A Friend Indeed

Hearing our beautiful choir today reminds me a little of my childhood. I will carry your heart with me…. Specifically, what it reminds me of was how badly I wanted to be someone’s BE FRI. Sure, I would have settled for being someone’s ST END. But really what I wanted was to be someone’s BE FRI.

See, when I was young a fad hit my school. This fad came in the form of paired necklaces, each with half a heart as the pendant. And the hearts looked like they’d been cut down the middle in a zigzag. Then on one heart, you’d see BE FRI. And on the other heart, you’d see ST ENDS. If you put them together, the reunited halves would read together BEST FRIENDS.

My sister had one of these necklaces and a friend of hers carried the other half. I was a little jealous of that. It wasn’t really that I wanted the necklace. But I remember wanting someone I could share that real, tangible bond with. I moved around a lot in my life, so I didn’t really make a close friendship like my sister had until later in life, in high school.

Though I do remember one friend of mine and I, during the Cabbage Patch Doll fad in the 80s, named our Cabbage Patch Dolls after each other. But looking back, that was a little more weird than it was charming. It didn’t quite have the same elegance of literally carrying around a part of someone else’s heart. Or better yet, two halves of the same heart.

These necklaces are still around today, but not nearly as common. Advertisements I’ve seen refer to them as “BFF necklaces”. For those of you just a little behind the times, BFF are initials for the title Best Friends Forever. And even that auspicious title, BFF, is fading in popularity now. There are probably a few young people here today who laughed a little at someone my age even using the term BFF.

But no matter how we look at it, the ways friendship is shown to others is a big part of our culture. Of course, a really simple way to show everyone all the friends anyone has is to have a look at…their Facebook page. Just imagine that. One of the most valuable companies in the world helped to amass a fortune for its founder that makes him the fifth wealthiest person in the entire world—all driven by desire to connect publicly with friends.

I don’t know about you, but these changes in how people demonstrate their friendship is enough to make someone miss those good old days. You know, those days when all two friends needed to do to show the world they were friends was have a little too much to drink at dinner. Then a little more to drink at the pub. Then just stumble a little into the friendly neighborhood tattoo parlor, and wake up with matching tattoos right here on my arm…. I mean…on THEIR arms. Talk about carrying something with you….

But inventing new ways to show friendship isn’t only a recent fad. It’s a practice that goes back into the depths of human experience. The ancient Celtic people used rituals to enter into what was called Anamchara, an ancient word loosely translated as “soul friend.” By entering this relationship people would make public to their community that they were close friends, that they were devoted to each other’s wellbeing. Druid advisors to Celtic rulers were also called Anamcharas, and the adoption of this practice by Catholic monastics in those same lands in later years is part of what led to the flourishing religious communal life that developed in Ireland. Even the most influential piece of pre-biblical literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, from the Sumerian people, centers its plot on the relationship between two friends and the impact of that friendship on society. Written well before even the earliest versions of the Hebrew Scriptures, the story follows the friendship between the two main characters, the future king Gilgamesh and the wild Enkidu. That friendship and the sorrow Gilgamesh felt after losing his friend is what helped Gilgamesh embrace the importance of friendship when building up the legendary community that he would lead.

The foundation of so much of human understanding of community, the structure of so much flourishing and vibrancy in our lives together, and the shelter for so much of what we know and love about one another, all rest on the fertile ground that friendship and friendliness among humans provides.

In her breathtaking book Talking to Strangers, Danielle Allen, one of the finest and sharpest minds in this or any generation, tells us stories of ways that friendship functions in a society. Her examples consider actions in racial, political, and other arenas where friendship must play a more central role, but she is very clear about what she means by friendship.

Her words: “Friendship is not an emotion, but a practice, a set of hard-won, complicated habits that are used to bridge trouble, difficulty, and differences of personality, experience, and aspiration.” That sounds like a far cry from necklaces, tattoos, and Facebook. What Allen is talking about is devotion to a practice that can actively and practically be undertaken. “A set of hard-won complicated habits.”

She suggests that of the three most rewarding public endeavors humans undertake together—citizenship, friendship, and justice—friendship is the undertaking that holds the most promise for transforming our society. And the starting point for the practice most likely to lead to better, more influential friendships that she suggests is not very hard to locate in her text. In fact, it’s on the cover of the book: Talking to Strangers.

She promises that by talking with people who we don’t know, we overcome deeply ingrained feelings, feelings she equates with a four-year-old who’s been told over and over and over: “Never talk to strangers.” What results from the repetition of this message, in her view, is the feeling that whenever we accidentally bump into a stranger, the four-year-old in us recoils in fear. But the shift in thinking she suggests is powerful, literally.

What she imagines to counteract the stranger/danger impulse is that she is the President of the United States, the most powerful person in the world, who wouldn’t have the slightest need to fear any stranger. She imagines herself with the clear, unfettered eye of genuine safety, taking in the image of every person she meets. There would be no individual she would look at from that position with the slightest bit of fear or doubt in her own strength or abilities to be friendly. This is the devotional of friendliness she practices—this expectancy for how she might be rid of any fear when coming to someone she does not know. And she encourages us all to try it on for ourselves: talking to strangers without any fear.

Now, Professor Allen holds doctorates in Classical Philosophy and in Political Theory, and runs an institute at Harvard. She is not exactly in the trenches of the day-to-day political dramas unfolding these days.

But, over this weekend, some members of congress and the senate held some town halls back in their districts. If you’re looking for some fun YouTube watching, I encourage you to check some of them out. Any lover of democracy and hearing the voices of the people would enjoy this new pastime. It’s really become more of a sport for me, I must confess. And out of this new sport, one of the people who, in my view, rises above many others as a solid, reliable utility player and a source of some wisdom and reason is Senator Lindsey Graham, from the great state of South Carolina.

He held a town hall meeting yesterday, roughly twenty four hours after congress pulled their beleaguered healthcare bill from the scheduled Friday vote. The unflappable, plain spoken Senator, answered questions on a range of subjects. He received a few cheers. He received a lot of boos. But when he was asked whether he was afraid about surviving reelection in 2020, he was borderline incredulous at the question.

He responded that he was not afraid of whether or not he would survive reelection. He said, “So here’s the deal. I am not afraid of losing this job. That’s not my concern. You know what I’m afraid of? Of losing this country. I’m afraid of this country falling apart because people can’t listen to each other, and they just yell.” “…they just yell.”

Of course, I see the Senator’s point. It’s hard to speak when all anyone wants to do is yell. So it seems easier, or at least quieter, to talk to someone we can easily identify as our friend. After all, easily identifying our friends is part of who we are as humans. And the meaningfulness of that identification forms the basis of much of our community and culture.

I remember a few years ago, two friends of mine were surprised when their daughter arrived much earlier than expected. After her birth, they learned that their tiny baby would need to stay in the neonatal intensive care unit for six weeks. But it was only recently at dinner with that brave little girl and her parents, that I learned the rest of the story.

For those six weeks the baby’s father would finish work, go home, get a suit for the next day at work, go to the hospital and sleep right by the side of his newborn daughter. He would not leave her side. Then he’d get dressed and go to work and do it all over again the next day. He did this every night that she was in the unit.

What I remember, though, was when I saw the first pictures of my friends and their new, tiny family member. The pictures were shared on Facebook, and a few showed the baby’s father, my friend, cradling her in his arms.I stopped on one picture as I was scrolling through. In it, my friend was staring down at his daughter with the kind of wide-eyed grin that says, “I got you. Don’t worry. I got you.”

And there it was, plain as day. You couldn’t miss it if you tried. I had almost forgotten. But there on the upper arm cradling that piece of perfect creation was an image intimately familiar to me. There was my tattoo—the one I’ve got right here.

See, this was the friend I was out on the town with long before he even had a family, when we decided that getting tattoos would be a great idea. We actually ended up getting the same tattoo in the same spot. And it was his wife’s Facebook page that shared this image with me, this image of my friend cradling his tiny daughter, literally carrying a part of himself, as gently and as lovingly as he might have carried another’s heart with him, that reached into my own heart and cracked it just a little with a shared sense of the pain and fear my friends might have known.

There is no doubt that the power of recognizing our friends is immense. But my friends, ours is a story of strangers. And it is the story of so many of us here. Wanderers, strays, maybe even outcasts from faiths of our upbringing, many of us felt like strangers here. Some of us may still feel that way.

But for just as many of us, something here spoke to us. We might have sung our beloved Doxology, witnessed a moving testimony, or we might have experienced a piece of music that moved us in a way that we have never been moved before.

Whatever it was, something spoke to us. Something said to us, “I got you. Don’t worry. I got you.” This is the human story. “I got you. Don’t worry. I got you.” We can say those words differently. It might sound like “I got your back.” Or “I carry your heart with me.” We might say it together in Spanish, or sing it to each other in Arabic. But however it is said, however it is that we talk, what these words mean is at the heart of how we can live interconnected to one another.

We are so much a part of one another that the good we do for others is also a good we do for ourselves. And it is from this sharing of the common good, our devotion to the practice of friendship, that the Beloved Community flows.

What better practice is there for enlivening and enriching the Beloved Community than talking to friends we haven’t met yet?

And what better place is there for strengthening the Beloved Community than here, part of a movement whose history and whose future lies in telling wanderers, strays, and outcasts, “We got you. Don’t worry. We got you.”

And what better person is there than each one of us to vanish fear from another’s heart simply by talking to them?

And maybe if we press our hearts together to the hearts of those we embrace, we may just find the best friend we never knew we were missing.

And may it ever be so.