Michael W. Smith’s song “Friends” used to be one of my
Michael W. Smith’s song Friends used to be one of my favorite songs. Oh, I knew it was cheesy, but there was something about believing we had these deep friendships with people that could not be broken because we love God. That bonded us forever, right?
2016 revealed to me the church did not care about me as a friend. When the sex tapes with the most vile words said by Trump were released and the church decided to remain silent, and even excuse it, I was done. We were not friends, and maybe we never were—not in the way I define a friend, at least. How did we land in such different places and both of us claim God as the Lord of our life? I am not a perfect person, but I can tell you—and my actions back this up—if tapes had been released that were that gross, derogatory, and violent towards men, I would have been loud in my opposition. No one talks or treats my friends that way. Why is this not reciprocated?
So I journeyed away from church for a while with a friend. We were both committed to the church, even though our worth as women was clearly stated as second class (complementarian church), and believed the church would not fail us in a moment as clearly visible as that. The veil was ripped from my eyes in this moment. While I have forgiven it, because I now see forgiveness as accepting that things are not going to be any different than they are, I also want to believe things can be different. I love what Ashley C. Ford has to say about forgiveness: I believe in forgiveness. I believe in second chances. And I believe real love requires accountability. If you love someone, you’ll let them take their lumps, learn their lesson, do better, and know you support their journey to healing and wholeness. You don’t just defend them and make the consequences go away.
Too many want to defend the church make the consequences go away. If we want to say we are unified as a church, then we are also unified in the ways the church has erred. To defend the institution over the wounded cuts even deeper than the original wound. People who have been wounded are treated more often with suspicion than belief, even by those who believe there is a problem. But there is this unqualified and unjust fear that the wounded are going to turn into the oppressors. That argument is spiritually wounding again to those who are trying to speak their truth. Can it happen? Sure. But I have talked to my therapist, and while abusers are often people who have been abused, the percentage of people in our society who are abused rarely go on to become abusers themselves. More often they are the healers.
In this post I am talking about institutional sin because it is the system creating this problem. Subordinating women in church was revealed to me as a capital S sin of the system—it is everywhere. Women’s experiences in scripture and in our current context matter very little to church and culture. Women’s experiences are secondary to the story, then and now. I say I am Baptist because of Martin Luther King Jr; well, I am also a Baptist because of Walter Rauschenbusch who MLK studied. Rauschenbusch, 1861-1918, believed it was time for institutions, not just individuals, to be converted and enter the kingdom. He was appalled at the amount of child poverty he witnessed in our country and the church was not responding.
I am at a place that has given me hope for the church again. But there is no place that is not feeling the effects of lost membership and people feeling disengaged from church. The major abuse scandals without accountability is part of the problem, but it is more than that too. I believe one reason is because so few people know what it means to be a friend. I was talking with a person that I had just met and she saw right into my heart of my words in a single moment. She said: You are right. We can enter a room with a bunch of people who are kind to us, but they also do not know us at all.
That is exactly the problem. The masks (not literal—the literal masks are a sign of friendship. Oh, the paradox) we have to wear to show up and be pleasing is taking a toll on our ability to connect as a community. People are not finding church to be a place they can be real and let people know who they really are. I also do not think this is intentional in places that are trying. I have been listening to podcasts and finding out very few people know what friendship means in our society. This is systemic.
Here are a few things I have learned, and I believe if we ingest these words this could change the trajectory the church is on:
From Brene Brown podcast, here are a few things I have learned about trust and betrayal.
- Trust is built in little moments. If you say let’s go to lunch, then go to lunch. Do not say you will do anything you know you cannot fulfill, even when it sounds nice to say. You show your word is good when you follow through on the things time and again.
- Betrayal happens in little moments too—it is not just the big church scandal that is betrayal. Betrayal happens in a moment that calls for connection and the connection does not happen.
Luvvie Ajayi Jones on Glennon Doyle’s podcast We Can Do Hard Things gives us some concrete examples of what it means to be a friend.
- Friendship requires listening to and receiving vulnerable stories. There should be NO defensiveness from a friend when they are receiving your story.
- Responsibility is tied to friendship. Being a friend is a commitment. It means you are going to show up when your friend needs you.
- Friendship makes room for failure. There is no way you are not going to step on someone’s feelings. How do you make it safe for the person to trust you again? You make reparations. The problem is not the argument, but the lack of apologies that come after an argument. I love how she said this: I am sorry. I stepped outside of my integrity and made you feel unseen, unheard, and un-affirmed—maybe even unloved. Apologize for going too hard.
- Recognize that when someone shares their story with you and you state their story back to them in a way that is unrecognizable to them, that is deep betrayal. Even if you get their story 1% wrong, it is still hurtful. It is the loneliest feeling for the person who shared their sacred story and find out it was not received, and they thought they were living in community.
- A friend will never judge you with the worst intentions. They will know your short comings and guide you back to growth—not accuse you of possibly becoming the oppressor.
- Luvvie says when she calls someone a friend she means it. There is responsibility and skin in the game for the well-being of the person she is in relationship with. Imagine if we treated our communities this way.
Maybe some of these ideas can help us truly live out the goal MWS had in mind when singing Friends. How would our theology and church structure change if we viewed God as a friend instead of this hierarchal deity we are trying to please?
I like this Adam Grant quote. This is true in friendship too.