The Gift of Deep Friendship

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I’m back from the fourth reunion of childhood girlfriends since 2010. We were born in the same year; three resided in the same neighborhood; our parents were friends; we were raised in the same faith; we know each other’s siblings. We’ve been friends since kindergarten.

Along with all these similarities are differences. Geographic, to be sure. The closest link between any two of us is over 800 miles. We differ in economics, vocations, passions, politics, tastes, theology, and in all the other ways people change.

The thing is that we six were not bff’s growing up. I think the phrase friendship by proximity describes some of our early years. Sometimes we hung out together because that’s who was available. Now that our friendship has come of age, we are repeating stories! (We = me, sigh…)

April 20171

This treasure, these friendships, are more precious to us than diamonds. Other than checking our phones and taking calls from husbands and children, our time is unplugged. We don’t watch movies; we don’t go shopping (except for groceries). It is time to attend, to be present, to listen, to share, to truly know each other. We laugh and guffaw, we cry (even the non-criers among us), we eat, we swim, we sing.

We established a protocol at our first reunion that we always follow. We could (and do) have a fabulous time cooking communally, grabbing a cuppa, letting the conversation meander like a river. But eventually we have a formal time of focus. One friend shares her heart: what’s good, what’s hard, what’s changed, what’s real. This is a time of transparency and trust. We take notes, ask questions. It can also be a time of discovery, when the perception of girlfriends translates truth we didn’t before see. Then we pray, asking God to help, to intervene, to strengthen, to bless our friend. Then we sing the songs we grew up singing that are imprinted on our souls. Rinse and repeat.

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These friendships are for each of us a bonus. We all have sisters — not just sisters, but close sisters with whom we regularly share our lives and hearts.

Two stories. Meeting in the airport has always been an exciting moment. We’re giddy and goofy and garrulous. This year, however, Ruth’s father died the Monday before our gathering. She drove to Virginia on Tuesday, buried him on Thursday, and flew out to Phoenix on Saturday. My plane arrived five minutes before hers. I parked myself in front of the gate to welcome her. Sitting at the back of the plane, she was one of the last passengers to deplane. Seeing each other we burst into sobs, running into a hug. It was a spectacle, but we didn’t care. All our griefs to share.

Eileen’s plane came in later than the others. Nancy’s sister Kathy picked her up from the airport. Eileen didn’t want to inconvenience her. Are you kidding? Kathy replied. When we were first married, we flew to Chicago, but couldn’t rent a car because I was under 25. We called my mom in Phoenix and asked her what to do. She told us to call your (Eileen’s) dad. We called him, he dropped everything and drove to O’Hare to pay for our rental. I am only too happy to give you a ride. More tears, and the gift of an previously unknown story about her dad.

One evening the Gibson sisters joined us for an old-fashioned hymn sing. I guess reading the lyrics on your phone wasn’t old-fashioned! Those girls (ahem, women) can SING!! Lots of nostalgia and gorgeous harmonies and rejoicing in a heritage of music.

After four girlfriend gatherings, I remain astonished at the profound transforming power of this deep friendship. It has all the hallmarks of grace: unexpected, unearned, unsought, undeserved.  Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.

Our 2010 Reunion
Anticipating 2010 Reunion

Reunited, Reconnected, Real


  
Nancy, Barbara, Audrey, Eileen, Carol, Ruth


We hadn’t all been together since 1971. And, honestly, back then we weren’t all that together. Our friendships as young teen-aged girls were fluid.  Some appeared to have evaporated.  But a residue of goodwill and lingering love remained strong after almost 40 years. 


  


We hold a joint tenancy in our childhood.  A childhood of bobby socks, black patent leather shoes, of fancy hats, pretty dresses and bubbling enthusiasm.





And we love the Lord Jesus Christ.

We were raised by (some of) the pillars of Lombard Gospel Chapel.  Our dads and moms were quality men and women who invested themselves in serving people.  In a sense they mortgaged themselves to the Lord. Look at the photos and you see ordinary people. But they were beyond extraordinary.  Brilliant, creative, hospitable, warm, beautiful, sacrificial, they left a swath behind them of people whose lives were touched hugged forever changed. However, they could also be cranky, remote, hurting, conflicted, angry.  We know.  We are their daughters. 


 


In July, in the space of 24 hours, we found each other.  Emails flew back and forth. It became imperative that we be together under one roof.  We were flung across the country; Audrey lived in England but was moving to Albania.  It probably won’t work out to get together, but let’s try.  Ruth organized details, we bought tickets, Eileen whipped up spreadsheets, Nancy learned to click Reply All (♥ you, Nancy!), and finally we were in the Atlanta airport Atrium adding a link with each arrival. One cabin, six friends, 66 hours.


 


Eileen’s husband transported us from the airport to their home.  Frank made a killer Italian meal (lasagna, chicken escalopes with Marsala, sausages, a Caprese salad, bread, olives and pickles) served on the Desert Rose china Eileen inherited from her mom.  A traditional Italian meal is never the food on the table, but the people around it. It was the perfect prelude to our cabin time.  We talked and laughed through the meal, mingling memories, laughter and great food. 





We had 66 hours. We wanted to structure our time wisely.  Enter focus time.  Each girlfriend told her story, taking as long as needed.  With background sounds of rain falling and birds cawing, one quiet voice was heard. We cried, we laughed, we listened, we took notes. We asked questions, spoke encouraging words. Then the five of us prayed: blessings, thanksgivings and intercessions.  We sang old songs in that tight a capella harmony we grew up with.  She showed us her pictures.  It took at least three hours per person





We arrived at the reunion ready to be real. Like an onion, we peeled through all the protective layers until the core was visible. One thread that weaved its way through our childhood stories was the importance of appearances. If there were problems in the home, we put on happy faces and pretended there weren’t. At the cabin, there was no pretense. At the end of our weekend we knew each other.  Isn’t that one of our deepest longings, to be fully known and completely loved?

 



After one friend finished her story, the heavy silence of grief blanketed us.  We discovered that normal for us included pain.  In every case.  Cheerful and thankful hearts we have, but hearts that are acquainted with sorrow.  We called our time friend therapy.





We ate incredible meals. Each member of the Sisterhood of “In Jesus’ Name Amen, Let’s Dance!” provided  a scrumptious meal. Frittata, Chai, Enchiladas, Baked Blueberry French Toast, Cashew Chicken, fantastic salad. We are, after all, our mothers’ daughters and our mothers produced a lifetime of amazing meals.
 



Here was a gathering of six strong women.  Six smart women.  Whatever mistakes our parents made, they did something right.  A whole lot of somethings right. 


 


It was one of the best weekends of my life.  Our expectations were high, but our experience soared.  We don’t know why we were given such a gift, such a mercy.  It was a catharsis, a cleansing, a completion.  It sounds weird for 53-year-old women to say, but as of this weekend our childhood is officially closed.  What doesn’t make sense doesn’t make a difference.  We are changed.  And we belong to each other. It was an epic weekend, a monumentally joyful time, a threshold to heaven.
 

Truly great friends are hard to find,

difficult to leave

and impossible to forget.


 

Be Always Coming Home


Audrey and Carol in the middle, circa 1965

Several years ago, while reading a biography of Laura Bush, I discovered she takes an annual vacation with her childhood friends from elementary school.  I remember the very spot I was sitting when I read that. I loved the loyalty, endurance and comfort of those friendships.  It made me wistful.  Ah…wouldn’t that be grand?

Grand is too tame a word.  Wouldn’t it be…magnificent?

There were six girls that grew up together.  We didn’t all go to the same school, but we were together up to three times a week at church.  Our parents were the pillars. We are all the same age. We all have older siblings.  It seems strange by today’s nomadic standards, but our entire childhood was at the same church. 

1967 Lombard Awana Olympics Team

By the time we graduated from high school three families had moved to different parts of the country; we all went our ways.  And we just lost contact.  You know, the Christmas letter connection that fades away as life’s busyness intervenes.  Too many moves.

This summer, thanks to Facebook and siblings, we found each other.  And emails began flying back and forth at a furious speed.  Audrey is overseas, but planned to be in the states in September.  Would we, could we get together?  It seemed impossible, too grand.  But it is true! We booked a cabin so the six of us could reconnect.  We’re coming together from Albania, Arizona, Georgia, Oregon, Texas and Illinois.

I often tell my adult sons: Be always coming home.  

I see this reunion as a home-coming.  We shared the roots of our lives.  We are familiar with the incipient underground growth before we started greening up and blossoming.  How many friends know the entire structure/dynamics of your family of origin?  We’re eager to hear all those chapters that happened after the 1970s.  We want to know and be known. Between us, almost every heartbreak common to mankind has happened (lost a young parent, lost a young child, lost a marriage, family members with disabilities).  We all have a story.  And, amazing grace!, we all still love God. 

We simply want to be under the same ceiling, with time to talk. I am certain that I will learn things about myself just being with these friends.  We’ll have about 66 hours together.  We want to talk, laugh, cry, sing, pray, eat, giggle and sleep only if we must.  I anticipate healing will take place. 

I consider this coming weekend one of God’s great gifts in my life.  It is profound love. It is extravagant grace. It is a magnificent mercy.  Color me thankful.

Audrey

A high point of the trip was our time with Audrey, my childhood friend, and her husband Brian.  I think it is only because of my friend Mel, aka LimboLady (you know her if you read the comments), that I am in touch with Audrey at all. Mel knew both of us in different seasons and has been faithful to stay connected with both of us.

The last time Audrey and I saw
each other was in 1974, but years before that, really, we had gone separate
ways.  We have known each other since we were three years old. Both of our fathers were Bible teachers and preachers, hers a pretty famous one.  We went to the chapel together, went to Awana together, went to young peoples together, etc.  Audrey was a rebel.  I was pretty much goody-two-shoes.  But, the differences probably had much less to do with any righteousness on my part than the fact that I was a coward and a people-pleaser, flat out scared to try some of the stuff she got away with. 

The last time I saw Audrey she was running from God.  Her countenance was stiff and hard.  My first impression of Audrey when we met on Friday was how soft and
sweet she was.  Not a sentimental softness, but a patina of grace

We sat down
with mugs of steaming tea and quilted a conversation with a hundred pieces
of news.  Tell me about your kids.  How are your sisters and brothers?  Is your
dad still living?  Who (from our group of grade school friends) have you stayed
in touch with? Tell me about your church. Not only do we have our growing up
years in Lombard in common, but we both went to the same Bible school (CCBS),
but in different years.  Thus there was an entire community which Curt, Audrey and
I all had in common. 

We both had dads who were gone preaching a lot, and
could speak of the difficulties we both had experienced because of
absentee fathers with the objectivity which only time can bring. We didn’t
linger on the bad stuff, but acknowledged it and went forward. The stories kept
coming, one priming the pump for many more. 

 
I had forgotten that Audrey and I were fierce
competitors in Awana prizes and Sunday School games.  She told Brian
that I was the one who won the sleeping bag for
memorizing the most verses, when Mrs. Brown had refused to listen to her verses. 
We laughed, happy to be comrades now instead of competitors. As I went to sleep,
more stories surfaced, more reasons to laugh together.  
 
When I came to Danny in the recitation of my
family’s news, Audrey stunned me by saying, “Danny is one reason why my brother
John is a Christian.”  John had run away from home, had been robbed of all his
money, and was sitting disconsolate at the train station in Lombard.  Danny got
off a train (later Dan had said it was unusual that he had been at the station then) saw John, and spoke with him.  He asked what was up,
heard his story, and then asked him,  “Is this what you really want?”  John
decided to go back home, but that question burned in John and was the
turning point for him.  I haven’t spoken to you, Dan, but I wonder if you
remember that.  We never know how a little word will be used.
 
I was astonished to hear that
my Johnny, my brother !, had written to Brian and Audrey
for years when they were in Spain.  Wow, Audrey, I only have one letter from
him!  It was neat to see the connections between our families.  Meanwhile,
Curt and Brian got on well and enjoyed getting to
know one another.  Audrey and Brian spend a lot of time in Albania and have been in Croatia a
lot, so our Croatian connection through Curt’s sister’s husband helped us ask
intelligent questions.  Brian is interested in Zimbabwe, as we are; we talked about our connections with Zimbabweans and the challenges there.

I want to reward those of you who have waded through my personal recollections with a superb cooking tip I learned from Audrey.  She made wiener schnitzel (with chicken breast, yum yum) and it came out beautifully.  As we cleaned up together I saw a strange finger of food in the cooking pan.  It was a carrot.  She said an old man in Vienna taught her that anytime you fry something breaded put a carrot in the pan.  The carrot mysteriously keeps the breaded part from burning. 

Here is a picture of us together.


Here is a picture of us in Sunday School so many years ago.

There was so much ancient and historical to see in Great Britain.  Our friendship sort of fit into that category. 

But I left Audrey feeling like I have found a true friend.  All the infrastructure has been in place all these years. The Lord has breathed life into these old bones.

Such a gift.  Such a gift.


Plymouth Brethren

What do
the missionary Jim Elliot,
the evangelist Luis Palau,
the author Ken Follett,
the poet Luci Shaw,
the entertainer Garrison Keillor,
the Sojourners activist Jim Wallis,
Moody Radio Pastor Don Cole
and I
have in common? 

We were all raised in Plymouth Brethren assemblies. 

My grandpa was Jim Elliot’s Bible Study leader at Wheaton; Jim Wallis’ father was my camp director for all the summers of my youth; Don Cole will always have a warm dwelling in my heart.  His wife Naomi was the first woman to hug me after my mom’s death. My grandpa was an old-time traveling preacher who started dozens of Plymouth Brethren assemblies across America.  My father taught at the assembly Bible College (Emmaus), managed a Bible Camp in the summer, and preached at chapels and conferences.  My brother David is a full time worker at an assembly in Pennsylvania and preaches across the east.  He was even invited to Scotland to preach!  My roots run deep in the Plymouth Brethren.

These are my memories of growing up Plymouth Brethren 30-50 years ago.  Change is a constant; a visit to a PB assembly today will certainly be different.

The Plymouth Brethren are very scholarly.  Their influence on evangelical culture is inescapable. They believe in New Testament principles of the church: a plurality of elders, no clergy/laity (no paid pastor, no membership),  no denominational structure, and women wear head coverings (not every woman does anymore).

The assembly was the center of our family’s culture.  We attended Breaking of Bread and Family Bible Hour on Sunday morning, Gospel Service Sunday night, Prayer Meeting Wednesday night, Awana Thursday night, and Young Peoples on Friday.

The weekly Breaking of Bread service went like this:  Women wore head coverings.  When I was an infant wearing hats was in vogue (think Jackie Kennedy); as I grew older we kept a lace mantilla (black, white, navy or ecru) in the pocket of our Bible holder and bobby pinned that to our hair. Loaners were in the back for visitors.

After we took our place in the pew there was silence.  A man, led by the Spirit, would stand and give out an exhortation, or devotional, or just read some Scripture.  Moments of silence seasoned the time.  When a man called out a hymn, the designated hymn-starter would sing the first phrase and we sang the hymn a capella. Towards the end of the service we would pass a broken loaf of bread (never crackers) and one large silver goblet, a common cup from which we sipped.
 
Family Bible Hour was similar to a typical evangelical church service.  Hymns (picked out two minutes before the service, scribbled on a torn paper from the bulletin and given to musicians), announcements and a sermon. There was never an offering passed.  With no “pastor” we relied on visiting preachers or preaching from men in our assembly.  What this meant is that each sermon stood alone and wasn’t connected to the sermon before or after. We heard many different styles of delivery, exegesis and application.  

Careful in particulars, Plymouth Brethren strive to maintain their theological distinctives in their speech.  This lends itself to a jargon, with acceptable and forbidden discouraged terminology. 

Movement         instead of              Denomination
Assembly / Chapel                         Church
Elder or Full Time Worker              Pastor
Meeting                                        Service
Fellowship                                     Membership

          Breaking of Bread                          Communion

PBs (we say Peebs as short-hand) stress the different dispensations of history, believer baptism, strong world mission emphasis, serious Bible study, simplicity in worship, and pre-trib rapture.  When my grandfather started tent meetings in a new city he usually began with a Bible study on end times in Revelation.  When it wasn’t Revelation, it was Daniel.

Weak points:
I got the idea that we were the only true Christians.  I was reprimanded at camp for telling a girl who went to a Free Methodist church that Methodists weren’t Christians.  Blech.  Forgive me, girl whose name I can’t remember. I’d say we were ingrown.

Separation from the world was stressed to the point that we often lived within a Christian ghetto (except for  support of government education). It was easy to measure holiness by pharisaical standards: we didn’t drink, smoke, cuss.  With the rapture about to occur any day, we didn’t worry about engaging or improving our culture. 

Knowledge, by itself, is dangerous.  It often bred nitpicky, arrogant attitudes. Being right often trumped other Christian virtues such as love, graciousness, forbearance, sacrifice.  I know that I took pleasure in being smart (or fast at looking up Bible verses) and failed to exhibit wisdom by living out what I knew.

There was an element of patriarchal authority that was disrespectful of women.  There is good patriarchy and bonehead patriarchy; I have seen both exhibited in the Brethren.

Gratitude:

I will always be grateful for my upbringing:  for the high view of God, the high view of Scripture, for Jesus Loves Me, for weekly communion, for learning to meditate in silence, for a capella hymns, for regular visits from missionaries, for a heritage of men and women who invested themselves in the care and maintenance of souls.

May 7, 1968

The lunch bell rang at 11:30.  My fifth-grade teacher dismissed the class. I put my sweater on, picked up my cello and navigated my way through the crowded hallway.  As I crossed from the dark interior to the bright sunshine my mind swept through the corners of the morning looking for a scrap of a story to tell my mom. Since Danny had moved up to Jr. High, I had my mom all to myself during lunch.

I moved slowly down the sidewalk, stopping every ten paces to change the clumsy cello to the other arm.  A tune went through my head and came out with a hum. Turning left at Elizabeth Street, I looked up and saw my dad a block ahead at the edge of the school property.  He stood still as a sentinel, shoulders slumped. 

“Dad!”

I hitched the cello closer to my body and broke into an exhuberant trot.   Never before had I seen my dad in the middle of the school day.  One by one he had taken my six older siblings out of their classes, had broken the news to them and had brought them home.  For this final breaking, he waited for me to come to him. Out of breath, I set the cello down and gave him a hug. 

“How’s Mom?  Did you bring her home from the hospital?”

His face was tired granite.

“Honey, I have some bad news.”

It wasn’t his solemnity that struck me; it was the absence of any movement.  I looked up with questioning eyes.

“Carol, Mommy is in heaven with Jesus.”

I stared at him, completely stunned.

“She died very early this morning.”

He picked up the cello and we began the two block trek towards home.  We had passed two houses on the left when I protested.

“Wait, Daddy.  You said it was bad news.  But if she’s in heaven with Jesus, that’s good news, isn’t it?”

For the first time the muscles in his face moved.  He smiled down at me wordlessly.  While I couldn’t comprehend that my Mom was dead, I could see the grief that had already moved into his eyes; I could sense him pulling into himself.   Flitting back to my own concerns, my mind reminded me of a problem.

“But I wanted to tell  Mom that I got an A on my spelling test.”

I didn’t ask for details.  There was something in his demeanor which spoke the truth.  My next impulse was to lighten his load. 

“Daddy, let me carry the cello.  Please, Daddy.  Please…let me carry the cello for you.”

He shook his head as we continued to walk.  We turned right onto Greenfield Avenue in silence.  Our heads bowed in surrender to the heavy weight as we trudged the rest of the way home.  The house was as quiet and still as my father had been. 

As we approached the porch, I bounded up the steps, remembering my news.

“Mom!  I got an A………………”  My voice broke off as the news dangled in midair. 

Unspoken Words

The sermon yesterday was a reminder to take the opportunities presented to us each day to nurture our relationships; it was a call for open communication and regular maintenance checks.  It was a bit off-topic, but my mind flew to a time when I was ten and God shut my lips.  The shutting of my mouth was a profound and incredible gift. Here’s what happened:

One afternoon in March of 1968, Missy (let’s call her that) and I had climbed a crabapple tree in her backyard and were exercising our imaginations and indulging in the sweet secret-telling that bonds silly, young girls.  Far sooner than we expected, Missy’s mom called to us to come; it was time for me to go home.  We were both disappointed, but Missy was verbally obstinate: “No!  We’re not finished!”  In a quiet, passive tone, Missy’s mom repeated her request.  Missy became more belligerent, more mouthy.  The tug-of-war was a jarring new experience for me.  Walking to the car, I was shocked to my core when Missy screamed  “I hate you!”  to her mom.  To this day I can see her pigtails, her wrinkled eyebrows, her curled lips, her passion in profile as she yelled.  Subconsciously, I must have noted that there was no immediate consequence for her talk.

For whatever reason, I kept this incident a secret and didn’t discuss it with any member of my family.  But I relived it; I pondered; I simmered; I wondered; most of all I tried to make sense of it.  Eventually I began to flirt with the idea of talking back to my mom.  I was no Elsie Dinsmore, but there were clear  ideas in our family, properly  taught and administered, on what were fitting words and fitting tones in which to speak to one’s parent. My mom brooked no disrespect from any of her children. 

At first I just played with the words in my mind.  In the same way that women can lust after imaginary men, I toyed  with a theoretical situation where I said those words.  I wasn’t angry; I was just curious. But, there were certainly times when I wanted my own way and the thought of getting it was appealing.

I rolled and swished those words around my mouth like an experienced wine-taster. But the process itself was unpleasant and stomach-achey.  It was just too weird.  I had sense enough to realize that those words were completely dissonant with my relationship with my mom.   After a week or so I made a conscious decision not to go there, breathed a sigh of relief, and carried on with my childhood.

Within a month, my mom died unexpectedly.  Shortly afterwards it hit me clean in the face what I had been spared.  This drama still resided strictly inside my head, but I knew – oh! I knew! – how gracious God was to shut my mouth.  For days on end I prayed before I slept, repeatedly thanking God that I had never spoken those words to the one person I loved more than any other. 

Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord;
keep watch over the door of my lips.
Psalm 141:3