This is a story about my friend Jen, but it starts with a story about shopping.
I have a new piece of favorite clothing: a sleeveless, wide-legged black and white polka dot jumper that I bought with a gift card at Anthropologie. My husband and children aren't crazy about it, but the salesgirls assured me it was a power outfit, and I'm sure they have no agenda whatsoever. I recently wore it to speak at a Christmas event, where I got three compliments and no weird looks (that I saw anyway).
But on the journey to wearing my jumper in public I had a setback. The salesgirls at Anthro told me to get a long-sleeved black turtleneck to wear under it and "winter it up."Since my gift card was busted, I went to Target to find one. In the flourescent light, the turtleneck accentuated some new, crepe-papery skin issues on my neck that I am really not happy about. I tore it off in distress. Just then, Jen called. I wailed about the turtleneck/turkey neck situation.
And she said, God love her, "That turtleneck doesn't deserve you." Which was just exactly the right thing to say. I bought a crew-neck black shirt instead and felt fabulous.
Jen and I have been friends for 18 years. She doesn't always say the exact right thing, being human, but she comes pretty close more often than not. Like, when I told her the dermatologist told me I had something on my skin called barnacles, she said, "You're a pirate!" This might not have made you feel better, but it was just the right encouragement for me.
Because I have been my authentic self with Jen for so long, and her with me, we can encourage each other also in deep and meaningful ways, having become intimately acquainted with each others' issues, struggles, fears, irrational thoughts, and sense of humor.
In critical moments Jen has said these encouraging things to me:
* Your husband isn't faithful to you just because he's a good man. It's because you are a good woman.
* You are just the mother your kids need.
* You don't need someone to tell you what's right. You know how to listen to God for yourself.
And then also, in critical moments, she's given me some hard truths. She's told me when my husband and I are fighting, and I'm the one being unfair and unkind. She's told me when I'm complaining about my kids' behavior and not setting boundaries. She's told me to pray before I act rashly.
And when I've been frustrated or struggling in other important relationships, she's told me these two things that have, frankly, been life changing:
*It's as hard for other people to change as it is for you to change.
* "Do you love me?" is not always the right questions.
The first is self-explanatory; she was reminding me to be patient with people's ongoing issues. Jen knows from experience -- mine and hers -- that even with all our best efforts including prayer, support groups, accountability, reading, and therapy, it's hard to change deeply rooted patterns. Jen reminds me that our recovery should make us not prideful, but compassionate.
The second needs a little more explanation. She noticed that when people say "no" to me -- to an outing, to letting me host Christmas dinner -- I used to take it like I had asked, "Do you love me?" and they had said no. Jen knows my "triggers," the things family and friends sometimes do that make me feel unloved, unwanted, and insecure. She reminds me of who loves me, including her! And I apply her wisdom as a balm to my sometimes childish heart.
Jen's rational, loving, gentle, and sometimes firm voice in my life is one of the gifts I'm most grateful for this Christmas. She was born on December 21, the darkest day of the year. But in my life, she has been a great light of encouragement.
This kind of friendship is a gift I wish for each of you this year. It's a gift you have to participate in sowing. One of the first steps is being vulnerable with your issues -- whether superficial like saggy neck skin, or the deeper things that make you questions your worthiness. Only when people know your heart can they offer the words of encouragement that will heal it. Let them in. Receive the gift.