On a pleasant leisurely day this past Summer I drove my car up the steep hill on Urf Road in the little town of Cowlesville, and stopped by the childhood home of my best friend from middle school, Bret Ferner.
Bret and I spent a lot of time together during the Summer months and did the kinds of things that most young boys do on vacation. We rode our bikes and camped out in the woods and even had a secret fort in an attic over a garage known as the “5 Candle Chandelier.” Recently I came across some old photos of Bret and I, and one other friend, on a trip we three took into Buffalo for my 13th birthday. Just the three of us acting like big-shots in the big city.
Something broke down in our friendship along the way and I now recognize that something, religion. Bret and I were going in different directions in our understanding of faith and both of us were stubborn in our beliefs. For me, a Christian coffeehouse had come to town and I was becoming somewhat of a “Jesus freak.” Bret went in the opposite direction, and was, in my view, drifting into a dangerous territory with a religious group that I and my other Christian friends considered a cult.
I have this picture in my mind of the two of us standing in his driveway on Urf Road after having been friends for a few years and one of us saying, “You’re never going to change me and I’m never going to change you.” What each of us was really saying – in translation – was, “My faith is too big and important to maintain this friendship.”
Now, as I look back these decades later, I can’t believe that I let that happen. Especially as I ponder that day this past Summer when I pulled into the driveway of Bret’s old house. His dad was there alone, sitting outside and as I always remember him, smoking a cigarette. I identified myself as I approached the porch area and sat down. Then, of course, I finally asked, “Well, how’s Bret doing?” What I heard next stunned me like nothing else has in recent memory. Mr. Ferner said, “Bret was killed in an auto accident about ten years ago. I was just getting over my wife’s death when that happened.”
Ten years ago! Ten years of living my faith without making much effort to check in with my old friend. And now he was dead.
In the book of
What is it about faith, our personal faith, that sometimes makes us aloof from the needs around us? Isn’t that an irony? That I would think, “My faith is too important, and I have to keep it alive, so I need to cross over to the other side of this relationship, because there is the danger that my strong faith will be jeopardized by hanging out with my old friend.”
Wasn’t this the problem of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day? They had a faith that was too strong to be distracted by simple works. They were more concerned with keeping the Sabbath than with breaking their rest to help a person in need on the Sabbath. Their faith was too big for works.
I think of that classic narrative of faith and works that is found in the gospels: the story that Jesus told of the Good Samaritan. You know how the story goes. A man was in desperate need of help and a priest saw the man – yes, Jesus gives the emphasis that the priest saw the man, but the priest had a faith that was just too big for works and he crossed the street to avoid the dying man. I wonder if he justified himself and later as he worshipped prayed, “Lord, thank-you for saving me from that distraction.” Then there came a Levite down the road. You might know that a Levite was someone special. A Levite felt gifted and consecrated and pure. Now, what is a Levite supposed to do with an man on the side of the road who looks anything but gifted, consecrated, and pure? Of course he knew what he had to do, since he was a man of faith. He passed over to the other side, just like the priest. His faith was too big for works.
You might be thinking, “Why are you being so negative? Why don’t you show me a person who has a faith that works? Why bother with the priest and the Levite? We all know they were jerks.” As I look back into the text in James, I do find someone who has a faith that works. But this is not your typical Jesus freak. This is not your holy priest or sanctified Levite! And yet it’s right there in holy Scripture. The example of a person of real faith is a . . . prostitute!
If I had to do it all over again – and by God’s grace I’ll get another chance – I would have taken my faith and gone back to look up my old friend, and instead of preaching to him and trying to convert him, would have done some good works. For one thing I could have been a better friend to him when his mother died, shortly before he himself died. I could have responded to the visit he made to my brother’s business some years ago by calling him back. I was too busy maintaining my faith to maintain that friendship.
The message I get from James is a sober wake-up call. The words of the text go so far as to say that one does not even have a living faith if there are not works to accompany that faith. Faith without works is not even ill, it is dead!
Perhaps you have a friend from your past you need to get in contact with. Maybe you should put down that theology book and visit that lonely neighbor. In all our purpose and planning for faith, we must not forget that faith is to be demonstrated, not merely embraced.
Faith is more than a matter of the heart, it is a matter of relationship with the people God places in my life. Faith should never abandon a friendship. I will always wonder where our works might have taken us, Bret and me, and how our faith individually and together might have grown rather than diminished through an extended friendship. I will never know. But I have been reminded once again that faith and works were meant to be the closest of friends.
Tim Schultz is pastor of Harris Hill Mennonite Church in Williamsvile, NY.