Kingdom of Grace
Provoking line from a film: I don’t know what it is about going to high school with someone that makes you feel you’re automatically friends for life. Who says? Who says friendship lasts forever?
Older I get, one of the hardest aspects of life I’ve had to accept is the impermanence of friendships.
Younger, I did automatically think that my cloud of friends would just keep growing and somehow never disperse. But years have taught that friendships move in and out of focus, constantly shifting, aligning, drifting—that friendships can have their foundation in geography or projects or specific communities, times of life, mindsets…friends move away, take new jobs, lose old jobs, marry, change churches, become convinced of radically different thoughts, and of course they can die.
There are also those friendships that can go months or years without contact, and like desert seeds or hibernating frogs, when reconnected—a little water added—they spring back to life as if yesterday. But as precious as these friendships are, without day to day contact, they just can’t scratch the human itch.
As a pastor for nearly twenty years, I’d begun to feel this impermanence was on steroids in church settings—that friends came and went faster there than anywhere else. Then I began thinking maybe it was because when you’re running a business, you have friends and you have clients, and it’s pretty clear which are which. But in a church everything gets mixed together and you start counting those as friends who, when they leave sometimes without a word, you realize were more client.
Now I’m thinking it’s actually the way life is supposed to work.
After all, what is it about going to church with someone that makes you feel you’re automatically friends together for life? Like parents with a few precious years to prepare their children to flee the nest, who know that their whole purpose as parents is to empty the nest, it seems we should know that most friendships have a span, a sweet spot where growth is together until it’s not anymore. I would never want to hold a friend back from a path that diverges from mine, but I still feel the pain when it does…as I should, if our connection was real. I just need to take care the grief doesn’t turn into something else.
So I get a text from someone almost casually telling me that he’s leaving the church and though thanking me for the time together, it’s still just a couple of lines in a text. No call, no flowers, no coffee. There’s that tightness in the chest, you know the one—the sharp stab, the upside down feeling in the stomach. There are suddenly many questions I want to ask and objections I’d like to make, and as I start tapping a reply, I’m a paragraph in when the flash comes that my pain, my grief, has become resentment.
And then I remember my rules.
See, I have these rules I’ve developed over the years that I actually do apply on a good day, and they come back to me in the nick of time…
Will the next thing I say or do bring this relationship closer together or pull it farther apart?
Will the next thing I say or do leave the person in my path better than I found him or her?
Will the next thing I say or do leave me better than I was a moment before?
And looking at my paragraph through my rules, I start editing until there’s nothing left, and I start over simply wishing all the best on a new adventure and thanking back for the time we had together.
I suppose I had the right to pout a bit, to try to correct what I thought was wrong or justify my hurt or whatever I first put down. But then that tightness in my chest would have continued as I waited by the phone for a reply, and if that reply was defensive, would have continued through whatever volleys of texts that led to whatever outcome. And even if apologetically received, the tightness would have continued as I wondered if I really left him better or darkened the memory of our time together.
It’s so much easier to be gracious.
Kind, courteous, compassionate, understanding—gracious. May not seem so at the moment of hurt, but how much energy and thought does it take to stay hurt? Releasing my friend to his path whether it includes me or not, wishing him the best, staying ready to bloom like that desert seed when I see him again releases me too. Seeing myself as an important but impermanent part of his life as he was in mine keeps my purpose and gratitude intact.
On a good day, I can see how this is the way of it. That our friendships are precious because they are impermanent. That their impermanence means we need to really pay attention, constantly applying the grace that keeps them alive for as long as they live. That our graciousness is the proof we’ve accepted the way life and relationships work. That whether we end all this with one or two lifelong friendships, a marriage, or a steady flow of meaningful connections, we already have the very best life offers, and we can stop looking for more.
Graciousness is the way of living life that Jesus called Kingdom, the quality of life he showed us how to live—with endless understanding in one hand and the benefit of the doubt in the other: forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they are doing. Does any one of us really know what we’re doing when we cut short even an instant of an already fleeting relationship?
If the Book really is right, and God is love, and love is experienced as what we call grace, then the Kingdom of God is really the Kingdom of Grace. And with that realization comes a knowing that our entry into this Kingdom doesn’t happen just once, but every moment we choose to graciously let our friendships and every human encounter flex and ebb and flow as the freely living things they are.
It’s so much easier to be gracious.