I have been a vegetarian for over twenty years now, ever since I graduated from high school. That decision was the culmination of years of loving animals and not wanting to eat them: when I was in sixth grade I had asked my Iowa born and raised parents if I could be a vegetarian; but as they were not sure how to meet my nutritional needs at that point [yearly stocking our downstairs freezer with a side of beef], they told me to wait. So, as soon as I was in college I stopped eating animals and never looked back. Over time, particularly through my theological studies, I have developed more sophisticated reasons for vegetarianism in general—Christian vegetarianism in particular [a blog post for another day]—but for me, it really still comes down to the fact that I love animals and I don’t want to eat them.
Anyway, one of the consequences of this is that I am a sucker for all things about animals, especially books, and I just finished a great one over the weekend. It is called Unlikely Friendships, by Jennifer Holland, and, as the title suggests, it tells a variety of stories of animals who, against all odds, came together and formed some sort of bond—some for just a few days, others for a lifetime. If there weren’t pictures, you probably wouldn’t believe some of the animal pairings: a tortoise and a hippo; a greyhound and an owl; a snake and a hamster [don’t try this at home!]; an elephant and a sheep—you get the idea. And, having mentioned the pictures, let me just say that they are as cute as they can be and worth the price of the book: the one of the bobcat cub and the fawn is delightful.
As I was reflecting on the book as a whole, I realized that the concept of “unlikely friendships” is a great metaphor for what it means to be the church today. When you read the Gospels, it is impossible to overlook the reality that Jesus made “unlikely friendships” a hallmark of his ministry, seeking out the most improbable and implausible people to befriend—prostitutes, tax collectors, outcasts, and dispossessed. And, in his last night with his disciples, he made a point of calling them friends, washing their feet and commending them to lives of love and service in his name. The Son of God calling his flawed and confused companions “friends”—it doesn’t get more “unlikely” that that!
Surely there is something important here for a contemporary understanding of Christian discipleship. In a society in which we typically make friends with those who are “like” us in some way—people we understand, people we admire, people who share our economic status, religious views, hobbies, political leanings, etc., Christ calls us to form “unlikely friendships” with people who are very different from us, crossing boundaries of age, class, race, sexual orientation, and even religious affiliation with abandon, just like Jesus did. This is one of the best and most important ways the church can witness to its counter-cultural status, and testify to the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, where everyone sits together at the same table of grace, and there are no marginalized, misfits, or malcontents.
One of the most enduring lessons I learned in seminary [thank you, Duane Priebe] was that any time you try to draw a line between insiders and outsiders, penciling Jesus in on your side of the line, he manages to slip away every time to stand with those on the outside. The concept of unlikely friendships testifies to that reality, and helps us resist the many “insider/outsider” lines we are tempted to draw all the time. In other words, the church shouldn’t be a place where you have to make friends, or meet certain standards to “fit in.” The church should be a place where everyone, no matter who she is, is a friend, and just “fits,” exactly how she is.