“There is reliance in this small city that has come by way of friendship…”

I am sitting in the finished basement of a home in Thomasville and listening to a bluegrass band. The fellow playing the mandolin belongs to the hosts

The people gathered have a shared history. Most of them knew the mandolin player when he was a young boy. Then he and many of their children went off to college while the factories closed and found work in larger cities. The parents remained, and now they are old friends.

I admire the way they move in and out of each other’s lives in any given week. If one of them is in the hospital, the others know about it before I do. I am their pastor and they call to let me know. They bring food to the home of whoever happens to be sick or grieving, and when the big events are celebrated everyone shows up: the fiftieth anniversary, the retirement and the milestone birthday parties.
Sometimes I will see the men sharing breakfast at a local dinner, or I pass the women in my car on the way to the church. They are taking a morning walk. Often they fail to see me. They are talking, talking, talking and I smile to myself. Do not let empty storefronts on Main Street deceive you. There is reliance in this small city that has come by way of friendship and these are not lonely people. They are in these relationships for the long haul.

Over the years, have they had disagreements? I can’t say. Relatively speaking, I am a recent arrival. I have seen the men get aggravated with another in church meetings and then afterward hold light hearted banter in the parking lot. The women argue year after year over pricing at the secondhand sale they organize and then laugh about it for weeks afterward. They have learned the art of friendship.

Recently a former surgeon general has been in the news, speaking about loneliness, an issue that most concerns him when it comes to the nation’s health. It is epidemic and he says the following, “I began practicing medicine and seeing patients and quickly realized that the greatest pathology that I saw was not heart disease or diabetes. It was, in fact, loneliness…” The reduction in lifespan from loneliness is similar to that of smoking, and it is in fact greater than the impact of obesity. I find this ironic in an age of social media, when supposedly everyone is connected with the touch of a finger on our electronic devices.

These people, gathered at a home in Thomasville and listening to a favorite son play music, have what for so many in America has become elusive, lasting friendships. In church life we have always called this fellowship, which means that what brings them together is greater than their personal affinities, their day jobs, or who voted for whom.

At the center of it all has been Christian worship which requires their presence. Facebook and Skype could never substitute. It is not a coincidence that loneliness has become epidemic as church attendance has declined. Week after week they gather to sing sacred songs, pray together, listen to scripture and grapple with their humanity in the preacher’s message. Then they are sent out in the world where only friendship will carry them through. Companionship helps that become like the Lord they worship: generous, kind and forgiving.
If you want friends like that, then make it a habit of going to church.