Friends for the Journey

By Martin Thielen

Several years ago a northern businessman attended a sales conference in Durham, North Carolina. His first morning in town, he ate breakfast at a small mom-and-pop diner close to his hotel. The waitress came to take his order. He asked for eggs, sausage, and toast. When the waitress, a southerner, brought this northerner his food, he noticed a little pile of white stuff sitting on his plate. “What’s that?” he asked. “Grits,” she said. “What is a grit?” he asked. “Honey,” she drawled in her southern accent, “they don’t come by themselves.”

If I learned anything in sixty-five years of living, it’s that people cannot make it by themselves. So instead of writing an overtly theological article for this month’s Doubter’s Parish post (I’ll get back to that next month), I’d like to remind you (and me) about the priority of relationships.

The Only Thing that Really Matters

Several years ago, while writing Searching for Happiness, I did some research on the longest running happiness study in human history. The study began in 1938 at Harvard University. It continued for over seventy-five years. During the study, researchers followed Harvard graduates through college, WWII, work, marriage, divorce, parenthood, grandparenthood, old age, and death. Near the end of this unique study, the project director was asked, “What was learned from this seventy-year-long study on happiness?” He responded, “We learned that the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people.”1

1 You can learn more about this study by viewing the popular (more than 42 million views) Ted Talk, “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness.”

Even Jesus Needed Friends

Jesus understood this truth. For example, he nurtured close friendships with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. He also devoted several years of his life to building a small group of disciples. Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus was not self-sufficient. He knew he couldn’t accomplish his work alone. So he gathered a group of twelve disciples to join him. For three years, they worked, traveled, prayed, laughed, cried, and sometimes argued together. Those twelve men became Jesus’s closest friends. When he was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus replied, “Love God and love your neighbor.” According to Jesus, relationships matter most.

Relationship Resurrection

A few months ago I watched the 2015 Swedish comedy-drama film, A Man Called Ove. In this story a recent widower named Ove falls into deep grief, loses his will to live, and unsuccessfully attempts suicide. However, as the movie unfolds, Ove begins connecting with people in his neighborhood. He befriends an immigrant woman and her young children. He helps a couple fix their radiator. He rekindles his friendship with an old friend. He gives a crib he and his deceased wife never used (they lost their unborn baby in an accident) to a young expectant mother. He even adopts a stray cat. In short, the film is a resurrection story. By building relationships with others, Ove rose from death to life. When he finally did die, he did so fully engaged with others, filling his final days with love, joy, and meaning.

Two Are Better than One

The fact is, everyone needs friends for the journey. Therefore, truly wise people prioritize relationships. They put in the sweat equity needed to maintain old friendships, nurture current ones, and create new ones. The writer of Ecclesiastes understood that.

“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 (Eccl. 4:9-12 NRSV).”

During his younger years, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes obsessed over money, status, power, and success. However, as he grew older, he came to realize that relationships are the key to a well-lived life.

A Threefold Cord Is Not Quickly Broken

Over the years I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy into building relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and parishioners. I’ve also intentionally connected with numerous small groups. I learned early on as a young clergyman that I could not survive (much less thrive) in ministry on my own, professionally or personally. So for the past forty years, I either joined or created a clergy support group.

My current group consists of seven retired progressive clergypersons. We gather every month to support one another on our mutual journey of retirement, aging, and faith. We call ourselves the “AOP.” That stands for “Agnostic Old Preachers.” The title is tongue-in-cheek. All of us still believe in God and love Jesus. However, we harbor some doubts about traditional doctrines and institutional religion. Our faith, which is often unorthodox, embraces a lot of ambiguity.

It’s not too much to say that the AOP group has become my “church.” It’s a safe and sacred place to be honest, transparent, authentic, and vulnerable. Each one of us deeply values the friendships among the group, so we invest the effort needed to keep the group healthy. For example, members rarely miss our monthly gatherings. This group has become an important element of my journey, and I’m deeply grateful to be a part of it.

Building relationships that last—with family, friends, and groups of friends—is the most important thing you and I will ever do. However, it doesn’t happen accidently. Instead, relationship building requires time, energy, patience, and intentionality. No matter how busy we are, if we want to live a good life, we must make relationships our top priority. Why? Because (in the words of the Harvard happiness study director noted above), “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people.”

Lessons from a Sandcastle

Years ago I heard a story about a rabbi who went to the beach for vacation. As he sat on the beach, he watched two children playing in the sand. They worked hard building an elaborate sandcastle by the water’s edge, with gates, towers, and even a moat. They had almost completed their sandcastle when a big wave came along and knocked it down, reducing it to a heap of wet sand. The rabbi expected the children to burst into tears, devastated by the loss of all their hard work. But the children surprised him. Instead of crying, they held one another’s hands, laughed a big belly laugh, and sat down to build another castle.

The rabbi said he learned an important lesson from those children that day. All the things in our lives, all the complicated structures we spent so much time and energy creating, are built on sand. Sooner or later a wave will come along and knock down what we have worked so hard to build. When that happens, only the person who has somebody’s hand to hold will be able to laugh and rebuild.

A Final Note

A Final Note: Last year my best friend of over three decades died by suicide. On numerous occasions after his death, I listened to a song from the musical Wicked (about the importance of relationships) called “For Good.” Although it evoked deep emotions, including pain, it also brought me comfort, especially the words, “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.” The song became a “balm in Gilead” for me during a time of significant grief. If you would like to view that song (as performed by Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth), you can do so below.


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