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.

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Think About Me

For Kenia & Maria

Think about me, at night, when you’re the last one awake

And all the loves you take for granted are sleeping within arm’s reach.

Imagine me, behind your eyes, as you hold what you want most,

And greet the ghost of me in your dream world like a familiar friend.

Pray for me, as you thank God for the ones who need you

And for the one who freed you from your loneliness and searching.

.

I think about you.

Your life brushed up against me and encircled me and I was a child in its arms.

The hug ended

And I kept reaching

For something bigger than your little life of kindness and love to envelop me.

Like a crumbling tower I collapsed into the everlasting arms of eternity.

.

Remember me as the one with the awkward embrace

And the metallic face, rusted over from too much time in the rain.

Come to me with your greatness, with your service, in the morning

After a night of yearning and we will eat as one to end the hunger.

Think about me, at night, when you’re the last one awake,

And you recall the ache you felt in me when we brushed together.

take-home lessons from Honduras (pt. 2): hospitality

The hospitality of Abraham

The hospitality of Abraham

In the last post I outlined what I learned in Honduras about who missionaries are, and how they think. This post is about hospitality, because hospitality is what missionaries (read: Christians) do.

Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 1 Peter 4:9

Hospitality means including people, especially lonely people, in your life. That is the best definition I can invent, anyway. In the passage containing the “least obeyed command of Christ,” Jesus shows us what hospitality really looks like:

[Jesus] said to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Luke 14:12-14

Hospitality means being family to the family-less, and friends to the friendless, and giving homes to those without any place to go for love and unconditional welcome. It includes spending money on those whom you do not expect to return the favor. Acts 4:34-35 describes the effects of the early church’s hospitality, explaining that “there was not a needy person among them.” Imagine if we practiced that again!

Our modern American lives are deeply isolated from each other, with our family members, co-workers, social contacts, church friends, and neighbors typically occupying entirely separate aspects of our lives and rarely interacting. The following quote, though referring specifically to singleness as a marital status, describes this phenomenon:

“‘Singleness’ as we conceive of it in our culture is not the will of God at all. It is representative of a deeply fragmented society. Singleness in America typically means a lack of kinship connectedness. This was not the case…with Jesus who was not married. He never lived alone. He went from the family home to a group of twelve close friends who shared daily life with him until he died…. In contrast, singleness in America often refers to a person who lives alone or in non-permanent, non-kinship relationships.” –Karen Keen

Spectrum of individualistic vs. collectivistic cultures

Spectrum of individualistic vs. collectivistic cultures

Such isolation–the logical end of our bizarrely individualistic society–is totally foreign to the depth of community experienced by Jesus and his disciples and the early Church. Hospitality cuts away at our isolation, involves us in each other’s worlds, and brings “the [physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually] poor, crippled, lame, and blind” to a place where trust and restoration become possible, perhaps for the first time. Hospitality introduces the lost and lonely to the God who welcomes them into his family.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. 1 John 3:1

We are communal by nature. Being in other people’s environments and routines naturally involves us in their lives and takes us to where their hearts are. In your context, I see you as yourself: as another human remarkably similar to me, with needs just like mine. The artificial barriers we can keep up in public come down in our places of comfort and habit, and that is the only way significant relational connection and communication happen.

It is not complicated. It is taking people along with you in your life, and “hanging out” without any kind of agenda. It is creating environments where people can be who they are and be satisfied to be with one another.

In Honduras, where hospitality is a cultural cornerstone and people sit all day in their hammocks and are happy to talk about nothing, or not talk at all, as long as they are together, hospitality as a ministry model was easy and made sense culturally. In America, with our fragmented social groups, frantically busy schedules, and intolerance for silence or stillness, sharing even our external lives with one another is difficult, much less our hearts and souls. Here, hospitality still makes sense as the best ministry model–the best way to imitate the Incarnation of Christ–though it may take more logistical effort.

It works, though, and Jesus left us with a pattern to follow. He was and is the very best host.

Blessed are those servants who the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, [the master] will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. Luke 12:37

May the God of endurance and encouragement of the Scriptures grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. Romans 15:5-7

when your good life still sucks

If you ever find yourself with all your physical needs being met, plentiful opportunities to better yourself and contribute to the world, many kind and generous people in your life, and the freedom to make your own choices, but at the same time with persistent feelings of loneliness and emotional, spiritual deadness–a bizarre, but strangely common experience, especially in the West–you may also discover that you are the one stealing your own joy.

Do you pray? Do you regularly pour your heart out, and “vomit your feelings,” to the air, believing (sometimes barely) that Someone is there with you, listening? The Father is the very best listener. All the irrational fears and terrifying seeds of doubt in your heart that you disguise even to your dearest friends, even to yourself, do not scare or surprise him, like they do you. He knows you are “dust” (Psalm 103:13-14), even while you expect yourself to be solid rock.

Do you even realize that you do not pray, not really? Do you find yourself able to get through your day without explicitly surrendering to God, and not even notice? Maybe that makes you feel guilty, but it ought to make you feel hungry. You are wired for intimacy with God. Through Jesus the Mediator, he is all yours. If you do not express yourself to him and voice all the vague inclinations that otherwise fester beneath your skin–confession, thanksgiving, pleading, questioning, praise, all mixed together–you are cheating yourself of what you were made for. Talk to your Father.

Do you serve? In a washing feet kind of way? Does your routine ever expose you to broken, needy people? To dirty people? Or are you surrounded by the clean and stable? Are you committed to any relationships that require you to faithfully love an unlovely person? Or do you hoard your love only for people who love you, like the pagans do?

And the acts of service that you do–do you do them where other people see and praise you for them, thus robbing yourself of the more profound reward that only comes from God (Matthew 6:1)?

The Christian has every reason in the world to sacrificially serve broken people. The command to do so was the driving thrust of Jesus’ moral teachings. Yet, often, we still don’t do it, and, again, we cheat ourselves of what God made us for, even of what God saved us for. You can stay in your clean, presentable, predictable rut, and meticulously arrange your comforts, for as long as you like. You will discover, however, that your heart is only getting duller, your spirit drier, and your life more meaningless. Eventually you will find, to your distress, that no matter how often you spoke of him or hung around his friends, you never really knew Jesus.

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.'” Matthew 25:44-45 (New Living Translation)

Hug the sick and dying, listen to the unstable and homeless, earn the trust of fearful children, wash the feet of the tired and smelly. To begin, simply commit to befriend one such person. First, open up your heart to her burdens. Next, make the unlovely lovely, by loving her.

To avoid loneliness and emotional, spiritual deadness: pray and serve. It seems almost deceptively simple, especially to those of us who are fluent in the dialect of the church. What could be more basic to the Christian pattern of life?

Admittedly, “winter” seasons in the spiritual life certainly still exist, and truthfully, they often most poignantly afflict those who are closest to God. The underlying drive behind all our “good works” is not the pursuit of happiness but the pursuit of holiness, for the sake of showing love to Christ. And yet, at the end of every crappy day in my otherwise good life, I consistently realize two things: that I haven’t truly spoken with God, and I haven’t truly served anyone but myself.

We must “make more time” for these two things in our lives: so that God may show more of himself to us, and so that we may be fully human, and fully alive.