I'm Not OK. You're Not OK. But It's OK! (Paperback)
Everything we do involves a relationship of one type or another. From the family dynamic in which we have grown up to our friendships to the interactions with others even in the workplace, all require that we “play nice” with others. There are some relationships that we can pick on our own, but many of them we have no control over whatsoever. We can’t choose our fellow employees, and it is likely that many of us have left jobs because of the intolerable working conditions. We can’t control who our family members will be, even if we wish we could! There are times when factors beyond our control impact our basic relational structures, causing them to implode. Maybe we don’t know our parents because of death or divorce, but you did have parents at one point in time, and they did impact your life in one way or another. Basic genetic makeup isn’t something without incident, so while many don’t know their parents, their lives were touched by them nonetheless. Attaining and maintaining healthy relationships is difficult. In this chapter I will look at three primary relationships and show how they either point us toward and aid us in our understanding of God, or detract from and hinder that most important relationship.
God has been trying to get our attention. He uses three basic relational pillars, or primordial structures, to assist us in knowing him. The first is parental, the second deals with friendship, and the third involves interactions and encounters with what I would term, our significant others. These pillars are meant to show us what love looks like. Love is not exclusive; rather, it is inclusive. While the world insists upon limitations on how love can function, Christian love should be limitless in terms of our willingness to accept and embrace one another regardless of our flaws. The world continues to wait with bated breath for the witness of love. In fact, the appeal and longing for love is so great that the hope of experiencing it often leads to conversion when an individual truly encounters it in followers of Christ. Even amid great obstacles in relationships with family, friends, and others, Christ is able to reach into the hungry heart and enable us to see and experience true love. The ideal is for us to have a framework of existing love that points us toward God. When this happens, the journey to knowing and loving God becomes so much easier.
Think of a small child playing with a basketball. At first the ball is too large and the young person’s ability to control a pass or dribble the ball is limited. With time and practice, basic ball-handling skills are developed, but the child is by no means ready to play the game. Watching the sport on television is another way to let the principles of the game sink into the young athlete, but in the end, it is taking all that he has been given, the skills he has initially developed, and actually jumping into the game that allows for him to begin to become the player that he would like to be. When we look at these three primordial structures of love, they are meant to teach us how to hold the ball, how to dribble, and the mechanics, so that when we get to the point of playing the game we will be able to reach back into our arsenal of experience and apply it to the relationship in which we are made to excel.
1. FAMILY: MOTHER AND FATHER
When I was a young boy my family regularly traveled to Birmingham, Michigan, to celebrate Christmas with my grandparents. Most of us have fond memories of our grandparents, and usually one set, either the maternal or paternal, is a bit more accommodating to the grandchildren than the other. This holiday was celebrated with my paternal grandparents, and they knew just how to make their grandchildren feel special. When my sister and I would go grocery shopping with my grandmother, she would let me pick whatever sugary cereal I wanted. That was a big deal! Count Chocula, Franken Berry, Boo Berry, Frosted Flakes, and Cookie Crisp, a few of my favorites, were not only filled with an inexplicable amount of glorious sugar, but their commercials all displayed kids filled with great euphoria as they consumed bowl after bowl of their morning nourishment. Juxtapose this set of grandparents with my maternal grandmother and you can see why I favored the former over the latter.
Grandma Arda, my mother’s mother, must have made an agreement with my mother and the area dentists to return home from the Red Owl grocery store with only healthy cereal, bringing my childhood trauma to unprecedented heights. Arda and my mother would bring home depressing boxes of Grape-Nuts, which for a small child was like eating a bowl of rocks, and if you let the milk settle in its nutty nastiness for a small period of time you could actually turn your breakfast bowl over and nothing would come out! No wonder we all struggled with irregularity! I think you can actually drywall with Grape-Nuts after it reaches that puttylike consistency. She also brought home Bran Flakes, which to me looked like a bowl of scabs. Do you remember puffed cereal? I think we used those puffs to pack up our dishes when we moved from North Dakota to our new home in South Dakota—after all, they had the same consistency as packing peanuts. I remember Shredded Wheat as well, and while many assume it had sugar on one side, back in the early ’70s it came in what looked like a giant white feed bag containing a pallet-like slab of pressed wheat full of morning nutrition—which would have given a horse its daily allotment of hay. The prize was probably a package of Kleenex for all the children wailing in sorrow after having to eat it. Not appealing—in fact, in those lonely days we had to use our spoon to mash up the bale of cereal so that the shards of wheat wouldn’t cut our throats as we consumed it. The worst cereal of all was simple bran cereal, which looked the same way going in as it did going out. There should have been a picture on the box of two senior citizens looking a bit panicky at one another with the caption, “The prize comes later!”
So you can imagine the joy I felt when I went to my paternal grandparents’ house, where healthy cereal wasn’t even on their radar. The prizes in sugary cereal boxes were for the most part incredibly useless, except for a record on the back of the Cookie Crisp box that you could cut out and actually play—but we didn’t care! (For the younger audience, a record is a large vinyl disc that has music on it.) Not only could I eat whatever sugary cereals I found fitting for my experienced palate, but I was also allowed to drink Faygo, a drink sold in Michigan (I think it’s outlawed in forty other states) that’s basically the equivalent of crack for small children. The sugar content in that drink alone brings joy to dentists in the surrounding area and panic to any teen who has to babysit those sugar-crazed kids. I have wondered, if children drank enough of this carbonated happiness, would their urine actually glow in the dark? I’m afraid to drink it now, because I’d likely need to call my cardiologist and have him on standby in case the experiment went awry.
One day, a month away from my fifth birthday, during our vacation, while I was jacked up on mass quantities of sugar and caffeine, my father told me he wanted to speak with me. We made our way into the living room of my grandparents’ house, and I would venture to guess the temperature in their home was a balmy 99 degrees. The heat in most elderly people’s homes would cause any rock candy in the candy jar to fuse together, thereby making it impossible to select just one piece. My dad knelt down, looked me in the eye, and told me that after this Christmas vacation he wouldn’t be living with us anymore. I didn’t have a clue as to what he was talking about; in fact, I had better things to do, like play with the walkie-talkies we’d all gotten that Christmas.
When my mother, sister, and I arrived back at our home in North Dakota, I walked up to the screened back door, looking at the snow illuminated by the outside light in the frigid Dakota winter evening. Suddenly the door opened and my father looked out at us. I stared into his eyes and said with great childhood tact, “I thought you told me you weren’t going to be here when I got home.” We walked into the house that evening, and life continued seemingly as if nothing had taken place in Michigan. I don’t know when he left, but I would guess it was only a matter of months. It probably happened one afternoon when I was at school, or during the night, when I was tucked in bed listening to the gerbils run endlessly on their spinning wheel. My father moved to the other end of town, into his own home, with his own plans and his new wife. This time there was no special word informing me of his departure. As I have reflected upon that day over the span of several decades, I’ve realized my understanding of what relationships can look like, especially parental love and unity, was forever changed. It would take me many years to try and put together a picture of what a faithful husband and regular fatherly presence within the home should look like.
My sister and I would visit my father on the weekends, but it was difficult for me to savor this special time with him, because another woman was there wanting his attention. In many ways I struggled with understanding the role my father’s new wife, Gail, played in my life. One afternoon I wrote her a note with such simplicity I am sure Ernest Hemingway would have been proud. That literary masterpiece read, “I hate you.” I saw her countenance fall as she read the note, and as a result I was filled with inexplicable guilt. I just wanted her to know that she didn’t belong to me even if she now belonged to my father, and that I was not making room for her in my life. I hadn’t intended to hurt her so much as make my feelings known. I decided to try and fix what I had done after I saw her pained face, and so I wrote a second note that read, “I love you.” Of course, I didn’t mean it, but I wanted to take back the hurt I had inflicted. She read the note and said to me, “Chris, I realize you are trying to make up for the previous note, but I want this to come from your heart and not because of your guilt. I want you to mean it if you say those words to me.” In many ways I realized that I couldn’t write that type of an affectionate note, at least in the way she desired, because I wanted my father to be back with my mother. I didn’t want to share him with another woman, and I wasn’t sure how to fix what I felt was broken in my parents’ relationship. I am confident those were very difficult times for my stepmother, and we have had wonderful conversations as adults about those early years. She became a friend, and we both recognized that who we were within those family relational dynamics back then is not who we are today, and yet, those earlier moments have shaped our lives in varying degrees.
Having talked with Gail many years later, I realize we both would have done things much differently if we could have seen the consequences of our actions. These familial dysfunctions, specifically divorce, were not as common in those days, and its effect on one’s perspective on God and the future was probably not written about with as much clarity back then as it is today. When I was in elementary school, I could find maybe one other student who came from a broken home. I felt alone and unable to articulate how frustrating it was not to be an agent of healing for my mother and father. I wanted to help them reconcile, but I was unfit for the task.
Years later I returned to North Dakota to give a talk and minister to the youth in that diocese. It was good to be back in the area I had grown up in, and as usual, the northern United States was one neurotic moment away from a blizzard. I was staying at a small hotel, probably one of the nicer ones in the area, but not as luxurious as most I’d been in throughout my global travels. Who really needs hot water? I spoke with a Native American gentleman in the lobby, who told me that when he was a small boy he watched his uncle accidentally shoot and kill his father with a gun they had been playing with. The event was still vivid in his memory, and it was told in a way that has caused it to be vivid in mine. While he functioned as an adult, that moment had forever impacted how he lived his life. He had been shaped by a moment in time that he had no control over. If he could have changed the past, he would have, but he was unable to bring his father back to life.
One of my professors at Palm Beach Atlantic College in southeast Florida had a wife who was going blind. Their life was never going to be the same, and while it seemed as if they were able to work past this hurdle together, I have often wondered how it would be to watch someone you care about slowly lose her ability to see. Sunsets, her children’s faces, the wrinkles setting in over the years would all be memories instead of moments currently shared through the sense of sight. I know most of us are unable to fathom and relate to some of these events, but many people have carried the weight of disabilities and loss with little interest in wearing their past upon their sleeves for all to see.
A young college girl came to talk with me about her parents, and while nothing tragic had happened, she wished that they were more loving toward one another and their children. She was longing for a father who would pray with her and cheer her on, but too often she felt that she was meant to move forward in life toward adulthood without their concerned involvement. As we spoke I asked her about her grandparents, and the stories she told were about very difficult relationships that had unraveled over time. I looked at this young woman and said to her that it was likely that her parents felt their marriage was far better than anything they had experienced as children, so while she longed for more involvement from her mom and dad in her life, what she received from them was much more rich and beautiful than either parent would have imagined possible.
Every family has a story, and some are filled with tragedy and pain, while others illustrate lives that seem to have been boring and without adventure. Each family brings a lot of baggage into the relational pillars, which adds to those hurdles of difficulty and struggle. These stories show a variety of problems that unfortunately many can relate to within the family dynamic. Our parents, who often seem so constant and steady to our young minds, many times turn out to be individuals who are far more vulnerable than we would have ever imagined. Children and parents react to these sobering moments of difficulty in a number of ways: by building up walls to protect us from further hurt, by wearing masks so that we can pretend that nothing bothers us, or by numbing ourselves to the pain of our past. Fear manifests in a way that can be so paralyzing we seem to resort to primal protective avenues in order to survive. We will talk about this more in a later chapter, but what we will need to do is find a way to deal with the dysfunction we have experienced, whether severe or minor, in order to enable true healing in our lives. We can’t change the past, but we can choose how to address these hurts, and identify the lies and obstacles to our healing process so that we can begin to move toward a better perspective. Without that healing we will often find ourselves unable to cope with the roles and responsibilities we now have as adults. While we may be unfit for the task of moving forward from such pain, in Christ we become fit for the task. We can be OK in Christ, even if our life experiences have made things overwhelmingly not OK.
For all of us, the parental impact can be positive or negative, and while many times our family dysfunction isn’t that extreme, seeing it with a fresh perspective can allow us to intentionally choose different paths for our future. Maybe we had a mother who was obsessive-compulsive about cleaning. My mother seemed to do spring cleaning every week, as far as I could tell. We would regularly rearrange the furniture, which apparently made all the old furniture seem exciting until we would unexpectedly crash into corners of tables and chairs that were not there previously as we stumbled toward the bathroom with rapidly revealing bruises. She had us take the screens off the windows and spray them down regularly and vacuum our rugs more than I ever thought possible. Even more horrific than the constant cleaning of our home, we would have to bathe every day! Come on, Mom! These are not necessarily overt life-altering dysfunctions (except maybe the bathing part), but seeing these familial moments from a healthy perspective can help us to understand our current actions, obsessions, and apprehensions. I wonder if my mother’s desire to constantly clean our small home in the Dakotas was a declaration, conscious or not, that at least with her children and that house she had an element of control over how we acted and how it looked. She certainly couldn’t control the actions of her previous husband and the unraveling of her marriage, but those floors would be clean.
While our parents often struggle with their own issues and difficulties, if they can find a way to love each other in the trying moments, then they will leave their children with a foundation for their future. If our parents did their job right, by being a gift to one another and reflecting self-donation instead of selfishness, then they are in fact offering their family a glimpse into the love of the Trinity. If they were not able to find a way to remedy their own wounded selves, then the impact upon their children will be more difficult to move beyond. It is a little like that sporting analogy I previously mentioned. Many of our parents never learned how to dribble or pass the ball to achieve the success they wanted, and as a result the game came to a screeching halt.
Saint John Paul II says in Familiaris Consortio that marriage does three things: (1) it shows God’s unshakable love for the world (till death do us part); (2) it shows Christ’s love for the Church (lay down your lives for each other: husbands love your wives as Christ loves the Church); and (3) it will in fact change society, if it is holy. These points should instill in us as adults an awareness of the depth and impact marriage can have, but too often couples are more in survival mode, rather than thriving together.
Most of us come from homes that are probably a mix of good and bad moments. We have likely been surprised at ourselves when suddenly we realize that we have just acted like or said something our parents used to say. The idea of becoming our mothers or fathers can be haunting, especially if the past we experienced had many wounds from which we are still unable to adequately recover. In many cases individuals spend their entire lives trying to do things differently but without an understanding of what tools are needed for success. Often they have no concept of what a successful and thriving marriage can even look like, and so regularly couples end up embracing the pursuit of things and status, assuming that will be the answer to marital difficulties. If our parents did not love one another as couples could, or did not love their children properly, the result, unfortunately, was that many children were approaching adulthood without the skills needed for success.
In addition, the idea of God becomes muddied, with numerous insecurities, misunderstandings, and difficulties in relating to one who supposedly loves us as his children, or even sees members of the Church as his bride. Remember what Saint John Paul II says about a holy marriage: It will show the world God’s unconditional love, because a husband and wife are willing to weather any storm and come out unified instead of divided. If that unified front is created and the foundation between them strengthens, their children will be given a gift of stability in viewing this primordial relationship, and the world will find that at least one relational institution is capable of enduring difficulties without completely imploding. It is possible that many families don’t realize their gathering together is beyond two people living together, but is more a witness of what the heavenly community is like. We need to be reminded of the hope that we can strive for, and of the consolation and aid available to those battered by the casualties of broken marriages. I am spending a lot of time with this first pillar of relationships, because regardless of our vocation, we all have memories of a family dynamic that has either helped us to see God more clearly or hindered this perspective.
When a husband rejects his wife, it’s almost impossible for the unwanted spouse to just move forward. Recently I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a woman came up to me and told me how her husband had left her after thirty years of marriage. She looked as if she were still shell-shocked. A woman from the Netherlands recently sent a message to my wife and told her that her ex-husband was divorcing his second wife, and that she would like to try and reconcile with him.
The marital dynamic is so important and can leave such devastation in its wake when people do not nurture this relational pillar. The wounds and casualties are deep and can take a lifetime to mend. With this in mind, again realize the wealth of skills and recourse our children will gain if we can find a way to endure the marital storms. Think of the plethora of examples they will have as they approach marriage, and realize that while God can do great things even if we have had difficult familial moments, the gift of a marriage grounded in selfless acts is one that will change the world.
That is what John Paul II is saying, and it is why the Church does so much to take the marital union seriously. When a marriage is working, we can see Christ as that lover who gave all things for his bride, the Church. When a marriage is working, people can see unconditional love in a couple that points them to God. Marriage is a structure that helps us become better people together than we would have been on our own, and that leads us to see possibilities in our relationship with God. On the other hand, a marital relationship that is falling apart will negatively impact our understanding of God’s profound intimacy with us. We have been invited into the very life of the Trinity through baptism, and that intimacy with Christ and his bride is one that should be life giving. When a marriage is hurting, a relationship with Jesus can often be misunderstood and even hindered.
Marriage isn’t the only foundational structure, though, that will help us to understand God better. The second relational pillar is friendship.
2. FRIENDS: POSSE, PEEPS, THUGS, AND THUGLETTS
There comes a time in most people’s lives when they choose to tell all of their dreams and hopes, irritations and frustrations to their friends rather than to their parents. Recently I asked my teenage daughter if she liked any boys at school, to which she replied, “I’m not talking to you about that,” to which I responded by asking her the question about a zillion more times. (Anything to drive them a little crazy, right?) I understand this process of confiding less in parents and more in friends, though, and in many ways I am OK with the role of friendship. Having great friends can be one of the best things about our childhood, and as parents, hopefully we have instructed our children how to make wise friends before they select ones who can hinder rather than help their spiritual journey.
When I was a kid, my best friends were Brad and Brian. I think in every area of a child’s life they were better than I was. They were smarter, did better in school and sports, were skinnier and more athletic, and from what I gathered by reasoned deduction, they were better-looking than I was. All the girls were interested in the twin boys, but apparently being friends with good-looking people doesn’t necessarily mean you are as well. Life is so unfair! Over the years I wanted to be just like them. I tried to notch my belt on the same hole that they did, and as a result lost blood flow to my brain for most of my childhood. (It hasn’t affected me at all!) We were inseparable, doing everything together. Hunting, building tunnels with hay bales, riding bikes, and camping are just some of the many things we did, which were always stuffed with fun moments and good memories. When it came to sports, they seemed to be built for success. When teams were chosen on the playground they were usually either picked to be team captains or were one of the first selected. Because they were my best friends, I would be picked quickly, even though I was slow and not very coordinated. Because they were my friends, I would try to do better on my tests and papers in school, striving to achieve excellence in an area that for them came naturally. How mathematics could be comprehended was a great mystery to me—and apparently still is, in that my checkbook continues to mock me with its inability to balance itself. When I was with my friends, I would play better basketball in our constant competitions against one another, and I would try things I normally wouldn’t, like making fishing lures and reloading our shotgun shells after an afternoon of hunting. We regularly went hunting together, built forts, and made ninja throwing stars from the scrap metal lying about the farm. It was a great way to grow up and be a part of a family structure, especially since my own family wasn’t able to remain intact. Friendship for me during these years was a place of stability and an opportunity to explore avenues I wouldn’t have considered on my own.
Positive friendships can assist us in becoming better people. The support of our friends will aid us in being more holy, becoming better adults, and being well-rounded individuals who are stronger and more emotionally stable; these relationships can even aid in creative expression. True friendship is so important because in all areas we have one another’s back and know that we are never alone.
Negative friendships, on the other hand, can lead us into areas that we would not have thought possible. The temptation to bow to peer pressure can be so great for young people—and for adults—that many find it impossible to be their true selves ever again. Lots of regret and pain can occur when we surround ourselves with negative friends. We are the way we are today, in part, because of those friendships and the peer pressure. As adults, we often feel regret when we think about our younger years, because we allowed ourselves to get caught up in so many things that seemed terribly important but in the end were just destructive, as we lost a bit of ourselves along the way.
During these years growing up in small-town America, I began to notice different ways in which my friends lived. A couple of my schoolmates had motorcycles, and seemed fearless as they rode around the country roads. There were friends of mine who were allowed to stay out late, had cool snacks that they could eat whenever they wanted, and regularly went out partying without any moral qualms whatsoever. One friend’s father had the Playboy channel, and another’s dad kept boxes of pornographic magazines in the basement. These friends opened up new avenues in which to lose myself, even though I’d been taught to run from such moral danger zones. Friendships were fostered and people often settled into various cliques that almost identified who they were becoming. There were the kids who would show up drunk to school, the athletes, the theater kids, and the band geeks. We had our cliques so that we could belong. Most people had a place to fit in with others, but there were always a few who seemed to wander about with little direction or support. Anything was better than having to be alone. God knows most of us would have easily settled into the drug-and-alcohol cliques rather than be one of the down-and-outs.
I remember a girl named Loretta, who was extremely awkward in a way that went beyond the typical middle-schooler. She looked odd, smelled funny, spoke and acted bizarrely, and for all intents and purposes fulfilled every possible requirement in the nerd category. I knew I wasn’t supposed to make fun of her, but it was just so easy to do, and after all, most of my friends and fellow classmates didn’t hold back their ridicule. I felt guilty because of the way we all spoke about her and to her, but whenever we attempted to be nice to Loretta she would respond in such odd and even confrontational ways. She would yell or respond to our jabs with sarcasm, anger filling her words and actions. She was alone. Over the years, technology has enabled most of us to connect through various social media outlets with almost anyone we ever knew and met in our earlier years. One day I asked a childhood friend who was coordinating school reunions whatever had happened to Loretta. If anyone would know, she would. She told me that she thought Loretta had died. I remember feeling so frustrated and even experiencing a sense of loss, wondering if Loretta had ever felt loved, whether she had ever mattered to someone, whether she’d ever had a real friend.
There are many girls like Loretta in our past, but there are many more in our present than we realize. One amazing way we can advocate for life is by cherishing each person who comes into our presence. A kind word to a stranger, a helping hand to those in need, and prayers for people who don’t even realize they are in our intentions are all real ways to be pro-life. Let us witness to others the profound beauty of life by encountering Jesus in each person we meet. I think often our hurtful words to others when we are children stem from deep insecurity. We are afraid to befriend the outcast because we worry that by being in his or her presence, we ourselves are not far removed from such awkwardness. We do these same things as adults, but often we try and spin our poor behavior into something like justifiable concern. We all need friends, and this is something we are fit to be, even if those we meet are different from us.
Even though it would have been difficult during those early teen years, I do wish I could have found a better way to cherish the life of Loretta. In many ways I have been able to work on and foster some of these older relationships via social media, and for that I am thankful. Without this effort I wouldn’t have known about an older friend’s double mastectomy, another’s constant feelings of insecurity and depression, or the many who have had failed marriages. Because of this interest in others I can cheer on a friend who has been freed from addiction to meth and alcohol. Friendship is worth the investment of our time and effort, and befriending people we aren’t immediately drawn to is a worthwhile endeavor. Let’s face it, after high school we begin to realize that the people we all thought were a little different are often the types of people we are eventually drawn to befriend. It is also true that the many folks we felt such a need to impress or imitate end up being terribly shallow as adults. When we leave those emotional teen years behind, there is such relief found in friendships that are not grounded in social cliques and fickle standards of popularity.
Our Church is meant to be a place where friendship is fostered. Regardless of our idiosyncratic ways, we should find acceptance there. Jesus encourages it. In fact, he says in John 15:13 and 14 that there isn’t any greater love than when a man lays down his life for his friends, and we are his friends if we keep his commandments to love God and love others. When we find friendships that ground their actions in the self-donation expressed in the Gospel, we realize the power of a good companion. This type of love will impact who we are becoming and can help us in recovering from the person we were. Moments when superficial behavior, conditional friendship, and hurtful words are found in the Church are often the times many people leave it. We need friendship, and the place this relational gift should be vividly seen and experienced is in the Church.
A few years ago I was back in the Dakotas and had the chance to see the twin boys again, only now they were gigantic men. I hadn’t seen them since we were about sixteen, but the moment Brad picked me up from the airport and we began to talk, it was almost as if no time had passed. We talked about jumping tires on our bikes and some of the good old days. Then Brad said he wanted to show me the house he had built with his own hands. I said sure, and then I thought how I’d love to show him my house, where my children were leaving applesauce containers all over the floor.
Brad’s house was beautiful, and his new cars and Harley-Davidson affirmed what I had already suspected, that he was not struggling financially. I then went and saw his brother, Brian. What a glorious time we had catching up. As I was about to leave, Brian and I were talking in the driveway. I decided to tell him something I’d felt for a long time: “When we were young, I felt like I needed you guys way more than you needed me, but you were always cool with that.” Brian responded, “Chris, you made everything we did so much better.” I was very touched. Then he said something I wasn’t prepared for: “You’re doing exactly what we thought you’d be doing.” I was baffled. After all my years of wanting to be like them, they truly saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. They remembered the funny stories I had told as a kid and saw how it had pressed out in the speaking I do around the world. They knew I was regularly involved in church and that faith was important to me, and saw how strong a role Christianity has in my work. The music I played in school, the plays and band I was involved in seemed to all be the beginnings of what I do now as I travel about sharing God’s love through stories, music, and speaking. If you would have asked me as a young man, “What do you think you’ll be doing as an adult?” I wouldn’t have been able to answer with anything resembling what I do now. Actually, I would have said, “pig farmer,” but that is another story. Even as teenagers, these two guys could see in me something that I didn’t see in myself. Thank God for good friends.
What kind of friends do you have in your life? Are they the kind who lift you up, who see something in you that is amazing even when you doubt yourself? Do you have friends in your life who point you back to God’s love even when you struggle with your faith? If not, ask God to bring you a great friend. If you have some wonderful people in your life who lift you up, thank God for such a blessing. Having good friends helps us to see and know the love Jesus has for us. Friendships that hurt and harm will hinder our understanding of God as friend. This is an important relational pillar God has given us so that we can come closer to him, but there is one other that we should carefully examine: the relationship with our significant other.
3. SIGNIFICANT OTHER
About a year ago I asked my 13 year old son, “Noah, when you are in the locker room with the football guys, do you ever talk about girls?” He looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Dad, why would we talk about girls when we can talk about something cool like football and video games?” Well, at least I had a couple of months remaining, it seemed, before I had to really start worrying about him. Later that year I asked him, “Noah, do you think any girls at school are interested in you? Do you think they like you?” Again, the exasperated look, which implied that I needed medical and psychological help, with the response, “Dad, how am I supposed to know what girls think?” In my mind I was thinking, If you can just keep that insight front and center in your thoughts, one day you will have a very successful marriage!
When I was in kindergarten I accidentally/on purpose kissed a little girl as we made our way down from our chairs to the floor for story time. Suddenly I was being made fun of by the rest of the class, and I quickly felt embarrassed. I realized that showing affection for someone I liked needed to be carefully pursued, so I fell in step with the traditional way of interacting with girls—and no, that didn’t mean spitballs and pulling pigtails.
When we were young, the proper procedure to find out if our feelings were reciprocated was to write “the note.” Remember the note? It involved a simple question written carefully on lined paper: “Do you like me? Check yes or no.” And then, even before the creation of Excel documents and graphic options, there were two boxes that made the girl’s response easily known to clueless boys across the country. As the little girls carefully unfolded our complex and unevenly folded secret messages, they methodically brought out their colored pencils, glitter, and for all I know even lip gloss and scribbled away their responses, putting hearts over the i’s, adding unicorns and rainbows, and then folding the papers back up. When they came back to the senders, the tension was almost palpable. What did she write? Was she to be the one? The letters would be carefully opened, lips licked in anticipation, as the boys read the answer to this primal question. A check was carefully placed within a new box with the word: “maybe.” Sigh! That wasn’t an option, but at least there was a chance for true love. If only I’d had the wisdom my son has now, I could have avoided many years of sorrow!
In high school the relational procedure is different. You get your friends involved. The complexity of this in my day was such that if we would have put the energy into our schooling that we did in trying to find someone to date, we would have all been brilliant scientists (and you know how the girls love scientists!). As guys, we would talk about whom we liked, and then if one of our friends knew a friend of the girl being discussed, the friends would converse as true ambassadors and let the feelings be known, so that the female friend could eventually get the important information to the girl. It might seem complex, but it was fairly simple in that we didn’t have to face immediate rejection. This may be an example of self-preservation, or even survival of the species. At some point, if given the green light—specifically, the girl didn’t think you were a troglodyte—the awkward boy would make his way to the usually unnecessarily self-conscious girl, so that something amazing could take place: actually speaking face-to-face. With the guy dripping with Brut cologne and the girl sporting hair teased and sprayed into a work of art larger than a house (this was the ’80s, with shoulder pads in a denim blouse, ensuring that her head wouldn’t tilt too far to the left or right), this moment would bring them to a point of agreeing to meet at either the mall or possibly a movie theater. It is all so funny in retrospect, but it was terrifying in the moment. The awkward attempts at letting someone know you were interested in him or her were all worth it in the end if the person felt the same.
The realization that there might be someone out there beyond our family and friends who could relate to all of our erratic feelings, our dreams, and our desires was certainly primordial in its desire. Trying to find ways to make these relationships work could be clumsy and often impossible, but we tried and then tried again. What if we could find true love? What if we could find our soul mate? Heck, what if we could find someone who would actually go on a date with us?
With these relationships, there is a positive and negative dynamic, as we have seen with our relational structures of family and friends. A positive relationship with a significant other often shows young couples the benefits of being sacrificial and service oriented toward someone other than themselves. Caring about another took us outside our selfishness to a point of wanting to bring joy to the significant other, and the confidence of having pleased this special one we cared about was empowering. As young couples, we would save our money in order to buy one another gifts expressing our affection. We would sacrifice our family and time at work in order to be together, and often would try and find new ways of showing one another that there was no other who could make this world shine so bright. Was it idealistic and imperfect? Of course! But the desire to sacrifice so another can be blessed is very much a part of what it means to truly love. Wouldn’t that be an amazing principle for married couples to remember?
If you think about it, often the goal in high school was to make enough money at work so that we could take our true love out to a movie and dinner. If we were really serious about it then there would be jewelry involved! We would beg parents, whom we usually ignored, for a few bucks so that we could spend it on the apple of our eye. It was a time of learning how to be generous and also a realization that in order to make something work we had to pay attention to one another. Often these relationships could be very selfless, but as most of us realized, a good thing could easily unravel after a short period of time.
The negative within these relationships emerged when we adopted selfishness, self-gratification, and a “using” mentality over and above selflessness and a serving mentality. The wounds from these negative relationships can be long lasting and deep. When we open our lives up to another with sincere vulnerability and then find that the relationship crumbles under selfishness, the rejection experienced by either person can bring emotional ramifications previously unimagined. I know a person who thought that everything was going amazing in her relationship, and she was even thinking about marriage options, when he informed her that he didn’t want to be with her anymore. Talk to any kid in high school and they have a story of lost love, of being used and using others. So often, people hold to two different understandings of their relationship and what it is all about. The progression to simply hooking up, which we currently see in our high schools and colleges, is the fruition of people who have concluded that it is too much of a hassle to mess with long-term relational expectations and obligations. It is a “moment” mentality: Let’s have a physical moment, and then not worry about trying to make something last, which we all know won’t anyway. And for some reason, people have bought this relational approach! My thinking is that this was initiated more by men than by women.
Good dating relationships, engagements, and ultimately marriages point us to a deeper understanding of God’s love for us. The selfless qualities in which we sacrifice and serve our true love are emphasized in the life of Jesus, especially in the cross. The more we work on a selfless love in these relationships, the easier it will be to have an understanding of just how much Christ demonstrated his love for us; and the more we look at the cross where Jesus showed his great love for us, the greater will be our love for the people we want to spend the rest of our lives with. Bad dating relationships, engagements, and marriages take away from our understanding of Jesus’ love for us, his bride, the Church. Selfishness heaps greater misunderstanding upon the temporal reality of our relationships, and the way in which God loves us.
Let’s step back for a moment and reflect on our parental structure. The wounds from our parents can be so powerful and leave such a mark on our lives that often we stumble in our relationship with any type of father figure in religion. Sometimes the scars we carry are not even known until we begin to hear about a God who wishes to father us. For those who have had a great parental upbringing, the leap to seeing God as a benevolent father is not difficult at all.
Now remember the relational pillar of friendship. The friendships that have left so many wounds in our lives have certainly made us resistant to self-disclosure with others, and understandably so. Those experiences we have had with fairweather friends can impact our willingness to be in community and certainly stifles holy vulnerability. If we have had great friendships, then I do think it is easier for us to befriend many whom we would never have interacted with in earlier days. Good friendships open us up to even more good friendships. Bad friendships close us off from the ones we have, and the ones we could have if we remained open. Good friendships point us to Jesus’ friendship, and assist us in making that important relationship a deeper reality in our spirituality. Good friendships help us to identify the value and need for the saints who have gone before us, who long to assist us as true friends toward our final end.
And finally, as we have just discussed, the relationship with our significant other is an amazing stepping stone to a deeper comprehension of sacrifice and service, which should make it easier to be aware of Christ’s love for us, his bride. When that relationship is hurtful and we use one another, the protective tendencies that are wired within each of us kick in, and we may close ourselves off to further pain. This lifestyle of self-preservation often means that we close ourselves off to authentic healing and future love. When a relationship is selfless and involves nurturing another toward greatness, we can find the intimacy offered and granted with Jesus as something truly life giving.
These primordial structures are either helping us know God and love him more, or they are giving us false insight and understanding of him, resulting in a coldness and greater distancing from anything that reminds us of our pain. Again, if your father was manipulative or abusive, you will likely find the invitation to know God as Father to be unappealing. In fact, it is likely that you will subconsciously distance yourself from that theological perspective. If your friends have betrayed your trust, it will be difficult to see Jesus as a friend who willingly sacrificed all for the relationship he chooses to foster with you. If your boyfriends and girlfriends have been one train wreck after another, seeing Jesus as the bridegroom or even the lover is an idea that you will likely run away from. Exploring these relational structures in this light can assist you in working toward healing and new beginnings. So don’t give up, my friends, for I believe that the Lord is ready to father you if you have felt abandoned, encourage you if you feel betrayed, and embrace you if you have been rejected. God will never leave or forsake us, and Jesus promised to send a comforter, because his commitment to us is unwavering.
Take a few minutes and ask yourself how your relationships have impacted the way you look at Christianity. Is it possible many of the difficulties you have with the faith, which are likely justifiable, can be found to have originated in one of these three negative relational pillars? The amazing truth, or even better stated, the Good News, is that God wants you to know the beauty of his love as Father, even if your own father has been hurtful or absent. God wants you to experience the friendship found in Christ, even if your friendships have been stunted and fickle; and Jesus wants to invite you into unconditional love, even when you think of the messy past, or find yourself in conditional relationships today.
The hurt you have experienced is real, but Jesus’ healing is greater and able to go beyond your negative experiences. The loneliness of abandonment is real, but Jesus wants you to know that he will never leave or forsake you. The regret you know so well is certainly crippling, but Jesus can forgive those sins, comfort you in your anxiety, and be a balm of soothing comfort and healing for your wounds. God will never force you to experience his love, but the invitation to know him and grow in that healing love is offered to you. Sometimes we have to remember that the hurt we have carried so long will need more than a quick cliché to bring about a proper perspective. Jesus is committed to loving you for as long as it takes. I love that truth. While we have often experienced conditional acceptance and love, God will always lovingly wait and willingly help us to know him. Be encouraged; there may be meaning to our life after all.
1. What were your parents like when you were younger? How did they process difficulties and celebrate victories?
2. Write down a list of the things your parents did well. See how God not only does those things for you but also goes beyond them. What stands out with this analysis?
3. Write down a list of the things your parents didn’t do well. Ask God to fill in the gaps that were left in your life from this relationship.
4. Who were your best friends when you were younger? What about those relationships made you better, and what made you worse?
5. How can Christ be the friend you need right now?
6. What were the significant-other relationships you had growing up? How did you feel used? How did you feel empowered?
7. Can you see Christ as the most important relationship in your life? If not, what might need to change in your thinking?
In the matter of relationships, I would recommend the following books:
1. The Gospels. While this may seem to be a clichéd reference, the story of Jesus in the Bible should bring you a great sense of consolation.
2. The Seven Levels of Intimacy, by Matthew Kelly. This may be one of the best books on the importance of intimacy in our relationships.
I'm Not OK. You're Not OK. But It's OK! (Paperback)
I'm Not OK. You're Not OK. But It's OK! (Paperback)
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About I'm Not OK. You're Not OK. But It's OK! (Paperback)
If they really knew me… How many times have we thought that? We put on a face that says we’re OK, but in reality we are a mess. We don’t think life can be better, so we learn to excel at being average. What if life could be lived differently? This book offers that hope. No one is perfect—we’re in good company—and there is a God who sees that we are not OK and wants to be with us anyway. Break through the barriers, face your insecurities, and find true peace so you can become the-best-version-of-yourself.