Every so often when traveling by plane, I find myself striking up a conversation with a total stranger seated beside me. After he has walked on your shoes several times to get...

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Every so often when traveling by plane, I find myself striking up a conversation with a total stranger seated beside me. After he has walked on your shoes several times to get to the aisle, you feel you sort of know him, anyway. Sitting there, side by side, without really communicating in any normal way, you both seem to suddenly realize that there is no point in behaving like two inanimate objects.

And so the moment comes when we let ourselves become known to each other. He doesn’t start out by saying, “I’m a $75,000-a-year man. I live in a $350,000 house. I have on my wrist a $500 watch, and the suit I am wearing cost another $500. Our home is furnished by only the choicest antiques.”

No, he never starts there. To identify himself, he speaks of his relationships. “My name,” he says, “is Cruikshank — Robert Cruikshank. And I come from Boston, Massachusetts — born and raised there. Our family is pretty well known around Boston. There are quite a few of us, and our roots go back several generations.”

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Taking a billfold from his pocket, he pulls out several pictures and says, “This is my wife, and here are my three youngsters.” Then, if he suspects that I am a minister — if I’ve been reading the Bible or a book of theology — he might go so far as to say, “I belong to Old South Church in the heart of downtown Boston.”

This is a hopeful introduction because, although we are constantly exposed to the “American Dream” that teaches us to define ourselves by our possessions, in our flashes of sobriety and rationality, we know the truth of what Jesus said, “A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15)

I find it hopeful that, even though Madison Avenue inundates us with the notion that our lives are measured by possessions, when we are pressed to establish our identities, we refer to relationships, not things. Down deep, we really do not buy the line that encourages us to prove that we finally arrived by driving a particular car or living in a particular section of the city.

Brief visits with strangers on planes, trains or elsewhere are fine, but the most beautiful of all the treasures of life is the kinship we have with others we’ve known for a long time — relationships that have a glowing depth, joy and beauty as the years increase. The inner progressiveness of love between human beings is a most marvelous and mysterious gift. It cannot be found by passionately looking for it. It is rather a Divine Accident, and how warm and reassuring that is!

Editor’s note

The Rev. Dale Turner, who began writing a weekly column on religion for The Times in 1983, is retiring as a columnist in January.

Turner began his column after his retirement in 1982 as pastor at Seattle’s University Congregational Church. In the ensuing years, he has written on a range of topics, from kindness and prayer to life’s difficulties, the power of humor and the loss of a pet.

We invite you to share your thoughts about Turner and how his messages have influenced you. Mail your comments to Judy Groom, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, or e-mail them to jgroom@seattletimes.com. Include your name and telephone number so we can verify authenticity. We will include a selection of responses in a special tribute to Turner to be published in January with his farewell column.

Until then, we will republish some of Turner’s most popular columns. This column, on the importance of family and friends, was last published Dec. 21, 2002.

Dr. Clark Hunt has been a dear friend of mine for more than five decades. We were classmates at Yale Divinity School and have kept in touch for over 50 years.

Recently, he sent me words written by a writer unknown to us. It expresses our friendship and perhaps the friendship you have with someone:

Once in a while

a friend is found who’s

a friend right from the start

Once in a while

a friendship’s made that

really warms the heart.

Once in a while

a friendship’s found

to live a lifetime through

It really does happen …

Just once in a while …

It happened to me

and to you.

During the Christmas season, the importance of family and friends is heightened as the cards and letters flow into our homes, and family gatherings have top priority.

Lovelier than the most lovely ornaments of a home are the friends that frequent it and the love expressed within it.

We are aware, of course, at Christmas, of the mingling of sadness and joy. The holiday season touches our emotions at their most sensitive level — the level of remembrance. We remember members of our family at various stages of growth, and loved family members and friends who are no longer with us.

‘Tis the human touch in the world that counts,

The touch of your hand and mine,

Which means far more to the fainting heart

Than shelter and bread and wine;

For shelter is gone when the night is o’er

And bread lasts only a day,

But the touch of the hand and the sound of the voice

Sing on in the soul always.

— Spencer Michael Free

Let us increase our joy this Christmas by expressing gratitude to God for the family and friends that are ours, for people are more important than anything else in all the world.

The Rev. Dale Turner’s column appears Saturdays in The Seattle Times.