Lesson 9: Promoting Friendship

Will you be my friend?So how can we promote the important elements of traditional friendship? We obviously cannot force people to enlarge their circle of friends by preaching at them.

Robert Putnam, famous for his book Bowling Alone, felt the answer was to develop new forms of volunteer organizations that would pull people away from their televisions and out of their living rooms. The need was for participation in groups in which the trust needed for friendship is experienced and nurtured. As people came to trust each other, they would begin to open up and share more of themselves. He expected these kinds of groups to develop naturally as they had in the past.

Later on, Putnam came to believe the kind of organization was important. A racist group destroyed rather than promoted friendship. The need was for volunteer groups that advocated diverse community. Relative to our study, much of his late research extolled the special role played by religious associations.

The ancient treatises on friendship championed people gathering for conversation. Often, such a group would meet around a table, so they could converse as equals while seeking truth. The present state of our government, in which our leaders do not speak with one another, demonstrates how failure to do this leads to gridlock.

These traditional works also spoke a lot about gathering around a table over food and drink. There is something about sharing food that leads to sharing ideas. Eating together brings the trust needed for friendship. The Benedictine Rule reflects this when it assigns punishments for being late for meals, but not for prayers.

I have had a lot of experience here. My wife and I still meet regularly with a number of groups that spread from high school students to retired people. My wife prepares a fine meal. I lead a discussion around a topic chosen by the group. The only rule is “No put-downs,” because we want a place where it is safe to be honest with people who did not agree with you all the time. There is always a certain playfulness involved, because it proves helpful in creative thinking. People often report they appreciate what I have to say, but are more interested in what their friends are thinking about important topics.

This is why I think one of the most important tasks for sustaining and reviving creative friendship is to encourage people to eat meals together. Some students in my catechism classes used to say they never ate with their families. When I pushed them, I discovered they never did, ever. When they came home, they grabbed some food from the refrigerator, and ate it in their rooms in front of their private television set.

This lack of eating as families was again evident when I have preached sermons advocating it. Some of my best families responded by resolving to bring their families together for meals at least once or twice a week.

All of this is central to Christianity. Our worship centers on gathering weekly to speak words around the table. Almost every one of the resurrection appearances took place over a meal. In the beginning, the service was much like a covered dish supper that began with breaking the bread and ended with sharing a cup of wine. That has extended to our present more ritualized communion meal that should remind us that Christ is present whenever we share meals with family or friends. We’ll look more closely at this next week.

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