An Unlikely Friendship

In my previous post, I looked at the importance of listening to those we disagree with. For many, that’s not high on the list of priorities. That’s understandable; it’s hard to listen to someone who has a completely different take on an issue of great importance to us. But I think it’s important to remember: listening to opposing viewpoints doesn’t signal uncertainty. On the contrary, I believe those who listen best are those who are most in tune with their core convictions. Those who reach out best are those who best know what they believe. On the other hand, those who hide behind facebook posts or only listen to their own echo chamber may be the ones who feel most fragile in their beliefs. Yelling at others isn’t usually a sign of confidence, but fear. The refusal to engage another person is often rooted in the inability to do so.

So, it seems to me, those of us who are Christian should be the ones who are most able to lead by loving others, and listening to them. Because our confidence is in Christ, we can hold faithfully to our belief in him AND love all people. If we’re serious about following Jesus, how could we do otherwise?

Years ago, Donna Red Wing invited Bob Vander Plaats to share coffee. Donna was a prominent LGBT activist; Bob is president of an organization that advocates for traditional Christian values. It’s not hard to see how awkward it would have been for Donna to invite Bob to sit down together – and equally difficult for Bob to join her. But she offered the invite, and he accepted.

In the simple act of getting to know each other over coffee, they had the opportunity to see each other as people – not as policies. Their first sit-down led to others, and through repeated conversations, Bob & Donna saw the humanity in each other – and over time, they actually became friends.

In the video, Donna says, “When people have the courage to show you who they are, something happens…. We can disagree without being disagreeable.”

For his part, Bob shares, “The only regret in all of that is that I wasn’t the one to ask her out for coffee. …I kind of feel like I should have.”

Watch the video. See if it doesn’t speak to you – not about what you believe, but about how you approach those who don’t believe what you believe.

Donna died two years ago. By that point, Donna’s friendship with Bob had grown to the place where she had arranged for Bob to deliver the eulogy at her funeral. It’s 11 minutes of humility, grace, and humor – and the fruit that results when we learn to listen to each other. I mean, it’s almost unimaginable that someone like Bob would be asked to speak at a service for someone like Donna. In our deeply polarized society, it’s the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen. Except it did.

So, how did Bob & Donna go from enemies to eulogies? How do we go from turning away to turning toward – from distance & anger to conversation & relationship? It happened – it still happens – when we are willing to listen and learn. It happens when we choose to lead with love.

Bob Vander Plaats gives eulogy for Donna Red Wing

On the Need for Pals & Parchments

What keeps you going? What gets you through the rough days, the times of uncertainty, the questions that do not have easy answers?

Well, the answer for that is probably a bit different for each of us. This morning, I was reminded of two ways that help me face the challenges — and I was reminded of it as I read some scripture that rarely gets more than a passing glance.

In my last two posts, I discussed a “canon within the canon.” I firmly believe in that concept, while at the same time not wanting to overlook any scripture. This morning, I got that message, again, as I read the end of 2 Timothy. This letter, from Paul to his “son” Timothy, reaches a soaring conclusion with Paul’s words in 4:6-8, which include these words: I have fought the fight; I have finished the course; I have kept the faith. Those are tombstone words; you know, words you’d want on your tombstone. They are the kind of words that sum up a life. (And just as there is a canon, and a canon-within-the-canon — so there is life as a whole, and then there is the life we live that can be summed up with just a few words.)

The past couple of mornings, I have pondered these words from Paul — soaking them in, praying them — that I would continue to fight the good fight; that I will finish the course; that, when all is said and done, I’ll be found to have kept the faith.

And then I moved on, to the final words of 2 Timothy — verses 9-22 of chapter 4. They are kind of like an epilogue; an afterword. On the surface, they seem like words we can quickly scan to finish up the letter. And, in a way, we can. For they are full of greetings and final requests. Nothing exciting; nothing about them that feels canon-within-the-canon-y.

But, believing that all scripture is God-breathed, then there is no doubt they have the power to speak, perhaps in surprising ways. And as I read these verses, I hear Paul’s pathos, his human side, his pain. In verse 16, Paul has to stand up and defend himself, and he looks around, and there’s no one there. He’s alone. Some friends, like Demas, have deserted him. Others, like Titus, have been sent on to other ministries. But Paul’s need for encouragement comes through loud and clear.

And so, in this “afterword” to his letter, Paul begins by urging Timothy to quickly come to be with him (verse 9); he then repeats this sense of urgency with his last request of Timothy, telling him in verse 21 to hurry and get to Paul before winter. With winter, sea travel became treacherous, and so if Timothy doesn’t get moving, Paul will face a winter without him. As he writes these final thoughts, Paul makes it clear: this letter isn’t just about the encouragement that Timothy needs from Paul — it’s also about the encouragement that Paul needs from Timothy.

And there’s one more thing Paul tells Timothy: When you come, bring the books — and especially the parchments. An easy-to-miss line, but one that I think also describes something Paul needs. He longs for the encouraging words of Timothy, but he also needs the encouragement of words. One, for Paul, is life in person; the other is life on parchment. But both are necessary to help Paul fight the good fight; finish the race; keep the faith.

Perhaps this speaks to me because, like Paul, I am learning how much I need the encouragement of others — in person, and on paper. In a season of transition (for Paul, end of life; for me, end of a ministry), there is a need friends to sit with me, both in the flesh and in print. In other words, I am yet again reminded: I need pals, and I need parchment. I can’t fight the good fight, or finish the race, or keep the faith, without them.

So, that’s the word (at least to me), in an afterword.

(And I didn’t even get to commenting on Paul’s request in verse 11 that Mark come — for he is useful in ministering to me. This is the same Mark who went home early from a mission trip; see Acts 15:38. That’s yet another story, found in one of the “side paths” of scripture. But don’t take my word for it. Journey through scripture yourself — walking through its main paths, and its alley ways, too. There’s important stuff everywhere.)

WHO is your burden?

I have a friend whose kids were having a disagreement (read: fight). The brother told his sister, I hate you. To which his sister, Sarah, replied, “God put me in this family & you have to love me or He’ll put you on a cross.”

That would take care of the whole sibling rivalry thing, I guess. But Sarah was right about one thing: she and her brother are family, and they need to love each other.

You see, love — the kind of love that is all over the pages of the New Testament, isn’t simply the opposite of hate. Nor is it even liking someone, and it’s definitely not about how you feel about someone else. For the truth is, brothers and sisters often don’t LIKE each other, do they? Much of the time, they don’t feel good about each other.

But real love is a choice, and chooses to act based on what you know about God, and about that person — that God IS love, and longs for that love to be made real to everyone. As Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche Community, has said: “Love is to reveal the beauty of another person to themselves.” Love is the choice we make to seek the best for another person.

Often, that is very practical, where I choose to do what’s right — where I choose what builds another up, or meets their need, or challenges them or encourages them. Love has as its goal the other’s best, where we take on the responsibility of choosing that best — even when it inconveniences or even harms us.

I just finished reading a book on Christian friendship, where the author, Wesley Hill, gives practical ways to live out friendship. One way you do that is by letting someone be a burden to you.

That might strike you as odd; it does me, too. And obviously that statement can be taken too far. But I like the idea behind it; that love is where we are deep enough in relationship with others that we know their burdens, and help carry them – because isn’t that what love looks like?

So, pause for a moment, and think: is there someone who may be facing challenges that you need to let be a burden to you? Where you come alongside them, or continue walking with them, and help them face something difficult, messy, something not-easily-fixed?

Because the best, most-lasting love, isn’t quick, or easy, or casual. The best love isn’t when you give five bucks to a guy on the street, or participate in a one-time service project, or even sponsor a hungry child overseas. Those may all be good things, but they don’t go very deep into the depths of love. For that, I believe, we have to love up close, personal, and faithfully.

So, who needs to be a burden to you?