't let the simplicity fool you. Listening, friendship listening, is difficult. When was the last time you listened without judging, categorizing, wandering, evaluating, preparing, or even zoning out? Before you get down on yourself for being such a crummy friend, let me say it's impossible not to do some of these things. But when you catch yourself doing them, are you able to return to just listening?
Being given the space to be safe to share is an invaluable gift for anyone's growth in being a follower of Jesus' way. We all screw up, we all need space to express the tensions of being in the world but not of the world, we all need some place where we are accepted, this side of glory, just as we are. It won't happen everywhere and with everyone. But a friend who lets you speak from you soul is a treasure. I'd say it is a pearl of great price.
Those who are choosing to follow Jesus's way know the experience of finding that friend in Jesus. We learn of the safe place to be vulnerable in our secret prayer closets pouring out our hearts and confessions to him. But life in the Kingdom of God is meant to be experienced with others who are present in our lives too. In fact, there won't be growth in faith development without those others. So to find the safe place, the place where we can be listened to and accepted, is not an option it is an essential.
There is popular language today that is helpful in describing these safe places. These people who are 'true friends' are called soul friends. There is a subtle intensity to this short description. I think that really the only true friend can be a soul friend. These are friends that let you express your soul in a safe and accepting environment. They don't always have to agree with you or let you get away with murder (literally or figuratively). They aren't in your life to fix you or have answers to all your questions. But what they will do on a regular basis is listen to you, accept you, and pray for you. They will treat you as a fellow pilgrim who is seeking God's love just as they are.
We have in our culture today counselors and therapist who have introduced many of us to this safe place. They provide an invaluable service to us by listening to us. They have been trained to have understanding in human behavior and its foibles. And while many are called by God to perform these helpful tasks necessary for human health their calling is not to be in this kind of relationship. A soul friend listens so that you will experience being loved. The honest fact is, listening is the doorway to love. There is no price tag that can be put on that.
But being a soul friend, being a friend, being in any kind of intentional relationship never comes naturally. It always requires work. By work I mean a level of sacrifice. Laying aside one's own agenda for the other, that kind of work. That's what we call it in Rhythm of Grace's training in the skill of being a soul friend; sacrificial listening.
We call our training The Paraklésis Project. It's a mouthful, but the word Paraklésis comes from the Greek language that means to come alongside and help. It's one of the descriptions of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. I was taught that the origin of the word came from the idea of an attorney. It was someone who came alongside another in a time of needed help. Circumstances of life create a need to call upon another. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would be just such a friend. One of the ways the Spirit does this work is manifested through others, a friend.
Do you have a soul friend? Do you want to learn to be this kind of friend? If you lead a small group in your church or have management responsibilities in your vocation, you may find that you are put in these kinds of roles. Read more about our training and see if it might be something that could assist you in your calling. Check out the other opportunities to practice your skills in following as well.