God knows you need a friend

An image of hands from two different women, one lighter-skinned, one darker-skinned, their pinkies are clasped.

I’ve read and taught the story of Jesus’ birth SO many times, but noticed something new this week. I noticed what Mary did after the angel Gabriel called her favored, told her the Lord was with her, and dropped the big news about Jesus:

A few days later Mary hurried to the hill country of Judea, to the town where Zechariah lived. She entered the house and greeted Elizabeth.

Luke 1:39-40

She hurried. To the one person who would know how she felt.

Think about Mary. She was between 13 and 16 and a shining light-being had just told her that not only was the Holy Spirit going to get her pregnant, but also that the resulting child would be holy, be called the Son of God, and would reign over Israel forever in an unending kingdom. Some of the words used for her reaction are:

  • confused
  • disturbed
  • troubled
  • greatly troubled
  • perplexed
  • thoroughly shaken.

One of the kids in my Zoom Sunday school this week used the phrase freaked out. I like that because news can be good and still freak you out. Although she wound up telling the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true,” I’d guess that those feelings remained. But Gabriel also told her that her relative Elizabeth was six months pregnant despite decades of being unable to conceive, “for nothing is impossible with God.”

So Mary does what teenage girls have always done: she ran to someone who knew how she felt. Did Mary even tell her mother about this astonishing news? Could she bring herself to say the words out loud to a sister? It’s an enormous thing that will be happening to her, and siblings are not always known for being agreeable when one of their number is suddenly elevated. But Elizabeth’s pregnancy was miraculous, too, so Mary hurried to her.

What a normal reaction from this girl. And so wise. She’s about to go through some serious changes, physical and spiritual, and Elizabeth can help her. When we’re facing change, isn’t that what we often do, too? Seek out someone who’s been there before, someone who can give us the benefit of their experience, or can at least tell us we’re not nuts for feeling the way we do.

When my marriage exploded I sought out other divorced women and was grateful when people who’d had a family member arrested for a sex crime reached out to me. I needed to see that it was possible to get through what my kids and I were going through. And I needed to talk openly about what I was thinking and feeling without trying to protect anyone–people who’d gone through something similar were the only ones I could do that with. So I appreciate Mary’s instinct in hurrying to the hill country of Judea.

Immediately, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and encourages Mary:

Elizabeth gave a glad cry and exclaimed to Mary, “God has blessed you above all women, and your child is blessed. Why am I so honored, that the mother of my Lord should visit me? When I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said.”

Luke 1:42-45

It’s after this that we get Mary’s great song of praise, her Magnificat, where she praises God for what he’s done not only for her, but also for the hungry and the humble, and for keeping his promises. I think that’s significant. Mary needed that encouragement from Elizabeth, that confirmation of the angel’s words, and she needed the presence of the Holy Spirit to tip the scales to the “Wow” side of her reaction to the angel’s news. I’d never noticed before that the visit to Elizabeth came so quickly and comes before the Magnificat.

God knows we need friends. We need people we can reach out to when we’re going through something big. We need those holy encouragers. I love that God had the angel tell Mary about Elizabeth. He didn’t leave her alone with this giant news; he pointed her to a friend. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months.

I wonder about that time. Did Elizabeth tell Mary what it was like being an object of extra attention during an unusual pregnancy? Because you know people are not always kind about their comments. Did they pray for their children and for the job the Lord had in store for each of them? Did they pray for each other, that they’d have the strength to raise these sons with important futures? Did they go long days not talking about it, relaxed because there were no secrets between them? Did they joke about it?

We are all going through something big right now. The pandemic has changed how we work, how we learn, who we can see, whether we can gather, how we go about in the world. Maintaining physical distancing has meant we are more isolated at a time when we need each other more than ever. And in cold climates, winter means outdoor gatherings are becoming rarer.

So what is your version of running to the hill country of Judea? Zoom calls? Texts? Private Facebook groups? Facetime? Among Us? Walks? Driving to a parking lot and sitting in side-by-side running cars with the windows open so you can talk? Whatever it is, don’t neglect it. And don’t stop looking for new ways to be there for each other. Reach out to people you can be your full self with. It might tip the scales away from full freak-out, and maybe even all the way to hope.

One vulnerable risk led to my favorite Thanksgiving

I apologize ahead of time to my families: my favorite Thanksgiving was not with you. While I’ve had some lovely 4th Thursdays in November with you — eaten great food (including my triumph of a turkey last year), laughed, and even heard some good lines that have lived on (“You’re not my uncle, you’re just a random person,” and “Dong Wong’s thongs,” among others) — the Thanksgiving that shines the warmest in my memory was one from our early married, New York City, days.

It was our second non-family Thanksgiving. After we got married, the plan had been to spend Thanksgiving with one side and then Christmas with the other. It took only one season of that for us to realize how nuts that was, and we spent the November holiday in New York, with our friends. I know it was the second one, because I was working for a college textbook company, not the sexual-harrassing-stockbroker I worked for after quitting grad school.

On Wednesday, at the very end of the day, after everyone with clout was already gone and it was just recently-hired assistants and other down-in-the-pecking-order folks left, one of my co-workers approached my low wall. I don’t remember his name (because I’m a terrible person*), so let’s call him Guy. Let’s say it in our heads in the French pronunciation so it sounds less generic: Gee (still hard-g, people).

He spoke quietly, so I had to lean across my desk to hear him. His Thanksgiving plans had fallen through so he was wondering whether I had room at my celebration. We were friendly, but not particularly friends. What he had done was so vulnerable, so risky, that I immediately said there was room, even though the meal was not at my house and none of the other people knew him. A few minutes later, a mutual work friend told me the real deal: he’d planned to go to one of the editor’s houses, but the editor’s spouse had just found out/figured out that said editor had been having an affair with a co-worker (not Guy); Thanksgiving was no longer going to be a cozy, welcoming affair, and Guy was disinvited.

The place was in Williamsburg before it was gentrified, in a warehouse just a couple of blocks from the East River, in a neighborhood of warehouses. There was often a semi-truck rig idling outside. This was not a fancy converted warehouse, so get the visions from Dwell Magazine out of your heads. I was the only female person there. There were old rock-and-roll-band friends of my husband, one of the first friends I’d made after moving to NY for grad school, possibly another guy who lived there and maybe a friend of his, my husband, me, and Guy. The guys were in charge of all the food except for the pumpkin chiffon pie (a pie I bring every year, wherever I am; it is a ridiculous amount of work, but it is that good).

I may have had a moment or two of horror at how little cooking had been done when I got there, but, for once, I went with the flow. I believe I drank enough wine that I didn’t get too hangry (so hungry I was angry). One friend had recently bought a lovely and simple mezzaluna in Chinatown, and I happily rolled it back and forth over bunches of herbs. I tried really, really hard not to get all take-over-y in the kitchen. Not sure how successful I was, but I tried.

And laughed. My main memory of that day was of warmth and of laughter. We’d been at it awhile when Guy arrived (probably with more wine), so he got a good welcome. Not sure if we actively commiserated with his sucky situation or just folded him into the festivities, but the cooking and snacking and drinking went on for hours. This group of guys sometimes had some tension (anyone who’s been a band can probably relate), but I think having Guy there diffused all that; we were all our best selves, coming together for him.

Then we ate. And ate. It was all so delicious. After dinner we played the dictionary game — someone chose a word out of the actual dictionary and we all came up with definitions, which we shared and voted on before finding out what the real def. was. It was raucous. At the end of the evening we went for a walk by the East River. Happily, the molasses smell from the nearby sugar factory overwhelmed any other East River odors. We stayed until the frigid wind blew through our remaining alcohol haze.

I smiled the whole way home on the subway. Actually, probably not. It took 45-60 minutes to get to Astoria from Williamsburg. But it was still good.

* It should be noted that my husband’s memory for names is so awesome that it’s almost a superpower, yet he can’t remember this guy’s name, either.

If things aren’t too hectic where you are, I’d love to know about your favorite Thanksgiving.

What Do You Do When Someone Lies To You?

These diary entries circle around a drama in the life of a friend at my high school, a girl I met either through the Inner School Christian Fellowship or at camp. There’s a twist at the end, which I didn’t chronicle, but I remember it clearly. I’m just going to get right into it, so I’m not tempted to foreshadow the ending. I apologize, in advance, for how often I use the word “neat” in the first entry.

Saturday, Mary 17, 1984  EK is in town, she called me today and we had a talk. She told me about S, at her request. Her mother and her mom’s live-in boyfriend Tom both serve Satan. The two of them will move to B.C. when they get married and they want to send S to Jewish foster parents in Ottawa. When she said no way, Tom beat her up and she was put in the hospital. Nobody believed her. S also has cancer in her knee. Nice life, eh? Well, I think God is finally giving me something to do and someone to help.
I made a pair of pants today. I wore them to the coffeehouse I went to at AJ’s Pentecostal church. It was different. The music was OK. During the break some guy came and talked about temptation. That being tempted was a blessing because them Satan thought that you were worthwhile to tempt. That was neat. There was some more music 🙁 and then this neat guy Claude talked for 40 minutes: “Why sit we here ’til we die?” It was about the spirit and works of a church dying out. It was interesting. J and H were rather shocked because of the spontaneous Amen’s and Praise the Lord’s. I loved it. It was not the sort of coffeehouse that I expected but it was neat.

Sunday March 18, 1984  Last day of freedom 🙁  Dad was gloating about that after church. NERD. Young People’s tonight was a riot! We went over the to JJ’s for a social. I was playing snooker and I was doing really well. I was proud of myself. JP was nice to me today, so was JJ. I was pretty happy. Later on JP and M teamed up against P in hockey on that game. He was beating them 7-1 until I started playing goal. Then he beat us 9-2. It was a scream. Then all the girls except me went upstairs to sing. Someone up there couldn’t. I was left down with the guys minus N and D. We had earlier played coffeepot. I made a few funny remarks. The action was showing and JJ asked if you could do it in front of other people; they said yes. I said, I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t coffeepot in front of anybody. I made a few more remarks as well. The real story was on the way home. JP’s alternator and battery were shot in his Bessie. It took us 20 min. to get the car started at JJ’s that lasted us without lights or anything to Bayview and Soudan. We tried roll starting, push starting and we flagged down a car and tried jump starting. M was with us. We walked to the [minister’s house] and they were still up. [M’s parents] were there! They took care of M and the rest is too complicated to explain. I got home around 11:20.

Monday, March 19, 1984   S called me tonight to talk to me and I found out some more stuff. E has thought about killing herself! She almost did try once! I’m really shocked. I knew she didn’t like school at all but I didn’t know it was that bad. I’m meeting her tomorrow morning at 8:15. I met S and E this morning at 8:30. S still goes in for chemotherapy for her secondary cancer. It’s really hard knowing how to treat her. I called C and she gave me lots of good advice about not just sitting passively but actively doing something. Both of us feel that some disaster is about to happen: I don’t like that feeling. But I also do feel that God will somehow work through me. I hope. S needs all the help she can get. She went with her Mom and Tom to that group last night: she didn’t know she was going there. They tried lots of different ouija boards on her but none of them worked! Praise God! A whole bunch of them grabbed her and put “Satan” on her arm with red nail polish. She just barely got it off for school.
H skipped today because L wasn’t feeling well. I called their house at lunch. It took them a few minutes before they realized that it would be either me or N so they answered it. The didn’t even invite me!

 Tuesday, March 20, 1984   Several big things happened today. We found out this morning that Mrs. Denny, the quiet nervous gym teacher died last night of hepatitis. I still can’t believe it. The flags were flying half mast. I’m glad. It shows that the whole school mourns her. The thing with S is also part of the way to being resolved, I pray. Her Young People’s leader called the Children’s Aid, and they called Mr. S at school. They came over and she talked to them and she has an appointment next week. Praise God! She had to tell them about E because she had been called down earlier for her absence on Monday and had told Mr. W about her. Tom and S’s mom had to come down and were really angry but I still praise God that something is happening. That’s about it, because besides that the day went as usual. I loved the discussion in English; we’re doing poetry. I love poetry! I should start to write some more; I think I will.

The twist

S was lying. She made the whole thing up: the cancer in the knee and the secondary cancer that had an amazing new kind of chemotherapy that didn’t make her extremely thick hair fall out too badly, the Satanist parents, the group of people writing Satanist stuff on her arms (she’d done it herself). All of it. Once school and other officials became involved, it all spun out. I found out from the school guidance counselor. I remember a hollow feeling in my stomach and disbelief, but not anger. There was even a little guilt in there because I hadn’t thought to talk to the guidance counselor or call Children’s Aid myself. My second reaction was compassion: she didn’t have to make up that story to get us to like her. I talked with her, either that day or the next, to tell her that, and to tell her that I wouldn’t drop her as a friend — my thinking being that she needed friends more than ever now that the story was out. We had a few intense conversations after this, and I was still friendly, but things weren’t the same and S soon drifted away. Probably to a fresh group of people to scam into pitying her.

Am I that compassionate now?

It depends on who’s doing the lying and who they’ve hurt.

I’ve written before about a woman at our prior church who was highly skilled in planting seeds of discord to distract us from the fact that she was stealing from us. She would give little reports of conversations with other church members that were racist or obnoxious in some way, or do little put-downs that were funny in how she said them. She got involved with someone who brought a great deal of drama that we were all compelled to help her out with — money, groceries, clothes, etc. She was my partner in dance and I’d thought we were friends. I gave her money, listened to her, prayed with her, had her pray for me. But she was stealing from us the whole time.

It almost destroyed the church — literally, I’m not being dramatic. Two-thirds of the church left in the aftermath, and those of us left had to deal with the trauma, except that we didn’t. We who remained all went to our corners to lick our wounds and treat everyone with suspicion for a while. I was stuck with some very large jobs when she left, that dictated the next eight months of my life. They were not good months.

It took several months of Spiritual Direction before I wrote a letter to her about what she did to me — the classic, unsent therapy letter. By the end, I felt profoundly sorry for her. Her life had gone even more to pieces after this: criminal prosecution, physical disability, no friends or church support system. I forgave her in absentia. That said, I could never be her friend again and if she came to any church I went to, I’d make sure she wasn’t given any position with authority over or access to money. I have no idea whether I’d hug her or ignore her if I saw her again. But chances are pretty good I’d make like I didn’t see her unless she forced the issue.

Then again, we had a situation this summer about which I will be vague, but a young person we’d trusted did something untrustworthy. My reaction: firm compassion. We forgave the young person immediately, largely because the person had been to our house hundreds of times with few problems, so the evidence weighed heavily in the person’s favor. It was firm compassion, though, because we analyzed the events that may have contributed to the untrustworthiness and don’t let things play out in the same way anymore. This is just as much out of compassion for the young person as for us.

But if a young person does something untrustworthy and I don’t have the long history with them, or if the untrustworthiness has to do with the personal safety of anyone in my care, they are not invited back. There are only three kids who’ve qualified for this, but my door closed to them quickly and decisively.

So now what?

Because of the lying church lady who so effectively used gossip to split up the congregation, I no longer listen to negative church gossip. If someone starts going on to me about what another member did or said to them, I stop them in the middle and tell them that I’m uncomfortable talking about this, but if they have a problem, to bring it up with the other member and the pastor. I’m not always in the loop these days, but that’s okay with me.

I also have a little core of suspicion that won’t go away when someone keeps bringing the drama, and that makes me a little sad. I’d like to treat everyone who needs help in a straightforward way, but I don’t know that I can anymore. I’ll have to find a way to keep myself from being gullible and yet remain compassionate.

Anyone else want to share a dramatic story about a liar?