Friday, July 24, 2015

When We Remembered (Psalm 137:1-6) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

One summer evening, during a violent thunderstorm, a mother was tucking her 4 year old son into bed.  She was about to turn off the light when he asked with a tremor in his voice, "Mommy, I don't want to be alone, will you lie down next to me until I fall sleep?"  The mother smiled and gave him a reassuring hug. "I'm sorry Dear," you'll be fine, she said, "I have to sleep with your daddy."  After a long silence, in a shaky little voice, he whispered: "The big sissy.”

When GQ magazine asked basketball star Kobe Bryant if he had any friends he answered: “I have "like minds." You know, I've been fortunate to play in Los Angeles, where there are a lot of people like me.  Actors. Musicians. Businessmen. People who feel like God put them on earth to do whatever it is that they do.  Now, do we have time to build great relationships? Do we have time to build great friendships?  No.  Do we have time to socialize and to hangout aimlessly? No.

Then the interviewer asked, "Do you miss the idea of having a great friendship?" and Bryant replied: Of course. It's not like I'm saying, "I don't need friends because I'm so strong." It's a weakness. When I was growing up in Italy, I grew up in isolation. … I was the only black kid.  I didn't speak the language. I'd be in one city, but then we'd move to a different city and I'd have to do everything again. I'd make friends, but I'd never be part of the group, because the other kids were already growing up together. So this is how I grew up, and these are the weaknesses that I have.”

Another story is about Mary who has been in a convalescent hospital for three years.  She spends most of her time in her room alone, watching television or reading or sitting in a chair staring out the window.   Her children and grandchildren live across country.   She rarely has phone calls or visitors.  She doesn’t talk much to the other residents or they to her.  

Here are two faces of loneliness.  It’s a reality that touches all ages – youth, young adults, the middle-aged and the elderly.

The late Roman Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen writes:  “We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds.  The growing competition and rivalry which pervades our lives from birth has created in us an acute awareness of our isolation.  This awareness has in turn left many with a heightened anxiety and an intense search for the experience of unity and community.  It has led people to ask anew how love and friendship can free them from isolation and offer them a sense of intimacy and belonging.” 

Loneliness is a part of the human condition.  It expresses the pain of being alone.  What are its manifestations?  You feel that no one truly understands you, that no one really knows you.  You feel that you don’t really belong.  You aren’t special to anyone.  There is no one you can really talk to.  It’s the sense of being forgotten, overlooked, excluded, missing out.  It’s the fear that no one really cares that you exist.   I have felt lonely at different times in my life.  We have all felt lonely at times.  There is of course a stark difference between bouts of loneliness and chronic loneliness.  Loneliness touches our soul, because the prospect of being alone is a fundamental human fear. 

It’s not the number of people around you that triggers your loneliness; it’s your relationship to them.   Do you feel connected or disconnected?  I’ve talked with people who will go to a movie or restaurant or shopping mall when they are lonely just to be around people.  Sometimes it helps.  But other times it merely intensifies the awareness of their loneliness.

Can you be wealthy and lonely?  Ask Howard Hughes.  Can you be famous and lonely?  Elvis sang – Heartbreak Hotel, “I’m so lonely, I’m so lonely, I’m so lonely, I could die.” Can you be popular and lonely?  Ask Michael Jackson. 

One psychologist describes three types of loneliness: transient, situational and chronic.  Transient loneliness is a sudden passing feeling; it lasts a few minutes to a day or so.  Situational loneliness is a common reaction to transitions and separations - divorce, a death in the family, the loss of a loved one, a lasting argument with a friend, a serious and debilitating illness, moving to a new location, changing jobs or losing a job, retirement, or children leaving home for college.  Effects can last up to a year.  Chronic loneliness refers to people who feel lonely for two or more years at a time, when no traumatic event has taken place.     

In the Bible a psalmist cries out:  “Turn O God to me and be gracious, for I am lonely and afflicted.  We turn to our scripture from the psalms.”  Another Psalm is 137.  It is the melancholy song about being strangers in a strange land.  The historical setting is when King Nebuchadnezzar and his armies of Babylon or modern day Iraq conquered Jerusalem.  The Jews of Jerusalem suffered two deportations under this king, one in 597 B.C. and again in 587 B.C.  The Jews were rounded up, taken captive and transported to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar didn't take the entire population of the city, but only the cream of Jewish leadership, the educated, the skilled, the wealthy, the poorer population was left behind to harvest the crops. 

This psalm captures the downcast spirit of the Jews in exile, for they missed their friends, families were broken up or killed, they missed worshiping together in the temple, they missed their home, their land and their culture.  “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion,” which is another Hebrew name for Jerusalem.

Since loneliness is part of the human predicament, we all must learn ways of coping with it.  There are certainly unhealthy and self-defeating ways of dealing with loneliness.  Becoming a workaholic, spending yourself into deep debt, staying home all the time, turning to alcohol or drugs, watching television constantly, or sitting around doing nothing for yourself or others are clearly unhealthy ways.

Are there positive and constructive ways to overcome loneliness?  I offer these biblical principles.  First, God has given us the capacity for solitude, which is the other side of being alone.  Solitude expresses the glory of being alone.  You can enjoy time alone, it’s a gift from God.  Solitude is being able to spend time alone without feeling lonely.  It is spending time doing things alone like gardening or resting or reading or meditating or thinking or praying or recalling past memories.  It can be a refreshing and renewing and revitalizing gift from God.

God has created human beings and we are a contradiction.  We face a dichotomy when it comes to our needs.   We have the need for meaningful relationships and the need to be alone; we desire  companionship and we desire solitude.   Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden Pond, wrote:  “I never found the companion that was so companionable, as solitude."     Solitude is a wonderful gift of God don't you agree?

Second, take responsibility for your loneliness.  Ask yourself – Is my loneliness my own doing?  We sometimes bring loneliness on ourselves.   We close ourselves off from others.  We shut the door on others.  We cut ourselves off from family, colleagues and friends.  Know this, God brings people into our lives – are you open to them?  God didn't create us to be alone.  God created us for family, for friendships, and for community.

A poem titled The Shell says:   “What are you like inside that shell?  Sometimes you seem like a tough nut to crack.  That smile you give me.  Does it come from inside or outside your skin?   Would you give me the time of day?  Forget that.  I don’t need your time.  I need you.  Would you dare to give me yourself instead of your time?  Sometimes you are so solemn you frighten me.  Your life is a gift of grace.   Does it take on more value if you fear to enjoy it?  Would you open up a little?  But wait.  I will let my shell be cracked first, and you may come into my life.  What have we got to lose, except our loneliness.

Third, discern God’s presence and call in your loneliness.   Ask God to help you use your time wisely.  Don’t allow loneliness to paralyze you into doing nothing. God speaks to us in our loneliness, listen to what God is saying.  Henri Nouwen writes:  “The more I think about loneliness, the more I think that the wound of loneliness is like the Grand Canyon, a deep incision in the surface of our existence, which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding.”

Loneliness can be a perfect opportunity for us to hear the voice of God.  Don’t let it be a missed opportunity.  Listen, pray, read Scripture.  God can use your loneliness to stir things up.  Loneliness can be a window for God to get your attention and help you gain new insights and self-understanding.  God may be coaxing you to be more empathetic to the needs of others. God may be saying you need to restore a broken relationship - go to that person you have hurt or who hurt you and ask for forgiveness or seek reconciliation.  God may be saying you need counseling for the grief you are going through, grief from a broken relationship, from an emotional wound that is draining your energy. 

God may be calling you into service, into volunteering your time, into helping others.  Instead of focusing inward, focus outward on other people.  Use your time and talents.  There are opportunities in the church and in the community.   Focusing outward upon the needs of others, and not only ourselves, diminishes our own loneliness.

Fourth, God has called you into His family of God, the church; celebrate the gift of Christian community.  As Christians we are members of a faith community.   The church, the body of Christ, as imperfect as it is, as human as it is, is a Spirit-filled community in which Christ has invited us to belong to. 

Don’t stay on the periphery, don’t remain an objective observer.  Get to know your Christian brothers and sisters - worship together, serve together, praise together, learn together, pray together, witness together, fellowship together, laugh and cry together.

Jesus our Lord understands your loneliness.  He experienced it during his ministry and in a profound way on the cross.  Grow to appreciate God's gift of solitude, take responsibility for your loneliness, listen for God’s call in the midst of a lonely time, and celebrate the gift of Christian fellowship.  Amen! 

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