Homesick Holidays: Why Long-Distance Relationships Are Good For You

One of the hardest things about life is being away from the people you love. This sort of pain does not heal with time; it only gets worse. However, one of the best ways to grow, as a person and as a Christian, is by being away from those same people.

You are bound to experience the pain of separation at some point or another – so you might as well make the best of it. For example, when you’re growing up and trying to figure out what kind of a person you are, it helps to have physical distance between yourself and the people who have always defined you. If you’ve only ever lived relying on your family or close friends to help you make decisions, then maybe it’s time for you to leave home and learn what it means to rely solely on God. Don’t be afraid of forging a new path for yourself, whether by going off to college, moving to a new job, or you getting a fresh start in a new place.

Because the world isn’t perfect, Jesus had to spend time separated from His Father. It was painful and unpleasant, but it was necessary for our salvation. You feel some of that pain when you’re separated from loved ones, and you become more like Jesus because of it. Thankfully, as Christians, we can never be separated from God; we will never experience the same pain that Jesus felt. Striking out on your own somewhere, even if just for a little while, allows characteristics you’ve never seen in yourself to come out. It requires you to build your identity around Christ. Yes, we were made to live in a loving community of fellow-believers, and I’m not suggesting you go live by yourself on a deserted island. You need people around you who will go see new movies with you, who will spontaneously bring you food from your favorite restaurant, and who know when you’ve had a good or bad day. You need those relationships no matter where you are. But when you’re always around the same people, when relationships are easy, how well do you really know the people you’re spending time with? How well do you really know yourself? If a relationship, any relationship, can last through hundreds of miles between two people, than the bond that keeps them together can only grow stronger.

I had many childhood friends that I went to school and church with who I felt close to growing up. Only one friend stuck with me through the years and asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. She was the one who lived 800 miles away and I only saw twice a year. We went to school together from kindergarten to second grade, and then her family moved away. But we wrote letters to each other and her grandparents lived down the street from my house. We relished the time that we could physically spend together, and it made both of us appreciate the friendship all the more.

As the holiday season approaches us, I’m reminded of the distance between my family and me. We measure that distance by time – I’m three hours away from my parents and oldest sister, nine hours away from my other sister, and sixteen hours away from my third sister. This distance, though painful, has actually brought us closer together as a family and has brought each of us closer to God in our own way. It forces you to put effort into a relationship, to actually take time to talk to someone and understand how they are doing, not just casually ask them “how are you?” at the end of each day. The distance isn’t permanent, and I’m not suggesting your relationships should always be long-distance. Jesus was only separated from God for three days. We learn something different about people when we are constantly living beside them, and we need those people. But we shouldn’t be afraid of long-distance relationships, either. Relationships can survive and grow through the distance.

So go to another state, another country. See new sights. Experience new adventures. Email, Skype, and call the ones you love. And when you get back to them, your relationship will be stronger because of the distance that was between you.

Forming Genuine Friendships

Just admit it. You enjoy spending time with certain people and you avoid those who you don’t enjoy. You have friends, maybe even best friends, and you also have those lesser bonds that we call acquaintances or do not even bother to label at all.

Those who we call friends are the people that we enjoy being with the most and they too enjoy time with us. Together, friends care for each other, are understanding, and are also quick to forgive. We enjoy being with them because we are welcome to be ourselves when we are in their presence.

Since the above seems the case, I would venture to say that we avoid those who are not our friends because we simply do not feel welcome to be ourselves in their presence.

But sometimes it takes us a while to figure out who it is that we are comfortable with. A person that we initially see as a possible friend may turn out to be someone we cannot open up to, but we may still pursue that friendship without realizing it.

I often feel like I am in the middle of this tension with some of my friendships. I’ve seen someone that I desire to be better friends with and I pursue them by starting conversations with them or even setting dates to get to know each other more. But amidst all of the attempts at forming a comfortable friendship with someone I fail to see that I have never been myself with this person nor enjoyed all of the time that I have spent with them. On top of that, the sentiment that I have expressed may not be returned.

All of this factored together leaves me hanging onto some small hope of a friendship that will probably not turn into anything else than what it already is: A performance.

My initial desire to forge a friendship has caused me to so desperately want to impress my potential friend that I have forgotten to be myself. Yes, being friends with someone means that you enjoy their company and enjoy who they are, but it also means that you enjoy who you are.

I cannot enjoy myself if I am constantly performing.

When I forget to enjoy myself I prevent my friendship from developing further since I cannot be genuine and therefore cannot genuinely care for the other person.

It is the people that we do not at first anticipate pursuing a friendship with that we often become the most comfortable with because we do not set ourselves up for a performance.

These are the people that we may at first think are lame, not worth our time, or we don’t even remember meeting, but we soon find that these people are who we can really befriend. We’ve never tried to impress them or changed who we are for them and because of that we are not debilitated from forming that friendship.

The result is an unanticipated friendship in which both parties not only enjoy each other but also enjoy themselves when they are together. This allows them to be genuinely careful of the other.

This unplanned sincerity is what allows us to rejoice with our friends and also mourn with our friends in true sympathy. They are the people who we care for and care for us, and they’re probably in your life right now whether or not you know it.

So stop and look around.

Sometimes in my goals to make new friends and pursue new relationships I begin to think that the friends I already have are not good enough for me. Since many of my greatest friendships were unplanned and unexpected I forget that they are most times better than any friendship that I have by my own power tried to create.

In light of this new realization of how to enjoy one’s self and be genuine in their attitudes towards their true friends, we ought to realize that these friendships that we did not at first expect are the ones worth maintaining.

The beginnings of a friendship with a lot of potential have now become clear, but how do we maintain a friendship that we so passively began?

This is where being genuine comes more into play. Sincerity is what first allowed us to break down the wall between two people and it furthers a friendship to allow two people to both build each other up and tear each other down in a (hopefully) constructive way.

Friendships are not effortless to maintain, but by recognizing your own feelings within a relationship and remembering that with comfortable relationships comes genuine ones we can see who it is that will be a lifetime friend.

If we can be ourselves in a friendship, then we can also be much better friends.

House of Cards, Grief, and Loss

In the third episode of Netflix’s drama, House of Cards, our main character—the Machiavellian Francis Underwood, married to a regular Lady MacBeth—gives a sermon at the church in his hometown. He’s a southern boy through and through, living and growing up in the Bible belt. Underwood is forced to visit his hometown under terrible circumstances: a young girl died while texting about a water tower that Underwood had fought to keep, and some of his political opponents are spinning it to make him look bad. In the end, he spins it back, but he still must deal with the family of the young girl, who have already told him off and made it clear that they don’t want to hear from him.

But what interests me is this: the sermon he gives sounds pretty good. Aside from the directed-at-the-camera asides, which take away from the alleged sincerity of the sermon, he speaks fairly well. “I hate you, God,” he screams, reminding the congregation that they likely have all spoken these words, and that none of them would blame the grieving couple for yelling the same. He recounts a tale of losing his own father—noting to the viewers, however, that he had no respect for his father, and his death was not a sore trial—and again brings the discussion back to pain: “I hate you, God. Why did you take my father from me?” He then concludes predictably by reminding us that we are to trust in God, even when times are tough. We aren’t asked to understand, but to trust.

The sermon sounds good, and without the asides and the knowledge I already possessed of the character, I might have thought he was sincere. In fact, I might have even said that this was one of the best sermons I’ve seen in televised fiction. Most of the congregation found him convincing, even as he lied through his teeth about his own beliefs. The only one not fully convinced was the grieving father, and even he eventually comes around to Underwood’s manipulative ways.

One reason it sounds so good: I’m pretty sure I’ve heard that sermon before. In fact, I know I have, sans the screaming hatred towards God. I heard it after my own father passed away, and I suspect I’ve given small versions of the sermon to friends who were grieving over similar losses. Pastors often preach that we cannot know why God gives or takes away, and that at the end of the day, we must trust that God knows what he is doing. Underwood’s version is eerie, partially because it feels so much like a real sermon. Christians have been offering these same condolences to grieving families for as long as they’ve been around.

However virtuous his message may sound, this sort of recommendation is often painfully empty. Trust doesn’t feel like a step at all at a time when all I want to do is move forward. There’s something decidedly still and unmoving about the sort of trust we envision; after all, it’s offered as a solution to an outward frustration with God. We want to slam our fists, rage, fight to get back our loved one or, at the very least, find out why God would take someone away. Yet we are told to be still, to trust. It can be a painful non-action, giving up what we feel we deserve, the questions we desire to ask.

And therein, I think, lies my problem with Underwood’s sermon: without the proper framework, without the appropriate community, and without the right sort of reminders, telling someone to trust God at their darkest hour is sort of like telling a bank robber to stop robbing the place when he’s got the money in the bag. You aren’t going to get anywhere, and they might just get mad and shoot you.

The difference between Underwood’s empty condolences and those I received is that the people who told me this message did so in a way that also told me much more. They empathized, implicitly telling me they too didn’t understand what God was doing. I heard them speaking not just to me, but right back at their own hearts: trust God. They have to trust God to help me just as much as I have to trust that God hasn’t forsaken me, even in my time of doubt and anger.

This is what Underwood is missing, though his sheer charisma ends up working for him in the context of the show. Without the relational aspect, these hard truths simply ring through deaf ears. I don’t much care if my congressman showed up to tell me he was sorry, because what does that really mean? That he took a day off of work, made a publicity stunt, and then left, never to be seen again? Those closest to me—my friends, pastors, mentors, elders, and even, in my case, professors—are the ones who will make a difference.

This isn’t to say that acquaintances or those outside of your inner circle cannot offer condolences under any circumstances. If you don’t know someone personally at all, however, I don’t see how you can do much good for them with simple words. After all, even Underwood realized this when attempting to convince the grieving father of his own sincerity: Underwood offers to resign, and even though he is bluffing, he still demonstrates that action is what will ultimately convince someone of your sincerity. I may have felt that those closest to me had the biggest impact on my life, but I will never forget that hundreds of people prayed for me. I’m certain I will never meet everyone who offered up their prayers, but I’m grateful and touched by the sheer notion of it, if not the grace actually conferred. Sincerity, as borne out by our sacrificial actions toward and around those who are grieving, should be our primary relation towards the grieving.

A Strange Prayer

For a long time now, a close friend of mine has been content to call himself agnostic. We don’t talk about it often, but we did a couple weeks ago. I had a long conversation with him via Facebook, going back and forth on various things. Nothing seemed to sink in: It seemed as though we ended the conversation in roughly the exact same place we had started it: firmly planted in agnosticism.

“That’s a dangerous valley you’re in, dude,” I told him.

“Well, that depends on who’s right,” he said. “But I understand what you mean.”

Then he said he had to go and thanked me for the talk. I told him I’d pray for him, and he said he appreciated it.

But I’m not so sure he would still appreciate it, if he knew what I had prayed for. Continue reading A Strange Prayer

On Talking: People Are Inefficient, But They Do Magic

Humans are not efficient. When they do become efficient, it is in a few shining moments preceded by monumental inefficiency. My undergraduate years were spent in the highly inefficient Torrey Honors Institute, where classes were three-hour conversations leading to personalized oral examinations for every student. I suppose that the success ratio of students who go in and graduates who come out is enviable, but it is a very expensive and gruelling program that only highly motivated and well supported people can finish — again, a testament to monumental inefficiency. Some “waste” was recovered through students supporting each other and through cohesion gained over time, and we sharpened each other’s ability to communicate. We often talked about talking so that more talking would result in better talking — ineffecient tickling of the levers of efficiency. Now, 99% of my Torrey friends and acquaintances are effectively gone from my life. Clearly, efficiency was not the goal. Continue reading On Talking: People Are Inefficient, But They Do Magic