A Fresh Start
Sorry about the long title of this one. And that it doesn’t really look at the Bible (much).
This lesson I’ve learnt from experiences, and a good deal of navel gazing (apologies in advance!).
I was going to include a blow by blow account of my teenage social life (or rather lack of). But flashbacks (yes, real ones), brought back too many memories I’d rather forget.
Basically, I know what it feels like to be ignored. Left out of social events and occasions. An outsider. Lonely. Mocked constantly (N.B., not the same as teasing). Put down. Even vilified. And judged because of my appearance. And constantly having to hide my unhappiness from others who didn’t go to school with me. And every part of me battles to never let that happen again.
I was overjoyed when I secured a place at university. At last. I could break free from all the rubbish stuff that happened at school. People at university are so much more open-minded and accepting. I didn’t have to fit a certain mold. I could be unashamedly me. I threw myself into my university Christian Union, so encouraged by being surrounded by many other believers my own age. That desire in me to never feel lonely soon grew as I saw how the main CU meeting wasn’t really very welcoming. I felt God gave me eyes for people on the fringes, and a desire for them to feel at ease and be a friend to them. I wanted to befriend everyone I met. I took great joy from recognizing people I knew from CU, church, my course, societies and halls, remembering names and faces whilst others struggled, and stopping to chat to people if I bumped into them around campus and town. I assumed this social adult way of living would continue into graduate life.
The Post-University shock
One voice warned me that this would not be the case. I scoffed at it. It was a man who worked for The Navigators, from another town, who gave a series of seminars about being a graduate and living for Jesus, towards the end of my time at university. He gave useful advice, but I disagreed with what he said about friendships. He told us 1) he has far fewer friendships than he did at university 2) he only kept in touch with a maximum of six university friends 3) and at church, it is far harder to make friends as a graduate than as a student. Well, I thought, he probably has limited social skills, if he can only stay in touch with 6 people, and can’t make friends as readily now. I can definitely do better than that.
Oh dear. I was totally unprepared for graduate life. Especially starting at a new church in a new place with fairly new people.
In my first prayer letter, I likened myself to Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Because I felt like an outsider again in this new place, and was prone to comparing myself to the other apprentices, who seemed far more flexible, adventurous and at ease in their surroundings than me (rather like the dwarves). And now I’ve seen the recent film adaptation of Paddington (which is excellent!), looking back I also felt like the marmalade-sandwich-carrying, duffle-coat-wearing bear. The bear from darkest Peru, brought up to believe that everyone in London was friendly and would take time to help strangers. I assumed that everyone at the new church would be welcoming and keen to take me in and look after me. The reality for both of us was very different.
I’m not saying that everyone at church was unfriendly and didn’t make me feel welcome. There were people who were so warm and friendly last year, and really took an interest in me. I’m so grateful for them.
Unfortunately, their care was overshadowed by meeting an equal number of people who I found cold, unfriendly and who didn’t bother to remember who I was (despite meeting them several times), or get to know me. My ‘let’s be friends with everyone’ attitude has drastically changed since graduation. In a large church or gathering, with people you can only meet up with every other week (realistically), it really is impossible to get to know everyone well. It’s harder to have meaningful friendships when you try and ‘spread yourself around’ (in a non-dodgy way).
And it wasn’t just at church. A fair few people I knew from university (whom I thought I’d stay in touch with) didn’t reply to my messages. Plans fell through for meeting up. It suddenly felt weird seeing things pop up on my Facebook feed from people I didn’t really know any more. Loads of people I thought were friends suddenly got married and got engaged in quick succession, and Facebook was the only way I’d find out about it. Were they really my friends? I sadly thought. With hindsight, I don’t think they were friends (how I would define a friend now), but friendly acquaintances.
Looking back, I realized that I had had plenty of shallow friendships, but not enough deep friendships. Over last year, my true friends emerged and kept in touch with me when the university bubble burst. People from university, others from Christian camp and new friends from church. Often they were lifelines for me in difficult times, without even realizing it. I think you can guess who you are, and I care deeply for you. Those deep friendships were vital for my walk with Jesus – they were friends who knew me well, listened, gave advice and made the time to meet or chat on the phone or write me letters. I believe every child of Christ should have at least half a dozen solid friends who they can support and who support them.
Yet we must love others…
Yet, I’m also firmly of the opinion that we must love each other in the church family. And not just say that we will, but really persevere to when we meet together. I wonder if the church I’m at assumes that people already do this, when actually we could be so much better at it.
But what does love mean? What does it look like in practice?
In my opinion, it’s saying hello. Showing an interest in someone. Taking time to listen to them. Asking them questions. Introducing them to others who can care for them too. Opening up to them, and sharing experiences, advice and stories. Making them laugh, and feel at ease. And I’m not great at loving others. I get easily irritated with others, am judgmental and prejudiced, I talk too much (usually about myself) and often don’t pick up on social cues.
But this year has taught me that loving others isn’t something conservative, Bible-believing, reserved, introverted, Word-focused Christians can opt out of because they don’t feel like they can.
I was trying to find a verse whilst planning this post which I thought was in the Bible. It was about loving outsiders, and I thought it was in one of the Epistles. But I couldn’t find it anywhere. Instead, I was bowled over by what I found, as I skimmed through my old NIV Youth Bible (just for kicks). So many times, Paul, Peter or John urge their readers to love one another. As Christ loves. Like you’d love your brother. Devotedly. Sacrificially. And those letters were to groups of Christians. They’d have been read aloud to them. It would have been one of the things they’d be exhorted to do over and over again. 1 John especially urges Christians to do that – loving others is a sign that you’re truly one of God’s children.
I know we’re all sinful. There have been many opportunities when I have deliberately chosen not to love others. Because I can’t be bothered. Because it’s too awkward. Because I’m tired. Because I don’t really know them. Because they’re annoying. But, despite finding it a challenge, I’m going to keep on loving people when there’s nothing in it for me. I sometimes get tired of doing it, but I’m asking God to give me more zeal in doing it. Yes, we can’t be good friends with everyone. But as those who belong to a Loving God, we must continue to love others, just as our Lord loves us.