There is an old Celtic saying: “Anyone without a soul friend is a body without a head.” There are not many Celtic sayings about what people without success are; the Celts didn’t seem to be terribly interested in success. But they were pretty big on friendship.

I’ve been thinking about this because I just got back from a once-a-year weekend with four of my oldest friends. We’ve been friends for over thirty years.

Mark is the smartest of us. He does philosophy professionally. None of us argue with him, because we’re afraid that if we did, he might prove we don’t exist.

Tommy is the WD-40 of human relationships. He makes any group he’s a part of better, more human, and deeper, because of his ability to draw out whatever is inside of you.

Kevin is a charmer. Girls were drawn to him enough in college that we used to hang around just hoping for a chance with some of his discards.

And Chuck is my oldest friend, whose sense of humor can be described only as demented (and I mean that in the most complimentary way); a doctor who drove an ancient car he named Waldo and begins each day in prayer at his practice and makes us laugh till we cry with the same stupid material he’s been using for 30 years.

We meet each year at a cabin up in the hills. We have developed certain rituals: we walk certain paths; we grill a huge salmon dinner on Saturday night; we talk and pray for hours before a fire Sunday morning; we smoke cigars and watch the sun go down behind the Pacific; we laugh until we cry at things an eighth grader would find sophomoric and unsophisticated. We mark our lives by this annual meeting. We speak of our marriages, our families, our dreams, our scars, our depression, our therapy, our victories, our brokenness, our knowing God. We are a circle in which everyone matters, and we never know what will be said next.

I do not understand very much about friendship. I think one reason I value it so much is that I went a long time without it. I did not have a real friend my own age (outside my sister and my cousin Danny, and they were both more or less obligated by genetics) until my sophomore year in high school. I was lonely without even knowing it. It would have been beyond my self-awareness, or maybe pride, to name it.

And then one fall, I was in two classes with this kid named Chuck. One month I did not have a friend, and then I did. I don’t know how it happened. I just know it changed my life and gave me a deep hunger for this thing called friendship that has never gone away. Then I went to college and again spent a lonely freshman year, and then a guy named Kevin opened a friendship gate and I was inside another circle.

Years ago I was wandering through a bookstore in Pasadena and picked up a book on spiritual friendship by a monk named Aelred who lived centuries ago. And I loved it, because here was someone who was enchanted by friendship and never got over it—who loved it so much that he said, “God is Friendship.”

A friend, Aelred said, is someone to whom you can entrust the secrets of the heart. He said that sometimes you may think of someone as a friend but they are really only useful to you (like people in your pyramid sales group). I sometimes think that relationships between pastors and folks in their churches are like this. It’s not that friendships cannot develop between pastors and attendees; they do, and I’ve enjoyed a few myself. But there are dynamics of role and confidentiality and the desire for success that often complicate them.

A friendship, like falling asleep, is something you cannot enter into by sheer willpower. I can open myself up to it. I can pray for it. I can look for people (Aelred actually recommends putting potential friends through a probationary period) and invite them out for coffee. Then maybe we find common ground. Maybe we make each other laugh, or find the same books interesting. Then we find that we are somehow loyal to each other, want good things for each other, are willing to speak difficult truth to each other.

But I cannot make this occur. Friendship happens, when it happens, as a gift. It comes like rain or sunshine or Cinnabons; a delight and joy and bonus that makes the world a better place. I think, maybe, that when you come right down to it, friendship is pretty much what the Church is about. And the human race, for that matter. And—this is beyond my theological competence—maybe the Trinity, too.

I need to work and grow and hone my abilities and add value to the world. But mostly, I think, I need friends. My friends are those people, those few and mysterious people, who love me for no reason at all. Which is the only really good reason to love.

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (California)