by David Romanik
Back in June, I had the great joy of taking my three daughters to Vacation Bible School at Heavenly Rest. It was a joyous and delightful event, filled with wonderful art projects, diverting games, and edifying reflections on Jesus as the light of the world. For me, however, the most memorable part of the experience was that on the first night, my middle daughter and the granddaughter of a parishioner walked up to each other, embraced, and proceeded to spend the rest of the evening together. On the way home, Lizzie announced, “I love my friend!” Curious, I asked, “Had you met your friend before tonight?” “Nope!” she replied.
Needless to say, I was delighted that Lizzie had made a new friend, especially since they ended up spending much of the rest of the week together. At the same time, I found myself experiencing a pang of jealousy when I thought about how much more difficult it feels to make friends as an adult. Kids walk up to each other and decide that they are going to be friends. Adults, on the other hand, tend to go through a much longer process of evaluation: Does this person even like me? Am I being presumptuous by imposing friendship? What happens if I discover there is something I don’t like about this person? Do I even have time for friendship right now? I suspect that just about everyone is plagued by these doubts. I am a hopeless extrovert, and I still feel incredibly anxious when I invite a potential friend to have coffee. Making friends requires us to make ourselves vulnerable, to risk rejection, and to use our limited free time for an uncertain outcome. It can feel easier to simply avoid making friends altogether.
And yet, my suspicion is that one of the things we suffer from most in this society is a lack of friendship. Americans are lonelier than ever. In 1985, according to one study, 10 percent of Americans indicated that they have “zero confidants,” people with whom they feel comfortable talking about matters that are important to them. In 2004, that number had jumped to 25 percent. One can only imagine the extent to which the pandemic has increased that proportion. Anecdotally, the people I know who struggle the most are those who report not having friends: people they can really talk to, people to whom they do not have to say “I’m fine” when asked how they are doing. Even those of us who feel less isolated tend to have what one might call “circumstantial friendships”: gym buddies, work acquaintances, school associates, and so on. The challenge with relationships like these is that they are contingent on what we are able to do or how we earn a living. By contrast, I suspect that most of us long for friendships that are rooted in unconditional love.
The theme of friendship is central to the New Testament, particularly in the gospel according to John. In the fifteenth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus is in the midst of preparing his disciples for his death when he tells them, “I have called you friends”. There are some commentators who speculate that John is creating a contrast with the writings of Paul, who prefers to observe that we are servants of Christ. Whatever his motivation, however, John insists on using the word “friendship” to describe the relationship between Jesus and his followers. Moreover, he observes that those who are friends with Jesus ought to love one another. True devotion to God, in other words, requires friendship with others.
Last year, our theme for Rally Night and the subsequent program year was “Coming Home”. We acknowledged that it had been a long time since we had all gathered together at Heavenly Rest, and we wanted to encourage people to reconnect with the life of this parish community. Many, if not most of us, reengaged at some level: some of us jumped in with both feet, while others of us dipped our toes into the water. We offered programs we hadn’t offered in a long time, including Sunday school, Wednesday night suppers, and special events like St. Francis at the Zoo, Trunk or Treat, and Twelfth Night. We’ve noticed, however, that one element of our common life that hasn’t yet returned is the casual, unstructured “hang out” time. There was a time when one could walk the halls of the parish house and find people in various rooms, visiting and getting to know one another. This is a loss. These social interactions created space for friendships to form, connections to be made, and love to flourish.
For this reason, Heavenly Rest is going to focus on friendship for the coming program year. (Our theme for Rally Night this year is Our Common Life: “I have called you Friends”). Throughout the year, we will be intentional about encouraging parishioners to make and nurture friendships, and we will do our best to create spaces in which this can happen. This work is not a matter of passing interest; it is of ultimate importance. The work of nurturing friendships is a way of stemming the tide of loneliness, not just in this parish community, but in the wider world.
As we enter a new program year, my prayer is that we will embrace the important work of nurturing friendships, both here at Heavenly Rest and elsewhere in our lives. More importantly, I pray we will remember that the one who called us friends has called us to be friends with one another.