Sunday Musings usually “re-reads” a biblical text from the Revised Common Lectionary on a given week.
This month, I’m switching up a bit to explore the spiritual landscape we find ourselves in — looking at themes, topics, and practices that seem particularly important for our lives and communities at the outset of this new year, our third pandemic (endemic?) year. So much has changed in the last three years.
Think of this as an opportunity to start 2023 by reflecting on some spiritual questions that seem to be arising for many of us.
We’ll begin by musing about friendship.
A READING FROM “FREEING JESUS”
In the Hebrew scriptures, friendship is a gift of wisdom: “In every generation [wisdom] passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:27). Two of Israel’s greatest heroes, Abraham, the father of faith, and Moses, the liberating prophet, are specifically called friends of God. In Isaiah 41:8, God refers to Abraham as “my friend,” a tradition that carries into the New Testament (James 2:23). Of Moses, Exodus says: “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (33:11), a very rare intimacy, for such close proximity to the divine usually meant death (33:20). . .
The point is that friendship with God establishes the covenant — and that Israel is freed from bondage into a new family forged by friendship through the law given by Moses. Friendship with God is not a biblical side story; rather, it is central to the promises and faithfulness of being a called people, in which all are friends, companions, intimates, siblings, and beloved.
Last Wednesday, Bob Smietana from Religion News Service popped into my Twitter DMs with a question:
Wondered if you might have some thoughts or insights on how mainline churches could re-engage folks who identify with them but don't attend services — I’m working on a story about survey attendance patterns before COVID and in 2022.
I wasn’t entirely sure I had an answer. After a little back-and-forth, I said:
I’ve been reflecting on the loneliness literature in relation to your question — I think that the loneliness epidemic offers some interesting potential paths for churches to re-engage.
I'm not confident that Americans know how to be or make friends very well any more.
I thought churches might be able to help with that.
When church leaders and reporters ask me questions about things like religious disaffiliation, they usually want specific suggestions or a strategy to fix a problem. In this case, the problem is that the pandemic has accelerated a decline in church attendance. I didn’t offer any plan because I don’t have one. I just ruminated on how congregations usually think they are “friendly” but aren’t — and that genuine friendship was one of the greatest losses we’ve suffered from COVID.
I wasn’t sure what Bob would do with my comment. (You can read Bob’s story at Religion News Service here.)
The day after Bob and I exchanged messages, I noticed that Arthur Brooks’ new column in The Atlantic was on the subject of COVID and friendship — with the provocative title, “How We Learned to Be Lonely.”
His piece began not with individual loneliness, but on the importance of community. Noting that communities “can be amazingly resilient after traumas,” Brooks observed:
Going from surviving to thriving is crucial for healing and growth after a disaster, and scholars have shown that it can be a common experience. Often, the worst conditions bring out the best in people as they work together for their own recovery and that of their neighbors.
COVID-19 appears to be resistant to this phenomenon, unfortunately. The most salient social feature of the pandemic was how it forced people into isolation; for those fortunate enough not to lose a loved one, the major trauma it created was loneliness. Instead of coming together, emerging evidence suggests that we are in the midst of a long-term crisis of habitual loneliness, in which relationships were severed and never reestablished. Many people — perhaps including you — are still wandering alone, without the company of friends and loved ones to help rebuild their life. . . Many of us have simply forgotten how to be friends.
Brooks related how, in his own circle of friends, people socialized less, had fewer gatherings, and stopped going to parties. He speculated that some of this was due to continuing worries over COVID. However, when he asked his acquaintances why they rarely went out any more, most responded, “I just got out of the habit.”
Connecting Bob’s query with Brooks’ insight sharpened my understanding of what had been my own intuitive response. Not only have our individual friendships been eroded by loss of habit, but so have community practices of gathering where friendships are often formed and strengthened. Both personal friendships and practices of things like churchgoing depend on habit. Habits aren’t magic. Habits are patterns — bad, good, and neutral — that make up much of our lives.
In effect, COVID broke many of our habits, including habits of relationships and friendship.
It can be very difficult to break bad habits — things like addictions and co-dependencies, hurtful ruts and repeated activities that have lost their meaning. In that way, COVID gave many people a chance to clear the slate of life, make new choices, and develop healthier habits. But there were also those less obvious habits — things like conversational cues, being able to read body language, and expressing small gestures of care and kindness — made rusty by lack of use. Friendship is comprised of many such practiced actions, signs and signals of support, shared memories, and listening.
The loss of these invisible habits was, of course, caused by the loss of life’s bigger, more obvious habits — patterns of gathering for learning, work, celebration, grief, and ritual. And, for those who did attend church before COVID, those gathering habits included religious worship. Things like Zoom worship and live-streaming were necessary (and done with surprising heart and creativity). People showed up online (I’m not a Zoom-church hater; I’ve praised it as an important innovation). But with the move online, we lost some embodied practices of friendship — as well as eroding the habit of gathering at a particular time and place. We haven’t really figured out how to adjust now.
No wonder we’re stuck in a loneliness epidemic. Circumstances — mostly beyond our control — habituated us into being alone. That has a negative impact on religious communities, but also on education, the arts, and our politics. We’ve always struggled with radical individualism in American society; now we are a profoundly — and bleakly — atomized one. It will be hard to change.
For many years, when people were asked in surveys why they chose certain congregations, a top answer was that the church was “friendly.” Back then, in the before-times, I thought that wasn’t a very good reason. I wished that searching churchgoers hunted out good theology or an active social justice program. “Friendly” just didn’t seem very deep.
But I think I was wrong. Maybe that’s a good response after all.
“Friendly” isn’t just about surface niceness or hanging out with fun people. Friendly can, indeed, be shallow. In some church settings, it can also be manipulative. But “friendly” also implies feeling welcome and accepted. It is the first step of friendship — learning how to be together with others, practicing things like empathy and reconciliation and service in community, habituating rituals that give our lives deeper meaning, and strengthening bonds of loyalty, resilience, and love.
Of course, attending a faith community isn’t the only place where this happens. People can grow in the habits and practices of friendship in many gatherings or groups. The problem is that COVID weakened our habit of participating in all of them — leaving many millions of us in a much lonelier, and perhaps even miserable, state.
Many of my friends and colleagues — people who actually care about churches and synagogues and spiritual communities — are groaning right now about attendance decline and worried about the future of their congregations and denominations.
Perhaps the decline has broken old habits of being “church friendly” and that might be a good thing.
We need to examine what friendship really means. Indeed, the biblical drama begins with a God who creates for the sheer joy of companionship — and even relates how that God even feels sorry for Adam because that first man is lonely. Friendship is at the very center of Jewish and Christian ideas of creativity, joy, and community. It may be rightly understood as the first virtue.
We were made for friendship with God, with creation, and with one another.
Friendship with God is not a biblical side story;
rather, it is central to the promises and faithfulness of being a called people,
in which all are friends, companions, intimates, siblings, and beloved.
from Freeing Jesus
This moment invites those of us still hanging around to move from being a “friendly church” to being communities that practice friendship in meaningful and transformative ways. We need support to refashion habits of friendship. We need faith communities formed in a theological vision of a world shaped by people who dare to embrace one another as friends.
Maybe it is just a kind of historical coincidence that we have a loneliness epidemic at the same time that we have emptying pews. Maybe it is a spiritual re-ordering of things. With buildings closing and members leaving, all that we church people have left is a story of a God who hates aloneness while the world is adrift in loneliness.
What more is needed?
Some people might think of the current decline as a problem. But if we understand that this isn’t about losing members, and is, instead, about rediscovering the ancient wisdom and spiritual practice of friendship, it looks a bit more like a sacred calling.
Some questions for a New Year examen:
What practices of friendship are no longer habitual to you?
What negative habits from the pandemic would you like to break? Have you developed habits during the pandemic that might actually strengthen your friendships and relationships?
What habits that have been lost in recent years would you like to pick up once again?
How might these questions — and today’s observations about the challenges faced by faith communities and the loneliness epidemic — relate to your church or synagogue?
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don't believe I'm wrong
Can make it out here alone.
— Maya Angelou, from “Alone,” read the entire poem here.
May you be blessed with good friends.
May you learn to be a good friend to yourself.
May you be able to journey to that place in your soul where
there is great love, warmth, feeling, and forgiveness.
May this change you.
May it transfigure that which is negative, distant, or cold
May you be brought in to the real passion, kinship, and
affinity of belonging.
May you treasure your friends.
May you be good to them and may you be there for them;
may they bring you all the blessings, challenges, truth,
and light that you need for your journey.
May you never be isolated.
May you always be in the gentle nest of belonging with your
— John O’Donohue (anam ċara means “soul friend”)
The Cottage is a reader-supported newsletter and community of conversation. It is about head and heart — thoughtful commentary on faith and inspiration from an unexpected point of view. You are invited to sign up to join as a free or paid subscriber.
Freeing Jesus e-book is on sale for $2.99! I don’t know how long it will last (because the publisher doesn’t tell me), but you can get an e-book from a variety of sellers. CLICK HERE for more information and buying choices.
SOUTHERN LIGHTS 2023 starts in FIVE DAYS!
Y’all join us online!
On January 13-15, on St. Simons Island in Georgia, Brian McLaren and I are hosting extraordinary guests including Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama, theologian Reggie Williams, and Franciscan sister and scientist Ilia Delio in a weekend festival of reimagining faith in words, for the world, and in context of the cosmos — poetry, theology, and science!
Please join us virtually online. You can still sign up!
And, if you are the spontaneous type (and live near St. Simons) there are a couple of in-person tickets left to attend in Georgia. CLICK HERE for complete info and registration!
JANUARY Online Cottage Gatherings:
Those who are part of the PAID SUBSCRIBER community, mark your calendars for TWO Zoom events this January. Reminders and links will be sent out shortly before the events.
January 19 at 8PM Eastern: Third Thursday with Simran Jeet Singh
Simran Jeet Singh is the Executive Director of the Religion & Society Program at The Aspen Institute. We’ll be talking about his bestselling book, The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life, and the idea of “light” in Christianity (since it will be the season of Epiphany) and Sikhism.
January 26 at 7PM Eastern: Special Book Discussion with Otis Moss
Otis Moss III is the senior pastor of Trinity UCC in Chicago. He’ll be sharing his new book, Dancing in the Darkness: Spiritual Lessons for Thriving in Turbulent Times.