When friends become family
Years ago, on a crisp autumn morning, I exited the busy streets of London and walked down the sterile corridors of the Royal London hospital. Local art hung on the walls in an attempt to make the ward more cheerful; fluorescent lights beamed overhead, bells were going off and “Code blues!” ringing out.
I was weary and my body was on high alert. For a week I had gotten very little sleep. A group of us had been tag teaming, coming and going, making sure a friend and her newborn son were not alone.
My friend gave birth without a husband or significant other, but she had friends by her side. The birth turned into a near-fatal experience and she had to spend a week in the hospital. Throughout that week she was accompanied by members of our community.
This little one had entered into our midst; he and his mother were decidedly not alone, even though they might appear so if you looked at the usual forms.
Being who we are, we broke most of the hospital rules.
One of the guys came to visit one afternoon and took the baby for a stroll, giving him a look at the London skyline while my friend had her dressings changed. Unbeknownst to him, he wasn’t supposed to leave the ward. Oops!
And visiting hours technically ended if you weren’t related, but we just quietly slipped in and out and kept acting like we belonged. We knew we belonged to one another.
The day before my friend was due to check out, I walked up to the nurses’ station and one of them casually said, “We’ve never seen anything like it.” Apparently, we had become the talk of the hospital staff.
She went on to say, “The love that flows out of that room…that mother and child are going to be OK. We just can’t figure out how any of you are connected, but it is clear there is love. I hope you keep doing what you’re doing.”
Over the course of my life I’ve seen strangers become friends and friends become family. My mother modeled this way of living. I experienced it in my youth group, and I’ve been chasing it ever since. This closeness is a million miles from our societal norms of isolation, individualism and self-reliance at all cost. And it’s a huge part of what makes my life sustainable as well as beautiful.
At the beginning of the year, I found myself in another hospital room, this time thousands of miles from urban London. I had traveled to Alaska, in the dead of winter, and arrived to find my mother on the brink of death.
I wasn’t alone caring for my mother in this hospital room, any more than I had been when I was caring for my friend and her newborn son.
Linda, 10 years my senior, arrived right on my heels from Texas. Linda and I shared the load at the hospital, one of us doing days and the other nights. Her daughter, who calls my mother Mimi, came for a few days as well. We were a true team.
In the weeks we spent at the hospital, caring for my mother and getting to know the nurses and doctors, I realized they too were trying to figure out how we were related. In that dark and sterile room, I could clearly see, for the first time, that my mother was the first to imprint on me this woven patchwork of family.
Linda worked for my mother in Texas, helping care for my grandfather when he was in his final months, and she travelled to Alaska during several of my mother’s surgeries. Her daughter, Bianca, spent summers with my mother and stepfather in Alaska.
Linda calls my mother “Mom” and phones her frequently – in truth more frequently than I do. On this trip, I realized something my mother had realized and embraced for decades: Linda really is part of our family.
It wasn’t until I was on the brink of losing my mother that I realized how she modeled for me ways to love the stranger; how to trust that strangers can become friends and friends will become the family who bring richness to life.
Did my mother live this way – long before someone made up the word “framily” – because her capacity for loving strangers was naturally high? Or because she was so aware she couldn’t do life on her own? She grew up in a fragile family system, having lost her own mother to suicide when she was a young adult, and she craved a good and healthy family for my brother and me. So she wove one together from the patchwork of people that populated our lives.
I learned in these hospital stays that those who have people with them in hospitals get better care. It isn’t supposed to be this way, but it is. And yet, as I surveyed the wards this past January there were very few patients that had people really with them. I’m so grateful that my mother survived, and I’m sure it is in some part due to being surrounded by her wide, untraditional family.
Recently, The Atlantic revealed the results of the longest study on human happiness. The findings showed that deep relationships are the key to well-being. By all measures, they are simply the most essential characteristic of the good life. It isn’t wealth – it’s people, it’s relationships – that enrich our lives.
Seth Godin, in his CreativeMornings/NYC talk, “Thinking Backwards,” proclaims we are in the connection economy. This should be good news for people like me, who come from Christian backgrounds and claim to follow Jesus, but I’m not sure it is.
This leaves me wondering: Where is this runaway train of a culture that prizes individualism and self-sufficiency taking us? Does it take from us the one thing that truly makes a life good?
Long-standing traditions of hospitality to the stranger are embedded in our ancient heritage, dating back to ethical standards spelled out in Hebrew Scripture. However, many contemporary churches I know operate more like enclaves of race, class and privilege, more concerned with keeping tradition than offering sources of mutuality and deepening belonging as the early church did. Revitalizing a heritage of hospitality where friends become family offers something the world really needs right now.
Has the search for Mr. or Ms. Right narrowed our imagination of family and community? My friend who gave birth in the London hospital received more support than many wives receive from their husbands. But it wasn’t a one-way street; our caregiving was completely mutual, nourishing to us all. Those of us who don’t have children of our own cherish the very special relationship we have with this growing boy.
We spend the high holidays of Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving together as well as the ordinary Sundays enjoying the company of one another. We are friends, of course. But to say “friends” is an understatement. We are more than friends, more than community: we’ve done life together for well over a decade.
We are from different classes, hold different political views, and have different marital status. We’ve witnessed weddings and baptisms together, created campaigns, labored to build houses together, attended births and funerals. We show up for each other in mourning and celebration.
The “we” is both a small group that sees each other weekly and a wider network of friends that exceeds 100. These relationships were built in action projects and over countless meals. Even though our community life has changed as people move and organizations evolved, the people stay committed to one another.
We might describe these connections as “chosen family,” people that intentionally choose to do life together regardless of blood or marriage. It is a choice you have to keep choosing because with any relationship come bumps and bruises as well as joy and levity. All relationships take work and intention.
These hospital vignettes show a life full of connection and interdependence, but it’s because it is a life rooted in love. Love builds connection, connection breaks down boundaries and creates value. This gift and reality is born out of ongoing formation in ways of being that value belonging: they run counter to a culture of quick fixes and feel-good moments.
It takes sacrifice and repeated acts of showing up. I am learning – in the hospital rooms of 80-somethings and birthday parties for 8-year olds – that when we do this over time, friends become family. We transform our individual lives, yes, and also the possibilities for our collective humanity.
This leaves me wondering: where is this runaway train of a culture that prizes individualism and self-sufficiency taking us? Does it take from us the one thing that truly makes a life good?
In the early days of the pandemic, a highlight each day at my house was pulling up John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” as dinnertime viewing. My laptop joined us at the table each evening to provide a few bright spots amid the dire headlines. The stories of COVID patients being discharged from the hospital to cheers and applause, Zoom singalongs with the cast of “Hamilton” — in the spring of 2020, these bits of brightness felt like a lifeline to me.
And I’m not alone: a recent study from psychologists in the U.K. dug deeper into the “why” behind the seemingly obvious phenomenon of the positive effects of good news on our well-being.
The implications of that “why” should spark our imaginations for the way we tell stories about our work in the world. Your ministry might be changing lives in all sorts of ways — but the stories you share about your ministry might be doing that, too.
Research has long confirmed the effects of seeing bad news on our minds and our health. On the one hand, it makes us feel worse — but on the other, thanks to evolution, we’re wired to pay attention to anything that might threaten us.
This particular study, though, looked at the effects of seeing good news stories after bad news stories, as a kind of counteractive antidote.
“The group that was shown negative news stories followed by positive ones fared far better than people who were only shown a negative news story,” writes one of the researchers on the study. “They reported less decline in mood — instead feeling uplifted. They also held more positive views of humanity generally.”
The good news that made the biggest difference for this group? Stories of kindness, of human beings showing up for each other.
The researchers tried out other kinds of positive news, seeing “how people exposed to a negative news story followed by an amusing one (such as swearing parrots, award-winning jokes or hapless American tourists) fared.” But when it came to overall uplifting effects on participants’ mood and hope for humanity, parrots and tourists were no match for acts of kindness — stories “such as acts of heroism, people providing free veterinary care for stray animals, or philanthropy towards unemployed and homeless people.”
The research pointed to several reasons why seeing stories of kindness may help counteract the doom and gloom of the 24-hour news cycle — for example, the writer notes, it can “remind us of our connection with others through shared values” and can act as a kind of “emotional reset button, replacing feelings of cynicism with hope, love and optimism.”
In the conclusion to her news piece on this study, the researcher writes, “Perhaps including more kindness-based content in news coverage could prevent ‘mean world syndrome’ — where people believe the world is more dangerous than it actually is, leading to heightened fear, anxiety and pessimism.”
Of course, the world is incredibly dangerous for many, many people — and positive headlines are no match for the harsh reality some of our neighbors have to face each day. The simple act of reading good news is not, in itself, the way to a better world. I think, though, that the researcher’s article on this particular study intends to critique the way news coverage takes advantage of our threat-detection wiring. The researcher wants to push those working in news media to consider balancing their coverage and including true stories of kindness along with the bad news.
I think, too, that there is a challenge here for all of us who work in Christian institutions, whose job it is to share the good news we’ve been given.
“The Good News Jesus embodied was news. Something to share, to proclaim,” writes Debie Thomas in a piece for The Christian Century provocatively titled “Reclaiming the E word” (the “E,” in this case, being “evangelism”). “We’ve become so adept at articulating who we are not and what we reject. But can we also articulate who we are? What we affirm?” she asks.
Can we share the good news of how we strive to embody the good news?
Of course, we should be thinking about the logistics, the concrete results, the returns on investment, the actual tangible work that we are doing and the difference that we are making. There is something, though, that I don’t want us to lose sight of — the fact that the way we share about our ministries matters, because the effects on the people who see our stories might be greater than we can imagine.
I have the immense privilege and joy of getting to work with various teams here at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and hear about the impact our grantees and partner organizations are having in the church and the world.
Seeing their inspiring stories, acknowledging the hope they give me, stirs up in me a greater urgency and a heightened awareness of the stakes in my communications work. How can I help get the word out about these incredible ministries, not to boost web traffic, but to help change hearts and lives?
The stories we tell about our ministries matter. We never know who might be listening, watching, hoping for the relief of seeing an act of love on a loveless day.
Here’s what I want to know: How do you share the stories of kindness and care that come out of your ministry? Send me a note — I always enjoy more good news.
I had an unforgettable conversation with my son when he was little. We had gone to church for Ash Wednesday, and he had been in the toddler room while I attended the service.
On the drive home, after being quiet most of the way, my son piped up from the back seat, “Uhmma, am I gonna go to jail?”
I was startled. “No, of course not! What makes you ask that?”
“Well … the teacher said that Jesus had to die because we’re bad. And bad people go to jail!”
I was horrified.
“Oh no, sweetie! No, you’re not bad. God loves you so much! Don’t worry. That’s not what the teacher meant!”
Surely we can do better than that.
I learned about Jesus in similar ways. My teachers stressed that God loved us despite finding us inherently offensive. The church taught me about God’s grace, but it also drove home the message that God couldn’t tolerate my presence and viewed me with a kind of holy disgust. God was all light and we were all filth. God was on one side of a vast chasm and we were stuck on the other, but for the bridging work of the cross.
For some of us, those kinds of images amplified a sense of punishing distance from God that we already felt too keenly. They reinforced fears that we might be irredeemably lost, too appallingly bad to be reached by any kind of bridge. I never had any trouble believing that I was a wretched worm before God. That came easily. What seemed impossible was that God could ever truly love a worm like me.
My faith has always been riddled with doubt. I tend to feel life intensely, all the way down to my bones. My joys are plentiful and bright, but I struggle often with depression, with chutes into despair.
And because of my inconstant faith, I used to be plagued by fears that I simply wasn’t built to meet the basic conditions for God’s acceptance. Despite my experiences of God’s love, a background hum of existential terror accompanied my hopelessness whenever I got depressed. I worried that Christ’s work notwithstanding, I might be stuck galaxies away from God, beyond the reach of mercy.
Sometimes in depression, I feel that I’m sunk in the darkness of a very deep ocean. It used to be that at those depths, all was muffled except the voices that said God couldn’t stand me for how faithless I was. Voices that told me I was a lost cause and an utter disappointment to God.
I don’t believe that Jesus meant for our stories about him to spur such haunting terror or self-rejection.
While all our metaphors are imperfect and can only clumsily gesture toward divine mysteries, the ones that insist on humanity’s wretchedness and distance from God can inflict lasting wounds. They can cloud our belovedness and the reality of “God with us.”
Some of us need new metaphors that don’t diminish the truth of God’s unrelenting love. I’ve personally had to let go of many old images I grew up with. Now I try to see myself not as originally repulsive and separated from God by a vast gulf but as born of love and held close in God’s mother-heart.
We find images of God’s maternal heart and nearness throughout Scripture. We see the mother-heart of God in how Jesus went out of his way to feed and heal people, and how he welcomed little children.
We see God receive all of Job’s cries — chapter after chapter of complaints against God. And what does Job get for his brazen challenges? He isn’t zapped into oblivion. He’s granted a conversation with the Almighty, albeit a humbling one.
I see God’s mothering presence in the story of Elijah, when he feels so defeated that he wants to die. Elijah doesn’t get a rebuke about how he should have more faith or count his blessings. God comes to him gently in a mama-like angel with freshly baked bread and a pitcher of water.
Isaiah renders God’s love for us as even more doting and steadfast than that of a mother for a baby at her breast. The psalmist speaks of God as so inescapably near that there’s nowhere on earth he could go to get away from God if he tried.
That’s the kind of Savior I need. One driven by love to chase me to the ends of the earth and the far side of the sea.
These days when I find myself in the oceanic depths, I’m less alarmed by the darkness and silence there. It’s a bit quieter than it used to be. I’m less hounded by voices proclaiming God’s rejection. I see glimmers of Christ-light here and there in the abyss.
I feel alone but find that I’m not alone. Impossibly, I find myself breathing underwater. I notice that I’m held somehow — breath by breath, as if nestled in the very womb of God.
Lent is a time when we can contemplate the tender closeness of Christ with us in our “helpless estate,” through every kind of suffering, no matter how wavering our faith, and no matter how dark our darkness.
In this season, we reflect on how God saw us in pain and became “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” for our sakes. Jesus on the cross joins us in our despair of feeling abandoned by God.
Christ doesn’t always calm the storm when we’re at sea on a sinking boat, but our Savior would rather sink into the depths with us than ever leave us alone. Even if we find ourselves living at the bottom of that sea — why, there he is, still with us.
That’s the core truth of the gospel. It begins not with our badness but with God’s unshakable love. The hope of this season is that our God, upon seeing us drowning, came close to be with us through it all.
We find images of God’s maternal heart and nearness throughout Scripture. We see the mother-heart of God in how Jesus went out of his way to feed and heal people, and how he welcomed little children.
We live in a culture of #blessed, not of blessing. Social media is riddled with #blessed, pointing to everything from new cars to beach vacations. Blessing, culture seems to explain, is for those who have it all together. The shiny. The most put-together.
Even leaders can fall into a sand trap of #blessed. Often, leaders are told, “You should be succeeding! Every difficulty should be a ladder, with you on your way up! Look at everyone else doing so well.” #Blessed leaves little room for our actual lives, our actual problems, our actual days.
But there is a long, rich Judeo-Christian tradition of blessing from which we can draw instead. Old Testament scholar Stephen Chapman calls blessing a kind of spiritual “placement.” This definition reminds me of a sort of divine interior decorating. “Oh look, this should go over here. Let’s try that against this wall.”
It is a way we can start to shuffle around the furniture of our lives into an order. Blessing is a way of telling the story of God’s work and purposes and our place in it all — not just when we have it all figured out but precisely at the moment when everything feels chaotic.
When we take up the language of blessing, we are being invited into a way of looking again at the often invisible ways God is appearing in the everyday work of community building, vision casting, trying and failing. Even the very average Tuesdays.
This fresh way of looking means having the eyes to see blessing even during those late nights sorting receipts, wondering how this will all add up. Or during those weekend hospital visits. Or during all the thankless work we do behind the scenes to make everything happen. But we can resist a false bright-siding or an inauthentic victoriousness when we say, “God, this is my best and my worst. Bless it all.”
Our hope is that our new book of blessings, “The Lives We Actually Have,” offers a language of acknowledgment for the full range of our days — our good days, our bad days, the sublime and the mundane. Blessings for the lives we actually have, not just the ones we hope for.
So here is a blessing for those who minister (… and might be tired, worn out and needing an infusion of grace for themselves too).
Oh God, we are surrounded by so many to love.
They need you. And we need you to carry them.
And us too, if we’re being honest.
Let love bear up the weight of us all.
Bless all the kids and grandkids.
Children here and those gone.
Bless the people who quicken our hearts,
now and in years past.
Bless our parents and grandparents;
strengthen our roots and our branches.
Bless our pets and your creation,
and the comfort they bring.
Bless our friends and chosen families,
all the bonds that hold us.
Bless our good, good work
that brings us purpose (or at least it used to
— and we long to discover it again).
God, I will openly admit
that my plan was to rescue us all.
Pry this out of my hands.
Absolve my guilt.
Calm my spirit.
Let me allow you to do the impossible
and bear up the weight of the world
I am determined to carry alone.
Give me enough for today.
And then some for tomorrow too.
As I share myself, my loves, my burdens
with you, oh God.
Thank you for this love,
this absurd and wonderful love.
“Whoever brings blessing
will be enriched,
and those who water
will themselves be watered.”
— Proverbs 11:25 (ESV alt.)
Introduction adapted from “The Lives We Actually Have: 100 Blessings for Imperfect Days,” by Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie (Convergent, 2023). Used with permission.