Category Archives: friendship

Is God Holding out on You?

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I have a friend who was so hurt over a broken relationship that she became obsessed with the offending party’s wrongs. In fact, she looked for new offenses, each new one a confirmation of her own “rightness.” In doing so, she was blind to her own ungracious heart, and by focusing all of her attention on the matter, she made it an idol.  I’d like to say I don’t get it, but I do. There are times I’d rather be vindicated than obey God’s command to worship him only and to love others. After all, “worship” literally means to “ascribe worth.” How many pointless arguments and vain pursuits do we attribute worth by giving them attention and energy, and what lengths do we take to justify ourselves in the process?

The temptation of Adam and Eve began in their minds, as all temptation does. Did you catch the subtle, slimy tactics that the serpent used? At first, the serpent hints that God’s instructions aren’t reliable. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Then the suggestion that God is actually holding out on them is served up like a delicious dessert:

“God knows that when you eat of [this tree], your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Shadows are thrown on God’s character and motives. This divide and conquer tactic is extremely effective. You are off the hook for your own bad behavior, while doubts are thrown on the other person or on God. All you have to do is hint at someone’s shortcomings or failures, and you come out smelling like a rose. Commonly known as throwing someone under the bus, it ain’t pretty. The ensuing division is the loose thread that unravels the entire garment of community and friendships. Sometimes, we even throw God under the bus, rather than do the right thing.

I am most tempted in this way when I’ve been offended or wronged. Those are the times when that “love your neighbor” rule goes out the window, and I’m ready to drop-kick someone under the bus!  I put more importance then on being justified versus trusting God to grow me past the offense.

What about you?  Can you think of situations where it has been easier to blame and cast aspersions on others versus obeying the command to forgive, to trust, and to honor God first with our attention and energy?

On a side note: If you find yourself tripping up over whether or not there was a real serpent, a real garden, or a real Adam and Eve, can I just offer a suggestion?  Get past that argument and remember that the accounts in the Bible are given to point us to God and tell his story.  They teach us about God’s character, God’s relationship to us, and how we can and should relate to God and to one another. So rather than getting all hung up in the “literal or not” argument, just ask yourself, “What can I learn about God in this story?”

Where are you?

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Can I just let you in on a little secret? I have never liked women’s events, whether at work or at church.  Girl’s night out? Not a big priority. Honestly, Barry and I such great friends that I never saw girl time as an urgent need. Besides, women can just be so…complicated. Am I right?

Lately, though, I’ve come to see how important girlfriends are. There are some things, for instance, that my girlfriends understand instantly, while I could spend hours trying to explain the same thing to Barry—and he still might not get it. (Don’t get me wrong. I’m crazy about this guy. But, let’s face it, he can’t be my girlfriend, and it isn’t fair to expect him to be.)

But friendships are costly. I have to be real, let someone see my warts, and open my heart to risk. I have to deal with other people’s stuff too. Truthfully, I’d rather sit on my couch!

But friendship is worth the price of undignified pursuit. In the story of the garden, God shares a perfect friendship with Adam and Eve until they betray him and hide. But God leaves all sense of personal pride behind and bolts after them, searching through the garden, calling “Where are you?”  It is a picture of loss. The trust, ease of friendship, and sweet companionship enjoyed between man and God is gone, replaced by shame, awkwardness, division, mistrust, and fear. Anyone who has suffered a divorce or even a falling out between friends can relate. We say to ourselves, “It wasn’t mean to be this way.”

And we’re right. It wasn’t! We were designed to share friendship with God and one another. After all, God himself declared of’ Adam’s solitary state, “It is not good.” Barring those momentary times when hiding under the covers sounds perfect, we all know that we need friends. We need family. We need soul mates.

Ecclesiastes puts it this way:

Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts. For if either falls, his companion can lift him up…And if someone overpowers one person, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.   Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

If friendship is such a good thing, why do we sometimes avoid the effort? Could it be that our ability to give and receive is in direct proportion to our ability to trust God? Is is possible that if we trust God completely to be all we need, we free those around us from the tyranny of our expectations, and free ourselves to just love people where they are and receive whatever they have to give?

The Faces across a Table

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There are few things more satisfying than scanning a dinner table or looking across my kitchen counter to see the faces of people I love.  Even when it includes those oddball characters no one quite knows what to do with (you know who you are).

You know the ones. They have a real knack for artfully–almost poetically–saying exactly the wrong thing.

Yeah, even them.  Maybe especially them.

In fact, those are the very people who usually make things more interesting. Like the other night when one of my son’s friends went off on a rant about anti-depressants. He said, “Not to be graphic” (so we braced ourselves), and then he went on to describe scientifically (and graphically) why antidepressants take all the umph out of orgasms.

Really?  Hmm.  Didn’t know that.  “Coffee anyone?”

Or there was the recent dinner when my nephew was home from college with two friends. I overheard one family member  talking about the politics of homosexuality with one of the friends. (To his credit, the young man maintained a remarkable poker face. Didn’t even flinch.)

I sat for a moment that night taking it all in. I scanned the table, watching everyone joke and gesticulate, while they stuffed faces full with pizza and somehow still managed to share stories, tall tales, gross exaggerations, good-natured ribbing, and belly laughs—all without bringing soda up their noses.

Somehow it was all so….glorious.  So wonderfully and beautifully imperfect. No matter what is being served or where, if I can look across a table or a room into the eyes of someone I love, it is all so very, very good.

Encouragement in a "New York Super Fudge Chunk" Minute

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On Monday, I was at a Christmas party where I somehow ended up talking with my friend Jeanne about our first jobs. I laughed when I recalled my first job at Baskin Robbins where I quickly gained 10 lbs.!

“What was your favorite flavor?” she asked, awaiting my answer with the eager anticipation of a 10-year-old.

“Pralines and creme.”

“No way!” she said, “Me too!”  We were fast becoming secret ice cream buddies. I had to admit, though, that I’d moved on from Baskin Robbins:
“As far as I’m concerned, there is no greater flavor this side of paradise than Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk.”

“No way!” she said, “That’s my favorite too!” she gasped. We soon forgot everyone around us while we gushed about the rich, dense dark chocolate ice cream filled with dark and white chocolate gobs, as well as huge fat chunks of walnuts. Ah…divinity.

The next day, my husband and I received some long-dreaded disheartening news regarding a family matter.  Jeanne called me later to just say she was thinking of us and if I wanted to get together for coffee, she was available.  Later she called again, “I’d really like to stop by and give you something. Will you be home tomorrow?”

Today she showed up on my doorstep with a Christmas bag. Jeanne makes beautiful handmade jewelry, so I thought maybe she had brought me one of her creations.  She insisted I open it right away.  Inside were four pints of Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk Ice Cream. FOUR PINTS!  Do you know what GOLD this is? This, my friends, is love.

Never underestimate the power of New York Super Fudge Chunk.  More important–never underestimate the power of a thoughtful gesture, even a silly one, to bring encouragement. Jeanne didn’t help my waistline, but the fact that she took the time to go buy 4 pints of Ben and Jerry’s and bring it to me…well, how can you put a price on friendship like that?

© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

My First White Friend

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Patricia Raybon

Patricia Raybon

Friendships that transcend color and culture barriers have always fascinated me, so when I first heard of Patricia Raybon’s book, My First White Friend, I knew it was a reading list priority. Normally, I would go into the book itself here, but my personal interest in the book will explain much of my reaction to it.

My parents, Alabama born and bred, were careful to raise my sister and me with the belief that we were no better and no worse than anyone else. They taught us to respect people of all colors and to appreciate differences, but as I was growing up, the South was still fairly segregated—not so much by law anymore as by choice.

When I was 18, though, I moved to Amsterdam where I worked with an international mission organization. I was smitten with cross-cultural life. I thrived on the discovery of living and eating like the locals, enjoying their traditions, customs, and quirky sayings. In turn, I learned to appreciate the quirks and eccentricities of my own culture and language in the process.

The fun of cross-cultural and interracial friendships is in the exchange. Once you get past all the little nuances, though, you realize that we’re all just people. The rest is secondary. Fun. Intriguing, Fascinating. Sometimes frustrating. But always secondary.

But when it comes to African American culture, I learned over the years just how hard it is to reach across the fence and find someone willing to reach back. I learned, in fact, that this fence isn’t so much about language or culture. Rather, this is a well-fortified wall of mistrust, hurt, and anger over any number of insults that African Americans have suffered. I also sense that there is, within the African American community, some sort of mantra that goes something like this: “Be polite. Be kind. But don’t trust.”

Eddie Huff

Eddie Huff

My black friends (those brave enough to reach back across the fence and such gold to me) taught me, through their stories, what racism looks like on a very personal level, and that’s what Raybon’s book does as well. I have heard stories like hers before from friends, colleagues and even students. It always shocks me. I know racist behavior happens every day, but because I am eager to transcend barriers, I’m still surprised when I hear about those who are not. It’s a shame. They miss so much.

Eddie Huff, now a talk show host, was the first black friend who reached across that fence to me. Actually, he jokes that I was his first teenage daughter.  I lived with Eddie and his wife Vickie while serving with the mission I mentioned earlier. Vickie, who is white, was a little nervous when I first moved in. Here I was, this young white girl from Tennessee that the mission had placed in their home. (Ironically, my roommate, yet to arrive, was a white woman from South Africa!) Eddie wasn’t home when I arrived, suitcases in hand. Vickie, a lovely, gracious woman, helped me move in and made me welcome. While we were lugging suitcases up the stairs, she suddenly stopped, turned around and looked at me, and said, “There’s something I need to tell you about my husband.” All kinds of scenarios raced through my head.  He’s a paraplegic. He’s deaf. He’s a paranoid schizophrenic!

I waited. After a beat or two, Vickie smiled sweetly and said, “He’s black.”

I laughed outloud. “Is that all? Geez, you scared me to death.” I was thrilled! Growing up in the South in the 70s was a long, long way from Bull Conner’s Alabama, but there still wasn’t a whole lot of interracial friendships in my schools. So this was my first chance to have a real black friend. Even better, I was part of their family. They had two small children—Talitha, who was 4 and Eli, who was about 3. I became the big sister, and I listened and learned.

I learned that though Eddie’s mother was a white German, the hardships he had faced in life had nothing to do with his white mother and everything to do with his black skin. He experienced the same snubs and insults that so many others have known before him. Yet, maybe because he had lived part of his life in Germany, maybe because his mother was white, maybe because he actually spoke another language for the first few years of his life—maybe all of that together made him a little more willing and able to reach across that fence to befriend anyone willing to reach back. I’m grateful for that.

Racial relationships have come a long way, but each time an African American is ill treated, it reinforces that mantra: Be polite. Be kind. Don’t trust. And sometiMy First White Friend Book Covermes the walls go higher. Raybon’s book provides deeper insight into what it feels like to be judged by your color. A dear Guatemalan friend once told me that she had experienced racist behavior from some of my colleagues.

“Really? I don’t see it,” I was genuinely surprised.

“Why would you?” she reminded me, “You’re white.”

Indeed. I had missed that very obvious fact. My corner of the world looked and responded to me differently simply because I am white. Oh sure, I’ve had my own share of insults for other reasons, but Raybon’s book provides just a taste of what it means to be targeted for no other reason than skin color, and this is a valuable perspective for white readers who have never experienced a similar prejudice.

But Raybon’s book is ultimately about forgiveness–which transcends all colors. Someone once said that unforgiveness is the poison we drink, hoping our enemy will die. Despite the ways she was treated, Raybon realized that if she did not forgive, she could never be whole herself. She began to see that her life was false and reactionary. A life all about proving herself to be worthy—no, even better—than those on the other side of the fence. After all, hadn’t her anger produced “good” things like career success, achievement, and recognition?

Remarkably, she finally named her behavior for what it was: bitter spite. And she courageously concluded that it provided a poor platform for an identity. She challenges us all with her willingness to do the hard work of rebuilding her identity on something far more profound—the grace of God. As a Christian, Raybon realized that the “love thy neighbor” bit included white people. Still, the reader feels the struggle and weight of the truth that Raybon slowly discovered: The journey of forgiveness is costly and lasts a lifetime.

OnBook Jackete sadness to me in this book was that the “white friend” in the title is barely a blip on the radar. I thought I would be reading a story about a wonderful journey of discovery and love between this writer and her white friend. Instead, the book is about Raybon’s growing awareness of her need to forgive and let go so that such a friendship would even be possible. I admit it: I was disappointed, but in fairness to Raybon’s very personal journey, I left the book knowing that as she embraced mercy, God would give her new friends of all shapes, colors and backgrounds. (Her latest book, I Told the Mountain to Move, does indeed reveal beautiful and moving glimpses of just how colorful her world has become.)

I’m not sure who Raybon had in mind for her reading audience: People of color? White people? I’m not sure it even matters. There are nuggets of wisdom here for anyone, and her considerable writing skills—powerful, rhythmic, lyrical, filled with a rich voice—make the reading a pleasure. We all have our biases, whether against another race, or another culture, or even another socio-economic group. The lessons of forgiveness cannot be taught enough, and Raybon’s willingness to reveal her honest struggles to forgive provide encouragement to us all that we can do the same.

 

© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.