The Morphing of Community and Friendship

people-circle-webMy understanding of community has morphed through the years. Time, failure in relationships, brutal betrayal, sacrificial love and unimaginable kindness by strangers have all helped develop my experience of being in and practicing community--of sharing friendship.If you have read some of my books, you have been a witness to my progressive revelation of what community is and what it is not. In 2006, I was shaped and impacted by the words of psychologist David Benner when he says that friendship has several non-negotiable ingredients—one of which is this: True friendship and community must be reciprocal. There must be give and take in healthy relationships. No one person can be the one who gives all the time. No one person can do all the initiating. It must be reciprocal. It must be shared. It must be give and take and back and forth. Benner penned these words in my very first book, The Transformation of a Man’s Heart. That clarification helped me greatly to distinguish what had become a fuzzy boundary in my life in relationships where I was paid to be people’s friends in ministry as a pastor. When I grasped the needed quality of having reciprocal relationships, I learned to distinguish between people who were really my “work” and people who were really my “friends.” It helped me and still helps me know who I am to the few people I can find in my life that actually do want to be reciprocal rather than one of us feeling like we are doing all the giving and thus someone else is doing all the taking.In 2008, I wrote in a chapter in Soul Custody titled, “Soul Companions: Choosing your Friends” that companionship is one of God’s great desires for us. Since God is Trinity—and we are created in the image of God—we learn that the soul was created to actually be in and thrive by community. It really is not good to be by ourselves in this life. There’s a lot in that chapter about loneliness and moving out of loneliness into the actual experience of tasting true friendship. As I read that chapter today, I can clearly see my own pilgrimage in attempting to move beyond my own inner loneliness to a sense of connectedness and community.In 2012, I wrote an important book titled, The Jesus Life. There’s an anchor chapter in this book about “The Way of Companionship.” I wrote this chapter reflecting on one of the greatest hurts and wounds in the erosion of what I thought was a friend. Through a deep betrayal, a friendship ended and has never been resurrected to this day. I still wonder how something that deep and tearing could ever be repaired and would I even WANT it to be? It was in this year that I discovered a small and seemingly insignificant verse in the Gospel of John where we are told that Jesus “would not entrust himself to them for he knew all people” (John 2:24). Jesus was speaking about his companions at a table he was having dinner with. He somehow knew in his interior soul that some of the people around him—perhaps already in his circle were just were not safe. That one, small verse gave me fodder for the fire in my heart to grasp friendship even more deeply. Here I learned that Jesus did not give his heart away like we were taught in Sunday School. He guarded his own heart and was not fully vulnerable. Perhaps, in my quest to be like Jesus, I would need to reign in my heart and be more careful about who I called, “friend” and with whom I told my secrets to in life.In 2014, we moved out of the city where we had lived  for a dozen years and uprooted our lives to live near our retreat. We wanted our life to be integrated. I wanted to “do my life” in one place and not be so divided. We left our church. We left our small group. We left our home and have tried to put down roots where our work, life , church and friends can have a sense of synergy, connectedness and harmony. It’s not been easy to be truthful.But in the last few months some new light has come into my quest to understand community even more. The prolific 21st century sage, prophet, farmer and spiritual guru, Wendell Berry, wrote a few sentences that stopped my in my tracks in trying to grasp community. He writes, “Community, I am beginning to understand, is made through a skill I have never learned or valued: the ability to pass time with people you do not and will not know well, talking about nothing in particular, with no end in mind, just to build trust, just to be sure of each other, just to be neighborly. A community is not something that you have, like a camcorder or a breakfast nook. No, it is something you do. And you have to do it all the time. “His words were like a light bulb for me. Something that felt dark became a little more filled with light.  Community is something you do and you practice.   So, with renewed wind in my sails, Berry’s words have helped me want, desire to practice community. We went to church on Sunday and sat in chairs surrounded by some “friends” and neighbors where we live. We passed the peace to each other when the preacher asked us to; we stood up together and sang the Doxology and sat down to pray the Lord’s prayer together in unison. With one voice; one motion, and in one building we found ourselves warmly connected. It was stirring for me in a deep way. I was practicing Berry’s plea for what authentic community actually is and actually does. Slowly we will build trust. We invited one couple to join us for lunch. We began a new journey of practicing casual friendship. We are both new to our new town; new to our shared neighborhood and in a new stage of life together. There’s a lot in common to build upon. There is some ground now to “practice” all that I have learned thus far in my life about friendship and community.No voice has impacted me more deeply than the prophetic words of poet and author David Whyte. He writes,, “Without tolerance and mercy, all friendships die.” Read that again.   Don’t read anything more than his sentence: “Without tolerance and mercy, all friendships die.” He is telling us that friendship is not about being right. Community is not rooted in the affinity where everyone believes the same thing.  It is not about have the same political views and sharing the same doctrine. He is telling us that the soul of friendships will shrivel and die unless we practice tolerance and mercy with one another. We will not always agree. 90% of all business partnerships fail.  We simply need more tolerance and a whole lot more of mercy.  He further states, “A diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armored personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in even the most average existence.” Ouch! How does he write in such a way that his words become a scalpel to my crusted heart. If you find yourselves in a diminishing circle of friends, perhaps your own understanding of friendship will need to morph.About 20 years ago, I wrote an article for a newspaper titled, "Who are the six strong people who will carry your casket to the grave?"  I didn't know the answer to that question then and I still am not sure today. Do you know the answer to that unsettling question?  For some of us that kind of uneasy question may jar us into thinking more about this very important issue in our lives--the question about who are my friends and how do I really find true community?  We live so much of our lives asleep and on the hamster wheel that few of us think below the water line of life as we need to--as God wants and invites us to ponder.Many of the great spiritual truths in our lives are best understood when we accept the notion that goes like this: “I do not know everything. As I live more I will become more wise. I want to be a student of progressive revelation. I want to grow in my understanding of all things that matter: marriage, love, what is really essential in life and my yearning for heaven. As I have morphed and grown in my understanding of community, I can now be ready to lay down some things that have not worked; have not served me or my friends of the past well and now practice a better way of being a friend and having a friend.  Like the Apostle Paul told us, sometimes we need to put aside childish notions and take hold of a more mature understanding of things.  I find myself doing precisely as he instructed us to do regarding friends and community.  Do you?

In Search of My Tribe

Social media guru, Seth Godwin says everyone of us belongs to a tribe or we need to belong to one.  We belong to a smaller group of people who are like us and that there is a sense of belonging.  It’s a part of our survival mechanism to belong to something bigger than ourselves. No man is an island, right?  Islands brought together form an continent. Am I an island or a part of a continent. But where  and to whom do I belong? That’s the existential question that philosophers pose and poets lament about. Yet, it’s a feeling and longing as sure as love or death.  Should I belong to a specific church? Should I belong to a certain denomination?  Is my small group a safe place for me to belong? Let’s look deeper for a moment.  Where are my people and who are they anyway?  Can I find someone like me out here that thinks, smells, acts and believes the way I do?  Does belonging  mean we are the same—act the same—do the same things—look the same way? Stirring up the pot of belonging is scraping the bottom of the pot which reveals the often burned and hard to talk about subject of community that we must deal with.  Community is the place where we most belong. Experiencing community is a hint of discovering your tribe. If you’re in community, then you may know what I’m talking about by being in a tribe. It’s like my group of people I met with on Sunday mornings at my church. In many ways, these wonderful people are like my tribe—sort of. We are missed when we are not there. At least they tell me that.  We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and we bake pies when one of our parents die. It’s a way of caring. But in the end, at least for me, I am finding myself longing for some tribe that we might go deeper. We might talk about our longings and fears; our failures and be prayed over when we confess our sins. We would love and be loved; touch and be touched, care and be cared for and celebrate and be celebrated. We would pray and be prayed for. We would matter. Most of us are in the end, looking for a group where we matter. It’s the greatest obstacle to the mega-church. It’s call the “herd instinct.”  It’s where we get in and get out without being really noticed; without being really significant; without being really more than a cow herded onto a cattle car. I know that feeling. Don’t you? My tribe and the lack of a tribe makes me feel secure and at the same time lonesome for something else. I want more than Sunday School. I want a tribe—a group of men and women who matter and to whom I matter. Do you understand what I’m talking about?  Leave your comments and let’s chat…let’s explore this important subject.

The Power of Belonging

by Stephen W. SmithLast night I watched the Denver Broncos play football. It was a thrilling game but as the cameras panned the sold out stadium, what I saw was the power of belonging—most fans were wearing the orange and blue colors of the Broncos! Dressed alike there was solidarity in the cheering and victory.But the night before last, I witnessed one of the most powerful sights of belonging that I have seen in years. A modern monastic order came together—men and women—married and single to welcome three new members into their community. I was invited to witness the event but my witnessing of what happened deeply moved me to tears, sober realizations and soulful longings.Every human being longs to belong. This is why standing in a circle or sitting a table in a few days at Thanksgiving will be so good for our souls. There at the table, we will sit or stand in a circle; perhaps we will hold hands and bow our heads but one other, very important thing is happening. We are moving in that time from the “me” to the “we.” We are brought together to share together; to experience together; to taste together the goodness of our Thanksgiving meal.This modern monastic order had worked with three individuals to teach them their ways, expectations and values. The three very ordinary, novitiates, who longed to belong stood ready to be accepted. One after one was called to the center where they stated their intent to belong to something greater than merely belonging to the me. They wanted to belong to the “we.” They desired community. They wanted to live out their lives with a few other like-minded men and women and experience church in their midst.The drama increased for me as each novitiate was recognized, blessed and celebrated. A novitiate is anyone who is a beginner at something that wants to get better at something. Aren’t we really all novitiates in life? I know I am. Then, a beautiful yet simple cross was placed around their neck. It was the symbol that everyone in the room wore but me. I had no cross but I sure had the desire. Everyone moved to hug and embrace the new members of the “we”. They now belonged.My desire was not so much to be given a cross as it was the amazing realization that I, too, wanted—no-- needed to belong. I wanted to stand with a few people who wanted the same things I wanted; who would die for the same cause I would lay my life down for. We see such marvels at belonging in our military, sports, clubs and family events. My wish these days is for this power of belonging to draw the church into more of a “we” than just a gathering of “me’s.”This Thanksgiving, we will perhaps sense this urge that swelled up within me. The power of belonging will rise up within us. Gather with what friends and family you may. Form the circle at the blessing or around the table. What will be more important than the feast before us, will be the feast of our lives—the power of belonging to one another! The power of “we.” For me, only one of my sons will travel 1,000 miles and leave the "me" to become the "we." But though not all together, we will pause with a circle smaller than what I'd like and bow our heads to the One who lets us be both "me" and "we."Take a moment here and use the "reply" piece here to express your Thanksgiving for the people you belong to and then forward this to your "we."(This theme is explore more indepth in one of the Eight Ways in my new book, The Jesus Life: Eight Ways to Re-discover Authentic Christianity. But this blog is new and does not appear in the book's content). Copyright: Stephen W. Smith, 2011. You have permission to forward, print and use.

Holding the Rope that Ties Us Together

I'm up at our retreat, Potter's Inn at Aspen Ridge. We are doing a soul care intensive, a five day private retreat, this week with a couple who told us today, "This is a last-ditch attempt to save our marriage."  They are over in their cabin tonight. They are sitting with what happened in our first day together. I'm sitting here in my cabin wondering what tomorrow will bring.This morning, I read words from Henri Nouwen which seemed appropriate. He said that sometimes we need to tie a rope around our ankles when we go into the black holes of other people's desperation--and ask our community to hold the rope for us so that we, ourselves, don't slip into the darkness we are trying to help people escape from.  It's a beautiful image---thinking that some people would actually care enough to hold the rope tied to my own ankles so that we can do our work; fulfill our calling and help rescue souls in danger.I'll not spend much time wondering who in this world would care enough to hold my rope for me but I do know there are a few who truly do care. That assurance gives me the courage to keep trying to help people; keep trying to find the light for people to navigate their way out of the darkness.I am reminded of a line in Mary Oliver's poem---one of my favorite of hers when she simply says, "The heart has many dungeons. Bring the light. Bring the light."Each morning, we'll do our soul work together--this couple and us.  Each morning, I'll imagine this rope--this sense that we are not alone in doing this work.A last ditch effort to save a marriage is a high calling--don't you think? Much is at stake. Much!Hold the rope, would you?  When you hold the rope, we are truly partnered together.Stephen W. Smith