On Friday, a group of men that has been meeting together since 1990 came back together for its annual trip. We stayed at a cabin on Toutle Lake near St. Helens and spent the weekend living like we were 16 again: playing ping-pong, watching NCAA games, going bowling, hiking St. Helens, hot-tubbing, but also talking deep into the night and praying for one another. This group is my high school small group that was formed when a Young Life/church volunteer named Ranjy Thomas pulled 6 of the most disinterested guys he could find into a weekly gathering. At the time, in late spring 1990, we were awkward high school freshman spread between Capital and North Thurston High Schools. Our loose connection was through Westwood Baptist as all of us had spent some time that year in the youth group but all of us were not really interested in our faith in God. In fact a few of us weren’t even sure we believed in God. That was my story at the time. I believed there might be a God in heaven but it was hard to put much faith in Christianity because it seemed like most Christians I knew weren’t any different from the non-Christians. There was nothing transformative about their belief system other than what seemed like a system of judgment they used to devalue others. So until I saw something real about Christianity, I wasn’t sure I could believe at all.
That all changed in the spring of 1990. Ranjy convened the 6 of us, who weren’t even friends at the time, and told us we had been chosen. He told us we were going to meet every Sunday night for the rest of the year to talk about God, discuss friendships, and learn more about each other. He promised us that if we learned to love one another, as Christian brothers, we would eventually learn about God’s great love at the same time. He called it “Brotherhood” and asked that we would walk through life together for a short while. The funny thing is that none of us was looking for a small group or even really looking for God. But Ranjy, in his great love of God, understood that he would live out Christ’s command to love one another by pouring himself into the lives of us 6 young men. He came looking for us.
And so, in the spring of 1990, we began to meet. We met through the spring and once fall started, we continued meeting. Every Sunday night we met for the rest of my high school years. We would bounce around between houses, and take on different subjects during different seasons, but mostly we focused on learning what it looked like to be brothers in Christ. There were moments of extreme joy and hilarious adventure and there were other times of heart-breaking vulnerability. But like a real family, there were also long stretches of relational ruts and sibling rivalry and disagreements and bad decisions. But no matter what, in good times or bad, we continued to meet every single Sunday night. Through these years a bond was formed and our lives were transformed. We got a clearer picture of our Father’s love in learning to love one another. Paul writes in Romans that by loving others we understand more of God’s grace for our life: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” Love isn’t always an easy emotion in real friendships with real disagreements and real struggles. But by sticking it out and working through challenges and conflicts and clinging to our shared faith in Christ, this group has become an amazing support system. We have become like brothers.
Now as we are spread between 3 states and different seasons of life, we still meet once a year. And no matter how much playing and acting like we are 16 again we do, we all know that after dinner on the first night, we will gather in a circle and tell the stories of our lives and we will pray for one another. Often on this night we will talk until almost dawn, sharing and praying and challenging and encouraging. It is beautiful. For 21 years this group has gathered to proclaim the value of our friendship. Through the years together we have understood more of God’s great love for us and the difficulty and utter beauty of consistency. We have learned the value of sticking it out. And that is something that can’t be learned overnight but rather forged over months and years and decades.