Choosing Community

I can spend days in solitude — reading, writing, working on puzzles, going for long walks.  I love to be alone.

In my childhood, I would retreat to my room to listen to the same song over and over again on a record player, spend hours in the side yard of our house twirling my baton, read a whole afternoon away in the living room recliner, and take solo rides on my bike to the boundaries of the small town I grew up in.

As an adult,  I have looked forward to whatever private moments I have been able to carve out for myself — reading, writing, walking.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my friends and family with a deep committed love.  However,  while I enjoy lively family dinners and picnics with friends, I also long to retreat to solitude — sometimes to a fault.

In fact, when the going gets tough — when I am battling interior or exterior demons — I tend to go a little beyond solitude to isolation.  If my troubles seem a bit too heavy to bear, I might bunker down in a small cubicle on the top floor of a library every evening for an entire semester, for example. If I’m barely surviving my responsibilities, I might put on a veneer of friendliness over a heavily armored soul before venturing out among the citizenry.  I am not quick to reach out; I am sure to turn in.

My husband, on the other hand, is very intentional about connecting with others.  Wherever we have been, he has initiated small group interaction.  He believes so strongly in the power of  community that he makes it happen, often in spite of my foot dragging.

“I’d like to start a small group in our house on Saturday nights.  Ok?”

Every Saturday night? Who? Why?

My introverted self whines and moans,  and then I tidy the house, make some food, and open the door.  I’m always glad I did, but it is not in my nature to initiate it.  I tend toward the solitary.

In St. Louis, we led a small group community that started one Monday night when my husband said, “I invited two guys over tonight.  You don’t have to do anything, but I think they are going to come every week.”   I sighed and grumbled “every week?” as I quickly kicked shoes into closets and threw dishes into cupboards.

I’d been soldiering internally at the time, and I wasn’t looking forward to anyone getting too close.  The thin veneer that I wore into public spaces was tenuous at best.  We were a bit of a mess, truth be told, and I didn’t want anyone to see the ugly underbelly of our lives.  However, my husband had been pressing for community, so finally, I gave in.  What harm could a couple of grad students bring?  Certainly we would be caring for them in their struggles, not vice versa.  I could easily keep them at arm’s length.

They arrived after dinner — two young single guys who hadn’t eaten.  We sat in our living room and chatted, read a few Bible verses, and prayed.  At the end of an hour I heard myself telling them to arrive a little earlier the next week;  I would have a meal ready for them.  Before long, the two grew to about twenty young adults who crammed into our living room every week, eating whatever I happened to scrounge together.  Sometimes we had guitar playing and singing, sometimes pranks and laughter, sometimes headier conversations.

At first, I maintained my comfortable food provider/discussion leader role, veneer firmly in place, but those kids had a habit of showing up, petting our dog, talking to our kids, lying around on our floor, and making me laugh that allowed them to worm their way beneath the armor and into my heart. This soldier who marched down school hallways kicking butts and taking names all day long, often went home on Monday nights, made a meal, and then quietly wept as these kids prayed for us — for our lives, for our children, for our health, for our future.  When my husband moved to Ann Arbor a year before me, they kept coming to our house every Monday night without fail.  They were a constant encouragement and a source of unconditional love.  Toward the end, as we were emptying our house for the final move, they lugged furniture, painted walls, and scrubbed floors beside us.

I grieved leaving that group more than anything else that we left in St. Louis. They had taught me the value of community — of sharing life together, of listening to one another’s concerns, of helping to carry one another’s loads. Certainly, I thought, I would never find that kind of connection again.

I was wrong.  Since I’ve been in Ann Arbor, I have had plenty of solitude and time for reflection, but I have also repeatedly found myself in close community. I landed in my Bible study battalion almost the minute I got here.  Soon after that, I was sweetly surprised by reuniting with a college suite-mate who meets me for mall-walking that often leads to burden-sharing and tear-wiping — right there among the shoppers. A little over a year ago, I started getting out of bed at 6 am twice a month to join four other women for breakfast — we’ve read several books together and have grown close as we’ve discussed how these texts apply to our individual journeys. We are learning together how to be vulnerable, how to support one another, and how to take off our armor in the safe space that we have created.

Additionally, my husband and I have together recently joined a small group with other members of our congregation and are part of a launch team for a new worship service at our church.  In each group we are hearing stories, making connections, and finding meaning.  We’re leaning in to difficult conversations, we’re praying over one another, and we’re building community.

I am continually overwhelmed by the richness of these relationships — the kind that can see the underbelly with compassion rather than judgment, that can sit in the difficulty rather than searching for solutions, that can both laugh and cry within the space of an hour.

I had learned these lessons earlier in life, to be sure, but in my soldiering years I forgot,  probably because I was so intent on guarding, protecting, and surviving.  I didn’t want to let anyone in; I didn’t want them to look under the armor and find out that I was wounded and weak.

Truthfully, it doesn’t always feel pleasant to peel off the armor and expose what’s beneath.  I would prefer to keep my unspoken broken* just that, but in the safety of close community, wounds are witnessed, tears are shed, and healing begins.  And not just mine.

As it turns out, everyone has their stuff — their unspoken broken — health issues, failed relationships, struggles with work, and money, and time.  The surprise to me was that when others saw the pus-filled wounds beneath my armor, they didn’t gag and look away; they leaned in, applied some balm, and showed me their own scars. I didn’t feel judged, but loved.

Building community takes bravery, commitment, and time.  It’s worth it, even for a lone soldier like me.

Hebrews 10:25

Continue meeting together, encourage one another.

*Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way

Tell Me Your Story

I am a hypocrite.  Although I have stood on my soapbox pointing out injustices and crying out for equity, I am a prejudiced person.  I’m racist. I’m classist. I’m sexist.  And that’s only the beginning of it.  I’ll judge a person based on one Facebook status.  I’ll incriminate a whole group of people for their stance on whether they think athletes should stand for the National Anthem or not. I’ll sort you into a group so fast, it’ll make your head spin.

It’s embarrassing, actually.  I’ve lived my professional life encouraging students to write narratives – to tell their stories of defining life moments — their parents’ divorce, the death of a sibling, a betrayal of friendship, a proclamation of love. These stories cross all lines of race, class, gender, political affiliation, music preference, and lifestyle choice.  Our stories reveal our humanity; they bind us to one another.

In my classroom I have made space for students to laugh with one another, cry with one another, challenge one another, and embrace one another.  I, too, have laughed, cried, challenged, and embraced.  I have revealed my humanity to an audience of twenty or so students at a time.  I have met and loved kids who are rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Arabic, Christian, atheist, Jewish, Hindu, male, female, gay, straight, fat, thin, extroverted, introverted, funny, serious,…

It’s not hard to love someone – anyone – once you have heard his or her story.  But you’ve got to take the risk of getting close enough to hear their story.  That’s the challenge for me, because I’m prejudiced.  Before I even hear your voice I have made all kinds of assumptions about you.  I have looked at your hair, your clothing, your skin color, and your car. I have seen who you hang out with, what you share on Facebook, and what you retweet on Twitter. I know who you are, I think to myself.  You are ‘that kind’ of person.  I sort you into a clump and make assumptions about you before I have even asked you one question.

Last week I returned to a job that I left about two and a half years ago.  Since I left, my former supervisor, who I loved, had to leave her position for health reasons.  I had had a couple interactions with the woman who took her place, but before I had even worked with her one day, I had decided that since she wasn’t my previous supervisor she would be not as amazing, not as on top of things. I pre-judged her.  The other day, for the last hour of a two-day-long training, the new supervisor partnered with me for some role-playing activities, and I got my first up-close glance at her personality and heard the first few lines of her story.  My prejudices were confirmed but they were also dashed – She isn’t, actually, exactly like my previous supervisor; rather, she has her own unique personality and gifts. (Shocking, I know.)  I wasn’t anticipating laughing out loud with my new supervisor as she pretended to be a rather precocious nine-year old to my role of reading instructor, but there we were – giggling like close friends lost in make-believe.

Brené Brown says in Braving the Wilderness, “People are hard to hate close up.  Move in.” From a distance, even the length of my arm, I can keep you handily sorted into a category – liberal, conservative, educated, ignorant, friend, or foe.  However, if I take the chance to ask you, “what’s your story,” everything can change.  My beliefs can be challenged, my assumptions destroyed, my heart opened.

Years ago I picked up my first Jodi Picoult book; I believe it was My Sister’s Keeper. It’s the story of a girl who was conceived by her parents in the hope that she would be a donor match for her critically ill older sibling.  Gasp!  One glance at that premise and I formed an opinion.  How could they?  What kind of parents….? However, Picoult, I soon learned, is a master at using narrative to bring her readers in close to see issues in their complexity – issues that most of us find ourselves firmly positioned on – euthanasia, gun violence, infidelity, and the like.  She weaves her narratives, often from multiple points of view, to expose these issues as more than dichotomies.  She can move me from my Gasp! How could they? to a Wow! I can’t even imagine what kind of love that is! in 400 pages or less!

Real-life stories are no different from fictional narratives – they are full of complexity and factors that don’t appear on the surface. If I judge someone based on her skin color, clothing, language choices, or friends, I am missing out!  I am missing her story – all the characters and plot twists that have led her to today.  Not only that, I am diminishing her humanity – I am relegating her to a category rather than appreciating her individuality. Most importantly, I am denying the connectedness that she and I share as members of humanity – children of the Creator.

On Sunday (Jan 7, 2018), our pastor, Gabe Kasper, spoke about the necessity for genuine relationships in the church (read or listen to the full-text here).  He said that genuine relationships are characterized by vulnerability, empathy, love, and the willing of good for the other person.  Often we don’t enter into such relationships because 1) we are afraid of getting close to people, and 2) we don’t want to take the time.  However, if we are willing to take the risk to move in just a little closer, to ask others to tell us a little piece of their story, everything — EVERYTHING – can change.  Story has the power to transform us – our understandings, our experience of life, and our relationships. Imagine the impact of a couple hundred people who have chosen to be vulnerable, empathetic, loving, and supportive of one another. Intentionally and consistently. What ripple effect might that have?

Are we willing to, knowing better, do better.  Are we willing to call out our prejudices and stereotypes?  Are we willing to set those aside, move in a little closer, and take the time to hear the stories of people who may not be just like us?

Consider this: Because I am a 51 year old white woman who has been a teacher and a pastor’s wife, you may draw some assumptions about me.  You might be pre-disposed to believe certain things  – that I’m Christian, heterosexual, pro-life, Republican, and financially secure. You might believe that my family is immune from tragedies such as chronic illness, sexual assault, alcoholism, eating disorders, family conflict, depression, or anxiety.  Some of your assumptions may be right; some would certainly be wrong.  How will you know which is which? You will have to lean in and listen to my story.

Some of the things you learn about me might be confusing.  They might challenge you.  You might not agree with me.  You might choose to walk beside me anyway, and in that walking, I might learn some things about you that are confusing and that challenge me.  I picture us taking lots of long walks together, learning about one another and growing together.

I am picturing that if we are willing to take the chance to move in close and learn the stories of those who we might have previously sorted into categories, our assumptions will be destroyed, and we will never be the same again.

Romans 12:10

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

 

Mutual Friends

I have underestimated the power of friendship.  If I sit and think about all the people I have loved or been loved by over the years, I have to admit that I have not been a very good friend.  I mean I have had the kind of friends who drive hours just to meet me for lunch.  I have had the kind of friends who drop what they are doing to stay with my kids for the weekend.  I have had the kind of friends who, after having not heard from me for months, will pick up the phone and continue a conversation as though it was started five minutes ago.  But I’ve not always been that kind of friend.

Rather, I’m sometimes the friend who screens calls, is too busy to grab coffee, and who leaves church during the last song just so I can avoid talking after the service.  Sigh.  I can call it introversion if I want, but really, I’m just not always a great friend.

So, before I get bogged down in guilt and regret, let me share with you what I’ve learned from some of my friends in the past week.

I meet with a group of gals one morning every other week. We call ourselves The Breakfast Club. We are reading through a book together.  We gather to share insights, to pray, to eat, and to encourage one another. Last week, I was headed to this group with an overwhelming emotional burden.  I knew we were supposed to discuss chapter 4 of our book, but I didn’t even take the book with me. Instead, I hijacked the study, shared my burden, and asked the others to just sit with me in my grief.  They sandwiched me between them on the couch, heard the story, and wept with me.

Over the weekend, I gathered with 120 other pastors’ wives from across the state of Michigan. Most of us only see each other once a year, but this sisterhood is strong. We come from diverse backgrounds, we are in different stages of life, and we have a variety of experiences,  but for one weekend a year we laugh together, eat together, sing together, and study together.  In the midst that community experience, sisters share stories. They bear one another’s burdens.  They encourage one another.

Yesterday, on my fourteenth day of this autoimmune flare, feeling the need for some support from others who could relate, I posted on a Facebook group for those who suffer with psoriatic arthritis. I asked a question.  Just one question.  Within moments the responses started.  In the last twenty-four hours, twelve women have responded with information, encouragement, and shared experiences.  Several of these women have been continuing the conversation with me.  I picture us all in our beds or on our couches, feet propped, joints iced or heated, phones in hand, gathering strength from one another. I’m in Michigan, another is in New Jersey;  one is in Australia, another is in the state of Washington.  We are different ages and surely have different personalities, political bents, and religious beliefs.  We have never met or heard of each other before yesterday, but we are buoyed by one another.

When I was in college, I took a couple of semesters of sign language, and still, a hundred years later, some of the signs stick in my head.  One, in particular, is the sign for ‘friend’. Like other signs, the sign for ‘friend’ requires movement.  One index finger is hooked over the other —  a weight depending on the other finger to hold it.  The fingers then change places.  Each finger takes a turn bearing the weight of the other.  I need this visual from time to time.  Too often I am willing to be the top finger, the one that depends on the other to hold me up.  Or, I clench my fingers into a fist, determining that I will rely on no one, thank you very much.  I forget the beauty in the mutuality of friendship.

Yesterday, I opened the mail to find a thank you note from one of my breakfast club friends.  She thanked me for sharing my burden with her last week. She said, “thank you for inviting us to cry with you.”  I was overwhelmed by her thoughtfulness.  Instead of allowing me to feel like I had used the group for my benefit, she implied that my request for support had been a blessing.

That’s how friendship works, isn’t it?  We, sometimes without even knowing it, support and are supported by one another.  And, in this mutuality, we are encouraged. We are reminded that we are not alone.

It takes some risk to invite someone into your life, to allow them to see your vulnerability, your cares, your weakness.  But be encouraged; in the sharing, in the asking, you are inviting a response — a response that builds a bond of friendship.  And let’s be honest, life is much better because of our friends.

Galatians 6:2

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.