The Gospel According to Carole King: You've Got a Friend

I.

I held my college professors in highest esteem, and they deserved it.  As I have said on other occasions, almost all the way through my educational career, from first grade through grad school, I was the beneficiary superior teaching.

One of the standout professors from my college years was Dr. Paul Brewer. Dr. Brewer was chair of the Philosophy Department, and he taught in the Religion Department as well.  He was tough, but widely loved by students—adored by Philosophy majors.  Beloved professors typically have stories and sayings about them circulating around campus.  One about Dr. Brewer begun by freshpersons in the honors program was this. How do you tell the difference between Dr. Brewer and Dr. Blevins (the chair of the Religion Department)?  Answer:  Dr. Blevins thinks he’s God; Dr. Brewer knows he is!

The remarkable Imogene and Paul Brewer

The remarkable Imogene and Paul Brewer

As it turns out, I knew Dr. Brewer before I went away to college because he was the interim pastor at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads where I grew up.  He was our church's standing interim pastor. In fact, I think he may have been the only interim pastor that I ever knew in my growing up years. 

When a pastor would leave Dr. Brewer would be contacted, and he made himself available to be the interim pastor while the pastor search was underway.  It was a remarkable thing for a towering scholar to be able to communicate so powerfully, in a very real way, with country folk who were not all that impressed with education, especially with education for clergy.

After I’d graduated from college and left Tennessee to begin seminary studies, I was back home for a visit with the family, and I noticed in the Saturday newspaper an announcement that Dr. Brewer would be preaching the next morning at a Knoxville church, not my home church.  I decided to treat myself to one of his succinct sermonic gems instead of tagging along with the family to Beaver Dam.

He saw me in the audience that morning, and from the pulpit he greeted me; then he said to the congregation “I'd like for you to know my student and friend, David Farmer.”  And that touched me deeply. I had no idea Dr. Brewer did or could think of me as a friend of any kind.  What a gift!  And I'm sure that affirmation has had a lot to do with how I manage my relationships with my students once they have left my classroom and gone out into the real world.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz writes about the spiritual roots of friendship.  He points out that in Aramaic, which is a first cousin to the Hebrew language of Judaism, the word for “friendship”—eventually embraced in Hebrew--is chavruta, which means much more than a mutually supportive relationship.  “A chavruta,” says the rabbi, “in its truest sense, is a challenger--not one who merely supports us, but also challenges us.”

Further, we learn from Rabbi Yanklowitz that the Hebrew Talmud teaches in religious learning and growth, a friend is even more important than a teacher:  “I have learned much from my teachers, but from my friends more than my teachers” (Ta'anit 7a). The ancient rabbis taught that a friend is primarily a learning partner, a partner in life.

As we gather here this morning, Paul Brewer, is struggling with health issues.  Please join me in sending the energy of prayers and positive thoughts his way.  I’m most grateful for Paul, along with his amazing wife, Imogene; and appreciate more than words will permit me to say that Paul and I have shared two pivotal relationships in the fifty or so years our paths have been crossing.  

There’s such a thing as a secret admirer, but I doubt there is any such thing as a secret friend.  Eventually, the truth comes out.

When the time came that I had to announce to my congregation in Baltimore that my wife had left and was pursuing a divorce, the responses intrigued, disappointed, frightened, and thankfully in most cases uplifted me. Let me tell you about two conversations among many; then you can tell me which of the two of these people was my friend.

The very first person to contact me after I made the news public had been the chairperson of the pastor search committee that found me in New Orleans and encouraged me to leave all the fun down in Louisiana to come to Baltimore.  He came to my office and said, “I’m going to do everything I can to get you fired, and until that happens I won’t be attending services here.  You are no longer a suitable role model for my daughter!”

I don’t know who said this, but I agree:  “A friend who understands your tears is much more valuable than a lot of friends who only know your smile.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: 

The glory of friendship is not in the outstretched hand, nor the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is in the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when he discovers that someone else believes in him and is willing to trust him.           

Another member of my Baltimore came by soon thereafter. He was a deacon, and in his work life he was an extraordinarily busy professor of nephrology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.  During the brief conversation, he didn’t scold me; and not one word was uttered about any failing on my part such as trying to find out if any third parties had been involved.  (There were no third parties in case anyone is wondering!!!)  Dr. Gordon Walker said very simply several times, “I’m only here to assure you that Betty and I stand with you and that we will be there to help you and the boys in every way possible.”

Which of those two church members do you think was my friend?  Duh!

 

 

II.

Carole King:

If the sky above you
Grows dark and full of clouds
And that old north wind begins to blow
Keep your head together
And call my name out loud
Soon you'll hear me knocking at your door
 
Ain't it good to know that you've got a friend
When people can be so cold
They'll hurt you and desert you
And take your soul if you let them
Oh, but don't you let them
 
You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I'll come running to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I'll be there
You've got a friend

Professor Adam Grant is Professor of Management and Psychology just up the interstate from us at the Wharton School at UPenn.  I believe he has the distinction of being their youngest-ever tenured professor.  In an article he published a couple of years ago in Psychology Today, he more or less redefined friendship in our culture that has made it a loosey-goosey term largely he suspects as a result of how quickly someone may be called a “friend” in social media.  He lists seven requirements for friendship.

 

1.    Generally, friends have actually met each other in person.  (I know there must be exceptions to this, but he doesn’t make room for them in his article.)

2.    Friends know embarrassing stories about each other. 

3.    Friends do not have to schedule time to talk.

4.    Friends never talk about the weather.

5.    Friends help each other, and they never keep score as to who has done more.

6.    Friends have had meaningful experiences together.

7.    Friends tell us the truth in love.

Let’s pause a couple of minutes to think about our friends and to be thankful for them.

This is a difficult morning at Silverside because we have lost a gentleman who was a friend to all of us, Dean Reese.  Dean died on Friday. The loss of Dean leaves a huge vacuum in our family. It has been heartwarming for me to see the beginning of the overflow of expressions of concern from members and friends of our dear, dear Anne.

To claim to have been one of Dean’s friends does not mean that in the 15 years I served as his pastor disagreements were unheard of. And to hold differences of opinion with Dean meant that you were going to find out this jovial gent was a formidable foe.  I much preferred to be on his team, than on an opposing one, and I certainly experienced both.

Dean ran a tight ship as chief watchdog over the church's financial affairs when he was our Treasurer. As is true with most churches in these days, regardless of the size of the church, strained financial periods are not unusual. Dean wanted to address those with survivalist tactics.  A veteran of combat, he knew how to stretch rations! 

We must not spend an unnecessary cent, he believed, and many of us were surprised to find out whom and what he regarded as nonessential!!!  Opposition notwithstanding, he stayed faithful to his mission.  No light should be on unless mandatory, and under no circumstances could it be left on when not in immediate use.  He even had our sexton at the time taking the light bulbs out of fixtures so that when lights were on in a room not one fixture more than required would be draining our power supply. 

I don't remember how he managed climate control, but I know that during those years it was cold during winters in most corners of our building.  I called Dean’s era as Treasurer the BYOB years, the bring your own blanket years!

I don’t know of anyone here who knew Dean who regarded him as anything less than a friend.  We will miss him more than we can yet imagine.

The Prophet Muhammad, peace be unto him, spoke of friendship.  In the Qur’an this pointed proverbial teaching is found:

And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends of one another; they enjoin the right and forbid the wrong (9:71). 

And in the Hadith, he is remembered to have said that a Muslim has a six-fold responsibility to another Muslim:

When you meet him, salute him.
When he calls you, respond to him.
When he seeks advice, give him advice.
When he sneezes and praises Allah, respond to him.
When he falls ill, visit him.
When he dies, follow him [in the funeral procession].
 
 

III.

If you know anything about the book of Job, you know that it is a drama in Hebrew scripture.  It happens to contain the oldest known pieces of ancient Hebrew scripture.

The worst of everything happens to Job.  He loses it all.  Calamity upon calamity pounds down around him.  He loses his wealth.  He loses his health.  His children are killed. 

The writers of the book of Job want to answer the question, how can one have faith in God if God allows the worst in life to happen to us?  Naturally, there is the theological assumption in the book of Job, with which I strongly disagree, that God is behind everything that happens to every human being—the joyous things as well as the heart-breaking things. 

Job’s plight is worsened because everyone who is in a position to help him emotionally and spiritually—namely his wife and his three closest friends—end up making matters worse.  Before they run their mouths too much, however, the friends demonstrate exactly what real friends should do when trying to console a friend who is hurting; they share the pain as best they can, and they refrain from trying to offer explanations about why tragedies happen and how the one who has been deeply hurt should respond.

Here is an inspiring snippet from the second chapter of the book of Job.  We will talk more about Mrs. Job on another occasion:

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
William Blake's drawing of Job, his wife, and his three closest friends.

William Blake's drawing of Job, his wife, and his three closest friends.

In the tough times, a true friend really doesn’t have to speak, does she?  Does he?  Presence is the gift.  Presence is the balm.  And a friend knows this instinctively.

As I mentioned a second ago, Job’s friends were wonderful as long as they kept their mouths shut.  The more they blabbed, the more pain they caused their friend. 

All too often many of us sell ourselves short as friends specifically because we don’t know what to say to someone about whom we care when times are tough for her or for him.  Having sense enough to show up in difficult times without a thing to say is perhaps the greatest proof of friendship there is.

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh,” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw, “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

I don’t recall which of A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh characters made this remark, but it’s memorable as well as insightful: 

It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like, “What about lunch?”

When I studied “Introduction to Christian Theology” with Dr. Brewer my senior year in college, one of the questions on an exam was framed something like this:  “A friend of yours is struggling with a terminal illness.  She or he asks you, ‘Why would God allow something like this to happen to me?’  How would you respond?”  I told you he was tough!!!

The person in the class with the best answer was not someone like me who wrote a dissertation of a response, but rather the person who answered something like this:  “I would not debate God issues with a dying friend.  I would simply be there for her, for him, trying to live out God’s love.”

          Amen.

Silverside ChurchComment