Even as I was writing that first paragraph, I exchanged text messages with a Chinese friend in the US who is about to marry an Indian guy. Often, as I walk the dogs in the morning, I record voice messages on WhatsApp to send to friends in the Netherlands, or Morocco, or Switzerland, or Armenia, or Canada.
I can no longer imagine life without this network of relationships around the world. These are people I deeply care about, some of whom I have lived near for a particular season who now live far away from us, and yet I still ‘do life’ with them in some form.
Is it enough, though, this global community?
The ironic but truer thing is that where I actually live - where my flesh-and-blood body really takes up space - the experience of community is a little thin. After more than 4 years living here, the most I can say is that there are encouraging signs of friendship here and there. Of course, language-learning makes it harder, as does cultural adaptation. The fact that I travel away for work pretty regularly probably hasn’t helped. Our season of life means that most people already have a well-established set of friendships and not much need for more.
Community, though? No, I wouldn’t call it that.
Herein lies the tension, then. I can easily avoid the discomfort of digging into relationships here by spending my energy with the more remote friendships. I can find comfort on a bad day from a friend who lives in another country, on another continent. I've come to realise that community can be experienced by us in all kinds of ways in all kinds of places, and that's good. But when it’s easier to turn to WhatsApp than face the reality that there are few people nearby to talk to - or not many who would think of asking how things are - that doesn't seem so healthy.
And when I don’t reach out, don’t ask for help, I diminish the likelihood of forming deeper connections. Because, whether we like it or not, relational bonds are forged most deeply in our times of need.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t easily ask for help.
Independent, impatient, more often than not I would rather figure things out myself than invite others into the process. It’s not that I don’t think I need help, it’s just that I’ve learned that it’s often easier to do things for myself.
Thank God for the times when I have had to learn to ask. For the 4x4 breaking down on a hill when Keziah was 6 weeks old, and Derick and Ilze coming out in the Landie to tow us home. For the early years of parenting when the tears would come, and Michelle would talk me off the ledge and feed me tea and rusks. For those challenging first years in ministry, when Guy and Tarn would pour us wine and make us feel normal again. For the time Tim was immobilised by a slipped disc, when Oloff and Karen allowed us to take over their home, and then Mel and Russell let us move into their place so that we could wait until he was well enough to get the flight home.
And countless other moments when deep connections were forged in life’s most challenging moments. Not just our challenges, but during times of hardship or heartache experienced by friends, when our hearts were drawn out in love for them in new or deeper ways. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE celebration! If all of friendship were celebrating, I would be happy. But there really does seem to be something about sharing the tough times.
When we invite people into our more difficult experiences we build steel into our friendships.
The season our family is now living in is … well, I don’t have a word for it: it’s a time of being pressed. Mostly we are pressed by an unusual quantity of low grade pressures that, added together, make for a hulluver ‘squeezing’ sensation! You know, the car has broken down half a dozen times in as many months, we had rats in the house that ate through the dishwasher cables and were highly resistant to being evicted. There was that whole thing with Keziah and deciding what to do about her school misery. Constant meetings for over a year discussing life and death issues regarding a co-worker are understandably draining. And financial concerns, there’s always that. Well, you know, it all sort of piles up and leaves us feeling a little war-weary.
I suppose what I am getting to is this: is it possible to see these times of pressure as an opportunity, an invitation? Could it be that this is the very time when the bonds of close friendship will be built? Am I able to find ways to invite others into my place of need, and reciprocate that friendship in ways that make them feel cared for too?
I won’t say I am praying for her washing machine to break down, but I might just head over there now to borrow a cup of sugar …