I’ve begun to think of close friends and trusted mentors as ones who have the Ministry of Flag Raising.
As we tell our stories and process our journeys, trusted sisters (and brothers) in Christ have an integral role: they are witnesses, they help us discern where God is redemptively at work in places we might be blind to, and they raise flags where they see dangers.
For the longest time, I thought the metaphors about “raising flags” were sports analogies—like a referee issuing yellow and red cards on a soccer field as a ruling, or a line judge’s arm flying up to signal a transgression. Later, though, I learned that the verbal image of raising flags was drawn from lifeguards and water safety parlance: dangerous undertow, high surf, unsafe conditions, sharks.
The difference between the two images is important: in sports, raising a flag stops players and changes their course. On the beach, raising a flag serves as a warning only. It is up to swimmers to notice the warning and choose whether to change course.
When dealing with little children, we have the power to raise football flags. Parents can control the game: timeouts can be enforced, tantrumming children carried forcibly out of Target with legs flailing and carts abandoned in aisle three. But as we grow, the power of the flags changes. There are fewer externally imposed referee calls: we cannot make people stop, we can often only signal that we think they should.
Twenty years ago, I viewed flag raisers with the same suspicion as I would have a biased referee: who were they to make a call on my decision? Did they think I couldn’t see?
With age came a new love for the flag raisers: those who watched me date and gently observed habits of jokey-teasing that often turned to public ridicule. How did I feel after a bout of barbed banters? Was it helping pave the way for the emotionally safe relationship I craved? My go-to-sarcasm was flagged: a relational undertow that could drown me if I didn’t pay attention.
I loved the mentor who raised a flag as I talked about a friendship that was wearing holes in my heart. Did I realize I was making excuses for her behavior? If I took a step back, could I see a pattern in our friendship where she was always determining the rules of engagement as I was scrabbling to be compliant or else I’d be labeled unfaithful? Could I see the danger? My mentor raised a flag and called it Unhealthy Boundaries, and all of a sudden I could see the high surf I was choosing to dive into in a way that hadn’t been clear before.
I loved the older brother in the faith who sent me a private message online after I’d posted a picture of my toddler reading on the potty. No private parts were showing, and after nearly two years of traumatic potty training, that day had been cause for celebration. His message was the gentlest of flags: Yes, this was something to celebrate, but had I thought about how my son might feel about this picture in ten years’ time? Would it be considered exploitative? A violation of privacy and trust? I took the picture down: I have not yet swum through the currents of the teen years, and my Flag Raiser meant only to alert me to a rocky outcrop ahead. The choice was mine.
Of course, Flag Raisers are not prophets. Not all threats become injuries. I remember a close friend sitting me down a few weeks after my then-fiancé and I announced our engagement: was I sure he was the right guy for me? She had watched us over a couple of dinners and she saw some flags: he was really quiet and less social, and would that work with the high-hospitality ministry lifestyle I’d embraced? I considered her flag and decided to go swimming anyway.
She was right, by the way: the extroversion/introversion gap caused currents in our marriage, but it has not been our undoing. Swimming against the current has made us both stronger. I have learned how to rest in silence, and he has grown richer in friendships.
I have come to love my Flag Raisers. They love me enough to call out the danger. They love me enough to want me to choose wisely. And I, in turn, have become one who has learned to raise flags for others. I cannot tell them what to do; I don’t have a referee’s whistle.
But where I can, I raise a flag: lovingly and gently name a danger if I see it.
Perhaps they will swim anyway. I know I have ignored warnings and jumped in, and later needed rescue from those same friends who warned me of the danger in the first place.
Perhaps we will learn to love the wisdom of the flags, to sit on the beach awhile and keep each other company. Like Lasik for the soul: Flag Raisers clarify the issues and sharpen our focus. While our eyesight might worsen with age, our ability to really see should always be improving.