Things that make a tribe

***This post originally appeared on the blog’s Facebook page on April 12, 2016***

About once a week, maybe once every other week I get a text message from a friend of mine who lives not near me at all – “Just checking in, friend. Doing okay?”

In fact, for most of our friendship now we have lived not near each other, both of us moving to different parts of the country after college and both us getting busy with those adult things that make being friends who live not near each other difficult. Most seasons don’t allow for such constant contact, but I’ll admit that I’m glad for it now. I need all the people I can get who ask, “How are you doing?” and won’t settle for less than a real answer.

I met this friend in the back row of a neuropsychology class my sophomore year of college after she hit me with the power cord of her computer and offered no apology, only saying, “That was an accident” and scowling. “No problem,” I said, intimidated a bit by this upperclassman who had spent the class hour building SIMS houses on her computer and then bulldozing them down.

The next week, in the middle of a lecture of about serotonin and its place in brain function, she looked up from her SIMS house and asked if I wanted one of the Pixie Sticks she had brought with her. Hopped up on sugar and bored of neuropsychology, we spent the rest of the semester trying not to get in trouble for laughing from the back row.

You just never know what is going to become the foundation of a good friendship.

Laughing. And candy. And a lot of grace to be who you are.

This friend who lives not near me, who texts often and wants to know how I’m really doing, is in a tough season too. And while I’m glad we are able to text and be real and talk about these things with each other, I wish for her that she had people in her town to talk to too. Because she’s an incredibly generous person, loyal and funny, and quick to dive into the messes with her people. She’s not afraid of a challenge, and brings a lot of strength with her into her relationships. She’s a friend who’s going to show up. And I have no doubt that her wife is built of the same kind of stock. And they need people to show up for them too right now.

My friend who lives not near me, who knows God and lives graciously and is devoted and loyal, has been rejected by the tribe of Church.

My friend who lives not near me has been let down by other people who know God.

My friend who lives not near me is in a rough season and she’s mostly alone and she’s sad.

And I hate that my friend is sad. I hate that this person who bought me the DSM-IV when I went back to grad school and who wrote a note that falls out every time I pick it up – “You are going to do great things. Love you, friend.” – is feeling alone in the world. I hate that when she thinks of Church now, she feels pain and condemnation instead of grace and love. I hate that her tribe failed her.

I want us to do better than that.

We can do better than that. We can offer more than running away or hiding from hard conversations. We can offer more than trite answers and quick responses. We can offer ourselves, our listening ears and our humble hearts. We can sit down sinner-to-sinner and find grace and God together. Because that’s the best part about our tribe. It’s the very thing that make us a tribe.

And we can do better.

Friends and jackwagons

***This post originally appeared on the Facebook page for this blog on April 11, 2016***

Late last week I had lunch with my editor-friend and my therapist-friend, both of whom I had the great fortune of working with for a little while.

My editor-friend and I have known each other since college, and I’ve always appreciated that we talk so easily about books and music and theology. It’s only in recent years that we’ve dropped into those deeper places of knowing each other and sharing real stories, and I’m only now starting to appreciate the wisdom and insight and peace that also comes with being her friend.

My therapist-friend is new, though. A gem of a guy I met because we worked in the same place and both studied counseling and never ran out of things to say at the lunch table. Turns out, a couple of lunches is all it really takes to make a new friend.

And at lunch late last week, these friends sat across from me as they listened for the millionth time about how I’m doing since I lost my job, about what I’m thinking I’m going to do next, about my increasingly complicated feelings about Church and Church People.

My therapist-friend interjected at one point, “Can I make an observation?” For always this will be a question I answer yes to when my therapist-friend asks it because I’m a dummy who needs the insights of people who are smarter than me and because I know whatever follows will likely be something that God needs me to think about.

“You’re an idealist. But, with idealism can come a lot of darkness or angst when the ideals aren’t being met. What do you do…”

“To stave off the darkness?”

“Right.”

And I found myself saying, “I text my friends. I tell the people I trust most in the world that the darkness is there and I need them to pray. And then maybe I start praying too. I don’t let myself sit alone in it anymore.”

And so the conversations between me and God these days go something like:

Me: Okay, Lord. This church thing is pretty jacked up right now, and it’s not right. I’m a church kid and I want to love the church, but God, the people are making it so dang difficult.

Him: I know. Miranda’s going to ask you to have lunch next week with her and Jeff. Go.

Me: Okay, cool. I like them. I can do that. But, Lord, what about the other people? The ones who make you look bad. What are we going to do about them?

Him: You’re going to be asked to dog sit for a co-worker you really like. Do that too.

Me: Alright, sweet. I can definitely use the cash. But, I feel like you’re not listening to me. What are we going to do about the sucky church people?

Him: You should see if Dennis is free for coffee.

Me: FINE! I’ll text him right now! But, c’mon, dude! Hear me! Things are screwed up, and I keep getting screwed over by people in your dumb church, and I’m starting to get really pissed about it. We need to figure out what to do!

Him: Isn’t that writer’s festival coming up? They’re going to talk about some stuff like diversity and storytelling and friendship and grace, right? Pay attention there.

Me: Dude, I KNOW! Sarah Bessey and Nadia Bolz-Weber are my heroes, so we already know I’m taking a legal pad’s worth of notes. And stop trying to distract me, I’m mad here!

Him: Hey, your phone just buzzed. Those two people in that group text that you’re in are two of your best people, right? That friendship isn’t an accident. Go enjoy them.

Me: Okay. Deal. But, we’re not done. We still need to talk about your church people.

Him: Yeah. Maybe we just did?

It’s almost as if God’s trying to remind me that for every church people that makes Jesus look bad, there’s a Miranda or Jeff showing up to listen and ask the right question. It’s almost as if I’m supposed to remember that God’s a bit of an idealist too, hoping that the people who love him will show up and take care of other people.

And this is what I love about the Christian story – even when God’s ideal isn’t met, even when people are being jackwagons who make Jesus look bad, the darkness still doesn’t win.

Because there are more friends in the Church than there are jackwagons.

On getting fired

I write sometimes on the Facebook page for this blog, and for whatever reason that was the space where I decided to put words to my complicated feelings about losing my job a couple of months ago.

So, this is the beginning of that story in 2 Facebook posts:

#1 – March 21, 2016

So, okay.

It’s been more than a month since I’ve put any kind of words on the internet that weren’t reduced to a 140 character tweet. Because there’s safety in 140 characters. I can share snippets, the good stuff. The funny things my friends have said. Or the photo of my nephew in the fort of couch cushions, or my niece in her Minnie Mouse dress.

You can’t deal with the hard stuff in 140 characters. The hard stuff deserves more than that.

So, okay. Here it is:

A little over a month ago, I was called into my HR office early on a Wednesday morning and I was let go from my position as a social media specialist. I guess technically I was “downsized,” but when you’re reorganized right out of your job, technically is hogwash. The reality is that I was fired.

When one of my friend’s mom’s heard what happened her reaction echoed my own: “What?! Amber doesn’t get fired!”

Amber doesn’t get fired. And yet she was. On a Wednesday morning in the middle of February. And Amber is still dealing the emotional aftermath of all of that.

Although, really, before you ask, I’m doing okay. Really and truly. My head is mostly above water, and I’m getting out of bed every morning. I’m eating regularly, and I’m sleeping about as well as I was when I had a job. So, you know, lots of victories there.

And also, I’m not worried that it’s not going to be okay.

I came to Grand Rapids as an act of faith. I came because my prayers and the prayers of my best people led us all to the same point of clarity – it was time for me to get up and follow God to a new place. I still believe that.

In the first couple of weeks I was in my job, one of my co-workers who has since become the pastor of my soul and a friend in the realest ways, said, “You know, I think you’re in Grand Rapids for a reason, but I don’t think it’s for this job.”

Of course, two weeks into a job I really loved, I didn’t want to hear that. Six months since then, I’m thinking it was more than a little prophetic.

So, okay.

I don’t know what comes next. I’m in some kind of vocational middle. Again.

And it’s just whatever, man. Because I absolutely will not let this be a reason for me to distrust God’s good hand. I absolutely will not let this be a reason for me to give up on church or ministry or the way that God has called us to take care of each other.

I will not let this be a reason to give up on the vision of creating a community online and in the world for people who are in the middle – the middle of a faith crisis, the middle of vocational change, the middle of a struggling marriage, the middle of a lot of questions, the middle of confusion, the middle of doubt.

Most of life is a middle.

And those of us in the middle, we’re a tribe. Each and every one of us.

So, okay. Let’s help each other through it. Let’s offer patience and encouragement to the middle. Let’s text and call and pray for each other.

Because if I have learned only one thing in the last month, it’s this: when you have a tribe and Jesus, you have everything.

#2 – March 22, 2016

The responses to my post yesterday have been so kind, and I’m as always am, so grateful for you people. You people who keep hanging with me in the messy middles, who keep thinking the words I have to share are good ones, who keep telling me to just keep writing.

I was talking to the BFF yesterday for a hot minute and I asked her a couple of the questions I have about this middle place. I asked her if writing from the middle was okay really, because I don’t know what I think about a lot things right now. I said, “I’m committed to writing from the place of the here-and-now of what God and I are working through, but I don’t have clarity. I have questions and prayer and my people. That’s all I’ve got.”

To which the BFF said only, “What’s wrong with that?”

Of course, the answer is that there’s nothing wrong with that. Faith is, I think, a fluid thing. It adapts and changes as our experiences with church, ministries, each other, and the world adds layers of complexity to our understanding of God. It would be silly then to think that anyone is ever going to have all the answers, and it seems to me that it would silly to pretend that any writer worth respecting is writing NOT from the middle of their own faith life.

But I say that knowing full well that there are things of which we can be certain.

I can be certain that God is good and loving. I can be certain that he is faithful, and that means he’s caretaking me through this messy middle. I can be certain even in the darkest moments there is going to be someone or something that inspires hope in my ugly, cynical heart. I can be certain that gratitude and grace are the wagons I want to hitch myself to even as the bottom falls out.

And I can be certain, thanks to you people who keep showing up in the messy middles, that there are more cheerleaders and encouragers and peacemakers in the world than there are not.

God Loves a Crowded House

Crowded House OTP 1

I have been a student of friendship from the time I was a little kid. It was inevitable, I think, because I grew up in a military family and my parents and my brother and I shared more holiday meals with pilots and intelligence officers than we spent with our extended family. One Easter we crowded our duplex on Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii with airmen and women and their families who couldn’t make the trip home to the mainland. Those of us under the age of ten ate our ham and deviled eggs sitting on the front stairs, every chair and sofa cushion and spot on the living room floor claimed by an adult who didn’t want to be alone for the holiday.

And so I watched my parents create homes in our base houses that were open and available for people. There was always a seat for the single enlisted guy, the divorced officer, the wife whose husband was deployed. Even if the mashed potatoes burned and someone had to keep washing silverware so we never ran out of forks, my parents offered people a place for us all to be family, even if it was just for a day, even if it was for only one meal. And from my seat on the stairs, I saw how much that kind of friendship made being in the world a little less hard…

**********

The rest of this story can be found on Off the Page, a blog for Our Daily Bread Ministries that’s focused on bringing the Bible to life.  I’m still overwhelmed by the gift that is working with that team and getting to share my stories on that site.

This post is the first in a three-part series on Spiritual Friendship that I’m really proud of.

To read the rest, you’re going to have to go to Off the Page and follow along there.

As always, I’m grateful for each of you who take the time to read and ponder and engage with me. You prove that life is better when lived in community.

Happy reading!

Today you are 3…

Neph selfies!

Dear Noah,

Today you are three. What a wonderful, crazy three years it has been with you. And I have loved every beautiful moment.

Between you and me, pal, this has been a weird three years. God has totally changed the trajectory of my life, and I’ve had to do a lot more praying and surrendering than I ever expected – which I think is exactly why God changed the trajectory of my life. Most of the changes have been hard and have required me to let go of a lot of expectations and pride, and have forced me to really look at myself and the kind of person I want to be in the world. And while I like the person these changes have sharpened me into, I’d be lying if I said I have enjoyed every minute of the process. Changing is often hard, and while it’s so good most of the time, it is not always a heck of a lot of fun.

That is, of course, except when it comes to you. Three years ago in the midst of all of the changes, I also became your aunt…and it has been the most fun.

There is nothing about you, kid, that I don’t adore. You are sweet and funny, and you love your people. You like to laugh, and you like to make your people laugh. I think because of that, you’re in the center of my best memories  – stomping in snow piles, and splashing in puddles, and building forts out of the couch cushions; reading books, and throwing pom-poms, and watching Curious George on endless loop; eating chicken fingers and pizza and grapes, all dipped in ketchup.

I love getting hugged around the knees when I walk through the front door, and hugged around the neck when I leave. And I really love that sometimes you don’t want me to leave at all. I love when pull me into the living room just to sit on the floor next to you while you play with your toys. Because I love that that’s enough for you, just to have your people in your space. I love that at three years old that is a comfort to you. I love it because at thirty-one years old having you and your people in my space is a comfort to me.

For your birthday this year, I got you a book about a little blue truck that gets stuck in the mud and is pulled to safety by his little barnyard friends. I got it for you because it’s a sweet story, and because it’s a true one. I got it for you because even at three year old I think it’s important that you know that sometimes the only way you get un-stuck is when people love you enough to pull you out. And without a doubt, for decades now, that’s who your mom and dad have been for me. That’s who Mimi and Poppy have been, and Nana and Boppa, and Aunt Beth, and Aunt Amy and Uncle Mike and Abby, and Aunt Megan. They’re the friends who help me get un-stuck.

As you grow up, I pray that they’re the people who help you get un-stuck too. I pray that you see that in them – that they’re on your team, that they’re for you, and that this is true even when you find yourself in trouble; and that this doesn’t change when you’re a teenager or an adult. They’re people who hang in with unwavering support and love and grace. They love an awful lot like Jesus.  There is nothing about your family that I don’t adore.

But, I also pray that you find some friends from other barnyards. For your family, I’m a little duck that wandered in under the fence twenty-years ago and liked their pond so much that I never left. Now, I think we all forget that it’s not really my pond because I’m just part of the flock. I pray you know what it’s like to experience this on your own – that you know what it’s like to just have friends who show up to help get you out of life’s messes; that you know what it’s like to have the line between friend and family get blurry; that maybe you share your pond with another little duck who needs a soft place to land; that maybe you find a pond that you can land in too.

Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself…

Because today, buddy, you are three. And you should be celebrated for all your three-year-oldness.

You should be celebrated today because you’ll only wear green shirts, and because you’re favorite toys are pom-poms and bubble wrap, and because you think Wall-E is the funniest movie ever.   Because you want to sit on your mom’s lap and read books, and you think that makes for a pretty great fifteen minutes. Because you giggle so hard when your dad picks you up over his head and turns you upside down over his shoulder before dropping you onto the couch. Because you don’t want your hair washed, but you think it’s great when people sniff the back of your head when you get out of the bath tub and kiss your clean neck before you go to bed. Because you confuse your pronouns, but can say “pomegranate” like it’s no big thing. Because it makes you so happy to share food, especially when it’s a special treat like M&Ms or fruit snacks. Because you love your people so hard and so unashamedly.

Three is a very special age, and you are very special three-year-old.

Happy birthday, pal!

With all my love,

Aunt Amber

I want to go to there

I scroll through Instragram and Facebook and Twitter feeds and I’m always struck by how many incredibly smart women are hanging out together at different events, singing each others praises on social media after they’re away from each other in their own homes in their own parts of the country.

I often (nearly all of the time) find myself thinking, “I wish I were there with those incredibly smart women hanging out together.” Although, in my head it sounds more like Liz Lemon’s simple, “I want to go to there.”

And it’s true, because it’s a great desire of my heart to surround myself with incredibly smart women who hang out together and talk about books and God and church and friendship and parenting and mentoring and art and music and all the other things that incredibly smart women talk about. I want to borrow from their passions, feed them into my own, and wake up every morning excited to put a little more love in the world.

While scrolling Instagram this morning I saw three of the writers whom I love all posed for a lovely photo, smiling and laughing and generally enjoying the treat of being in the same place at the same time. It’s written all over their faces. And I had the thought that I always have about wanting to be there where those incredibly smart women are, talking about writing and books and art and whatever it is that incredibly smart women talk about it. But, then I had another thought. A better thought. A thought that made me grateful for my friends and the incredibly smart people that they are.

I don’t need to go anywhere to be surrounded by women who are smart, and beautiful, and loving, and doing things to make the world a better place.   I don’t need to be anywhere else to talk about books and movies and art and God and theology and parenting and mentoring and church and whatever it is that smart women talk about. We’re talking about those things all of the time. The smart women I want to surround myself with are already surrounding me.

My mom friends are raising tiny humans who are funny and kind, and one day these tiny humans will grow into big, adult humans who are kind and funny. The older I get, the more I realize just how much being kind and funny can change the world.

My girls are students of social work and teaching and music and art and biology, and they talk about how they want to use what they’re learning to help people. Not in abstract ways, but in real, in-the-messes-with-people-everyday kind of ways. And I’m in awe of them, really. They get how Love works.

I have friends who are college professors and elementary school teachers; engineers and mathematicians; accountants and book keepers; writers, photographers, and artists; entrepreneurs and community developers. They run non-profits, and they run their homes. They create in their work and in their lives safe spaces for people to be exactly who they are, to crash and fall apart, and they help them put the pieces back together again.

All of these women I get to call my friends are extraordinary. And smart. And beautiful. And putting a little love into the world everyday.

But, the reason it doesn’t make it onto Instagram and Facebook and Twitter is because we’re doing nothing more than living our lives side-by-side. It’s ordinary, and the ordinary things aren’t usually the things you stop to document.

But maybe we should?

Maybe I should. I need to do a better job of appreciating the ordinary life right in front me. I want to make the most of the expected rhythms of Tuesday night Bible studies, and coffee shops work days, and dinner with my folks. I want to soak in the afternoons of babysitting my nephew and niece-in-loves and the coffee dates with my girls. And I want to wear out my welcome in my best friends’ homes.

The life I have right in front me, in all of its ordinariness, is extraordinary. It’s a gift. And I don’t want to squander it. I want to be present to the life that’s right in front me instead of constantly wishing I were some place other.

Right here, right now, these people, this ordinary life – this is where I want to be.

I want to go to there.

Worry less

It was our second date and we’d decided on dinner at a local pub. We were aiming for casual, a place we could wear jeans and not worry too much about impressing each other. We wanted good food and the football game on the TV. We wanted to feel comfortable, because the whole point in dating is to get to know each other, to see what you have in common, and even (*gasp*) to have a little fun.

“You can’t take him there,” they said. “That’s a place you take a co-worker you only kind of like.”

“You can’t take him there,” they said. “That place is too casual.”

They suggested a restaurant down the road from the pub, a fancier place that was more dimly lit with a more interesting menu. “It’s better for a date,” they said.

My friends, they meant well. They consistently want the best for me, and that appears to be true in even the places that I eat. They wanted me to have a good date, which means they wanted to make sure I had a good time, that I was treated well, that I put my best foot forward.

And all those things happened…at the pub.

*****************************

I believe deeply in the good that comes when you live your life in a community of people who love you and have your back. I believe deeply that it’s one of the ways that God loves us and has our backs.

But, one of the problems of community is that their voices often get loud. They often get so loud you can hear them even when they’re not around.

Most of the time, believe me, this is good. Because they’re the voices that echo Jesus, the ones that remind you that God’s business is making good out of bad, or that God is faithful even when we are not, that rest is okay. They’re the voices that encourage you to keep going even when you feel wonky and scared and vulnerable. They’re the voices that will shut up and listen when they know you already know all the things they want to tell you.

Most of the time, their input and suggestions and counsel are worth heeding because they’re people who love you and have your back.

Sometimes though, even when your community loves you and has your back and wants only for you to have a good date, the voice that matters is your own.

*****************************

I knew he was coming home from the beach and would be casually dressed. I knew that I was most comfortable in a place I could wear my favorite jeans, hole in the knee and all. I knew that the food was good, and we’d both be cool watching the pre-season football game if the conversation lulled. And I knew, quite frankly, that I just wanted to go to the pub.

Because here’s the thing, I’m thirty now. I’ve been dating for more than a decade. I’ve been on good dates and bad dates, and the mediocre dates that fall in between. I’ve worried for so long about impressing the guy that I’ve debated about what to wear for more hours than were necessary, and I’ve remained silent when I should have spoken up about things that concerned me, and I’ve not at all been relaxed in the whole dating process.

I was talking to Nickie about this the other day, about how dating is feeling much too much like work and a lot less like fun, and I realized that I have been doing it wrong for so long, and she said, “I say poo poo on what any of us think, though. Do what you want and what makes you comfortable. It’s your life and your relationship, and you live your life well.”

See? Good voices. Voices that love you and have your back.

She’s right, of course. I mean, jury’s still out on the “living your life well” bit, but I don’t think I’m doing a terrible job. However, I have been doing a terrible job of dating, and it is my life, and it is time to do what I want. Or at least, it’s time to start really giving some weight to what I want.

I worry too much though, that is my down fall. I am, more often than not, totally anxiety-ridden. I don’t know what it’s like to be totally relaxed, and I’m not sure I have ever known. When I was a kid I worried about always being the new kid, if I was ever going to fit in, if I was ever going to have real friends who’d hang on even if we had to move again. And so I worried about my clothes and my interests and my speech, because I worried all the time about being liked.

And old habits die hard.

But, I’m learning to put that to death, to be new, to worry less. It’s hard but good work, and I like the person this work is shaping me into. I like the way it’s deepening my relationship with God, and the way it’s giving my faith some real maturity. And I like the ways that my friends are responding to this me that is more comfortable in my skin, when that skin is less polished and a little raw.

So, this is my new mantra: Worry less. And with that, it is a challenge to myself in all the best ways to give myself a little credit, to extend myself a little grace, to trust the person that is exactly who God created me to be.

And it is a challenge to my community, to my friends, to love me even when I may not listen to them and may do my own thing.

Sometimes, believe it or not, worrying less is exactly the right thing.