Preached April 6, 2014 at Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church
Series: The Jesus Prescription: Health & the Christian Life – Part 5
Texts: Genesis 2:18-25; John 15:12-17
Audio: TLUMC podcast of this message
I want to begin this morning with a montage of clips from Seinfeld.
One of the key props in those old Seinfeld clips, and throughout the series, is Jerry’s refrigerator. Kramer could burst through the front door, with a bag of day-old bagels on the counter, and go right to the fridge without asking. During a lull in a conversation, George can help himself to whatever is inside the fridge or grab a piece of fruit off the counter and asks only if it has been washed. His permission to help himself to the fruit is implied. Elaine, in a scene I couldn’t find for the video clip, opens Jerry’s refrigerator door and offer his Snapple to everyone gathered in the apartment, including Jerry himself. Jerry’s kitchen, especially his refrigerator, was open to them at all times, and because of the depth of their friendship, there was no need to ask for permission.
In researching this, I was surprised to find a blog dedicated to the magnets on Jerry’s refrigerator. I was also reminded that when the entire Seinfeld series was released on DVD, the Collector’s Edition of the 33 disc box set, came in a box shaped like Jerry’s iconic refrigerator.
Jerry’s refrigerator was a tool the writers used to show the depth of the relationship between Jerry and his friends. Elaine, George, and Kramer, his inner circle of friends were in and out of his refrigerator as if it were their own. Newman, Jerry’s nemesis, did not. Neither did Jerry’s girlfriends. You may have even noticed in the clip, that the friend Kramer is arguing with about holding a car door open for a man, doesn’t go into the refrigerator. Kramer does. The friend does not. Because the freedom to go into someone else’s refrigerator without asking is a right reserved for only our closest friendships. Our closest relationships have refrigerator rights. Others do not.
This morning we come to the conclusion of our series on health called The Jesus Prescription by looking at part of our lives we don’t normally equate with health — our relationships, especially the refrigerator rights relationships we may or may not have.
It was interesting to note in our Health Survey, that your top answer for the question, “The main reason I go to church…” as “a sense of belonging.” We all need that. We long for it. We want to know there are people around us who love, care for, and accept us just as we are. It is a necessary component of our spiritual and psychological health.
So, as we begin this morning, I want you to think about the people in your life with whom you share refrigerator rights. Who is allowed in your refrigerator without asking, and in whose house would you feel comfortable enough to walk into the kitchen and take a bottle of water from the fridge without permission? For many of us, my guess would be that our answer is either none, or not enough.
Widely Connected, but Not Deeply Connected
In their wonderful book Refrigerator Rights: Our Crucial Need for Close Connection, authors Will Miller and Glenn Sparks, two professors in the psychology department at Purdue University, mourn the loss of refrigerator rights relationships in our society. They write
that the core emotional problem of modern life is this: a pervasive personal detachment and aloofness from other people… We no longer live in physical or emotional closeness to the people who helped shape us, including our family of origin, friends, neighbors, and the acquaintances of our childhood. And we have failed to replace our social network with new people (Miller 12f).
In a 2006 study by Duke and North Carolina Universities, researchers repeated a survey done approximately 20 years before. As part of the survey, they asked the participants how many people were in their lives in whom they could confide. In the original study almost 13% of respondents selected “no one.” 20 years later, that number had nearly doubled to more than 25% (Miller 268). That means one in four people we encounter on a daily basis feel alone, disconnected, not close enough to the people around them to confide in them. One in four people feel that detached from others.
You may wonder, as I did when I first read that statistic, how so many can feel alone when we are so connected. We are, by far, the most connected society in the history of the world, having more ways of keeping in touch with one another than ever before. Through this little device I carry in my pocket, which is so much more than a phone, I can talk to, text, email, FaceTime, catch up on Facebook, post to Twitter, comment on a blogpost, and otherwise stay connected to people all across the globe. I know what some of my friends from college are doing on a regular basis, and I haven’t seen them in twenty years. I know about the lives of those I knew in a previous church, and I can even become connected with people whom I have never met, but who share my hobbies and interests.
Miller and Sparks put it this way. See if this resonates with you:
What little personal contact we do have with others is fleeting, fast-paced, and shallow: the “soccer Mom” friends commiserating while sitting in the stands cheering on the team, or the regular weekly golf partner chatting between swings. There is rarely time for talking afterwards because you need to get to work or the next activity. So we tolerate friendships that are flimsy and superficial, and we believe that because we have so many of them, we must be socially connected (Miller 236f).
But something in us tells us we are not. While much evidence points to the fact that we are well-connected, we still sense a general dissatisfaction, an emptiness, a loneliness. The issue is that although we are connected widely, we are not connected very deeply.
For instance, I have recently connected through Facebook with an old childhood friend. We knew each other from grade school through our high school graduation. While I know much of what is happening in her life, we don’t share refrigerator rights because she lives in North Carolina. My next door neighbors, on the other hand, are right there, but I know less about their lives than I do my old friend in North Carolina. We smile, exchange greetings, wave, and even shovel the snow on the sidewalks in front of each other’s houses, but we do not share refrigerator rights. We barely share yard rights. Each of these relationships gives the appearance of being connected, but we are not.
There is a breadth of connection, but very little depth. Whether by geography or choice, we know about many people, but we don’t know enough people. And we haven’t allowed others to get to know us.
We Were Not Created to be Alone
In the verses from Genesis which served as our Old Testament reading this morning, we hear God say about Adam, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). That verse cuts me. When I think about the 1 in 4 people around us who feel alone.
So God goes back to work, attempting to satisfy Adam’s need for a companion by creating animals – kind of like saying, “Let’s get Adam a pet.” Like our many relationships, these flimsy, superficial connections do not satisfy. In order to meet Adam’s need for relationship, God creates the second human being, Eve. The two become husband and wife, sharing a connection at a much deeper, more intimate level.
The last verse in the reading is an important one, “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25). This is not just about the intimacy we find in marriage, this is also about the deep connection of being completely known by someone who loves and accepts us. These are the kind of relationships we need, where we can be emotionally naked and not ashamed. These are the refrigerator rights relationships that are so lacking for so many.
The line God speaks about Adam is a good one for us to remember as we seek to live happy, healthy lives, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Despite our instincts to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, to do it ourselves, to not burden people with our problems, or to make it on our own, that is not how we were created. We were designed to live with mutual refrigerator rights with some of the people around us. We are losing this part of ourselves.
Not long ago, I was sitting with a friend who was nearing the end of his life on earth. Several times when I visited, he wanted to show me a very special photo album through which the story of his life was told. Well into his eighties, his mind wasn’t as sharp as it used to be, and there were many things he did not remember. He couldn’t always tell me place names or the stories behind many of the pictures. He was frustrated. One day thought, we came upon an old, grainy, black and white photo of what he called “the old gang,” a group of boys about 10-years-old sitting on a curb. He pointed to each face, gave me the name for every one of them, and often a story about his relationship with some of them. Those childhood friendships were seared into his memory at a deep level, and at this time in his life when everything was shaky and uncertain, those people grounded him. He knew who he was looking at that picture.
In days gone by, when people lived their entire lives in the same town, refrigerator rights relationships were more common. Living in proximity to extended family and childhood friends, we were surrounded by people we knew well, and maybe more importantly, people who knew us well.
But today, we move so frequently, those connections are much harder to come by. Many of us have moved from our childhood homes. If we haven’t moved, others have moved away from us. We have kids and grandkids in other states, high school and college friends we only see at reunions, cousins we have never met, colleagues who have been deployed all over the world and our paths simply don’t intersect much any more. We each have a long string of people to whom we were once close, but either through geography or circumstance, from whom we have drifted apart. Living in proximity to extended family and childhood friends, having people in our lives whom we knew well and knew us well used to just happen. Today, we need to work at it.
According to Facebook, I have 329 “friends.” The definition of “friend” on Facebook means there are 329 people from whom I could potentially see vacation photos, receive movie recommendations I didn’t ask for, and hear political rants. 329 people who may share with me images of what they are having for dinner, jokes, articles to read, cute cat videos I just have to see, and digital versions of what we used to call chain letters. On Facebook, I can “keep up” with 329 people, but I am not developing refrigerator rights there.
A New Definition of a Friend
Jesus’ definition of a friend is far different from Facebook’s. After three years of daily participation in one another’s lives, Jesus says this to the disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends… I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:13, 15). As I read this, I hear Jesus saying a friend is someone for whom you are willing to lay down your life, and someone with whom you have shared your heart, everything you know, your passion, your very self. This is a connection much deeper than the flimsy, superficial connections for which we often settle.
As we overhear Jesus preparing the disciples for life when he is no long walking the streets with them, we learn what Jesus wants from us. It is a blueprint for what it means to be a follower of Jesus today, including loving one another in the way he loves us. Jesus is inviting us to enter into refrigerator rights relationships with one another. The benefits are far reaching.
In the prestigious journal American Psychologist, one researcher pointed out that “virtually every study on human happiness reveals that satisfying close relationships constitute the very best thing in life. There is nothing people consider more meaningful and essential to their mental and physical well-being than their close relationships with other people” (MIller 196).
Instead we busy ourselves with whatever is the next thing that needs to be done, the next fire that needs to be put out. When I last preached a couple of weeks ago, I suggested we need to set aside time in our lives for examination, to prioritize the things we really ought to be doing, and ask ourselves whether we need all the busyness in our lives. One of those better things is deeper friendships, deeper connection to the people in our lives.
Where do we find them? Miller and Sparks, both Christians active in their church, write this:
In the church…there are dozens of wonderful people. Yes, of course, they are complicated and fallible and annoy those who live with them. In essence, they are normal and healthy. As I look around in our church, there are dozens of men and women who are readily available to become loving fathers and mothers. In your faith community there are sweet and wise grandparents, energetic and needy little nieces and nephews. In a faith gathering you can find most of the roles that you had either left behind or that you never had, but that you need now to build family. Everyone is there (Miller 255).
Two psychology professors at Purdue University, who also happen to be committed Christians, tell us one of the great places to rebuild, recover, or reclaim refrigerator rights relationships is through the church. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, would agree.
You have heard Pastor Bob and I speak extensively about the method in Methodism. Behind all of the structure is one basic principle: bringing Christians into deep relationship, so they might support one another in their spiritual journeys. For example, Wesley gathered people in what he called class meetings, where a dozen or so people would take turns answering the question, “How is it with your soul?,” or as we might say it today, “How are things going in your relationship with Jesus?” Some weeks, one might have been feeling particularly close to Christ and eager to share, but other weeks one might have to confess to a struggle. When we come together in that type of connection, we can be very supportive of one another’s journey of discipleship.
As you know, we are seeking to adapt this model and bring it into the 21st century here at Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church. Soon, you will begin to see some of the ways we are connecting people through class-meeting-like small groups. When the time comes, I want to encourage you to jump in with both feet. Get involved as soon as you can. But I also don’t want you to wait until there is a program for it. I want you to start the process of deepening your connections with the people around you.
As Jesus was preparing the disciples for the time they would no longer have him with them in the way they had grown accustomed that they should “love one another,” get connected to one another at a deeper level.
And in that American Psychologist quote, “satisfying close relationships constitute the very best thing in life.”
May we take the time to get connected deeply.
Miller, Will, and Glenn Sparks. Refrigerator Rights: Our Crucial Need for Close Connection. Barrington, IL: Willow Creek, 2008. Print.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version, available online at http://biblegateway.com.