Friday, July 21, 2017

Seasons of Loneliness (Psalm 137:1-6) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Years ago Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline performed a song together entitled, "Have You Ever Been Lonely?"     Have you?

One evening, during a violent thunderstorm, a mother was tucking her 4 year-old son into bed.  She started to turn off the light when he asked with a tremor in his voice, "Mommy, could you lie down next to me until I fall sleep?"  The mother smiled and gave him a reassuring hug. "Honey you'll be fine, the thunder won’t hurt you, I have to sleep with your daddy."  In a shaky voice, he whispered: "The big sissy.”

A recent BBC news article said: Police respond to lonely man’s 999 call with tea.  "What else could we do but make him a brew of tea and have a chat," one of two officers reported on a Twitter feed.   The elderly man told the BBC he was touched by the visit, saying he felt he had been "locked off from everything." He added: "You feel somebody cares and oh that does matter … we talked about simple things, nothing very special, but the officers showed that they cared by being there and talking to you."

Reporter Billy Baker wrote an article in the Boston Globe in March of this year: “The Biggest Threat Facing Middle-Aged Men isn’t smoking or obesity.  It’s loneliness.”

Loneliness is a part of the human condition.  It 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.”

A fundamental human fear is the prospect of being alone.   Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone.  What are its manifestations?  You feel that no one truly 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 or who will listen.  It’s the sense of being forgotten, overlooked, and excluded.  You feel like you’re missing out.  It’s the fear that no one really cares that you exist.

I have felt lonely at different times in my life.  I suspect you have too.  You can feel lonely when you’re by yourself, and you can also feel lonely in a crowd.   It’s not the number of people around you that matters, it’s your relationship to them.   Is there a connection or no connection?  I’ve talked to people who go to a movie or restaurant or shopping mall when they are lonely just to be around people.  Sometimes it really helps.  But other times it merely intensifies the awareness of their loneliness.

Can you be famous and wealthy and lonely:  Elvis sang – Heartbreak Hotel, “I’m so lonely, I’m so lonely, I’m so lonely, I could die.”

One psychologist describes three types of loneliness: transient, situational and chronic.  Transient loneliness is a sudden passing mood or feeling; it lasts a few minutes to a day or so.  Situational loneliness is a common reaction to times of transition and separation - divorce, a death in the family, the loss of a friend, a serious and debilitating illness, moving to a new location, changing or losing a job, retirement, or children leaving home for college.  Well, that one brings mixed feelings.  Situations loneliness lasts up to a year.  Chronic loneliness refers to people who feel lonely for two or more years at a time where no significant change has taken place.

In the Bible a psalmist cries out: “Turn O God to me and be gracious, for I am lonely and afflicted.”  Another psalmist expresses his feelings in the poignant Psalm 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 were rounded up and deported to Babylon in 587 B.C.  Nebuchadnezzar didn't take the entire population of the city, but only the cream of Jewish leadership, the educated, the skilled, the wealthy.  He left the elderly, the sick and poor behind to harvest the crops.

This psalm captures the downcast spirit of the Jews in exile; they dearly missed their friends. The deported Jews grieved families who were broken up or killed, they missed worshipping together in the temple, they missed their home, their land and their culture.

The psalmist writes: “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” Zion is another Hebrew name for Jerusalem.  In the middle of their loneliness they turned to God.

Since loneliness is part of the human predicament, it is important to learn ways of coping with it like other aspects of our lives.  There are certainly unhealthy and self-defeating ways of dealing with loneliness.  Becoming a workaholic, piling up debt, staying home all the time, turning to alcohol or drugs, watching television non-stop, not learning something new, 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.  Solitude is the other side of loneliness.  Solitude is the positive side of being alone.  Solitude expresses the glory of being alone.  You enjoy time alone.  Solitude is being able to spend time alone without feeling lonely.  It is spending time alone doing things like walking at the bay, gardening or knitting or resting or reading or meditating or playing a musical instrument or a crossword puzzle, or praying or recalling past memories.  It is a refreshing and revitalizing gift from God.

God has created human beings with two opposite needs.   We have the need for meaningful relationships and the need to be alone; we need companionship and we need solitude.   Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden Pond, wrote: “I never found the companion that was so companionable, as solitude."     Solitude is a gift of grace don't you agree?

Second, we must take responsibility for our loneliness.  God has given us a free will.  Loneliness is not a trap from which is no escape.  Loneliness is real, but it’s not life-long sentence without the possibility of parole.   We sometimes bring loneliness on ourselves.   We close ourselves off from others.  We shut the door to others.  We cut ourselves off from family, colleagues and friends.  We don’t take the initiative to contact someone, we wait for someone to contact us. Know this, God brings people into our lives.  Why:  Because God didn't create us to be alone.  God created us for family, for friendships, and for community.

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 and 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 saying take a class on a subject that interests you, take a day off and do something enjoyable. 

God may be calling you into service, into volunteering your time, into helping others.  Instead of focusing inward, focus outward on other people.  Use the time and talents God has blessed you with.   Visit someone in the hospital.  See the joy that your presence brings.  There are countless opportunities in the church and in the community.   Focusing outward upon the needs of others, and not only ourselves, fills us, and diminishes our sense of loneliness.

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

Don’t stay on the side-lines, 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, laugh and cry together.

Jesus our Lord understands your loneliness.  He was fully human and fully God.  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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