Friends and Neighbors


This week, we’re in the middle of sending out Christmas cards. And while I’m sure Martha would not approve of my timetable, I think that we’re actually doing quite well. For the last two years, we didn’t even send cards so the simple act of ordering them is, in my mind, significant progress. And thanks to my husband (the organizational guru), all the recipients’ names and addresses are neatly typed into a spreadsheet, ready to be printed onto easy-stick labels. But because he’s been doing most of the prep work, I didn’t realize until last night that we had nearly 200 names on our list.As I sat there reading over them, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad, a little nostalgic, and surprisingly a little guilty, all at the same time. Because we’ve moved so often, we’ve collected a lot of friends; but the danger of this is that it is very hard to keep up with them all, and so if I’m completely honest, many of names on our list easily classify as “Christmas card” friends—those friends that once held a prominent place in our life but now, due to time and distance, whose friendship is rooted more in memory than daily relationship. (“Christmas card” friends are cousins to Facebook friends.)  And while I’ll unabashedly indulge the nostalgia--there’s something irresistible about savoring the memories attached to each name--I find myself fighting the guilt, the guilt that tells me I’ve failed in some way because I haven’t been able to maintain over 200 intimate relationships.

Our culture has a funny perspective on relationships, and often we don’t realize how much it shapes our own until we find ourselves struggling through real-life ones. Romantic comedies have taught us that we need some kind of mystical Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks connection or our marriages are doomed, and for the last two decades, shows like Friends have taught us that the only valid friendships are those that are close, intimate, and never ending. You know the type—a group of five to six friends who live in a common location and get into all kinds of exploits as they navigate the ups and downs of relationships, careers, and life. The appeal of these shows isn’t simply the quirky characters and inside jokes—it’s the community, the sense of belonging, of having friends that “get” you and accept you regardless of how often you mess up or how silly you act. And slowly, this is what we’ve come to expect from our friendships too. We begin to think that the only legitimate ones are those that play out over long conversations in coffee houses and involve perfect chemistry.

As Christians, we generally spot the false expectations of romcoms--we know that they set us up to be dissatisfied with normal relationships--but I’m not certain that we’ve been as successful in recognizing our unrealistic expectations about friendship. In fact, sometimes I wonder if we’ve tried to be a “Friends Lite” (minus the whole sexual promiscuity thing) and in doing so, have set ourselves up to be very disappointed when friends move on, to feel guilty when every relationship isn’t deep and meaningful, or to be disenchanted when no one in our church seems to “get” us. We have become so captured with some idealized notion of friendship that small, normal, warm relationships are no longer enough.

Trust me, I’m know the benefit of community, of small group settings that foster deep, spiritual bonds. But I’ve also been in situations where the bonds didn’t happen easily, where it took a long time to begin to be true friends, where we felt obligated to force a sense of intimacy because of our shared expectations about friendship. But in doing so, we actually became less authentic and essentially guaranteed that we wouldn’t achieve the very relationships we longed for.

Instead, I think we need to remember that one of the greatest benefits of community is the opportunity to live with people who wouldn’t naturally be our friends, to live in close proximity with people who don’t always “get” us. (This is also one of the benefits of spending time with extended family.) And while words like transparency, accountability, deep, meaningful, and connectedness may be the watchwords of our generation, we must recognize that these things are the by-products of commitment--they come after choosing to live life together, not before. We must also accept that they are not necessarily the measure of whether or not a relationship is worth having. Sure, it’d be lovely if we all had relationships like those on Friends—where every friendship is deep and meaningful and close and never ends--but those relationships are scripted by Hollywood screenwriters, and the ones scripted by the Divine Screenwriter are usually messier, more chaotic, less consistent, and don’t play out as we expect.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t pursue deep friendships when they come (we all want the kind that C. S. Lewis describes here);  I’m simply suggesting that when our other relationships aren’t as fulfilling as these or when old friends become “Christmas card” friends, we shouldn’t see them as failures. These relationships are not inferior; they are simply what they are—opportunities we once had to walk with a fellow pilgrim along a portion of this life’s journey.

So now, whenever I’m sorting through my Christmas card list, instead of feeling guilty,  I’m going to take the opportunity to revel in the Providence that allowed each one of these people to be part of my life for a given moment; I’m going to marvel at the Wisdom that made our lives intersect in order to sanctify us both; and I’m going to rejoice in the knowledge that one day, through His Grace, we’ll have the chance to live in true friendship for the rest of eternity.