We end these thoughts on Holy Week where we began: with the central truth that what has taken place in the week that has passed, and what has taken place supremely at the event of the crucifixion is the outworking of the will of God. To the participants and bystanders, no doubt, everything seemed very far from that, just another muddle in a place inflamed with strife. And to the followers of Jesus, the little rag-tag caravan of men and women who found themselves attached to him, it was nothing short of disaster. Yet Isaiah speaks of the putting to death of the Lord’s servant as God’s will – as the outworking of the eternal purpose of God, as no accident but rather the placed where we are to learn to see God’s resolve, undeflected, undefeated, utterly effective. How can this be so? What is this divine resolve which is set before us here, in the affliction and grief of the servant of God?
It is the eternal resolve to be our reconciler. What is enacted in this miserable little drama is God’s plan and purpose to live in fellowship with us – God’s will that he will be our God, and that we will be his people. Fellowship with God is what human beings are for. That is, we flourish as human beings if we live in free and joyful and humble relation to God. To be human is to be in relation to God; and that relation to God is not a sort of added extra, something to supplement our lives: it is the core of being human; it is the way in which we are properly alive. We are alive and truly human as we live in and from that fellowship.
For this fellowship God makes us. But at the core of Scripture’s presentation of this fellowship is the devastating fact that it has broken down: the life-giving bond between God and his human creatures has been smashed to pieces; we have chosen to try and live outside fellowship, and so estranged ourselves from God. Fellowship is replaced by alienation, God’s friendship with God’s wrath. Isaiah puts it thus: “we have turned – every one – to his own way” (53:6). That is, there has been a great turning in human life, not a turning towards God but a contrary turn, a swerve away from God and towards ourselves, a veering away from fellowship and towards a way of living which is of our own making. We chose what Isaiah calls “our own way.” […]
All this is what we make of ourselves – it is our iniquity, our transgression. And it is our misery: we get what we want – we want life without fellowship with God, and that is what we get, only instead of giving us life and freedom, it turns out to lead to our destruction. We make ourselves; and precisely in making ourselves we destroy ourselves. Now the passion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Lord’s servant, is the way in which God says no to this whole chaos which we have unleashed on ourselves. At the cross of Jesus Christ, God arrests the whole course of our sin; God sets aside finally, once for all, the entire mad project in which we try to be our own masters; God overthrows sin. God does not leave us to our devices; God refuses our refusal of him; above all, God maintains and re-establishes with us that fellowship in which alone we can live and flourish. God alone can do this. We cannot help ourselves. But God can, and does, come to our assistance….God takes flesh, our fallen, sinful, accursed existence as sinners, and takes our lot upon himself. […]
How does this change the course of human life? In this way: by becoming one of us, by absorbing into himself the full extent of our sin, God destroys sin. God sets aside a whole world, the world we have made for ourselves, and God puts in its place a new world, the world of the new creation. In that world, we are set free from sin, and set free to live in fellowship with God. Good Friday, and its final outworking on Easter Day, is the new creation, the re-creation of the world. It’s the point at which the world and all humankind are made new. We can’t do this; we can’t undo the knot we have tied. But God can: God has power and authority to make new, and in the passion of his Son performs this ultimate act of mercy, bearing our iniquities and so setting us free. And for us, this means that we become righteous. That is, we are put back in relation to God. Fellowship, friendship with God, is restored – not by us, but by God himself. We no longer turn to our own way; God himself turns us back to himself.
Good Friday is thus the triumph of grace, the triumph of reconciliation over enmity, the victory of life. On this day, in the hand of Jesus the Son and servant of God, the will of the Lord prospers.
We may not, however, leave matters there. For these things of which we read and speak and not the business of other people only: they are our business. These matters concern us. The Lord has laid on him not just others sins, but sins of us all, and therefore our sins. What took place there and then is comprehensively true; its claim and its effectiveness are universal; none of us is free to think that we are passed over in this affair. The gospel addresses each of us: “You, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death” (Col. 1:21-22a). If that’s true – if it really is true that in the passion of Christ God has reconciled us to himself – then the most basic act of human life is simply to acknowledge that this is so. We are not at enmity with God; we are not trapped by wickedness; we are not under condemnation; we are reconciled to God.
Part of us, of course, refuses to acknowledge that, because we don’t want to be reconciled to God. We prefer, still, to turn to our own ways. However absurd and lifeless and hurtful it may be for us, we prefer to pretend that we are not reconciled to God. Another part of us dare not acknowledge that we are all people are reconciled to God – we cannot conceive that the gospel can be so good that it will deal with our sins, too. But the unbelief or guilt or fear that hold us back, count for nothing. God has taken from us the power to live apart from him. We will not stop him prospering. The Lord’s Servant will see his offspring. And of all that – that unbelievably gracious promise – Easter Day is the promise and security. Jesus Christ, God’s servant, reigns – at his cross, and on the day of his resurrection, and now as he is preeminent in all things. And that is why we call this Good Friday.“The Triumph of Divine Resolve” [a homily on Isaiah 53:6, 10] in The Grace of Truth
[This is a manuscript for a sermon I gave recently. I have not updated this blog in a while, and I figured this may be a good place for it. I hope it’s of encouragement to you!]
10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
I wonder how many of you remember what happened to the planet Pluto in 2006? According to NASA in 2006, Pluto was declared “no longer a planet” given that it only meets two out of the three criteria for being a planet. These criteria are as follows:
- It is in orbit around the Sun
- It has sufficient mass to assume a nearly round shape
- It has “cleared the neighborhood” around its orbit.
Pluto meets all the criteria except the last one which basically just means that because there are so many other little entities like Pluto which share the neighborhood of their orbit around the sun.
So Pluto as of 2006 was declared a “dwarf-planet” for this reason—along with all these other smaller celestial bodies in the Kuiper Belt on the outskirts of our solar system.
I bring this to mind for you all as we talk about singleness, because it can often feel like a single person both in culture and within the Church, that we are somewhat like “dwarf-planets”. We still orbit the same sun, but we don’t fit all the criteria for being a “real” planet. And we sort of just exist on the outskirts of the solar system.
As silly as an illustration as this may be, the reality for many of us, is that Church and culture at large generally don’t know what to do with single people. We often just wait for them to get married rather than attempt to be proactive about their lives as they currently are.
Jesus just before this passage has been confronted by the Pharisees about the ethics of no-fault divorce- whether it should ever be allowed or not. Jesus tells them that frivolous divorce is adultery. He affirms a very high standard for marital ethics, and Jesus’ disciples who were with him are the ones who respond to Jesus in exacerbation when they say, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry!”
It was no small thing in this culture to remain unmarried. It was almost unanimous across Jewish thought that marriage was a blessing and to be single and without progeny was a curse. These words have much more weight than they might to us, and there would be tremendous material and financial cost to not marrying but also an existential cost to not have one’s name carried on.
Interestingly, Jesus paints singleness in a very good light despite singleness having a very dark backdrop.
So there are two things this passage does with regard to singleness which we are going to look at:
- Implicitly, it does not minimize the sadness of the single life and 2) explicitly, it shows us the surprising specialty of the single life.
THE SADNESS OF THE SINGLE LIFE
As I mentioned, the disciples are aware that singleness is likely a scorned category in that Jewish culture. To give up marriage would be to put yourself at significant risk, and to not marry would be to give up your future. It was often viewed as a misfortune, a curse, or a tremendous tragedy.
We see some rare examples of unmarried individuals in the Old Testament such as Jeremiah and perhaps Daniel, but it’s clear that Jeremiah’s singleness should be viewed almost as a curse where Daniel himself (many contest) was likely a court eunuch. In the Old Testament singleness was painted as an exception… and not a good one at that.
Jesus’s response to the disciples would’ve been heard as highly unusual for a variety of reasons (as we will see), but one of those reasons is that he actually agrees to what the disciples have said. He does not give them cheap solutions to the difficulty of marriage. He maintains a high standard. But not only that he agrees that perhaps it is better to not marry and he uses a despised and marginalized cultural figure into the conversation. He begins talking about the eunuch and three types of eunuchs. Before I jump into these categories though, I want to take a long pause and decorate the background of what Jesus is about to say.
The eunuch was a despised figure. We can even see this in the Bible, like in Deut 23:1. The eunuch was someone who was not allowed to enter into the assembly of the LORD. He was excluded from the full rights and privileges of citizenship. And the eunuch was bereft of much or any independence. They were almost entirely dependent upon their master or king. And for someone to have been made a eunuch would’ve implied a loss of humanity. They were likely those who were made that way through slavery or conquest. The eunuch indeed was a tragic figure.
I watched a very strange film recently starring Collin Farrell called “The Lobster”. It’s a biting and heavy-handed dark political commentary about a world where all of those in society who are not “paired up” for any reason are sent to a compound for 30 days to find a suitable mate. However, after these 30 days are up, and if one has not found a potential mate, they are turned into an animal of their choosing and released into the wild.
It’s all intentionally absurd, but the film does help demonstrate that the world does not really know what to do with people who are not paired up. There’s a lot of people in the hotel. There are widows, socially awkward people, physically handicapped people, you name it. As they stay in the hotel they must eat alone, they must play only single player games like golf, and they must live alone. But once they match up they are given new privileges. They get to eat with one another, play together, they get to sleep together, and they get to finally move back into civilization.
In other words, these dwarf-planets get to become real planets but only once they are married.
Like the eunuch figure who remained outside of the Assembly, who was a mocked and scorned figure, unmarried, without offspring or hope for their future, the modern single person often feels some of this anguish today.
We live in an obviously hyper-sexualized and post-Freudian culture which has made it next to impossible to conceive of a happy life without sexual fulfillment. We also assume to be sexually chaste is to be miserably alone. And our churches have often bought into this very idea. It’s easy for us to pity single women in our congregations for not being married. And it’s just as easy to shame or be suspicious of men who are single in our congregations.
There is a deep frustration to being single in our culture, especially in this individualistic age. Many wonder if they will be taken care of in their old age. They wonder if they will be missed after they are dead. They wonder if they will be able to get a ride to the airport. What might it look like for us as a church to come around single people? To help console this sadness without automatically trying to get them in a relationship?
Perhaps this might mean inviting single people over for holidays. Maybe it’s letting them sit with your family at church. Maybe it is inviting them into your Covid-pod.
There is a great sadness to prolonged or permanent singleness. We do not have to downplay the reality of it. We can step into it. We have a Savior who knows what it was like to be on the margins. He knows what it is like to be treated as sub-human. He knows what it is like to be alone. The great fears that many of us have about life and the end of it, Jesus himself experienced. Jesus died alone. He died without physical offspring. He died as a man cursed. And he did it so that all might be brought into the family. As the musician Sufjan Steven’s once wrote:
“You gave your body to the lonely
They took your clothes
You gave up a wife and a family
You gave your ghost
To be alone with me
You went up on a tree.”
I love the tension here. Jesus is alone with us, and he does not necessarily take our loneliness away from us. So take heart, friends.
Interestingly, Jesus does not simply provide commiseration for those on the outside. But there is something quite surprising perhaps even subversive about what Jesus says to his disciples about the nature of singleness.
I put you on hold a while back, and wanted to give some background behind what Jesus was about to say next. So let’s move into this because there is not just a sadness to the single life, but there is a surprising significance found in the single life that Jesus now explains.
THE SURPRISING SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SINGLE LIFE
Jesus gives three categories of eunuchs. First there is the eunuch from birth (often called a congenital eunuch). Then there is the man-made eunuchs- the kinds you might find as slaves or in a King’s court. Both of these two categories would’ve been widely known and understood in antiquity. Jesus is using two literal examples of types of eunuchs, but he moves into a third category which would have utterly confounded those hearing his words for the first time.
Jesus’s third category is of those who deliberately and intentionally make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Given all we know now about eunuchs, Jesus is saying two rather remarkable things. First, he is saying that the eunuch and the unmarried are worthy of dignity. They are living viable lives. One must not be married to be legitimate. And second, he is saying that one might even consider becoming a eunuch for the sake of his kingdom.
What does he mean by this?
Likely Jesus is saying that there have been and will be those who willfully choose to make themselves wholeheartedly committed to the Kingdom in which Jesus inaugurated. He is not saying that one should literally make himself or herself a eunuch… Jesus is speaking metaphorically about all of those who decide to remain unmarried for his sake.
Interestingly, one of the reasons that kings often would often include eunuchs in their courts and entrust them with quite a lot was because they could trust that there would be no attempt to usurp them or any attempt to sleep with his concubine. Eunuchs had no livelihood or security outside of the one they served. So Jesus is likely saying here that there are some who willfully have decided to be as such for his Kingdom’s sake.
Stanley Hauerwas notes the extreme implication of Jesus’ words in much better terms than I ever could. He says, “And we must remember that the ‘sacrifice’ made by the single is not that of ‘giving up sex,’ but the much more significant sacrifice of giving up heirs. There can be no more radical act than this, as it is the clearest institutional expression that one’s future is not guaranteed by the family, but by the church. The church, the harbinger of the Kingdom of God, is now the source of our primary loyalty.”
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Joan of Arc. Joan was born during France and England’s Hundred Years’ War in the early 15th century. She was born in a small town in France, a daughter of poor farmers. Joan was a pious girl, deeply committed to the catholic faith. After a devastating blow to the French throne from the English, French supporters saw a chance for Charles VII to return the crown to a French monarch. It was during this time that Joan of Arc began having mystical visions of St. Michael and St. Catherine who encouraged her to save France and to ask Charles’ permission to expel the English and install him as the true king.
Joan responded to this call. And as part of this call, she took a vow of chastity, denying her father’s attempt for her marriage and a different trajectory for her life, and ultimately found favor from Charles. After Joan had led several French assaults and achieving almost miraculous victory, her reputation grew all across French forces. And she eventually helped Charles take the throne.
However, Joan was eventually captured by the English and was put on trial for heresy. King Charles distanced himself from Joan and allowed her to stand trial alone. On May 29, 1431, at the age of 19, Joan of Arc was announced guilty of heresy, and was burned at the stake.
King Charles ordered an investigation which ultimately found Joan of Arc to be innocent of those charges and she was deemed innocent and designated a martyr. And as of the last century she was canonized as a saint in the catholic church.
Joan of Arc, demonstrates this sort of Kingdom loyalty and zeal. She demonstrated something of Jesus’s words by her very life. She laid down a future marriage, and a future life for something far greater than herself – giving herself unto this fundamental loyalty. Even being let down by her country and being slandered and killed for the sake of her calling.
The early twentieth century writer, who you may know, GK Chesterton wrote a decent bit about Joan of Arc. But there is one sentence of his that has always stuck with me which seems to really catch to what Jesus is saying here in these verses about sexual ethics and chastity, he wrote: “Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is vivid and separate thing…Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc.”
He’s saying that, we often view chastity as the absence of bad rather than something positively good. And Jesus is saying the same! (Which again would’ve been completely shocking for his disciples.) The willing eunuch is not simply one who is incapable of marriage (and thus divorce), but he is one who is capable of tremendous good insofar as his or her loyalty is wrapped up in the kingdom. And this goes for the single person as well. Singleness and chastity are positively good things insofar as they are connected to service of the Church and Kingdom of Jesus.
However, we need to distinguish between the singleness Jesus has in mind versus the singleness our culture often implies.
The word “singleness” is not in this text. So we must be careful even in attempting to read our understanding of singleness back into this text. This willingness to remain unmarried is not for the sake of autonomy or sexual fulfillment. It is not a form of singleness for the sake of not feeling tied down. Rather, this is singleness that finds its meaning and telos in the work of the Kingdom and the King himself.
This passage implies that there are many of us who are single for a variety of reasons. Some are single because of variables outside of our control (sexual orientation, no option to marry, etc.). Some are single because of things done to us (cultural influences, abuse, or trauma perhaps). And finally some of us are single because we simply feel called to be single. And sometimes these overlap. Frankly, there are those of us who will never marry because of physical or mental limitations, trauma, orientation, or simply because we do not feel called to. Thankfully, Jesus has cast a wide net here. He’s not content with letting the least of us fall through the cracks.
We often live as though sex and romance is a divine right, but it is not. And we have bought into the Freudian trap of thinking that a life without sex is a pathetic life. But it is not. We are not promised sex and romance in this life or even a good marriage. And that is okay. There is something better. Your singleness whether begrudgingly or willingly can be found to be a wonderful and blessed and special thing for the sake of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.
What might it look like for us in this room who are married begin to enable this call for others? To support them and celebrate them in this? What might it look like to center our marriages and singleness all around the singular aim of Kingdom advantage? Rather than self-preservation or self-fulfillment?
In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul informs that each of us have gifts. Both marriage and singleness are gifts because both are very difficult but very beautiful things when used properly for the sake of the Kingdom. Both of these are only truly and properly “gifts” when we keep the Kingdom in focus. Singleness is empty without a proper end in mind. And marriage can easily become self-obsessed without that end.
My friend Wesley Hill said it well when he noted that both singleness and marriage are both for the sake of training in holiness and preparation for the life to come. Both, used properly are for the sake of discipleship. Jesus does not deny that Christian marriage (as HE intends it) is very difficult, and he does not deny that, Christian singleness, the alternative, will be any less difficult. Wes says that singleness “is one more way in which we begin to unlearn selfishness, to embrace a kind of spiritual martyrdom, and find our desires redirected toward the city of God. Singleness [and not just marriage] is about holy dying, about the sanctifying transformation of desire and belonging.”
Singleness and marriage are both about sanctification and service. But we often make them about self-expression or fulfillment. We are called to die to ourselves in both callings. Maybe that looks like opening up the busyness of our lives for each other. Opening up our homes to one another and attempting to live closer to each other. Maybe it looks like not moving away for the sake of career or progress, but sticking close to community.
I spent three years living with a very special family in Connecticut before I moved here to St. Louis, and their gifts of hospitality were truly remarkable. As a single person, I felt cared for and loved as I ate with them every night and shared holidays with them. But one of the most beautiful things about this time was that I did not ever feel like a charity-case. They consistently treated me with respect knowing that I had much to offer them as well. There was a tremendous dignity in that communication to me, and then perhaps more than any other have I tasted what it was like for the callings of singleness and marriage to be in wonderful cooperation.
With all this said, I want to conclude with some words from the Prophet Isaiah who prophecies here about Zion’s future restoration. And the hope for the faithful eunuch of the Lord:
Hear these words from Chapter 56:
“let not the eunuch say,
“Behold, I am a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.”
This passage is remarkable and one of my favorite in all of Scripture. It’s a word of consolation to the eunuch. The eunuch knew he was not welcome in the Assembly, and this prophecy of Isaiah about Zion’s restoration would have had one thinking “surely, I will not have a place in that future to come.”
But Isaiah shocks, just as Jesus shocks, he tells them that for those eunuchs who are faithful for those who hold fast to his covenant, they will be brought into the Lord’s house. And not just that. They will be given a name better than sons and daughters. They will be given a name that is everlasting. One that will not end.
This is a hope that was looked forward to. And it’s one we see fully realized in the inauguration of Jesus’ eternal kingdom. It’s in Jesus that we see the foreigner and the marginalized brought in and given tremendous dignity and respect. But it’s in Jesus we see one who was cut off so that we may be brought into this eternal kingdom. Jesus died an outcast. He died without physical heirs so that we all might be brought into this eternal kingdom and be a sort of spiritual progeny. Jesus died so that we would have hope. That we would not be turned away from this home and future in his kingdom.
In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, your singleness is tremendously valuable. And your LORD is with you in all the sadness and dignity of this high calling.
There is a name better than “sons and daughters” and it is in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I don’t think anyone is a stranger to loneliness, especially in times such as these. Loneliness has plagued my life. And that is probably evident now by much of what I’ve written on this blog. It has always been there scratching away at the inner recesses of my heart, and throughout the years I have found it to be an uncanny companion. The words of Soren Kierkegaard seem to do it justice:
“Deep within every human being there still lives the anxiety over the possibility of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the millions and millions in this enormous household. One keeps this anxiety at a distance by looking at the many round about who are related to him as kin and friends, but the anxiety is still there, nevertheless, and one hardly dares think of how he would feel if all this were taken away.”
In times such as these, the loneliness of life is a difficult thing to keep at bay. For some of us, we are locked at home alone, for those more fortunate we may have friends or immediate family to keep us company, but the reality of our situation is that we have been stripped away from many of our “kin and friends.” Most of us long to be back at work, to be back with friends and teachers, to embrace and be embraced by those in our community, and to be taking the Lord’s Supper together again. Our lives and routines have been violently disrupted. Our coping mechanisms have been altered. And this time for many of us, I imagine, has awoken an old and frightening loneliness.
I was reminded recently in a friend’s newsletter of the distinction between solitude and loneliness, the former being a good thing that we can cultivate out of the rough soil of loneliness. Similarly, Henri Nouwen in his journal confronting the most despairing year of his life wrote that there are two temptations in the spiritual task of addressing loneliness that “you are inclined either to run away from your loneliness or to dwell in it.” And that “when you run away from it, your loneliness does not really diminish, [but] when you start dwelling in it, your feelings only become stronger, and you slip into depression.” To avoid despair in these feelings while avoiding escapism is no easy task, but we will all in some shape or form be forced to reckon with them eventually.
The cultivation of solitude is a task that we all must learn quickly. Hannah Arendt wrote that “solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. [While] Loneliness comes about … when I am one and without company’ but desire it and cannot find it.” Now more than ever, we must learn how to cultivate our loneliness especially for those of us who find ourselves without company right now. Doing the hard work of this cultivation may help us retain our sanity now while it may also help us find a newfound equilibrium on the other side of this quarantine—one we did not know before.
Nouwen likened the wound of loneliness to “the Grand Canyon—a deep incision in the surface of our existence…” All of us know that in some capacity, we are not as known as we would like to be nor as loved as we would like to be. If loneliness is simply the desire for intimacy, all of us should be familiar with this wound. We feel an emptiness that we would like fulfilled entirely. We want the incision filled, and there is something deeply right about that longing.
We have all been created for companionship. We were intended to live life alongside others in friendship and family and community. And it is in companionship that some of us may feel the most alone. That which was given to us to be a salve for our loneliness can often be the very thing which provokes it the most. Sometimes we feel this most profoundly when we lose someone, whether temporarily or permanently. Sometimes we feel this most insidiously in a bad marriage or toxic friendship. We have an idea of what the fulfillment of intimacy may look like, and to see it not achieved is the realization of loneliness. Neither single people nor married people are immune to the sting of loneliness—though we both may feel it differently. And right now is a time for many of us in which we feel this sting profoundly.
For Thomas Merton, there is a companionship that should precede natural companionship. Rather than Arendt’s summation that solitude is a companionship with the self, for Merton the goal of solitude is different for it is only the man or woman “who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness, and to prefer its reality to the illusion of merely natural companionship, comes to know the invisible companionship of God.” The Christian life does not eliminate loneliness. Rather, as Christians, we may be those most fitted to endure it honestly and begin the painful work of cultivating it into something promising.
One of my favorite passages in Scripture is Jesus’s promising of the Holy Spirit to his disciples. He tells them “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever… You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 16,18). I am reminded in this passage that even as those who wait for our Savior’s return, we are not left wholly alone. We have for ourselves an invisible companionship through the presence of the Spirit, and sometimes it is only when we are alone (whether by choice or consequence) that we are reminded of it.
Rather than ridding ourselves of loneliness, the path to solitude at very least must begin with addressing our loneliness. And for many of us who have spent a good deal of our lives doing as much as we could do avoid it, this may be the hardest step. This is a scary thing because it often requires us to come to terms with much of what we have stowed away within ourselves and to deal with the thoughts we would rather not think about. Frankly, I don’t want to be alone with myself like Arendt imagines, I do not make a good conversation partner with myself. But I do know I need to be alone at times. I need to confront my own thoughts and feelings and to bring my sad and sometimes scary thoughts to the one who knows them and can console me before I can utter them. And I want to be honest.
There is a loneliness that can destroy us, but there is a loneliness that can be cultivated and made into something of worth. This cultivated solitude may bring about greater creativity in our lives, it may help us be less insecure in our relationships, and it may help us to grow more intimately aware of the Spirit’s intimate workings within us. I don’t want to pretend that for some of us now this will be an easy task, it may take baby-steps for some while for others we may be thrust into it without any say in the matter. During these strange and scary times, I want to remind myself and you all, wherever you are at, that you are not wholly alone in this world no matter how isolated you may feel now. And I pray that we would all come to know and be reminded, especially on this Good Friday, that we have one who knows our loneliness and will not leave us alone in it.
Vito Aiuto of The Welcome Wagon puts it better than I ever could:
Up on a mountain our Lord is alone
Without a family friends or a home
Will you stay with me?
He cries oh oh oh
Will you wait with me?
Up on a mountain our Lord is afraid
Carrying all the mistakes we have made
And he knew
It’s a long way down
Do you know?
It’s a long way down
Up in the heavens our Lord prays for you
He sent his spirit to carry us through
So it’s true
That you’re not alone
Do you know?
He came all the way down
Be well friends,
 Journals VII 1A 363
 Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island.
In times like these, I’ve been drawn to the letters of folks like Samuel Rutherford and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who both wrote a good deal in isolation and imprisonment. This poem by Bonhoeffer is one that was crafted in a letter during his time in prison not long before his execution, and it is one with a good deal of relevance for us in isolation:
Who am I?
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “Letters & Papers from Prison”
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
Like an apple carved down to the core, isolation has a way of shaving us down to our most fundamental longings. When we are stripped of everything, perhaps the most fundamental question is not “What can I do?” or “Where can I go?” but “Whose am I?”
Lord, remind us always, but especially in times like these, that we are yours and yours alone.
One of the great joys and privileges of my life have been elderly folks who I can call friends and mentors and kin. These are the sorts of people who I have turned to for insight and perspective and to express my own frustrations knowing that they have probably, in the course of their life, experienced some taste of the same disappointment and seen the other side of it. These are also people who have blessed my life simply by who they have become to me personally.
Given the news regarding COVID-19, I have been anxious. Not so much for myself, but for folks who are at high-risk for such a virus, for older friends, family, and mentors of mine, spiritual mothers and fathers of mine that I know and love.
Frankly, the thought of losing them has filled me with fear.
Before college, I did not have many friends of an older generation than my own, and it wasn’t until I became an active member of a local church during my Junior year of college that these sorts of relationships started developing in my life. I can think specifically of my former pastors, members of small groups, elderly women who have hugged and encouraged me on Sunday mornings, and elderly men who have consistently prayed for me and welcomed me into their homes for lunch. These are folks I got to know regularly, and I owe it to the church for helping me see what life can look like relating to other people outside my own age range.
There seems to me to be a great dearth of opportunity for intergenerational friendships and communities in our culture. I can’t give you a reason for why (perhaps there are a multitude of reasons), but what I can tell you is that without these relationships, I would not be as worried as I am right now. And I consider that worry an appropriate response simply because I see within it a compassion that has not always been there. It is the sort of compassion that has been birthed through relationship and partaking of the means of grace together. It’s a gift provided to me by the church and a gift that I hope many more might come to know and receive.
A recent piece in The Atlantic, titled “The Staggering, Heartless Cruelty Toward the Elderly” argues that crises (like COVID-19 specifically) often “elicit compassion, but they can also evoke callousness” resulting in the “dehumanization” of the elderly. The author mentions that in this rhetoric, the elderly are robbed of “a distinctive face and voice, each with hopes and dreams, memories and regrets, friendships and marriages, loves lost and loves sustained” providing examples of real life exchanges of such degradation. The elderly have worth, as the author mentioned, not because of what they can offer economically but simply because they are “created in the image of God”—each distinct and each worthy of our time, love, and deep respect.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the relatively young Timothy saying, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters…” (1 Tim 5:1-2). John Calvin commented on this point of compassionate exhortation mentioning “It is impossible not to be moved with reverence, when we place before our eyes our father or our mother.” I don’t believe this is a simple rhetorical device that Paul is using given (among other broader theological themes) the parental (Rom 16:13), fraternal, and filial relationships he had including Timothy at the start of his letter who he refers to as his “own child in the faith” (1:2). In this family, there are certain blind-spots that we need addressed in both directions for our own edification, and I believe one reason for this lack of compassion (as evidenced in the aforementioned article) is due to a lack of intergenerational communities to place us in conversation and proximity with people unlike ourselves—to see that these are specific people with specific stories just like our own flesh and blood parents.
Unlikely friendships are opportunities for empathy, and by its nature, the church is highly conducive for such unlikely friendships. I firmly believe the church is a place where Millennial “snow-flakes” and Baby-“OK-Boomer”s can live together in mutual encouragement of one another given their union in Christ and adoption into the family of God. Of course families bicker and argue, but that does not make us any less family. Alan Jacob’s wrote yesterday that “If you don’t care what happens to people, then you are unlikely to seek out more knowledge of their condition; and the less you know about their condition, the less you will feel called to compassion for that condition.” I believe friendship can produce both. Because as we come to know each other’s lives, often we come to know compassion for one another as well. And as we come to grow in compassion, perhaps we may come to know their condition more.
Where our society is often lacking in providing venues for intergenerational friendships (and thus empathy), the church is uniquely capable for helping produce such relationships and compassion. And now is a good time for us to demonstrate this compassion by taking seriously the reality of this virus’s effects and the folks that are at serious risk, as the Apostle Paul also said, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith” (Gal 6:10).
I am no expert on this virus, but I trust much wiser folks like Andy Crouch on this. And I would urge you to read this piece “Love in the Time of Coronavirus” for more, especially pertaining to this: “The reason to alter our practices, especially the way we gather (see below), is not self-protection. For one thing, in the case of this particular virus, if individuals are young and healthy, infection may pose not much more threat than the ordinary seasonal flu. The change is needed because our vulnerable neighbors — those of any age with compromised immune systems, and those over 70 years old — are at grave risk. One of the basic axioms of the Christian life is that the “strong” must consider the “weak” (see Rom. 15). We are making these choices not to minimize our own risk, but to protect others from risk.”
Stay safe friends.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (p. 119). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
Slowing down is not easy for me. There is always something I want to do or something that seems to be looming over me to get done. We live in one of the busiest societies ever despite all our technological progress to help us be more efficient. It is a strange irony that given the tools to do our tasks more quickly, we have found ourselves with even less time than we did before.
Somewhere along the way we’ve convinced ourselves that greater efficiency would give us space to slow down, but instead, all it has given us is the time to be more efficient with other things. The problem is not that we don’t have enough time. The problem is that we are finite creatures operating as though we are not.
Whether it’s my third cup of coffee to keep me going or the generous pour of whiskey to force me to stop, our lives have been robbed of a natural ebb & flow. A characteristic mark of a mortal creature is one of up’s and down’s. Times of real joy and real sorrow. Moments of deep rest and painful labor. Feelings of love and loneliness. Satisfaction and disappointment. Give and take. Life and death.
Life can feel like a constant, breathless flow. We work incessantly. We are constantly connected. We listen to the radio to keep our moods up. And we numb out with whatever we can so that we can finally go to bed. We live like creatures that will never die, but hurry is foreign to what’s eternal.
Lent season has forced me to ebb and exhale. It starts with Ash Wednesday’s existential reminder that “we are dust and to dust shall we return” and involves the conscious deprivation of something that will leave a noticeable hole in our day-to-day lives. As someone new to these past seasons of Lent, it feels like a disruption to my own delusions of independence and infinite limits.
It has punctured holes in my routines and forced me to meet with God in the gaps and exposed to me my own deeper longings. Where I would normally distract myself, I am forced to engage with myself. I am forced to pray in these areas of lack. St. Augustine once wrote that “the continuance of your longings is the continuance of your prayer” and that’s probably why prayer is often hard for me. I’d rather fill the gaps of my life than have to sit in my own emptiness and experience my own longings. In other words, it’s too hard for me to pray when I’m too busy to desire anything.
Desire is another mark of a finite creature. We eat, we get full, we get hungry, repeat. We see friends, we need solitude, we feel lonely, repeat. All of us have routines of longings which ebb & flow. The delusional creature is always full and always connected: we overdesire and do what we can to prevent the ebb. But the consciously finite creature can stick out his or her hands in desirous prayer to makes space to receive what she knows she needs.
It is with empty hands that we come to see the love and grace perennially extended to us. As my friend Wes recently wrote, “Unclench your fists. Breathe deeply. Let your heart rate decrease. Know that you’re already bathed in the Father’s love, and ask simply for what you need, in the assurance that the One to whom you’re speaking is already cupping His ear in your direction.” Like the prodigal son with his empty pockets stumbling on home only to be met by a full embrace and a full feast, it’s in the ebb of our lives that we come to see the great provisional grace of Another’s flow towards us.
 St. Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, Psalm 37:13.
“We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace.” St. Augustine
1917 is a brutal and beautiful film. The shots of falling cherry-blossoms complemented by the terrific lighting contrast scenes of corpses integrated seamlessly into the landscape. Acts of mercy are met with violence. Blood is spilled in acts of self-survival and milk is given in acts of self-sacrifice. The fire of the sun touches gently on rolling green pastures and the inferno of war bears down like a hellscape on a quaint French village.
War films have a way of disturbing me far more than any horror film. Perhaps it is how close war films can come to reality that unsettles me. One can sit at a comfortable distance from evil in a horror film, but a war film requires us to reckon with the evil in human history. I take it as a good rule of thumb: don’t trust a war film that doesn’t unsettle you.
War often takes place in beautiful places and brings to ruin beautiful things—friendships, fraternity, creatures, and culture. Some have argued that 1917’s aesthetic trivializes the brutality of war, I’d argue it does the very opposite. The film produces something uncanny in the way that it constantly flips back and forth between scenes of awe and scenes of horror and then sometimes blends the two together (so much so, I almost stepped out of the theater for some reprieve). I imagine that this was intentional on the director’s part perhaps wanting the audience to recognize that war does not just take place in hellish landscapes, it takes place in villages, among livestock, and with the sun illuminating everything to reveal both the former beauty and barbarism of battlegrounds. War takes place between humans even when everything seems inhumane.
1917 is about ruin and the preservation of beauty. It is about what we have that we lose in war, but it is also about why war is often necessary to preserve what is beautiful. It rides a hard line of showing the complexity of war, and it shows that sometimes we must choose destruction for the sake of peace and preservation.
I have a quote framed in my room that simply states “as long as we have our stories there is hope.” Sentimental as it may sound, there is a truth to it. We tell to each other stories to help us make sense of our lives and the evil within it. And these stories can continue to provide hope long often after their author is gone. In this sin-soaked and absurd world of ours, sometimes all we are left with is fragments of the beauty that once was, but we can certainly continue to fight for the cultivation and preservation of beauty that still is.
Christmas among many things is a reminder that the Kingdom of God reveals itself through the weak, the lowly, and the insignificant. That Christ would come as a vulnerable and bloody newborn child, that the king of all would come from nothing is something we would do well to remember especially in a culture that seems to frequently imply that what we do or achieve determines our significance.
The birth, life, and death of Christ teach us that this embrace of insignificance is vital to the Christian life. Christ was brought low in coming to us in flesh. He lived a life of service and association with those deemed insignificant by society. Christ taught us to live like him in humility, and he pronounced blessed those who were poor in spirit, those who were hungry, and those who were being persecuted. And finally, of course, he was mocked and strung up naked on a cross.
Christmas is a time of great joy and celebration because we have a God who has come to us, who has not left us alone but has met us in our lowly estate. But it is also a time of great pain for many. Our culture places a tremendous expectation on the holiday season to be a time of familial serenity and warmth. But the reality is that for many, the holidays only magnify their own insignificance or lack of family. And for some, Christmas gatherings can very easily slip into conversations attempting to prove to ourselves and others that we have made or are making something of our lives—whether that is to hometown friends or extended family about the jobs we have, the people we are dating, the families we have, or the degrees we hold. It can quickly become about proving our own significance rather than about reveling in who has given us just that.
The ecstasy of Christmas is more keenly for those who know they can not prove themselves and have very little to their name aside from what they have in Christ. Christmas is for the insignificant. It is for those who know the pain of having very little: for the friendless, the rejected, the poor and lonely and abused. It’s for the wash-ups, the burn-outs, and those who are tired of constantly disappointing those they love. Christmas is a time which reveals—in a miraculous way—that the insignificant and significant have been reversed… The prodigal will be embraced. The eunuch will be given a name better than son. The lonely will be put in families. The barren woman will rejoice. The leper will be touched and healed. Strangers will be welcomed. The hungry will be satisfied. The slandered will be rewarded. The grieving will know relief. And those that beat their breasts over their sin will find themselves made right.
God’s power is made perfect through weakness, and his weakness has proved greater than human strength or significance. Perhaps in hindsight it should be no surprise that he met us in fragility as a baby, washed his disciple’s feet in servitude, and would then go on to a cross for us. His weakness made a mockery of what is strong and significant in the world, and his Kingdom has inverted the order. It’s a homeless baby who gets the glory rather than Herod, and it’s a man nailed naked on a cross who conquers Death and rises unto glory.
In Jesus the seeming insignificance of our lives is wrapped up in His glory.
*This post contains some spoilers for the films: Ad Astra, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
“Deep within every man lies the dread of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the tremendous household of millions and millions. That fear is kept away by looking upon all those about one who are bound to one as friends or family, but the dread is nevertheless there and one hardly dares think of what would happen to one of us if all the rest were taken away.” – Kierkegaard
Even a journey into the depths of space cannot bear the anxieties of our origins and identities.
This last decade has been filled with existential space films, and it makes sense given that endless space is the perfect setting for finite man’s eternal and familial questions. Many of these films—like the recent Ad Astra and the latest Star Wars trilogy—take us to some of the deepest reaches of the galaxy simply to ask questions about where we come from.
Human progress would have it that for us to go forward into the unknown we must untether ourselves—to advance we must go as those independent and unrestrained from anything that might hold us back.
Kylo Ren and Rey, the two protagonists of the latest Star Wars films, demonstrate a helpful tension. One is obsessed with finding out where she came from, the other is possessed with removing himself from the family and tradition in which he came. Without space, we would perhaps never have been given the inspiration for something as imaginative in scope as the Star Wars universe, yet it is in the scope of these cosmos that these characters are still haunted by their own origins. Both Rey and Kylo are desperate to discover who they are despite the enormous power they contain and the worlds in which they inhabit. Rey assumes she will discover herself by discovering the identity of her parents. Kylo assumes he will discover himself only by removing himself from his parents and everything they represent.
At the core of a lot of recent Sci-Fi films is an existential angst of determining who we are in the midst of an infinite cosmos.
The existential and slow-burn of a film, Ad Astra, notably sought to answer this question. Brad Pitt stars as the lonely and depressed astronaut, Roy McBride, who embarks on a mission to find his father who had previously set out to the planet Neptune. This film contains plenty of internal monologues and defies much of what we have come to expect of the science fiction genre. This is partly because this film is less interested in providing cheap human answers like human ingenuity, reason, or force-of-will to solve existential questions (cf. The Martian, Interstellar) and more about the loneliness and ennui that accompany us in the dark night of space.
Clifford, Roy’s narcissistic and belligerent father, is intent on discovering non-human life out among the stars even at the expense of all humanity. The one human at the farthest reaches of space is in no surprise the one whose antipathy towards humanity proves to be the strongest. Roy is willing to embark to this far off place primarily, it seems, because of this paternal gravitational pull. And it is not until after his eventual confrontation with his estranged father, that he concludes that life and meaning are only to be found back from where he came. It takes a journey into the unknown to settle for what was already known to him. But this quest for meaning and identity has existed far before space-travel.
The oft told story of the Prodigal Son is a fine example. The younger brother takes what is his, untethers himself from his father, and journeys deep into unknown territory only to come up short-changed and longing to come home. Roy McBride acts as an inverse Prodigal Son who attempts to find his father in far off places only to be radically disappointed by him but who realizes what is significant is what he left behind on Earth. He returns from the far-off place with the final admission, “I am looking forward to the day my solitude ends. And I’m home.”
Kylo Ren, also like the Prodigal Son, takes the gift of Force inherent to his bloodline and uses it for his own ends. In a way, both had blood on their hands for what they did to their fathers. Both wanted autonomy. Both wanted a life of their own removed from the security and seeming monotony of their own destiny. Both wanted an identity formed for themselves rather than inherited by another. But, as Rey notes regarding Kylo, “there is still a tension within him.” His umbilical severing has not left him without an internal conflict to return.
This innate longing is wrapped up in a return to relationship. And perhaps that is what is so fundamentally wrong with the elder brother in the Prodigal Son story. He is right near his father in proximity but is in his own far off place in spirit. He is in his own way hurdling through space untethered and alone but somehow convinced he is going somewhere. The primacy of our identity lies in being embraced by the father rather than just being near to him in formality. Unlike Clifford, this prodigal father goes out in search for his son and runs to embrace him—unlike Roy’s desperate and forced embrace of his father who simply demands he let him go. And like Han Solo meeting his son, he is not afraid of potential harm or disgrace.
Sometimes it is in the context of being alone and removed from what we love that we come to notice something missing. The vacuum of space can help reveal to us what we are not, but it can not in its own right tell us who we are. Rather, it is only by embrace that we can see most clearly where we have come from, where we are ultimately going, and who we truly are.
A professor of mine once wrote that, “We once assumed that a great man was one who controlled his desires. Today we assume that a great man is one who indulges his desires.” We live in a world which consistently hounds us to find an end to our hungers and longings as quickly, efficiently, and authentically as possible in our pursuit of final happiness. Of course, like Don Draper in the show Mad Men said, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” Whether by sex, food, purchase, or endless entertainment, we always find ourselves longing for something to satiate us once more.
St. Augustine in his sixth homily in his Homilies on 1 John makes the point that one distinctive quality of Christian living is that we learn to live into our longing. As he says, “The whole life of the good Christian is a holy longing. What you long for, as yet you do not see; but longing makes in you room that shall be filled, when that which you are to see shall come.”
Contrary to popular opinion, a life lived with open hands is not a life wasted.
Augustine continues: “When you would fill a purse, knowing how large a present it is to hold, you stretch wide its cloth or leather: knowing how much you are to put in it, and seeing that the purse is small, you extend it to make more room. So by withholding the vision God extends the longing, through longing he makes the soul extend, by extending it he makes room in it.”
According to Augustine, in this time of waiting and hope, God is expanding the soul of the Christian. The withholding of the beatific vision unto his people is in some way whetting our appetites for it. In this time of waiting for the consummation of all things, Augustine reminds us that, like in the Beatitudes, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are the ones who shall be filled (Matt 5:6). Like the purse analogy, this time of eager expectation is a time that often feels like stretching.
Fundamentally, to long for something is to feel its lack. It is one thing to feel hunger and know that you can walk to your pantry to eat; it is wholly another to have to hold out your hands in utter dependence and with no immediate solution—no money, no pantry, no backup plan. It is no easy thing to live a life of longing, but it is one that we are called to as Christians.
Augustine remarks on Paul’s words from Philippians 3:13: “He speaks of himself as stretching out, and following according to his purpose: he felt himself too small to take in that which eye hath not seen nor ear heard, nor hath come up into the heart of man. That is our life, to be trained by longing; and our training through the holy longing advances in the measure that our longings are severed from the love of this world.”
We are to be trained by longing, but not by the sort of arbitrary longing for this or that, here or there, but by a holy longing: a longing for “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:14). Yet, Augustine admonishes us and reminds us that these lesser longings can rob us of the training and stretching our souls need. How will our souls be stretched if we are constantly filling them with things we look to as ends in themselves rather than God himself?
“Empty out that vessel that is to be filled; you are to be filled with good, pour away the evil. God would fill you, shall we say, with honey: where can you put it if you are full of vinegar? What your vessel held must be poured away…”
All of us, in one way or another, seek to alleviate the apparent emptiness of our souls with something other than God. And of course, this isn’t to say food, romance, success, or entertainment are bad things. God has given these things to us as a gift to enjoy, yet these things were given so that we may know the Giver through them. They were never intended to wholly fulfill us, nor were they given so that we could forget the Giver. Perhaps this is why the gospel is often more easily accepted by those who feel their need (for food, for friendship, for forgiveness, etc.) all the more keenly. Like the sinful woman at the house of Simon the Pharisee, she knew that it was better to empty what she had so that she might be filled with the love of Christ. It is easier to pour out what you have when you are convinced that it will no longer satisfy you.
When we attempt to use our own goodness, wealth, relationships, or possessions to fill the purse of our souls, we rob God of what he desires to pour into us, and we rob ourselves of the only thing that can truly fill us. And what is that thing?
“Speak as we may of that which cannot be spoken, call it what we will, its proper name is—God. Even in this word, ‘God,’ what have we said? Is that single syllable the whole of that for which we wait? Nothing that we have power to name is high enough. Let us stretch ourselves toward him, that when he comes he may fill us full. For ‘we shall be like him; because we shall see him as he is.’”