Finding Friends in an Unfriendly World

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1 Keith Watkins Finding Friends in an Unfriendly World No one has greater love than this, to lay down one s life for one s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father (John 15:13 15). A They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42) front-page article in the Portland Oregonian was headlined with a question and answer: Do you feel lonely? It s not just you. The article was based on a study by sociologist Miller McPherson who reports that one person in every four has no one with whom to discuss very important matters. Furthermore, the study indicated that the average person has only two close friends; twenty years ago, the number would have been three. McPherson declares that loneliness had been growing rapidly and that she has never seen a change that big in something so basic. She suggests that Portland is different; something about her city and its people increases the likelihood that they will find friends. Maybe loneliness is not as great a problem in Portland as in other cities across the country. This report can be paired with Robert D. Putnam s book, Bowling Alone, in which he offers a thoroughly documented description of changes in American social behavior since the latter part of the 1900s. Participation in all kinds of organizations, including churches, bowling leagues, lodges, and service clubs has Keith Watkins writes on history, theology, and bicycling. He lives in Vancouver, Washington, just north of the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. Copyright 2011 Keith Watkins

2 Finding Friends in an Unfriendly World 2 dwindled significantly. Americans, he argues, are losing the social capital that they need in order to maintain a life that is rich, full, and satisfying. Some have suggested that these changes in life are caused by the nature of life in cities. People are not thrown into ongoing, close, personal relationships as they were when everyone lived in smaller communities. The result is that people spend more time isolated in private homes or personal automobiles, and they are lonely. Another reason may be the fact that most people have to devote more time and energy to making a living than used to be the case. Today, two-income families are the norm, and even with two incomes most households live less secure lives than was enjoyed by one-income families a generation ago. Whatever the cause, people today need to find communities of love and support where they can find strength and to which they can offer their strength in return. Table-centered churches provide this possibility. Worship their most important activity focuses upon the church s family table where everyone is invited to share the friendship that comes from sharing the bread of heaven with one another. Some people have known one another for many years and always meet at the communion table. Others are total strangers, often fearful and uncertain, but they hope that Christ s invitation includes them, and they come. Some worshipers know that things are not right in their lives and they need to be reassured that God, at least, loves them as they are and will help them become the people they hope to be. In penitence and hope, they come. Whether surrounded by friends or feeling all alone, congregants can know that the church s table is a place where loneliness is assuaged and a new sense of neighborliness comes into being. The church s meal ceremony is based, in part, on the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples on the night before his betrayal and execution. The Gospel of John (15:12 17) preserves a record of the conversation that night, including a few minutes when Jesus turned to these people who had traveled with him throughout his three-year campaign. He made a special point of calling them friends rather than employees, or staff, and he told them that their friendship was based on three factors. The most important was that he loved them so much that he was ready to lay down his life for them. Second, they were doing their part by doing what he asked them to do. Third, he had told them everything that God had revealed to him. Thus, he could call them friends. This declaration of friendship made a strong impression upon the disciples. The first few chapters of Acts describe the earlier weeks of the church s life, and it tells us that these earliest Christians met together frequently to break bread with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:43 47). At first, these gatherings included

3 Finding Friends in an Unfriendly World 3 their evening meal, full and complete, along with the ceremonies and prayers with bread and wine that helped them remember Jesus. During the early weeks of the church s life, Christians made sure that everyone had enough. A few members, including a man named Barnabas, even sold some of their holdings and contributed the proceeds to the church so that there would be enough money to provide for the people who had nothing (Acts 4:32 37). A few years later, Paul (who had not been part of the first group of Christians but came into the fellowship several years later) stated the theological principle that was the foundation for this table fellowship: We who are many are one body for we have all eaten from the one loaf (1 Corinthians 10:17). This principle was intensified by the way that Jesus had connected the bread and wine of the Last Supper and his body and blood that were being sacrificed for his friends (Matthew 26:29 29). No matter how isolated we may be in ordinary life, at this table we can be friends with one another. Jesus provides the table, becomes the bread of life for all who gather here, and invites everyone to come, regardless of who they are. Worshipers around the table are friends, but it is a strange kind of friendship. Most worshipers know little about other people in the room, often not even names (else why do congregations arrange for congregants to wear name tags?) Or family status. The kind of work that people do, or if they are out of work and need help. Worshipers probably don t know where others in the room live, what s going on in their lives, or what draws them to this place today? Clearly, the friendship that develops around this table does not require extensive personal knowledge and the kind of intimacy that one finds at a family dinner table in private homes. Friendship that takes place here is structured, focused, marked by a special kind of intimacy that does not require the full disclosure of autobiographical details. My understanding of this friendship has been influenced by a book with a strange title: Together Alone: Personal Relationships in Public Places. It contains nine essays that describe and analyze the ways that people express intimacy with strangers in public places: teens hanging out in a fast food restaurant, family members of amateur softball players who get together in the bleachers through the season, and members of a right-wing political discussion group. In each setting, people come to trust one another, up to a point, and they pay attention to one another s needs, including certain emotional needs that seem easier to share with these stranger-friends than with people whom they know well. Often, the people in these gatherings don t even know one another s names, or they know only the first names. Yet, their regular association becomes one of the ways that they can get along in the increasingly fractured world they live in.

4 Finding Friends in an Unfriendly World 4 None of the studies focuses on what happens in a church, but friendship formed by people who gather regularly around the communion table would be appropriate for inclusion. The writers in the book are interested in what they call anchored personal relationships, that involve recurring interaction and interdependencies. These friendships take place over time and are tied to a particular public place. They deal with a narrow range of activities that do not, or rarely spill over into private households. For many worshipers, the gathering for worship meets several of these tests. It happens repeatedly over a long period of time. A church at worship is a public place and this setting influences the range of activities and relationships that can develop. In churches, the factor that most discourages anchored friendships is that there is little opportunity to talk with one another during the service. Worshipers may sit side by side and in some slight way acknowledge one another s presence in the pew. Yet we become aware of one another if we come regularly. We sit in about the same place and begin to recognize others who always sit near by. If the order of worship makes time for greeting one another, we hear voices, perhaps make eye contact, maybe embrace or shake hands. After a few Sundays, two or three will linger in the pew after the service and talk a little, perhaps about the sermon or an issue that the congregation prayed about. Someone invites another to a class or group meeting, or perhaps to a conversation period following the service. The relationship deepens even though many details about one s life never come into the conversation. How is it possible for strangers to become friends, even in a limited way, at the church s table? The primary reason is that Jesus is the host and invites all to come despite their unworthiness. Furthermore, the occasion is not a fancy banquet with the men in tuxes, the women in designer gowns, and the children at home with sitters. Rather, it is a brief episode of tranquility seized in the midst of hard, bloody battle. Jesus stands here as someone facing death with the peace that only God can give, and he invites us knowing that we are weak, sinful, and bloodied by our own experiences in life. He says to us, Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28 30). A woman who found her faith in a strong, urban congregation in Southern California explained her coming to a vibrant religious practice this way. Her life was all messed up and in her despair she stumbled into church one morning. At the communion service, the pastor reached out, seemingly to her: Whoever you are, wherever you are in your journey of faith, you are welcome at this table. She later confessed that this radical hospitality had blown her away. When Jesus extends the invitation, any of us can come.

5 Finding Friends in an Unfriendly World 5 A second reason why strangers can become friends at the communion table is that for a little while many of the alienating distinctions in ordinary life are dissolved by the intensity of our experience of God s presence. I saw this happen in a communion service one Sunday in a church located in what once had been one of the poshest neighborhoods of Indianapolis. Long since, however, it had become a dysfunctional part of the city. Yet that Sunday, a few of the old patrician members were present along with quite a mixture of the city s people, including the poor and outcast. The service included special prayers for people with HIV/AIDS, and many congregants had come for that reason. During the communion, as people walked to the altar rail to receive the sacramental signs of Christ s body and blood, a pair of ten-year-old, tow-headed boys went forward their hair stiff and uncombed, striped overalls wrinkled but apparently clean. They were unaccompanied, seemingly very much out of place in that solemn ceremony in which the brokenness of life was so dominant. Yet they walked as though they were at home with a loving family and friends who could be trusted. After the service, I went to the parish hall for conversation, but unfortunately the sense of welcome and acceptance disappeared as regulars fell into little conversation groups. People like me who didn t know anyone were left standing by ourselves, and I longed for the feelings of friendship with God and unnamed congregants that had been expressed during the liturgy. Perhaps, I expected too much. I was not yet anchored in an ongoing personal presence in that public space. Had I continued going to worship there, the time would have come when a fuller sharing of myself with others, and they with me, could have developed. One of the newer communion hymns expresses the friendship that can develop at this table. Its title is When You Do This, Remember Me, and its words were derived from a statement by Alexander Campbell, a church leader in the mid- 1800s. It begins with a simple statement: You my friend, a stranger once, do now belong to heaven. Once far away, you are brought home into God s family. Then it states the refrain that follows every new idea: When you do this, remember me. The hymn expresses the reason why worshipers can come together:

6 Finding Friends in an Unfriendly World 6 Now my Lord is also yours, my people are your own; embraced together in God s arms, I enfold you now in mine. And again, the refrain, When you do this, remember me. Another hymn from recent times expresses the friendship of the table even more clearly. The first stanza declares that I come to the table as a forgiven, loved, and free child of God to recall the life of Jesus in love laid down for me. It affirms that I come with other Christians and find, as all are fed, the new community of love in Christ s communion bread. The hymn moves into a more profound theological interpretation of the anchored friendships that develop as we gather around the communion table. As Christ breaks bread, and bids us share, each proud division ends. The love that made us, makes us one, and strangers now are friends, and strangers now are friends. The Spirit of the risen Christ, unseen, but ever near, is in such friendship better known, alive among us here, alive among us here. Together met, together bound by all that God has done, we ll go with joy to give the world the love that makes us one, the love that makes us one. This way of understanding friendship in the church can help us understand why some people believe that their church is a friendly place while others experience it as cold and unaccepting. If the friendliness is based on shared experiences outside of the church living in the same neighborhood, having children in the same school, and belonging to the same social organization, for example then what we do in church continues this biography-based friendship, and outsiders have a hard time breaking into the conversational circle. In contrast, when our relationships with others begin with the Gospel of the Lord, proclaimed and

7 Finding Friends in an Unfriendly World 7 experienced again in worship, and with the love of God portrayed around the table, there is room for everyone. The love that comes to each of us as an individual binds us to others who have also experienced this love. As we embrace one another in the name of Christ, we embrace and are embraced by the Christ in the other person. Anchored friendships in the church need room to grow, which means that times for conversation before and after the service are important. Shared experiences in classes and mission activities in the world are important because they allow Christ s friendship with each of us to develop until it draws us into ever closer friendship with others in the congregation. When we experience God s love for us in the communion bread and, as a result, in one another, we can begin what otherwise would be an impossible task, which is to take this same love out into the larger world where we meet with family, neighbors, colleagues, and strangers. We do this, in part, by our individual interactions with other people. We also do it by the ways that a congregation reaches out to its community in organized ways. Some congregations express friendship to the world by offering food at low cost to people with low incomes. Or in maintaining low-cost medical clinics. Or programs that provide tutoring or other after school activities for young people. The intention is to demonstrate that love is an all-pervasive personal power that finally will persuade everyone to trust God and to live with one another in peace and joy. A Prayer at the Table The classic pattern for the Communion Prayer has three parts. The first offers thankful praise to God for creating the world and giving us life. This part of the prayer often includes thanks for the forgiveness that God offers the world through Jesus Christ. The second part of the classic prayer focuses upon Jesus Christ. It remembers his willing sacrifice of himself for the life of the world, The third part of the prayer calls upon the Holy Spirit to renew God s creating and saving work in the church and in the world. Holy God, You have made of one blood all the people of the world and have called us to live together as one human family spread over all the earth.

8 Finding Friends in an Unfriendly World 8 We thank you that in Jesus Christ you have broken down every barrier of gender, status, and nationality that divides us from one another and from you. Send your Holy Spirit to be with us as we share this bread through which Jesus gives himself for us. Unite us with him and with all who join us at this table wherever it is spread. Help us live as friends with Jesus, one another, and everyone we meet so that all the people of the world will live together in peace and love. This we pray through Jesus Christ. Amen. Notes: Do you feel lonely? It s not just you, by Stephen Beaven, The Oregonian, June 24, 2006, A 1. Together Alone: Personal Relationships in Public Places, edited by Calvin Morrill, David A. Snow, and Cindy H. White (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005).

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