(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, UCC, All Rights Reserved
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It is an interesting fact of history that the current political animosity between conservative Republicans and Democrats is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, today’s political divide extends back to the earliest days of our nation. It is exemplified in the ideological differences between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Adams, an ardent supporter of a strong Federal government, was opposed by Jefferson who wanted a weak central government fearing its control over common people.
Both were colleagues and collaborators during the revolutionary years. Both served as a part of the small group who drafted the Declaration of Independence. Both served together as emissaries to France during the war. Both risked life and reputation in their efforts to form the United States.
They also had a unique relationship. They were the best of friends during the revolution. They were the bitterest of enemies soon after the constitution was implemented. They reconnected and, once again, became extremely close in the final decades of their lives. The history of their friendship can be traced through 380 letters they exchanged – numbering as high as 60 one year, to none for almost twelve years when they were opponents. Such a high number of letters between them, at a time when it took weeks for correspondence to travel even a few hundred miles, offers testimony to the intimate and sincere affection they had for one another.
In one of the great coincidences of history, both men died after very long lives, on the exact same day – that being the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence – July 4th, 1826. John Adams’ last words before he died were to exclaim, “Jefferson lives!” Little did he know, in that age with no telegraph or telephone, that he had outlived Jefferson by five hours.
As we focus today on the topic of finding gratitude for our friends, we can learn a lot from the friendship between those two men. We can also learn a lot from two twentieth century female friends – two women whom most people never knew were close.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Ella Fitzgerald was a rising talent within African-American circles. She was a protege of such jazz greats as Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. But like all African-Americans of the time, she was thwarted in her ambitions and talent by white racism. She, and other black musicians, were limited to performing in small – often secret or underground – black lounges. Access to the wider world and media outlets was limited. Once, while performing with Dizzie Gillespie in an African-American club in Dallas, she and the other musicians were arrested simply for putting on a show. Ella later recounted the indignity of that episode along with the bald audacity of the policemen who arrested her and then, in the jailhouse, asked for her autograph.
During those early years of her career, Ella met Marilyn Monroe. They quickly became close friends. As Marilyn’s fame skyrocketed to superstardom, she and Ella nevertheless enjoyed a kind of mutual understanding and affection that only friends experience.
The Mocambo club in Hollywood was considered the preeminent venue for musical performers in the forties and fifties. Sinatra and others regularly played there. But it, too, had a policy that excluded black musicians. Marilyn Monroe was horrified by such prejudice toward her friend. She persuaded the club owner to hire Ella for a one week gig by promising him she would book a front row table and attend all of Ella’s performances. She and he knew that her superstar status would attract both huge audiences and the press. Marilyn was right. Ella’s performances were sold out and she received tremendous press coverage. Her career took off from that point.
Fitzgerald credited her friend with being the catalyst for her success. She repaid that gesture by regularly helping Marilyn with her singing voice. Anyone who studies Monroe’s movie career, knows that she was a capable singer able to musically hold her own with Hollywood greats. Marilyn gave all the credit to her friend Ella.
My purpose in citing the history of Adams, Jefferson, Fitzgerald and Monroe is not just to tell the story of their friendships, but to find insights from them to inspire us and give us greater reason to find gratitude for our friends.
Both friendships began like most do – by finding common cause and shared experiences that draw people together. Adams and Jefferson were comrades in the revolution and both knew that at any moment they, along with other founding fathers, were subject to capture, arrest and execution as traitors to the King.
Fitzgerald and Monroe were both performers who understood the joys and trials of public fame. They also shared a history of exclusion – not only as women, but as people too. As a white woman, Monroe’s experiences were nothing like those of Fitzgerald and other African-Americans. But, she too had faced derision and roadblocks to her career because of her rural, backward, small town roots. And while she exploited her blonde bombshell persona, she also knew that it stereotyped her as dumb and insignificant. She likely empathized with Ella and the prejudice directed at her.
During the careers of Adams and Jefferson, they extended the greatest of praise to one another while also harboring the petty jealousy that too often infects many friendships. Jefferson resented that Adams was elected the first Vice President and that he later succeeded Washington as the second President. Adams was bitter that Jefferson ran against him in his reelection and won. Just before he left office, Adams packed a Federal court with appointees whom he instructed to nullify Jefferson’s election. The ploy was overturned but Adams was so angry that he departed Washington in the middle of the night – refusing to attend the inauguration of his past friend.
Twelve years later, the two men reconciled. Forged by the common experience of being President and the threats they had navigated the infant nation through, they reunited and forgave each other the bitter and hateful words they had exchanged. They once again became not only friends but intimately close ones – sharing the kind of thoughts, fears and dreams that few people of that time ever shared with others.
As I’ve said, these four people can teach us a lot about friendship. So too can persons described in the Bible. From Moses and Aaron, to David and Jonathon, to Jesus and John, to Paul and Timothy, the Bible models both the value of friendships and how genuine friends should act. David even described his love for Jonathon as surpassing a man’s feelings for a woman. While some commentators mistakenly read homosexual romantic overtones in Biblical friendships, they miss the spiritual lesson we can learn. Friends, whether of the same or opposite genders, can have very real and deep affection for each other – without it being romantic.
Experts report that while having friends is vital to our well-being, like many things in life, we can take them for granted. Many of today’s social ills like poverty, stress or depression can be traced to one sad fact – some people lack close and supportive friends. In a recent Gallup poll of persons who are homeless, overweight or depressed because of an illness or failure of a marriage, a majority cited as one reason being the poor quality or nonexistence of friendships. They feel isolated and unloved.
This Gallup poll suggested that people are five times more likely to eat healthy if they have close friends who do so. Married people said that their friends are more important to them than intimacy with their partner. And a person is twelve times more likely to be productive and engaged in work if they have a close work friend.
The Mayo Clinic echoes those findings and reports that friendships are important for our health. Friendships help reduce stress, they boost our sense of well-being, they improve our self-image, they assist us in coping with life traumas and they help by encouraging change in unhealthy habits. Overall, the Mayo report found that it makes no difference whether one has a few close friends or a large number of social friends. The importance is found in the quality of relationships versus the quantity.
Similar to lessons we can learn from the friendships I’ve cited, the Mayo Clinic suggests that we avoid overwhelming a particular friend with all of our needs. We need to respect appropriate boundaries of time and commitment. We should not compete with our friends but instead cheer their successes. As in all relationships, we should listen more than talk. We should avoid judging our friends in their life choices, personalities and small flaws. We should be as positive as possible when we are with them – sharing our burdens but otherwise adopting a positive and happy outlook. And we should respect their privacy – learning the appropriate boundaries to the friendship – to pry or advise only when permission is given.
The main point of this Mayo Clinic report is that we must take our friendships seriously. That is a recurring theme in my series this month on finding gratitude for families, health and friends. If we deeply value these persons and aspects of our lives, it takes more than an annual holiday of thanks to show it. Gratitude for anything is a continual spiritual practice not only because we derive benefits from a healthy body, from family and from friends, but because these things enrich our lives and help enable our happiness.
Friendships deeply influence who we are as people – often as much as – or more – than do our families. Childhood friendships play an enormous role in determining our values – even if we have lost touch with friends of earlier years. Friends teach us life skills like empathy, sharing, and generosity. They help direct us in life priorities, they help enlarge our circle of friends, they support us in good times and bad, they offer companionship in lonely times, they advise us in our romantic relationships, they offer wisdom that help us see and overcome flaws, and they support us in our social justice and charitable inclinations.
Historical records show that it was John Adams who strongly pushed Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. He admired Jefferson’s writing abilities, his way with words and the respect others had for him. He knew that his friend’s stature would help convince wayward colonial delegates of the wisdom to break from England. Their friendship helped launch our nation as it also helped give the world one of its most eloquent and inspiring documents.
Marilyn Monroe helped introduce the world to one its great musicians – one who will live in music immortality. And she courageously helped break down racial barriers – showing racist white America what it is like to love and respect a person of another race. And Ella Fitzgerald returned the favor with friendship for a woman totally unlike her. Without Ella’s assistance, Monroe would only have been valued as a sex object, and not as a person, actor and singer.
If we think about our friends, we will see similar influences. I have a close friend named David with whom I often speak but am not as close as I once was. He helped push me to attend Seminary and become a Pastor and he has regularly encouraged me in my ministry and my desire to serve others. Indeed, I stand here today largely because of his early influence on me. Ironically, he is a very conservative Christian. As much as I have looked in awe at his breadth of knowledge about faith and the Bible, I have evolved from those beliefs after undertaking my own studies and examination of Christianity.
When I came out over eight years ago, most of my friends quickly abandoned me. It was heart breaking and showed me that friends are not always as reliable or as perfect as we hope they will be. Friends, like any person close to us, can hurt and wound.
But my one friend, David, did not abandon me. While I know he still does not believe homosexuality is God’s ideal, I believe I’ve helped evolve his perspective on the issue. As always, it takes knowing someone who is gay to help a person realize we are as human, flawed, good, faithful, and in need of grace as anyone else. Gays and lesbians are God’s good creation too. David remains a friend despite not agreeing with my evolved views about God and the Bible – and despite me being gay. We are not as close as we used to be. For many years he was my very best friend. But we are still friends, we still care for one another, we still cheer and praise the other. We still totally trust the other. I love David and am deeply grateful for all he has given me and meant to me in my life.
My experiences, and those of many of you, with past and present friends, reminds us what we owe them. Often, they’ve been the wind beneath our wings. They’ve been the one who spoke to us when others bullied us, who laughed at our silly jokes, who held our hands when we were sick, who listened as we poured out our hearts in grief. To be someone’s friend is a great honor. To have a friend is a great privilege.
As that Gallup poll showed, so many hurts in our world are often made worse because people lack friends or have failed to really invest in them. We do ourselves a great disservice if we take a friend for granted – if we fail to notice the small ways they support and love us; if we overlook the sacrifices they’ve made for us; if we fail to appreciate them and love them unconditionally. As we all know, a true friend is one who knows all about us – the dark recesses of our souls – but who loves us anyway.
To show gratitude for our friends, we should tell them what they mean to us. The best way is to do so in person. Another way is to send them a hand written letter. We show gratitude when we spend time with them but mostly when we offer our listening ear – not seeking to advise or judge them. The gift of simply allowing them to express themselves – their joys and their struggles – is enough. We can make something or cook a meal for them – giving them a piece of our love and labor. We can honor them by donating in their name to their favorite charity – even one we might not otherwise support. Most of all, we can value our friends by letting them know in a thousand different ways – a hug, a small gift, a talk over coffee, a phone call, an e-mail – that we are there for them. We are, for them, an ever-ready resource, a 911 call of support, always on standby.
Having an attitude of gratitude for any of life’s blessings is what grounds us as humans. Sincerely felt, gratitude reminds us of the wonder and joys of life. For each moment we live, each morsel of food, each kindness offered us, each person who has graced our lives – we owe debts of thanks. Most of all, gratitude takes us to a place of quiet awe and reverence. We are each the sum of gifts and influences and loving gestures that cannot be counted. We are blessed beyond measure.
No matter if we have one friend or ten, it is the depth of our feelings, loyalty, ability to share and level of support that matters. It does not matter if the friend is no longer close – but once was. Such people are like gold to us. Let us value them. Let us find in our hearts deep gratitude for them. Let us be someone who unconditionally loves, listens, refuses to judge, lifts up, encourages, and shouts with joy at every success and moment of glory our friends experience.
To you and to your friends, I wish you much peace and joy.
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