January 13, 2021
What a friend we have in Jesus – J. Barry Vaughn – Evening Prayer – Aelred of Rievaulx – Jan. 13, 2021
What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer!
Do you know that old gospel song? I’ll bet that a lot of people listening to me grew up singing that hymn and other gospel songs. And maybe you, like I, have a bit of a love/hate relationship with gospel songs. Among other criticisms we could level at them, the theology of such hymns seems too saccharine, too sickly sweet.
I had a high school teacher who was full of contempt for the hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus”. “Jesus, our friend? The Lord of heaven and earth our pal?” For a long time I would have agreed with him, but I don’t think I do any longer.
Jan. 12 is the day that the Episcopal Church commemorates Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th c. abbot and author.
“What a friend we have in Jesus” would be a perfectly appropriate hymn to sing at a service celebrating Aelred of Rievaulx. Aelred’s best known book was On Spiritual Friendship and in his other works, the idea of friendship plays an important part.
Several LGBT organizations have claimed Aelred as their patron, including Integrity, the organization of gay and lesbian Episcopalians.
I believe that friendship has special importance for gays and lesbians because of the “coming out” process. When persons “come out”, that is, acknowledge to themselves and others that they are gay or lesbian, they often turn first to their friends. I think it is often the acceptance, support, and understanding of friends that enables gays and lesbians to accept themselves and begin to build a mature and strong self-image as a gay or lesbian person.
And those accepting friends to whom they first “come out” are indeed cherished and priceless.
Friendship is important to gays and lesbians because families still so often reject gay sons and lesbian daughters and because it is still relatively uncommon for them to have their own children.
Perhaps it is the existence of these families of choice that has led the religious right to charge that gays and lesbians do not possess so-called “family values”. I would say to the religious right that there is remarkably little support in the New Testament for what they call “family values”.
St. Paul urged his readers to refrain from marrying and having children because he believed that the end of the world was just around the corner. And Jesus seems to have preferred his “family of choice” to his biological family. In chapter 3 of Mark’s gospel, the mother and brothers of Jesus call to Jesus, presumably to come home with them and give up his ministry, and Jesus, “looking around on those who sat about him, …said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.'” (Mark 3.32-34)
Gay writer Bruce Bawer remarked, “If Jesus were walking our streets today, what would the TV preachers make of his ‘family’ of 12 men?” (The Advocate, March 19, 1996, p. 74.)
Aelred had a unique understanding of the importance of friendship. In his Mirror of Love, he wrote:
“The sweetness of God that we taste in this life is given us, not so much for enjoyment as for a consolation and encouragement for our weakness. That is why it is such a great joy to have the consolation of someone’s affection — someone to whom one is deeply united by the bonds of love; someone in whom our weary spirit may find rest, and to whom we may pour out our souls… someone whose conversation is as sweet as a song in the tedium of our daily life.”
In John’s gospel Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants… I have called you friends…” (John 15.14-15)
A friend is someone who accepts us. As Aelred put it, a friend is “someone in whom our weary spirit may find rest, and to whom we may pour out our souls…” But a friend is also someone who holds us to high standards or perhaps more accurately someone whom we don’t want to disappoint.
“I have called you friends”, Jesus says to us. Jesus is “someone whose soul will be to us a refuge to creep into when the world is altogether too much for us; someone to whom we can confide all our thoughts. His spirit will give us the comforting kiss that heals all the sickness of our preoccupied hearts. He will weep with us when we are troubled, and rejoice with us when we are happy, and he will always be there to consult when we are in doubt. And we will be so deeply bound to him in our hearts that even when he is far away, we shall find him together with us in spirit, together and alone.”
Aelred understood Jesus to be the greatest friend of all, so maybe the theology of “What a friend we have in Jesus” is not so out of line after all.
“Our Lord Jesus Christ is our example in this too, for we know that there was one whom He loved above all the rest. If anyone should look askance at such a love let him remember how Jesus came to take pity on us, transforming our love by showing us His. He showed us that love by giving His heart as a resting place for one head in particular. This was a special sign of love for the beloved disciple, given to one alone, not to all. All were loved equally, no one doubts it, but for Saint John He had a special love, as we can see by the name he gives himself, ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’.” (Aelred of Rievaulx, The Mirror of Charity, tran. Geoffrey Webb and Adrian Walker, London: The Catholic Book Club (1962), pp. 139-140)
“Aelred is a saint for our time, a man who put his life together and lived it with integrity. He saw that [humankind’s] search for God requires the discovery of self through the embrace of one’s neighbor. Like Aelred, we his modern offspring can feel confused about sexuality and insecure about identity. But like him we have the possibility of forging communities… where we become each others’ brothers, sisters, and lovers.” (Brian Patrick McGuire, Brother and Lover: Aelred of Rievaulx, New York: Crossroad (1994), p. 158)