Forming and Sustaining Friendships at the Margins
Posted by Inagrace Dietterich
This post reflects Dr. Pohl’s second lecture from the July Convocation, “Friendship and Mission at the Margins.” It draws upon material from her book, Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us, Eerdmans, 2012.
If mission at the margins involves friendships, then it becomes crucial to give fuller attention to the practices that strengthen friendship and community. Especially when our friendships involves crossing significant social and cultural boundaries, it is important to cultivate practices that build trust. Such practices include fidelity, truthfulness, and gratitude.
In the last post, we reflected on the importance of friendship, community, and hospitality for mission and ministry at the margins. In the following, we will explore more thoroughly some of the practices beside hospitality that are central to community and to friendship. Especially when our friendships involve crossing significant social, economic, and cultural boundaries, it is crucial to cultivate practices that build trust. This is even more crucial in contexts where there has been a history of failures or betrayals of trust. Some of these key practices include fidelity or promising, truthfulness, and gratitude.
While we might be ready to agree that friendship with people on the margins is part of what it means to be faithful Christians and that cultivating community is important to us, we still struggle with actually making these relationships work. There are so many ways we can run into difficulty. Friendships fail, people betray one another, even friends sometimes deceive or are jealous, or envious, or they strengthen their friendship by excluding others.
How we understand the dynamics of friendship and community life, and how we address the challenges we encounter, has a lot to do with the lenses we use to interpret them. Generally, in this culture at least, when we try to sort out relationships or community interactions, we tend to process them in therapeutic or psychological ways—we reflect on personality types, or dysfunctions, needs and so on. Or, especially for communities or congregations, we use business or managerial models—if we just organized things differently, or chose a different model of leadership, we’d get it right. There is not necessarily anything wrong with these resources, but they aren’t enough. And they don’t connect us very well with our biblical and theological tradition so we don’t move beyond a fairly superficial use of Scripture, theology, or church history. We don’t often reflect theologically about what is happening in friendship or community.
Focusing on Practices.
Using the lens of practices—what faithful people have done together, over the centuries and in light of God’s word and work to sustain life together—can be quite helpful. The framework of practices can help us get at the dynamics that help us build and sustain friendships that are good and life giving. Here I’m only modifying slightly the definition of practices offered by Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra in Practicing Theology: “things Christian people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in response to and in light of God’s active presence for the life of the world.” 1
In sturdy friendships and good communities, people keep their promises; they live truthfully; they live gratefully and practice hospitality. These practices don’t cover the waterfront—there are other central practices like discernment and forgiveness, but these are central to cultivating a good life together. But many in our culture bring with them to friendship and community a wariness about commitments and a reluctance to foreclose personal options. We’re afraid to be transparent and truthful with one another and we worry about being used. We are deeply ambivalent about limits and structures, and concerned about self-actualization, vocational opportunities, career advancement, etc. Not a great recipe for strong friendships or communities.
In fact, even though we might recognize that these practices—promise making and keeping, truthfulness, gratitude, and hospitality are important, we often find it easier to see their deformations—in the form of betrayal, deception, envy or grumbling, and exclusion. Unless the circumstances are unusual, we tend not to notice when promise-keeping and truth-telling are operating well. They are a little like the beams of a house—we don’t pay much attention to them unless they are disintegrating and the roof falls in. But, if we are not attentive to the importance of fidelity/promising and truthfulness, we are not likely to be able to stand against the powerful contemporary assault on these practices. In a culture that is so much about spin and self-actualization, concerns about fidelity and truthfulness can seem quite outdated and naive. But no relationship can survive without them and many friendships—as well as marriages and communities—have been undermined by small infidelities and deceptions.
Let’s take a closer look at a few of these practices that are so important both to the friendships we form at the margins and the communities within which we are embedded.
In friendships at the margins, one of the things we quickly discover is that many of the people who have been overlooked, exploited, or left out have experienced deep betrayals and failures in relationships connected to broken trust. Some of the people we encounter on the margins have also been the ones who have regularly violated trust or abandoned commitments. But, if trust has been violated regularly, it is hard to develop any relationships of depth without a great deal of patience and attention to trust-building.
No relationship or community can endure without trust. And trust is based in fidelity. As Lewis Smedes has observed, “Life together survives…not on a steady diet of warm feelings but on the tough fibers of promise keeping.” 2 Promise making and promise keeping, the structures of fidelity, are at the root of our ability to trust one another. Without some measure of trust, it is difficult to do almost anything.
Promises take lots of forms: sometimes they are formal—like vows or oaths, or covenants—marriage and baptism, ordination and citizenship. They have ceremonies attached to them, and witnesses, and rich traditions. But often, our promises are informal—the stuff of everyday life–we’ll be there at 10 to pick you up, I’ll go to the job interview; I’ll tutor the kids after school. In general, think about what a promise does. Again to quote Smedes, “When a person makes a promise, she reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: she will be there even when being there costs more than she wants to pay. When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be.” Our promises are acts of freedom that we take that then voluntarily bind us.”
Promises make an uncertain future more predictable; when kept, they foster trust, give a certain steadiness of purpose. They allow for dependability in relationships, even when we hit trouble spots. They are deeply connected to our ability to sustain hope. Promises safeguard us against our own inconsistencies and fickleness. They stabilize our love. The context of our promise making and keeping is our inability to know and control the future, the unpredictability of our circumstances, but even more, it is God’s steadfast love, God’s faithfulness, God’s goodness and care. Christian faith itself is rooted in promises, and Christians understand ourselves as people of the new covenant, the new promise.
In friendship at the margins, our faithfulness or fidelity is crucial. Such relationships depend on fidelity over time, patience and constancy—being careful about the promises we make, and careful in keeping them.
Truth-telling or Truthfulness.
Like promise-keeping, truth-telling is a practice we tend to overlook unless it fails. While it is impossible to sustain a life together or a friendship without a commitment to living truthfully with one another, today we might be quite inclined to echo the Old Testament prophets who lamented that truth had fallen in the streets, and that people relied on empty arguments and spoke lies, driving justice, righteousness and honesty far away. Deception, dishonesty and exaggeration are part of the contemporary landscape. The resulting cynicism and doubt about truthfulness in business, government, the military, and religious institutions as well as interpersonal relationships runs deep.
In individuals and communities that live truthfully and love the truth, we find a close correspondence between what people say and what they do, a well-developed capacity to listen to one another, and with that, a posture of receptiveness, hospitality and discernment. As noted in James 1:19, in such communities, members learn to be quick to listen and slow to speak.
In Ephesians 4:15, Paul writes “speaking the truth in love we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” The notion of speaking the truth in love highlights the importance of a relational context for our words. Truth-telling does not refer to disembodied statements located “out there” bearing no relation to the friendship or community within which we are located. In fact, only when communities and relationships are infused with the love of God are they safe enough for real truthfulness. A truth-filled community holds together truth and grace, and speaking the truth in love requires gentleness, humility and tenderhearted strength, despite our tendency to associate truthfulness with piercing criticism or harsh denunciations. In fact, truthfulness is closely connected to fidelity (in Hebrew emeth)—truth and fidelity. Speaking truth in love requires fidelity.
Even when we know how important truthfulness is, we often avoid it for fear of hurting another person or breaking the bonds of friendship or community. Instead, we choose a less constructive path and often adopt a version of a “don’t ask don’t tell policy” which looks like “I won’t meddle in your life if you leave mine alone.” And obviously there are complexities here, especially in terms of intrusiveness, but truthfulness in the context of love, fidelity and commitment to one another can be life giving and life changing. Truthfulness is not just about saying hard or unpleasant things, or correcting someone, it is also about affirming the good we see in that person, and encouraging them toward wholeness and holiness. In fact, much of the truth that is not told is associated with the good we see in the other, the things we value about them and their gifts and presence.
People who love the truth will use words carefully, and use them to help rather than to harm. Loving the truth also means that we will resist impulses to “spin” situations in ways that are self-serving but not truthful. This is a temptation for Christians who want to have a “good” testimony. To avoid bringing dishonor to church or community, persons choose instead to stretch the truth or to omit aspects of the truth that are relevant but awkward or unbecoming.
Truth-telling certainly includes an element of discernment, an element of the fitting—which makes things more complex. Furthermore, there are cultural differences in how truth is spoken, and some patterns of truthfulness are more indirect than the “in-your-face” approach favored by most Americans. Nevertheless, whatever the style, in every life-giving relationship and community, people speak the truth to build up, not to tear down.
Gratitude is crucial to making relationships and the other practices beautiful. Gratitude needs to frame our lives. And gratitude to God for the grace we have received has to stand behind every effort at mission and ministry. Without gratitude, ministry and mission quickly become burdensome and grudging.
Most of us do fairly well with occasional expressions of gratitude to God. We give God thanks for our daily food, health, families, salvation, and unexpected blessings or rescues. If we really understand how much grace is at the heart of our Christian faith, if we really see our lives as redeemed by costly grace, then our primary response has to be gratitude. It has to be our distinctive posture. Gratitude is at the heart of the Christian life. The theologian Karl Barth wrote that grace and gratitude “belong together like heaven and earth. Grace evokes gratitude like the voice an echo.” 3 If the essence of God is grace, Barth explained, then the essence of human beings as God’s people is our gratitude or thanks. 4
The practice of gratitude can be trivialized and reduced to a perfunctory thank you, but it is so much more. Among people and communities that practice gratitude, there is lots of testimony to God’s faithfulness. Expressions of gratitude enable people and community to be alive to the Word and the Spirit and to God’s work in their midst. It is often in the hard places that we see the most powerful expressions of gratitude for God’s goodness. We can often learn gratitude from our friends on the margins.
Gratitude helps to create a culture of grace where there is a faithful acknowledgment of contributions and gifts, and the affirmation of each person. There’s lots of celebration, people and God are honored and appreciated. Grateful communities practice celebration. We tend to think of celebration as a nice extra if we have the time, but celebration as a practice is closely tied to gratitude and so important to community and the affirmation of life. Celebration, in a sense, makes real what we are aiming for. It brings into the present what we are longing for. And again, often our friends on the margins have a better sense of the importance of celebration than we do.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- In what ways can the focus on practices help us understand the dynamics of friendship?
- Why is trust so important to the forming of friendships?
- What are some of the conditions that contribute to the difficulty of making and keeping promises? How can the church overcome these conditions?
- Where do you see deception and dishonesty in the wider culture? In your own congregation?
- How could “speaking the truth in love” be cultivated within the church?
- How are gratitude and celebration related?
- What within the life and practice of your congregation cultivates a “culture of grace”? How could it be strengthened?
- How are the practices of fidelity, truthfulness, and gratitude interconnected?
- Why are they so important to forming and sustaining friendship at the margins?
2 Lewis B. Smedes, “Controlling the Unpredictable: The Power of Promising.” Christianity Today (January 21, 1983):19.
3 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.I: The Doctrine of Reconciliation. Trans. G.W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956, p. 41-42, section 57.2)
4 K Barth, CD IV.I: Reconciliation, p. 42, section 57.2
Christine D. Pohl, the 2014 Convocation presenter, has both the theological and practical credentials to stimulate and guide the discussion during the Convocation. She is Associate Provost and Professor of Church and Society/Christian Ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary. Before attending seminary and earning her Ph.D. at Emory University, Christine worked in various ministries for eleven years. She owned a Christian bookstore and worked in advocacy and refugee resettlement.
As the recipient of various grants, she has organized research projects that have led to the writing of several books, including Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1999) and Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us (Eerdmans, 2011). In collaboration with Chris Heuertz, international director of Word Made Flesh, Pohl wrote Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission (InterVarsity, 2010).
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.