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Women get a bad rap in Scripture. I got into trouble once with another pastor in town for suggesting that the woman caught in adultery might have been just looking for love in the wrong places. He thought I was condoning adultery, and I didn’t press the point—there is no textual evidence that might suggest it. She’s just seen as this lose woman who deserved to be stoned, with no mention at all of the man involved. I wonder sometimes what might have driven the woman to be with another man than her husband. Maybe Jesus knew that her simple desire for love was holy, was as Augustine of Hippo would say 5 centuries later, a hidden love of God. Maybe this is why he didn’t condemn her.
The woman at the well gets the same sort of rap. The fact that she has had five husbands and the one she’s currently with is not her husband is certainly telling of a troubled love-life, something within her that is searching for something—I know I’m psychologizing here, and that’s always thin ice, but here we go…maybe she imagined that if she just had the right man things would be alright. Maybe she had a deep longing in her belly for companionship, comfort, the touch of another person’s tender hand, a deep-set fear of being alone. Whatever the story, and we really don’t know, I think it is safe to say that this woman was in a wilderness, and maybe it was the wilderness of loneliness.
Loneliness is a bad rap. It has all kinds of effects on the person. One of our own, Bill Harrison, recently lost the love of his life. Marge and he were married just shy of 70 years (we all told him he could round up!) Without her his heart is constantly bleeding love. It can even effect the body. Loneliness has been linked to
- Stomach upsets
- Depressed immune systems
- Increased illness
- Psychological orders like hoarding
- Anger and rage
- Violence and aggression
- Addictions to alcohol, sex, and gambling
- Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
Shall I go on? It seems obvious that something about the way we are made, something really organic and deep, responds to those words of God in creation when God’s said of Adam, “it is not good that the man should be alone.” Even God is not alone: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in eternal perfect harmony of dance, each pouring themselves out into the other, and out into creation. If Teilhard de Chardin said that the structure of the universe is love, it is because its ground is a relationship. Loneliness, at its most devastating, is a knowledge that this is the true nature of things, and yet not one’s experience.
It comes to us all at one time or another, perhaps as a teacher to teach us the value of being together. Perhaps as a call into the heart of God it comes to point to our true nature, and the nature of the God who made us. Loneliness shouts out that the world is broken. We have lost our grounding in relationship, and we feel cut off from that which is most important. We desperately want to come back home.
We experience loneliness in a lot of ways. One can feel alone in the wilderness with no human beings around for miles, or in a crowded room. One can feel alone in a dark apartment at the end of the day, or in bed with one’s spouse. One can feel alone even in the midst of a conversation if there is no sense of vital connection with the others present. Solitude is not loneliness; solitude is the comfortable place of being able to keep oneself company. Solitude opens the heart in gratitude to the intimacy of God. Loneliness is the vast chasm between being alone and wishing one were not.
Who is lonely these days? We all go through loneliness time and again, but some sectors of our society are often chronically lonely.
- Widows and widowers
- The homeless
- The disinherited
- Refugees and those seeking asylum in a foreign land
- Those driven from their homes by violence, war or natural disaster
Here in Grant County…those in prison and the poor…no wonder Jesus, in Matthew 25, tells us to visit the prisoners, feed the hungry and clothe the naked. No wonder the author of Hebrews warns us not to abandon the gathering of the faithful on a regular basis. No wonder the God of the Hebrews had strict laws about how to treat the wayfarer and traveler, the alien and the foreigner. We are meant to be together. Hospitality, the welcoming of another, is God’s cure for loneliness.
What shall we do?
The first thing to know is that this IS a hunger for something good. Once in High School my best friend and I took a trip. When we got back I noticed that my friend acted strangely with me. He kept his distance, was non-committal when I suggested activities, and sometimes rude. Finally he took me aside and said, “I have a confession to make. At such and such a time on our trip I took 50 Sucres of your money. Here, here is your money back. I couldn’t continue to be your friend without returning it.” It was true that his family was not quite as well off as ours was. His allowance wasn’t what mine was. Money in itself was not bad, and him having 50 Sucres is not bad. God is the ultimate provider. All money, his and mine, came ultimately from God. His desire for money was not bad, it was a desire for the provision of God. He just went about it in a wrong way. By the way, we are still very close friends after all these years.
As Augustine of Hippo said, all desire is ultimately a desire for God. Our hunger for relationship is ultimately a hunger for God. Loneliness is God’s nudging us back into relationship. It’s God’s calling card, God’s way of saying, “Hey, you over there, come over here for a moment!”
The second thing to do is to find your feet. My mother never learned to drive well. She got about three licenses in her life and let all of them expire, usually without even one renewal. She was awful to have as a passenger unless Dad was driving, and it was ten times worse if she was the driver! ALL of us had our feet pressing against the floorboards as if we had a brake pedal ourselves, and ALL of us pressed on imaginary gas pedals. In the end my mother didn’t need to drive. Dad drove, and they were fine with that. The way their relationship worked, Dad was the driver, Mom cared for the others in the car as we traveled.
On the other hand, when we first got here Karisse and I tried to car-pool to our different work-sites. It didn’t work. Our schedules are so different that we just had to end up taking our own vehicles. Our relationship is different than Mom’s and Dad’s because I am not my Dad, and Karisse is not my Mom. We are all different, and we relate to others differently, and those differences are important. Whoever you are, it’s who you are. You are a mixture of your past, your hopes for the future, your personality and your experiences, and your cultural heritage. Most importantly, you are a creation of God with whom God wants to have a relationship, and who needs relationship with God and others to be wholly who you are. That “who” is what you take into relationship. It’s your sacred gift, the one thing you bring that no one else can bring.
The third thing to do is to join a group. Imagine you lived in the jungles of Ecuador way beyond the electric grid, and you knew me and I knew you because we are friends. One day I am sitting in my house and I look at my ceiling and see my ceiling fan, complete with lamps. I think, you know, my friend in the jungle has no lights in his house. It’s hot in the jungle. I’m going to buy him one of those fans with lights on it. One day when you make one of your infrequent trips to town low and behold you have a package at the post office from me. It’s a big box, and it looks really interesting. You take it back to your house in the jungle, and you eagerly open it. You pull out a beautiful electric fan with lights, so…where are you going to wire it in? The electric fan and lights is a great thing, but it’s nothing without electricity. There is a vital relationship between the fan and the electric circuitry of your house. The fan cannot be a fan and the lights will not light up without that vital relationship.
Imagine a human soul far away from any other human being. This person sees beauty and love and truth, but cannot truly grasp its significance. What importance can it have, except to fill him or her with a passing sense of pleasure? Without the vital relationships of a group of people with whom to share it beauty is just prettiness, love is just a warm feeling and truth is just an interesting idea. Yes, we are who we are, but that being cannot reach its fullness all alone. If the very ground of our being is relationship, how can we ever think that we can be something without relationship? We are who we are in relationship.
This is why the Small Group ministry at Good Shepherd is so important. These small groups are intentional places of spiritual relationship. Yes, we have other friendships and even profound and meaningful relationships, but these groups offer something other groups may not do intentionally. Ask someone who is in one of these groups and they will tell you. Here is a safe place in which to bear witness to our living. Here is a haven in which my story has meaning.
This is one of the primary reasons why Church on Sunday is so important. We don’t do the “days of obligation” thing that other churches might, and it has been said that Episcopalians go to church by shifts—not just the 8 o’clockers and the 10:30 people and the Wednesday crowd, but the 1st Sunday of the month shift, the 2nd and 4th Sundays shift, etc. We must always remember: The people of God gathered is the place where Jesus promised to reveal himself. When you’re not here you miss out, and when you’re not here we miss you.
We find ourselves or someone else in the wilderness of loneliness now and again. God, the God whose very being is relationship, calls us into relationship as well. Without this basic knowledge, known not merely in the head, but in the heart and in the gut, there is no chance at solitude. Don’t be a lone sheep. Lone sheep are just wolf-bait. Loneliness is the voice of the Shepherd calling you back into the flock.