On friendship and complicated awkwardness

Reading Recommendation: Messy Beautiful Friendship by Christine Hoover

I think I was in eighth grade. I don’t remember the specific contributing factors but I do remember that it was at church on a Sunday morning just before Sunday school. I remember thinking my heart would break over a friend’s betrayal. I remember sobbing unconsolably while one of the Sunday school teachers attempted to comfort me, no doubt assuring me that the sun would come up tomorrow, that the world had not, actually, ended.

Here was our problem: there were three of us middle school girls attempting a BFF trifecta, which, as anyone who has been around preteen girls knows, is an utter impossibility. Someone is always left out or hurt or betrayed. That Sunday it was me and I was utterly heartbroken.

It was my first taste of the complications inherent in friendships between women.

Though I no longer find myself weeping on the Sunday school teacher’s shoulder–one reason being I am the Sunday school teacher after all–I continue to find friendship awkward and complicated, still, all these many years later. I understand that the common denominator has been me and I freely confess:when it comes to finding and being a friend I am awkward and I am complicated.

When I was a young woman–be it college student, newlywed, or young(er) mom–friendship was fairly easy and free and abundant and without all the drama of middle and high school (yes and amen). My friendships then were born of proximity and commonality. Whether it was in the dorm or over playdates at McDonald’s, we were doing life together and not as a catch phrase but for real. It was life, real life, spent together, hours chatting on the phone, hanging out, taking trips even. True, we were an homogenous group but our common experience and circumstance provided a rich foundation for friendship.

As my kids grew older, friendship became more difficult, no doubt due to the general busyness inherent therein. On top of this, not one but two sets of our dearest friends moved away. Left to my own devices I began to realize how bad I was (am) at forming deep friendships. I discovered I had no idea how to make friends, true friends, apart from the ease that comes with proximity and commonality, not to mention the always surprising grace of someone seeking to be my friend first. Hello, awkward and complicated, with a little diva on the side.

I have lots of “reasons” for my complicated awkwardness. I mean, being friends with women can mean comparison and jealousy and cattiness as well as work and vulnerability and time. Not only that but I’m an introvert. I’m a homebody. I’m independent. I think too much. I crave solitude. In other words, I’m not exactly the stuff your dream BFF is made of.

So when a friend suggested we read Messy Beautiful Friendship for our first summer book club title, I knew I needed it. But I was also wary and maybe even a little frightened of what the book might expose in me.

Christine Hoover’s book is a treatise on the importance, nay the necessity, of Biblical, gospel friendships. We need each other, not in the idealized sense of The One True Bestest Friend Over All Others Forever and Ever Yes and Amen, but in the fellowship and accountability as prescribed by the Word of God. She writes,

[T]he goal of friendship is to secure ourselves to the sure, steadfast anchor of Christ and, while holding to that anchor, give and receive the gift of friendship as we have opportunity. The goal is to enjoy God together with others and, as we move through life, to sharpen and allow ourselves to be sharpened by friends. We imitate Jesus with one another, willing to face the stark realities and consequences of sin, all the while persevering in our efforts to offer love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, comfort, and care to one another. In doing so, we display to one another the world how God loves and, through this, bring him glory.

Yes, Christine discusses awkward and complicated and repeatedly encourages us (me) to vulnerability. She is honest about the reality of disappointment and hurt and that friendship is risky and, as the title suggests, messy. She warns against comparison and harboring an idealized BFF wish-dream. She addresses conflict and confrontation and how to do both well in the spirit of love and gentleness. She advocates for wisdom, especially in our social media pursuits, one of my favorite chapters in the book. She reminds us that our friendships point to the greater and true Friend who laid down His life and who will one day, one glorious Day, answer all our longings with Himself.

I am continually surprised that there are those who genuinely want to be my friend and I am grateful for the women who come alongside me in companionship and fellowship. However, I want to be a better friend. Thank you, Christine, for your guidance and wisdom to that end. I needed this book and I daresay I’m not alone.

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On blogging, the fear of man, and When People are Big and God is Small

Last month the ladies’ book club at my church read When People Are Big and God is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man by Ed Welch. It was, as you might imagine, a convicting albeit encouraging read, a book that will so get in your business but in the best possible way.

At the start of the book, Welch lists several questions as an aid to identify the fear of man. Among them: have you ever struggled with peer pressure? Do you find it hard to say no even when wisdom indicates that you should? Is self-esteem a critical concern for you? Are you always second guessing decisions because of what other people might think? Are you jealous of other people?

Of course these questions are quite revealing but here’s where he really stuck it to me: “Do you avoid people? If so, even though you might not say that you need people, you are still controlled by them. Isn’t a hermit dominated by the fear of man?” (emphasis mine)

What? My hermit-ude a manifestation of a fear of man?

I told you: this is a book that will totally get in your business whether you think you struggle with codependency and the fear of man or not.

The theme of the book can be summarized as follows: “The most radical treatment for the fear of man is the fear of the Lord. God must be bigger to you than people are.” Welch explores how and why we fear others and then encourages a proper view of others by growing the knowledge and fear of the Lord. He punches a hole in the prevailing self-esteem ideal by claiming people are not empty cups needing to be filled. In fact, he goes so far to say that proclaiming that Jesus came to meet our needs is at best an incomplete gospel. Consider:

When psychological needs, rather than sin, are seen as our primary problem, not only is our self-understanding affected, but the gospel itself is changed. A needs theory suggests that the gospel is, most deeply, intended ot meet psychological needs. In other words, the gospel is aimed at our self-esteem problem. It is aimed at our tendency to dwell on our failures. It is intended to be a statement of God’s love saying that “God doesn’t make junk.”

This sounds good to us, but it is not the gospel. The good news of Jesus is not intended to make us feel good about ourselves.

Further,

Jesus did not die to increase our self-esteem. Rather Jesus died to bring glory to the Father by redeeming people from the curse of sin…the cross deals with our sin problem, our spiritual need.

As I said, whether you think you struggle with people pleasing or not, I think you will find When People Are Big and God is Small to be convicting and challenging as you evaluate who or what you fear and what you think you need. In fact, that’s been my primary response after reading: asking myself what it is I want most and correspondingly what is it I fear most. Welch asserts that “who or what you need will control you.”

What controls me?

Well, you don’t have the time and I certainly don’t have the desire to air all my dirty laundry here on the blog (you may thank me in the comments). I will say, however, that the blog, my writing life, is one area in which I do struggle with seeking and wanting validation and approval and thus I fear…well, I fear lots of things: poor writing, looking stupid, no one reading, everyone reading, being wrong…I think you get the picture. And I find Welch is correct: these fears control me.

Take today for instance. I spent an hour (okay, more) struggling to write a post. The words wouldn’t come, everything I said was forced and empty and dull, and to top it off I discovered I had written and published something eerily similar several months ago. And that post showed no evidence of grasping for words but quite the opposite. Instead, it was so well written I was quite impressed with myself and then terribly, horribly insecure over the post I attempted to write today. At that moment I was my own enemy and the cause of my own peer pressure! Crazy, isn’t it?

Writing is an intensely personal endeavor, or at least it is for me. I often feel exposed and vulnerable and that can be scary. Not only that but because it is personal it is easy to make otherwise objective parameters–comments, for example–a referendum on me. I know, I know, it’s dumb and all that but there it is.

I know that blogging or not blogging isn’t an issue of great import, certainly not when these same kinds of struggles may be manifested in more critical areas, my relationships for example. But the answer to my foolishness, in blogging or in other codependent issues? A bigger God, a smaller me. Welch reminds me…

[Y]ou must be controlled by the truth of God more than your own feelings. God’s Word, not feelings, is our standard. To be driven by our fluctuating sense of well-being may seem spiritual, but it is wrong. It exalts our interpretation above God’s. That is why it is so important to immediately turn to God after any biblically guided introspection. When we listen to God, he speaks words that fill an empty soul.

And,

He blesses and frees us by saying, “Fear me and me alone.” This is exactly what we need. It gives us the privilege of being controlled by our loving and just Savior rather than other people.

So I put that other post aside and instead write this one as a reminder to myself of the foolishness of seeking the approval of people. I choose to fear the Lord and rest secure in Him.

Reading Reflection: The Screwtape Letters

Some of my church girlfriends and I have a book club of sorts, meaning we all read a book and get together and eat and talk about what we liked (or didn’t) about that month’s selection. It’s all rather relaxed and laid back and we have a great time discussing a wide variety of books across different genres.

This past Monday we discussed C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. I was the only one who had finished the book but that didn’t limit our discussion, and, besides, one of the main tenets of our club is that there’s book club grace.

Like a lot of people, The Screwtape Letters is a book I’d started various times over the years but never actually completed, at least not until I was responsible for facilitating the aforementioned book club discussion! It turns out it wasn’t at all what I’d expected.

The Screwtape Letters is, as its title suggests, an epistolary novel comprised of letters from the demon Screwtape to his protege, his nephew Wormwood. Remembering the popularity of Frank Peretti’s novels in the 80’s and the fascination that emerged regarding angelic and demonic activity, I expected something of the same. And, yes, of course, demons are the main characters in Lewis’ story; Wormwood’s “patient”, the human he is attempting to influence for evil, isn’t even named. What struck me most, however, was not demonic method and influence but rather human weakness–specifically my weakness. This is, I suspect, Lewis’s intent: to expose our human frailty by imagining how a couple of demons might exploit it.

As a work of fiction The Screwtape Letters didn’t exactly draw me in. But as a commentary on my susceptibility to doubt and distraction, it moved me to both encouragement and conviction. I marked several passages to highlight during our book club discussion, including the following (Keep in mind that in Screwtape’s world the “Enemy” is God.) :

On perseverance…

Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

On obedience and the will…

The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it; that is often an excellent way of sterilising the seeds which the Enemy plants in a human soul. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will. As one of the humans has said, active habits are strengthened by repetition but passive ones are weakened. The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.

On “Christianity And”…

If they must be Christians, let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing.

On the middle years…

The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives, and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it–all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.

C.S. Lewis is, of course, a master. The angry fit Screwtape throws in Chapter 22 upon the news that Wormwood’s patient has a girlfriend who is “such” a Christian is hilarious. I think we all enjoyed (what  we read of) this book and would recommend it to any other book club looking for good discussion and a dose of conviction.

Are you part of a book club? What books have you read? Speaking of book club selections, we are currently choosing titles for next year’s list. What books would you recommend? Non-fiction, fiction, biography, theology–we like it all!

On Kisses from Katie and asking "What now?"

We have a book club of sorts, my church girlfriends and I, and tonight we are meeting to discuss Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption. There will not only be great conversation but we will also enjoy chicken salad as well as coffee and brownies and ice cream. Good food, good friends, good discussion all equal the best kind of book club night!

I finished Katie’s book a week or so ago and though I’ve been pondering it off and on ever since I’m not quite certain what I think of it. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I do know what I think of it, the book: I think it a compelling and exciting story of faith and risk, one that encourages even as it convicts. Thus it is probably more truthful to say that I’m not quite certain what I think about it in terms of how I ought to react to it. In other words: what now?

Katie’s story of leaving her home as a teenager to live and serve among the severely impoverished of Uganda and ultimately adopting fourteen girls, well, it’s the kind of story that makes my brand of Christianity seem, well, shallow and sallow by comparison and probably for good reason. I know, I know (I know) we are not all called to Uganda nor to the kind of hardship that Katie joyously embraces. The Lord does indeed determine the exact times and places we are to live and move and have our being–and for some of us that means living and serving and ministering among the relatively affluent of suburban America. And, yet, reading of the kind of faith and sacrifice that mark Katie’s life of obedience exposes my tendency to choose comfort over risk and safety over surrender.

So as I wrestle with my own faith and the kind of obedience the Lord requires of His people, here are some of the thoughts tumbling around in my head…

What is it I am doing? Yes, I’m a wife and a mom and a Bible teacher (among other things) and so when I do the things I do how do I do them? Am I serving the Lord? Am I loving others in Jesus’ name? Do I merely do what must be done and then only with an attitude of resentment and bitterness?

Who is the Lord calling me to love and to serve? As I do for the least of these, so I do unto the Lord. He calls me to serve the least among us. For Katie that was the orphan, the impoverished, the destitute, the alone. Is it any different for me? Have I so inoculated and insulated myself that I’ve overlooked the most needy and the most desperate around me? Who needs the love of Christ and the hope only He can give? These are overwhelming questions and I like Katie’s determination to love and serve one person at a time. She writes “I can do only what one woman can do, but I will do what I can. Daily, the Jesus who wrecked my life enables me to do much more than I ever thought possible.” What can I do? Where can I go? “I will not save them all. But I will keep trying. I will say ‘Yes.’ I will stop for one.”

Where do I find joy in ministry? We must be careful here. I am weary of well intended Christian advice that encourages me to “just do what I love to do.” What I love to do may not be edifying nor anything remotely related to ministry. In fact I love to buy shoes but buying shoes, shoes and more shoes because I love buying shoes will not serve anyone except perhaps the shoe salesman (ha). That’s a silly example but the point remains that I cannot look for ministry based purely on my own perception of my enjoyment of it. However, I was struck by Katie’s exuberant joy in the midst of very difficult circumstances. Does she love removing jiggers from the infected and oozing feet of poor Ugandans? No, of course not, but she finds joy in the service of her Lord: pure, unadulterated, all encompassing joy. I want that joy. Not the self centered, self serving sort of joy but the sweet release of knowing it is the Lord Jesus I serve and that He Himself is my joy and my strength!

What am I to sacrifice? We may read her story and feel embarrassed or even perhaps unfairly criticized for our extravagance. Katie is quite honest about her unease with American abundance. So much of what we deem as necessity is really selfish greed and yet it is no sin to have air conditioning or a comfortable bed. While I was reading Kisses from Katie I also read Aaron Armstrong’s book Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation and the End of Poverty. Aaron writes, “The question should never be, ‘am I doing enough?’ It should be, ‘If God requires more of me, will I respond in faith?'” It’s a good question. Do I hold my stuff with an open hand? Who am I apart from my material possessions? What if I were to lose “it all”? Would my confidence in the Lord be shaken?

In regard to a deeply personal loss, Katie writes,

I still feel the sharp pain of that loss. The thought of spending eternity with Jesus, however, makes the pain seem trivial and momentary. That thought reminds me quickly that I want to forsake everything to remain the center of God’s will for my life, that I want to give up everything for the sake of the Gospel. I believe with all of my heart nothing is a sacrifice in light of the promise that one day I will get to live with Him forever. I want to obey. I want to give my life away.

Me too, Katie. What will that look like in my life? I don’t know. I do know this: I want Katie’s testimony to be my own…

I want to exemplify Him in me every day. I want to live an open and expansive life, giving myself freely to all those around me for His glory. God answers this prayer every day of my life with new opportunities. I want to live openly and expansively, loving my neighbor as myself, until Jesus comes back.

This kind of life may be risky, it may be difficult, it will surely require sacrifice. When does it begin? Today. Right now. Who needs to hear the good news that Jesus saves? May I be faithful to tell…

What’s On My Nightstand, April

Here’s a look at what I’ve been reading…

I recently finished reading Discipline: The Glad Surrender by Elisabeth Elliot. So recently, in fact, that I finished it yesterday in car line just in time for our book club meeting tonight! I liked it; I will say, however, it wasn’t what I expected even though I really have no idea what I was expecting! I really liked what she had to say about the discipline of work:

What constitutes a “great work for God”? Where does it begin? Always in humility. Not in being served, but in serving. Not in self-actualization but in self-surrender.

Good stuff there. I don’t intend to write a full-blown review but while I’m here I’ll tell you I also liked her point about possessions, that they are given to us by God,  received with thanksgiving, to be enjoyed, and ultimately offered back to Him in a sacrifice of willing surrender. I found her treatment of the discipline of place to be the most intriguing as she discussed the believer giving honor to others, treating others as better than themselves. As I said, good stuff.

We will begin a Wednesday night study at my church based on the book Knowing God by J.I. Packer so that will make its way onto my reading stack now that I’ve completed Discipline. I just received The God Who Is There, The: Finding Your Place in God’s Story by D.A. Carson and I’m really excited about reading that.

In the fiction arena, I am currently reading Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, at the recommendation of a friend. I like it; Dickens is a master both of caricature and of the sorts of twists and turns that keeps the reader guessing. Plus it is at times laugh out loud funny! It is taking me a lot longer to read this novel than I thought; I’ve been working on it for two weeks now! I won’t say it’s getting tedious; I will say I am ready to know how all the various plot and subplots fall into place.

After Our Mutual Friend, I’d like to read Beth Pattillo’s The Dashwood Sisters Tell All. I liked her first two Austen-esque novels so I’m looking forward to this one. I also have Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry in my stack and I checked out The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency from the library at the same time I checked out Our Mutual Friend (not knowing it would take me the full two weeks’ allotted and then some! Thankfully we can re-check once!). Our book club will be reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion for our May meeting and I’m (of course) looking forward to that.

What are you reading this month? Link up at 5 Minutes for Books and check out others’ lists as well!

Read along with us!

This past summer the ladies at my church tried something a little different: a book club. We read a book a month and met at the end of the month to discuss our thoughts and impressions and what we learned, if anything. It was a lot of fun and we did indeed learn a lot. Determining that all good things ought to continue, we decided to carry the book club format into the fall and through the spring. After much deliberation and input from my fellow book club participants, we came up with a rather eclectic list of books we plan to read in the coming months. Here’s our list:

Like I said, it’s quite an eclectic list. I’m really excited about it and am already looking forward to next summer with the plan of reading mostly fiction. If you have any recommendations in that regard, let me know!

Have you ever done a book club? What sorts of books did you read? Have you read any of the books on our list? Or maybe you’d like to read along with us! We’d love to hear what you think about these books as we make our way through the list.

And, for those of you who are local, we plan to meet next Thursday night (the 28th) to discuss Same Kind of Different As Me. If you’re interested in joining us, shoot me an email and I’ll be glad to get you all the details!

Book Club: Fireworks Over Toccoa

I have the pleasure of working with a great group of women over at 5 Minutes for Books. Jennifer and the rest of the team are always cooking up something new and fun for us, be it the new and improved Classics Book Club, the Children’s Mystery Challenge, or an online discussion group of a newly released novel. All this in addition to the wide array of reviews we post! Like I said, we have fun.

Currently we’re reading and discussing Fireworks Over Toccoa by Jeffrey Stepakoff. Since it’s via the internet, our book club discussion consists of us posting our responses to the novel and to some of the questions Jennifer has posed. Before you read any further, know that my post contains SPOILERS! If you don’t want to know what happens in the novel, don’t read any more of this post!! I will also say up front that this novel isn’t among my favorites but that my opinion is just that: mine. In fact, my opinion differs with other members of our team. If you think you might be interested in reading the book, be sure to visit the reviews posted here to see what other readers thought. And, if you read along with us, we’d love for you to join the discussion!

Remember: my answers contain plot spoilers! Here’s my thoughts in response to Jennifer’s questions…

  • Many of the characters in the novel deal with regret and/or loss. How did these themes affect the characters? How did it affect their decisions? With whom could you relate as they struggled through these emotions?
  • Honey, Lily’s mom, represents a clear picture of how many deal with loss in her refusal to even speak the name of her son that she lost in the war. One element I found interesting in the novel is the theme of loss. We see how the war touched nearly the lives of nearly everyone, from Lily’s childhood sweetheart who will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair to those like Lily’s family and Jake whose loved ones were killed.

  • *Do you think duty is ever more important than love?
  • If you mean love as in a sentimental, sappy, passionate emotion then yes, I think commitment and duty is more important. If you mean love in terms of a promise to remain true and steadfast until death do us part and duty as a mechanical, empty fulfillment of an obligation, then no I would say love is more important. In fact, one of my frustrations with the novel is not only all the melodrama but that Lily would so freely abandon all sense of commitment. Sure, she was lonely. Loneliness is understandable and certainly sympathetic. I disliked the sense of inevitability surrounding Jake and Lily’s relationship.

  • How would you describe the love between Jake and Lily? Was it genuine? Born of fear or loneliness? Could it have survived the intricacies of “real life,” or could it only have existed in the tiny pocket of time outside of reality that they had?
  • I think it was born of loneliness (see my answer above). As for whether or not it was genuine and would have lasted, I want to say no, mainly because I disagree with the premise of unexpectedly finding one’s “true love” that renders the commitment to marriage as irrelevant and constraining. Also, their “love” really only lasted a couple of days, a tiny pocket of time indeed–how then could they “know” each other so well and so thoroughly? I have to admit, I chuckled a little at Jake’s surprise at Lily’s art. “Until now, he thought he knew her entirely.” After only a day?

  • How much of this story is a wartime story? Would Jake and Lily and her father and mother have reacted differently had they not been in the midst of a war? How has your family been affected by war?
  • It is a war story and interestingly enough that is what I liked most about the story. My generation and those after me are largely untouched by war, at least not to the extent of my grandparents’ generation, the “greatest generation” of World War II.

  • *What was your response to Lily’s decision to offer a thirsty African-American soldier a rare ice cold Coca-Cola in the middle of busy downtown 1945 Toccoa, Georgia? Do you think she should have been more direct in her action to help him, or stayed out of it entirely?
  • I liked her boldness in doing so in full view and I also liked how she sought to protect the reputation of both herself and the soldier.

  • *Honey speaks the name of her son, Jonathan, only once in the story after he is killed in the war. Do you think the way she deals with his death is understandable? Do you think it’s healthy? What effect do you think it has on Lily?
  • Denial is an emotion I understand, particularly in view of such a tragic loss. Healthy, not so much. I think being able to commiserate in their grief would have strengthened the relationship between Lily and Honey and would have helped Lily understand her own loneliness during Paul’s deployment.

  • *Lily’s father Walter is very clear with her about what he expects her to do when he speaks to her the morning after she has been out all night with Jake. What was your response to how Walter handled this situation? In his place, in what ways would you have reacted similarly or differently?
  • I could sense his mixture of patriotism and grief when he reminded Lily of the great sacrifice so many had made. “Not because it was easy or because it felt right, not because of love. They did it out of a sense of selflessness, out of a sense of duty.” Though I would argue that genuine love is selflessness, I appreciate his point and his plea with Lily to honor her commitment to Paul though I probably would have been a little less dismissive of the affair and the fact that she had spent the night with Jake.

  • Though not a typical Young Adult coming-of-age novel, how is Fireworks Over Toccoa the story of Lily’s coming of age?
  • We see that her relationship with Jake and the loss of Paul motivates Lily to move beyond her life in Toccoa, going to art school for example, traveling the world, meeting and marrying a wonderful man, raising a daughter. One wonders if she would have discovered such a life if the events of that summer in 1945 hadn’t occurred.

  • What personal connection, if any, did you have with this novel?: the place (Toccoa, Georgia), the World War II setting, influential families in small towns, military deployment, the loss of a child or sibling, temptation in marriage?
  • While I found the novel’s sweet sentimentality a little frustrating (what can I say, I’m a curmudgeon I suppose!), Lily and Jake’s affair irresponsible, and the intimate scene wholly unnecessary, I did think its picture of small town life in the South to be spot on and exactly how I picture my grandparents and parents’ lives during that time.

    Click here to see reviews of Fireworks Over Toccoa and here to see what others thought in response to these same questions.