© Barbara F. Meyers 2008. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 30, 2008

"There are two elements that go to the composition of friendship... One is Truth... The other is Tenderness." Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Essay on Friendship", 1841.

"Friendship is an incentive to carry on the works of God [good works] in a world of sorrow." Martin Marty, Friendship, 1980.

Friendship as a Calling

Many of you know that I produce a public access TV show that focuses on mental health issues. In a recent show the subject was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One of my guests was an Iraqi war veteran named Steve. As he told his story on the show, I learned something about life-long friendship, even when one of the friends has died. I learned that friendship can be created when people have literally gone through hell together. Steve joined the California National Guard after 9/11. There he met Patrick, a gentle soul who also wanted to do something for his country after 9/11. They were both deployed to Iraq shortly afterwards in the same unit. They had the job of searching out the enemy in very dangerous territory, kicking in doors, having violent, stressful confrontations. After training some Iraqi national soldiers, Patrick was killed by one of the ones he had trained. Patrick's mother Nadia was devastated, of course. Then, in the following months, she was contacted by some of her son's returning veteran friends, some of them showing up on her doorstep sobbing, unable to cope with civilian life. One of these was Steve. As a result, Nadia turned her grief for her son into advocating for and serving the returning soldiers by starting what she calls Veteran's Villages - places where veterans work with nature away from demands of civilian life. Patrick's friends have become living advocates and widely known speakers on behalf of their comrades and Nadia's villages. They believe that fidelity to their friend is one of the guiding lights of their continuing life - it enables them to make sense of their lives and makes them meaningful. That is, for them, their friendship has become a sense of purpose, a vocation, you might say a calling.

Today I want to explore the concept of friendship and show how it can become a spiritual practice, something intentionally religious. And how it can enrich our lives and our society beyond measure.

I'm talking about friendship as a calling. You might be wondering: What is "a calling", anyway? Maybe you think, as many do, that only ministers have a calling. Psychologist James Hillman has a definition that I like very much. He says:

"Calling can refer not only to ways of doing - meaning work - but also to ways of being. Take being a friend." ... "Our calling in life is inborn and that it's our mission in life to realize its imperatives."[1]

Whether or not you agree with Hillman that we all have an inborn calling, I hope you can see that when one lives one's life dedicated to a purpose that one believes in, that this can bring meaning to our lives. And bringing meaning has always been something that religion has done for people, whether they are professional or in the laity.

What Friendship Is

We all have friends and probably have a sense of what a friend is. Sociologist Jan Yager has made the study of friendship part of her life's work. Yager says that a friendship relationship has the following characteristics: - between two or more people who are unrelated - voluntary, not legal, and reciprocal

In her study, she has found the following factors to be important in a close friendship: trust, honesty, loyalty, good listener, common ideas, love, and being there in times of need. Characteristics which she found not to be significant in friendship are: being a good talker, attractiveness, age, intelligence. [2] I find it interesting that being a good talker is not characteristic of being a friend, but being a good listener is. Hmmmm. Might we all learn something from this?

Religious scholar, Martin Marty believes that a friendship is characterized by rejoicing, gratitude, reverence, and loyalty. He observes that friends are often people who have weathered experiences together - ex: war-time buddies, [as in the soldier Steve I talked about earlier] gone to high school, college. [3] Many of us have had life experience to know that a friend is someone who loves and accepts one just the way you are, unconditionally. The classic teaching in the Bible about friendship is the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story, a man is robbed and injured, cast on the side of the road. Several people pass the person by and look the other way. Finally, a Samaritan, at that time a despised group of foreigners, stops by, helps the man, and takes him to a place where he can be cared for. The moral of the story is obvious. Who is the real friend, the countrymen who passed the injured man by, or the foreigner who helps him? It might help you to get the impact of this story if you told it as the parable of the good fundamentalist, or the good Skin-Head. The point is that friendship comes from actions, not societal expectations.

Jan Yager studied how one makes friends and maintains friendships. [4] I think some of her conclusions are interesting.

Making Friends:

I think this boils down to: If you want to have a friend, be a friend.

Maintaining friendship:

Martin Marty has observed that friendships often have rites that are spontaneously created: These are such things as stories shared, "our song", gift giving, occurrences observed, encouragement. We often look forward to opportunities to engage in these rites as moments of shared joy. They can be much better motivators than many of the other things that are tried to inspire us to action.

I am reminded of the story of Steve that started this sermon. He continues to maintain his friendship with his fallen comrade Patrick, even making it one of the remaining central points of his life. How much easier should it be for us to maintain a friendship with someone who is here with us now? Who we can share songs, encouragement, exchange gifts? Who we can tell what is really in our hearts? Who we can listen to when they are having a hard time?

I would be remiss if I concluded that everything about friendship is wonderful. UU Minister Paul D. Daniel says: "We all have had the experience of a friendship when something goes wrong. : Every relationship endures hurts and slights. What is required is forgiveness, for in the forgiveness of friendship we experience intimations of the divine. Being attentive to our friendships is an act of devotion. It is the means by which we nurture others and ourselves. Friends are willing to serve each other in kindness and compassion. Friends need to be nurtured and nourished through silence and listening, sharing, hospitality, and scrupulous honesty, except when hurt without solace will be the outcome. Being able silently to abide with each other in need is the greatest gift that can be given or received.

There is no substitute for sharing real feelings." [5]

Sometimes a friendship is stretched to the breaking point and actually become harmful. Harmful types of friendships can have the following characteristics, according to Yager: [6]

Characteristics of Harmful types of friends:

But does this possibility of being hurt mean that we should be wary of making friends?

It is very painful when the people we have invested our time and hopes in betray us in one of these ways. Some people find themselves vowing never to trust anyone in such a way again, to never have another friend. This feeling is certainly understandable, but I challenge you when this happens, to not give up on friendship all together because one friend has betrayed you. Friendship is just too precious, too grace-filled and frankly too important in the future of the world to give up on it all together. One can end a friendship, but not give up on all friendship altogether. To end a friendship, Yager suggests:

Ending Friendships: Yager When friendship is harmful: threatens well-being, destructive to you [7]

  1. Minimize or stop contact
  2. Replace the friendship with a positive one
  3. Avoid confrontations by being "busy" if your friend tries to initiate contact.
Of course some ends to friendships happen when there is a death. What often helps healing when someone dies is, if you have the opportunity, the chance to say good bye to the person. And of course taking time to grieve their loss.

Some of you may be thinking that this is all fine theoretically, but what about the real world where there are real enemies out to do us harm. You may have heard of game theory, a system for assessing competing strategies and outcomes in such areas as economics, political science and sociology. My colleague Rev. Patrick O'Neill points out that "The idea behind Game Theory research is to find those codes of ethics that are most 'effective' in human interaction, which types of behavior make the most sense on a purely logical level and which behaviors invite exploitation or confrontation, and which behaviors most likely produce harmony and equilibrium in a dangerous world. ... You might be interested that the rules that most often work in Game Theory to produce win-win situations are these:

This is starting to sound like something religious - like the Golden Rule. That brings us to considering Religion and Friendship - Friendship as a Calling

Friendship as a Calling

What does a religious congregation have to do with friendship? A lot! Many studies have shown that the number one thing people coming to UU congregations say that they are looking for is community. My colleague Rev. Barbara Hamilton-Holway from Berkeley observes that that "Community is central to the spiritual, religious life. Our heritage from the religions of the world celebrates community." [9] She offers examples of friendship/community from world religions:

A Hebrew proverb declares, "Hospitality to strangers is greater than reverence for the name of God."

Jesus called out for highest praise, "I was a stranger and you took me in."

The Hindu scriptures pray, "May all beings regard me with the eye of a friend, and I all beings! With the eye of a friend may each single being regard all others."

The Buddha said, "The whole of holy life is fulfilled through spiritual friendship," and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn says, "The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence."

Among the actions the prophet Muhammad called the most excellent is "to gladden the heart of a human being."

Our congregations "offer healing, friendship, and make a place for people to be who they are." Further, Rev. Hamilton-Holway shares with us a way we can build this intentional friendship into our lives.

'A spiritual practice, a religious intention we can hold is,
"May I take time today to reach out to welcome a stranger."
Speak to someone new to you, engage in conversation.

I've heard it said "Be kind; everyone you know is fighting a hard battle." People are carrying more pain than we know. Even though people are looking pretty together and arriving through the doors here, still people are hurting more than we know. Offering compassionate attention makes a difference.' [10]


I know this to be true on a very personal level. When I first walked into a UU congregation in Hayward, I was very hurting. I had recently been discharged from the psychiatric ward after an episode of depression and psychosis. For the first few weeks and months, I sat silently in the back row, sometimes crying. Those people in that church treated me like I was a person with inherent worth and dignity, they listened to what I said, they liked the bread I baked for coffee hour, and they cared. In short, they were friends, a loving caring community for a stranger who was hurting more than they knew. They offered me healing, friendship, and made a place for me to be who I was.

Let me give a couple more stories to illustrate what I mean.

Story: Rev. Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry went through a time of despair in her earlier life as a parish minister when it seemed like there were no options. In her book "Proverbs of Ashes" she describes [11] how on her way to drown herself, she came across the Seattle Astronomy Club with many telescopes pointing to a perfect view of Jupiter, a wonder in the night sky. They excitedly drew her in and had her look in their telescope explaining what it was. After looking and talking, she turned around and went home, her plans for suicide abandoned. I remember her telling us seminarians that these people and others were "angels watching over her" during this difficult time, and that she will never cease to be in gratitude to them. These were gifts anonymously and freely given to a stranger, gifts that didn't cost anything, but more precious than the most expensive present anyone could have given her at that moment.

Another story: Sometimes people who have intended to take their own lives decide not to do so. Suicide can sometimes be a very impulsive act. When asked about why they did not go ahead with their suicidal plans they say things like: "At the last minute, someone smiled at me." And I wager that that person had no idea the effect that their smile had. Such a simple gesture, but such a large consequence for the world.

This is one of the reasons why I try and smile and say "good morning" or "good afternoon" to people on the street - especially people who may not get many friendly greetings - Sikhs, Indians, others who are "different." I many times see a frowning face return a smile. The world seems like a safer and friendlier place. At least on that street at that time. And it was so simple.

Rev. Hamilton-Holway suggests these ways to engage in this spiritual practice:

  1. 'Simply ask, "How are you?" wanting to know.
  2. Simply listen.
  3. Listen for the good in the person.
  4. Hospitality helps us discover our true selves.
  5. Sometimes we need to see the precious person we truly are reflected in one another's eyes before we can believe it ourselves.'

I want to end with some imagery from Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay on Friendship written in 1841. Here is the quote:

"The whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eye-beams. The heart knoweth."

He sees an atmosphere of love pervading human relations. It is what allows us to trust each other, to care about our common future, to work together in common purpose. In sort, to be friends with the world. I know that you may not agree, but I want you to consider how people in this world would behave if they believed it were true. I see friendship carried to its theological limits. What do you see? What do we all see together?

May it be so.

Footnotes with references:

1. Interview by Scott London, published in the March 1998 issue of The Sun magazine under the title, "From Little Acorns: A Radical New Psychology."
2. Jan Yager, Friendshift - The Power of Friendship and How It Shapes Our Lives, Hannacroix Creek Books, 1997.
3. Martin Marty, Friendship, Tabor Publishing, 1980, p 59.
4. Jan Yager, Friendshift - The Power of Friendship and How It Shapes Our Lives, Hannacroix Creek Books, 1997.
5. Rev. Paul D. Daniel, Sermon: Friendship - A Cost Benefit Analysis, July 11, 1999.
6. Jan Yager, When Friendship Hurts - How to deal with friends who betray, abandon or wound you, Simon and Schuster 2002.
7. Jan Yager, Ibid, p 47.
8. Rev. Patrick O'Niell, Sermon: The Golden Rule (and come Silver, Copper and Tin Rules, too) Nov 5, 2006.
9. Rev. Barbara Hamilton-Holway, Sermon - The Hunger for Friends, April 30, 2006 Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley.
10. Rev. Barbara Hamilton-Holway, Ibid.
11. Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker and Rev. Dr. Rita Brock, Proverbs of Ashes, Beacon Press, 2001, p 114.

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