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.

Unlearning

Last week, I found an old journal at the bottom of a stack of books. It’s holding together with packing tape, and I realize now how hard I was on that black faux Moleskin in the two years I used it.

I took that black faux Moleskin with me when I still went to the small church, and I took it with me when I started attending the big church. And scanning the pages front to back, I can see the ways God was working on me, sometimes even at me, changing me and maturing my faith.

Somewhere in the early part of 2011, I stopped taking sermon notes for awhile. Or I’d start taking sermon notes, get distracted by a question I had about what was being taught, and wrestle on the rest of the page about what wasn’t sitting so well with me.

Looking back, I know that God was leading me away from the way I had always done things and prompting me to open myself up to the greater ways He could work and maneuver and move in the world. He was guiding me into deeper faith, into greater knowledge of who He is, and into better ways of loving.

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I told one of my Bible study girls not too long ago that I feel like I’m in a season of un-learning. I told her that I think this way we were raised in church with the sense of “right-ness” hadn’t opened me up to experiencing people who were different than me, because I was so concerned that they were “wrong” in their sin and needed to get back on the “right” path. I told her that what I know now is that those were never really my calls to make, and that probably all Jesus wants me to do is listen to them, and extend a little love, and let them know they aren’t alone.

I told her that I can’t get the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman out of my head, and that I think maybe I should follow His example a bit more. She said that following Jesus’ example is probably always going to be the right call.

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'Rat Hunting - Kalasin drinking = shot + water' photo (c) 2007, Marshall Astor - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

This is what keeps sticking with me about the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman – He never calls her a sinner. He never once tells her that she’s going down the “wrong” road, and He never tells her that if she doesn’t start doing things the “right” way that she’s going to Hell. What He does instead, it seems to me, is listen and offer another way of doing things:

You can keep pulling water from this well that you’ve always been pulling from and you can keep being thirsty, or you can let me give you living water.

The woman, of course, knows that her life could be counted by her failed relationships. She knows that she’s marked as an outsider by her race and her gender, and she knows that she’s connecting to men in a desperate attempt to feel not so alone in the world. She knows what’s up, and she doesn’t need another man on his religious high-horse telling her how screwed up she is. It seems that what she needs is someone to sit down and recognize her pain. What she needs is someone to get that she gets that she’s a mess, and she needs someone to look her in the eye and offer real help. What she needs is someone to give her a drink.

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I was raised in church and I wouldn’t want to change that, don’t get me wrong. In fact, I told my dad the other day that being in youth group in high school saved me, that having friends probably kept me from making a lot of reckless decisions in a desperate attempt to feel not so alone in the world. And for that I will always be grateful.

But…

I’ve spent most of my life in the church and I’ve spent most of my life feeling small, and those aren’t two things you want anyone to experience at the same time. So, I’m thinking that there’s got to be a better way, a more Jesus-like way of being in the world. And I’m thinking that probably starts with letting Jesus be Jesus and giving myself permission to just be me, and then getting on with the work He’s called me to do.

And that work, I think, starts with sitting down, listening to people, hearing their pain, and offering them a drink of water.

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” –John 4:13-14

Family places

I often tell stories about my Tuesday Night Bible Study. Not about the things we talk about together, because that is sacred, but about those women and what we have come to mean to each other over the years.

We’ve been Church for each other when being in the local church has been disheartening, and when we’ve wanted to walk away from it altogether. We’ve been prayer warriors when the days have been hard and the nights rocking babies or writing papers have been even longer. We’ve been cupcake bakers celebrating birthdays, and casserole makers mourning losses. We’ve cried and laughed and hugged, and have logged more hours together than we’ve logged with some of our oldest friends.

We are each other’s people. We are community.

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“When you walk with someone, listen to their story, carry their burden, play with their kids, that’s community. When you pray for them in the middle of the night because their face popped into your mind, when you find yourself learning from them and inviting them more and more often into the family places in your life, that’s community, and wherever you find it, it’s always a gift.” –Shauna Niequist, Bittersweet

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Part gym, part reception hall, all fun.
Part gym, part reception hall, all fun.

The thing about being somebody’s people is that it means sometimes being in the family places means you are literally in the family places, like a wedding.

It means that sometimes you spend a Friday night hanging stars and laying out place cards with table numbers, helping to turn an elementary school gym into a reception hall. It means that you sit down with your friend’s Aunt Pat and you listen to stories about Buffalo, New York and growing up in the projects. It means you put on a sundress and a pair of flats, and you use your Saturday helping your friend’s sister’s wedding be an unforgettable time of celebration, making sure the champagne stays cold and the tea and lemonade containers stay full. It means you stay long after most the other guests have left, stacking chairs and taking down stars and mopping floors to turn the reception hall back into a gym. And it means that after your friend’s sister has finished opening her gifts with her new husband, you hear your friend when she talks about how quiet life is about to get now that her sister has moved out.

Because this is a family place, and family places are sacred. They are as sacred as the Tuesday night time we spend together with our Bibles open.

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I think maybe the blurry line of what is sacred is the gift of community, because I can’t tell anymore when I’m with these friends when one holy moment ends and another one starts. I think maybe God has met us more in moments when we’re sitting on the floor knee-to-knee talking about our days then He has in some of the forced conversations we’ve had following the questions in some book. And I know He was with us in that gym-reception hall this weekend when we mopped and talked and showed up for one of our own.

This is community. This is a family place.  And even if you find it in an elementary school gym, it is a gift.

Good Friday

'Addolorata' photo (c) 2005, Giovanni - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

I keep thinking about how today is Good Friday, about how it’s the day of His death, and about my friends who are experiencing death in the realest of ways today.

There were several writers at the conference last week that kept referencing a quote by another famous writer, Barbara Johnson, who said that Christians are Easter people living in a Good Friday world.

Today feels like Good Friday.

One of the writers said that maybe we Christians are too quick to rush to Easter. He said that we have to remember that we can’t get to Easter without Good Friday, and he wondered if maybe too often we want to rush through Good Friday because sitting in the pain of it is just too hard.

I’ve been trying today to just sit in the pain. I find myself crying for my friends, for the baby I won’t get to meet and that they won’t ever hold. I try to liken it to the loss that God experienced when His Son died, but it’s too much for my head and my heart too hold. And I think at those times in this day that maybe that writer is right, that sitting in the pain of it is just too hard.

Lauren Winner says that if we sit in our hurts long enough, if we’re patient in them, then they have something to teach us. That if we can be still, even if just for five minutes, that the loneliness or anger or sadness has a lesson for us. I think she means there’s a God-truth somewhere. That if we sit in the pain and hurt and somehow find a way to invite God into it that we’ll learn something about Him we hadn’t known. Or maybe it’ll give some texture to something we already know. Like, what it is to have compassion. Like, what it is to sit with someone without sermonizing. Like, what it is to pray something – “Father, not as I will, but as You will” – when it’s the hardest thing to pray.

I find myself sitting in the pain of today only thinking that is Good Friday. That it is the day of death, the day of suffering, the day of loss and grief and pain.

And I don’t want to rush through the pain of today with distractions and inattention. Because it doesn’t honor my friends who are suffering through today, and I don’t think it honors the Good Friday part of this Easter weekend.

“It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last.” (Mark 23:44-46)

I feel the cloud, the darkness, the failing sun today. And I’m glad to be leaving for church soon, to sit with my oldest friend and take communion and sit in prayer and be reminded that yes, today is Good Friday, but Easter is coming.

Easter is coming. Hallelujah!

The best yes

When I was asked to teach the youth girls Sunday school at my home church, I was 23, newly back to the area, starting a graduate program in counseling psychology, not sure if I even wanted to be at my home church, and had absolutely no idea what I was saying “yes” to.

I thought I was saying yes to an hour a week on Sunday morning, plus whatever time it took to prepare the lesson – which, honestly, in the beginning wasn’t much.  I’d read the plan from the book, read the verses, check the cross references, come up with a couple of questions and call it a day.  I thought it was going to be an easy ride that I totally had a handle on before I even got into it.

It took approximately four minutes after Sunday school ended that first week for me to realize that I had a handle on exactly nothing. Turns out,  I had said yes to giving out my cell phone number, being friends on Facebook, and picking girls up from school to take them out for cups of coffee or frozen yogurt. I had said yes to questions about whom I was dating or why I wasn’t dating, about what I was like in high school and college, about whether or not I thought their gay friends were going to hell. I had said yes to chaperoning other events, teaching even more Bible studies, and counseling in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

Turns out that when you say “yes” to working with teenagers, you say “yes” to being someone in their lives pretty darn quickly.

And hands down, it remains the best “yes” I’ve ever given in my life.

A whole pack of beautiful.
A whole pack of beautiful.

I haven’t been actively involved in youth ministry in over a year. I haven’t chaperoned camp, or retreat, or a Friday night game night in more than twelve months. I haven’t prepared a lesson, or made notes on a white board, or shushed someone for talking too much.  But, I don’t think I’m any less their teacher. And I think they still have a thing or two to teach me too.

I tell my girls, most now in college, that the time we had in youth group was special – a gift from God that He used to grow us all up. And it seems to me that He’s not done with that particular task just yet.

Because the texts messages I get from them wanting to tell me a funny story about their days haven’t stopped.  They still want to get together for coffee to talk about the boys they like, and the fights they’re having with their friends, and the ways they are or aren’t seeing God moving in their lives.

Because I still pray for them all the time, their names always on the tip of my heart.  I still always want to hear their funny stories and boy dramas. I still want to sit with them as they’re figuring out who they are in their relationships, and who they are in the world.  And I still want to know what they’re thinking as they think about God, and church, and this whole faith thing.

Some of my girls helped me get old.

Seven years ago in that Sunday school class we built a little community. And God’s still showing up in it.

He’s showing up even though we’re in different churches, and in different states, and in different life phases.  He’s still using us to encourage each other, and to pray for each other from the deep heart places, and to prod each other forward in this race that is life.

Seven years later, they’re not teenagers anymore, but they’re still my girls. And I can’t think about them without crying, because apparently part of my growing up is becoming mushy and because I’m so grateful for the gift of our little community.

I’m grateful for the questions they ask that challenge the things of God I accepted just because I was taught them as a kid. I’m grateful for their abilities to laugh easily and loudly, and I’m grateful that they’ve taken it on as a kind of game to make me laugh until I can’t catch my breath.  I’m grateful for the wide open way that they love, often expressed in hugs that are more like flying into each other. I’m grateful for their honesty, and the ease with which they ask for help.  I’m grateful that they know me well, and I’m grateful that even after all these years they know sometimes I just need time all to myself. I’m grateful that they blow up my phone with text messages and tweets, and I’m grateful that as they move into adulthood that they still want to include their old Sunday school teacher.

Mostly though, I’m grateful that when I said “yes” seven years ago that they said “yes” to me.

Yes, we have things to learn together. Yes, we want you here. Yes, you’re welcome here.

Now, I’m just thinking out loud here, but…

What if the church at large starting saying a similar “yes” to the world at large?

I think maybe that would be the best “yes” ever.

Once in a lifetime people

I’m writing this quick, scarfing beef stew and trying to get out the door because I have to be somewhere in less than an hour.  Um…yeah….I’m going to be late.

Because just a few minutes ago I got a great text message from one of “my girls,” and it made me think so many great things that I had to tell you about it.  HAD. TO.

Text message: "This made me think of you"
Text message: “This made me think of you”

I call them “my girls” because I’m not sure what else to call them.  They’re all in college, and they’re mostly in their twenties, and now we’re trying to figure out exactly what we are to each other.  I’m not their teacher, they’re not my students. I’m not their leader, they’re not my youth.  We’re not peers, but we are friends, and we matter to each other. We care deeply about one another, and we’re all better when we’re in together than when we’re not.

Shauna Niequist writes about her girls in Cold Tangerines and she calls them puppies, because in a season of teenage turmoil (for the girls) and twenty-something angst (for her) they found a place in their small group that felt as safe as being curled up in a box with all their puppy-friends.  This makes sense to me, so sometimes I call my girls “puppies”, and sometimes we woof at each other, and always we send the doggie emoticon over iMessage.

Doggie emoticon
Emoticons can say so much.

And this is what I HAD TO tell you — Youth ministry is awesome! Teenagers are awesome!  This is  the 1 Peter kind of mentoring/shepherding that we’re supposed to be doing, and it’s is no joke.  It matters.  It matters to the girls (or guys) you’re investing in, and it matters for you.  Because it honors the relational God who set it up in the first place.

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Mrs. Jean was that “once in a lifetime person” for me.  She taught my eighth grade Sunday school class, and she chaperoned the first mission trip I ever went on, and on that trip she ended up being the only other person from my church in the group painting houses in small-town Tennessee.  I was a smart-mouthed thirteen year old and she was a snarky woman my grandmother’s age, and we got along as if there were no age gap between us.

And long after I’d gone to college and she’d stopped serving in the youth ministry, we’d catch up on Sundays, sitting in a pew after service, and she would always ask me, “Are you staying out of trouble?” and I’d always say, “No,” and she’d always say “Good for you, Ornery.”  She always called me Ornery, as if it were my name, and I think sometimes that she understood me better than I understood myself.

Mrs. Jean saw me.  She saw past my thirteen year old awkwardness and anger, and she saw me. And she believed in me and she loved me in spite of myself, and being loved by her made all the difference.  Her love for me helped me grow up into someone who believes that God is good despite how bad the world may seem, and who seeks to find things to laugh about.  And she loved me right into being a youth leader myself, because I experienced what it is to have someone see me and believe in me and love me right into the person she always knew I was.

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Now I’m sitting on the other side, with my own girls whom I love and believe in, and am watching become exactly who I always knew they were.  And I’m full to bursting tonight because I know God is really happy for all of us.  Because it’s exactly what He wanted all along —

“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 1:1-5)