I sat down recently across from a friend.
We met for lunch. There were chips and salsa involved.
I got myself organized in the booth, taking my coat off and shoving it into the corner, like booth-goers do, to make space for themselves and the conversation to come. I looked at my friend and she started to tell me what compelled her to call me for lunch. And then she said a magical phrase:
“I asked, ‘Who is in our circle who would understand?’”
I was the one identified.
I would understand.
I would converse and listen and eat tacos and we would share life frustration and life idiosyncrasies.
I do hope my friend felt loved-on in my willingness to listen, my heart open to hearing her story with no judgement, but as I left the restaurant that day, it felt like I left with the bigger gift.
I left with a completely different vantage point of my circumstances than when I had arrived:
I was in a circle.
Don’t many of us just want a circle?
A group of people who regularly gather with intention, friendships one phone call away from lunch or a chat, people who are likely to remain standing with us when our world is shaken at its core. Even the most introverted among us want and need people who come further in, rather than farther away, when one of our lives gets molded into a shape we never expected.
This is a circle:
It’s not a square that boxes you into being someone you’re not.
Of course there are expectations to uphold in this circle of friends, like kindness and speaking outside of assumption and racism or sexism or any other ism. There’s an important unspoken understanding that we each maintain the basic ability to not crap on one another, because goodness knows the world offers enough of that already. Those expectations don’t ask you to be someone different than you are though. They take you, your faith, your messes, your weirdness, and they spin them to see them in different lights, choosing to see the beauty in the rainbow created by your inner light, rather than the coffee you spilled down the front of your shirt.
This circle isn’t red rover.
It’s both safe and warm. It assumes some error and imperfection on your part. It knows you are going to have different ideas and opinions from each another and expands to consider those opinions and beliefs, even when someone settles on, “No, thank you, I’m going to choose not to integrate that one.” It knows you will say dumb things, because that’s what humans do. And it will love you, rather than send you to the other side of the playground to fight for yourself.
This is group friendship.
It’s really, really rare. I’ve only spotted it done well once, maybe twice in my life, but given the nature of what the church was created for, we should probably see it more often than we do. I think God knit a longing for the circle into our hearts, a safe place to land and grow and be more ourselves, less covered in masks, particularly in a world of broken families and difficult politics.
It makes me take pause and consider whether I have ever seen it done well inside the church and I have once for a time. But only once? Hmmm. Why isn’t this more common? Are we concerned about cliches and leaving people out? I don’t think that’s the heart of it. I think maybe it’s more because the relationships in the church feel more fastened outside our own efforts. The Holy Spirit is a powerful actor in forming the Church. But there is a problem when we never move towards putting the effort into developing something intentional there alongside of Him. We also often think of emotional safety and relational growth as a given - gifts of the Spirit like Love, Joy, and Peace.
But relationships are work, even when the Holy Spirit is involved.
It might be time to put forth a little more effort.
Individual, one-on-one friendships are necessary and wonderful. They are the meat of life, the cogs of life lived in community, but there is a place for the circle.
Where in our life can we make more circles?
What few people can you gather? Who is the Holy Spirit whispering and pointing out, who would be a non-judgmental, rich in heart, clever and quirky addition to your life? Who can you connect them to, not only for your own sake, but to bind and to care for something bigger than your own needs, your own gain - to add to a circle?
I think God can do big things with this work. He is a gatherer. He reaches among the nations. He brings people in. He circles up - for care to be given, for listening ears, for open discussions, and maybe some wily antics every now and then.
At nearly forty-years-old, I’m grateful for my circle. People who invite me in deeper than one book club meeting or a single lunch. Perhaps my circle will dissolve tomorrow, but what a gift it is while we have it. Through it I have learned to circle up - to do the gathering myself, rather than sitting around waiting for it to come, to seek out and search for friendship when the effort feels overwhelmingly futile. People are out there and the Holy Spirit is working, one someone just needs to invite one other in.
And if you get lucky, it might happen over tacos.