This morning we continue our sermon series called “Amid the Cold of Winter.” We are reflecting on some of the sustaining practices that come out of our faith and that can help us during this season of winter, but especially winter during a pandemic. This morning, we will be looking closely at the practice of friendship.
In preparing for this sermon, I read close to 20 articles, listened to some podcasts, and listened to some interviews with experts and scientists—all about the topic of friendship during this COVID-19 pandemic. And let me tell you, they weren’t exactly optimistic… but they did provide some important explanation and context for the thing that all of us are feeling right now: This is hard. Friendship during a pandemic that requires distancing and huge changes to our routines is extremely difficult. Friendship can be tricky enough as it is, and now it’s just that much harder.
BUT! We also know that friendship, relationship, companionship is worth that struggle. Mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually we need friendship. Mitch Prinstein, professor of psychology and neuroscience at UNC Chapel Hill, says, “We are biologically programmed to need and to seek [social relationships], and our bodies respond dramatically when we don’t have them.” Friends provide moments of joy. Friends help us feel known and heard. Friends let us put our guard down. Friends connect us to something bigger than ourselves.
I don’t have to make an extensive argument for why friendship is important—you know why friendship is important, which is why we all feel the impact of the changes that have been created in how we relate to one another during a pandemic, and during the cold months of winter on top of that.
Consider all of our various social circles—you have your closest core group of friends and family, then there’s the category of people you hang out with but who may not be your first call when you have news to share, then there’s co-workers and people you have things in common with, and then there’s friendly acquaintances, then there’s the barista who knows your order, and on and on these layers go. But, what we’ve seen is the pandemic has evaporated entire categories of friendship.
Amanda Mull talks about this in her article for The Atlantic. She says, “People on the peripheries of our lives introduce us to new ideas, new information, new opportunities, and other new people.” And she breaks down some of the meaning around these evaporating categories. It’s these layers of outer circle relationships that help us feel like we’re part of something bigger.
We feel this loss in so many ways, and sometimes it’s even deeper than what appears on the surface.
What comes to mind for me is seeing sports live and in person. I love baseball. I love being in the stadium, the smell of the grass, the crack of the bat, all of it. And yes, ultimately, sports are a trivial part of our lives, but for me there’s also something more there than just wins and losses.
If you’ll indulge me on a trip down memory lane, I’ll tell you what I mean.
It was a hot, humid weekend in St. Louis in August of 2004. My dad and I drove over from Louisville to watch St. Louis Cardinals baseball. When we could, we liked to make a weekend of it—three games in three days—Friday, Saturday, Sunday. We would walk from our hotel to the stadium, and when you walk downtown in St Louis on gameday, everyone is wearing red even if they don’t have tickets to the game. There’s an energy in the air.
The first game that weekend was a Friday night, August 6th. My dad, myself, and 50,000 other people all united around the same thing. Late in the game, an announcement comes up on the big board in the outfield that says the Cardinals have just made a trade. They had traded for Larry Walker, one of the game’s superstars at the time and a man who is now in the baseball Hall of Fame. It was in-between innings. Nothing was happening on the field, but the crowd erupts. Chants of “Lar-ry, Lar-ry!” fill the air. Strangers are high fiving each other like they’ve been friends for decades. I remember that moment, not just because I was watching my favorite team play baseball in their home stadium, but because I was a part of something. I experienced that moment differently because my dad and I shared it with 50,000 people. 50,000 people who exist in an outside ring of my categories of friendship, but it’s also a ring that has been temporarily evaporated by the pandemic. Celebrating these kinds of moments in my livingroom in front of the TV while trying to be quiet enough not to wake the toddler just isn’t the same.
And so when I mourn the inability to see sports in person, it’s about the experience of watching a game, yes, but it’s also about losing the moments like that which transcend categories of friendship.
We might miss going to concerts because we love the band, but what makes a concert so special is getting to sing those lyrics at the top of your lungs with an arena full of people doing the same thing.
We might miss going out to dinner because we like supporting our good local restaurants, but it’s also the atmosphere and the slower pace that comes alongside dining with friends.
We might know that church is bigger than a building and God is just as present when we worship from home, but we miss gathering in the sanctuary because of the people we love to share this space with.
And so with those outer rings of friendship almost entirely cut off, what do we do? We focus more on the people that are close to us. Most of us have chosen to double down on our connection to our inner circle. We can no longer risk taking those relationships for granted. With distancing requirements and our options for how we see each other severely limited, we have to put in the work to deepen those close friendships. And I think, for the most part, we’re seeing that to be true across the board. When your inner circle of friends becomes a lifeline of sorts during a pandemic, you can’t help but grow closer, know each other more completely, and deepen the bonds that hold you together.
And that’s great. But perhaps there’s more?
The Bible is full of examples of friendship and advice about friendship, but none of them take place with the backdrop of pandemic and forced isolation. Now, that said, there are still plenty of things scripture can teach us about how we, as people of faith, should practice friendship during this time. The one that most closely parallels our experience is the story of Ruth and Naomi.
Naomi is married and they have two sons. The family moves from Bethlehem to Moab because of a famine. While in Moab, both of their sons get married, as well. Time goes by and Naomi’s husband dies. More time goes by and both of the sons also die, which leaves Naomi and her two daughters in law all widows with few options for how to care for themselves. Naomi decides she is going to travel back to Judah, where her hometown of Bethlehem is, and she tells both daughters in law, Ruth and Orpah, to go back to the homes of their families in Moab. Orpah chooses to go back, but Ruth refuses. She is going to go with Naomi.
“Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
It shouldn’t be lost on us how incredibly remarkable this moment is. In Israelite patriarchal society, there were only two ways a woman had value: as an unmarried virgin or as a child-producing wife. Being childless widows puts these women on the fringes of society with few options. And yet, this story survives. This story became one that was told generation after generation before being written down. This story has made an imprint on the history of our faith and not just because of its place in the genealogy of Jesus. Broadly speaking, the entire book of Ruth hinges on one woman risking her own well-being by showing deep devotion and love for another woman. Ruth could have gone home like Orpah, but she didn’t. Instead, she chose to do more than what was expected to deepen a relationship.
Once they became childless widows in that society, all of their outer friend circles were gone. All of their support networks were gone. And so they deepened their relationship with one another because Ruth chose to go beyond what was expected.
And that, friends, is the call for us, as well.
Yes, we mourn the temporary loss of the outer circles of friendship and connection, and yes, we work to deepen our closest inner circle relationships. But what sets us apart as people of faith and people who believe in the work and words of Jesus, is a constant call to go beyond what is expected. Jesus tells us to walk the extra mile, to give our coat as well as our cloak, to be generous, to love our enemies, and to be willing to take up our own cross. The call to go beyond what is expected is seen in the Compassionate Father who welcomes his son home, in the Good Samaritan, and in Zacchaeus. The call to go beyond what is expected is seen in the letters of Paul, it’s seen in the challenges of the prophets, and it’s seen in the wisdom of the psalms and proverbs. The call to go beyond what is expected by society is a constant refrain in our faith.
And so right now, we find ourselves in a really difficult season—a pandemic that already changed the entire face of what friendship looks like, as well as the cold of winter that adds extra strain by limiting our ability to even be outdoors with each other. So, when the world responds by insulating themselves even further into their inner circles, what is the call for Christians? What does it look like to go beyond what is expected in friendship?
It is precisely in times like these when the collective energy bandwidth is narrow, that we need to step up and EXPAND our circles.
Who are the people that are one or two notches out in your friend radius that you could reach out to? Send a text, make a call, write a note—whatever you think can bring a smile to someone’s face and remind them of the love you have for them and of the care of this church community.
Who in your Sunday School class have you missed seeing? Who is it that normally sits near you in the sanctuary you haven’t talked to in a while? Who are your neighbors that live alone and would appreciate a friendly voice?
Going beyond what’s expected in the realm of friendship is what transforms a collection of people into a community. That’s what separates the people at a church from the people at a baseball game—both are groups of people coming together over something they have in common, but only one asks you to be in relationship with people across generations.
And so, in this time where we cannot safely gather as we normally would, we have to rely on keeping and strengthening those connections outside of our inner circles. Like that refrain in the background of our faith, we have to do more than what is expected. This is a responsibility Ruth took seriously by staying with Naomi, even though nothing in their lives or culture said she had to.
There’s a news story that’s making its way around social media right now, perhaps you’ve seen it. It introduces us to two friends, Andy and Gabe, who are musicians in Nashville. Some weeks, they would see each other a lot, but as so often happens, there would also be periods of time where they wouldn’t get to see each other as much. So these two guys decided to create a weekly ritual. Every Monday morning, they would walk from their separate houses along a route they had planned that would let them meet in the middle. When they reached the mid point, they would walk past each other, but as they did so, they would clap, snap, and high five. And then, most of the time, they just walk home. They have done this for seven years. It is their way of making sure they at least see each other every week. Andy even keeps a log of every high five they have given each other through this ritual.
Fast forward to last fall and Gabe was hospitalized with an infection that caused his brain to swell and resulted in him having amnesia—he didn’t remember anything or anybody. Andy comes to the hospital room to visit, but of course, Gabe doesn’t recognize him. So Andy says, “I need you to do one thing for me. I need you to give me a high five.” A strange request to make of a man in a hospital bed with severe brain swelling, and yet, clap, snap, high five. Despite not having his memory of Andy or any of those high fives, his body remembered. In the news story, Gabe expresses what it means to have a friend that would walk through the rain or snow just to give him a high five. And, as his memories return, the two friends continue their weekly ritual.
Friendship matters. It goes well beyond our conscious thought. It becomes imbedded in who we are. And all of us have the opportunity to leave that kind of impression in others.
We are made to be in relationship with one another, and so as we think about what it means to explore friendship amid the cold of winter, remember our call to go beyond what’s expected and to deepen our community.
You never know, the card you send or the call you make could be the highlight of someone’s week. How will you reach out?
And, I hope you are the recipient of some of these blessings, as well.
Continue to be good to each other and check on your friends.