Chalice lighting

Each of us is a light
A small light that casts about in the darkness to find wisdom, to find connection, and to seek the good
In twos, our light is amplified manyfold and brings into view the power of love and life as it can be
As many together, we are a beacon ablaze with the light of justice - showing the path to this new world

Reading: Your Catfish Friend, by Richard Brautigan

If I were to live my life
in catfish forms
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by
one evening
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge
of my affection
and think, “It’s beautiful
here by this pond. I wish
somebody loved me,"
I’d love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be
at peace,
and ask yourself, “I wonder
if there are any catfish
in this pond? It seems like
a perfect place for them.”

Reflections on friendship from members of the congregation

Reflection from Suse: When Andy asked me if I had anything to share about friendship, he said he’d mostly failed at friendship in his own life (he’s given me the go-ahead to share that). His manner of asking me immediately reminded me of an important lesson I learned about friendship six or seven years ago, in my late twenties.

I had this girlfriend - I’ll call her Anna, because that wasn’t her name. During this period of time, Anna was working out of London, but she’d need to come in from time to time to access the British Library. Each time she was due to visit we obviously had some scheduling to do, in order to be able to spend time with each other.

Anna’s diary for a Saturday London visit often looked a bit like this:

12.30, Arrive London Euston. 

12.45, meet Cat at Kings Cross for a quick coffee. 

1.30, make a 50 minute journey to South London, arriving 2.20 to meet Jo for a quick lunch. 

3.45, leave South London, travel to North London, arriving 4.45, for a quick coffee with Louise. 

Free from 5.45 onwards, until the next day, which would look just as hectic.

I used to find this really odd, because it was so inconvenient for Anna - the scheduling of many short meet-ups with friends which were never in the same place, because each friend had their own hectic, late twenties, London-style diaries going on. I didn’t really understand why Anna didn’t mind spending as much time travelling around as she would have, in total, with the friends she was meeting. I remember thinking, surely it isn’t satisfying to have such a short period of time with people.

Over time though, I observed the effect of this effort that Anna put in: she knew what was happening in her friends’ lives, and they knew what was happening in hers. In short, she kept those relationships up to date. Each short coffee with its own long journey was an investment in that particular friendship.

That was a valuable lesson to me in my late twenties: to see someone prioritise their friendships so much: not to be passive about them, but to treat them as things to be worked at. 

Reading: The Secret of Perfect Relationships, by Guy Finley

The less we learn to long for -- or depend upon --
Special understanding from others,
The less we will suffer for not receiving this.
The less we suffer over what others
Seem incapable of giving to us,
The less unhappy will we find ourselves
In these unanswered moments of our lives
Spent in the company of friends and foes alike.
The less pain we have over what life appears to deny us,
The more at peace we naturally become with ourselves.
The more of this serenity we grow to know within ourselves,
The easier it becomes for us to give to others
This harmony founded in our New Understanding.
Whenever we give others this new order of Understanding
Without asking for anything in return,
Those we greet with this Gift are silently touched; they are moved
By this willingness to put their concerns before our own.
And it is this one action that awakens in them…
Their sleeping need to respond in kind.
Happiness is the wholeness found in conscious kindness.
This is the secret of perfect relationships.

Message – by Rev. Andy Pakula

My dog, Rumi, has a best friend. I know that seems a bit silly and that perhaps I’m thinking of him too much like a human, but - depending on what we mean by friend - he really does. His friend Jem is a six year old male Border Collie, three years older than Rumi.

Jem and Rumi spend all day together five days a week. They play together, eat together, chew bones together, go for walks together, bark together when someone dares to walk on our street or rings the doorbell, and they take long sweet naps at the same time.

Rumi doesn’t get along with all dogs. When he meets new dogs, especially other males, it can be dodgy. Fights can break out.

But with Jem, he’s comfortable and even rough play never turns into fighting. Even when they eat in the same room or want the same toy or the same bone, there is no aggression.

Rumi loves to lick Jem’s face. Jem - who is not a big licker - at least puts up with it. I’ve even seen him give a tiny lick back to Rumi.

These two dogs are comfortable with each other and enjoy each others’ company. They learn from each other - mostly bad things, like new ways to get into drawers and boxes and bins.

At least once, I saw Rumi comfort Jem. Jem - who is terrified by fireworks - was cowering at the sounds of pre-Bonfire Night explosions. Rumi went over to him and nuzzled him. He seemed to know something was wrong and wanted to help his friend.

This non-human friendship is not just my imagination. Of course, it depends what we mean by friendship, but friendships between non-human animals have been well documented. One study on cows measured their stress when they were alone, when they were with an unfamiliar cow, and when they were with a cow they knew. Cows are less stressed when they are with a cow friend.

Obviously, I’m being pretty flexible with the term friend here, and that raises an important question. What is a friend? Or what are the different kinds of friendship? We’ll return to that.

First, though, we know that friendship matters.

Friendship makes you happier. It benefits your mental health. This is not so surprising with all we are starting to realise about the devastating negative effects of loneliness.

Friendship also benefits your physical health. Some researchers have called friendship a behavioural vaccine: if you take a dose of friendship, you decrease your rate of infection, heart disease and cancer. It’s free and has relatively few negative side-effects. And, unlike exercise - which has similar positive impacts - you don’t need equipment or have to get all sweaty.

I have said in our Facebook group that I’ve mostly failed at friendship in my life. It took some unpacking of friendship for me to think about that some more. When I declared myself a friendship failure, I was thinking about an ideal of friendship.

My image of this friendship is something like what Anais Nin said:

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson declared that “A friend is one before whom I may think aloud” and that a friend is someone you can afford to be stupid with.

This ideal friend knows everything about you - even the parts you’re not proud of - and yet still loves you. This friend will listen to you openly and with great care and never judge what you say but will also lovingly warn you when they think you’re making a mistake. This friend wants the best for you and asks nothing in return. But you long to be an equally good friend to them, and you are. Time with this friend is joyous and profound. It is punctuated with laughter and tears.

The truth is that such friendships are rare - very rare. They may not even exist so much as serve as an ideal to which we aspire.

We mean many different things when we say “friend”, and what we mean – and the role of friendship – changes tremendously over our lifetimes.

For young children, a friend is someone to play with. Friendship is an opportunity to learn to share and maybe to fight over desirable toys and who got the larger piece of cake. A friend is how many people come to your birthday party. A little later, friendships become more fraught as the status of “best friend” starts to be sought after. This status gets wielded like a weapon or a wand with tremendous power - conferring happiness when granted, and misery when withdrawn.

As we get older and become adolescents, friends become more crucial to our self-image and identity. We may share our deepest feelings and doubts with our friends. The drama of friendship gets to be intense too.  

When we’re a bit older, and especially if we’re lucky enough to attend residential higher education, friendship takes on a new and crucial role. We are no longer tied to family in the same way and friends can become our new family - people who engage in support, sharing, and adventure together. It is relatively easy to make friends in this environment where we have the time and proximity for tending to friendship.

And then, we grow up.  We go into a workplace. We may pair up with one special person. We take on responsibilities like rents, mortgages, careers, pets, and children.

The people we meet now tend to be in the workplace, where friendship is always iffy. Today’s friend can be tomorrow’s boss. There is competition. There is the potential for career harm. How much can you really share with someone who might want to get advantage over you someday? Do you really want to share something difficult with someone you might still have to work with even if the friendship goes sour?

And so friendships become harder to forge and there is less time and opportunity to sustain them. And if we have family, we may feel that friendship is no longer nearly so important to us.

As we get older still, friendship can again become more important. If we have good health, we have opportunities and more time to make and tend to friendships. We may find ourselves with renewed interest in old friends - getting in touch with old school friends through Facebook seems remarkably popular at my age.

There are many types of friendship. Aristotle said there were three. They were based on usefulness, enjoyment, or what he described as virtue, which more or less means friends with a shared sense of the greatest purpose in life and committed to its pursuit.

Aristotle didn’t have a thousand Facebook friends. He didn’t have so-called work friends. He probably didn’t have friends who were now living on a different continent and - if he did - certainly didn’t have the opportunity or maybe burden of trying to keep that friendship alive. I’m not sure that Aristotle was looking to be known at an emotional level. He strikes me as more the intellectual type.

Friendship is many things, and - speaking especially of deep friendships with unconditional acceptance and the possibility of great openness - friendship can change our life for the better.

And I hate to say it and hate to recognise it myself, but friendship takes work.

Research suggests that to move from acquaintance to casual friend takes about 50 hours of socialising. It takes another 200 hours to make that into a close friendship. And this is assuming you’ve found the right person - someone who shares a general perspective with you, is willing and able to be vulnerable, is trustworthy.

By the way, there are now matchmaking apps for friendship which might help you to find the right kind of person to invest all that time in.

Oh, and when you’re looking for your close-friend candidate, make sure they’re not likely to up and move some place far away just when your friendship ripens.

Like any other good in life, we have to work at it and invest time if we want the potential great joy and satisfaction of having and being a great friend.

If you’re interested in friendship efficiency, by the way, some suggest it’s more productive to spend your effort rekindling old friendships than creating new ones. You won’t have to put in 250 hours since you did that in the past.

Finally, I want to talk about friendship and how it relates to congregation - how friendship relates to what we do here in community together.

Firstly, although being in community together is not the same as friendship, it is not entirely different. Congregation is a place where we know we can be open and vulnerable in ways we cannot be with strangers or even with casual friends. Congregation means that there are people who will support us and also turn to use for support. It is not the one-to-one relationship of friendship but it is probably what friendship looks like in a many-to-many form. Community supports us and helps us to change and grow in much the same way friendship does.

And secondly, deep community is a great place to find and make friends. Because each of us is here, we know that our perspectives are similar. We are oriented toward deeper and more meaningful living. We are more prepared than average to be self revealing. We want to make a more just and loving world and we share many values.

In a basic efficiency calculation, my guess is you can cut the number of hours it takes to make a close friend by about 60%, which sounds like a great advertisement or maybe business case for community.

In the end, we need people. We need to be close and connected to others. Our relationships shape us. They provide us strength and direction. They give us the immeasurably powerful opportunity to help others. They help us grow toward the best possible version of ourselves. They allow us to join our strength to help make a better world.

Friendship matters. May you be held in a deep network of friendship.

May it be so.

Closing words

May you find and be held in friendship
May you become a good friend to others
May this make you stronger and more loving
Ever more truly yourself
More loving and more committed to the goal of a better world
May it be so.