During the fourteen years I’ve lived and served in East Africa, I’ve had a few opportunities to join others on safaris. Typically, we’ve encountered large herds of elephants, Cape buffalo, zebras, and gazelles.
I’ve learned through various job and ministry experiences that being surrounded by others too long can often lead to exhaustion, anxiety, or stress. There are other relationships, however, that create a sense of rest in our lives even though the investment in those individuals makes demands on our time and energy.
When I was growing up, my mother established a wonderful pattern for our family. Every night before bed, she would gather us around her, open the Bible, and have us take turns reading a few verses. Afterwards we would all briefly discuss the passage, and then we would pray together. No matter how tired she was, my mother would always bring us to the Scriptures.
Being on staff at various churches has allowed me to hear a variety of stories. One type I dread is about family members who haven’t spoken to each other for a long time. There’s been a breakdown in communication. I hear, “I have no idea what I did. He (or she) just stopped talking to me. My letters, phone calls, and e-mails aren’t returned.” Indeed, it’s a crushing experience when communication and love between family members falls apart.
One summer break during college, I went with three friends to the Grand Canyon for a rim-to-rim hike. Carrying a sixty-pound pack through suffocating heat, we trekked mile after mile, snaking down the Kaibab Trail and across the scorching canyon floor. At one point, I blacked out and awoke moments later with my friends gazing down at me. They pulled me to a safe spot, took the pack off my back, and had me eat Starbursts candy (sugar was just what I needed). That escapade could have gone very differently if I’d been hiking alone!
Augustus, the Roman emperor mentioned in Luke 2:1, was a divisive figure. He instituted the imperial cult— religious worship of emperors—which would later cause the death of many Christians. But he was also the leader who established the Pax Romana, a period of relative peace in that part of the world. Before then, the Roman Empire was continually seeking to expand and conquer. Augustus’ idea of peace, for nations to seek to live in relative harmony, was completely novel to the aggressive Roman Empire.
I overheard someone speaking harshly to another. Though their comments weren’t directed at me, I considered intervening. To guard against the temptation to speak to the offender in an equally unedifying manner, I began repeating in my head: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control . . . ” In this provoking situation, the Spirit’s power helped me to remain calm and keep a tight rein on my tongue.
It was an uncomfortable confrontation. The kind where you hope the hammering of your heart isn’t visible through your shirt. My friend and I stood face to face, disagreeing about how to handle a situation between our children at school. It had been a fairly serious issue, and I had spoken to a teacher about it before discussing it with my friend. After a second uncomfortable exchange by phone, we both owned up to our part of the dispute and apologized. After that, our friendship began to feel solid again. These days, it’s better than ever.
The rows of school desks would soon be filled with energetic teens. Although I was only filling in for their teacher, I took my role seriously. As the first lesson was about to start, the door was flung open and in walked a woman who announced herself as my teaching assistant. Fantastic! I thought. I need the help.
The oldest of eight children, my mum can tell quite a few stories of sibling hijinks, mischief and rivalries. She became the appointed babysitter and had to learn quickly to hold her own among her energetic charges. To her siblings, she was simply bossy. On occasion, those relational contexts of long ago rise to the surface, so with any advice she offers her beloved siblings today, my mum reminds them the only life she’s in charge of is her own.
Petty differences, grudges and jealousies were affecting a church’s staff. They didn’t fellowship with one another—working secluded in their offices behind closed doors. When they had to communicate, it was short and to the point. On Sundays, however, they pasted on happy faces in front of the congregation. Their inability to deal with conflict resulted in a poisonous work environment for the entire staff and hampered effective ministry.
Nearly 40 percent of singles in a 2013 study described feeling isolated in their churches. One researcher concluded, “[Singles] . . . feel invisible and think about leaving.” That statistic doesn’t surprise me. As a single person, I’ve experienced feelings of isolation in churches composed primarily of couples who socialize primarily with other couples. I’ve also experienced awkward silences when I reveal I’m not dating, married or even actively seeking a spouse.
I ran into a former professor at a conference. I had only taken one class with him nearly thirty years before, so I was stunned when he told me he prays for me and two others who live near me. He prays for his former students by region, because he loves us and wants us to flourish in our faith.
As I was growing up, I often felt as if I didn’t quite fit in. I was different from even my close friends but couldn’t figure out why. I tried to take an interest in what my friends liked and to talk and act like them. But it wasn’t until I went to college that I decided to stop worrying about what other people thought of me. Knowing that my identity was in Jesus, I didn’t have to try to be the ‘cool kid’ anymore.
In my mid-twenties, I was part of the leadership team for our young adult group at church. One day a younger friend on the team said, “I feel like you’re trying to mentor me, but I’d rather you were my friend than a mentor.” I felt embarrassed and hurt at her words, but agreed that I had started to view her as a project. When I changed how I saw her, we were free to be friends again.