September 28, 2016

How Friendship and Longing Go Hand-in-Hand

In the past year, several of my friends have left our church. A few have moved away, as have many before them left this transient town we call home. One friend, who was more like a mentor, died from cancer, a devastating blow to all who knew her. One friend left by choice, and although all is well between us, it has a hardness of its very own. 

None of these are not my friends anymore, even the one I will not see again in this life. They are all gifts, just not gifts I get to enjoy as much as I'd like. 

I am not good with change, and I'm not good with the impermanence of life. I want my friendships to feel perfect: perfectly given, perfectly received, and perfectly enjoyed all the live-long time. I work hard at friendship, so I want to keep them just how they are. I don’t want anything to change. I fear disappointment or being the disappointer. I don’t like when a friendship changes, when people relocate or make decisions that are wise but also affect the time we can spend together. I don’t like feeling distance or being separated from a friend. I don’t like knowing that the demands on my time and personal responsibilities keep me from being able to be a perfect friend. I’m also quite discontent giving new friendships time, space, and grace to develop.
I suppose I am a mother hen. I want to gather all my friends, safe and happy, under my wings. I long for that. And I try desperately to avoid the feeling of change or separation. Perhaps I try to avoid the sense of longing, because I so often associate longing with lack.

Last year, I hosted a going away party for my friend Kate, who relocated with her family to a different state. We had a time of blessing and commissioning for them, but I honestly was in a fog of denial throughout the party. I knew it was happening—they were moving a little over a week after the party—but if I didn’t think about it maybe then everything would magically stay the same. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt.

I asked Kate about her own feelings. She said she felt a lot of fear about moving, because her friendships would be severed in a way that’s not her choice. It’s a hurt she couldn’t control. The losses felt really deep, because she knew how hard it was to maintain friendships with people right in front of her, but it would be even harder when they were thousands of miles away. She said she really wasn't looking forward to moving, because there weren’t any easy answers, and she’d have to let go of where she’s been in order to invest where she was going. 

I didn’t want her to go, because I was afraid that our relationship would change. And you know what? It did. I can't meet her for coffee or have her and her family over for dinner. I can’t watch her kids grow up, the kind of watching that’s mostly unaware because you see them every week. Instead, I’ve watched them grow up in giant spurts in pictures. 

I hate change. I hate that Kate moved away; she’s one less good friend I have in my daily life when good friends are already so hard to come by. And then I think about who else has moved away and  wonder who’s going to be next and then close my heart a little. 

I know, though, that I’m afraid of the actual longing, because I know too well what it’s like to live with longing. I remember those years-long stretches when I willed myself to not get sick because I had no one I could call to take care of my babies if I did. I remember walking through difficult and dark days and not knowing to whom I could turn. I know what it’s like to be lonely and to grieve what once was. I know what it’s like to wonder if you’ll ever have a friend again. I simply do not like in-my-face reminders that tell me longing doesn’t go away, that I’m intended to live with longing. I’d like to ignore the part about friendship that never will be perfect and stationary, the part about friendship that necessitates living with longing. 

We all know that feeling, because part of friendship is living with longing, and I don’t mean just longing for a friend when you aren’t sure you have any. A right and biblical perspective on life leaves us in an in-between place where all is made right and fulfilled because of Christ and all is waiting for that ultimate fulfillment to become tangible and visible. Friendship is included in that in-between, because, although we are reconciled and united by Christ, we continue to relate to one another through the fog of flesh, sin, separation, and death. 

There is an inevitable hint of sadness to friendship, because try as we may to perfect and keep them, we simply can’t. This should lead us to an important question: Is our longing wrong? Should we not long for perfect community, intimacy, connection, and permanent reconciliation? I’ve asked myself that question, even as I’ve tried to keep all my friendships just so. 

Longing is wrong if it leads to idolatry of others, which leads further to control, manipulation, anger, or isolation. Longing is wrong when we corral it in the shapes of unrealistic wish-dreams and demand God’s submission to our desires.

But longing that seeks its end in the final redemption? This is a beautiful and freeing kind of longing, a longing to be embraced, because it turns our eyes pleadingly toward Christ’s return. At the final redemption, our friendships with other believers will actually become what we’ve always hoped they’d be: unmarred by spiritual blindness and selfish ambition, intimate and unchanging. Perfect.

It seems, then, that God Himself has implanted our longing, that our sense of incomplete friendship is a catalyst that leads us to anticipate a world beyond what we can now see and experience and friendships beyond what we can now see and experience. This right longing also underlies our ability to receive friendship—and this is so very important—because then we’re able to embrace present imperfections as gifts. 

If we want something other than this in our present lives, something other than imperfect, we don’t want friendship as God is giving it. 

I love how Dietrich Bonhoeffer approaches our longing: 
“Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ…The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity. That dismisses once and for all every clamorous desire for something more. One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which has has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood. Just at this point Christian brotherhood is threatened most often at the very start by the greatest danger of all, the danger of being poisoned at its root, the danger of confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful idea of religious fellowship, of confounding the natural desire of the devout heart for community with the spiritual reality of Christian brotherhood." (Life Together, pages 21, 26)

And so, opening ourselves up to receive friendship involves living with longing, embracing the imperfectness of our relationships here, but also knowing and rejoicing in the fact that they are a taste of what is to come. That longing is not a feeling to avoid or mute; it must be an arrow that points us to something greater and to a time to come when we will enjoy perfect friendships.

We’re reminded again, because we’re prone to forget, that the Lord must remain firmly in the center of our friendships. He is not the filler until He gives us the friends we want. He is it—the end of all our longings. He is gracious to give us gifts beyond Himself, perhaps no greater gifts than the friends He’s given who enrich our lives.

Are you like me? Do you want to gather (and hoard) friends because you fear your underlying longing, that sense of incompleteness that’s never quite gone away? Have you believed that something is wrong with you because you just can’t seem to get this friendship thing down? Have you been wounded by the separation and distance brought on by the passage of time? Are you exasperated by your imperfect friendships? Perhaps our wish-dreams are making their appearance again. The difference between our wish-dreams and right longing is simply timing—now versus later.

Stop berating yourself that you can’t command life to get lined up perfectly. Embrace the longing by looking at it full in the face and letting it tilt your head toward what is to come. Embrace all that you have and all that you don’t as a gift from a good Father who knows what you need. 

Learn to live with the longing, all the while rejoicing that one day all of our longing will be completely fulfilled.

September 21, 2016

The One Thing You Need to Know In Order to Make Lasting Friendships

For children, friendship comes easily. They equate proximity, shared interests, similar age, and just knowing one another's name with friendship, and they relate to one another without a whiff of insecurity or navel-gazing.
As adults, we're the complete opposite. I've often wondered at this, because somewhere about the time I graduated from college, I became a ball of insecurity when it came to my friendships with other women. At times I wondered if I'd forgotten how to do friendship or if something was wrong with me. Sometimes I got my feelings hurt and wondered why other women were so difficult and scary and seemingly indifferent to me.

I say this as if it's in the past tense. In the present tense, I feel much less anxiety about friendship (and I hope I've matured a bit, too), but friendship is still just as complex and complicated as it was in the years after college. In fact, it may be more so in my stage of life.

Friendship is difficult. It just is. I hope that helps those of you who read my last post about initiating with other women and just saw one big linear formula (I go first = the start of a beautiful friendship every single time). I also hope that helps those of you who see people you admire on Instagram hanging out with all their cool friends doing cool things together, because friendship is difficult for everyone, including those women. Friendship doesn't just happen like it did when we were kids. It takes time and energy, patience, overlooking offenses, forgiveness, effort, risk, and, yes, even awkward initiation.

Friendship has never stopped being a difficult thing for me, but I want to tell you the underlying truth that has made it worth pursuing and given me persistence in my pursuit of new and longtime friends: Jesus loves me always and forever.

(Oh, here we go. The pastor's wife is bringing out the church answer.)

Before you click away, let me tell you what I mean. I have discovered that the only way I can go first with other women--invite, share, open up, welcome in--without also keeping score, demanding a similar response (if only internally), looking to them for a sense of worth and validation, or giving up altogether is when I find my security and identity in Jesus Christ. The only way I can continue to build and maintain friendships over the long haul, even though I've been hurt and I've hurt others as well, is to be tethered with deep security and assurance to the love of my Jesus.

See, what I've often done is wonder, "Am I loved?", and then seek out others with that question mark, looking to their response for the answer. In the guise of seeking friendship, my insecurities have led me to instead seek approval from others, which is too heavy of a need for a limited person to meet when we're meant to seek our security in God alone. We crush other women with our need to be liked and accepted, because what they do give is never enough. Because it wasn't meant to be enough.

But I've also done something else equally disastrous: I have been internally demanding of other women. I've wanted them to befriend me in a certain way, know me with perfect understanding, relate with me in a specific way, and be there at the exact moment I need them. Whereas insecurities say, "I need something from you, and if I don't get it, I won't feel loved," expectations say, "I want something from you and if you don't give it to me, I won't love you." So then when they haven't given me the response I've wanted, you can imagine my heart's instinct: bitterness, judgment, and discontentment.

We simply cannot seek the good of others or bless others when we're seeking only what we can get from other women. This is why so many of us have given up on friendship or why we make snarky comments about women who appear to have easy friendships (which is, in reality, no one). We also shake our fist at God, wondering why the good Gift-giver has passed us over.

Jesus said, "Love others as I have loved you." The first and most important truth that tells us is that we are absolutely loved. He laid down His life to prove that to us, and His is a love that will not let us go. For those who are in Christ, we are anchored to it forever, secure. We are so tightly tethered to this love that someone else can ignore our attempts at friendship, someone can hurt our feelings, and still nothing about our approval and identity is changed.

If we're to imitate how Jesus loved, which is what He said we are to do, I think we have to first look at our definition of friendship. Is it about someone blessing us or is it about us blessing others? Is it about never being hurt by others or is it about repentance and reconciliation when we're hurt or have hurt others? Is it about taking up our rights and expectations or is it about laying down our lives for the sake of others? Jesus was an initiator, forgiver, and sacrificer, never a demander.

If I'm loved with that kind of love, my soul has what it needs, and I can go and do as He did. Does that make friendship easy? No, it's still complex and complicated. But the women around me are released from my neediness, demands, and expectations, and only then can I enjoy the gift of friendship as it was meant to be enjoyed.

September 14, 2016

Go First

In the late afternoon, when I send the kids out to get the mail from the mailbox, they inevitably come back with a stack of bills and a pitiful look in their eyes. I can tell they've rifled through the mishmash of circulars, looking for their name on an address label--any address label--and, failing to find it, they ask for the millionth time, "Why don't I ever get mail?"
I think it's sort of funny. What are they expecting? A Toys R Us gift card magically appearing in the mailbox? A letter from a friend or classmate who is writing "just because"? A note from the President?

They see my name on everything and think I've won the mail lottery. I want to explain just what sort of "fun" mail I'm getting: the water bill, a notice from the DMV, and a catalog of things I'm not interested in. They aren't writing to wish me well or inquire about the state of my soul. They want my money; no, they demand it with due dates highlighted in bold and/or capital letters.

I hear my mother's voice echoing in my own words of response, repeating what she said to me when I had the same issue with our allotment of mail as a child: "If you want someone to write, you should consider writing them first."

It's the age-old solution, really, but it's also a mother's cliche and they don't want to hear as much as I didn't want to hear it as a child.

But it's true. 

The fact of the matter is that my kids just want to moan and complain for a millisecond and then run off to play. They don't really want to put any effort into writing a letter; they want someone else to do the work.

If my children truly wanted a letter in the mail, they'd sit down and write their grandmothers (100% guarantee return on time and stamp investment), a friend who's moved away, or even the President for that matter. Whatever they don't write guarantees they won't get a response.

It's simple actually, but every time I hear those words tumbling out of my mouth, I think about how the same principle applies to my adult friendships, and I sort of don't want to hear it from myself.

But it's true.

If I want someone to...

call
invite
share
ask
include
pray
befriend
welcome

....then I should probably consider doing it first.

If you want to know the truth, I'm more like my kids than I'd like to admit. I like to moan and complain about what's lacking more than I really want to put any effort into relationships; I simply want someone else to do the work or to take the risk of going first.

Going first is risky, because it's true that initiation is not always appreciated or reciprocated. And it's also true that initiating isn't a sure-fire way to make a friend. But sitting and waiting and twiddling my thumbs?

Whatever I don't initiate guarantees I won't get a response.
If friendship is a topic you'd like to read more about in the coming months, you'll definitely want to stick around here with me. This fall, I'm dedicating my blog to writing about issues related to friendship and community. I also have plans in the works I'm excited to share about with you at a later date, all of which will lead up to the April launch of my book, Messy Beautiful Friendship. Follow along with me by subscribing to my blog and following me on Facebook and Instagram. I believe friendship is complex and difficult for most women yet also one of the greatest joys in life. I can't wait to see what God has in store for us as we explore together what godly friendship looks like!

September 7, 2016

Grab a Face, Encourage a Heart

One of the best things we can do for our friendships, whether fledging or lifelong, is to become cheerleaders for other women.

Don't we all crave a cheerleader friend? Absolutely! We don't want cotton-candy flattery or even the niceties about our appearance or choice of couch pillows, nor do we want silent cheerleaders who think but don't speak words of encouragement. We want a friend of the super athletic cheerleader variety, who exerts enthusiasm and energy in exhorting us on, even as they do their own faith-thing at our side. These kind of friends are rare, and we can't guarantee we'll have a friend like that. But we certainly can be that kind of friend to others.

I tell you what: being a cheerleader for other women can be awkward. I know because I am the queen of awkwardness and, frankly, I don't care. I see too many women standing on the sidelines of life feeling like a failure when, in fact, they are walking by faith and adorning themselves with the glorious beauty of good works. They need to know that God's fingerprints are all over them! 
A few years ago, I was overwhelmed with thankfulness at how God was using someone in my life to bring Him glory. However, I knew my friend didn't see it quite as clearly as I did. I made a bee-line for my friend after church one Sunday and, as I spoke what I hoped were words of encouragement and exhortation, I grabbed my friend's face as a mother would her child when she wanted her full attention. I don't know what came over me to do that, other than I felt so strongly that my friend needed to know what was in my heart. It was absolutely a God moment, but it was also absolutely awkward. I texted later: "Sorry about grabbing your face."

But I'm kind of not sorry. We need to be the type of women who grab faces. In other words, however awkward it is, we need to be intentional to encourage, celebrate, champion, exhort, and push other women forward as they seek to live by faith and use their gifts for God. Especially in our friendships, because that's where we have access to the inner struggle women go through with fear and insecurity.

Being cheerleaders for other women can not only be awkward, but it can also be difficult. Seeing how God is using another woman, sometimes visibly and powerfully, can challenge our own inadequacies and feelings of invisibility. Our self-centered hearts don't always want to celebrate another's successes. In addition, sometimes when we see how another woman lives her life differently from how we live ours, we're prone to think her choices are the exact prescription she would give us. We see her through the filter of our mom guilt or our frustrations with our own life or the unmet desires we have. These filters, in my opinion, are the greatest hindrances to our friendships, because we erroneously believe that she--fill in the blank with who your "she" is--couldn't possibly understand, relate, or have compassion toward us. We compete with one another and make assumptions rather than locking arms with one another.

These are subtle schemes of the enemy, because God's grace allows for our differences in gifts and choices. God says love--love Him and love people--and there are a million and one right and good ways to obey those commands. If we are Christians, every single one of us is called to walk by faith. Some women among us are trying to walk by faith well in their singleness, some in a difficult marriage, some in parenting special needs kids, some in vocational ministry, some in a job, some in painful and unwanted circumstances. We can be a distinctly Christian friend by seeking, in word and deed, to spur one another on toward faith, love, and good deeds.

Who in your life needs a good face-grab today? Who needs a biblical rah-rah-sis-boom-bah? Kill your fleshly drive toward comparison and competition and go be their cheerleader today. The kingdom of God (and your heart) will be better for it.

August 31, 2016

A Day in the Life

The lovely Emily Morrice at Our Nest in the City asked me to join in on her blog series called "A Day in Her Life," to which I happily agreed. 

As I write, it's the bitter-end of summer. I have three boys, who are 13, 10, and 8 and who attend school, so a day in my summer life looks nothing like a day in my school year life. Summer is a wild mix of lazy mornings, swimming, reading, occasionally traveling, and me having a million jagged writing thoughts that I attempt to get down in my Notes app before a fight breaks out and, in my refereeing, forget I even had a thought at all. I love my summer life, but it's definitely not the months I get my best thinking and writing done.
My middle son catching fireflies in our front yard in Charlottesville, Virginia
However, some things look the same for me every day, whether it's summer or not: I get up before my kids, stumble down the stairs to the coffee maker, pour myself a heaping cup, and sit down on the worn right cushion of my couch to read my Bible. This became a routine for me about eight years ago, after years of inconsistency and, frankly, having little desire or motivation for God's Word. When my husband and I moved across the country from "home" and planted a church in our living room, I became desperate for a soul-anchor, for life-refueling words, for the very character of God. I found myself nodding along with Peter when he said, "Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of life" (John 6:68).

So the day begins there, anchoring myself in truth. True to my nerd nature, I love to outline what I'm reading, because it enables me to grasp the big picture and pull out the action verbs--both God's and mine.

My children are awake by this point, making their presence known with trips to the bathroom and loud swipes of hands digging through Rubbermaid containers of Legos in search of the perfect piece. They remain in their rooms because I have taught them to do so, and this is perhaps the one thing that has saved my sanity and helped me prepare to greet them with eagerness and hugs in the morning.

And suddenly the rush is on. I am preparing their breakfast, they are simultaneously eating and throwing Dude Perfect nerf balls at the hoop hung on the kitchen door. Every day, it seems, there are the reminders: please don't forget your deodorant today, brush your teeth, don't forget your literature book. I move from preparing breakfast to packing lunches, all the while shouting out reminders. Boys apparently need lots of reminders.

Finally, after squirming out of my hugs, they pile into my husband's car and are off to school. I tell myself that I will go for a walk or start some exercise program, but then I never do. Instead, I start a pile of laundry, return a few quick emails, take a shower, make myself another cup of coffee, and sit down to write.

I am a writer. It took me so long to say that out loud without apology or feeling like a fake. I am also a working mom. It took me even longer to realize I have a job and, therefore, cannot volunteer for everything at my boys' school or meet with women from church for coffee every time they ask. Funny, isn't it, how sometimes we don't even know how to define our days, or we feel guilty for structuring them in a way that actually serves us and our families?

But now I can say it: I'm a writer. I author books, which means I have a job, which makes me a working mom who happens to work in her pajama pants. And so, each day, after cleaning up the kitchen and starting the dishwasher, I sit down at my dining room table, open my laptop, and write. I often anticipate this moment with trepidation. In fact, when my kids go back to school in a few weeks, I will be starting on a new book. I haven't written regularly since April, and right now, the book idea is vague and floating around somewhere in my head. Will I remember how to write? What will the first sentence be? Do I even have anything to say? The book deadline, not to mention my doubts and insecurities, hang over me even before I sit down at the table. I will, as always, spend several moments (used to be many, many moments) everyday shoving the unhelpful, fearful voices aside and simply writing. Not evaluating, not proofreading, not editing, not thinking too much about it, but just getting into the flow and getting something down.
My dining room table, also known as my writing desk
Some days, usually Tuesdays, I write a blog post on something completely different than the topic of the book, perhaps something that I've been thinking about or something God's been teaching me in His Word.

Stopping occasionally to return emails, eat lunch, and turn over the laundry, I typically write until 1:30. After that, I reserve time for coffee with a friend or a phone call with another long-distance friend or work on something church-related.

As you can probably tell, I'm a structured person, a planner. I reserve parts of my day for what works best in those times for me and the way God made me. I work best when I start my day with God's Word. I work most efficiently and think most clearly in the morning hours, so that's when I primarily write. I crave connection with others in the early afternoon, after the bulk of my writing work is done. And the rest of my day? It's reserved for family and ministry, but mostly family. I pick up my children by 3:00 and then we're either home doing homework and preparing dinner or I'm taxiing them to after-school activities. Sometimes in the evenings, we have people over and, weekly, we host our church small group. Always, my husband and I go to bed together and read side-by-side before turning out the lights. This is perhaps my favorite time of the day.
My husband, Kyle, and me
Fridays are unique to all other days. My husband, a pastor, takes his day off on Friday and, together, we observe the Sabbath. We have come to passionately guard this day after many years of relentlessly running, pushing, striving, building, and working that silently and subtly drove us into deep spiritual and emotional trouble. We spend the morning together doing what we love: going out for breakfast, walking and talking, reading. I tell him about what I'm writing, he tells me about his work, and we celebrate victories we're seeing in our kids. Sometimes we talk about our discouragements and issues. We are often exhausted on Fridays, but these days are rest for our weary souls and the highlight of our week.

I recently turned 40. On that milestone day, God was so good to give me big-picture clarity about my life. The gist of it is this: I love my life. I'm on track to do with it what I believe God has asked me to do, and that's a very good realization to have. But sometimes I struggle with the routine of my every days. I'm tired a lot, and I'm not always walking around with such clear direction. I don't always feel confident that I'm structuring my days well. But on that day I turned 40, I recognized that it's the everyday routines that are so important. They don't feel constantly important, but they are the building blocks to a life of faith and purpose. So I'll keep on and trust God to redeem my offerings.

Head on over to Emily's blog to read about other women in various ages and stages of life. And some of you may be aspiring writers and wondering how I got started. You're in luck! I wrote about it last year.