After freshmen orientation, I holed up in my room for an entire day. I had a good time at O week and met a couple people I really liked, but then I lay in bed and didn’t get up. Something about the packing and unpacking, new surroundings and chaos of my new schedule paralyzed me. At some point in this 24-hour vigil, I grabbed my Bible and turned to the book of Romans.
In the last chapter, Paul recites what can only be described as a list of shoutouts. At the height of rattling off his friend list, Paul commands them, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (16:16, NIV).
Embracing new people is not easy. Finding truly deep relationships that go beyond the meet-and-greet of O week can seem unattainable. Universities know you are likely to drop out (and therefore stop paying tuition) if you can’t find real friends on campus your freshman year.
This is where Paul’s use of holy kissing can help. He repeatedly makes the radical proclamation that everyone—Jew, Greek, rich, poor, free, slave, male and female—must forgive, accept, serve and embrace one another.
While greeting peers with a kiss was common in the first century, embracing someone outside of your social and economic level would have been culturally shocking. Sadly, we have not changed much since Paul’s time. We struggle to reach beyond our comfort zone and embrace others deeply.
So, how do we find the courage to find real relationships beyond orientation?
While a week of tours and ice-breaker activities is nice, these experiences can cultivate artificial relationships. Even when someone makes good friends in O week, the bond is often not strong enough to last through the stress of mid-terms. Peer relationships bond best when we make the commitment to spend extended and significant time with each other.
What made my first small group work so well was that we made a commitment to eat, play and pray together, regardless of the impact on our GPAs. Yes, this could be hard on your studies at times, but the accountability of these friendships could help your grades, too. A good, relational Bible study is a great place to start, but you can also find this level of bonding in a well-run missions trip or participation in an ongoing compassion ministry.
Another key to real friendships is returning to a level of childlike relationship building. A kindergarten teacher once told me her job involved helping 5-year-olds learn about personal space. She has the kids wear a hula hoop around their waist as a way to gauge how far they should be from each other.
Many of us have taken the idea of personal space too far and completely lost our childlike relationship-building instincts. In their place, we have installed a permanent mental hula hoop.
Christians talk a lot about devotion and holiness, but not so much about vulnerability. But Peter tells us to confess our sins, James tells us to confess to each other, John calls us to begin “walking in the light” and Paul famously commands us to submit one to another.
Simply put, real friendship requires vulnerability. Sound risky? Of course it is. Even the most faithful friend will have moments of, well, unfaithfulness. This is a problem only if our happiness is built on defending our image and protecting our ego. You don’t have to be vulnerable with everyone, but you should be “walking in the light” with at least somebody.
When opening up to others and vice versa, it’s important to view them with “grace lenses.” I recently went back to wearing contacts. With my new prescription, everything looked more three-dimensional—I found myself staring at strangers and studying abstract details.
Similarly, when we experience the grace of God, our view of relationship is transformed. Accepting the undeserved benefit of God’s forgiveness demands that we extend that grace to others.
Students who form deeper relationships learn to see God’s grace at work, both in their life and in the life of potential friends. Who in your dorm, apartment or class does God want you to see through grace lenses?
The grace Paul writes about in Romans is the same grace he calls these new believers to apply in the form of a Holy Kiss. He greets so many friends and takes the great risk of calling them to embrace each other because he is committed to living out that grace. Chapter 16 is simply real world proof that the truth contained in Romans builds real friends.
Curt Harlow is the west coast director for Chi Alpha Campus Ministry. He travels extensively to speak, train, mobilize and coach campus ministry planters. You can follow him on Twitter @curtharlow.