Weekend Digest 2021:4
The Martyrs of Japan
Dear friends —
Often I’ll start my missives to you with “Dear family,” but today, I begin differently on purpose. As I type these words, I’m grateful that God brought my own family here to Nashville and St. B’s three years ago, not just to make us family to you but to bind us to each other specifically as friends.
Confession: I actually don’t make friends all that easily. I’m an incredibly “I”-ish introvert (sometimes that surprises folks, but introverts can feign extroversion and be really personable for a while, then we just crash and retreat into a nest of Netflix), and I probably have some abandonment issues from being adopted that make me hesitant to form bonds, but as I get older, I’m convinced more and more that I need friends. Not just family, friends. Whether I want them or not (and friendship can be difficult), I need them. Why is that? Well, for at least two reasons.
First, apparently, God must think we need friends because he has a habit of sticking us right in the middle of a bunch of them. After a while, that doesn’t seem like an accident, right? Every couple of Fridays for the past several months, I’ve tuned in to a short online presentation from the Trinity Forum, a group that “endeavors to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought, to equip leaders to think, work, and lead wisely and well.” As your rector, that’s what I pray every single day to be able to do. Cherie Harder, President of the Trinity Forum, began her most recent email with this quote from C. S. Lewis:
In friendship . . . we think we have chosen our peers. In reality, a few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choise of one university instead of another, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting — any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of Christian friends “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.” The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others.C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1991): 89-90
I have chosen you for one another. Just think that through for a minute. God says to introverted little me, “you need these people, and I’m giving them to you and you to them,” so who am I to say, “nope, I’m all set?” What gifts do you have that I need; what have I that can benefit you? What lessons, experiences, wisdom can we share? Who needs to hear a voice from across the fire on a cold February night when the world seems so disconnected and atomized and we’re all distributed like particles in a gas? What beauty waits to be revealed in the medium of your friendship?
A second reason, not unrelated to the first, is that I need friends for my own continued conversion. This is from a book I read many years ago by Maurice Roberts:
Friendship is good and necessary for us . . . . It corrects our angularities and rubs off our corners. The recluse is the first to fall into eccentricities. The more we are with ourselves the more become like ourselves. It is only when we come back into the circle of godly friends once again that we realize how awkward, or else opinionated, we have become as Christians. We all go astray “like sheep,” but we go astray less if we keep within the flock and refuse the temptation to wander off into solitary pastures where we are all on our own . . . . Healthy Christian character, which is full-orbed, well-rounded and rich in good fruits can best be foremd within the circle of sanctified friendships . . . . Let us see to it that we have grace to be good friends one to another for life, or rather, to eternity.Maurice Roberts, The Thought of God (Carlisle, Penn.: Banner of Truth, 1993): 175, 180
Confession number 2: That book is inscribed “Thanks Sam for your friendship. It is more important than you can ever imagine and you are dear to my heart. ~ M.” My rule of life requires that every month I take a “friendship inventory” and ask whether I’ve been available to my friends of late. Honestly, I can’t tell you the last time I seriously sat down to do that inventory. And I haven’t seen M. in probably five years. All that to say — I know I’ve got a lot of work to do on this front.
So let me invite you to think with me this weekend about friendship on a couple fronts:
- First — What’s the ground of our friendship, our belonging to one another here at St. B’s in particular? On what field do we meet? I’d suggest it’s on the field of the creeds we confess. When you and I confess the same creed, it’s like a shibboleth, which Wikipe . . . uh, the “Oracle of All Things” defines as a custom or tradition, usually a choice of phrasing or even a single word, that distinguishes one group of people from another (and it’s a great early episode of The West Wing, by the way — if you’ve got 5 minutes for 2 scenes, here you go. Thank me later). You may have heard me introduce the Creed at mass with the words “Let us confess our faith in the words of the great symbol of the Nicene Creed,” a phrase I picked up from a mentor back in Washington, D.C. The actual purpose of a creed is to provide a doctrinal statement of correct belief or orthodoxy. The Christian creeds were drawn up at times of conflict about doctrine: acceptance or rejection of a creed served to distinguish believers and deniers of particular doctrines. For that reason, a creed was called in Greek a σύμβολον (symbolon), which originally meant half of a broken object which, when fitted to the other half, verified the bearer’s identity. I love that image. When we say the same Creed, it’s like a secret phrase or a word — we each hold a piece that fits the other’s and identifies us as friend rather than foe. As long as you hold that piece and I hold that piece, we enter the same field together.
- Second — I’m definitely asking you to commit to some befriending work in the coming months. And I know what I’m asking you is a challenge. This won’t be easy. It will impinge upon your freedom (at least your freedom “from” being entangled in others’ lives, if not upon your freedom “for” the kind of human flourishing human friendships promote). But it’s so very worth it. Here’s an example — Remember our old friend, James K. A. Smith? I saw a piece on CBS Sunday Morning last week that probably got me thinking about friendship in the first place, and it also reminded me of Jamie Smith. (Hint: Don’t watch the CBS clip just yet — wait until you’ve read this paragraph). The CBS piece is about two friends from Nashville, Andy Gullahorn and Gabe Scott (who I’m sure many of you already know because they’re musicians and, well, because Nashville) who exit their front doors once a week and walk toward the same spot in the city, where they’ll then greet each other with a wordless set of gestures — “clap, snap, high five” — then they walk back home. Just a quirky bro story, right? Actually — no! First, it reminded me of something — I’d heard about this little ritual before! Enter Jamie Smith. Back in 2016, he did a separate little video piece for Laity Lodge about Andy’s and Gabe’s ritual. Watch that one first. Smith’s project has been about developing Christian character — cultivating “virtue” — through the power of habit, thus the focus on this thing Andy and Gabe do. For an accessible introduction to Smith’s work, check out the popularization of his more academic work in You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit.In the video, Smith says: “The most challenging part of the Christian life is realizing the spiritual power of habit. And you can’t think your way into new habits. But then it’s the hard, plodding work of immersing yourself in new rhythms and routines that are looking for making that connection.” Gabe Scott says later in the video: “I spend a lot of time in my life doing some things on purpose but definitely not on a regular basis, and then doing lots of things just because they’re in front of me. But there’s something about doing something intentionally, being disciplined about it, saying ‘No matter what, I’m gonna do this thing,’ and it pays dividends. It just does.” What I’m asking you to do as part of St. B’s is to commit to forming habits of friendship with each other. We’re a gathered parish from all over the metro area, so that means planning ahead: Can I plan a play date for my kids and yours at a local park? If you’re going out these days, circle a Friday night every month to invite a different family to join you at a local brewery. Invite someone to a fire pit conversation some night (that’s what Renee’s and my LifeGroup is doing every week in Covid, no matter how cold it gets out there). Check out the S’mores Community on Wednesday nights at the church. And when you do that, you know what happens?Habit happens. Habits form and habits can heal — as evidenced by the second half of the CBS video shot years after Smith shot his first piece about the new habit Scott and Gullahorn were building! Now go and watch the CBS video. Amazing.
- Third, remember we’re doing a soft rollout of “Seasons of Stewardship” at St. Bartholomew’s this year, and Epiphanytide is the season to steward Christ’s light in the world. Before Lent starts and we switch to another season, maybe take a few minutes and think about your own sphere of influence and what friend you might have who could use a little good news?
- Who knew there was a Flannery O’Connor documentary out there and didn’t tell me? Had to learn about it from a nun in my reading group! It’s called Uncommon Grace: The Life of Flannery O’Connor (the namesake of my youngest, Flannery Agnes), and here’s the trailer: Haven’t found a place I can stream it, but Sister has a DVD she promises to loan me to watch forthwith. Mary Flannery, as she was called, was drawn into the cultural conversation around race back in the summer with pieces flying at me from the New Yorker and Commonweal, America Magazine and countless blogs and tweets. Her writing is certainly difficult to read sometimes. And some of the quotes she gave during her too-short life confirm her conflicted relationship with race as a southern, female, Roman Catholic writer of short stories. But I’ll never forget an interview I heard with Professor Bruce Gentry from Flannery’s alma mater, Georgia State College, who said she was “the best American fiction writer for ‘recovering racists, of learning not to be a racist,’ implying that anyone who unconsciously lives within the categories of white privilege is, in fact, always recovering from the latent effects of racism: ‘Recovering from white racism takes a long time,’ Gentry notes, and O’Connor would have included herself in this recovery. Indeed, her stories are shocking and revolutionary in the way they bring home to her readers the assumptions of whiteness.” (Quoted in “The Higher Mathematics of Flannery O’Connor: The Making of an American Master,” The Free Library. (2014). As someone in recovery myself, Mary Flannery remains a voice I turn to — along with Jamar Tisby and Howard Thurman and Esau McCaulley and many others — to understand the world and better understand myself.
- Looking for background music for your reading as the temps drop this weekend? Try Jeff Tweedy’s “Love is the King”). I’ve lived with his voice crooning in my head a long time (anyone remember Uncle Tupelo? Anyone? I hit the sweet spot of Alt-Country and got to see Uncle Tupelo in a little Oxford, Mississippi bar one Thursday night in 1991. And somebody recorded the audio! Oh, the wonders of the internet.
- And if the term “GameStop” catches your attention, check out this podcast I just listened to. I love it because (a) I definitely didn’t want to have to preach about this!, and (b) I learned a ton listening to it, and it prompted me to think about stuff like “work vs. investing,” which I hadn’t thought about before. It’s an hour-long, but it’s really accessible and informative. Plus, there’s a shout-out to Wendell Kimbrough, friend of the parish right at the end! Well worth a listen.
- I’ll close how Cherie Harder closed her own email I quoted earlier:
If, as C. S. Lewis claimed, friendship is “the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others,” may such examples of friendship serve as sunshine in this bleak midwinter — illuminating new possibiltieis for creative collaboration and warming us to the task.
Amen, Cherie. Today’s as good a day as any to look for those new possibilities. St. B’s isn’t just family — it’s friends. And I’ll start working on that from my end. Just this morning, I texted M. to thank her for the book she gave me way back when and invite her to Nashville to see about rekindling our friendship. And I promise you I’ll restart my monthly Friendship Inventory practice next time it pops up on my calendar. Hope you’ll join me.
And have a blessed weekend, friends!
P.S. Go Tompa Bay!