"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. You are my friend if you do what I command you": John 15:12; 14
In the midst of growing social media communication, where tweets, Instagrams and text messages abound, the term "friend" can carry the inference that this is a person with whom one shares information; some even compete for the greatest number of people listed as "Friends" on their Facebook page.
Yet deep down, we each know that true friendship involves more than viewing a post or a picture on the computer screen in front of us.
Awhile back, a pastor who moved into the East Hamilton area began to actively seek connections with other pastors in the area. Some pastors already gathered on occasion to plan the yearly Thanksgiving service in the Ooltewah-Collegedale area. This annual service involved several churches of various denominations joining their voices to give thanks, to praise and to pray to God together.
Building on the existing connections and working with staff at The Samaritan Center, the group became more intentional about inviting other ministers to meet and spend time together. Gathering once a month for breakfast, sharing devotions and prayers, listening to and supporting one another in their particular ministries, the group began to grow friendships. Time was set aside so those gathered could share the challenges as well as the joys in their lives. By 2010, this group of ministers solidified and pursued formal recognition as East Hamilton Ministerial Association.
They understood they were much more than a formal organization, they were friends united in the love of the Lord. Compelled by the call to love others and concern for neighbors, the group began to pool resources to provide assistance to those in need. For the truth about friendships - deep friendships - is that the love between friends grows and expands to include others.
In 2011, then again in 2012, these friends found themselves working side-by-side in their community in the aftermath of tornado damage. Monthly meetings included surrounding one another in heartfelt prayers for the strength and the healing that only our Lord can give.
As the communal prayer life deepened, so did the focus on the larger community. When our community was rocked by painful news, we became more intentional in praying for it, not only around the breakfast table but with active prayers of letters and service. At our April 2016 meeting, we signed letters offering prayerful support to each of the schools in the East Hamilton area.
Last week, teams of pastors from East Hamilton Ministerial Association mobilized with "Blessing Carts" filled with snacks, beverages and small gifts. They walked the halls of several public schools to personally thank the teachers and staff for their service to the children. Standifer Gap Seventh-Day Adventist School students prepared gifts that were then shared on the cart at Wolftever Elementary School; the cars were pushed together by both Baptist and Adventist pastors.
At Ooltewah Elementary School, the cart was "manned" by two female and one male pastor representing evangelical, Episcopal and Adventist communities. Methodist and Christian church pastors covered Snow Hill Elementary School; Collegedale Adventists and Ooltewah Methodists were at Ooltewah High School. The ministers visiting Central High School heard statements that included: "After a challenging year, it means so much that the churches are here to say 'thank you' in this way."
In a day and a time when so many point to what separates one denomination from another, East Hamilton Ministerial Association is a group that reaches across denominational lines and focuses on the call to friendship Jesus asks us to have one for another. While we embrace different styles of worship and even different days on which we worship, we have found the bond of Jesus' love and the grace of our Lord truly unites us.
What a blessing such holy friendships are in my life.
Louisa Parsons is the rector at St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church. She married her college sweetheart and they have two grown children.