I was about to start my freshman year of college, and I was afraid I wouldn’t have any friends at school. While there were plenty of people my age at the local charismatic church I was attending, I wasn’t sure I wanted to hang out with them.
They struck me as being a bit on the wild side (spiritually), especially this guy named Gerald. He worshiped God like he was drunk on the Holy Spirit, and if you struck up a conversation with him, he always found a way to bring it back to Jesus. It made me uncomfortable, but it was mostly because I wasn’t walking with the Lord. Gerald and all his friends seemed like these Holy Ghost powerhouses who’d reached another level of godliness I could never attain.
My mom finally arm-twisted me into visiting a small group that met at the college pastor’s house. I was nervous as I walked through the door, but when I got inside, there was Gerald, beaming and ready to have a conversation. I didn’t quite know what to talk about, so I told him about some lame high school accomplishments, to which he responded with a genuine, “Wow! That is amazing!” each time. I loved the affirmation, which got cut short when the group discussion began. That’s when things got interesting.
Steve, the college pastor, gave an informal talk, and whatever he discussed pricked my heart. It made me want whatever those people had, to get rid of the darkness lurking inside me. So when the talk ended, I asked for prayer and confessed that I was battling some sin in my life (and losing).
“Why don’t you go ahead and sit on the floor here?” said Steve. When I did, all the guys gathered around me, placed their hands on my head and shoulders, and they started intensely praying, which made me a little nervous. They were pleading the blood of Jesus over me, binding the spirit of darkness and intermittently praying in tongues. As wild as the whole thing was, it was equally wonderful. Before it was over, I had tears and snot everywhere, and I felt like I’d just gotten a soul detox.
In no time, the folks at that small group had my number, gave me theirs and convinced me to come to intercessory prayer night. We went on retreats, took road trips, prayed for each other, fought through conflict and spent countless hours worshiping together. I attended their weddings, celebrated the birth of their children and grieved with them in the hard times — like when Gerald passed away, leaving behind a wife and baby boy.
After I graduated from college, I moved 250 miles away to go to law school, and I gradually lost touch with most of the folks from the college ministry. In the following years, I began to see our time together as a curious phase — this wild and crazy charismatic experiment that kept me out of trouble in college. But the further away I get from it, the more I realize how significant it was and still is, not simply because it was charismatic — my charismatic friends wouldn’t claim to have the corner on Christian joy — but because it was genuine faith in action.
These are the people who showed me that Jesus should be the center of our Christian friendships, not just an accessory. They taught me that prayer and worship aren’t a chore; they are gateways to the pleasure of experiencing God’s glory. They showed me that masculinity doesn’t require you to ignore your emotions, and femininity is bigger than getting men to notice you. They showed me how to embrace the weirdness of Christianity and overlook the glaring flaws of the people around me. They showed me how to love in the everyday ways that matter — loaning cars, helping people move, sharing dark secrets and pulling the pieces together after a falling out.
We can’t discount the people who move us closer to Jesus, whatever stage of life we’re in. They’re never insignificant and our time with them is never wasted. The time we spend with them — no matter how long or short — is a supernatural encounter with Christ through the various parts of His body, and the impact of those encounters can’t be replicated. In my case, I’m just now starting to recognize ways I still carry my college friends with me.
Those friends are scattered across the world, and while I wish we could all get together for a reunion, it would be practically impossible. Gerald is gone, there’s no way Alice could make it from Cambodia, and Caleb and Rebecca are too busy taking care of four kids, including one with significant disabilities. But even if we can’t get together on this side of heaven, we’ve given each other a foretaste of it, one that will live on in eternity. We’ll all see each other again, and when we do, we will recognize the face of Christ.