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Initiative in friendships: Overcoming fear

Wednesday July 12 2017

Initiative in friendships: Overcoming fear

The fear of initiating is a significant obstacle in friendship. If I call and invite someone to get together with me, will I be rebuffed? If I ask someone over for dinner, will they hate the food I fix? Will my house be too messy? Will conversation lag?

Isn’t it better just to wait until someone takes initiative with me?

Damon, a nurse in his late forties, has been working on initiating in friendships for the past twenty years. He has come to view it as one of the tasks required for his spiritual growth.

I remember being an adolescent and a teenager. It seemed like there was always something to do. There were plenty of boys in my neighborhood, and we played baseball and basketball all the time. Then I went off to college, and the other guys in the dorm were always up for a movie or a game of tennis. It just seemed to happen. I didn’t have to take action myself in order to have friends.

Then I grew up and got a job. I was the only male nurse, so I was lonely at work. My roommates were busy working, and I didn’t know how to find people to do things with. In my family growing up, the mantra was ‘What will the neighbors say?’ There was a lot of shame and fear. My parents seldom invited people over to our house, because they were worried someone would take offense at the food they served or the way we lived. My dad had friends from work, but my mom was very isolated because of her fear.

When I met my wife, I was so surprised to find that she came from a family where both her parents had a lot of friends. They had people over for meals, they visited friends when they went on vacation, they sent bazillion Christmas cards every year. I watched my wife handle her friendships. She was always taking initiative in some way, sending a card, calling someone up, inviting people over. I realized I had never learned how to do that. So I started trying. I realized that if I wanted to show Christ’s love to the people I knew and if I wanted to have friends, I had to learn to take initiative.

It felt so awkward at first. Twenty years later, I’m still learning. But it comes more easily than it did before, and I have friends now. Good friends. Real friends. And I see that reaching out to people is a part of being a loving person, which has the side effect of nurturing friendships as well. And it brings great joy to me in the process.

About a decade ago, Damon reconnected with his cousins on his father’s side of the family. They live on the other side of the country. In the past ten years, he has seen them in person a few times at family gatherings and funerals, and he has emailed off and on with them, feeling increasingly close to them. Recently his cousin Betsy had a stroke. Damon found out about it through an email Betsy sent to friends and relatives. He emailed back, saying he was praying for her.

One morning, a few weeks after Betsy’s stroke, Damon woke up thinking about her. She stayed on his mind through breakfast and into the morning. He decided those thoughts might be a nudge from God that he should phone her.

She was at home alone and delighted to hear from him. In the first couple of weeks after the stroke, family members and friends from her church had been coming to help her every day, but now she was alone. Damon’s call was a lifeline for her that day, and when they hung up, she said to him, “You’re a sweetheart.”

The words warmed his heart, particularly in the light of his long journey to learn to initiate with friends. Listening to those nudges from God is playing an increasingly significant role for him as he continues to grow in intentionality in friendships.

Damon’s story illustrates the encouraging reality that taking initiative in friendship can be learned. It takes time and effort. Initiating can feel uncomfortable and awkward, but it does become easier with practice. In recent years Damon has experienced increased ease in reaching out to friends and potential friends in a number of ways.

(Next week: Different ways of initiating. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Illustration by Dave Baab.This post is excerpted from my book Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World.)

Previous posts in this series:
      Initiative in friendships   
      What Mary might have missed   
      Obstacles in taking initiative       

An article you might enjoy, that I wrote for the magazine Alive Now, discusses conversation skills, a relevant topic for friendships:
      Growing in loving conversation

Initiative in friendships: Obstacles

Thursday July 6 2017

Initiative in friendships: Obstacles

I wrote last week about Mary taking initiative to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant with a miracle baby. I talked about the fact that Mary could easily have stayed home. Why might Mary have made a decision NOT to go visit Elizabeth?

She might have stayed home if she had wondered if Elizabeth would welcome her. She might have stayed home if she had a lot of fears about what might happen on the journey. She might have felt obligated to help her mother or take care of her younger siblings, and her sense of responsibility might have kept her at home.

In the same way, many people today find it hard to initiate with friends or potential friends because of wondering if the act of initiative will be welcome. Many people have fears about the whole process of taking action. Will something bad or unpleasant happen? And many people are so absorbed with immediate needs—household, family, work—that they find it hard to think about extending a gesture of friendship to someone who is not immediately present.

“Love is kind.” Love “believes all things, hopes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4, 7). Part of the solution to the fears of reaching out in friendship comes from considering how to love the people with whom we are friends or with whom we might start a friendship. What would it look like to act in kindness to someone we know? What would it look like to believe and hope that our kindness will be received? Or to believe and hope that kindness is never wasted, that God will bring good things from it whether or not it is received graciously by the person to whom it is given?

When we reach out in kindness toward a friend or potential friend, we are mirroring the love of God that reaches into our lives. When we act in kindness with the hope of a positive response, but with the willingness to show love even if the response is tepid or negative, we are reflecting the character of God. The kind of initiative that builds true friendships is rooted in God’s love, full of kindness and hope, believing the best outcome may be possible.

Love carries its own reward. When we act in love, when we take initiative to show kindness and compassion, we are mirroring the character of God as shown to us in Jesus Christ. Every time we do that, we are participating in God’s work of transformation in us. Even if our act of kindness isn’t received very enthusiastically, we will be blessed if we trust that God’s love is shaping us into the people we were created to be.

One of my favorite poems speaks to initiative in relationships. I have loved this poem since I was a teenager who had moved a dozen times in her first 15 years. The poem affirmed all the effort I had taken to make friends every time we moved, and it encouraged me to continue to try to make friends in every new situation.

Talk not of wasted affection; affection never was wasted.
If it enrich not the heart of another, its waters returning
Back to their springs, like the rain shall fill them full of refreshment;
That which the fountain sends forth returns again to the fountain.
                  (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807–1882)

(Next week: Overcoming fear. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post is excerpted from my book Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World. For a complete list of my books, click here.)

Initiative in friendships: What Mary might have missed

Tuesday June 27 2017

Initiative in friendships: What Mary might have missed

I wrote last week about initiative in friendships. One of my favorite friendship stories in the Bible reveals an easy-to-miss act of initiative. Luke 1 and 2 describes the miracle pregnancies of two cousins, Elizabeth and Mary, and the friendship that grows between them.

Elizabeth and her husband were getting on in years, and they had no child. In a series of dramatic events, God reveals to Elizabeth’s husband that they will have a child who will have a significant role in God’s plan. That son will be John the Baptist.

Mary is also pregnant with a miracle baby, Jesus. The angel Gabriel gives Mary the news that she will bear a son who will be called “the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). After Mary asks how this can happen, given that she is a virgin, Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit will make it possible. Then Gabriel says, “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:36-37).

Immediately after the conversation with the angel, Mary sets out on a visit to her cousin. She stays with Elizabeth three months, and we can only imagine the comfort these two women gave to each other. They undoubtedly talked over the miraculous events surrounding the conception of their babies. They probably shared their fears about the life their sons would lead and the impact of God’s call on each of them. According to Luke, Mary is in Elizabeth’s presence when she says the famous prayer often called the Magnificat, a prayer beloved by Christians for two thousand years (see Luke 1:46-55).

What we so easily miss is the fact that the angel did not tell Mary to visit Elizabeth. Gabriel simply announced that Elizabeth was pregnant after waiting so long. Mary chose to go visit. Her willingness to take initiative in this way nurtured the friendship between her and Elizabeth and benefitted both of them.

I can imagine another scenario that could very easily have happened if Mary hadn’t taken that initiative. In my alternative story, Mary stays home. The angel tells her that Elizabeth is pregnant, and Mary is happy to hear it. She tells her mother about it, and maybe local female cousins as well, and they spend a lot of time talking about how wonderful it is for Elizabeth to be pregnant. They tell each other stories of women they knew who struggled with infertility. They talk about women who became pregnant after giving up hope. Perhaps they refer to Abraham and Sarah from the Bible, or maybe they remember Hannah, another biblical character who became pregnant after waiting a long time. Pregnancy after infertility is a wonderful gift, and, just like today, probably everyone in Mary’s village had a story to tell about it.

But Elizabeth’s pregnancy had additional significance beyond the gift of a baby after a long period of infertility. Elizabeth’s son would grow up to be “great in the sight of the Lord” and would speak and minister “with the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:15, 17). If Mary hadn’t taken the initiative to visit Elizabeth, she would have missed talking with the one woman who had some inkling of the amazing thing that had happened to her and the high calling of her son.

After Jesus is born, Joseph and Mary present him in the temple. A faithful man named Simeon recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah. He says a beautiful prayer in response to seeing Jesus, and then turns to Mary and tells her what he sees about Jesus’ ministry. His final words to Mary are sobering: “A sword will pierce your own soul” (Luke 2:35).

Mary’s conversations with Elizabeth may very well have given her the foundation for the kind of strength and resilience she would need in order to live with that sword piercing her heart. Because of her visit with Elizabeth, she entered into her role as mother of the Son of God, knowing she was not alone in bearing a miracle baby who would be called to do extraordinary things.

We have no record of Elizabeth and Mary meeting again. When horrible things happened to John the Bapist and then later to Jesus, the memory of those three months with Elizabeth must have given Mary comfort. Mary would have rejoiced in her friendship with one other woman called by God to bear a child who would change history and who would bring tears and great sadness to his mother.

Next week: Obstacles in taking initiative. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post is excerpted from my book Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World. For a complete list of my books, click here.)

New series of blog posts: Initiative in friendships

Tuesday June 20 2017

New series of blog posts: Initiative in friendships

I often think of friendship as a verb, and when I think of actions that shape friendship, what comes to mind first and foremost is the willingness to take initiative. Over and over.

Initiative means making some kind of response after a friend has surgery. Perhaps a card, a meal, a gift, a phone call or a visit. Initiative means creating opportunities to listen when a friend is going through a crisis—suggesting a conversation over coffee, making time for a phone call or sending an email with specific questions about the situation. Initiative means checking in with friends when you haven’t heard from them for a while. Initiative means remembering to pray for a friend’s needs.

I know that initiative is so important to me because I had to navigate eleven moves in my first fifteen years. As I look back on my childhood, I can see clearly that if I hadn’t taken initiative over and over to reach out to potential new friends, I would have been desperately lonely.

The emphasis I place on initiating in friendship also comes from conversations I’ve had with both men and women over the years. “I have trouble initiating,” many people have told me as they talk about feeling isolated and wanting more friends.

Serena, a librarian in her fifties, expressed two important beliefs when I interviewed her: “friendship takes time” and “to be friends requires intentionality; it rarely ‘happens.’” She noted that people so often say, “Let’s get together,” but find it hard to follow through. “I wouldn’t have either,” she said, “had I not scribbled notes to myself on my calendar or scraps of paper in my car to ‘call this person’ or ‘invite that person over for dinner.’”

Serena has nurtured the habit over the years of having people over for tea or dinner, either individually or in groups, and in this way has developed friendships with neighbors, coworkers and church members.

Tabitha, in her eighties, has reflected a lot about initiative in friendships. She takes frequent initiative with friends, but is always grateful when someone else jumps in and makes connection with her. She reflected: “Good friends are caring, loyal and understanding. They’re strong, so you can lean on them. They have integrity, so you know that what you tell them won’t go any further. They have time for you, and they make connection with you at least sometimes, so it’s not always you who has to take initiative.”

Initiative in friendships today takes many forms, and in this series of blog posts I’ll describe a variety of kinds of initiative. I’ll also explore some of the obstacles to initiating. I’ll close with a lovely quotation from Orlando A. Battista (1917–1995):

The greatest weakness of most humans is their hesitancy to tell others how much they love them while they’re still alive.

(Next week: “What Mary might have missed.” If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Illustration by Dave Baab: "Walking at Greenlake." This post excerpted from my book Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World.)

Two common questions about the Sabbath

Wednesday June 14 2017

Two common questions about the Sabbath

I speak and teach a lot about the Sabbath because I have kept a Sabbath for more than 30 years. Plus I have written a book, a Bible study guide, and many articles about it. When I speak or teach, I get two questions quite frequently: what’s the difference between a Sabbath and a day off, and what do you do on your Sabbath? I’ll use some thoughts about the first question as a bridge to my answer to the second question.

A day off and a Sabbath are similar because they are both a day to stop working. Many people, however, have found that a day off can easily become a harried blur of errands and chores with nothing Sabbath-like in it. So what is the difference?

Part of the difference lies in a person’s intent, and the intent shapes the actions on the Sabbath day. The two versions of the Ten Commandments have two different reasons to keep the Sabbath day, which illuminate two of my three significant Sabbath intentions.

1. Remember creation.

In Exodus 20:11, the reason for the Sabbath goes back to creation: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” Because God is our Creator, and God rested on the seventh day, we stop our own productivity and remember that God made us. We also remember that everything good we have comes from our loving Creator.

Many of the Sabbath keepers I interviewed for my book and articles find that the best way to draw near to God on the Sabbath is to enjoy nature: a walk, bike ride, beach, or garden. On the Sabbath we are invited to enjoy God as Creator.

2. Remember freedom from slavery.

In Deuteronomy 5:15, we are invited to keep a Sabbath because we have been freed from slavery. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” We know that in Christ, we have been freed from sin, evil, death and fear of death. The Sabbath is a day to celebrate the freedom God gives.

For most people, spending a day running errands or doing housework doesn’t feel like freedom. What activities do you need to stop in order to feel free? What activities help you feel free? The answers to those questions should shape your Sabbath day.

3. Stopping.The Hebrew root word that “Sabbath” comes from means stop, cease, desist, or rest. Stopping much of our activity one day a week helps us remember God is God and we are not. We are not in charge. We are not at the center. We are not indispensible. We stop work so we can know, deep in our hearts, that Someone Else runs the universe and we do not.

I check my email first thing in the morning on my Sabbath day, and then I don’t look at it for the rest of the day. Why? So I can act on the truth that I am not indispensible. (I also experience freedom from email for a day.)

What else do I do? My husband and I spend about 45 minutes praying together on our Sabbath day. Half of that time is prayers of thankfulness. God is Creator and has freed us from so many forms of slavery. Taking the time to notice the good gifts and the various forms of freedom in our lives helps my husband and me lift our focus off of the hard things of life.

My major Sabbath activity is reading novels. Someone Else is running the universe and I can relax. I sometimes cook, skype with family members, or sit on a bench at the beach or in a park. Sometimes I go to the gym and enjoy experiencing the profound truth that God created my body. The day has no “shoulds” about it. I stay out of my home office so I won’t be tempted to work, and I stay out of stores so I won’t be tempted to focus on what I don’t have.

The Sabbath is a day to stop our everyday activities so we can experience God as Creator – the One who gives every good gift – and Redeemer – the One who frees us from slavery. The intent shapes the day.

(Next week I begin a new series on initiative in friendships. Illustration by Dave Baab: Me on my Sabbath day. If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

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