Saturday, June 30, 2012

Spouse Following in Red Car.... closer than she appears.....

Monday, June 25, 2012

Sophie B.'s "The Crossing"

Sophie B. Hawkins performing
in Canton, Ohio in 2002
Copyright 2012 by Paul E. Stroble
Here’s a shout-out for the new CD by Sophie B. Hawkins, “The Crossing.” She’s a singer-songwriter whom I’ve enjoyed for several years. I’m sitting here with my morning coffee, listening to the songs, the day after I received the new release in the mail.

I became aware of Hawkins from a chance viewing of the video of her song “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover,” from her first CD, “Tongues and Tails.” It was a dynamic song, emotionally honest, and her “look” in the video became a familiar one: tattered jeans, bare feet, and thick cascades of wavy hair around her pretty, sharp features. I didn’t purchase the CD at that time, and I don’t remember why I finally purchased “Whaler” in 1995, which had been in stores for a while, but perhaps the song “As I Lay Me Down,” ubiquitous that spring and summer, reminded me of that earlier song and video.

Wow! "Whaler” was an overwhelming CD, more than the gentleness of "As I Lay Me Down" would've indicated. It grabbed me from the beginning and held on through the first several songs, then quieted to less rocking, more jazzy pieces and torch songs. I soon purchased “Tongues and Tails,” perhaps a little more poetically even, but that CD was similarly overwhelming, stylistically varied, and experimental. I remember an interview on “Regis and Kathy Lee,” where she said she considers herself a songwriter first---a songwriter who sings---and I’ve always thought that she’s remarkably talented as a songwriter, singer, and player of several instruments. I didn’t think many artists were in her league.

We lived in Kentucky at the time, and my teaching job was over in Indiana. I was also just starting a new career, doing freelance writing of church curriculum. For several years I played some Sophie B. every day. I’ll always associate her music with my long commute along the Ohio River and across the bridge. Her music also put me in a very upbeat, inspired mood as I worked on my writing. “California, Here I Come” is perhaps my favorite of her songs, but also "Only Love" and “No Connection,” and I could list several songs of which I'm very fond.

I thought that “Timbre” and “Wilderness” contended to be more stylistically similar to the later songs on “Whaler,” but she remained varied in her approach, mixing jazz, rock, and popular styles, and she's consistent in her emotional honesty. I enjoyed her live album, too, especially since I saw her perform in Canton, OH in 2002 with a star-struck crowd. “The Crossing” is her first album of new songs for several years.

I was going to write a little more about her career, but meanwhile I found this article that discusses her work and life, including the familiar story of the issues surrounding the release of “Timbre.”  The article notes that her biggest commercial success is probably behind her, but I know that anytime I post something on Facebook about her, some of my friends add appreciative comments about her music.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Abuse and Toxicity

This is an enjoyable blog, and yesterday's post concerned "spiritual abuse" in churches.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

"Dirty Harry Potter"

Protego horribilis, punk! 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Faithful Church Worker, 100 Years Ago

My grandma Crawford, nee Pilcher, saved family photos and newspaper clippings including obituaries.  One obituary was from 1912 for her young second cousin, Ruby Pilcher.  (Recently I wrote about my distant relative, Rev. Dr. C.C. Crawford; Ruby was his first cousin.) When I was a teenager, helping Grandma work on the family history, I didn't know what to think of these words. They seemed so fervent.  Now I recognize them as having been written by someone bereaved (one of her parents?) working out feelings of grief, unfairness, and faith via writing.

Realizing that Ruby died 100 years ago this past March 31st, I thought I'd share these words online as a little tribute. The clipping, quite brown and faded now, has no date or place but I assume it was from one of the newspapers in my hometown, Vandalia, IL, which included news of nearby Brownstown. (Grandma lived south of that village.)

"Into the home of Brother and Sister D. O. Pilcher, on March 24, 1893, was born a little babe, to this babe was given the name of Ruby. When she had reached the age of education she entered the public school of Brownstown, and graduated with the class of 1910, on June 1st. On her eighth birthday she began her studies in music, which were continued to her death. The last three years she was a student of Mrs. Geo. Kurtz, of Vandalia, in vocal music. Her voice was one of rare sweetness, and many have been the ears that have been delighted, and hearts that have been cheered by her songs. It was no effort for her to sing, song was simply the bubling [sic] over her soul which seemed to be constant in its flow.

"From a babe in her mother’s arms to the time her Master called to her she has been a constant attendant of the Christian church. Upon its platform she sang her first little song, within its walls she heard her first Sunday school story of another little babe called Jesus. For many years her voice has been heard in its choir. It was in 1905 when Brother Wilson was telling anew the wonderful story of Jesus that Ruby said to her mother, 'I am going to give my life to my Master,' and stepping down from the platform she confessed Jesus and took Him as her life’s teacher.

"I know not whether it was the purity of her life, I know not whether it was the sweetness of her disposition that was a reason for her Master’s call, but on the Sunday morning of March 31st, at 9 o’clock, He called her and reaching out her arms as to receive His embrace, with a hallowed glow and beauty smile upon her face she answered her Master’s summons. She had reached the age of 19 years and 7 days, but in those years she endeared herself to those who met her, and the true strength of her tendrals [sic] she had entwined about our hearts, are seen in our tears and felt in our heart throbs, as from our midst she [apparently some words are missing] was the Junior Supt. Of the Altamont District of the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor, organist of our local Endeavor Society, Vice-President Class No 6 of our Sunday school and a member of our choir.

"If I knew in what field the fairest, purest flowers grow of richest breath of rarest kind, I’d feel if I could gather them with glistening dew drops all undisturbed and in a cluster, lay them on her bosom, they would be but a symbol of the purity I feel she was. Since I know her feet tread paths bordered by such flowers as the earth never knew, her lips taste water of the crystal stream, her joy raptures of which we never dreamed, so I lay aside the pen, wipe away the trembling tear, thank God for such a life and ask that more like her to earth be given."

Here is Ruby's grave in St. Elmo, IL:

Friday, June 15, 2012

"Uncommon Friends"

James D. Newton, Uncommon Friends. Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel & Charles Lindbergh.  With a foreword by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

Speaker and author Danny Cox, whom the author thanks in the preface, sent this book to me via Springhouse magazine for which I write.  I was very pleased to receive and read it.  Then I began noticing it in bookstores.  Here is a book review I wrote for the February 1995 issue of Springhouse

The five men recalled in this book are major twentieth-century figures, and many people will recall their respective accomplishments. Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) was the inventor and industrialist who invented the phonograph, electric lighting, and the moving picture camera. Henry Ford (1863-1947) was chief engineer of the Edison Illuminating Company in 1891 and resigned in 1899 to manufacture automobiles. He established the Ford Motor Company in 1903 and his Model T Ford automobile (first sold in 1908 for $825) was resoundingly popular for its assembly-line production and affordably low price. Harvey Firestone (1868-1938) organized the Firestone Company in 1900 to manufacture sold and pneumatic tires, a company which expanded after Ford’s 1906 volume order. Alexis Carrel (1873-1944) won the Nobel Prize in 1912 for his revolutionary technique for suturing blood vessels. He and Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974) collaborated in the 1903s to develop a perfusion pump by which organs removed from the body would be kept alive. Carrel also wrote scientific and philosophic books and articles. Lindbergh made the first successful trans-Atlantic solo fight in a heavier-than-air craft in 1927. Although an anti-war activist in 1939, Lindbergh worked with Ford to produce B-24 bombers and few civilian combat missions during World War II.  Later he was a consultant for PanAm Airlines and a conservationist.  His wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh authored a number of popular reminiscences.

As for the author of Uncommon Friends, according to the jacket “James Newton born in 1905 has had a long career as a real estate developer, conservationist, cowboy, soldier, corporate executive, labor dispute negotiator, and friend par excellence. He and his wife Ellis live in Fort Myers, Florida.” [Newton died in 1999. In 1993 he established the Uncommon Friends Foundation,] As told in the book, Charles Lindberg was best man at his and Ellie’s wedding. Familiar accounts of these people (Edison’s early years when he was chided as “different,” the kidnapping and murder of the Lindberghs’ son, etc.) are not described. Nor are the people’s shortcomings and flaws help up for scrutiny.  Newton’s purpose for this reminiscence is to record the stories of friendship, including the faith, values, humor, and deepest convictions of these men and their wives, as revealed to a close friend like him. In this warm and readable memoir, he is successful in his aim.

Newton did not ask to meet any of these people, nor took any money from them for he help he provided to them (except for his brief career with Firestone).  He met them via business contacts or overlapping friendships, forming a long and interrelated story. He was a twenty-year-old head of a Flordia real estate company when he met the Edisons. First he met Mrs. Edison when, prudishly it seems, she protested the statue of a naked Greek maiden which was to adorn the entrance of Newton’s neighborhood development project, Edison park. The maiden was veiled with powdered marble, and Newton and the Edison’s became fast friends. Henry Ford lived next door to the Edisons, and Newton became friends with him when the Edison’s recommended Newton for a building project.  Also through the Edisons, Newton met Harvey Firestone, who was impressed with Newton’s precocity, business acumen, and integrity. Firestone soon hired him to do management, sales, troubleshooting, and a variety of “right hand man” tasks around the country. He spent several intense years with the company until, collapsed from overwork he made the mature decision to take a leave of absence to let his soul catch up with his body, in his words (p. 91). During that time of reflection, and shortly before Firestone’s death, a fellow businessman introduced Newton to Carrel, who was creating a stir in the scientific community for writing works---books and also essays solicited by Reader’s Digest---on prayer, psychology, and spiritual matters.  Carrel and LIndbergh were already friends; the death of Lindbergh’s sister from then-inoperable heart disease created his interest in Carrel’s research in cardiac and vascular surgery.  Carrel arranged the first meeting of Newton and Lindbergh. “I want you to tell him how God came into your life,” Carrel had said. “He respects my beliefs, but I don’t think he’s found a satisfying faith himself yet. Possibly you can help him” (p. 152). Newton shared with Lindbergh some of his beliefs and religious discoveries, and the friendship proceeded from that foundation. Because Lindbergh lived many years after the other four men, the second half of the book deals with that friendship as Newton marries Ellie and the two couples enjoy times together.

The story of the various overlapping friendships makes for enjoyable, inspiring reading, and so, too, are the examples of the convictions of these people.  We see Edison refusing to become discouraged during years of experimentation, and we see him allowing a young man to carry a light bulb (which took many, many hours for Edison and his assistants to make) to another room---the same young man who had accidentally dropped and broken a bulb a few days before. Newton wonders what this act of trust meant to the young man, downhearted from his earlier carelessness.  Carrel, honored for his scientific research, grappled with issues of God, faith, spirituality, the meaning of psychic power, and issues of character. He was interested in Zen and meditation three decades before these things became popular in Western countries.  Having an intuition, Firestone sold $60 million of his own company stock in 1929 in order to have capital for other products, and he didn’t feel right, as the saying goes, having all his eggs in one basket.  Five days later the stock market crashed.  Although as concerned about products as any businessman, Ford one year doubled his employees’ wages to $5 a day, realizing the financial risk would improve productivity and product loyalty.  In opposing America’s entry into World War II Lindbergh paid a price in public criticism, then was grieved but supportive when intervention became inevitable after Pearl Harbor. Altogether, these men gave examples of their character: Edison never let failed experiments prevent him from pressing on to success; Firestone refused to conduct his business according to mere expedience; Ford struggled with new ideas and sometimes took serious business risks (like perfecting the already failed V-8 engine) in order to advance the industry; Carrel was interested in the whole of human experience beyond the merely empirical; though pressured by fame, Lindbergh sought new challenges.

Newton sadly concludes that, in spite of the conveniences and dynamic tools which these men bequeathed to us, and perhaps because of these things, our modern life is in peril as never before. I think about the era which Newton describes, when notions like “company loyalty” could be deeply esteemed, more so than in our era of public cynicism, fallen heroes, and corporate downsizing.  I think of people for whom character is a concern and are very individualistic in that concern; they neglect to see how character can be undermined in our present-day economic and corporate reality. Even our talk of “virtues” reflects our desire to regain something we’ve lost, and Newton’s book reminds us that not only virtue of faith, talent, risk-taking, creativity, common sense, and the willingness to swim against the stream for a greater principles---qualities he respected in his five friends---are values and principles that seem scare these days.  Newton’s book made me think about such things again, and the benefit of such a memoir is its ability to elicit such thought.

I realized, too, how important is the simple gift of friendship. “To Jim, personal relationships come first,” said Lindbergh of Newton (p. xiii).  Got a hold of this book if you’d like to be inspired to enrich your own friendships and values!

Two Interesting Articles Yesterday

I liked these two articles, found on Twitter yesterday. One article has to do with the many benefits of government, forgotten or ignored among our contemporary rhetoric about smaller government, as well as liberalism's familiar to make the case for the positive role of government in our lives.  The other is a brief complaint about the fact that, yes, we should be blaming President Bush for our current financial difficulties, because the "alternative reality" created by the conservative press ignores the truth that we were in bad financial shape as a country prior to Obama's administration.  What do you think?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Music of My Heart's "Commemorative Coronation Release"

The Queen's Diamond Jubilee reminded me of this LP, which I purchased in a used record shop in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1984 or 1985: Ralph Vaughan Williams' "A Pastoral Symphony." As the cover indicates, this album was a "special commemorative coronation release" from 1952 or 1953.  I already loved an album called "The Pastoral Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams," also conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.  So this old LP (over thirty years old when I bought it, and containing no other music but this four-movement piece on two sides) seemed intriguing.

Oh my goodness.  The symphony became not only one of my two favorite symphonies (a tie with RVW's fifth), but it has remained, for nearly thirty years, among the music I feel most deeply in my heart. What a result, from dropping by a vinyl shop!  I associated the music with the timber and fields of my native Fayette County, Illinois (although of course RVW was English and the symphony is a kind of war requiem, inspired by French landscapes where he served during World War I).  We all have private and personal associations with beloved music.  The symphony, and the feelings of home and the memories evoked by it, combine to form a beautiful place in my heart.

The liner notes by Hubert Foss read: "The modal, peaceful mood of the music is set in the opening bars of the first movement, with two continuous melodic phrases: one based on a rising fifth and heard low down on 'cellos, basses, and harp, the other in the treble register, with a falling fifth and some full-tone arabesques played on a solo violin. The cor anglais soon introduces another melismatic idea....The following movement moves along at no greater speed, like a small West Country river; the material is again fragmentary---a phrase on the solo horn, and then another on a low flute and solo viola in unison. Later in the movement comes a long call (pianissimo) on a single trumpet...The third movement may be called a quasi-scherzo; for all its marking of moderato pestante, the music shows more signs of activity, as of things living and growing in the countryside. The opening phrase is little more than a figure, which develops a tune on the brass, and after a gentle climax gives way to a birdlike arabesque on a solo flute, answered by a solo violin.  A piu mosso section has a more blustering feeling, with a broad, robust tune announced on trumpets and tenor trombones.....The finale opens with a long beetles and wordless recitative for a solo soprano over a soft drum-roll. Soon the music settles down to a warm melody of irregular phrase-rhythm but somewhat more familiar idiom.  It is first played by the choir of woodwind, and develops into other phrases, some quite insistent though soft, and one (on the flute) long and expressive. The work ends with a shortened version of the soprano, this time accompanied only by a single octave A high on muted violins."

Here is the gorgeous finale, conducted by Richard Hickox and Rebecca Evans, soprano.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Fareed Zakaria on Tax Cuts and Economic Growth

This is a fascinating op ed piece by Fareed Zakaria.  What do you think about this observations and conclusions?  A few of his thoughts:

"For those who think President Obama’s policies have done little to produce growth, keep in mind that the single largest piece of his policies — in dollar terms — has been tax cuts."..."In the wake of a financial crisis caused by excessive debt, tax cuts are highly unlikely to lead to increased economic activity. People use the money to pay down their debts rather than shop for cars, houses and appliances."...."As for the idea that job creators are not creating jobs because their taxes are too high... The 2001 Bush tax cuts... were, in dollar terms, the largest tax cuts in U.S. history. And the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service concluded in 2010 that “by almost any economic indicator, the economy performed better in the period before the [Bush] tax cuts than after the tax cuts were enacted. . . . GDP growth, median real household income growth, weekly hours worked, the employment-population ratio, personal savings, and business investment growth were all lower in the period after the tax cuts were enacted.” ..."Tax cuts have been a central cause of America’s deficit problems. For four decades, Washington politicians have bought popularity by cutting taxes, always saying that spending cuts or growth will make up for lost revenue. That rarely happened, and the result is $11 trillion in federal debt held by the public. To perpetuate this pandering one more time is not just dishonest — it is dangerous."

Please read the entire, interesting piece at:

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The "Con Game" about Government Spending

My fiercely Democratic grandfather Crawford, whom I never met, was born on this day in 1886.  I knew and loved his siblings, who varied in their politics from Democratic to fiercely Republican.

Grandpa Joe would follow today's politics with interest.  I thought of him (at least the stories I've heard about him) as I've read some essays today, including another (to me) good Krugman article to follow up on the one I posted this past Sunday.  Do you agree or disagree with the author?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Getting Through School via Neil Diamond

A few months ago I noticed on Twitter that the day was Neil Diamond’s 71st birthday. Just for fun, I posted this news on Facebook along with a YouTube video of “Holly Holy.”  Before too long, I was deep in a nostalgic mood.

Diamond's provided music for my struggling adolescence. So many great songs were (and some still are) personal favorites: “Sweet Caroline,” “Solitary Man,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Shilo,” and others. The “Hot August Night” album figured largely in my life: I borrowed the double LP set from a girl on whom I had a painful crush (and I hoped this might be the start of some magic between us, but alas).  I recorded that album on the reel-to-reel tape deck that my parents bought for my birthday in 1972, and I played it a lot.  A little later, smitten with another girl who loved his music, I drew for her a picture of Neil from the 1968 “Greatest Hits” LP, but added his big hair of his “Hot August Night” period.  That sounds very “Napoleon Dynamite”-ish, but I was a pretty good artist, and the girl seemed to sincerely think (maybe?) that it was cool.

I found a site,, that discusses Diamond’s ability to mix elements of soul, gospel, country, classical, reggae, and other styles while also having special talent in catchy melodies and excellent arrangements. His voice was adept at evoking the introspection and emotions of his and others’ songs. To me, even his songs of loss (so prevalent and distressing in the music of, for instance, another of my favorites of the time: Jimmy Webb) left me feeling good. Without thinking too deeply about it, I liked the religious imagery that was explicit in songs like “Holly Holy,” “Walk on Water,” and “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” but flavored other songs, too.

There was a combination of things going on in my life at the time: I had low self-esteem (and would have for a long time) but was working on getting better; I was able to drive for first time; I loved driving around our small town and taking the back roads on summer days as I passed little country churches and peaceful rural scenes; in my genealogy hobby, I was learning about my family history in our hometown and deepening my sense of belonging to that area; I felt all the more identified with my hometown and its history; I was looking toward my own future beyond high school and wondering what lay ahead. Within all these things, “Holly Holy” became a favorite, meaningful song. I loved the chorus’ A-D-Dsus4-D chord progression and imagery of faith, but I also loved the words from the first verse:

Where I am,
What I am,
What I believe in....

Or, as I felt in my heart: place, identity, and faith.

Diamond has been in the news recently because of his third marriage and a resurgence in his record sales. As much as I loved his music, I purchased surprisingly few of his albums back then: only “Double Gold,” I think, and later "Serenade" and "Beautiful Noise."  But I don’t remember how I had all the other great songs in mind and heart; perhaps I owned more LPs and 45s at the time than I recall. I liked the single “Walk on Water,” which followed “Song Sung Blue” and “Play Me,” but didn’t rise as high on the charts as those two and, as I recall, didn’t stay on the radio as long.  That annoyed me because I preferred the song to the other two, but I had the 45, with the extended piano coda. This past month, just for fun, I found some of his early albums on eBay and our local vinyl shops.

Reading now about his career, I learn things I didn’t think about at the time. That “Double Gold” album represented Diamond’s first two albums on the Bang label, “The Feel of Neil Diamond” (1966) and “Just for You” (1967). Those were the hits like “Cherry Cherry,” “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “Solitary Man,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Red, Red Wine,” and others.  In fact, “The Feel” LP had “Solitary Man” on the side of the record cover, even though that wasn’t the album’s title.  The author of the website cited above considers his early albums far ahead of other songwriters of the time. 

Then Diamond moved to MCA Records (the Uni label) and released the albums “Velvet Gloves and Spit" (1968, and later it had a different cover), “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show” (1969, and later it had a different cover), “Touching You, Touching Me” (1969), “Tap Root Manuscript” (1970), “Stones” (1971), and “Moods” (1972).  Although the title of “Touching You, Touching Me” comes from the song “Sweet Caroline,” that single was not on this album or originally on any album.  It appeared on reissues of the “Brother Love” record.  His Uni hits (represented on the "12 Greatest Hits" album) included "Sweet Caroline," "Shilo," "Holly Holy," "Cracklin' Rosie," "Play Me," "I Am...I Said," "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show," "Song Sung Blue," and others.  

Diamond then signed with Columbia, which has been his label ever since. Although the first two albums have never been released on CD, Bang Records issued several compilation albums based on those first two albums, and Columbia acquired the rights to those songs but not to the Uni albums. Thus, the several compilation albums represent different labels, as discussed at

Another thing I didn’t realize: “Tap Root Manuscript” made use of “world music” over ten years before other artists like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon.  At my divinity school, some African American friends elicited my help for a Afrocentric chapel service by having me play the song "Soolaimón" on the piano as an anthem.  It occurs to me, too, that Neil was ahead of his time in using gospel elements, a few years before some pop and rock artists began to embrace religion and spirituality.  

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Reagan More Keynesian than Obama?

Interesting ironies (if you agree with Krugman), which makes me all the more annoyed with current Republican leaders and the state of the economy:

Peace with Justice Sunday

Today is Peace with Justice Sunday in the United Methodist Church. A few years ago I jotted down some thoughts about justice, peace, and discipleship:

Trinity Sunday

It's Trinity Sunday!  A couple months ago I reposted these modest thoughts about this characteristic Christian doctrine:

Saturday, June 2, 2012


Catching up with devotional periodicals after several days of missing the readings, I liked the lessons for two days ago, May 31. That lesson concerned the visitation of Mary to the home of Elizabeth. One author commented how wonderful that Mary had a friend who understood her extraordinary situation.

It’s a wonderful thing to have good friendships. I value good friends; but some folks don't. I once knew a person (actually a very pleasant personality) who admitted, "I'm a lousy friend!" And she was, even though she was a caring person. She just focused her time and commitments elsewhere. Friendships do take time and commitment.

Like anything else, you put your energies into the things you care about the most---and sustaining friendships may not be your high priority. You can also be (or think you are) too busy to give time to friends. You can shift your focus once in a while, if you choose; for instance, writing this entry reminds me that I need to call some friends to whom I've not given time lately. "Given time"--friendship is a gift, and keeping friends requires giving.

In the book Uncommon Friendships (Mariner Books, 1989), James Newton describes his friendships with Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Henry Ford, Alex Carrel, and Charles Lindbergh. He recounts life-lessons that he learned from these men and their families, but I was struck by a comment about the author early in the book, “With Jim, personal relationships come first.”

I try to be that kind of person, and people have told me that they’re amazed how I keep in touch with friends. I worry that I don’t do enough; I used to be a faithful letter-writer but now I’m pretty much an emailer and a devotee of Facebook, which I think is a wonderful way to keep in touch and support one another in “real time.” Some folks complain about the empty nature of the virtual world compared to the real world.  But for me, Facebook has been a blessing, allowing me to be in touch with people whom I like but whom I normally wouldn’t see or contact (classmates who have long since moved, former students, etc.). The wonderful thing about that site is that you can give people support “in real time” when they need it most, for instance when they experience a loss or celebrate an accomplishment.  For instance, about fifty friends responded with congratulations and good wishes when I posted our daughter’s college graduation pictures recently. (Speaking of my daughter, she's currently going through the pain of moving away from college friends. She has online and video resources for keeping in touch that I could've only dreamed about as a young person, although the pain of moving is still very much there.)

One lovely blessing about being a middle-aged person (in my mid-50s now) is seeing how friendships have endured over time. I’m thrilled to still be in touch with divinity school classmates from thirty years ago (we attended the opera with one of my classmates, in fact, just the other day).  Thanks to Facebook, I’m newly in touch with some people I liked in college, high school, and even grade school (including my first grade teacher, who helped us kids when President Kennedy was killed).

I've better friendships now than at other, discouraging times in my life. I look back on one period of our lives, when we lived in a certain city, and I feel so sad how few friendships I had there. I put my heart out there, but everyone seemed impatient and busy. I remember we invited some people from church over to our home and just one or two came, and none of the others even expressed regrets. Thank goodness the next period of our lives, in another community, were filled with friendships---including two of the best friends I’ve ever had.

Something I deeply regret is that I’ve had few friendships with fellow clergy. There were times I reached out to certain fellow pastors in friendship and I was chagrined to realize there was no understanding and, in a couple of occasions, disapproval. My limited experience is that clergy are poor friends for one another (although many clergy I’ve known crave friendship). Thus I cherish the two or three clergy friendships I do have, where there is genuine empathy, confidentiality, and caring. There may be too much competition and pressure in your vocation, and your best friendships grow in other ways.

It can also be a painful thing for a close friendship to wither. I don’t even want to talk about the death of a friend, which is a horrible loss. Notoriously, couple-friendships are very fragile.  When my wife’s first husband died, she was no longer a couple and no longer had her former social life. If your couple friends break up, you feel like you have to choose which one to remain friends with----but that may not work, either, because all your memories and experiences have been the things you did as a four-way friendship. Some of my best friendships were sadly limited to particular times and places; once we moved on, the ties just weren’t there anymore. Sometimes you feel like you have a good friend in a certain, possibly difficult circumstance, but once the circumstance has passed, you can’t regain the former closeness. (A good book that can help with transitions is Praying Our Goodbyes by Joyce Rupp, OSM: Ave Maria Press, 1988.)

On the other hand, I’ve one friend whom I met only once, in 1983, and we’re still in touch over all these years! So many people enter and leave our lives, casually and profoundly. Why do some friendships last and others don't? The philosopher Martin Buber wrote about the rapport between people (he used different, philosophical terms like Begegnung, “the I-Thou encounter,” “the event of meeting,” etc.) that brings us out of the objectivity of the everyday world into an event of mutual respect and affirmation. You could push that idea a little and say: sometimes that “event” of friendship is limited to a certain time, and sometimes the rapport lasts a long time. What makes the difference?

The benefits of friendship are obvious. A few years ago, our pastor (one of the good friends I mentioned above) preached a fine sermon on friendship, based on Ecclesiastes 4:9-12.

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Friendship provides companionship. But there is also the happiness of caring for a particular person,  the happiness of knowing that a particular person cares for you, even if you don't happen to need tangible assistance at the moment.  Thus I'm always a little astounded (and fearful about my own failures) at how careless certain people can be toward friends. Don't you want other people to think of you and immediately feel happy, safe, and loved?

Galatians 6:1-5 is another good scripture. My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbour’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.

In other words, we all have times when we stumble, and we all have to take responsibility for our own actions. But that doesn't mean we have to face life alone: in fact, a sign of true Christianity is the gentleness and care we show toward one another, the willingness to help one another through difficult times.

To paraphrase Paul here, if you have the Holy Spirit, then you're a good friend! If you're not a good friend ... I hate to say you don't have the Spirit, but you may be missing out on some of the Spirit’s richest blessings.

Churches face a difficult balance between being outward- and inward-looking. As all the church-growth pundits say, a congregation must be mission-oriented and concern for the percentages of people in the area who have no church-based relationship to God. On the other hand, those people are hypothetical members, and meanwhile the actual members may not be treating one another as positively as they should. Such folk would do well to work on being better friends to one another, serving one another's needs, and then to reach out to the community. After all, you'd want your church to be a place people would want to attend!  If pastoral and lay leaders can create circumstances in congregations for healthy (rather than dysfunctional) friendships, interconnectedness and support, then great things may happen.

Years ago a friend gave me a plaque that read, "A friend is there before you know it, to lend a hand before you ask it, and give you love just when you need it most."  A good reminder for any day!  Certainly Elizabeth was that kind of friend to Mary----and the Holy Spirit embraced them both.