Thursday, December 06, 2007

1,500 of my closest friends

Some of a recent post of Gordon MacDonald on CT's website. Gordon has a great way to make the normal become spiritual, pregnant with meaning.

My Faves: The People I KeepCreating a new cell-phone directory tested my commitment in ways I didn't Gordon MacDonald, Leadership editor at large

From my journal: A few weeks ago the cell-phone people notified me that I was eligible for a new phone at a rock-bottom price and that I should stop by their store and do a deal. A day or two later, I converted from TREO to Blackberry.

A technician transferred the contact data—my electronic "phone book"—from the old phone to the new one. "You've got a lot of stuff in the memory," he said referring to the over-three thousand names and numbers I'd accumulated during the past years. "You might want to think of purging it."

In the days that followed I did what the techie suggested, and shrunk the list from 3,000 names to about 1,500. I ended up with 1,500 keepers and 1,500 deleted…people that is.

It is not always an easy task to separate the keepers from the deleted. The exercise forced me to do some reflecting about the nature of my personal relationships.

I quickly saw that the "keepers" fell into four categories. There were my loved ones: wife, children, and grandchildren (they were not only keepers but they made my speed-dial list). There were my friends—dearly valued people who have long been in my life through the darkest and the brightest moments. Then there were colleagues: those to whom one relates because of shared work. And finally there were the networked: people you think you want to keep in touch with because you have common goals and objectives. Oh, a fifth group: the snow-plow guy, the hardware store, and United Airlines. Keepers: all of them.

The more challenging experience was in the deleting.

1,500 of my Closest Friends. I found names of people in the phone's memory, for example, whom I'd met here and there over the years. We had promised that we'd keep in touch or get together for lunch or collaborate on some effort. But the promises were forgotten. Well intentioned as we were when we thumbed each other's numbers into our phones, we simply got on to other things the minute we were out of each other's sight.

How many times have I heard my wife, Gail, say as she watched me enter one of these people into my contact list, "I know you want to connect with him, but I also know that you're too busy. He'll expect your call for the next couple of weeks and when it doesn't come, he'll think you were insincere."

Gail's right.

My eyes (for connection) are bigger than my stomach (my ability to digest all the relationships I'd like to have)...

These deletions caused me to reflect on the flimsiness of too many so-called Christian relationships where there is far more talk about faithfulness than action. I thought of how easy it is for people to turn on one another the minute things go awry. And I felt sad.

I confess to a feeling of fiendish satisfaction as I hit the delete button on some of these names. I felt the urge to say. "There! You're gone! No way you're going to get into my new phone." It was as if by deleting someone from my phone list I could make a bad memory go away forever.

Now there were those who walked out of my life for "natural causes." "San Diego pays more," they said. Or, "Florida's warmer." Or, "The company is moving me to Des Moines." Having spoken, they disappeared leaving in their trail only an occasional Christmas card or e-mail. But they left, sometimes to my consternation. Deleting their names reminds me that we live in a wildly mobile society where most relationships have short, practical shelf lives. No wonder young people are opting for small groups and less of the big stuff. They seek stability. Me, too.
A few names in line for deletion were those who have died in the past years. Once they had been vigorous, contributive people. Now they're gone. In many cases their loss was grieved for a few days. But then those of us still among the living had to get on with life and its demands. I found myself brooding on how long, when I die, I'll remain on some peoples' contact list. Not long, I suspect.

A significant number of those slated for deletion were people who have simply stopped playing any role in my life. For a moment our lives had connected as they picked me up at an airport or provided hospitality for me in their home. But it was only a one-time shot: pleasant, interesting, but one time. How often I'd said of these people, "I'd give anything to know them better." But it wasn't meant to be.

Now and then as I scanned the contact list on the old phone I saw names of people who might be called evangelical celebrities. They're people it's fun to say you know. But you really don't know them; you just shook their hands once and got their number. It's hard to delete them. Just having their number tempts you to feel important in a very superficial way. (Billy Graham once warned me about name-dropping.)

God's Delete Button-Purging my phone list has been a healthy exercise. It has reminded me that there is a certain collection of people in this world whose friendship and partnership I really prize. Wonderful people whose love for God and commitment to his agenda are inspiring to me. Christlike people who working with has been (and remains) a humble privilege.

But there were other lessons for me. That I actually liked deleting some names forced me to realize that as much as I believe in no grudge-holding, there is always a bit of residual vindictiveness deep in my heart, in all of us, perhaps. It bothers me that in some cases I really enjoyed hitting the delete button.

Oh, there was one more lesson. I was forced to wonder if God would ever be tempted to purge his list of people. Did this happen in the Noah story? Was it about to happen the day he told Moses he was at his wits end with Israel? Has God ever wished to quietly delete me? Does God even have a delete button?

Pastor and author Gordon MacDonald is chair of World Relief and editor at large for Leadership.

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