One of the biggest decisions you’ll make this year is “who will be my community of friends?”
Maurice Clarett learned this lesson about the hard way. A shooting star in the football world, Clarett excelled at Ohio State University and seemed destined for greatness. However, his brilliant ascent was only matched by rapid fall. ESPN’s 30for30 documentary on Clarett, Youngstown Boys, chronicles his rise and fall. The story is riddled with self-destructive choices and friendships which only made things worse.
Near the end of the film, Clarett speaks to a group of young men in a prison. He tells them, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.” The words hang in the air with power, spoken by a man who has lived his wisdom before he shares it.
I’ve been thinking about Clarett’s words as I think about this new year. Because there is very little about this upcoming year you and I can control. The biggest, most impactful events of this year are unknown to us. I know this because the biggest events of last year (and the year before and the year before that) I didn’t see coming.
Think about your last couple years. Isn’t this true? We like to think we’re in control of the future, but we’re not.
I didn’t expect to move, get suddenly promoted to a more prominent role or become the father of twins. But each event changed my life dramatically. And I’m going to guess the same is true for you.
I also didn’t expect to meet many people with whom I have daily contact today. I didn’t know them this time last year or I didn’t know them nearly this well.
If Clarett is right about your friends and I’m right about the unpredictability of our futures, then choosing the right people is everything.
“Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.”
4 Questions About Our Experience with Community
I’ve been processing through four questions when it comes to my friendships and the sense of community I will have in this new year. And these questions have been reframing my perspective and directing my actions.
I share them, not as someone who has this whole friendship and community thing figured out (just ask my wife and closest friends). Instead, here’s a way to step back and design the kind of community you want to experience this time next year.
1. Who am I surrounded by?
Take stock of the people around you. Do you have people around you, whom you can trust and share openly? Are you spending time with a consistent group of people where you’re becoming more familiar with them and vice versa?
Social media is a great tool, but sometimes we can trade in-person connection for electronic engagement. And while I have a number of “online friends” whom I’ve never met in person, it’s those who show up in my life with flesh and blood who make the biggest difference.
If you’re struggling to make a list of the people who closely surround you, you may have become isolated last year. Isolation isn’t always intentional, it can be an accidental by-product of our decisions.
However, isolation is dangerous. In my experience, leaders who are isolated are dangerous. We need people close to us, speaking into our lives and allowing us to share ourselves with them.
There’s a profound moment in the creation account within the Bible. God looks down on the crown of his creation – a man named Adam and says, “it is not good for man to be alone.” In the narrative, God calls everything else good. God calls man very good. And yet, the one thing God calls “not good” is an isolated, disconnected human.
The people surrounding you mean everything to your present and future flourishing.
In the narrative, God calls everything else good. God calls man very good. And yet, the one thing God calls “not good” is an isolated, disconnected human.
2. Am I practicing vulnerability with these people?
We can have plenty of friends and yet not be known by them. We can even know our friends and have them not know us.
Some of us like it that way, with vulnerability being a one-way street. We intend to let others trust us with deeply personal details, while only sharing superficial details ourselves. As a pastor, I know a generation of pastors before were trained in seminary to “not let your people in too deeply because they’ll hurt you and use what you say against you.”
I have one prediction for 2017. Someone you love and trust is going to hurt you. Not a happy attempt at channeling my inner-Nostradamus, but it’s the truth from my perspective at least. Nearly every friendship I’ve had has included a wound.
Because of this, a lot of us shut down. To borrow a Star Trek term, we go “shields up” and ensure no one can get close enough to hurt us.
Here’s the challenge with that tactic. If you prevent people from hurting you, you’ll prevent people from loving you too. We cannot strategically numb ourselves. If we close off one feeling, it all goes. If we prevent people from getting close enough to hurt us, we can guarantee no one will get close enough to love us.
To get love, you have to risk hurt. This is why vulnerability is so scary…and so essential.
If you prevent people from hurting you, you’ll prevent people from loving you too.
3. Who is holding me accountable?
Accountability is a loaded word, especially in the church context where I spend a lot of time. Accountability often includes a lot of frustration, shaming, judgment, and condemnation. Many people have negative experiences with “accountability partners” or disappointment when getting accountability never led to change.
After experiencing my own frustration and basically giving up on the idea (if I’m being totally honest), I had an epiphany which changed my perspective entirely.
Accountability cannot be imposed, it can only be invited. (I wrote a whole article on that idea last year.) We cannot force accountability on someone else, we can only invite it ourselves. I cannot tell you “I’m going to hold you accountable,” but I can ask you to hold me accountable and outline what I want that to look like. Imposed accountability feels like abuse; invited accountability feels like community and trust.
We’ve all seen this truth play out in leadership. Whatever the context, we’ve seen leaders who refused to be held accountable. We’ve seen leaders who were surrounded by “yes men” who were unable or unwilling to hold them accountable. And we know where that leads. Author and speaker, Jon Acuff, has poignantly stated, “Leaders who cannot be questioned do questionable things.”
I don’t want to be that kind of leader or man. I doubt you want to do questionable things. But we are the only people who can create the context where someone else can hold us accountable.
Accountability cannot be imposed, it can only be invited.
4. How committed am I to authentic community with others?
The people we’re closest to are the product of our consistent actions. Notice I didn’t say our “consistent intentions.” We all know the gap between intentions and actions – it’s the people who talk about “how great it would be to get together after the holidays” and the people we really do spend time with in January and February.
Intentions are different than intentionality. We’ve all heard where the road paved with good intentions leads. What we need is not intentions, but commitment and action. Andy Stanley wrote his book, The Principle of the Path, around this simple idea – “your direction, not your intention, determines your destination.”
The kind of community which really changes our lives is pretty inconvenient. We could easily push it off as less than urgent, trumped by more pressing needs and bigger fires. But, if we wait until a major crisis or a big celebration to build a list of people to call, we will find ourselves struggling or partying alone.
Community is like a retirement account – you invest in it when you don’t need it, so it’s there when you do need it. It requires long-term vision, commitment, and selflessness. Yes, investing in people is horribly inefficient and there is lots of potential for things to go south. But, like God said referring to Adam, it’s not good for us to be alone.
Community is like a retirement account – you invest in it when you don’t need it, so it’s there when you do need it.
A Gender Thing?
I was reminded recently of a sad reality I’ve noticed. It might be a generational thing. It might just be a church subculture thing. But on multiple occasions, in multiple contexts, multiple individuals have told me this community stuff about honest sharing is just for women. “Men don’t do that.”
And I don’t buy it. I think it’s a cop-out to say that only women like to talk about their feelings.
Sadly, some of us have never experienced this kind of connection so we have no reason to commit to it. Others of us have been told it’s not our thing or it’s not important, so we don’t know the difference.
But, the next time (this is me asking you to hold me accountable) I hear someone segment authentic community and being known by other people as a “women’s thing”, I’m going to push back.
We all long to be known. For people to get to know the real “us” and then accept and love that us. I think we all know we have flaws. We don’t expect anyone to get to know the real “us” and not push back on something. I think we actually long for someone to know us and love us enough to challenge our thinking, behavior or attitude.
My Saddest Moment
One of the saddest moments of my work as a pastor came the day I did a man’s funeral. Funerals are difficult occasions but this one was sad for a unique reason. The man lived a long life. He didn’t die young. He didn’t die suddenly.
However, when he died, there was no one to speak at his funeral. No one seemed to know this man well at all. Sure, people showed up to pay their respects and support his surviving relatives, including his widow. But, there were no stories told at the service, nor the reception to follow.
I stood up and gave a short sermon. I preceded the sermon by reading a eulogy I created based on conversations with his wife. The man had wanted me to do his service, but I think he sensed a much greater connection with me than I know I had with him.
It wasn’t that the man didn’t love his wife – I know he did. It wasn’t that he didn’t do meaningful work both in his job and in his church – those facts were verifiable. But he didn’t have friends. And I drove home that day unable to get this reality out of my head. He wasn’t known.
No Failure Here
At the end of the film, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is overwhelmed as the entire city comes out to save his family’s bank. As the people Bailey has helped return the favor by generously giving to him in his moment of greatest need, Bailey discovers a note from Clarence. (Clarence is the angel who helps Bailey see his life differently through observing a world where he died as a young boy instead of surviving an accident.) Clarence says, “Dear George, Remember no man is a failure who has friends.”
I don’t think this is corny, nor cliche. I think it’s powerfully true. The only way this new year ends as a failure is if you do it alone. If you don’t have any friends to show me, I don’t think you have a bright future. And you’re the only one who can change that.
What Do You Think?
I’d love to hear from you. Which of these four questions provoked the most thought for you? What are you intentionally doing this year when it comes to this subject of community?