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On Intentionality in Friendships
Newsletter #100 is right around the corner. It’s scheduled to appear the Monday before Christmas, which will make it the final newsletter of 2023. Please submit any of your favorite Churchatopia newsletters and/or posts from this year. I’d like to incorporate a look back over the year as part of that final newsletter. Also, be on the lookout for my top books of 2023.
Notes on Friendship
Friendship is a subject I never grow tired of thinking about. While I’ve already written on friendship in an earlier newsletter, I don’t think enough can be said on the matter.
Think of some of your most precious memories: a vacation, a birthday party, a bonfire, marshmallow roast, a lake trip, tailgating at a college football game, or a retreat. Who was surrounding you? Most assuredly, family and friends. One expects family to be present at most of life’s social situations. One expects friends to as well. But while family is often present simply by default, friends are those whom we choose to invite into our lives.
The older I get the more persuaded I am that intentionality is not only underrated in the maintenance of friendships. It is essential to their well-being and survival.
In a highly mobile society where many of us move around, our friendships span the borders of states and countries. This is certainly true for those involved in vocational Christian ministry. Off the top of my head, I think of precious friends who live 20 miles away, 300 miles away, and 900 miles away. I think of some in Ethiopia, Brazil, Canada, and Japan. And imagine the daily commitments all of them have which pull us in different directions.
Friendships require proximity, so we must be intentional about time together. Friendships require give and take, so we must be intentional about both sharing and listening. Friendships require shared values, so we must intentionally live out what we claim to be important.
Nevertheless, talk of intentionality can seem sterile, mechanical, even unnatural. This is associated with a first myth that I want to dispel: intentionality doesn’t discredit authenticity.
It’s sometimes thought that if a friendship is “meant to be” it will flow naturally. Little effort will be needed. Just get together. Conversation will come easily.
I don’t deny that some friendships seem to function that way. I think of a missionary friend who I only see every three or four years. We infrequently communicate in the in-between time. (One could credibly claim that we’re not the closest of friends.) However, every time we’re together the conversation comes easily. When he’s in the United States, he always stays in my home at least once. We talk about serious things, and we laugh a lot, too. I pray for him every week.
Likewise, I think of a female friend who my wife and I see about twice a year. We speak only sporadically when she’s out of the country. However, when she’s here, we always plan to get together. The time is short, but sweet.
As much as I value this brother and sister, I assert that none of us are presently providing everything most friendships require. We don’t share everything. We’re certainly not “doing life together” in a way that Scripture says a church family does. This is not to diminish what these friendships are, for not all friendships are the same. I’m only trying to be honest about the fact that intentionality is essential to nurture friendships in order that they might be deepened.
We need to dispense with the notion that authenticity is about a relationship being easy, automatic, or always lighthearted (or always serious). Instead, we need to see authenticity as seeking to know another and allow ourselves to be known by them. That can look different ways, but it cannot look an unlimited number of ways. It’ll take time, vulnerability, and a measure of sacrifice. Making an effort doesn’t mean forcing yourself into someone else’s life. Obviously, they must make the effort, too! But if you share a sufficient number of values and interests, you’ll want to meet each other halfway.
We also must say this: intentionality doesn’t trump chemistry; it complements it. I increasingly think that friendships are like romantic relationships. Consider the moment of attraction. Something draws us to another. While it can be a way in which they’re different, like how some exotic, unfamiliar flower lays hold of our gaze, it’s more often a point of commonality that connects us to someone else. We see something we recognize or value, and we want to be around that.
I think most friendships start that way. We’re thrown into the same boat together—a class, a workspace, or a church. We start to talk and realize we share something in common. An initial weld is formed. If time and opportunity permit, the bond can be strengthened and become something much greater. So, chemistry is involved from the outset.
However, chemistry alone won’t sustain a friendship. There are too many forces trying to pull these bonds apart: generalized busyness, family expansion and needs, work demands, personal recreational pursuits and hobbies, and old-fashioned selfishness. Without a concerted effort to tame our calendars and perpetual tendency to focus conversations on ourselves, friendships become stale and strained. They’ll slip away from us before we’ve even realized it.
This past Thursday my family and I journeyed to the other side of our state to visit some friends. We’ve been friends for roughly a decade. Several years ago, we decided to start being more intentional about getting together besides the two or three ministry functions we typically saw each other at each year. First, they journeyed to our side of the state and stayed with us. Then we accepted their invitation to come to their side of the state. This past weekend marked the fifth trip we’ve made to their home (11 overall between the two of us).
We’re different in several respects. They’re Missouri natives; we’re not. Our children are all young, but different ages. They live close to their families; we don’t. We have different personalities. The rhythms of our weeks are somewhat distinct. I could probably come up with a handful of other observable differences as well.
Of course, I could easily identify some important and valuable similarities also. Without them, we wouldn’t be friends.
Among the few dozen friendships I’ve enjoyed in life, this is one of the most special for my wife and me. But we’ve had to be intentional each year to find the time to be together. I have no doubt that we could improve in that respect—in this friendship and with others. But I think because our differences are relatively insignificant, and our similarities are so very significant, our desire to be intentional has, shall we say, come naturally.
Friendship may be more like the body of Christ than not. If your friendships collectively represent a body, then it’s comprised of many different parts. Given how different individuals are, how could it not be that way? Yet all are needed. We need different kinds of friendships.
Even when certain seasons of life may set a cap or ceiling on how many we can intentionally develop at a time, a commitment to friendship means a commitment to open our lives to others as a way of life. Maintaining friendships is just an unavoidable consequence of that.
We make time for what and who we value. So, when it comes to our short- and long-term to-do lists, people ought to top that list.
In Newsletter #72 I wrote about the task of culling my library. It has been difficult! Among the many questions I asked myself was, “Does this book represent an important shift in my thinking?” A shift in thinking doesn’t have to be radical. It doesn’t have to be a shift entirely away from what one has believed, though it could be. No, sometimes a shift in thinking can be grasping a new insight that we had previously underestimated or altogether ignored. It may perhaps deepen our overall worldview. Thus, Joel Miller’s recent post caught my eye. He says,
Books allow us to contemplate ideas other than our own. Sometimes the effect is minimal; we entertain thoughts that wouldn’t otherwise occur to us but then scoot along when we’re done. We might even forget what the book was about.
But other books have a profound effect on us and alter how we think about some aspect of the world—maybe several. Reading allows us to temporarily adopt the perspective of another, and that process can permanently shift our view.
As you survey your life, which book(s) changed your mind?
What I’m Reading (or Rereading):
Miriam Grossman, Lost in Trans Nation: A Child Psychiatrist’s Guide Out of Madness.
Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, How to Build a Healthy Church.
Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See.
Quote of the Week:
Calling for educational programs in a world that is already crammed full of educational programs is just another example of our priests dancing around the altar to Baal, cutting themselves with knives. It is the middle of the afternoon, and Baal is still not responding. But their logic is that if nothing is happening, it is obviously time to double down. The god of educational uplift is not answering us and so we beseech the gods of educational uplift. Another half an hour and they will get out the knives.
However lame all of this might appear to us as believers, for the humanist, there is really no alternative. The sinfulness of man continues to present us with the problem, and there is no other way for the humanist to address it except through education that seeks to correct the “ignorance.” This is because the only alternative explanation to ignorance is deliberate wickedness—sin, in other words. Please pardon the crude monosyllable.
Douglas Wilson, “Messianism and Moralism.”
Common Grace Wisdom: When Sometimes Secular Organizations Focus on Their Work and Not Pandering.
Professional athletes don’t typically garner the sympathy of the general public. While we may idolize our favorite players and teams as youth, the shine usually comes off as we age and we discover the more unsavory aspects of professional sports. It is encouraging, however, when some franchises take the right stands, even when it sparks the ire of the public.
I didn’t follow the Texas Rangers’ postseason run to their first World Series title very closely. However, I did find this story interesting: “Texas Rangers Hold the Line Against ‘Pride Night’ as Every MLB Team Embraced it – Now They’re World Series Winners.”
This isn’t the best illustration of what I’ve been calling “common grace wisdom.” However, it strikes me as a potential candidate for this broader category. Here we have a professional sports franchise that decides to be the lone team to hold out from joining the celebration of LGBT “pride.” Did they know this would produce a World Series title? Surely not. But some official or group of officials said, “We’re simply not going there.”
Whether they felt it was out of step with the values of many of their fans, players, employees, or some of each, they decided to focus on baseball. It worked out!
On My Mind: Abraham, Israel, and Genesis 12
Our church’s Sunday School curriculum covered Genesis 12:1-9 and 15:1-6 yesterday. In the context of the Israel-Hamas war, some are especially keen to perceive a connection between “blessing Abraham’s descendants” and U.S. support for Israel. This isn’t my own view, though I think there are other good reasons to support allies amid their troubles. However, I would ask those who do see Genesis 12 as justifying support for the modern state of Israel a few questions: How are we to connect ancient Israel and modern Israel in view of the fact that the modern state is officially a secular state? How are we to relate the two seeing as how the geographical borders vary widely? Should the fact that most modern Israelis overwhelmingly aren’t Christians impact our perspective at all? Should our support (“blessings” to them) be unconditional and unlimited? I may be wrong about this (Quite possible!). However, I’d at least like someone to answer these questions for me.