You might have recently sent a Facebook invite to a close-ish friend you remember from that church revival four years ago, and then you get this kind of response:
I’m sorry bro, but I haven’t gone to church in a long time. I don’t know about all that anymore. But thanks for inviting me.
You’re not sure if you should follow up, ask what happened, drop a verse, dig in a little, or revert to small talk.
Most times though: we back up and move on. It’s not because you don’t care. It’s because it feels like that story is done and over, and maybe you’re supposed to give them a lot of room so you don’t look like a religious window-peering creeper, and you feel like they will come back if they really want to and you can just keep sending them invites in hopes that they’ll come out to one of your sweet, hi-tech, modernized church events.
Or maybe: your former friend is just waiting for you to press in.
Maybe their head is barely above water, they’re suffocating in a world of secret hurt, and you’re the only lifeline who’s come close to discovering the shipwreck below the surface.
During the winter season, I remember certain faces who used to come around church and I just start to miss everybody: the way it used to be, the raucous ragtag Sundays and senseless giggling and fist-pumping during praise and getting lunch in a giant group to talk afterward in the parking lot for hours.
Sometimes now I still see them online and they haven’t exactly gone prodigal, but they’ve just moved on. Graduated from church. Onto “real life.” It was another lifetime ago.
At Starbucks I’ll bump into them and I try to make them as comfortable as possible: but it’s always one of those high-pitched, twitchy, very quick hello-and-goodbyes, and I know the sight of me already shames them. I want to say, “We really miss you, and you can come around any time, and I know you’re so busy, and I’m still praying for you” — but even that sort kindness just piles on guilt. The whole thing is just sad and awkward and hurts.
And you know, I also confess that I just don’t have the heart to reach all of them. I’m busy, too. They want to be left alone, I tell myself, and I have to focus on right-now. We didn’t do anything wrong and they walked away, is my little mantra. It’s their fault, is what I believe. I want to be angry at them.
But dang, do I miss them. And maybe, just maybe, they actually miss how it used to be, too.
We could be the voice that is always ready to welcome them back in: not because of what we say, but because we kept that door of grace wide open. Not because we got up in their face, but because we met them halfway, with all patience and humility and messy gritty love. Because you can be the one who cares when no one else does, and you become the one lifeline to the shore.
I imagine Heaven as this big crazy reunion where all the pressure and anxiety and distance is finally stripped away, like one of those weddings where the food doesn’t stop and the young dance with the old, where we can laugh and sing loud and reminisce all day long, where I can look you in the eye without regret because now we can catch up for eternity. We don’t have to say goodbye anymore. We won’t be in a such a rush to move onto the next client, the next dollar, the next stop: and it’ll be a raucous ragtag Sunday everyday, with both nostalgia and future-hope rolled into the same moment, where looking back and looking forward won’t sting, where the joy of Jesus inviting us to his party is always a thrill, and you can tell me everything you were always afraid to say before, and I can tell you I never stopped praying for you to be here with me.
I’m leaving the door open, because you’re always welcome inside.