Jul 1, 2011

An Appetizer for the Feast

6 Min Read

Go ahead. Ask me what would make me happiest if I had a totally free day. I'd tell you that during such a dream day I'd be by myself, probably with a book. Right at the front of my personality assessment is a capital I that means "introvert." It could also stand for "I want to be alone—a lot."

Over the years, when my husband and I have tried to untangle some of the snarls in my life, sometimes he’s ventured to ask, “Noël, don’t you think it might help to have some women around you to offer other perspectives and to pray for you and maybe give some helpful suggestions?”

I knew he must be right because King Solomon said the same thing, and his wisdom was so phenomenal it left the Queen of Sheba breathless (1 Kings 10:1–13). His writings in the Bible are even called Wisdom Literature. So I thought it probably would be wise for me to pay attention when Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 4:9–10a that it’s good to have friends because they support each other: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow.”

In fact, Solomon goes on to say we’re in trouble if we don’t have friends: “Woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (4:10b). He says friends watch out for each other’s needs: “If two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?” (4:11). And friends share their strength against adversity: “Though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him — a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (4:12).

So my mouth said to my husband, “That’s a wise idea.” But my heart cringed at the thought of letting people close enough to poke around in my weaknesses, my mistakes, my faults, and my inadequacies. I decided that I needed to get my life sorted out, then I could include friends — someday, when I could be a giver instead of a taker. “I ought to be able to manage all this,” I thought.

But no matter how much I tried, things didn’t get better. And I felt more and more depressed.

Then came the day in the counselor’s office when he said, “Tell me the names of four or five godly women you’d be willing to be totally open with.” I rolled the eyes of my heart. Not this again.

I told him who those women would be (if I were going to be totally open with someone). I thought: “He’s going to counsel me to think about drawing them around me sometime soon. I’ll say OK and then drag my feet a few weeks until we’ve moved on to other things.”

But he didn’t leave me that escape route. Instead, he said: “When you get home, contact them today. Ask each woman if she can commit to be here with you at our appointments, starting next time. Their wisdom will be part of our conversation. And they will be a support to you in the days between appointments.”

“Right,” I thought pessimistically. “Those are busy women. They have their own problems to deal with. I’d be presumptuous asking so much time from them.”

But I did as I was told. I went home and emailed four women a message that boiled down to this: “My life is a mess. Will you help me? But I know you’re really busy, so please say no if that’s best for you.”

I pressed the send button, hoping they’d all say they couldn’t. That thought was barely complete before the replies showed up in my inbox — four people who said they felt inadequate because of their own struggles, but they were honored and would be with me at the counselor’s office on Monday.

As minimal as my email confession had been, it was enough to poke a small hole through the curtain I’d been living behind — the screen that allowed an audience to see only a shadowy outline of me. On my side of the curtain, I was amazed to sense the thin beam of light and the breeze of fresh air making their way through the hole.

Already I could breathe a little more easily because now there were four women with whom I could start to relax, since I wouldn’t need to maintain with them the tension of projecting or protecting an image of the person I thought I ought to be.

Yes, this would be good in the long run, but in the meantime, what? The day came to meet with the women and the counselor. I headed off to that appointment feeling an ocean of empathy toward Eustace when he was waiting for Aslan to peel off his dragon skin.

In my anxiety, though, I hadn’t taken into account one essential thing: friendship goes both direct ions. These women weren’t coming to examine me and work on fixing me. They were ready to give themselves and to receive from me and from each other.

In that session and in the days to come, as these friends opened themselves to me, my heart warmed to them and I felt more and more freedom with them. We came to trust each other with the tender places of our hearts.

In Proverbs 27:9, Solomon might have been writing about my friends: “Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.” God used them to make my heart glad with their contemporary versions of practical oil and luxurious perfume: homemade bread, excellent coffee, brilliant bouquets, lunches together, and meals for my family.

God showed Himself in the deep wisdom that sprang from their lives’ stories of widowhood, life-threatening disease, physical disability, and victory over severe obesity. In their wider family groups were suicide, mental illness, prodigal children, and alienation. Those kinds of pain become part of a person’s life and are rarely over and done. So from within their own history and daily experience, with tenderness, understanding, and empathy of experience they prayed for me, advised me, and gave me hope.

To be fair, sometimes their words were not easy for me to hear. Often the phone calls, text messages, or emails were positive and encouraging. But sometimes a wise friend saw that I needed a rebuke, a reminder to call sin “sin.” “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6).

I was sixty years old when this story began — when I was forced to have friends. I am ashamed that, until then, I could have remained so ignorant of what God intended friendship to be. At the same time, I am filled with gratitude that God didn’t leave me alone.

Good things can happen in solitude. Quietness can be a sweet place to meet God. But there’s a dark side to solitude when I crave it above all. The I comes to mean not “introvert” but literally only “I”: I don’t want you around, because I am the one who makes me happy. I can solve my own problems. I am all I need.

Right now as I lay those thoughts out so bluntly, I recoil from my arrogance. Do we really think, “I am all I need?,” as if we were God?

O Lord, protect me from myself. Please help me to be still and know that you are God.

I am still an introvert. My dream day still is a day by myself, but only once in a while. I thank God for the women he gave me when I needed to receive friendship. I pray that God will shape my heart to give friendship like they do — like Jesus told us to: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

Jesus said, “I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). He is the one I most want as a friend. I don’t want ever to be totally alone, without Jesus. I thank God for friends who have shown me Jesus’ kind of love. They have been an appetizer for the feast of Jesus’ friendship.