We All Need a Soul Friend

By Poulson Reed

Just after college, I had my first experience living in the West: in Salt Lake City. It was also my first real exposure to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, colloquially known as the Mormons. Salt Lake City is a kind of spiritual capital for the LDS, like Rome for the Catholic Church.

There are major theological differences between the LDS church and mainline Christianity, but I also found much to admire, particularly in how seriously they took their faith.

LDS faithful are strongly family-oriented and morally disciplined, are with each other in worship and study many hours a week, and give 10% of their income. But one of their practices that most intrigued me was sending out their young people on missions.

We’ve all seen the LDS missionaries in almost any city: in dress shirts and ties, on bikes, earnest and friendly, always in pairs. There are 70,000 LDS missionaries serving at any given time, the most of any Christian denomination.

Most LDS young men give two years (and young women 18 months) of missionary service, all unpaid. In fact, they have to raise the money to go: sometimes to another American city or town, sometimes abroad.

Part of the point is to evangelize, of course, to share the Mormon faith with others.

But a big part of it is to grow the faith of the missionaries themselves through service, study, and friendship.

An LDS pair, called a “missionary companionship,” is meant to be together at all times during their mission, apart from personal hygiene, never outside the range of the other’s voice.

Many Mormons that I spoke with in Salt Lake City considered their mission to have been the most important two years of their life. Most remain lifelong friends with their missionary companion.

I thought of the LDS missionaries being sent out in pairs as I spent time with our Gospel reading for today: Jesus sending out the 70 in pairs.

Why 70? It was the number of elders Moses appointed to help him, and the number of nations in the known world as described in Genesis 10.

Jesus is scaling up the gospel ministry beyond the 12, to those who will eventually take his teachings to the whole world.

As the 70 go out as laborers into the harvest of God’s kingdom, Jesus gives them rather peculiar instructions. Ask any Boy or Girl Scout: usually for a trip you go prepared, with lots of supplies for any eventuality.

But Jesus wants them to go unprepared: no purse, bag, or extra sandals. Why? He wants them to depend not on themselves, but on God, through the hospitality of others.

And he wants them to go with urgency: not moving about from house to house to find the best food and most comfortable mattress, not even slowing down to greet folks on the road and share small talk.

Just getting to the mission, with focus: spreading the news as fast as they can to as many people as they can: God’s kingdom has come near.

Why pairs?

For safety, certainly. Jesus was sending his missionaries into a dangerous world. For witness, because the Jewish law taught that if two people testified to something, it was to be believed.

But I think there is more to it.

Any difficult task is best done with a friend, someone to share the load, to encourage us, and occasionally get us back on the right track.

This pattern of pairs became a blueprint for sharing the good news with the world in the early Church, as we see in Luke’s sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. Peter went with John, Paul, and Barnabas, Barnabas and Mark, Paul and Silas, and so on.

Again and again, they followed the basic pattern taught in today’s reading by Jesus: eat what is set before you (in other words, be grateful), cure the sick (in other words, help the needy with compassion), and proclaim with boldness the good news of God’s love.

In our hyper-individualized, online culture today, I fear we are losing the spiritual value of friendship, the form of love that the ancients called “philia” (as in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love).

This loss isn’t new, but is the result of a devaluing of friendship over the past several generations.

C.S. Lewis famously wrote: “To the ancients, friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”

These days, especially after school and marriage and children, and with our tendency to move around, it is difficult to maintain deep friendships and make new ones. Especially if we don’t prioritize it.

Ancient Celtic Christianity had a wonderful phrase: “Anam chara,” or “soul friend.” This was not your “soul mate” in a romantic sense, but a close friend who shared your faith and could encourage you in it.

The Celts realized that the Christian life is hard, and nearly impossible on one’s own. Community is helpful, but within that community one or two especially close friends with which to practice faith can make all the difference.

Indeed, to the Celts, to be a Christian without such a close spiritual friend was considered folly. As St. Brigid said: “Anyone without a soul friend is like a body without a head.”

The idea of a soul friend goes back to Jesus himself, whose closest friend, John the Beloved, reclined next to him at the Last Supper, and took Jesus’ mother into his home after the Crucifixion.

And indeed, this kind of friendship goes back long before Jesus. The Bible is filled with passages about the importance of spiritual friendship.

As the Book of Proverbs says, “the righteous choose their friends carefully.” And again it says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

Do you have a soul friend? Not just a close friend, but a close, non-family friend, who shares your faith, and can encourage you in it?

Do you know someone who will always tell you the truth, and let you know when you are getting off-track? Someone you can talk with honestly about your relationship with God and other people?

My hunch is that, while many of us have friends, not nearly as many have soul friends. And without a soul friend, it is almost impossible to be a true disciple of Jesus. For we need a companion to walk with, as we follow Christ.

A church member may attend worship for years, alone or even with a family member, and never really feel connected.

To feel connected means more than experiencing beautiful worship and music, more than participating occasionally in an event or service opportunity. It means having a couple of good, non-family friends, and a regular ministry with others.

The most important factor in our finding a soul friend is up to each of us: are we making the effort to forge friendships with other people of faith? Not just being friendly, but making friends?

It takes work, and it takes vulnerability, because not everyone we want to be friends with will want to be friends with us. But as we connect with each other in formal and informal ways, and develop those soul friends, we will be ready to be sent out, in pairs, into the complex world around us.

Sent out, like the 70, to be grateful, to help those in need, and to proclaim God’s love for all people.

When we find those soul friends, when we are, in the words of our collect, “united to one another with pure affection,” we have the support we need to be disciples of Jesus.

And, amazingly, when we are friends with one another in faith, we discover that we are also friends with Jesus himself. Where two are three are gathered, Jesus is there.

As he said to his first disciples, he says to us: “I do not call you servants any longer, for the servant does not know what the master is doing. But I have called you friends.”

Friends, let us encourage one another, as our Savior Christ encourages us.

The Rt. Rev. Poulson Reed is Bishop of Oklahoma.

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