Monday, July 18, 2011

The Uncommon Friend Part 4: Making Yourself Open to New Friendships

I pray that you have great existing friendships.  Maybe you have had the same group of friends since grade school, or since you first started attending your church 10 years ago. I have some great friends I have grown up with and I look forward to sharing some ideas on how to better those relationships in the future. Today, though, I would like to start with the importance of being willing to make new friends. This is a personal one for me, so give me a second to get up on my soapbox.

I have moved 14 times in my 31 years. I moved many times when I was younger, the hardest transition being  in 7th grade. I had some great friends in Fairfax, Virginia. I feel so blessed because I have recently connected with some of those friends (Jenny, Sandi, and Lynn) through Facebook. When I moved to Beavercreek, Ohio, it took a full year to really recreate friendships. My sister, Kim, and I used to talk about how awful it was to not have anyone to hang out with at school. Fortunately, my good friend, Bethany took a chance on me. She started inviting me to sleepovers, football games, and such. Eventually, her friends became my friends and they still hold a big piece of my heart.  Bethany had a hospitable heart. When we hear the word “hospitality” we think of things we can do, like having a quaint guest room, with nice shampoos in a basket in the bathroom, and lasagna baking in the oven. We think of dropping off a plate of cookies to the new neighbors or offering a far-off and hypothetical invitation for them to use our pool  “someday.”And these things are great, as long as you actually invite the overnight guest, deliver the cookies, and put a date for the pool party on the calendar. But hospitality is so much more than that. I read an interesting book called “Radical Hospitality.” It was written by writer Lonni Collins Pratt and Benedictine monk, Father Daniel Homan. It shares the 1500 year old Rule of St. Benedict that "all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ" and it spoke of opening your heart to strangers just as we are to open our heart to Jesus Christ. Father Homan tells many stories of people who came to his monastery in search of physical shelter, yet the real longing in their heart was for relationship—the kind of relationship that didn’t sway with the breeze. This is not something that women today readily offer to people they have just met.

Since getting married nine years ago, George and I have moved 7, yes, 7 times. We have met many individuals, many couples, many groups of friends, many church congregations in cities and states throughout the country. Most of the people I have met have offered a friendly smile and chance to get just close enough to peer into their lives, but not be a part of their lives. I have been to church small groups where no one even bothers to ask our names. Women’s events where I have sat alone while the “popular” group laughs and laughs, completely oblivious to anyone else on the outskirts. I spoke of this clique-mentality in an earlier post. It is a strategy for self-preservation and security and I can’t blame them for it. On occasion I catch myself being part of an inner group, without thought to anyone who might feel left out and uncared for at any given event. It is natural to seek participation in a tight knit group, but as Christians, we are called to rise above it and reach out to others. Even if we are trying to do what is good, we must consider what is best in God’s eyes. One of my best friends from graduate school was going through a really hard time and she was moving to the same town as another good friend who had lived there a long time and had established friendships and connections. I called that friend, told her about the situation, and she called my just-moved friend and asked her to lunch. After that, I didn’t hear anything more so I asked my established friend what ended up happening. She said something that we all think, but few would be honest enough to say. “I was happy to go out to lunch with her that once, but I have a lot of other existing friendships that I want to pour into.” I couldn’t get mad at her, but it made me heart hurt for my friend going through the hard time. Of course we would rather commune with friends we already know. There is no awkwardness. There is no effort required. And it is a GOOD THING to laugh with friends, tell old jokes, and just sit in the comfort and peace of loving others and being loved in return. However, we must also have times where we place ourselves in uncomfortable situations and risk awkward silences, clashing personalities, and differing perspectives on life, politics, and religion if we are to do the best thing, which is to minister to others and show them God’s love. Yes, Jesus spent a lot of time with his disciples, dining with them and traveling with them. Yet there were many times when Jesus chose to go hang out with the judgmental Pharisees and religious folk, the hated tax collectors, the undignified prostitutes. I doubt it was ever comfortable for him, but it was what he was called to do.

It is a rare blessing when someone takes the risk to get to know you and let you know them. When I first moved to New Braunfels, TX in May 2005, I immediately started looking for a church. Honestly, Southern Baptist churches had scared me since childhood and that’s all this town had (I have since completely reversed my stance, and I have absolutely LOVED the two s.b. churches we have been members of since then.) I went to the Young Life Alumni page on the Young Life website to see if there was anyone in town who could give me some suggestions. I came across the name Becca Hill. I emailed her, not expecting much back. That day, she emailed me with excitement that jumped through the computer screen. She told me all about the town, invited me to her church, invited me to a bible study that was a close group of friends that she had been a part of for years, and then she invited me out for coffee! I could have been (and maybe I actually am) the weirdest, most disagreeable, clingiest, or most backstabbing person ever. She was willing to take the risk.

The Practicals

As promised, here are some very practical things we can do to open our hearts to new people. Disclaimer: I don’t pretend to be the perfect person, or friend. Some of these things I have done, some I have witnessed others do for me or others.

1. Invite someone out to lunch. There is a huge difference between inviting someone out to a group outing, and someone out individually. An invitation to a group outing says, “please come have fun with us.” An invitation to an individual lunch says, “I really want to get to know you, and I’m willing to sacrifice time and money to do that.”

2. Next time you are at a party, wedding, or church gathering and you find yourself laughing with a group of friends, take a moment and look around. Who is standing by themselves?

3. When someone does move in to the neighborhood, or town, bring them the cookies, but then ask what their immediate needs are. We moved to Jackson, TN on the day that Ohio State was playing in the NCAA Basketball Championship. Our wonderful neighbors, Robin and Paul, knew we didn’t have cable, or even a tv, so they invited us over to watch the game and ordered in some good ole Tennessee barbecue. When we moved to Toledo, I was 34 weeks pregnant and hours away from family. At church we reconnected with an old acquaintance, Libby, and within minutes she offered to watch our toddler and preschooler in the event of labor.

4. If you really aren’t comfortable getting to know someone new by yourself, enroll a friend to help. If you and one other friend walk around the mall or park with the new girl, as long as you make efforts to include her in the conversation, she will already feel like she is part of something. When I moved to Greenville, SC, I went out to a movie with best friends, Nicole and Jerushah. I remember at one point they were laughing about some inside joke and just as I was about to feel that left out feeling, Jerushah turned to me and informed me that Nicole had just found out she was pregnant and they were laughing about all the surprises that brings. I was honored that they would include me on such a secret.

5. Intentionally commit social faux pas. How weird would it be for the new people in the neighborhood to be the ones knocking on door to introduce themselves? It’s not right. The established should welcome the non-established, but that just doesn’t always happen. Take the initiative. Host your own housewarming party. Invite yourself to the existing small group at church. Talk to people at the grocery store (you southerners will laugh because this is completely normal, while my fellow northerners just broke into a sweat!). When you have a good conversation at the playground and have that thought, “we could be good friends,” set up another playground meeting to ensure that happens. I had an instant connection with my friend, Kristen, but I was insecure about asking her to hang out since I was new in town. We met again 6 months later and became great friends, but now I live ten hours away so time together is rare. I wish I had that extra 6 months and laugh with her and learn from her, but I am so grateful that God gave me a second chance to form a friendship with her.

6. Don’t give up at the first sign of resistance. My friend, Jen, approached me the first day of 8th grade in gym class and introduced herself to me. I was so angry at my parents for making me move that summer that I was really short with her and didn’t give her much in return for her friendliness. She proceeded to go to her friends at the lunch table (who would later become my best friends, one year later) and said, “Don’t talk to the new girl. She’s a jerk.” We laugh now, but boy, that year would have been so much easier if she had kept trying and I made those friends that much sooner.

Please share some other ideas. In my extremely idealistic mind, I would love to turn all of this into a book some day! So email me feedback and your experiences so I can include it!

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