Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Ties that Bind

Graduations are bittersweet.  Though most occur in the spring, the ceremonies always create a kind of autumn feeling in me. Joy from the completion of a Good Thing mingles with the sorrow proper to any ending, even (or especially) a beautiful conclusion.

Having grown up around the culture of universities, I observed graduations for years before I experienced one myself, and this year I have watched a number of friends receive formal affirmation for years of training and hard work.  Keith and Janice are now Dr. S-- and Dr. M--, physicians I would trust with my own life.  Adrienne and Laura have the funny hats to prove they are PhDs in English Literature, while Martin has become Herr Doktor F-- by finishing his doctoral work in high energy physics. Last night, I attended the commencement ceremonies at Truett Seminary and watched Jon (along with many other faithful, talented young leaders) receive an M.Div. I even received the graduation announcement for a young man who was my student when he was a freshman. He will begin law school in the fall.

This year's graduations have been more-than-usually poignant for me. Next year I plan and hope (i.e. pray, pray, pray) to be among the graduates, robed in Baylor green and receiving my PhD.  Even more, this is the fifth year since my own graduation from college. That anniversary has me thinking about what distance, change, and achievement mean for the friendships that have taught us the meaning of "home."

You might say we were a little excited.
In many ways, May 13, 2006 was a joyful day.  Seeing my friends looking their best, feeling proud and silly in my black cap and gown, and receiving congratulations from the faculty are just a few of the reasons I looked so absurdly happy in all the photos our families-turned-paparazzi snapped that day.

After the commencement exercises, my parents loaded up my wordly goods and headed back to Indiana, while I climbed into the car of my best friend and roommate Rachel (far left in the picture). Our dear friend Mark (second from the left) was getting married the next weekend, and it didn't make sense for me to go all the way to Indiana, only to return a week later. Rachel and I planned to fill the week with a short road trip through North Carolina, but first we headed back to her hometown, an hour or two east of our campus.

As we drove away from campus, we were silent. I felt that I was choking, as though I had tried to swallow something much too large.  We made most the journey in silence and decided we should stop somewhere--anywhere--before arriving at her parents' house.  Rachel parked on a quiet street, and we wandered for a block or two before entering the prayer chapel of a large downtown church.  The chapel was quiet and empty, with a few wooden pews and stained glass windows.

We sat together on the second pew from the front and took out a hymnal.

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one
Our comforts and our cares.

Rachel has a beautiful alto voice, and I do well enough as a soprano, but anyone who overheard would have had to listen carefully to discern the words through our very undignified sobbing. Even when garbled by crying, however, these verses express so much of why college was home to me.  It was the first place where "the fellowship of kindred minds" was an everyday blessing, and I learned that the most important cares, hopes and comforts were those I shared with others.

But now we had graduated.  We were leaving.

When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.

Living in that hope has been one of the real challenges of life since college. John Fawcett published the words to this hymn in 1782, and since then, a modern postal service, cell phone plans, and facebook have made it much easier to maintain active friendships from a distance.  But it is still hard.  Some days it feels so hard that I doubt it is worth the effort.

With this year's graduations,  many more friends are parting asunder.  Watching them head to North Carolina or Chicago doesn't cause the visceral heartache I felt five years ago, but it does make me sad and hopeful and watchful. If home depends as much (or more) on people as on place, what do we do when our people leave?  Or when we leave them behind?

This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way;
While each in expectation lives,
And longs to see the day.

From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free,
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

 Today, that hope is strong, and I feel my courage reviving even as I prepare to bid Adrienne, Jon, Steph, Mandy, Mary, Martin, and Margaret farewell. I know that to strive and grasp, to demand that home be all here, all now, would be selfish and futile. For all my pouting and fatigue, I have learned ways to sustain deep friendships across five years and hundreds of miles.

Other days, the promised reign of "perfect love and friendship" seems much further away than the homes I have left in Indiana or Tennessee. On those days, I want to return to this reflection and read your thoughts about when and how to sustain friendships across time and space.

What is "the tie that binds" you to your friends? What are some practical ways you strengthen that tie? Have you found it easy or difficult to sustain friendships when graduations (or other life events) have distanced you from your friends? 


  1. It is difficult.

    But I'm marrying one of the friends who graduated and moved away back in 2009. And my best man will be a friend I met in Waco, who moved away, who I found again in Houston. And my groomsmen will be a fencer who moved away, a friend in Iowa who I met in Japan, and a friend from my hometown who spent more years in Italy than I did in Japan. And so many others will be there.

    As evidence that these ties really do bind. :-)

  2. I have a close friend from college who calls me every few months, and we talk for half an hour or so. We don't see each other on Facebook. We don't email. We just talk on the phone when he thinks to call me. (I must admit I'm not that good at being the one to call him. In general, I'm not a phone-talker.) These conversations are different from the type of keeping in touch I do online. It is (almost) like sitting together in the dorm lobby again. I owe a lot to my friend for thinking of me.

    Also-Eva gives me an object when we will be parted for a while. She tells me to look at it when I miss her. Once it was a dried up leaf. Most times it is one of the glitter rocks we made with paint, glitter, glue and gravel from our driveway.

  3. It's hard to believe that five years ago we were leaving our home. And that's what Carson-Newman was to so many of us. I find it so strange and wonderful to think that it feels like I've lived a lifetime in those five years.

  4. As one of those people in the puffy hats this semester, I must say this has been really hard for me--much harder than graduating with my BA or Master's. When I went through those programs, I did not have the same sense of community that I've formed in the TA office. I remember distinctly one day sitting there in my rolly chair thinking, "I've found my people--this is my place!" Carroll Science really was my home away from home--but now it's not home any more. I had to pack up my desk--I have to give up my keys. It makes me unutterably sad. I hope to make a new home at UMHB, or wherever God sends me, but I will so miss the old home. Of course, right now I'm not leaving Waco, so I can always come by and visit--but I know life well enough to know how difficult squeezing in a visit will be...