The One Where I Learned Something from Friends

…in PRISON!
WE WERE ON A BREAK!
He’s her lobster!
How YOU doin’?
Just so you know, it’s NOT that common, it DOESN’T happen to every guy, and it IS a big deal!”
Seven!
Gum would be perfection.

Ah, nostalgia.
Could this show be any more 90’s?

During my high school days, the TV show Friends was not only Must See TV, but (arguably) the best show on TV. So much so that in their last two seasons, each cast member earned a million dollars per episode. PER EPISODE. And there’s like 24 episodes per season…
And with Seinfeld in that line up, Thursdays were a must see TV day.

I still watch it when I happen to catch it on TBS or something. Now that Scrubs has been taken off of Netflix (BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!… please bring Scrubs back. I don’t want to subscribe to Hulu), I’ll turn on an episode of Friends here and there. The show still makes me laugh.

Recently, a friend of mine, inspired by a video he’d seen, insisted that the characters of Friends were not good people.

He gave many examples of the often petty and childish ways they treated one another and other people, which, duh, was what made the show funny… right? No one wants to see a show where people do the right and mature thing all the time — at least in a sit-com.
But the example that he honed in on was that the show took place between 1994 to 2004.

It was no secret that the show took place in New York City.
But none of the characters acknowledged or even alluded to horrific events of 9/11. The events didn’t change a single thing about their lives. Not. A. One.
It did, however, change the city skyline in the scenery shots of the show.

But, Friends is a sit-com. They want to entertain us and make us laugh — to help us forget about our problems for 22 minutes and then tell us what we can’t live without for 8.

9/11 didn’t fit in with the narratives of Chandler, Joey, Monica, Phoebe, Rachel, and Ross. So it was simply ignored. Which isn’t a big deal when it’s only a TV show whose sole purpose is to entertain, not educate.

What does this have to do with faith?
It’s just that sometimes we tend to ignore things that may not fit into our narratives. It’s not a big deal when a sit-com does it. But it is a big deal when the church ignore things simply because it doesn’t fit in our narrative or we don’t know what to do/feel/say/think about certain issues.

I remember a conversation I had with a parishioner about the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. She asked me, “Do we really need to talk about these kinda things here? This is church!
I didn’t know how to respond to that.
I mean, I know how I wanted to respond.
“Well, if not here, then where can we have such conversations?” I gently prodded.
“It’s just that I come to church to be reminded of goodness and love and peace and hope. You take that away from me when you talk about these things. You end up taking church away from people like us who just want to feel good.”
Ah.

The Bible reminds us that God hears the cry of God’s people. And God responds.
But the cries of our sisters and brothers of color simply did not fit her narrative. She’d rather ignore the cries so that she can have church (at least on Sunday mornings…).
But she’s not alone in that sentiment.

No one enjoys discomfort.
It’s why we often struggle with thoughts, visions, ideas, conversations that challenge the status quo and/or our world views/perceptions.
It’s why many of our declining churches want to change without any change.
Because change makes us uncomfortable.
And we often go above and beyond to ensure that we are in the clouds of comfort.

Simply put, it’s easier to ignore than engage.
We don’t know how to deal with issues that makes us squirm and feel uncomfortable. We deem that it’s not what we’re about; it’s not our battle; it’s not our fight; it’s not our concern.
So, look the other way. Out sight, out of mind.
It’s even easier to make up excuses of why we should ignore certain things.
We don’t have any money.
We don’t have space in our building.
That’s not how we do things around here.
They should be compliant and stop resisting officers.
They should lay off the drugs.
They should find a job.
She asked for it by the way she dressed.
That’s what happens when you…

Nostalgia 101

The Rembrandts famously crooned, “I’ll be there for you” during the intro of each episode.
It’s a narrative that should be part of our church: I’ll (we’ll) be there for you.

But the “you” is up for debate for many of us.
We’re not that much different from the lawyer who asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
Because we still tend to put people into categories of “us” and “them.”
The lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan” when Jesus flipped the question back to him.
Likewise, we still struggle to identify the “Samaritans” of our world view as our neighbor.

Considering someone a neighbor that we are called to love is difficult.
Being called to love those we consider our enemies — well, that’s next to impossible, it feels like. But with God, all things are possible

Yet, we often don’t trust God with loving our neighbors and our enemies.
So we’d rather disregard and label people as them or other and simply ignore their presence/existence altogether. We talk about them when dehumanizing them helps our cause; belief; narrative; world views.

Because it’s always been easier to ignore than to engage.
Jesus may call us into a simpler life, but by no means does he call us to an easy life.

I know that I ignore more than I engage. I know that I often choose the well-traveled road with the wide open gates. I know that I often seek comfort over grace and love.

Perhaps we spend too much time ignoring instead of engaging.
Perhaps we spend too much time trying to figure out what fits into our narrative and what doesn’t instead of looking towards God’s narrative.
Perhaps we spend too much time trying to figure out who we want our neighbors to be and who we need to exclude.

As my friend, Minoo W. Kim writes:

To ask, Who is my neighbor? implies blindness, that we cannot see everyone as our neighbor; that we cannot see our own inclination of failing to see everyone as our neighbor; that we cannot see how our church does not see everyone as our neighbor; and that we cannot see how our society does not see everyone as our neighbor. Perhaps, to ask, Who is my neighbor? echoes the Pharisees’ question from John’s Gospel, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”

We’re good at creating blindspots in our faith journey and in our churches.
We’re pretty good at ignoring things that seemingly don’t fit the narrative we’ve created for ourselves.

There are two questions posed from the Adam and Eve story that resonate with me.
One of them is when God is asking Cain the whereabouts of Abel after Cain killed his brother. (Abel’s blood cried out to him, and God heard. And responded…)

Cain’s response? “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?
The answer to that question is YES!
It’s another (older) version of the question that would be asked thousands of years later: Who is my neighbor?
Both questions end the possibility of community God intended us to live in.

The second question comes before Cain and Abel.
Adam and Eve have discovered the power of shame after eating the fruit of knowledge. Their reaction to the shame is to hide. I like to imagine that they — or at the least Adam — was a terrible hider.

God calls out to them, Where are you?
God was actively searching for the broken in hopes of restoration and redemption.
From the beginning God has been reaching out to humanity — because all of humanity; all nations; all people fit into God’s narrative.
God relentlessly looks for us and pursues us.

Later in history God’s question of “Where are you” became incarnational — flesh — in Jesus Christ.
Through Jesus, God relentlessly looked (looks) for the lost, broken, downtrodden and pursued them. Because everyone is part of God’s narrative — particularly, especially, the lost, broken, oppressed, marginalized, downtrodden, the least of these…

We’re not a TV show that exists to entertain. It makes sense for Friends to not exclude and ignore things and issues that are difficult. Why mess with the ratings? Why mess with the money? It’s not that type of show.

But we are the church that exists to save and transform lives through the grace of Jesus Christ. And we can’t afford to pick and choose who or what may fall into our narrative. We can’t afford to ignore. We need to engage.

Perhaps the first step of doing this is trading in the question who is my neighbor and replacing it with God’s question to Eve and Adam: where are you?

Maybe that’ll move us into engaging more than ignoring.
Maybe embodying the question, “where are you?” we can eliminate some of the blindspots in our journey and in our churches.

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