just enough loneliness

What makes loneliness an anguish is not that I have no one to share my burden, but this: I have only my own burden to bear — Dag Hammarskjöld

The second chapter of Genesis teaches that at the core of our make-up is a need for human relationships and the sharing of selves: “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.” But then, the third chapter of Genesis teaches that one of the most devastating consequences of humanity’s alienation from God is our alienation from each other: “they knew that they were naked so they made coverings for themselves.” One of the implications of this relational alienation is that loneliness, to one degree or another, is our new normal.

In myriad ways, modern society aggravates this post-Fall loneliness, in our atomized living arrangements, our solitary commutes to work, our screens, our cultural divisions, our lack of shared spaces, the list goes on. Some groups are especially vulnerable—singles, old people, and gay men, for example—but no one is immune.

Too much loneliness can drive you into a deep, depressive hole. It’s physically unhealthy, as bad as chain-smoking or obesity. Measured against God’s design, it’s also deeply unnatural for no one else to know about the hopes and fears rattling around in your mind every day, and for your meals to be consistently accompanied by screens and not faces. Too much loneliness can literally take the life out of you.

There’s something more to be said, though, because it turns out that just enough loneliness can move us towards new ways of connecting with others that we may not have otherwise explored. When leveraged well, just enough loneliness can push us out of our vortex of self-centeredness, towards empathy and service.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 that it’s easier for unmarried people to serve God wholeheartedly because they don’t have to divide their attention between what God wants and what their spouse wants. Perhaps we could also say that it’s easier for lonely people—those with more unscheduled time and greater openness to new relationships—to serve others devotedly. To say it another way, having a happy family to come home to every night provides innumerable benefits, but it also provides the spiritual dangers of complacency and indifference to the world’s pain. Just enough loneliness can push us out of ourselves, out of our living rooms, into the lives of other lonely people who need to be reconciled to God, and who need the gift of human company.

If you experience loneliness, try not to waste it. Use it well, in order to better understand the sufferings and shortcomings of others, and to serve others without needing to impress anyone. Don’t share your meal with a screen if you can share it with a neighbor.

To Christians who are single and celibate, whether as a temporary season or as a long-term vocation, this idea is especially poignant. To me it feels both painful and encouraging to think that God can use our loneliness to help us become better servants and lovers of our neighbors. I would love to say that empathy and service take away that loneliness, and that you’ll find the kind of relational connection you’re longing for among “the least of these.” But the truth is that they often don’t, and that you probably won’t, because service means giving of yourself without looking for repayment. What you will find, though, is God’s blessing (Luke 14:13-14). In that blessing there is a deep, sober joy.

I think of Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest who fell in love with men various times over the course of his life and yet fulfilled his vows. Only his closest friends knew of his homosexuality. He spent the last decade of his life living and working among the mentally ill, and writing about the spiritual life. His loneliness was painful, yet it was that loneliness which drove him to a radical level of service, and to a profound depth of insight into the love of God. Both in spite of and because of his loneliness he was well-acquainted with the blessing of his Father and the joy therein.

More than anyone, I think of Jesus: the only righteous one in a world of sinners, the only one who loved God in a world of idolaters, the only one who saw the truth in a world of blind guides. He understood even their thoughts, and yet no one understood him. Who has known loneliness like the Son of God among men? Yet by his wounds we are healed—and by his loneliness we are known, accepted, received, and beloved. May we learn something about loneliness, and love, from him.

Praying

sometimes I start out praying

on my knees

eyes closed and dry

elbows on the bed

fingers locked and still

head even-keeled

my whole body piously symmetrical

the Thank You For The Food kind of praying

the In Jesus’ Name Amen kind of praying

praying in a posture I can get behind

 

what happens next happens slowly

an arm lies down

a forehead seeking shelter

eyes open in the blanket

legs crossed or bouncing

a shoulder blade protruding

my body wondering who’s listening

the Please Have Mercy On Me kind of praying

the I Don’t Know If I Can Do This kind of praying

whispering my sins into the mattress

 

sometimes I end up praying

on my bed

eyes closed and wet

hands above my head

fists in the pillow

legs at awkward angle

my whole body in desperate display

the Oh Father Father Father kind of praying

the No More Words Just Needs kind of praying

falling into everlasting arms and sleeping

Split Custody

I left home last night

And got home this morning.

Te digo que llegué a casa por fin. 

Back home it was raining in the chilly black air;

Here at home it’s humid with an endless blue ceiling.

Tal vez la humedad me hace bien después de ese invierno de castigo.

The manner of speaking is musical;

It’s got a lilt you’d have to know to listen for.

Es que noo-mbre, pucha vos, ya llegastes, gracias a Dios.

The lilt that is the song stuck in my head when I’m home;

I can’t stop myself from parroting.

Hasta mis amigos mexicanos me dicen que hablo igual a ustedes.

It’s like split custody, and you love them both;

They just take care of you different.

Dos países, dos padres, que me cuidan bien.

 

Needs

Her love for God is that of a desperate man;

     she worries what would happen with her needs met.

The problem isn’t the landscape, it’s the line;

     this city is too falsely modest for her.

No one refers to her as a nice lady;

     she is violently kind in a womanly way.

Children speculate about what’s in her purse;

     friends see hammered rhymes and cover art in there.

The problem isn’t the sacred, it’s the saint;

     the bread and wine go down like forty proof gin.

Her love for God is that of a dying thief;

     she wonders what would happen with her needs met.

generational losses & gains

Millennials get a lot of flak – yeah, yeah, we know. We’re on our phones too much and we don’t know how credit cards work. Sorry. We’re also the least racist of any generation, so I’ll count that as a major point in our favor.

The social commentary on our generation has already been prolific, and there is little to add in terms of the overarching trends, re: technology, identity politics, and mental health. So, here are just a few thoughts about what Millennial Christians seem to have both lost and gained, in comparison to our 20th century forebears. (Painting in broad strokes, of course.)

What We’ve Largely Lost

1. Doctrinal conviction.

Beliefs matter. They certainly impact life, and according to every religion, they impact the afterlife too. Whether God is a unity or a trinity, whether judgment day is real, whether our private actions matter in any transcendent sense – such questions deserve answers. Committed, convicted answers, even. Many of us are prepared to draw definitive lines on only a tiny fraction of the doctrines that former generations took for granted. Some attribute this to a fear of unpopularity or of causing offense, and that’s part of it. But I think it has more to do with our collective self-doubt. “What if I’m wrong?” And it feels more like a what-if-I’m-wrong than a what-if-we’re-wrong. Something about that personal assertion carries a lot of cultural baggage for us, and it leaves us with more grey areas than necessary.

2. Private religious practice as a legitimate barometer of spirituality.

Good ol’ Christian morals, like regular church attendance, private prayer, a sober lifestyle, and sexual chastity have slid a long way down the priorities list for us. Our recognition that such habits do not equate to godliness has overextended itself, so that we fail to see them as playing any major role in measuring the authenticity of our faith. This becomes especially problematic when we fault our churches or even God for our apathy, while ignoring the basic spiritual disciplines that have always sustained Christianity in personal lives.

What We’ve Gained

1. Better listening skills.

Young Christians seem to be much more willing to hear from other denominations and traditions. There seems to be less of a feedback loop, and more of an ecumenical spirit. Perhaps this is because unity and cross-pollination are more vital in the face of social marginalization than in times of social hegemony. I, personally, have been immensely helped and influenced by the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and liberal Protestant viewpoints that I’ve been exposed to, despite continuing disagreements. Our generation has also greatly benefited from our willingness to hear out the scientists, the mental health professionals, the Muslims, “the gays,” etc. Christian truth sometimes complements, sometimes disrupts, these other versions of reality, but in general we grow intellectually weaker by staying in the echo chamber and intellectually stronger when we engage constructively with the rest of the world.

2. The long-overdue disentanglement of “God” and “country.”

This could also be called “the long-overdue disentanglement of Christianity and the Republican Party.” Jesus never came to be an earthly messiah. He never founded any empires. For too long, American Christians have been looking for him to the build the American Dream (and, tacitly, the American Empire). They’ve tried to use laws, rather than the gospel, to make people moral. The current election has highlighted this generational divide in a painful way. Older Christians have largely made excuses for the appalling behavior and rhetoric of the Republican nominee, in the name of specific policies or (more often) in the name of defeating his opponent, while younger Christians have been baffled and disturbed by this willingness to compromise the reputation of the faith for the sake of politics. Few would call America a “Christian nation” anymore, and many of us see this as a move in a much more Christlike direction.

3. A more holistic approach to engaging with society.

It’s amazing to me how many of my friends – the majority, easily – aspire to “do good” in their career aspirations, much more than they aspire to “do well” financially. Young Christians seem to have a solid grasp of how the gospel impacts all areas of life and all parts of creation. Christ’s influence on our public allegiances is not relegated to our opinions on abortion or gay marriage. His love for us drives us to the edges of our comfort zones: racially, economically, geographically, for the victims, for the sexual minorities, for the undeserving poor. That impacts our politics, our career goals, our decisions about where to live, and our choices about who we marry, or if we marry.

What Neither Generation Seems To Have Figured Out, Yet

1. The difference between the love and affirmation.

Our parents’ generation couldn’t affirm, so they didn’t love. Because of that we think that we can’t love unless we also affirm. Yes, I’m thinking primarily of the “how should the Christians deal with the gays?” question. Notice how the question itself presupposes two distinct groups at play, with little crossover. Neither generation has answered that question in anything like a satisfactory way, if you value love and truth at the same time, or if you value pastoral care even a little bit.

I would love to hear feedback on this.

What else have we Millennials lost, gained, or not yet tackled?

 

Still There

I was hoping for a rainy Sunday, or a federal Monday

for some quiet hum or a morning in bed

for a reposed window seat or a walk down the sidewalk

where no other feet are feeling their way about.

I was putting stock in a change of pace to decrease my heartrate

running is good for the vessel but bad for the blood.

I was counting on a breath of air to refresh my mental state

A/C is good for the clothing but bad for the skin.

I was wanting to go out, or in.

I was hoping for a change of something,

for a change of something,

for a change

in general.

I was trusting in a change of something.

 

Then I got a day off,

and it rained,

and I stayed in bed all day,

and I was still there.

God Won

it is salty

it tickles the fleshy underside of his foot a little

it is pooling in the hollows above his collarbone

warms him up

 

blood like a woman caressing the tendons in his back

blood behind his ears and in his eyes

and he can’t rub it out

blood won’t leave him alone

 

he has never noticed tiredness in his fingernails before

or in his skin

there is pain in his hair

that is new

 

someone in his skull is banging hard on the door

let me out

these gates are shut from the outside

you’re trapped in there for good

 

he wanted God

God wanted him

and God won

Rich White America

I’m from Rich White America, the human race’s one percent.

I’m from daily dinners with Dad and Mom,

cul-de-sac calm and patio parties

and nothing but failure to fear.

I’m from baby books, photo books

children’s books, classic books –

books that they would read to me so I would ace the SAT.

I’m from big grass yards and imaginary friends;

all the wars I fought were sticks and pirate ships.

I’m from homework help and holidays,

spring break trips and soccer games.

I’m from homemade meals and fresh fruit in the fridge.

I’m from innocence and warmth,

crystallized on Christmas with five presents just for me.

I’m from self-inflicted issues with a satisfied stomach

and a sheltered safe haven from violence;

even sickness was sorry to disturb the peace.

I’m from landlocked tears and

and keeping one’s emotions in one’s room.

 

I’m from everything you didn’t have.

Does it help if shame and loneliness are familiar faces in this fairy tale?

If anxiety and depression are the starlets on this silver screen?

Rich White America is the strangest of normals,

and I’m not saying that it’s fair.

So please tell me instead, where you’re from?

why I’m grateful for my secular university education

In the Christianized subculture where I spent much of my childhood, characterized as it was by social conservatism and a sometimes thoughtful but often reactionary approach to cultural critique, there was frequent discussion of “liberal,” “secular” higher education and its evils. My parents and their friends were understandably apprehensive of college campuses. Whatever your background, you can easily imagine why the idea of thousands of 19-year-olds living together, under the tutelage of hundreds of self-proclaimed Marxists/feminists/atheists/fill-in-the-blank-ists who profess to offer exclusive access to knowledge, enlightenment, and humanism, would be distasteful to conservative evangelical parents.

But, I never fit in very well with the Christianized subculture in which I came of age, familiar as it was. I had no desire to stay within it in adulthood, because of its flaws and my own flaws working in synchrony. Thus, I never considered attending a religious university, and set my sights on UC San Diego (its department in my field of study is well-renowned, and I love my home city). Now, this side of graduation, I’ve identified some specific reasons for why I’m so grateful for that choice.

**My goal here is to articulate gratitude, not to make a comparison or persuasive argument.

My liberal, secular higher education taught me how to speak English the way normal people do. While there is certainly a place for the rich terminology granted to us by our biblical, theological, and ecclesial traditions, there exists in American Christendom a particular social dialect that is often unintelligible to outsiders. A lot of it is shorthand drawn from biblical imagery, as when you hear people say “a seed was planted.” That means that some portion of Christian teaching was shared with a non-Christian, with the hope that said person’s interest in Christ will grow over time. Like jargon everywhere, it serves the functional purpose of allowing people to say what they mean with brevity. But, it also creates the impression that the world of Christians who are fluent in the jargon is a different world from the one where the rest of us live. It can also prevent us from actually thinking through what we mean. Much of the time, phrases and idioms are parroted without understanding. My time at university forced me to avoid the American Christian dialect and taught me how to express my beliefs in everyday English.

Living on campus made me learn how to live with sex, drugs, rock and roll, etc (that is, with young people). It did not change my convictions about the moral status of these behaviors. If anything, it reinforced ad nauseum how damaging promiscuity is and how unattractive substance abuse is in otherwise amiable people. Nonetheless, learning to live with and love people who think of these behaviors as normal or natural saved me from becoming a moralist. Jesus preached against the self-righteousness of religious people much more than the self-indulgence of pagans. Spiritual pride is the deadliest of sins. Thus, living in an environment run by self-indulgent pagans solidified my own moral convictions while at the same time forcing me to learn how to “eat with sinners,” for my good and theirs.

Living on campus gave me the chance to become friends with people who are vastly different from me. One of my roommates during my first year was a sorority girl who seemed to know everyone at our school of 28-thousand. She’s pretty, bubbly, outgoing, a natural romantic. That’s not me at all, yet somehow we became friends. Another girl in my hall taught me how to skateboard, and we challenged each other frequently on politics and God, even though by the end of the year she was tripping on acid almost every day. Another friend of mine struggled with her self-image for the first two years that I knew her, until she decided to start the process of female-to-male transition last year. The point is that I made real, actual friendships with people I would otherwise have little opportunity to know. Living in the dorms was hard for a lot of reasons, but it was worth it for that.

My secular university education taught me how to be fair to my intellectual opponent.  On both sides of every ideological divide there is a pernicious tendency to read and cite the best, most nuanced sources produced by the acceptable side, and then compare that with pop journalism produced by the unacceptable side. This leads to a lot of straw man arguments, which in turn leads to a lot of self-congratulation despite the fact that no real intellectual work has been done. By exposing me to the best, most nuanced ideas produced by my intellectual opponents, my secular education made me a more fair-minded thinker. There is no need to resort to mockery as a form of self-defense when you understand that your opponent is sincere, and probably as thoughtful as you. Rational dialogue can actually happen between people who are in deep ideological opposition! It may be rare, but I learned how to do it at school.

My time at university deeply challenged my beliefs. I arrived at school with the presupposition that the search for truth would be worthwhile, no matter where it led me. That enabled me to take classes and read books without fear that my belief system would be undermined. If it was capable of being undermined, I didn’t want it. Many others have made similar attempts at objectivity and have arrived at different conclusions, so I know that teachability will not overcome confirmation bias always and in all cases. Nonetheless, there are times I have wanted Christianity to be false, because that would make some things in my personal life a lot easier. So my own confirmation bias was lessened, if still present at some level. Some of what I learned at school forced me to seriously reconsider some things I had assumed as true, in light of new evidence–and recognizing flaws in your belief system can be a painful process. Despite all of that, my faith came through the other side, refined and modified in some ways, but still intact, and still orthodox. Looking back now, I think my faith is, though much more humble, more confident than ever. It faced down its ugliest demons and came through victorious. That kind of intellectual and personal harrowing taught me not to fear the truth. If it’s true, and if God is real, then the truth unquestionably belongs to him.

God as father

Why is the biblical God typically (not exclusively) described in masculine terms?

So far I’ve had two friends cite this as one of their main complaints against the Christian God: “he” is too paternal. Too male. In an era when, thankfully, women are finally able to challenge the structures of male domination which have caused inestimable suffering, and when, unfortunately, the subsequent attempt to purge our culture of “patriarchy” has led to a unilateral rejection of masculinity even in its virtuous forms, this is not surprising. I have asked myself the same questions: is there a reason that God wants us to call him father and not mother? Since he is spiritual, not bodily (John 4:24), why does he use gendered terms at all? Why not something more philosophical or mystical such as “pure being” or “the One”? Something less tainted by the kind of emotional baggage that human male authority figures tend to create?

In fact, from the beginning, the biblical God has used a brilliant, non-gendered ontological self-descriptor: “I am,” which is the root of the Hebrew word Yahweh/Jehovah, the most common name for God in the Hebrew Bible. This teaches us that God cannot be fully described by human language and that (his) self-existence far transcends the limited categories of sex and gender.

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I Am has sent me to you.'” Exodus 3:14

All our ideas about God are limited by our “epistemic humility,” our inability to grasp anything beyond our familiar world of matter, space, and time. Anything we know of the divine is nothing more than a fraction of an infinite whole. That much has always been clear.

Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand? Job 26:14

With that said, here are four ideas as to why the Bible generally presents God as a masculine, paternal figure.

1) The Bible anthropomorphizes God as a gift to us, making him more comprehensible than he would otherwise be.

The question “why use gendered terms at all?” points to a larger question regarding the Bible’s tendency to use anthropomorphizing terms to describe God, and worldly terms to describe otherworldly phenomena. Think also of how often Jesus spoke in parables, or short stories, rather than theological treatises. The Bible is mostly made up of stories and poems which were first composed orally and only later codified in written text. This reflects a fact about our world: most humans in most times and places have been illiterate, oral learners. As a species we tend to absorb information better and faster through storytelling than through argumentation. What’s easier to remember: a two-hour movie or a two-hour powerpoint presentation?

Human languages divide the world into categories which God doesn’t fit into, but which God nonetheless adopts in order to give us a foothold into understanding who he is. Language is limited, but without it we wouldn’t be able to say anything at all about God. One could object to this and say that, therefore, we shouldn’t even try and should be content to be agnostic. But if God has actually given us a set of images and terms and has told us to latch onto them, while recognizing their inherent limitations, then that is an incredible gift. There is a risk that we will take it all too literally and think that heaven is really made out of gold or that God is really male. But at least gold and fathers are things we can imagine, while heaven and divinity are not.

Especially considering that the vast majority of human learning is picture-oriented, the anthropomorphizing terms that the Bible uses to describe God are an expression of grace, proving that our Creator wants us to know him.

2) Many people lack father figures (more so than mother figures).

Elsewhere I’ve mentioned the biological reasons behind this, and for people who have been around long enough, it’s a simple reality. It’s easier for fathers than for mothers to abandon their children, and so more of them do. That means many more people lacking a loving, protecting, paternal voice, which is universally desired – at least, I can think of no exceptions. The Bible has always called out “the fatherless” as a special group for whom God is concerned. Thus, God as father fills this gap when he tells us to call him abba, the term used at home with dad because you’re safe under his domain and you know that he loves you.

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship*. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” Romans 8:15

*The Greek word for adoption to sonship is a term referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir in Roman culture (note from the NIV).

3) The fatherhood of God redefines human fatherhood.

Most human societies have placed little emphasis on the father’s role in child-rearing. The phenomenon of the stay-at-home dad is extremely modern, again because of biological reasons and the realities of pre-industrialized life. By calling God “father,” the Bible combines the traditional archetype of the distant authority figure who rules by domestic decree with the idea of an intimately involved parent who loves his children ardently. That is, God is “other” from us in his divinity and moral purity in a way analogous to the traditional concept of the distant patriarch. Yet he is compassionate and loving towards us in a way that challenges that traditional concept.

Thus the Bible subverts our assumptions about patriarchal gender roles by teaching fathers to love their children gently and to care for them intimately, in the same way that God loves and cares for us. Think of the father in the story of the prodigal son, who as an aged man runs to meet his rebellious son and kisses him before he has a chance to say anything. That father, representing God, refuses to be treated as a master or employer. Instead he insists on being affectionate and “prodigally” kind to his undeserving child.

And you saw how the LORD [Yahweh] your God cared for you all along the way as you traveled through the wilderness, just as a father cares for his child. Deuteronomy 1:31

And my personal favorite verse comparing human and divine fatherhood, in that subtle, piercing tone so typical of Jesus:

If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! Matthew 7:11

4) The Bible doesn’t only use masculine, paternal imagery to talk about God.

There’s lots of potential for reflection here, but for now I’ll just list a few examples of the times that the Bible speaks about God as a mother/woman.

[David:] But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. Psalm 131:2

[God:] Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Isaiah 49:15

[God:] As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem. Isaiah 66:13

[Jesus speaking, right before the story of the prodigal son:] Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.” In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents. Luke 15:8-10

God is not a man. We have to remember that. In his mercy he has revealed himself to us in certain ways so that we can start to know him even now. The Christian life is a lifelong journey of working through all of this, emotional baggage and all, and gradually learning what it means when we pray, “our father…”