Intentional Relationships: The Good Ones Require Effort
You’ve seen them before— the ladies in the corner with the deep laugh lines, and silver hair. Their drink of choice is mint tea, always shared, and their conversation is neither hurried nor loud. Their needles click together ever so delicately as they chat, utterly unaware of anyone else’s presence in the coffee shop. You’ve often caught yourself staring at them, curious about their origin story, and how many years they’ve logged together in the front window of the cafe. You’ve watched them comfort each other, passing delicately embroidered hankies back and forth across the small table. You’ve seen them grasp hands and bow their heads in prayer. You’ve watched them talk to the red-eyed barista, place money in her hand, and embrace her warmly, and of course, they’re always eager to share treats with every child or pup that crosses the threshold.
How many tears have been spilled over steaming cups of tea, or how many rounds of laughter have they exchanged as they swap stories of children, spouses, and life? “Ethel and Lucy,” you’ve dubbed them.
They bring both a smile to your eyes, and tears as you realize that your life lacks a mint-tea friend. You know you need one. You tell others you want one. But you aren’t quite sure how to begin the monumental task of laying a foundation, or if you have the endurance required to build a life-long friendship.
We were created to be in community. We say we want it. We tell others that they need it. We portray that we are interested in something beyond surface conversations exchanged in passing at the grocery store, or worse, in the ten minutes before the Sunday service has started. But how do we get there— to meaningful relationships that are full of hope and accountability, that can sharpen and fill us in the same twenty-minutes sitting at the kitchen table? How do we get past the pleasantries with the people in our row at church, or that we shuffle past at school pick up, in the office, and worse, on our way out to get the morning paper from the front of our house? How do we move from our circles of earbuds and garages that keep us head down, closed up, and inaccessible to others? Where do we find community if our church doesn’t have a program for us called, “small groups?”
We’ve come to think that it is that the role of the church— to meet our social needs. We forget that the church one hundred years ago did not have the capability of having ten different programs or “ministries,” one for each demographic and special interest. To look back even further, is to question if what we expect from the church today, is what Jesus had in mind regarding community?
The common belief is that the best community is the result of sitting in someone’s living room eating dessert and talking through questions based on the Sunday message with little room left for vulnerability. The rinse-repeat cycle makes us feel “included,” but seldom “known.” And since most of our socializing results from our church circle, there is little room in our schedules for neighbors or co-workers, the needy and the unbeliever. But it’s safe and easy, and we know what to expect from our “church small group” with its non-confrontational conversation and expectation that everyone holds the same beliefs.
That’s why the coffee house hangs are so popular. We call it a get-together, a meeting, or anything other than a date, but that’s basically what it is. Two people who have finally shared enough interest in each other and the natural progression is either drinks at the local happy hour spot or coffee at the nearest hipster roastery. But, how much deeper can the conversation go in such a public space? Within the coffee shop, there are a myriad people who can distract— walking in and out of the discussion. This is a great first, second, or third date location, but at some point— we have to commit to the relationship. So, challenge number one is to find a better meeting place.
Offer to move the next date to the kitchen table, living room sofa, or backyard. If you don’t feel that you can offer that, then perhaps you’ll need to get more creative, but nothing says, “I’m choosing to be real” than offering to open the front door to someone and letting them see us in the environment where we are most ourselves.
We have to be willing to climb to the next level, to go ask the more profound questions. If we want the Ethel and Lucy relationship, we have to be ready to make the first steps toward conversations that are vulnerable and authentic. We can start with how our week has really been because everyone knows that “fine” is both a lame and untruthful response. We know there is a fifty percent chance that is “awful“— at best. We need to be willing to talk about how our kids are trying our patience, and so it potty training, or how our elderly parent is struggling with dementia, or our frustration with our job, body, or business partner. We need to be honest and say that it’s been weeks since we feel like we heard God’s voice, didn’t agree with something the pastor said last weekend, or that we have been fighting with our spouses a lot lately. We don’t have to be dramatic, but we aren’t allowed to tell a half-truth. It requires us to open our heart and our mouth. We have to be the one who’s willing to go there first.
We have to face our fears of being rejected, of being criticized, of being ridiculed as the “intense” one in the group; otherwise, our relationships will never be more than an inch deep. We will come to loathe our small group on Wednesday nights with its strong commitment to “getting together” but lack of desire to move the conversation beyond the shallow responses.
We may failin moving the coffee shop dates into a more intimate conversation. There may be a lack of interest on the part of the other person; that’s perfectly fine. We can’t force our goals onto others. So, if that is the case, recognize this isn’t your future “Ethel” and move on. Not everyone is ready for the deep friendship, and that’s okay. But you cannot use the rejection or lack of interest as an excuse to stop trying.
Keep searching for that person who will surprise you with a different opinion, a response that isn’t politically correct, or that makes you stop and think. Hunt for the friend who still wants to hang out with you after you cried off all your mascara in the coffee shop. Even better if they were the one to follow up with you later in the day or the week. If that happens, don’t waste another minute— grab hold of that person and make time in your schedule for them.
Being a true friend means choosing to step toward another person when life gets hard. It requires that we continue to show up and to keep asking questions. A real friend refuses to let the other be alone when the darkness is overwhelming. They tell you when you’re overly sensitive, or a complete idiot and they are just as quick to share their failures and insecurities. It is giving generously in seasons, and being able to receive with humility in others.
This version of “community” doesn’t require a study guide or a leader. It is the result of individuals who choose to be in each other’s lives intentionally. In good times, and bad. In sickness and in health. In seasons of plenty, and those of lack. It requires sacrifice and hard work, as do most things that we value. If we want the “Ethel and Lucy” relationships, we have to be willing to put in the work and stop believing that they will “just happen” as a result of spending time together. Growth is not guaranteed due to proximity; rather it is the result of careful tending. It requires pruning, watering, and fertilization. Relationships need time, but even more, they require effort.