I received a friend request on Facebook this week. “Big whoopdee ding dong,” you say.
I agree. Generally Facebook friend requests are not a big deal.
But this one was. At least it was for me.
The last time I talked to this person we were seniors in high school. I told her I couldn’t come to her church anymore and she told me we couldn’t be friends anymore. It was both one of the easiest and hardest friendships I ever had to let go.
We’d been friends in grade school but had drifted apart. Then senior year we started chatting again because we were both in show choir.
We were on a school bus on the way to a show choir concert when she said, “If the bus crashed now and we died, do you know what would happen to you?”
Now, show choir taught me a lot, but apparently not the correct answer to that question.
But not to worry—my friend and her church spent the next few months telling me the right one.
She belonged to what I can only describe as a hard-core, fundamentalist Christian church.
Services were held in a rec room-like space off the main house of one of her relatives, who was the pastor.
The “pews” consisted of folding chairs, and the congregation included only about thirty people.
During most services (two times per week, with more informal services two or three more times), there was laying on of hands, invitations for congregates to accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior, and lots of speaking in tongues.
And I loved it.
I grew up in a family devoid of any religion. My only experiences involved:
- A girl down the street who told me when she and I were eight that my family would go to hell because we weren’t saved.
- One visit to the Unitarian church in our city, which I thought was weird and cult-like because it was a bunch of hippies who didn’t talk about God.
- And a few visits to one of my grade school friend’s Catholic church.
During one of those visits to my friend’s church, I managed to feel mortified, ashamed and furious all at the same time.
My friend had explained the Lord’s prayer and how to make the sign of the cross, both of which I dutifully practiced all morning before the service.
But she neglected to explain how the kneeler and communion worked.
I knelt on the floor and my dress got caught under the kneeler. Beyond the fact that my head barely cleared the back of the pew in front of me, I also couldn’t get up. Her parents just thought I was deep in prayer.
Then when it was time for communion, my friend held her hand up and told me to stay, like I was a dog. She said I wasn’t “one of them” so I couldn’t take communion.
That was the last time I went to Catholic church.
My immersion in my high school friend’s church was completely different.
It filled a need in me I didn’t know I had: the need for something to believe in. It was intoxicating, being welcomed and accepted into this community made up of the most caring people I’d ever met. I felt cherished and desired, and that if I weren’t there, things wouldn’t be the same for them.
It was like being courted and pursued by a lover.
Pretty soon, I was spending every minute I could with them, which often included overnight stays…which also meant spending little to no time with my other friends.
I brought a bible to school and would pray about everything and anything, any time.
I pleaded with my parents to go to church with me because by this time I understood with a pervasive sense of dread what would happen to them when they died because they weren’t saved like me.
My world expanded and shrank all at the same time.
A few months into my enveloping by the church, my old friends gave me a birthday card that along with well wishes also expressed their concern with my new “preoccupation.” It wasn’t until later that I appreciated how delicately they had tried to say what they were really thinking: that I was being brainwashed.
But my new friend explained that they were just jealous of our relationship and my relationship with Jesus. It made sense—they saw her and the church as taking me away from them and they didn’t like it.
Instead of appreciating their concern, I saw them as petty and short-sighted. I was not going to let them hold me back from or badmouth my new friends and life.
Then one Sunday during the middle of the service, a voice in my head screamed, “Get out now!” I tried to ignore it, but it was insistent. I started sweating and my whole body flushed. I felt lightheaded followed by a crushing pressure in my chest. I convinced myself that I just needed some fresh air, so I got up and walked out of the sanctuary to my car.
I drove home and never went back.
My friend called me as soon as the service was over and asked me what happened. When I told her, she said it was “the Devil.” She said he was furious at my newfound love for Christ and would do anything to keep us apart—just like my former friends had tried to do.
I heard what she was saying, but for the first time in months it made no sense to me, although I couldn’t articulate why. I just knew that what had enticed me to her and her church now repelled me with equal force.
I told her I couldn’t come back.
She said we couldn’t be friends.
We never spoke again.
Then a few days ago she sent me a friend request. And I don’t know what to do.
It’s obvious from looking through her Facebook page that nothing has changed for her, at least where her religious beliefs are concerned. But a lot has changed for me.
Before you jump to conclusions, know that my high school experience did not completely turn me off religion.
I was stuffed and bloated with God and religion, like I’d eaten an entire Thanksgiving meal on my own.
But I still wanted another taste of the “food” my friend and her God had served me. I just knew I could be satisfied with a smaller portion.
So I spent the twenty years or so after high school searching for my next holy meal. Many times I thought I’d found it, only to realize a few months later that I was still hungry.
And one day I watched Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God,” and my spiritual stomach stopped growling.
But my former friend doesn’t know that. I don’t advertise my religious beliefs on Facebook, although I have talked about how my opinion of the Unitarian church has changed (even though you’ll still see a few hippies).
More than wondering if I can be friends with her again, I wonder if she can be friends with me, and, more importantly, why she’d want to. She turned me away once because I didn’t believe the same as her. Wouldn’t she do it again?
What I’m dying to ask her is what made her push the friend request button.
Does she have a completely different memory of our friendship than I do and of what, or rather who, ended it?
Does she only have a fuzzy recollection of us drifting apart and for no specific reason other than that’s what often happens with high school friends?
Or does she remember me as the one who got away, the convert who wouldn’t stay converted, and that she has to try to bring me into the fold one more time and hold me there?
Before I would consider accepting her request, I’d need to be honest with her about who I am and what I believe now. I’d need for her to know that I’m not the malleable, religiously ignorant eighteen-year-old I was before. That for her to try and convert me this time would be disrespectful…that I wouldn’t try to change her beliefs and I’d accept nothing less from her in return.
I haven’t made up my mind yet. I don’t know what’s the right thing to do. Maybe I’m totally over-thinking this.
All I know is there’s something keeping me from clicking the “Confirm” button. It’s not as strong as the voice in my head that told me that day in church to “Get out now.”
But something’s there. And I think I should probably listen to it.
So, what about you? Have you ever received an awkward friend request? What did you do? Do you have any friendships that disappeared…what happened? Do you think people who have major differences can be friends? What would you do if you were me?