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.