What a beautiful week! Eight inches of snow fell in Danville and I have four neighbors with snow blowers and plows, so I phoned them the morning after the big snow to tell them I was holding a Good Neighbor Contest and it was down to the four of them.

Then I sat down with a good book next to our woodstove.

Joan said, “Aren’t you going to clean our driveway?”

I said, “Indirectly.”

Then I heard the hum of internal combustion engines and there was Nate Hawk clearing off our sidewalks and Brian Ritchie with his plow and Bill Eddy with his snow blower and then Jim Buchanan came along behind them with his John Deere front end loader cleaning the end of the driveway around the mailbox where the town plow had piled the snow.

When I was 23 years-old and first married, I would have been out there with a snow shovel doing it all myself, wanting to assure my wife she had married a man who would take care of her. But now that I’m 60, I’ve learned a great deal. If you’re 60 years old and haven’t figured out how to get someone to clean your driveway, what in the world have you been doing? Have you learned nothing?  I went outside to thank Nate and Brian and Bill and Jim, then told them the Good Neighbor Contest was a tie, and would have to continue until a clear winner emerged. Just remember friends, old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance. 

We’ve been discussing the characteristics of good relationships, after watching a Ted Talk given by Dr. Robert Waldinger of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a study now in its 83rd year, which discovered the key to a good life is good relationships. Thus far, we’ve said good relationships are positive, optimistic, and aspirational. We’ve said in good relationships people are free to be their authentic selves. And last Sunday on Valentine’s Day, we said good relationships are rooted in consideration and thoughtfulness for the beloved.

Today, I want to suggest another characteristic of good relationships and that is this: In good relationships, people grow together so they don’t grow apart. Let me unpack that a bit. By growing together, I not only mean two people growing more fond of one another, growing together in affection, but I especially mean that as one person is growing and learning, the other is doing the same.

Here’s an example of what that looked like for a couple I knew who had both been raised in very traditional households and were discouraged by their parents from every venturing further from their geographic, religious, cultural and moral roots. For several years this worked well for the couple, because those values made sense to them and worked for them. The couple began having children, so the wife quit her job to raise the children, just as their parents had done. Life was going exactly as they had hoped and planned.

Of course, we always know that when our lives are going exactly as we had hoped and planned, something is bound to mess that up. In this instance, the husband’s brother came out of the closet and told his family he was gay. Some families handle these revelations well, and others don’t. This family didn’t. The husband rejected his brother and refused to speak with him. But the wife had a gay cousin so had been reading about homosexuality and urged her husband to educate himself. To his credit, he agreed to do that, and over the course of the next year spent time learning. Eventually, he changed his mind, reached out to his brother, and their relationship was restored. Thank God that as the wife grew, so did her husband. They were ultimately able to grow together.

The book of Proverbs says that just as iron sharpens, so one person sharpens another. In good relationships, we allow this to happen. We not only allow it, we encourage it. We welcome it. We urge those we love to sharpen us, to improve us.  We allow ourselves to be refined by those we love, so as they grow, we grow with them. We grow together. I have seen relationships, and I’m sure you have too, where this did not happen. Relationships in which one person learned and grew and expanded their life, while their partner remained entrenched, unable to imagine any reality outside the confines of their customary habits. So one person is growing while the other is resisting growth. It seldom ends well. In good relationships, people grow together so they don’t grow apart.

Sadly, a great impediment to our religious, cultural, and moral growth are religious institutions, which have a vested interest in making sure we never question the very doctrines prohibiting our growth. Because once we start asking questions, it falls apart. This is why when people really begin to grow, they discover they are no longer welcome where once they were, whether it’s a church or a political party.

Ideally, we grow as we age, though aging and the accumulation of wisdom aren’t always synonymous. Still, it happens enough for us to notice the pattern. At the age of 60, I’m just now smart enough to get someone else to clean my driveway. If we don’t learn and grow, while our partners and friends are, our relationships will suffer. Having not grown in wisdom together, we will grow apart.

This is one benefit of difficulty.  There is nothing like difficulty to make us realize the inadequacy of our knowledge, our beliefs, and our traditions. Nothing ever causes us to change or grow until our customary practices endanger our well-being and happiness. The sudden death of my best friend at the age of 20 first caused me to question the theological inadequacies of evangelical religion. Getting fired from my first church taught me to be more thoughtful and compassionate when challenging those inadequacies. I’m sure hardship and difficulty have taught you lessons comfort and success couldn’t.

My hope for you is twofold: First, that you grow. Second, that as you grow, those you love grow with you. That you grow together, so you don’t grow apart.