I started this post over 35 years ago, making this the longest writing project I’ve worked on to date. So excuse me, this is long.
I was barely 5 years old sitting on the edge of my bed sobbing uncontrollably when my mom gave me my first friendship lesson: I have to share my friends.
I only had one friend in my figure eight shaped neighborhood. Since my room was at the front of our trailer, I could watch my one friend playing with the new girl. I don’t remember why I couldn’t join in, just that it wasn’t working out. Seeing my friend enjoying the companionship of not-me worked like hot irons in my little soul, and I can remember first beginning to understand a hard reality: people don’t belong to us, not really. And losing friends feels like the inside of your body folding in on itself until you cannot breathe. At least when you are 5 years old.
Or maybe when you get older, too.
Fast forward to the 6th grade, I was 12 years old, and had a few friends but one “best friend”. Mandy was the most popular kid in our class, and for months and months had been my best friend. We switched out whose home to sleepover in week-to-week, talked on the phone and of course sat next to each other for lunch. It was less her social status that drew me to her, I just really liked her, made her laugh and felt like I could be myself around her. Mandy by my side made all feel right in my social world.
Mandy was by my side that morning in math class too, when I looked up and saw her – the girl who had it all. She walked in, straight up to the teacher with stylish clothes but not like she was trying hard, a fresh white straight-teeth smile that gave away expensive dental work like braces, and whimsy in her step because why not – she had it all! I didn’t feel any threat immediately, just a curiosity about who she was and where she was from. Her dad was a pilot in the military and we lived in a base town. The story was actually common, but she had star quality, and Mrs. Crandall’s eyes lit up over her transcript. Apparently she was brilliant too.
She ended up sitting at our table, and it only took a few minutes of smiles and words exchanged before I knew I liked her. The problem was, that the unspoken rule of girlfriends at that age was that you cannot be best friends with more than 1 girl. Best is just that, the best. There was a necklace I was only a holiday away from getting, the “Best Friend Forever” necklace. The problem was it didn’t break into 3’s yet, not that year, only in two. And within a week, I was no longer one of the two.
People don’t belong to us, not really.
I would love to say that this more grown up woman of 40 has learned this lesson, accepted it gracefully, and never struggles to live within its boundaries anymore.
< Deep sigh. >
This is not the case. In fact, the only reason I recall these memories so vividly is because I needed to revisit them in order to heal a little deeper only a few months ago when I was again fearful of a threat to my social bearings.
There is a commonly used buzzword for friend groups today that was originally intended (still only a couple decades ago) to describe social interests held in common: tribe. Marketing strategists, author/blogger circles, and other industry leaders began using it to help communicate about and build a “following” or reach an “ideal reader”. Somewhere the concept of a “tribe leader” formed implicitly as author/blogger/celebrity types started to use the word “my” in front of tribe, which is a little frightening to me, but I digress.
The word “tribe”, like all words really, has its roots in a story God told and is continuing to tell to us. When God created Israel it was so he could have a people group on the planet set apart for himself, by which he would reveal himself so they and the rest of the people groups for all history could better know this mysterious One true God. But even in this one nation under God, there were further distinctions within the group, and they were divided into “tribes” described by the names of Israel’s (Jacob’s) 12 sons.
Everyone in God’s nation belonged to a tribe, and they all belonged to God.
But not the Gentiles, they were left out. Tribe-less, until Jesus.
The tribes of the nation of Israel still matter, God is committed to this beloved people group, but Jesus opened a door for the tribe-less, for the ones who didn’t belong to God, to now belong to God by putting their/our trust in him as our Messiah.
For some time this progression of the modern use of “tribe” has made me feel icky, and I didn’t quite understand why until this summer when I had to go back to age 5 and 12. I’ve even used the term before, I’m not picking on anyone who does because I get how it helps to identify who your friends are, like a necklace, but what I learned at the bend into 40 years of age is that we can hold those friends, that tribe, with a death grip believing they give us the thing we are really seeking in the first place.
And this comes because of Jesus, not because of girlfriends.
My first lunch without Mandy by my side was overwhelming. The rejection felt too intense for my unsupported soul back then, but when I recently felt threatened again socially, Jesus let me finally feel that lunchroom pain. I cried my eyes out as if the emotions had been flash frozen like green beans in a can, and such they were. In a most tender way though Jesus let me see the scene in the cafeteria in a new way. Rather than see an empty seat across from me this time, I saw him quietly sitting eager to have me see him, with me. In some mysterious wonderful way Jesus was allowing the 12 year old broken-hearted girl still very much alive in me, who felt deeply tribe-less, see that I wasn’t alone in that moment. I wasn’t rejected, I wasn’t a loser, I wasn’t unseen or unloved. I was very seen, so seen in fact, he could see how attached and dependent I had become on that friend, that tribe, and that was not freedom.
Jesus always moves in our lives to free us, not reject us. He invites us to an unshakeable belonging because he is the Tribe for the Tribe-less.
And he was moving to free me more at age 40, when I thought I was losing friends. As I was tempted to lose my dignity and act unbecoming just to hold on to who I thought I had to have in order to be whole, as I nearly resorted to the base ways of a dog, marking my territory on friends like trees so no one would “take them” from me, God brought me healing in my 12 year old self.
The lesson that people do not belong to us had not worked in the hopeful truth that I do belong to God.
I belong. This changes everything.
And I belong with people, yes. I belonged with my friends, I just didn’t belong to them, or them to me. I didn’t make them, I didn’t own them, I didn’t have right to them, I couldn’t control them. To demand them in my life was to idolize them, to seek belonging from them when it comes from Jesus.
I keep a quote from Corrie Ten Boom framed in my closet, I’ve had it for almost 15 years, it’s from her book The Hiding Place:
Every experience God gives us, every person He puts in our lives is the perfect preparation for the future that only He can see.”
Women, if you feel tribe-less today, I’m writing to you because Jesus makes you belong.
To the women who are white-knuckling friends feeling death in your soul like I was, here is truth: no one can take your friends from you, not really. But people don’t belong to us. God gives, God takes away. It is maybe the best thing, too.
For all of us, God is preparing us for a future only he can see. He knows best who needs to be in our lives, we need to be flexible because it is likely to change over time. And, it may be that sitting alone, quietly with Jesus at the table with us, is where we need to be for a moment.
Ask him for friends, the people who will prepare you for the future only he can see, and receive whom is provided. Receive as one who belongs already, rooting deep in your belonging and then rooting deep in friendship.
p.s. Mandy moved on to another friend before long and I became close friends with the girl who had-it-all. Come to find out, she felt insecure and left out too, go figure. If it depends on the girlfriends who hold us close, even the most confident women can feel tribe-less at times. May we still be human and cry it all out, but let us root in a solid promise of belonging, too.