I love that so many of the Gospel stories depict Jesus with his friends. Traveling together, sharing meals, teaching, talking. Plus all the scenes left to our imagination. Shared laughter, gentle teasing, hugs. It’s one of the things that makes Jesus so very real to me.
I’ve been blessed with wonderful friends in my life… too many to count. I’m positive I don’t thank them often enough for the love and warmth they bring into my life.
But what about those friends who come into our lives for a period of time and then drift away? Why were they sent at that particular time? What were they meant to teach us? Does the fact that they are no longer a part of our daily experience make their impact any less important?
One such friendship I’m moved to write about today is from the year I turned eleven. Up until then my friendships were marked by a shared love of playground games, cute boys, soap operas and candy. Sweet and loyal and true.
Kathleen was the first person who taught me about discipleship.
The summer before I entered sixth grade my family moved across town, to a more upscale neighborhood. I was to attend a new school with kids who had been together since Kindergarten. I felt alone and like a fish out of water. These kids were just different. Designer clothes. Cool and assessing stares. I sat stiff in my chair on the first day of school willing the day to move along so I could go home again to the comfort of my family. Then, a lively young girl sat down next to me with ruffled blonde hair and a million freckles. “Hey are you new?” she asked me in an accent I didn’t recognize. Kathleen moved from New York only two years before. She knew what it was like to be a stranger in a strange land. We became instant and intense friends. Making brownies from scratch in her kitchen. Tagging along after her four handsome brothers, gregarious in way unique to the Irish. Swimming in my family’s pool on hot summer afternoons. Sharing dreams and secrets as only 11-year-old girls can do.
One day—now in 7th grade—we entered the cafeteria and Kathleen’s eyes fell to a girl sitting alone at a table. I no longer remember her name, but I’ll never forget her face. She had severe special needs, both mental and physical. In junior high school, with its strict code of conformity, she was different enough to be avoided by all.
But not by Kathleen.
She marched right over, motioning for me to follow and plopped down in a seat next to her. I was frozen. What do I do? Sitting with this girl will be social suicide. What will everyone think? (To this day I cringe when I think of how I reacted, but my feelings were real in their honest brutality.) I looked over at the tables of my classmates. Laughing and teasing each other, not yet noticing my dilemma.
Then I looked at the girl. Her face radiated a light and joy that almost sent me to my knees. Was it possible this was the first time someone had sat with her all year? Kathleen seemed oblivious to the affect she had on her, chatting away about a million trivial things while the girl—maybe comprehending, maybe not—looked on in awe.
In that moment I knew I was witnessing something special and rare. Humbled and ashamed, I quickly moved to join them. It wasn’t until years later that I realized this girl was gazing at the face of Jesus embodied in my friend Kathleen. And what Kathleen saw…what I couldn’t see at the time…was the face of Jesus in this special girl.
Months…seasons…years. Kathleen and I drifted into different social circles as we moved into high school. I’m not sure why. Sometimes it just happens for no discernible reason. But I think of her often and the many lessons she taught me about friendship, love, and loving your neighbor.
Last winter I had the pleasure of co-presenting a Confirmation retreat to a group of lovely young teens from the town I grew up in. At the end of the program a girl approached me and introduced herself. Her name was Fiona and she was Kathleen’s oldest daughter. Memories came flooding back as I gazed at this beautiful young girl. It didn’t surprise me one bit that she was gentle and sweet and had a heart for Jesus.
She was her mother’s daughter.
Spend some time reflecting on a friendship that made an impact on you and helped you to see the face of Jesus. Use the comments section to share your story.