“Friends and Bookends” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – January 27, 2013
Call to Worship – “The Big Heart” by Anne Sexton (excerpt)
wide as a watermelon,
but wise as birth,
there is so much abundance
in the people I have:
Max, Lois, Joe, Louise,
Joan, Marie, Dawn,
Arlene, Father Dunne,
and all in their short lives
give to me repeatedly
in the way the sea
places its many fingers on the shore,
again and again
and they know me,
they help me unravel,
they listen with ears made of conch shells,
they speak back with the wine of the best region.
they are my staff.
they comfort me.
Reading – from the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Sermon – “Friends and Bookends”
I was walking home from work the other day, and was waiting to cross at the stop light at the corner of Church and Summer Streets. Soon an earnest young mother drove by chatting away furiously on her cell phone. In the back of the car two children sat placidly in their car seats. It was a moment that evoked a reaction in me that often occurs when I observe such a scene. I say this with some trepidation knowing that I have a reputation around here as someone who is, shall we say, somewhat skeptical of cell phone usage. You might surmise that I had one of two reactions. First, was I thinking what a bad driver? She is so busy talking on her cell phone she does not notice that I am trying to cross the street, and the light has already turned red. But that wasn’t it. Second, was I thinking, what a bad mother? These poor kids are being neglected. The mother could be engaging them in conversation, but instead they are trapped, chained in their seats, while she goes on and on. But no, that wasn’t it either. Could there be a third reaction that does not try to induce guilt in any of you? Yes, the reaction is jealousy. No, not jealousy that they all have cell phones. I had one for a while. but one of my sons dropped it in the toilet. In fact my sister-in-law and her family were late Christmas day, and she said she had texted me with the message they would be late. She texted me! Can you imagine? Is it jealousy over their ability to flaunt the law? Is it jealousy that they have passive, compliant children who have never tried their patience? No and No. It is jealousy over the seeming number of friends these people must have. I stand on the corner in the freezing cold, and person after person is chattering away like a chipmunk. Who are they talking to? Do they really have that many friends who have that much time? Or is it 300 calls a day to their spouse to discuss the existential meaning of brussel sprouts? Tell me they don’t have 300 friends.
Now you must understand that this reaction emanates from the fact that I have no friends. No, let me rephrase that. I have friends, but I never see them or talk to them, but I know they are there because they send or email a Christmas greeting. When I saw one of these lapsed friends recently I blurted out, “I have been a bad friend.” Maybe I could find him on Facebook. Oh, God, here’s another one of those social media things that’s going to get me in hot water, making you feel annoyed with me. So let me try to give a balanced perspective on Facebook. In many ways Facebook is a wonderful thing. It allows us to be in touch with people regularly sharing many wonderful aspects of our daily existence. We can see pictures of loved ones, and learn many new and exciting things that can make a difference in our lives. Our church has just started to develop policies for our Facebook page. I believe it is a good way to publicize our activities, provide information and support to our members, and thus further the work of the church. I want you to “Friend” our FPW Facebook page. That said, there are some drawbacks to Facebook. For example, there is a series of Toyota TV commercials currently being shown that features different people coming into a showroom where they talk to a receptionist at a desk. In one of these a young woman who is a prospective customer barely makes eye contact when the receptionist is talking to her because she’s playing around on her phone. After the customer has boasted that she has something like 7780 friends and has given the impression that she is the most popular person in the universe, the receptionist says, “I’ll be your friend.” At that point the woman adds her to the friend count “7,781,” almost like she is counting beans. A pertinent question might be how many of those 7,781 “friends” has she had a personal meeting with in recent history. Margaret and I were talking about this the other day, and she speculated that because people know so much information about former classmates – jobs, marital status, children, etc., through Facebook, it actually cuts down on physical attendance at class reunions. People are already caught up electronically, and so they have no motivation to actually have a face to face meeting. Is that true? What is happening to friendships? Are they evolving into mere electronic check ins where there is no physical encounter?
Let me say that I joined Facebook because it seemed like every other UU minister was part of the network, plus Kyle created a Facebook account for FPW, and I figured I really ought to be on it, as a kind of professional responsibility. As soon as I joined every UU minister in creation, half of whom I have never heard of, wanted to friend me. I decided not to friend those I didn’t even know. That seemed like some kind of standard. Yet still the count began to mount up. It struck me that this counting of friends was like the woman on the commercial. Was the number of friends more important than the quality of the relationship? It kind of felt like that high school longing to sing, “I’m in with the “in” crowd. Somehow at my age it did not seem like I could be cool no matter how many friends I counted. Perhaps it was reminding me of that time in junior high school when I finally thought I was in with the popular kids, when they invited me to the big party, but then learned they only wanted me if I brought my record collection. That’s vinyl to the under 50 crowd, It does get to be a competition. Will we come to think it is not a very good church, if we don’t have throngs of people signed up as friends? Can we reach 100? I must admit that I m rarely on Facebook, but it has proven useful in many instances to find out about people and stay in touch, even if only occasionally. I am also concerned about internet exposure, especially for teenagers, but that is a sermon for another time.
The most annoying part about Facebook are those folks who like to report on everyday activities, like what they ate for dinner, but I suspect that longing to report the everyday journeys of our lives reflects our need to feel the ever present quality of a friendship which is there for us in morning sky and evening sunset. We want to share our feelings, our passions, our needs to be with someone. Whether we choose to use Facebook as a way to connect with others, or more traditional means, the heart’s desire is to renew old friendships or make deeper connections. While it is easy to put down Facebook for its impersonal postings, daily drivel, or enumerating trends, the fact remains those of us from the pre electronic era did not always make friends with the most stringent criteria. Sometimes it was the fellow with the record collection, the car, the fellow teammates, or the randomly assigned roommate who you deplored at first. We, too, may have friended someone for less than noble reasons.
The point is that we know that developing friendships will deepen us. It may have begun by participating in a common activity around a shared interest, but we were all looking for that person who Shakespeare once said is the “one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.” Developing friendships was a crucial factor in the evolving professional and personal qualities in the life of Abraham Lincoln. In preparing to preach about Lincoln next month I have been reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
While the popularity of the movie “Lincoln,” has reminded us once again of his amazing political skills, his developing character was nurtured through friendships. In the early nineteenth century many young men and women were moving to new cities where they had no parents or siblings present, and instead looked to new friendships for support, and the sharing of thoughts and feelings to overcome loneliness, some of them even developing a kind of passionate language to describe them. Joshua Speed was one such friend to Lincoln. For four years they shared the same room, sleeping in the same bed, sharing their love of poetry and dreams of political futures, their fears of relationships with women, and the enjoyment of parties and dances. Speed also stayed by Lincoln’s side during the depths of a depression. When Speed decided to return to his family’s plantation, Lincoln told him, “How miserably things seem to be arranged in this world. If we have no friends, we have no pleasure; and if we have them, we are sure to lose them, and be doubly pained by the loss.” Did the prospect of loss make Lincoln reluctant to make new friends? Lincoln was able to adapt, but he did so partly by using two avenues to continue the relationship. He found consolation in knowing that in memory we are able to keep parts of others alive. Because he did not believe in an afterlife, Lincoln saw memory in many ways as the essence of life. The other way to keep the friendship alive was to make the effort to visit those friends who live at some distance. Lincoln was never free from depression, but he learned to cope with it. The expression of thought and story with others is what allowed Lincoln to be resilient and so he never failed to pursue conversation with friends even if it involved visiting Speed once he moved away.
Friendship is an abiding concern for ministers. In our churches we want to be sure that people make connections, for it is often a feeling of loneliness that brings us to church. Church was especially important to me in high school, for when I joined an ecumenical youth group I found it was the one place in the world where there were not intense social or academic pressures. I could be myself and ask any questions or raise any concern without fear of ridicule or laughter. It was that place where in a time of confusion and doubt I would be accepted and could raise my doubts. It was not that the members had answers but that they cared, and I could trust them to provide a community where people would listen. What is also especially important about churches is that they are places that nurture friendship so that age is not a factor; young and old are brought together, without one thinking the other is rude and disrespectful, and that other saying their opposites are worn out and depleted. As parents we want our children to find nurturing relationships, and try to stand by as they often use trial and error, as we did, seeking others who will be there for them in trusting and supportive ways. I suspect the biggest challenge for me as a youth was to stand up for a friend who I made in the church youth group. Sometimes these teens who went to the church were outcasts in the social environment of the high school, and were often bullied by another group of my friends, the jocks. Learning to be loyal and faithful to those who had opened themselves up to me as friends was an important lesson in my own search for deepening friendships. How much will we risk for another? Will we stand by them?
One of the great examples of friendship in literature is the relationship between Huckleberry Finn and the slave Jim. This crossed barriers, of not only age, but race and status as well. They develop a close and trusting friendship, partly from the common bond of running away. Time and circumstance has brought them together, and the relationship develops in the journey down the river. The turning point comes when Huck decides not to turn Jim in because their friendship had developed in such a way that he would be willing to make sacrifices for Jim. The famous line we heard in the reading is when Huck decides that he will free Jim and declares, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” We hear how the relationship has developed with the two friends becoming closer, including the time when Huck saved Jim by saying he had smallpox. Earlier Huck had risked his life trying to navigate the river in the fog in order to be reunited with Jim. When the raft first drifts off, Huck could have stayed on the shore and been safe, but he doesn’t even think of not following Jim. When Huck decides not to turn Jim in, his conscience tortures him for helping Jim. He has been brought up to view the abolitionists who helped slaves escape as evil, immoral people. And if he helps Jim go free, his soul will be lost. In the beginning of this scene Huck is still prejudiced against Jim. He is shocked that Jim would steal his wife and children. His shock shows that he believes the owners have more of a right to their slaves than Jim has a right to a family. But he doesn’t betray Jim. He hears Jim’s words, that Huck is his only friend and “de on’y white genlman dat ever kep’ his promise to ole Jim,” and he realizes that he can’t break that trust.
In a story from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus trusts his friends the disciples enough so that he can fall asleep in the bow of the boat, and rest. Then a storm comes up, and they become agitated, and says he does not care because he has not been awake for them. He tells them if you are going to be good and faithful friends, you have got to trust in this relationship and not be afraid. I am there for you, but you must fulfill your responsibilities to others, even if I am not present. He says we know storms will come, but together we can navigate through them, if we trust one another and have faith. Recently I was looking at Sebastian Junger’s book War, which chronicles his time in Afghanistan. The last section of his reflections on the unit he was with is called “Love.” Junger says that we usually think of religion as that which gives us courage to face the overwhelming, but there was little of conventional religion in this place. Instead, Junger theorizes that the platoon was the faith; the narcotic of being such a tightly knit group made faith superfluous. As a soldier, he says, you were most scared of failing your fellow soldiers when they needed you, and compared to that, dying was easy. Dying was over. Cowardice lingered. Junger quoting Glenn Gary tells us that the capacity to participate in other’s lives, in the case of soldiers, makes them less fearful of death. Those who fear death can’t love anything but their own body, and so they haven’t developed resources to overcome that terror.
Although I have never been a soldier, I found this example of participation in others lives as moving. It reminded me of the impulse to save your child when they wander into the street, something I felt especially as a single parent years ago. Perhaps combat units are one way men have been able to feel the depth of depending upon others. Too often men have had difficulty forging friendships, depending upon their spouses as the only person with whom they can share feelings. Yet Lincoln provides a wonderful example here of what we all can do to build stronger friendships. He built a level of trust, so he could share feelings of loss and inadequacy. He felt a deep loyalty to those who opened themselves to him, and so he did not betray those to whom he committed his allegiance. And finally, he knew how to have fun. His story telling and ability to laugh were legendary. These are the three corner posts of friendship. While Facebook may allow to us continue friendships we might otherwise have not, it is also true that some friendships run their course, and others give up on trying to connect, perhaps because we stop sharing common interests, or felt it was us who did all the giving to the relationship.
The basic human impulse at the heart of church formation is the longing to be with others in community. Some of us find friends here, and others do not use the community for that, and some do not connect at all. Most of us want to be with others in a community where others share our interests and our passions, and where we care about each other deeply. So I am serious when I look at those cell phone talkers and ask, who are they talking to? Do they have that many friends? I am jealous to be known and to know others. While Facebook may help us stay in touch in many ways, the impulse to have and be a friend is ever present. Much of life is a lonely journey and with friends we find companions for that journey – they will listen to us, and be with us. My title today comes from Simon and Garfunkel – “old friends sat on a park bench like bookends,” and like bookends we hold each other up, and the pages of our lives are shared in between. I sometimes carp that my friends only get in touch when they want something from me – a historical nugget, a recommendation, or help with their project. That is the cynic in me that sometimes sees others using me, when in truth, they are loyal to me, they trust me, and come to me for the story or the word they need to continue on their journey toward wholeness. May I listen to their needs, and tell them mine. Sometimes our friends are there and we can’t even see their love reaching out to us. May we act on our longing for friendship. May your friendships be renewed, and deepened now and in the days to come.
Closing Words – from Margaret Fuller
We meet . . . a succession of persons through our lives, all of whom have some peculiar errand to us. There is an outer circle, whose existence we perceive, but with whom we stand in no real relation. They tell us the news, they act on us in the offices of society, they show us kindness and aversion; but their influence does not penetrate; we are nothing to them, nor they to us, except as a part of the world’s furniture. Another circle, within this, are dear and near to us. We know them and of what kind they are. They are to us not mere facts, but intelligible thoughts of the divine mind. We like to see how they are unfolded; we like to meet them and part from them; we like their action upon us and the pause that succeeds and enables us to appreciate its quality. Often we leave them on our path, and return no more, but we bear them in our memory, tales which have been told, and whose meaning has been felt.