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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Ryerse

The one where I lose some F R I E N D S

Last Thursday, after a tough day, I came home weary, but felt a familiar sensation which I had not had since Netflix became a fixture in our lives. I felt excited to watch a television show. I had been savoring the chance to crawl into bed at 8:00 pm on a Thursday night to watch Friends with my favorite person like we hadn’t done for seventeen years.

Friends debuted in September of 1994, the beginning of my sophomore year of Bible college. I don’t know when I got started watching, and certainly looped back to see the pilot in reruns, but I do remember getting permission to watch in our dorm parent’s apartment, which was very rare. By then, my roommate Keri and I were deeply invested and it was part of our bond as roommates. But when the lesbian wedding happened in Season 2, the show was banned on campus and we were no longer allowed to watch it. At that point, Keri started taking babysitting gigs on Thursday nights so she could watch, come home and recount the plot to me. I can still hear her laughter and excitement, “You won't believe what happened!”

These days, I’m a lot different than I was in those Bible college days. In fact, I’m part of some very progressive facebook groups actively trying to figure out how to keep from raising our kids the ways we were brought up. We’re trying to eradicate the patriarchy and racism and Christian nationalism that leached into our “Biblical” education in our homes, churches and private religious schools. And nothing stirs up more passion than trying to get things right for your kids. In one of those groups, a discussion about television shows came up, as it often does, especially during the pandemic with teens stuck at home away from their friends in such a social stage of their development. Many shows were named, with Schitt’s Creek being a popular choice, and anyone who has watched the series agreed it is good for the soul in these trying times.

I was a little taken aback then, when more than a few parents chimed in that they would not be allowing their kids to watch Friends.

“It has NOT aged well” one parent wrote.

“Please DON’T suggest FRIENDS!” another posted.

“It’s fat-shaming and homophobic. Not in my house!” another parent added.

I sat back in my chair and took a breath, feeling a familiar sensation rise in my body. Guilt and shame. I recognized it immediately.

The year after my roommate and I secretly watched Friends any which way we could in Bible college, I got married and moved off campus. I carried a full load of classes, worked twenty hours a week, commuted an hour to and from my student teaching assignment in upstate New York, and travelled to our first church in NYC every Friday and Sunday night, which was another two and half hours away from our little apartment in Scranton. I didn’t have much time for friendships, but Robb and I would cuddle up in front of our twelve inch television set, arrange the antena just right, and watch our favorite shows together; Friends was near the top of the list, with Mad About You and Seinfeld. We were twenty-one years old.

Chandler and Monica?

When I graduated and we moved to Staten Island, we had no friends our own age. TV was still our best buddy, and I graded fourth grade papers, while watching and laughing along. A few years later, we moved on to a church outside of Boston where Robb was gone most days and nights for committee meetings or youth group activities. I was alone a lot with the tv once I got pregnant with our first child. My parents made the long, ten hour trip to come see us when the baby was born, and I remember settling down to watch my favorite show, since we had always been a family of TV watchers. But it was the episode when Chandler and Monica decided to move in together before they got married, and I could feel my parents disapproval. My own sister was moving in with her boyfriend and my folks were very unhappy about it; I squirmed uncomfortably in shame while they grunted their disapproval of my tv watching choice.

Later, we moved on to another church in Michigan, and the internet was starting to blow up. Robb posted about watching Friends on his newly crafted blog and a fellow pastor sent him a concerned email. “I don’t think this is appropriate viewing for you brother. You need to examine yourself.” At a church conference at Saddleback, the famous Rick Warren was speaking about the importance of community groups and declared, “Maybe you need to turn off Friends and go out and get some.” More guilt and shame.

Trouble was, at the time, I was a young mom of three and my closest friend was in her forties with teenagers. Making friends is harder than it seems, especially when you are in ministry.

Especially in fundamentalism and evangelicalism at the time.

As I remember it, there was no such thing as just loving people as they are. Everyone was a mission to take on. A soul to save and then a prospect for discipleship and leadership development. Just being ok with someone exactly as they were was not how you existed in my religious world.

Maybe that’s what was so remarkable about Friends to me. People just hanging out together and living together and sometimes having conflicts and then going on to keep being friends. It was so amazing and unheard of to me. The show ended in 2004, a few months before we moved to Arkansas to start a church from scratch. We didn’t know much about what this church would be like, but one idea kept coming up: What if we didn’t try to tell people what they ought to be? What if we left that up to the Holy Spirit? What if we just made a space where people could explore their own relationship with God without us shaming and guilting and “shoulding” on them?

It could all be a terrible mistake. Maybe it still is. God knows we have been accused of being too gracious. Too liberal. Not REAL Christians. But for fifteen years, we have gone on telling people “First, you belong. Then we can talk about beliefs. And maybe sometime after that you might choose to change your behavior. Or not.” Most churches have it the other way around: First you behave the way we expect, then your beliefs have to be correct and only then you can belong. You are watched and weighed for your worth and often you aren’t “leadership material.” Or “dedicated enough” or “not a serious enough follower of Jesus” to be a real part of the group. So people show up, do the church thing, and go home to their real lives. Meanwhile, research shows that people are dying of loneliness. Literally, loneliness is more dangerous than smoking.

Lately, we’ve been exploring how to reach across the massive division that exists in our country. I even wrote a chapter for a book called How to Heal Our Divides. I am deeply uncomfortable with any expression of belief that pushes people out of relationship using guilt and shame, progressive or conservative. Sometimes, we do need boundaries to keep people safe. Sometimes our methodology is just too unfamiliar and people self-select themselves to leave our fellowship. But we keep trying to figure out how to hold everyone in our minds at least, as a friend, not foe.

So I understand those parents who aren’t going to let their kids watch Friends. I know that we wouldn’t point out a “transvestite from accounting” or make fun of how fat Monica was anymore because we’ve learned to do better. (Incidently, the creators of the show are gorgeously fat and fabulously gay.) At the time, though, seeing a gay wedding was a big move for me… it helped normalize something I was taught to fear. (Now, I’ve officiated more gay weddings than straight ones. ) Stories about people who always do “the right thing” are moralistic and boring (see also “Christian movies”). I understand people wanting to get it right for their kids, but it just seems to me that something that feels so similar to a fundamentalist experience of being shamed is maybe just a new environmentally friendly fundamentalism.

It also seems to me that one of the great lessons of the pandemic is that there isn’t always a “right” way to do things. We all had to just do our best, which was flawed at times, but weighed against other not-great options. In the words of Paul, “All have sinned and fallen short:” The "good people" who judged the hell out of people who didn’t wear masks and had murder in their hearts toward them, and the "self-absorbed assholes" who couldn’t be bothered to think about other people more than their own comfort who also had murder in their hearts. We all experience oppression and we all participate in oppressing other people whether we want to acknowledge it or not. So we all need grace.

While these days my mom could care less what I watch on tv (because she's getting cooler all the time), some of my own kids like the show and some don’t approve. It’s ok. I will continue to cuddle up with Robb and watch reruns we have practically memorized. Chandler, Ross, Joey, Monica, Phoebe and Rachel have been our friends for a long time. They have brought us much relief and laughter from the loneliness of ministry. They remind us of our past selves, and they are also representative of our grown kids who are living in city apartments (albeit a quarter of the size of the Friends’), navigating life with roommates that are their families now, working out the ways their parents drive them crazy and their jobs suck and what they want to become.

We watched the almost two hour reunion and laughed and cried and laughed some more. We are fans. Maybe it’s “so cheesy.” But I’m done feeling shame and guilt for loving my Friends. They’ve been there for me. But, I’ll be there for you too. I’m going to keep reading and learning how to be a better friend to my gay, black, and indiginous neighbors. I’m learning to celebrate the good in things without fixating and finger-pointing at the not so good. I’m learning to acknowledge who I was in the past and how that wasn’t all that great, while being gracious to my former self and loving her too. I mean, think how far we’ve come in just the last seventeen years. We all wake up in the morning and pretty much suck in some ways. But we also still need friends who will love and accept us anyway.

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