Find Your People: Building Deep Community in a Lonely World (16 page)

BOOK: Find Your People: Building Deep Community in a Lonely World
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The Trap of Fear

One of the fun things about our move to Dallas was that we as a family were all in it together, all nervous, all making new friends, all finding our way around, all trying new places and new things.

It’s easy to form snap judgments, self-protect, decide too quickly how you feel about a place or people. But in my
experience, you tend to miss the good parts when you operate that way.

It’s risky to go through life heart wide open to what God has, to love people without critique or guardedness, to put your whole self out for people to know but also to judge. Yes, it’s risky. But in return you get friends, you believe the best, you find an imperfect church community, you get to be imperfect yourself. I’d rather live heart first than guarded, even if that means I bleed more.

Why would we brave this thing that could hurt us so deeply? Because it is obedience.
Commitment and submission to a small local group of people is God’s best way.

When we joined our small group, it wasn’t just to have a few friends; it was to submit and commit to a few people. Submission is the only thing that interrupts our egos and tells us the truth. I need someone every once in a while to grab me by the collar and sit me down.

You may hate the church because of leaders there who abuse power or abuse people. I get it! I’ve been burned more than once in ways that have made me want to run, but likely those leaders were not truly in submission to the structures God laid out.

As a spiritual leader and as a follower of Christ, I am in submission to a board, the elders at our local church where we are members, my husband, and our small group. I realize that, about now, you may be reeling from how that all sounds, but I do this willingly and with joy. Why?

Because, yes, it’s hard to trust people—but I don’t trust myself! I will start thinking highly of myself, hurt people, and
go my own way. I love submission because I know it protects me. We have far more to fear in going it alone than in committing ourselves to go deep with our trusted few.

A Word on Toxic Relationships
 

That said, what do we do when we find ourselves in a toxic relationship? I interviewed consultant, psychologist, and prolific author Dr. John Townsend during the first season of my podcast,
Made for This,
specifically to ask him if “setting boundaries” was a selfish act or a spiritual one. You’ll probably recall that John was half of the writing duo (along with Dr. Henry Cloud) for the groundbreaking book
Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life.
The book sparked a cultural phenomenon after its release more than thirty years ago, selling well over five million copies and forever changing our approach to human interactions.

“Jennie,” he said in response to my question, “as believers we are quick to focus on all the Bible verses that tell us to love the Lord and surrender our selfish desires and read the Bible and so forth, while at the same time totally neglecting the ones about being careful to guard our hearts, as Proverbs 4:23 says to do. But without guarding our hearts, we will be no use to anyone. Any relationship that drains you faster than it pours into you isn’t a friendship; it’s a ministry opportunity.”

Yep.

Given what I’ve observed from reading comments on Instagram about relationship and from talking to countless hurting people in real life, my advice for when you find yourself in a truly soul-crushing, toxic relationship is to set clear
boundaries, sometimes ones that dictate very little contact with the other person.

Yes, Jesus said to forgive people seventy times seven, which is all but infinite forgiveness. However, we need to be guarded about who we bring into our closest circle. As we’ve discussed, all of us hurt others at times, but that doesn’t mean we have to put our hearts in the path of someone else’s ongoing pattern of relational destruction.

Own your part and your mistakes.

Seek reconciliation multiple times.

Don’t be afraid to move on if nothing ever changes.

When you know it’s time to move on from a friend, I challenge you to be honest and clear, not just ghost them. Sometimes, it’s not a close enough friend to warrant that conversation. But if this friend has been a big part of your life, someone that you have trusted and gone deeper with, say the hard thing that needs to be said. An honest conversation about why the friendship needs to end could propel them to recognize where they need to grow and change. It might even repair the friendship.

That said, abandoning relationships every time we run into a problem isn’t healthy either. I’m concerned that our impossible standards for who we let in and who we trust stop us from ever letting anyone in.

If we want community, we have to be willing to fight for it.

This Is Going to Take Work
 

There was a time when what we now call
intimacy
was just called
life.
For centuries, the people you lived near were the
people you worked with, the same people you raised your kids with, the same people you worshipped God with, the same people you cooked and ate meals with, and on and on. Daily life meant one continual opportunity to bump up against people, have your sin called out, disappoint a friend, and resolve conflict with a fellow church member.

I look around at our society today and constantly remind myself, “Jennie, you’re going to have to
work
for deeper relationship. It isn’t going to magically appear.”

Becoming and finding life-giving friends is the goal, and the path to reaching that goal is fairly straightforward:

  • Ask deep questions.

  • Listen.

  • Tell people what you are grateful for in them.

  • Share the real stuff.

  • Talk about Jesus.

  • Do fun stuff together.

We all want to become life-giving friends, but in addition to all the traps we’ve already discussed, we have to accept our own tendency to self-sabotage and drain the life from our friendships. Here are just a few of the self-defeating traps we lay for ourselves:

  • Wait for friends to call you.

  • Be easily offended by your friends.

  • Have lots of opinions about your friends’ lives.

  • Assume your friends are mad.

  • Talk negatively about your friends.

  • Don’t share your hurts.

  • Remember and hold on to friends’ mistakes.

If you have been hiding from intimate relationships because you are convinced that nobody wants to be your friend, then might I put on my big-sister hat for just a moment and tell you to go pay someone to be your friend? I mean it. Save up a few dollars and get yourself in front of a counselor worth her degrees. If every single person you have ever been friends with has wronged you somehow, then the common denominator here might just be you.

I know that’s hard to read.

Trust me, it’s hard to say.

But the truth is always difficult, until it absolutely liberates your life.

Whom do you need to make amends with?

Whom have you given up on too easily or quickly?

Whom have you pushed away?

Whom have you ghosted?

You may have isolated yourself from the very things God wants to use to help you grow.
Family, friends, church, small groups—yes, they hurt us, but they are part of the village community we were designed for. I don’t want you to miss them because they need some work or maybe they need another chance. We need each other. We need a group of people committed to each other and committed to Jesus to run with and to call us out.

Two weeks ago, I met with a couple of friends to catch up, and partway through our conversation, I risked saying something that was really candid and raw. I told the truth about a
situation I was going through, and in response, I didn’t feel heard. In fact, one of those friends not only didn’t listen well but she one-upped my pain. Have you ever had this happen? You say that something is really hard in your life, and the other person responds by telling you about something she is dealing with that is even harder?

It stung.

Really
stung.

And yet by the grace of God, here is what I thought:
She didn’t mean to hurt me. And the fact that she was insensitive to my update doesn’t mean I should quit telling the truth with her. She is dealing with some super hard things right now—that is factually true. What I can do right now is give her the listening ears I wish I’d had. My turn will come soon enough. I’m going to let this whole thing roll off my back for now and focus on being a friend to her.

She was probably just having a bad day.

Another friend of mine says that she tries to react to patterns, not one-offs.
Everyone messes up every now and then; unless a friend is habitually disregarding or demeaning you, let it go. Choose to move on.

And yet.

If you are noticing that what initially seemed to be a few one-offs has become a pattern of relational misbehavior, might I give you one final word of advice? Before confronting the other person about your perception that things between you are not going well, give yourself twenty-four hours.

Eat something.

Take a walk.

Get a good night’s rest.

Pray through how you’re feeling.

Then—and only then—invite dialogue with your friend about this downward trend you can’t ignore.

I have never once regretted momentarily holding my tongue.

This Is Worth Fighting For
 

We have to fight to hold on to our people. Let’s notice the traps the enemy is using to divide and distract us from healthy relationships. I promise the battle is worth it!

I just returned from a little time with two of my people, Ashley and Lindsey, and I wrote them this text:

I love us. I love that we get kicked out of restaurants almost every time we go because we stay so late. I love that on one of the hardest days we laughed till 2 a.m. and almost peed ourselves. I love that we talk about everything. We fight for each other to believe truth. We don’t hide. We care about paint colors and the state of the world. We move from counseling, to the underground church, to chandeliers with way too much ease. I LOVE US!

Do I say this to brag? Maybe a little. Kidding! Seriously, I say this so you will want this. I say this so you will
fight
for this! I say this so you will read those words and crave your own messy people with your own messy ideas of what it means to be deep, close, connected friends.

Because neither you nor I should be trying to make it on our own through this hard thing called life.

12.
INTIMACY OF THE FEW
 

FOR ZAC AND ME, THE
past year has been exceptionally hard, not because of anything that has been happening externally but rather because of an ongoing, disheartening inside job.

Specifically, one of our four kids, whose identity shall remain anonymous lest that kid hate me for the rest of his or her days, has been making a string of bad decisions for the better part of four months straight. I should start by saying that our kid has a ton of friends and is intelligent and winsome and can light up a room. This kid is beloved in our family for these and ten thousand other sparks that make their personality distinctive, magnetic, and fun.

All that is true.

What’s also true is that kid is making some pretty epic mistakes right now. Mistakes with growing consequences. When anyone you love as much as you love your kids keeps making bad choices, the fear and worry become all-consuming.

I’ve cried myself to sleep more than once lately, not because of any one incident but because I can’t always get my
brain to quit whirring over what might happen in coming days if the four-month downward spiral doesn’t stop.

That is my hard right now.

If I were sitting across from you at a coffee shop, I would hang on every word you might utter in response to my question:
What is your hard?

Life is just hard.

People are broken.

Darkness is real.

In fact, I bet if we could find ourselves in an unhurried conversation about things that matter in this life, I would learn of the particular darkness that you and your family have encountered.

You would tell me of the abuse you endured as a child.

Or of the marriage that ended in divorce.

Or about the wayward kid who still hasn’t returned home.

You would speak of the addiction.

Or the layoff.

Or the bankruptcy.

Or the diagnosis, the treatments, the pain.

You would tell me about how you thought life would be so different, back when your illusions were still intact.

And in response, I would sit there, legs tucked underneath me, elbows resting on my knees, fingers interlaced, eyes fixed on yours. And I would say, “I know.”

Because I get it. Truly. I’ve been to the dark abyss, too, sinking under the weight of wounds I would never reveal in a book, because the details are not mine to share.

And while maybe I wouldn’t be able to
do
anything to help remedy your awful memories or circumstances,
something
about articulating your pain to me, a willing listener, would lighten your load.
I would go next, putting words to all my hard. And afterward, the two of us would leave with a bit more energy than when we arrived. Nothing would have changed, you understand. And yet somehow
everything
would be better.

We Need People Who Are in It with Us
 

By the time Zac and I arrived at small group after Unnamed Kid’s last incident, the other couples in our group already knew. It happens when your small group, your neighbors, and the parents from your kids’ schools are the same people. I was tempted to be frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t run, couldn’t hide from the truth of our situation.

“I’ve been praying this song for you guys,” Elisabeth said calmly. “It says, ‘The battle is the Lord’s.’ ” She had her phone in hand, and as she read some of the lyrics, I held back tears.

Then she whispered, “You aren’t a bad mom.”

My held-back tears turned to weeping. I needed to hear her words. I needed to get my own issues out of the way and do what was best for my kid. I needed my people—people safe enough to face our brokenness head-on, people who are way too deep in all our business, people who know before we even tell them, people bold enough to call out the lies I’ve been believing, and people committed enough to us and to our kids to help us walk through this for the long haul.

A few weeks later, we woke up to Christmas Day and
another difficult situation. My sister-in-law Ashley stopped by, and when she asked about our Christmas morning, rather than pretend we had it all together, I broke down and told her everything. She didn’t watch me cry; she cried with me.

As she left that afternoon, I thanked her for being the kind of family and friend I don’t have to pretend for. With tears she hugged me tight and long, and she whispered, “We aren’t going anywhere. We are in this with you; that kid you love is our kid too. We have this!”

Very few people know the details of our hardest things. I am not exactly an oversharer. But my “few,” they know. And they are in it with me.

You and I don’t need fifty people to know our hard, but we do need a few who are in it with us.

What I have discovered in finding my people, in building a little village here in Dallas, is that it’s not only possible to live this way, it’s necessary.

The leader of our way-too-invasive small group is a man in his forties who is married with children. He found Jesus in his twenties and he is a good man. A good dad. A good husband. And a successful business leader.

He
is
all those things.

But you know what else? He’s also a sinner redeemed by the blood of Jesus.

I’m not throwing him under the bus here; he would tell you as much himself. And if you were in his small group, as I am, he would tell you much more than that. On a regular basis, the members in our group receive an email from our leader that goes something like this:

Gang, just checking in. Thanks for your continued prayers about [some issue he raised at group last time]. I’m seeing a little victory there, which is encouraging. Still wrestling with materialism. Ugh! It feels like life would be so much better with a little place in the Hamptons. Aren’t there better things for me to be thinking about? There are people all around me who don’t know Jesus, and I’m obsessing over escaping. Please pray for this beast to loosen its grip.

Also aware that I should dock my phone downstairs at night instead of treating it like another appendage to my body. I’ve been staring at my phone every night until I fall asleep instead of talking with my family. What am I doing? It’s so stupid. I know it’s stupid. And yet night after night, I keep making the same dumb choice. Someone hold me accountable, would you? Ready to be not-dumb.

I could keep going, but I think you get the idea. What he models for us is the kind of exchange that you experience only when you are
in it
with someone else. And I’ve got to tell you, I could not be more grateful that Zac and I are in it with this group.

How Village Life Is Meant to Be
 

I was thinking recently about how my life would look if I didn’t have the net of this group. Candidly, I will admit that from the outside, I would look totally fine. I would seem completely put together, totally self-sufficient, the kind of person
who needs nothing from anyone ever. My life would look
good
as independent Jennie, even as inside I would be dying a thousand deaths.

I’d be dying of hard-heartedness.

Guardedness.

Foolishness.

Selfishness.

Despair.

Shame.

As agonizing as it was to walk into group that night and discover that everyone already knew our junk and that there was no getting out of dissecting our junk then and there, I wound up being grateful that I couldn’t skate past the fact that I was really and truly suffering. I had no option but to surrender to their love for me, to surrender to my own neediness, and to be the inconvenience I hate being.

What’s more, the tenor of that group has taught me how to invite others into my junk. I think of my sister-in-law Ashley, who regularly reminds me that whenever I’m sad, she’s sad. Such a simple, straightforward sentiment, isn’t it? And yet it levels me every time. Hers isn’t a codependent reaction, I should be quick to mention, but rather a perfect embodiment of Paul’s word to the wise in Romans 12 about rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep.
[1]

I’m convinced that this type of
communal grief and communal joy is what knits hearts together for the long haul.
When you’ve entered into another person’s celebration or another person’s pain—I don’t mean anecdotally, but rather
truly
entered in—no longer do you bother with boundaries and barriers. They are yours, and you are theirs.

So find your few and let them know they are your few.

One of my favorite things to do is spend time with college girls because college can often be a case study for mile-wide-and-inch-deep friendships. My friend Hannah came home recently after her first semester at college having connected, in typical Hannah fashion, with pretty much everyone on campus. She’d made friends with everyone in her dorm. She’d made friends with everyone in her classes. She’d made friends with everyone in every club she joined. This equated to roughly 53,742 people she now considered her friend.

When she arrived home, she was burned out, exhausted, and sad. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” she told me one night. “I’ve been nothing but inclusive with everyone, and yet I feel like I have no close friends.”

I looked at my weary friend and said, “Hannah, if you were getting married this year and had to decide today who would stand beside you in your wedding, who would you choose? Who of your closest, best girlfriends could you picture there at your side?”

She wasted no time rattling off five or six names and then looked at me expectantly, not having put things together yet. “Do you think those girls know that they’re that special to you?” I asked.

She fell silent for a beat. Then she whispered, “I don’t think they do.”

I told her that she didn’t need to squelch her naturally outgoing personality. “Just be sure you are prioritizing,” I said, “the friendships that matter most.” I encouraged her to set up some sort of schedule if she had to, to ensure that days, weeks, and certainly months didn’t go by without her enjoying
meaningful touch points with those wonderful, ride-or-die pals. “Those friends are your anchor, your rootedness,” I said to her. “They will give you the fuel—and the accountability—you need to head back out on campus and see who else you can befriend.”

After Hannah returned to school, she sat those friends down and said, “I want you to know that you are incredibly special to me. You’re my closest friends.” Those girls then told the truth to Hannah, explaining how her constant pursuit of more friends made them feel like they weren’t a priority to her.

Like many of us, she had unwittingly created not a village but an outright city. She needed to scale things back a bit.

So, that’s the first caution: don’t go friending the whole freakin’ world. Your intimate few are called a
few
for a reason; you need only a handful of them. But the second caution is equally vital: yes, don’t befriend a million people, but also, don’t hole away.

We aren’t meant to carry the problems of the whole world all day every day. But we are the first generation to know them all. Let me be clear: I’m not saying we put our heads in the sand and get a pass to not care about the issues of our day. But in trying to care about everything, we end up helping nothing. It’s called compassion fatigue. The people closest to us are falling to the wayside while we bleed out for global crisis. And we end up paralyzed. God set us in villages for most of all time to care for one another—and that capacity rarely exceeded thirty to fifty people in a lifetime. And we’ve lost that way of life.

For a time, I thought the primary reason for fostering intimacy in at least a few key relationships was so that I would have some people to turn to when the hard times showed up.
But the longer I journey along, the more I realize that the hard times are already here. Every day of every week of every year I live, there is something that feels hard. I’m not trying to be morbid here. Equally true is that on every day of every week of every year I live, there is something beautiful too!

When Zac and I were leaving that small group gathering the night when I had to talk about all the latest troubling goings-on with my kid, one of the other women looked at me and said, “Friend, I know you already know this, but I feel compelled to remind you: when I pray for your family, I pray like I’m praying for mine.”

They are ours, and we are theirs.
We belong to each other. This is how it is supposed to be.

The Very Dearest Friend
 

Come close and let me tell you something. I realize it’s entirely possible you have made it nearly to the end of this book and you still would give your right arm for just one of these types of friends in your life.

I understand. That was me, there on the wood floor of my new house in Dallas. And then Caroline walked through my front door, a college student young enough to be my daughter. I could have seen her only as our babysitter, but I didn’t. I saw her as part of our family and eventually part of my circle, my people, my friend. In fact, we were just texting today as I have been writing.

I’ll say it yet again: your people might be right in front of you. But even if they aren’t today, let me tell you the greatest news:
the one friend I have found to be most consistent, the one who sees me at my worst and still loves me, is Jesus.

And if you know Him, He calls you His friend: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends.”
[2]
That longing we have to be fully known, fully accepted, on mission, seen, loved, not alone—it is wholly answered in Him. Jesus is my best friend.

Maybe you aren’t there yet with Him. That’s okay. When Kate was five years old, she was telling us about her best friend when her punk older brother shamed her by saying, “Jesus is supposed to be your best friend.”

She responded, “Well, I am just getting to know Him.”

If that’s you, that’s okay. But I can tell you this: Jesus makes the
best
best friend. He has never ignored me, cut me out, shamed me, or rolled His eyes at me. Not once. He always listens, always cares, always tells me truth. He is always there. He is safe and encouraging and always challenges me and makes me better too.

You are never alone. You have Jesus. And He has you.

But He wants more for you. More for us. A team of people to run with each day, to love Him together and love each other through the hard. He wants this for you. I want this for you.

It’s worth the fight. Run on. Love on. Find your people, and never let them go.

BOOK: Find Your People: Building Deep Community in a Lonely World
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