I knew of my friend long before I knew her personally.

Truth be told, she’d say the same of me.

The reasons behind both, however, were entirely different.

Though we all have a story that is unique, her story is uncommonly so, and, as such, and since she’d shared it publicly, I knew of her. And, having been around the same church for quite a long time, and having been on staff in the past and very involved (and with two parents on staff at the time, to boot!), for better or worse, many people, my friend included, knew of me, as well.

On the surface, our lives, to most, would have seemed to have had little in common. Really, I’m not sure either of us would have envisioned we would forge the friendship that we did – especially not as quickly – or that we’d find we shared so many things in common that we shared with few, if any, others.

With most of my friendships I can recall the very moment the friendship began – when or where we first meet, or a particular conversation or event.  That is definitely not the case in this instance. Actually, I remember one – or both – of us cancelling several of our first attempts to get together. In spite of that, we just truly became fast friends, and, as cliché as it seems to say it, it was a God thing. I really don’t think there’s any other way around it or to explain it.

Of Friendship…

After what were just a few of our first shared marathon lunches at Souplantation – something which became a regular (often at least weekly) habit – an employee came over to the booth by the window where we always sat. She grinned at us, asked if we needed anything, which we politely declined, and then she said, “It’s so nice to see friends enjoying time together. You are always laughing and looking as if you enjoy one another’s company, and it’s nice to see!”

That, to me, encapsulated one of things I most appreciate about that friend – from the outlandish to the mundane, everything was far more enjoyable if done together. I learned how rare it seems to be to actually enjoy the gift of the people God has put in our lives.

There was so much hard stuff going on – in the world and in both of our lives – at that time, but sharing it made it more endurable. And knowing that others watching us didn’t know that our laughing and energetic conversation often were peppered with discussions about why it was God was entrusting us with quite the size slice of a crap sandwich that He was at the time…even all the better! I learned that even heaping servings of the crap sandwiches in life doesn’t have to allow the laughter and joy be dampened, overtaken, or stolen by the heaviness surrounding us.

In a day and age when it seems more and more common to pigeon-hole people as this, that, or the other (or find yourself being pigeon-holed), I continually found my preconceptions of my friend were misconceptions. Within about the first five minutes of conversation, I’m pretty sure we both shattered any myths the other had, and our friendship became one of ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly.’

I vividly recall, one very difficult Thanksgiving weekend, being flopped backward over the edge of my bed, on the phone (so bizarre because we NEVER talked on the phone for more than sixty seconds) that I couldn’t believe how my life was turning out. I had a house and not a husband, a cat and no kids. That wasn’t how it was “supposed to be” – in my mind (or most anyone else’s as far as their perception of me) – and although everyone else thought I “had it all together,” that couldn’t have been further from the truth in how I felt, and I vocalized that for the first time. I learned the freedom of authenticity and realness, and that giving voice to our struggles often diminishes the power of them.

For really the first time in my life, there was someone who the words, “I’ve not slept in four days,” didn’t provoke: a) raised eyebrows, b) a skeptical you’re-obviously-being-hyperbolic look, c) “what are you talking about?” or d) all of the above. I learned the joy of not being alone in a situation that so few experience.

For, definitely, the first time in my life, I was gifted with a friend for whom complicated – in nature and in explanation – health stuff was also the norm. A side of life I so rarely gave voice to could be spoken with little to no explanation necessary. That some days were good (or even great) days, many days were just days, and some were downright lousy was understood. And that one day something was possible, and the next day you literally couldn’t walk down the steps just sort of went with the territory. There was no pity, no shock, no being treated differently, and no explanation or apologies needed when plans suddenly took a drastic twist or turn or you needed a shoulder to lean on (figuratively or literally). And, thankfully, rarely did those high highs and low lows overlap with where the other was! I learned the blessing of words and explanations being entirely unnecessary, and knowing, implicitly, someone “got it.”

Faith…

Growing up in a church ‘mafia family,’ as my friend once called it, I found that expression captured a side of the experience I’d never heard given voice. Then, becoming a later in life PK, that dynamic changed even further, especially when my second church home, and relative ‘refuge,’ became the other church home of the rest of my family. Having an ‘outsider’ (as in not in my direct family) who could relate, yet at the same time wasn’t involved, gave me an outlet for being real about stories and experiences that were never kosher for ‘public consumption.’ And, at the same time, the experience of the joy of going somewhere in anonymity, and as much as I love them and am blessed, not being anyone’s anything! I learned the freedom of being ME – not Leese, so and so’s _____(fill in the blank) or Leese, the ________ (fill in the blank role/position I filled).

Sharing the highs and lows…the ins and outs…the encouraging and the disillusioning parts of ministry and the experience of being, at times, way too much of an insider and knowing things you didn’t want to…that even the most of unlikely of places (such as Roger Rabbit’s Cartoon Spin – yes, really!) allowed for the venting/discussing/analyzing/questioning that the inside – and sometimes ugly side – of ministry seems to periodically provoke. I learned questioning, feelings of inadequacy, and frustration just go with the territory sometimes, and no matter who you are, you’ve got to have a safe place to share.

On days when I felt shaken to my core, and hesitated to share the depth of my questioning, doubting, or struggling, I found myself being given grace, and in the presence of a friend who didn’t try to ‘make it all better’ with the spewing of well-intentioned pat answers. Instead she met me with outstretched arms and gently directed my eyes upward. And really, I think that’s a reflection of what Jesus would do – and did do. I learned my questions and struggles don’t scare God – and that He (and all that He is) doesn’t waver or change.

Against all odds, and on days when the cliche, “I know God doesn’t give me more than we can handle, but I wish He didn’t trust me so much” is all too real, I’d witness (or experience) God giving the strength for another step forward or one more breath. I learned the reality of God giving grace for each moment and situation.

Some people have experiences that truly anyone would see them as entitled to being miserable, frustrated, righteously angry, or any number of other things. In some of those situations, many people would also see someone as fully entitled to sort of ‘take advantage’ of the situation, and understandably make the most of it, in one way or another. Yet I saw someone who chose the antithesis of that. I learned the true depth of our ability to choose how we’re going to respond to a situation and whether we’ll let God use that to make us bitter or better as a person.

From one who knows all too well how quickly that things can be over in just an instant, I witnessed the choice to truly live. To ‘suck the marrow out of life’ and to live well, as there is no guarantee of tomorrow. I learned anew, as well as on a new level, how quickly things can change and the importance of making the most of every moment God gives us.

Sitting in the face of some really heavy situations, and being amidst people who were in desperate need of a miracle, there were days it was easy to question whether things were “too far gone.” But then, there was the reminder that I only need look in the mirror – or at the face of the friend sitting across from me – to be reminded that even in the grimmest of situations, God sometimes chooses to spare people or intervene in ways (and for reasons) we’ll never understand. I learned – or relearned – that our God is still in the business of doing miracles and the unexpected.

“No guilt in life…no fear in death…this is the power of Christ in me…from life’s first cry to final breath…Jesus commands my destiny…no power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand…’til He returns or calls me home…here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.” I would say I learned I cannot hear this part of “In Christ Alone” without a mix of smile and tears, but that doesn’t quite fit with the flow of everything else! I learned ‘no fear in death’ can be far more of a reality than we think…and, in the face of so many things that seem to point to the contrary, Jesus truly does command our future.

(Part 2 coming tomorrow)

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