We’ve all felt it. That moment you're with someone you hardly know, and suddenly all the stars align.
Maybe it's the minute you start talking about your favorite TV shows and they respond to your “Downton Abbey” reference with a quote from “Sherlock” (the BBC, bringing us together). Maybe it's just the way they talk about their weird brother, or the ease with which they mock cargo shorts.
The feeling that this stranger is about to become one of your favorite people.
Of course, we’ve all felt the opposite, too. The one where you’re in a room full of people that on paper ought to be your new best friends, but somehow you still feel completely alone.
It might not be hell, but it’s definitely purgatory.
As Christians, we know we’re supposed to be a part of a community. More than that: we’re supposed to be a family. To have a ready-made group of people who understand us and who share all of our deepest held values.
But let’s face it: that’s not what many of us experience.
I’ve talked to countless women in my past two and half years at Soma who have told me that they’re lonely. They feel isolated in their own small worlds of job/school/home/husband/kids; they crave deeper connection with other women, but just can’t find it. The reasons for it are often valid, but that doesn’t make it easier.
(I have no doubt many men feel the same, but they don’t usually confide in me, so I’m going to address women specifically. Apply as you will, gentlemen.)
You go to church and it's almost worse there. There you’re surrounded by other Christian women, but none of them really know you (and all of them seem a little more together than you are, so you’re pretty sure they won’t want to).
So what do we do about it? How do we get from out here in the cold isolation to the warmth of fully functioning community that we crave?
Here are a few things that I’ve learned over the years. They take work, but they’re not fancy or complicated.
Make Relationships a Priority
You don’t just want closer relationships. You need them.
Paul tells us over and over that we are one body (I Corinthians 12 is a great place to read about this). That means that you are a very special and very gifted index finger (or maybe an ear or a liver), but only when you are attached to the rest of the body. Connected to everyone else, you can build pyramids and wrestle alligators and cuddle baby koalas. Disconnected, all you can do is rot. Not only are you useless as a severed finger, you are dying and frankly kind of gross.
Now that I’ve disgusted you, can I scare you? Peter tells us that our adversary is like a roaring lion, prowling around looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Lions were known for picking off stray sheep that found themselves away from the herd. This is what Satan wants for you. He wants to get you where he can lie to you, and there will be no one else around to contradict him with the truth. He wants you to be so alone that when he attacks, you’ll fall easily. And your best protection is to hang out in the center of your herd.
I know you’re busy. I’m busy, too. I have three kids in Little League and a book to edit and a dog tracking mud through my house and a husband who wants to eat every day. But we can’t afford not to make time to meet together. Our lives may depend on the connection that losing a few hours sleep brings us.
Living in community with other godly women isn’t desirable; it’s vital.
Take the Risk
It’s scary to initiate to someone you don’t know. What if they blow you off because they think you’re weird or desperate? What if they agree to hang out with you and they get to know you and THEN they blow you off because they realize that you actually are weird and desperate? Worst of all, what if they’re lovely and kind and perfect and you feel inferior every minute you’re with them?
After many years of trying to come up with ways to get into relationships with people without having to risk myself, I have come to the following helpful conclusion: you have to get over it.
There really should be some other secret, but there isn’t.
Luckily, the structure of Soma gives us some easier ways in than just walking up to someone on a Sunday morning and asking them to be our friend:
Join an MC, then show up and talk to people. Join a discipleship group: there will only be women there. And when you go, tell the truth about your life, even if it’s just small truths at first.
Once you’ve taken the easier steps, work up to some harder ones. Start texting or emailing someone from your MC about life stuff during the week. Ask someone out to lunch or over to dinner. If you want to have a mentor, look for someone you respect and ask them. Be the initiator. You’ll be surprised how much other women appreciate it.
The first step is on you (and maybe the second and third steps, too). Be brave.
Open Up Your Life
This is the most important and difficult thing I have to say to you. So if the severed-finger thing put you off, brace yourself:
There shouldn’t be anything in your life that you never talk about to anyone.
Nothing will ruin your life like secrets. I can't tell you how many women I have talked to who struggled with things from their childhood, with sin issues in their lives, with problems in their marriage for years, just enduring silently only to find that things don’t get better on their own. Things get worse. Your work is affected, your kids suffer, your marriage falls apart.
Dark things do not go away until the light is shined on them.
“For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of the light (for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful to even speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead and Christ will shine on you.’” (Ephesians 5:8-14)
Hear me. However shameful the thing you are keeping to yourself feels, however inappropriate you worry it is to talk about it, freedom starts with bringing things into the light. The longer you wait in the darkness, the more power you give the darkness to hurt you. Whatever is weighing on you, whatever it is, say something now.
I am not saying that you have to tell everything to everyone. Some fears can only be confided in one or two trusted people; some sins should only be confessed in a gender-segregated environment; some hurts are best examined with a professional. There IS such a thing as an inappropriate place and an inappropriate time, but there is NOTHING that is inappropriate to be shared in the right setting.
That kind of vulnerability is beyond terrifying, I know. But we are called to live without fear (2 Timothy 2:7, 1 Peter 3:6, 1 John 4:18). We are called to live in freedom (Galatians 5:1, 1 Peter 2:16, 2 Corinthians 3:17).
God has given you his very own Spirit of power so that you CAN do this, you CAN live this way. This is what it’s all about.
Give Relationships Time
So you’ve done all the things. You’ve prioritized community. You’ve initiated relationships. You’ve opened yourself up to your discipleship group.
But things still feel a little stiff, sometimes downright awkward. You’re wondering when the reciprocation comes. You’re still waiting for something to click.
You’re living in the lag-time, and all I can say is, Hang in there.
The real truth about the body of Christ is that it’s made up of a lot of random odds and ends. Sometimes you’re an index finger looking for a thumb and all you find are a weird mix of ankles and nose hairs. You know they’re valuable, but your daily experiences are pretty different, and it takes time to get past that.
Two things I’ve experienced that may help when you’re living in the lag-time.
1. No matter how different someone is from me, if they are in Christ, they can be His voice to me. Remember that thing where I need people to speak God’s truth to counteract Satan’s lies? All the body parts are connected to the head, and I need all the input from the head that I can get.
2. Eventually, you are going to experience hard stuff together. Trust is born in the stormy times. Once you’ve walked through suffering with someone, the natural click doesn’t seem all that important anymore. One person you can trust is worth a dozen people who get all your jokes.
Be patient with yourself and be patient with others. Keep reaching out. You may find a thumb somewhere you can click with more easily. But hang with the ankles and nose hairs, too. At some point, you are going to need them, and they are going to need you. Don’t give up on each other before that happens.
Image: "The Conversation," by Mary Cassatt