Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: October 2015

I’m like 30. How do I make a friend again?

Someone asked this question in my cell recently. And it was sincere. I feel it. How do you go from not knowing someone to knowing someone or being there for someone? The prospect is daunting. And it’s more than just my cell mate. This is something everyone feels. I was recently listening to the Judge John Hodgman podcast (a hilarious fake internet court where John Hodgman, who is most famous for being the PC in the Apple commercials a few years ago, settles petty disputes between people who write in to the show). On this show a couple had recently had a baby and the husband wanted to make a concerted effort as a couple to find friends who were parents who would help them adapt to life as parents. The wife was reticent to put the time and energy into making new friends. It was a very interesting dialogue about parenting and how friendships form (there was a guest host so it’s not the same as the show always is but if you want to listen to it, here ya go)

Friendships form when you are young and transient so fluidly. Proximity is a big factor. How many of your good friends were in your algebra class in high school or on your floor in your college dorm? For folks that live close to where they grew up I bet the answer is “most of them”? But what about folks who have moved out of state? How do I make new friends when I’m totally new? The people on the podcast were Christians and they had a lot of friends through church, some of whom had already babysat for this couple’s 12 week old baby. The church looked good. The non-religious hosts were notably flabbergasted by that community.

The problem is that having kids or getting swamped at work or getting consumed by other stress tends to isolate us. Survival mode equals getting responsibilities dispensed and collapsing on the couch. There’s not a whole lot of time or energy left to make a friend or even maintain the friendships you already have. I think the Church often gets put in that expendable category and the community support that is available gets lost in the shuffle too. Church is a great place to make friends, and Circle of Hope especially because cells are, by design, anti-anonymity.

But making the time for others in our lives can often seem really hard, especially if we are wired to love our alone time. No one can get everything they need from solitude. Even those who are wired for alone time are also made for human connection. And if you are a Christian, you have even more incentive to lean into that part of who you were made to be, because it is in your human connections that you have an opportunity to share your connection with Jesus.

For me, it’s kind of what I do. I make friends. I don’t think I’m an expert yet, but I do think that being a Christian helps me do it. Because making friends is dang awkward. If you are going to really make friends with someone, like get beyond the acquaintances level, you’re going to have to cross a threshold. That threshold is sometimes just barely high enough to arrest the movement of the slow rolling ball that is your personhood. It just takes a little push to get over the hump. Other times the barrier is higher–your personal psychology or history makes you more risk averse, or the situations of you and your potential friend just leave the two of you more separate–the leap to friendship seems too far. Making it over that hump or across that separation is hard to do. It takes some faith. You could fear rejection, disappointment, scarcity…

Being a Christian helps me make friends because I get the stuff I need from a source other than these people I am trying to connect with. There’s less on the line in that awkward moment of becoming friends. In response to my cell mate’s question the other week I said “You have to say something sincere. Give honor. Be vulnerable.” Becoming a friend means risking exposure, putting your defenses down to some degree, letting the other in, or coming in when invited by the other. Can I risk entering that territory? What would prevent me? All friendship is spiritual whether both parties have a sense of the spiritual in their life. So if my spirit is secure in God, I am freer to be a friend.

I think identifying our need for true friendship is something in which God is very interested. How do you make a friend? Make friends with God and ask God to help you cross these barriers. Ask God to heal the wounds that fuel your hesitation. This sort of awareness doesn’t happen overnight. But ask and keep asking. Ask every day. I think you’ll get loosened up and opportunities to connect with others will shake out.

You also will need to do the practical thing of putting yourself in situations where you will meet new people. You can’t make friends with someone in your own living room very well (unless you host a cell or invite strangers over often for some other reason). I find that working together on something, being on a team is really helpful for my friendship formation. Let’s do something together. My best friends in college, for example, were those with whom I was protesting the Iraq war (check the pic above). Other friends have come from the work I’ve done forming the West Philly Tool Library, but most of all through the team at Circle of Hope. These are my soul friends. These are the ones I am bound to by more than affinity and my own time and energy. These are the ones I love. It helps that I made a public commitment to them at a Love Feast 14 years ago. That was a REALLY sincere thing to say–the covenant of mutual love in Jesus Christ–it doesn’t get much more sincere than that. You could consider taking that opportunity if you haven’t yet, or you could rededicate yourself to it if you feel like you’re fading out. It will be awkward. You’ll feel a little bit like an “ass-hat,” as my friend just described it, but Jesus will help you get over the hump. Our most recent Love Feast has stirred something among us at Circle of Hope that is drawing us closer together and closer to God in the process. That synergy is why and how we are a Circle of Hope. Let’s keep at it.

I want answers!

“Come on! Give me a straight answer!” My friends have actually said this to me as they get involved in Circle of Hope. They are flummoxed by what they perceive to be my vague responses to direct answers. They’re trying to see if they agree with us but I  am often more interested in why they’re asking the question or what they think the answer to that question is than giving them the company line. “What does Circle of Hope think?” Circle of Hope doesn’t think anything. We are a group of people with almost 700 brains. Our mutual love is what binds us together most. My personal opinion about any number of political or theological issues is much less important than our dialogue with each other and with God.

That notwithstanding we have written a lot of stuff down. We call it our “lore” because “lore” is more about knowledge and collective understanding than data. I think a prejudice toward straight answers has killed a lot of people’s faith in the last couple of hundred years. The “doctrines” we have created, and the “systematic theologies” to which we have shackled ourselves, have yielded a cold precision that has quenched the Spirit and hardened many hearts. If your thinking is rigid it is easily broken. How many times have I met someone who says they’re not a Christian anymore because they believe the science behind evolution! Much of our project as a Church over the past 150 years has painted us into corners like that. It’s all or nothing. The facts are the facts. You’re in or you’re out. When, really, life is much more fluid than that. Most people’s faith is too. And luckily Jesus encourages us in that. Our mustard seed of faith is enough. Our questions are welcome, and most of his answers leave us in awe and confusion, rather than security and certitude.

This is not to say that all that thinking, or thinking in general, is a waste of time. I spent three years studying these systems in seminary and I am enriched by that process, but I will not be bound by any data. I am bound by the living Lord. Jesus Christ is alive among us and he is not domesticated. His whole project was, as he described it, incompatible with the wisdom of the world. He’s the new wine that bursts old wine skins. He’s the new cloth that rips away from the old cloth as soon as you wear the pants a few times. He’s not meant to fit. We are meant to be fit for him.

On our weekly videocast, the pastors demonstrate this general hesitation. I may be the quickest to blurt out my opinion, but that’s more my personality than my conviction. I’m pretty quick to change my mind too. I process things out loud. I may say one thing this week and another the next week. That’s probably because I am a native of Circle of Hope. i grew up in this trust system. I take dialogue for granted and trust those with whom I am talking to correct me, challenge me and love me. We reach conclusions together that are always provisional because we are expectant to hear what the Spirit will say next.

Some things are a bit firmer. Jesus is Lord for example; also our list of proverbs, the Cell Plan and the Sunday Meeting Plan (though we regularly edit these documents in community as we learn more and find ourselves in new circumstances). Again, we have written a lot of stuff down! And maybe that’s the problem: our ongoing dialogue yields lots of content that is not very easily reduced to a few bullet points. We are not “sound-bite-able.”

And yet I continue to try to “soundbite” us. I want to translate what we’re trying to do so 5,000 people could at least know what we’re about, or maybe have a vague  impression of us that rings true before they make it into the dialogue. How can I communicate our lore to them? I must try to figure it out, because to do otherwise is probably hiding our light under a bed. A few of my recent attempts have been

  • We’ve stopped faking it. (We’re real Christians dealing with real life and a real Jesus)
  • We’re in your neighborhood. (Cells are outposts of God’s redemption project that meet all over the region)
  • Easy is boring. (Don’t reduce us to a soundbite)
  • You’re too big. (Self reliance is over rated. Be small. Be save-able.)

What would you add? How would you describe Circle of Hope to someone who knows nothing about us?

The Jesus Story Line

At Circle of Hope this season we’re trying to see Jesus in the everyday. And it’s hard. You might think it’s impossible. But it’s not.

I’m pretty confident about this mostly because I have heard enough stories from enough people from different walks of life and in different circumstances. They’re seeing Jesus in all kinds of ways. I’ve heard enough to trust my own experiences with Jesus. Jesus IS alive and at work in the world. We made the Jesus Story Line to share that reality with each other. Call 856-720-0724 and leave a message with a short story about how you saw Jesus at work in your life. We’re trying to lower the bar on what is acceptably deemed “A Jesus Story.” No need for certainty, no need for the fantastic. The more mundane the better. Check out some of the stories we’ve gathered so far right here.

Our Jesus Story Line Booth at 3800 Marlton Pike

We’re sharing these stories because we need practice seeing and saying. We’re not used to it. We’ve kind of divorced ourselves from our own experience in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to faith. We think our experience is suspect because it’s not verifiable. It’s not authoritative. We’re not experts. There’s a bunch of reasons we doubt our experience.

I think that’s a mistake. We ought to elevate our experience, talk about it so we can trust it. How can we do that in our own heads? We need to tell the story to check it out. Maybe Jesus isn’t showing up in our lives as far as we know because every time he does we jump to another way of explaining our experience. I think that happens a lot but probably what happens more is that we don’t experience much of anything in our lives. We consume it. We let our lives happen to us with little to no reflection. We frame our experience moment by moment, by pleasure or pain, and let each moment pass.

Making meaning out of our experience takes some reflection. Telling stories and listening to other people’s stories is one way to do that. Join us in it! Call the line or come to the meeting, Sundays at 5. If you’re going to be there already, bring someone with you!