Friendship and Mormonism

Mark Brown is our newest guest blogger here at BCC. He is known on the records of the bloggernacle as Mark IV. Mark believes that hell is the place where it is always summer but never baseball season.

I see friends shakin’ hands, sayin’ “How do you do?”
They’re really sayin’ “I love you.”
…And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

Lyrics by Bob Thiele, performed by Louis Armstrong

Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism.
Joseph Smith, Jr.

Everybody needs a friend.
Gordon B. Hinckley

I’d like to explore the idea of friendship in a Mormon context and to suggest that the success of the church depends upon our ability to make and be friends.

First, Joseph Smith’s statement itself is surprising. If you were to ask ten random Mormons to fill in the blank: “Joseph Smith said _______ is a grand and fundamental principle of our religion.”, my guess is you would get answers like revelation or faith or temple work, but I don’t think anyone would say friendship. I believe it appears to be such a simple thing that it is considered unimportant, and we assume that because it is simple, we are already good at it and don’t need to be reminded. But that assumption is clearly false. I wouldn’t give us a grade above C+, and I’m an easy grader.

In general, we have a lot of control over our associations and social interactions. If we dislike someone we can simply avoid him. But the church is unique among other organizations because it attempts to foster friendship among people who do not select one another. Think about home teaching or visiting teaching, for instance. These simple callings bring us into close contact with people whose 1) understanding of the gospel is incomprehensible, 2) personality is annoying, 3) political views are alarming, and 4) life is a mess. If you were my home teacher, you might go four for four, and I might think the same of you, too. It is only when we realize that we are stuck with each other that we can begin to make progress. Often we feel uncomfortable and out of place, but I’ve been surprised to learn how many others feel the same way. We are mostly a collection of square pegs, all wondering where we fit.

I used to be put off by the idea of someone trying to be a friend, as though that were something undesirable or insincere. I now take the position that there is no such thing as too many friends, and I will take them any way I can get them. Since we reject the notion of creation ex nihilo, we shouldn’t expect friends to appear around us spontaneously. Rather, we speak of making friends, a process that implies time and effort.

The advantages are clear. When we serve, we gain wisdom, insight and empathy. Our church service can bring us into close contact with lives very different from our own. In one month of hometeaching I can help a single mother find a way to fund some schooling, visit an older woman who is in almost constant pain, and help a father who has lost his job look for work. How can we possibly aspire to bear one another’s burdens if we cannot first befriend one another? Just as our personal lives are largely defined by the nature of our personal relationships, our experiences in the church are often a reflection of our friendships with our ward members.

In Kirtland, when Joseph Smith met with others in the temple, they greeted one another by saying: “I receive you…to be your friend…through the grace of God…”

I think both Br. Hinckley and Br. Armstrong would be pleased if we could do the same.

Comments

  1. Mark – I appreciate your revealing comments that “we assume that because it is simple, we are already good at it and don’t need to be reminded.” I am quite certain that I take for granted the good friends I have in the church and so I try, at least once a month in testimony meeting, to stand and publicly give thanks for them. These friends can be those with whom I have enjoyed a long and fulfilling personal friendship or those who I only see on Sunday but yet who inspire me to be a better person. I’m reminded of a book I read years ago called Commonwealth where a state legislator from eastern Montana spoke of the small community he grew up in. There was a neighbor who his mother despised because of his foul mouth and despicable behavior. She didn’t want her children to be influenced by this man. But when the man’s barn burned down and all the neighbors pitched in to help him rebuild, his mother was right there leading the way providing food and comfort to the men doing the building. She knew that despite her feelings for this unsavory neighbor, they were all part of a community that, sooner or later, would need each other just to get along in the world.

    I think that in some ways our relationships in the church are that way. Many years ago as a new ward member I was offended by the comments of a longstanding member made during a priesthood meeting. I’m not sure the comments were directed at me personally but I took them personally. Later in the year as we approached the Christmas holidays I remembered those offensive feelings and I also remembered someone telling me that if you wanted to learn to love someone you didn’t like, you should do something nice for them. So we chose that man’s family for our “Secret Santa” project. I won’t say it was that effort that changed my opinion but I can say that we have since become very close friends who share many common interests beyond our church membership.

    I’m sorry for rambling, but I think your quote from the Prophet Joseph is very enlightening. Our friendships in the church are most likely the very basis for our desire to serve, to grow and ultimately to stay centered in the gospel.

  2. I’m reminded of what Joseph Smith said right before he surrendered, “if my life is of no value to my friends, it is of none to me.” Thanks Mark, nice post.

  3. Great post, Mark. This probably was (and is) the single hardest thing about joining the Church. Previously, most of my social interactions had been self-selected. This has lots of benefits, but it does make it tough to relate to people with different experiences. So, since my baptism, I started getting mad at church a lot, although I rarely show it to people other than those who are close.

    I don’t necessarily agree that having non-chosen friends is an unmitigated benefit – in my case, I tend to see this as an obligation rather than any sort of help, either to me or to the other person involved. At the same time, I think service probably requires this, either through Church socialization or through “forcing” yourself to step out of your comfort zone and help different people.

  4. Mark, you’re closely aligned with Joseph Smith’s view. Smith created an ecclesial family to reify those friendship relationships. I still love his quote (from his diary) that states that he would rather go to hell with his friends than heaven alone (“what do we care if the society is good”).

  5. Sam MB

    I still love his quote (from his diary) that states that he would rather go to hell with his friends than heaven alone

    I believe this speaks to the essence of the gospel Not that we should aspire to hell and levy our friends, but rather bring them with us to the eternal joy that awaits. See Moses 1:39. I believe that many of us forget this fact.

  6. What a nice post! Thanks.

  7. Outstanding Mark.

    I have recently taken a Carnegie training course through work, and have been blown away by it. It is amazing how much I felt that positive human relations were something that would just naturally take care of themselves. They do not.

    I have become a believer that doing specific things to develope frindships is not manipulative, as long as there is Christlike sincerity behind the effort.

  8. This is a splendid post, and I echo Sam’s sentiments and I love the greeting at the school of the prophets.

    D-Train, I think that self-selection of associates has limited ends. We really can’t grow personally unless we are faced with people that are dissimilar from us.

    Imagine if God just wanted to hang out with the Godhead.

  9. Steve Evans says:

    Word up Mark IV. You can’t have too many friends. Good stuff.

  10. Stapley,
    I know of a self-selecting bloghead or two…

  11. This is a great post.

    I wonder if part of our duty to make and be friends with the people in our ward is the responsibility to rid ourselves of those sins and weaknesses that make us unpleasant company. For instance, my vanity is not just a sin in its own right, but is also a sin to the extent that it reduces my capacity to make friends the way I’m supposed to by driving people away.

  12. This concept is of high importance. I’ve seen recent converts go inactive because nobody befriended them at church, and I assume their Home teachers and Visiting teachers dropped the ball too. The converts likely often assume things (correct or not) such as “they don’t like me because I’m single, and it’s a church for families”, or “they don’t like me because I’m black.”

    I visited a ward in another town, and took my non-member friends who lived there. Not one member in that ward greeted us or spoke to us. We even had to initiate contact and ask where priesthood/RS was.

    I’ve seen investigators, long-time inactive members, and new move-in members show up at my current and previous ward, and no one (but me and sometimes the missionaries) greeted them.

    That’s something that every body in every ward needs to look out for, is new faces, and go greet them if they don’t see them attended to by other members.

    I used to think it cheesy in other churches when they had official “greeters” just outside or inside the doors. But after seeing what happens when someone is never greeted, it’s not so cheesy.

    If I were bishop, I’d extend callings for people to be official “greeters”. Maybe include the youth. And I’d extend callings to a few people to scan for new faces and greet those who are new, and make sure they get in contact with those they need to contact, such as the bishopric for new move-ins, the missionaries for people who just walk in off the street, etc.

    I’ve given out flyers containing the area chapel addresses and meeting times to hundreds of people in Indianapolis. I include them with every Book of Mormon I give out. I do it all around town, so I never know which chapel they might show up at. When I take vacations, I make up a list of chapels for the city I’m visiting, and do the same thing for those cities when I give out books at ethnic restaurants.

    Wouldn’t it be sad if some of those people showed up at an LDS Sunday service, and no one spoke to them?

  13. i just go to thinking about that, and I found that I’ve made the most unlikely of friends through the church. You don’t always realize the things you have in common with these “forced friends.” Stepping outside your comfort zone is a good thing and leads to many pleasant surprises. After some time in fellowship, it would evolve into a true and close friendship. Not to mention that home teaching and the SS/PH/RS meetings tend to foster friendship by their very design.

    Anecdotally, I never thought before I joined the Church that I would get along with a politician that I voted against.

  14. Great post!

  15. In the last branch we were in, I was called to be a counselor in the EQ presidency, and was the only lifetime member of the group. It was refreshing to see the Church through their newly-baptized perspective, and I grew to love these men like brothers. If it weren’t for that calling, I probably would not have said more than an occasional “hello” to them as we passed each other in the chapel.

    I’m in the Primary in our current ward, and now I only know the kids.

  16. ‘“Joseph Smith said _______ is a grand and fundamental principle of our religion.”.’

    Excellent. I was just sitting down to write a talk for next Sunday, saw this, and knew what I’d be talking about and how I would start. This should be etched in gold (or a thrifty substitute) over every church building door.

    It seems likely that JSJ had a more intense definition of friendship then, say, Louis Armstrong (or James Taylor for that matter). Any thoughts? In my own mind I’m likely to go in the direction of the attributes listed in 1 Cor & Moroni.

  17. J. Stapley,

    I agree that self selection does have a limited end. But, ultimately, anything other than self selection has to become self selection in order to truly accomplish what Mark is talking about. Unless the people who are selected for you become people you’d choose to befriend, can we really call them friends in the truest sense of the word? I don’t know that we can. I also think that self selection is simply an efficient response to the impossibility of spending time with everyone.

    That said, I find little reason why some non-self selection wouldn’t be a good thing. I just think self selection is also good and reasonable.

  18. I agree that there are some for whom friends would be a stretch, but I think that we can learn to Love most people.

  19. CS Eric – I served as bishop of our ward from 1996 to 2001. The best part of that job is participating in the joyful events in everyone’s life – as their friend AND their bishop. Since my release I have not been as outgoing in introducing myself to new members of the ward. That fact, coupled with a hoard of new ward members and I now find myself unfamilair with many or most of my ward. A sad commentary indeed. I’ve made a resolutuion for the new year to force my normally shy self to reach out more often.

  20. Amen to this post. See First John and several passages in James for further backup on the ideas written about here.

    Of course there is also the possibility that you will be in a ward like mine in which almost every family is headed by a professional father and a SAHM and has 3-6 kids. But even then there are enough converts (I would say 35% of adults) and native Texans around in our ward to make it interesting.

  21. Being an active member in a ward causes situations like this…..

    When my family moved to Texas from Chicago we left our 1 bedroom apartment with its humble furnishings in a bad part of town in an attempt to purchase a home in a cheaper market.

    We received assistance in our move. The people that helped us the most were a husband and wife who had joined the church about 6 months before. He was an assistant district attorney and she was a similarly educated and succesful woman and they lived in a million dollar home in a very nice suburb. They spent all day with us moving our modest belongings, watching our toddler, and cleaning our tiny apartment.

    The only thing we really had in common was activity in the local ward. Our ages, finances, etc were vastly different.

  22. “It seems likely that JSJ had a more intense definition of friendship then, say, Louis Armstrong (or James Taylor for that matter). Any thoughts? In my own mind I’m likely to go in the direction of the attributes listed in 1 Cor & Moroni.”

    Just what the attributes of friendship are is an interesting question, Norbert. Especially today, when our popular culture celebrates “friendship” mostly in the abstract, as a self-chosen association between otherwise disconnected people (e.g. the sitcom “Friends”). Deeper friendships can’t be, I think, entirely self-chosen; they have to turn at least in part on communal obligation and mutual recognition. That is, a friendship of the sort that I think Joseph Smith was trying to create amongst the Saints, a friendship that saves, is a friendship that turns on common work and common residency, a being and doing that has relatively little to do with just having opinions or interests in common, and in fact has a lot more to do with service, sharing, confessing, supporting, and so forth. Jesus called His disciples “friends” just before the end, because of what they’d gone through for Him and what He’d put them through Himself; even if they didn’t fully understand His coming sacrifice, they had a clear sense of where they’d come from and what they were collectively all about, and what could be a greater foundation for charity and love than that?

    I think the Quakers understood a lot about the deep meanings of Friendship; something I speculated about here, as I started my current job at a Quaker school. I don’t think I’m up to their level yet, but I’m trying.

  23. Marvin J. Ashton’s first talk as an Apostle was entitled “What Is a Friend?” (“Ensign” Jan/1973 – available on lds.org) It’s helped me since I first heard it. I still hear his friendly voice when I read it.

    Some excerpts that I like:

    Someone has said, “A friend is a person who is willing to take me the way I am.” Accepting this as one definition of the word, may I quickly suggest that we are something less than a real friend if we leave a person the same way we find him.

    There seems to be a misunderstanding on the part of some men today as to what it means to be a friend. Acts of a friend should result in self-improvement, better attitudes, self-reliance, comfort, consolation, self-respect, and better welfare. Certainly the word friend is misused if it is identified with a person who contributes to our delinquency, misery, and heartaches. When we make a man feel he is wanted, his whole attitude changes. Our friendship will be recognizable if our actions and attitudes result in improvement and independence.

    It takes courage to be a real friend. Some of us endanger the valued classification of friend because of our unwillingness to be one under all circumstances. Fear can deprive us of friendship. Some of us identify our closest friends as those with the courage to remain and share themselves with us under all circumstances. A friend is a person who will suggest and render the best for us regardless of the immediate consequences.

    [...]

    A friend is a possession we earn, not a gift. “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.” (John 15:14.) The Lord has declared that those who serve him and keep his commandments are called his servants. After they have been tested and tried and are found faithful and true in all things, they are called no longer servants, but friends. His friends are the ones he will take into his kingdom and with whom he will associate in an eternal inheritance. (See D&C 93:45–46.)

    [..]

    For a few moments enjoy with me some very simple yet powerful recent conversations I’ve had in seeking the true significance of friendship. I asked an eight-year-old girl, “Who is your best friend?” “My mommie,” she replied. “Why?” “Because she is nice to me.”

    A priest-age young man was asked the same question. “My bishop.” “Why?” “Because he listens to us guys.”

    A 19-year-old girl: “My Gleaner teacher.” “Why?” “She is always available to me, even after class.”

    A 13-year-old boy: “My Scoutmaster.” “Why?” “He does everything with us.”

    A prisoner: “The chaplain.” “Why?” “He believes me. He even believed me sometimes when he shouldn’t have.”

    A husband: “My wife.” “Why?” “Because she is the best part of me.”

    From these cannot we conclude that friendship is earned?

    [...]

    How can we help a friend? An Arabian proverb helps us answer: “A friend is one to whom one may pour out all the contents of one’s heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that the gentlest of hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.”

    Yes, a friend is a person who is willing to take me the way I am but who is willing and able to leave me better than he found me.

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    Wonderful post.

    I have often reflected that I would like to have a do over of my mission, for lots of reasons. One is that I now have some sense of how important the social dimension is to conversion. As a young elder I was totally clueless and thought it was all about the abstractions of the discussions. That is just the beginning; you have to fold someone into the social fabric of a ward. They have to have friends at church other than the 19-year old missionaries. If I had it to do over again I would put much more emphasis and effort on helping to create networks of friends for investigators and new converts.

    My current ward has a really kickin’ missionary vibe going right now, and a lot of it involves friendships arising almost immediately between ward members and investigators. For instance, we have an empty nester’s FHE that meets once a month, and a bunch of the people who come and participate in the group are recent converts. One in fact actually began attending the group as her first introduction to the Church (she was a coworker of one of the group members and didn’t have any other friends in this area).

  25. MikeInWeHo says:

    This post made me ask: Who is a “friend of the Church”?? That phrase appears right up front at lds.org. But what does it mean? Who? Larry King? I put myself in that category, but maybe I’m just deluding myself.

  26. The friendship dilemma I’ve been mulling lately (we recently returned to Utah, where my wife and I grew up and have large families and lots of good friends) is: depth or breadth? At what expense to deepening existing friendships should I make new ones? I love to meet people, but I already don’t spend as much time as I’d like with people I made friends a long time ago.

  27. Steve Evans says:

    Matt Evans? THE Matt Evans?? Good to see you up and around, man!

  28. jothegrill says:

    Friendship through home teaching and through visiting teaching seem to be very different. I’ve become friends with almost every sister I’ve “taught,” and it doesn’t seem to be that hard. However, my husband was lamenting that some of our neighbors were made our home teachers, because to him that meant that we couldn’t just be “hang out, talk about whatever’s on your mind” kind of friends. For me that’s what visiting teaching is all about. I wonder why the difference?

  29. 28. Not knowing your group, I’ll suppose from ignorance: maybe the men see home teaching as a duty, which may include the responsibility in PPI’s to report issues that would be be kept quiet among just friends that “hang out, talk about whatever’s on your mind.” Maybe the sisters are more focused on service than responsibility and hence more circumspect in sharing non-essential issues in their stewardship reviews.

  30. I have a little different angle. My best friend is Catholic and we’ve talked and talked religion and shared individual spiritual experiences, among a lot of other experiences that underly a friendship. We’ve also helped each other through challenges and all the other things that make friendships so appealing. As the years go by, I have stopped trying to bring him around to my way of thinking about religion. For the first several years I approached our religious discussions as opportunities to try and interest him and teach him about the church. Now I just express my opinion and answer occasional questions. Consequently, he knows a lot about the LDS church and I know a lot more about the Catholic church. Currently, I almost can’t be bothered to try to find every teaching/sharing opportunity. I share my religious opinions/views when the matter comes up, he shares his and where we agree, we agree and where we disagree, we disagree. We joke about each other’s religion and about our own religion with each other. As time goes by, though, I find I’m not as concerned about him and his family ever joining the church as I once was. And, if my choice is a ward social/event or the priesthood session of GC and going to a baseball/basketball/football game with my second best friend and our sons, my friend wins out every time; although, I think my first best friend, my wife, has secretly discouraged him from suggesting plans that conflict with GC, at least since my son has received the priesthood. Does the fact that I’m no longer concerned with trying to convert my best friend mean I am not as good a friend as I once was?

  31. Wes Brown says:

    Word. When I first learned about Joseph Smith’s Grand Fundamental Principle sermons I was suprised to read that “ONE of the GFPs of Mormonism is to recieve truth” and that “THE GFP of Mormonism is friendship”. Echoing his opponents perplexity at his success he asked, “Why is it this babbler gains so many followers, and retains them?” He explained his secret simply: “Because I possess the principle of love.” Offering the world “a good heart and a good hand”. I think the church is appealing in the same way. Awesome Post. Royals spring training games start in just over a month.

  32. MikeInWeWho:

    Who is a friend to the church? I’d question Mike Wallace and his son. Last Sunday Mike’s son gave a whipping to KS Presidential Candidate R-S on Fox TV. Brownback. Wallace had to throw in the absurdity of even THINKING that the country would be so stupid as to elect a president. Ok, it wasn’t that drastic, but pretty biased nontheless. Evidently daddy’s opinions, however we may perceive them, aren’t passed on to his son.

  33. Hi,

    I realize I’m a little late in posting on this topic, but I only just found it.

    Mark, I thought your comments were stellar. I especially liked your fill-in-the-blank exercise.

    BTW, I recently published a paper in Sunstone that addresses this topic at some length. It’s titled “‘The Grand Fundamental Principles of Mormonism’: Joseph Smith’s Unfinished Reformation.” And anyone interested can access it free online at http://www.sunstoneonline.com/magazine/mag-issue-141.asp

    http://www.sunstoneonline.com/magazine/mag-issue-141.asp

  34. Don Bradley says:

    OK, more specifically that URL should be:

    http://www.sunstoneonline.com/magazine/issues/141/141-32-41.pdf

  35. Don Bradley: All I can say is WOW! Your treatment of the subject is thorough, complete, and very appealing. I noticed that the very astute commenter in # 31 also linked to your article. Once again, very well done. Joseph Smith, Jr. was quite a guy.

    All: If you enjoyed this thread, do yourself a favor and follow the link in comment 34.

  36. Don Bradley says:

    Mark,

    I greatly appreciate your hearty recommendation of my paper.

    And thanks also to Wes Brown for linking to it. I hadn’t noticed the link till you pointed it out.

    Thanks again for this blog piece, Mark. I’ll be watching for your future postings.

    Don

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