Our local primary school is marvellously multicultural. During the years they've been there, our kids have become best friends with Sikhs from the Punjab, Muslims from Pakistan, and Catholics from Serbia, as well as some fair-dinkum Aussie pagans. At last count, the kids at school trace their recent ancestry to more than 50 countries. In a place like this, mission knocks on your door and asks itself in.
It's not always easy to open that door. The school ground can be a daunting place, even for adults. There are tight groups gathered around picnic tables, chattering clusters and quiet loners, and people from backgrounds very different to your own. Around the edge are women from other cultures, wearing a hijab or salwar kameez: no-one, it seems, wants to talk to someone who looks a little different.
No doubt, to some, this sounds like a wealth of opportunities! To me, it felt scary and overwhelming at first; but I've learned to feel at home here, and I'm learning to love the people around me. I know you can't reduce relationships to a set of principles; but here are some things I've learned along the way.
- Be friendly to everyone, but focus on a few
It's important to be friendly to everyone, but it also helps to focus on a few. At the moment there are five women I've made a commitment to pray for and get to know better: women with whom I have strong natural connections or a growing friendship.1 Focusing on a few relationships keeps me from growing lazy; it may help you not to spread yourself too thin.
- See below the surface
As I talk with people, I start to see past the differences. I meet women looking for work now their kids are all at school, women hiding a little extra weight under loose garments, women rediscovering their 'faith' - whatever that faith might be. The similarities are a bridge between us; the differences, instead of being obstacles, become opportunities to find out what's important to them and to share what's important to me.
- Do less to do more
This year has been my most exciting yet when it comes to getting to know people and chatting about Jesus. I think that's because my husband had long-service leave, so I cut lots of other things out of my life - good things like leading a weekly Bible study and teaching Sunday School. I'll do these things again, because they matter! But it's shown me that sometimes you have to say 'no' to good things in the church so you have time for relationships out of it.
- Friendship takes time
I think I expect gospel conversations to come quickly; if they don't, I assume I've failed. I'm learning that relationships take time, at least for me! No doubt some are great at having 'meaningful' conversations early on; but while I let people know I'm a Christian from the start, it takes time for me to feel comfortable in relationships. Opportunities to talk about what people believe often come to me later. Which leads to my next point...
- Work with your strengths
God has put me in my friends' lives because I'm the one he wants there. I'm not an extrovert who can handle 30 friendships, but I'm good at slowly building relationships; my outgoing friend is great with those who are confident but not so good with those who are quiet. The women we spend time with are very different - and that's a good thing. She's taught me to think about my interests and strengths and to build on them.
- Ask people into your home and go into theirs
When someone invites me in for a cuppa, it’s easy to give them the Aussie cold-shoulder: "Sorry, but I'm too busy." I now allow time so that when people ask me in, I can say "Yes!". Having people over for meals (the pot-luck kind); asking people in when they drop their kids off (remembering a little mess can make them feel comfortable); spending time together in a neutral spot like a park or coffee shop: these are all great ways to grow relationships.
- Love people and receive their love
Have you ever taken a meal to someone outside your church? You might feel awkward, but I've discovered people appreciate knowing someone is there for them. I'm often clueless about caring for people - my friend and I laugh about how I offered to look after her kids the first time we met - but thankfully, she liked me rather than wondering if I had evil designs on her children! We've become close friends, and we care for each other in many ways: it's easier to receive someone else's love when they receive yours.
- Get involved in a local community
It's not hard for me to meet people, with kids in the local school (that's one reason we sent them there); but what if you don't have much contact with people outside the church? Maybe you could join a sports, craft or book club, do some volunteering (my mum helps a slow learner at the local school), ask your neighbours over for a meal, or just hang out in your front yard. There are people all around us; maybe it's time to start loving them, so that one day we can share the greatest love of all.
- Love is costly
None of us always finds it easy to involve people in our lives. It's easier to spend time with those who think like we do; to treat our homes as our refuge and our time as our own. But love is costly. We may need to set aside regular times to spend with people, and make deliberate plans to include them in our lives. If we find this hard, we may have to say to ourselves, "It doesn't matter how you feel. Just get on with it and obey." So often, we'll be glad we did.
These are real relationships, and these are real people: people I'm growing to love. But how can I say I love them unless I'm willing to share the best thing I know with them? I have to grow relationships, but also be willing to risk them; to love people, but to accept that they may reject me. This comes at a cost, but it's full of joy, too: the joy of knowing I'm not ashamed of Jesus, of watching women I love come one step closer to knowing the gospel, of seeing God at work in their lives.
1. How do you choose who to focus on? My friend has chosen some women she "clicks" with and some who are lonely. Another friend, experienced in suffering, is drawn to the broken. One woman I know excels in loving people who are socially awkward. I encourage you to pray, then wait and see who God brings your way.
This post first appeared yesterday at The Briefing.
image is by Adam Jones, Ph.D. at flickr