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The Kind of Friendship That Sharpens You

You know the adage – you are only as strong as the company you keep. The words have been spoken on the seasoned lips of those who have tried them over again and found them unmistakably and undeniably true.

I’m fresh off a weekend with two girlfriends who are the strongest kind of company to keep with. Together, we are part of a larger group of girlfriends who have taken turns sharpening each other in that Proverbs 27:17 kind of way over the better part of the last 12 years. It began as a friendship amongst photographers – likeminded creative and businesswomen – and has remained an almost sisterhood. We have walked each other through insurmountable losses and “send a bottle of champagne because that dream you’ve been talking about for these last few years has finally taken off” kind of celebrations. And we met for a regular girls’ weekend in the Florida panhandle for seven or eight years straight every fall.

It was on one of those trips that I got the phone call with the results of Shawna’s very last scan showing the cancer had still grown after 16 months of chemotherapy, and there was nothing left to do. I snuck away to a private corner outside to weep, but they found me very quickly. And cried with me and sat there because there aren’t any other words that you can say in a moment like that. And then we do what photographers do – set up the camera and take a group photo.

I’ve learned a lot about friendship these last 10-15 years. I’ve seen them come and go and ebb and flow. And I’ve also learned a couple of things about Proverbs 27:17 and the iron sharping iron:

First? We always look a little bit better when we’re a little bit sharper. (Ask any photographer and they’ll tell you about the magic of sharpening.)

And second? Friendship is equal parts give and receive. The verbiage there in Proverbs 27 can be more specifically translated: iron is sharpened on iron. And that makes it safe to assume that, at any given point, one iron will be a little bit sharper than the other. And one will need a little bit of sharpening.

In the weeks after Shawna died, I did a cut-to-the-quick survey of my friendships and realized that a whole lot of them were what I call 80-20 relationships, meaning I gave 80%. So, when I found myself gutted with grief and didn’t have anything left to give, those friendships couldn’t survive. And the hardest lesson of all to learn?

there’s a difference between ministerial relationship and true, deep-down-in-your-bones friendship

But once I learned the difference, well, it has made all the difference. It has taught me that I don’t need to drop a friendship because it hasn’t served me well. Rather, I can see it as a friendship-ministry, and still love them in a genuine capacity, but without experiencing the disappointment of going all-in and expecting the same in return. Because some friendships sharpen you and others, sometimes, just straight cut you.

Alice and Sarah flew in late last week for what I knew would be a girls’ weekend in my hometown. But what I didn’t expect was for them to love on me in the tangible kind of ways that two women who are 10 and 20 years ahead of me in motherhood know to do. Sure, Josh took the weekend off, and we had three nights holed up in a hotel room downtown. We lounged late in the morning drinking coffee and shopped and talked shop and shared life, freely and frankly.

They captured family portraits magic for us in probably the least ideal shooting scenario for a children’s photographer (because it’s quite the circus when you’re three, 21 months, and eight months). And, when they were done, they stayed behind to put the little ones to bed so that they could send me off on a date with my husband. I’ll be the first to admit: I was anxiety-ridden accepting the offer. It’s never easy to accept that kind of help, particularly when they flew in from out of town to see you for the weekend. But I uncomfortably said “OK” and allowed them to pour into me while also encouraging the health of my marriage.

Matthew Henry had it right when he said that we need to be faithful and constant to our friends, particularly our old friends – to keep up an intimacy with them and be ready and willing to do them every kindness that lives within our power. “It’s good to have a friend,” he says, “a bosom-friend, whom we can be free with.”

The word paniym, used for “countenance” there in Proverbs 27:17 is referring to the external appearance, state, and condition of a thing. It’s looking someone in their face as you sit in their presence. And it’s rooted in the concept of turning yourself to look at someone, freely and frankly, in their face.

“It takes a grinding wheel to sharpen a blade,” The Passion Translation of the verse reads. But the thing about a grinding wheel? It can only give for so long before it starts to get dull itself and needs some sharpening of its own. And so it is with the kind of true, bosom-buddy friendship that God intended: it’s equally give-and-take. Ebb and flow. For life.

So, I suppose what I’m trying to say is: these most recent weekend days were the exact kind of rest I didn’t know I needed. I’ve been loved on and sharpened, and when I step back to look at every single one of the very closest friends in my life that I can say unequivocally: I won the friendship lottery.

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