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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, January 30, 2011


I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new. Shall I not call God the Beautiful, who daily showeth himself so to me in his gifts? I chide society, I embrace solitude, and yet I am not so ungrateful as not to see the wise, the lovely, and the noble-minded, as from time to time they pass my gate. Who hears me, who understands me, becomes mine, — a possession for all time. Nor is nature so poor but she gives me this joy several times, and thus we weave social threads of our own, a new web of relations; and, as many thoughts in succession substantiate themselves, we shall by and by stand in a new world of our own creation, and no longer strangers and pilgrims in a traditionary globe. My friends have come to me unsought. The great God gave them to me. By oldest right, by the divine affinity of virtue with itself, I find them, or rather not I, but the Deity in me and in them derides and cancels the thick walls of individual character, relation, age, sex, circumstance, at which he usually connives, and now makes many one. High thanks I owe you, excellent lovers, who carry out the world for me to new and noble depths, and enlarge the meaning of all my thoughts. These are new poetry of the first Bard, — poetry without stop, — hymn, ode, and epic, poetry still flowing, Apollo and the Muses chanting still. Will these, too, separate themselves from me again, or some of them? I know not, but I fear it not; for my relation to them is so pure, that we hold by simple affinity, and the Genius of my life being thus social, the same affinity will exert its energy on whomsoever is as noble as these men and women, wherever I may be.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, On Friendship

Last year I meditated upon the nature of friendship from this pulpit. As I recall I’d been caught up in a listserv conversation with ministerial colleagues about Facebook and its term for participants as “friends.” There was much wringing of hands as ministers aren’t supposed to have friends within the congregation they serve. Which, I agree, is a good policy – at least on paper.

I don’t mean to make light of this ministerial concern. After all tending to the health and well being of our church is important. And human relationships are tricky things, no doubt. And with the honor of call come responsibilities, one of which is some social isolation. But as far as Facebook goes, come on. When consulting with my spiritual director, he pointed out, and I quoted this last year, that a friend will help you move, while a real friend will help you move a body. And, well, Facebook doesn’t provide either kind of friendship. Makes one mourn the loss of that very good word now fallen into disuse, acquaintance. We need to reclaim that term, I think. But, also, that’s another conversation. Today, again, it’s friendship.

What I found within that great concern about Facebook friends was that, despite what my spiritual director understands, for many, most of us, exactly what friendship is, and what it might be for, is in fact a bit confusing. So, that’s the question. What is friendship? And it’s important. I believe this is a critical question for those of us who wish for healthy lives, for whole lives. And, so I’m particularly grateful our chalice circles, our First Unitarian small group ministry program will be using friendship as the theme for the lightening introduction to this UU spiritual practice right after our worship service. If you’re intrigued about either friendship or what a uniquely UU spiritual practice might look like, when we’re done here, grab a cup of coffee and go straight to the auditorium.

I think Facebook raises issues for all of us. There has been a great deal of concern expressed of late about how our connections with each other in contemporary society has become dangerously attenuated, mediated as it is for so many of us through various web based vehicles of communication. Such as Facebook, but also email and texting, blogging and tweeting. Even skype, as great as it can be to keep in touch with the grandkids, isn’t a complete experience.

On the one hand we have near instantaneous communication and communication with people around the globe. That grandkid thing is wonderful. On the other hand, it is all at one step remove from how people have communicated with each other for ever before. The concern is that we’re all spinning out ever farther away from each other. Something like C. S. Lewis’s hell where everyone in it simply keeps moving farther and farther away from each other.

While I think all this is a legitimate concern, what I really believe people are expressing in this is a sense or a fear of a loss of intimacy. Whether this yearned for intimacy is something actually being lost to the ethers of the web, or is in fact a symptom of a deeper alienation that simply marks our culture from top to bottom may be the actual question that underlies all the others. What about this sense of isolation that wounds so many of us, that creates some deep hunger of the heart, some longing, some deep longing?

Our American philosophy of do-it-yourself, of bootstrapping our way has merit. No doubt. And, by itself it is morally bankrupt. Our culture is richer than most, or has been. And a price for that affluence for many of us has been a soul wound. In part the wound comes from this sense we are in it only for ourselves, that number one is number one. The problem is that this isn’t true. For one thing we never can do it all by ourselves, we always come up with others and because of others. For another we are never whole without others, whatever we may wish or think. We are precious individuals and we are woven out of each other and the world. We only exist because of each other. Pretending otherwise leads to the great hurt, that sense of incompleteness, that hole in our hearts.

So, to be whole beings, we need friends. Friendship is the glue of human life. And the wise have known this forever. In the Buddhist tradition, for instance, there is a conversation between the awakened one and his attendant Ananda, recorded in the Upaddha Sutta, where the disciple enthusiastically declares that friendship is half the spiritual life. The Buddha corrects him, saying that friendship is in fact the whole of the spiritual life. Or, as the sage Red Green tell us, “The main problem with being a hermit is that without a friend or a significant other, you have to find out you’re an idiot the hard way.”

And we need to be real about this. We’re not likely to replicate the friendships of Damon and Phytias or Ruth and Naomi. But the point isn’t to just look to the great exemplars of friendship and think how we’ve failed, how our friendships are meager things, how our friends are all on Facebook. For some of us we may not even be able to name a friend, either moving or moving a body kind of friend. And, really, it would be a rare person who honestly can say they have many friends, friends beyond that inflated use of acquaintance.

In 1937 Dale Carnegie wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People. And it has never, ever gone out of print. He clearly tapped into something. Now Carnegie was concerned with success. And bless his heart; I have no brief against success. But, rather than focus on how to make money out of this need we all have, I want to suggest we’re at heart in a conversation about who we really are, and how we can find joy in our lives, how we may become whole, how it is possible to become what we were meant to be from before the creation of the heavens and the earth. We are talking about the core of our lives, the wholeness that term spiritual life is meant to point to. Nothing less.

Wayne Teasdale, a Catholic monk and one of the leading figures within the interfaith spiritual conversation until his death in 2004, in his wonderful book a Monk in the World, lays out the terms of friendship as a spiritual enterprise. Wayne suggests “The skills of friendship are many: (but principal among them might be) other-centeredness, honesty, availability, willingness to listen, sensitivity, generosity with time, helpfulness, the capacity to be completely yourself, and the willingness to place friendship at the service of the community.” Wayne concludes, “These capacities, like so many threads, weave friendship into a beautiful fabric, precious to those so blessed. All these skills work together and are interdependent. To take one out is to unravel the whole fabric.”

Okay, what does this fabric look like? Let’s briefly consider each of Wayne’s points on winning friends, and not influencing others, but serving the healing of the world, friendship as a spiritual practice. First, that other-centeredness. We need to look past the boundaries of our skin. We need to reach out. What a difficult project that can be for some of us, being vulnerable, finding some of what makes us dependent upon our relationships with another. This can be so hard. I certainly can see why people might be afraid. And why some of us never even begin the path of friendship.

Of course, that’s why honesty. We need to look into our own hearts, and look at our needs, and what we’re reaching out for. This is a lifetime journey, new aspects revealing themselves each in their own time. We particularly need to look at the unhealthy things that cause us to reach out, old wounds, unresolved longings. In matters spiritual, absolutely, honesty is the best policy. And we need to begin by being honest with ourselves.

And we need to be available. This isn’t about convenience. If we’re not there, if we’re not here, well, there is no friendship. And we have to listen to our friend, as well as to the inner stirrings of our own hearts. Listening is the great art. It is a principal facet of the jewel of spiritual discipline. Sensitivity doesn’t mean being touchy, it means being attuned, feeling the needs of our friends, as well as our own. Generosity with time is part of the same commitment as availability and listening. If you aren’t here with your friend, there is no friendship. And it can’t always be about what’s convenient. There is a cost in friendship, and that price is time.

Then all this extends into being helpful, being useful for another in their need. This doesn’t mean turning your life over to another, particularly to another whose own wounds are an endless hole of need. There are lots of hurt and many traps on the way of friendship. So, you have to have your head screwed on right, and bring discernment into the project along with your heart. And even though it can be dangerous you have to reach out and help. To do this you have to genuinely be yourself. Here’s a secret: you can’t be someone else it’s not possible. So the sooner you stop that vain attempt, the sooner you claim your own self, the sooner you can really be a friend. And, then, finally, within the spiral dance, at some point this way of intimacy must extend out to others, to the great community of which we are all a part.

We’re running out of time. Don’t forget you have an opportunity to continue this conversation right after this service. But to bring this part of our time to a close let me remind you of an old story. You’ve almost certainly heard it before, but I would encourage you to hear it this time within the context of today’s meditation. There’s a lovely little house on a hill on a road just outside of the village. It provides an amazing view of the village and forested hills beyond and in the distance some amazing spectacular mountains. An old woman tends her garden at the side of the cottage. From time to time travelers stop for a moment and enjoy the view of the countryside and the village down below. Unfailingly she offers them water from her well.

One of those times a man dusty from travel looks wistfully down at the village and asks her about it. He explains he has been wandering too long and would like to find a home. He asks, what kind of people are they that live down there? The old woman asks, well, first tell me what kind of people there were where you came from?

He sighed and said, they were unkind, unfriendly, always looking to make a buck out of someone’s grief. Really, on balance, pretty nasty people. That’s why he had left, all those years ago. The old woman looked at him with eyes ancient from the wounds of the world. She said, “I’m so sorry, but the people down there are just as you describe.” With a sigh, the man returned her cup and continued on his quest.

Not long after that another man came by. He, too, enjoyed the view. He, too, received a cup of cool, cool water. And, he too, said he had been wandering a long time, and realized that perhaps it was time to settle down. So, what kind of people are they down in that village, he asked? And, again, she inquired, what kind of people were they where he came from?

He said, they were good and generous folk, always looking out for each other. But, I was too young and foolish to appreciate that, and embarked on my quest for something else. Now, I’m tired, and it’s been too long. But also that place is long gone. I miss them so. I miss the people who care for each other, and hold them responsible, but love them. They were the definition of good.

The old woman smiled broadly with an ancient joy, and said, “You’ve come home, friend. This is that place, as well.”

And, my dear friends, I hope each of us can find that place for ourselves.

Right here.

Right now.

Discovered within friendship.