The Shared Wait of Friendship (On Advent and LOTR)

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It has been about a week since I have been able to see some of my dearest friends and family since moving to Connecticut back in August. There is something particularly sweet to seeing friends you have not seen in a while in contrast to seeing them day to day for years on end. But clearly, there is also something profoundly sad about their absence.

As C.S. Lewis once mentioned, friends walk “side by side, [as] their eyes look ahead.” There’s an aspect of friendship which means that I can be away from my dearest friends and know we will never be too distant – that even when we re-meet after many months or years there will often be a sense of connectedness simply off the fact that we are on the same journey. But even so, there is an element of it that feels that even though we stand side by side, we still walk  on separate sides of the road.

My most intimate friendships, whether explicitly talked about or not, are ones of shared waiting. And during this Advent season, that just seems the proper thing to blog about.

I find it ironic that I have  begun the final third of the Lord of the Rings (“Return of the King”) during Advent season – especially as I consider these things. The conclusion of “The Two Towers” left me particularly aware of the active waiting of friendship as Frodo and Sam approach Mordor and consider what the storybooks might tell of their grand adventure that, in that moment, seemed ever so far from possible completion. Would they accomplish their task? Would the dark shadows of Middle Earth be finally done away with? Would they even have a home to return to?

I think Sam and Frodo would agree with me that friendship consists of some common wait or longing. I can not prove it, but with words like these from Samwise Gamgee I can not help but read into it:

“But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.”

Waiting brings us together. Whether it is waiting together for the midnight release of Star Wars, waiting for your food to finally arrive at your table as you converse, waiting eagerly for Sauron to finally lose the upper hand, waiting for Christmas morning to open presents with your siblings, or waiting for the day that Jesus would arrive and make all the sad things come untrue, intimate friends share the wait together. And in our case and Frodo’s, without friends who wait with us, seeing the end would be a far harder – if not impossible – journey.

So whether you have those sorts of friends or not, I would hope you know that Advent season is not just a season of waiting for a distant King’s return, but for the friend our hearts have longed for. A friend who waits with us and for us. And on this Christmas day, that wait is promised not to end in despair. He has come. He will come. And like any good story, the more grueling the wait, the far grander the ending will surely be.

A Quick Review: “The Soul of Shame” by Curt Thompson M.D.

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It often feels like to be human is to live with the ever-present, often insidious disease known as shame. According to Curt Thompson in his newest book, The Soul of Shame, shame has been at work within the whole of humanity’s collective and individual stories extending back as far as Adam & Eve’s.

Shame, Thompson says, is at its fundamental level a spiritual & biological plague with consequences as dire as increasing isolation & disconnection, chaotic states of mind and behavior, and diminished vocational and interpersonal creativity (among a multitude of other symptoms). These of course are all assumed to be relating to only individual persons, but Thompson, in the latter half of his book, commits to discussing how shame when left unchecked can bring about disastrous results in our churches, communities, and homes.

This discussion I found to be particularly helpful as much of what Thompson assumes in talking about shame is that it exists to rupture our God-bearing reflection as relational beings. To put it another way: shame would not exist if we were not relational. It is not to say that shame does not start personally, it certainly does, but it always involves another(s): “humans tend to experience no greater distress than when in relationships of intentional, unqualified abandonment- abandoned physically and left out of the mind of the other. With shame, I not only sense that something is deeply wrong with me, but accompanying this is the naturally extended consequence that because of this profound flaw, you will eventually want nothing to do with me…”

Thompson makes the case that shame was present and utilized by the serpent to help bring about the disruption between humans and God and humans with themselves. When we doubt our connection with others, or doubt that God really, actually, likes us, shame is often at work. Shame was secretly at work during the temptation to eat the fruit, and it was noticeably present when Adam and Eve realized that they were vulnerable and needed to be covered. And in the act of covering themselves, a wall was erected between them, a wall that exists with each of us. Adam and Eve started in the garden perfectly vulnerable, perfectly without shame, and in perfect intimacy with God and themselves. With the presence of shame, their eyes were opened, they saw their naked selves as inadequate, their failures were magnified, and they resulted to hiding from each other by covering themselves and hiding from God in a literal sense.

Shame destroys our connectedness with others. Just as Adam and Eve sought each other or another to accuse after the Fall, Thompson reminds us that “shamed people shame people.” And here we have shame’s arrival into the world through friendships, families, and communities in a self-destructive and rampant progression.

Obviously this book is much more than just a diagnosis, but certainly the diagnosis is critical. One of the reasons I initially found this book unique is because of Thompson’s psychiatric expertise and insight into the neurological effects of shame on the brain. What most can only talk about abstractly, Thompson can talk about scientifically. Yet since I am not a scientist or a doctor, I can not verify what he says is true nor speak into it very well, but he certainly backs himself.

And like any good doctor, Thompson provides a treatment option to such a malady. The almost paradoxical nature of shame is that in an attempt to not be abandoned, we cover ourselves and hide, thus resulting in our own isolation and self-abandonment. We long for intimacy but are frightened by what others may really see when we begin discarding the fig leaves of our own social status, career achievements, perfect family, theological correctness, and the myriad of ways we try to cover up our utter nakedness.

Like a returning to Eden, vulnerability is the only means by which we can taste the intimacy we once had. However, it often feels like death. It leaves us open to hurt, to rejection, to betrayal, to pain, and, yes in an extreme sense, death. Often vulnerability is spoken of as an act, but Thompson rightly reminds us, “it is something we are.” It is how we were created. Thompson even says, “It begins in the beginning where we are introduced to a vulnerable God. Vulnerable in the sense that he is open to wounding. Open to pain. Open to rejection. Open to death.”

Shame wants nothing more than our own isolation and eventual self-destruction. In light of many recent studies on the lethality of loneliness, I do not find shame’s goals so far-fetched. If shame seeks our isolation then its greatest nemesis is intimacy – to be fully known & exposed and fully loved. And Thompson goes to explain that, “We can love God, love ourselves, or love others only to the degree that we are known by God and known by others.” He does not simplify this as just positive thinking either as some often do. As a psychiatrist, he recognizes that this work of being known requires immense difficulty and risk. It requires honest confrontation and soul excavation with God and friends and often therapists. But it also requires knowing the vulnerable God naked and crucified.

Without an incarnate Jesus stripped naked on a cross, we would have no assurance of being loved in our nakedness:
“Jesus’ literal naked vulnerability is a testimony to us that he knows exactly what it is like to be us. To truly be with us Jesus not only knows what it means to be vulnerable, he knows how painfully, frighteningly hard it is to live into it, given shame’s threat… To this God, whom we meet in Jesus, we must direct our attention if we are to know the healing of our shame. We must literally look to Jesus in embodied ways in order to know how being loved in community brings shame to its knees and lifts us up and into acts of goodness and beauty.”

Thompson with this theological framework leads into numerous practical applications of living lives of intimate connectedness with others and explains that when shame begins to lose its grip on us that we may find the energy we once used for hiding for creative purposes in our vocations, hobbies, and relationships. Like a falling back into Eden, once the head of shame is crushed (although not entirely vanquished in this life), we will again be able to create and live as we once did in intimacy with our God and our friends.

The Hidden Purpose of the Horror Genre

It’s October finally, and there’s something to the brisk air, change in colors, and taste of human flesh pumpkin spice that just feels right to me. And if you’re a particular brand of weirdo (like me), October means you get to watch or read as much horror as you’d like without feeling guilty about it.

I find it interesting that I’m writing this post only a couple blocks away from the home (in Providence, RI) of the creator of Cthulu: H.P. Lovecraft. I owe him a great deal of respect for influencing some of my all time favorite horror authors and for much of the premise of this post. He and several other authors have shown me that horror can serve a purpose by expressing truth to an audience that has a hard time seeing it.

To give you some of his background, in Lovecraft’s worldview we exist in a materialistic universe, and we are thus meaningless and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and his stories typically convey those beliefs pretty well. His stories, typically consist of some character(s) stumbling upon the existence of an increasingly more powerful, intelligent, and malevolent creature than man. And when his characters become aware of these creatures, they are often driven to insanity. The recognition of these other “gods” drives these human characters insane because it would seem to prove that humans are essentially nothing in comparison to a creature that could (and will) simply wipe out humanity in the flick of its wrist. In Lovecraft’s mind, humans are simply a product of a chaotic universe, and he rightly shows that the implications of that are a horror in and of themselves. His worldview bleeds into these “cosmic-horror” stories, and although I profoundly disagree with his worldview, he does something incredibly well with the horror genre which I think modern horror-authors have typically failed to do.

Essentially, Lovecraft uses terror to present what he believes to be true. I’m not just deducing this either. Listen to him, “Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.” Lovecraft struck gold in presenting his worldview through the means of horror. Consider this approach to horror in contrast with the modern horror trend of simply desiring the audience to be startled or grossed out for the sake of being startled or grossed out. And he’s not the only one who’s done this with the genre.

Another notable (although she’d never want to be described this way) horror writer was Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor was known for her disturbingly subversive stories and grotesque characters. She also was a Roman Catholic who once said about her own writing, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.” Speaking of remarkable utilizers of horror… O’Connor may very well be one of the best.

Arguably one of the greatest things about O’Connor was how well she understood both the religious and irreligious culture that she was speaking to through her stories: “At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.” With an audience like the one she describes, is it any wonder she chose such a disruptive medium of truth-telling? Or to contextualize a bit, is it any wonder she chose to write deeply disturbing and troublesome stories in a culture similar to our own — one that James K.A. Smith recently described by saying, “[our society] wants even its heartbreaking lyrics delivered in pop medleys that keep us upbeat, tunes we can dance to. We live for the “hook,” that turn that makes it all OK, that lets us shake it off and distract ourselves to death.”

I’m not saying that romantic-comedies are bad or that the newest Netflix comedy is utterly devoid of truth, but I do think the “upbeat” medium is the one our culture can most easily shut off their minds and use to tune out of reality. O’Connor goes on to reaffirm this, “when you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

I believe this to be horror at its finest. To a culture that is hard of hearing, nearly blind, and content with distraction, truth must often be expressed in an unsettling manner for it to sink in. 

This is not at all to say that every horror story is truth-telling nor is it to say that everyone should watch horror. As I said before, much of modern horror likes to draw the “large and startling figures” but for no other reason than feeding off a particular audience that simply wants to see the “large and startling figures.” But to those who are intrigued to partake, I want to at least suggest a good place to start among modern horror.

**Minor spoilers ahead**

Of recently, The Babadook by Jennifer Kent has stolen my attention. Not only is it truly scary, but it’s well acted, well produced, and well written. It’s a quality film all-around. But that’s not quite why it stood out to me among other horror films. Why I loved it so much is because of how it helped me see into the life of another and helped me understand myself in a way that I probably could not have through any other genre of film.

To summarize the film, The Babadook is an allegorical film personifying grief as a monster. The protagonist in this story is a wife whose husband got killed in a car accident on the way to the hospital to give birth to the second protagonist – her son. The first quarter of the film centers around the difficult life of a coping widow and her difficult son who (in her eyes) was the indirect cause of her husband’s death. The wife can hardly sleep, can hardly get out of bed, can hardly continue to deal with the well-meaning but unhelpful words of friends, and can hardly take care of her own son who is preoccupied with the existence of an imaginary monster. The stress, anxiety, and despair just seem to keep piling on and piling on until one night the son asks the mother to read him a new book called “The Babadook.”

And I won’t give away much detail, but the book is not a pleasant book. It’s a book that opens up a whole new kind of grief, a whole new kind of despair, a whole new kind of nagging oppression. The book opens up to the readers an unpleasant visitor known as… the Babadook.

And the Babadook isn’t your typical horror monster. He’s far more terrifying. He doesn’t just appear at night. He doesn’t just show up in the haunted house. He’s everywhere and encountered even with just the thought of him. And even after the disposal of the book, the book soon reappears with words claiming that things will only get worse with further denial of the creature’s existence. Worst of all, there’s an insistence that you can’t get rid of him. He’s there to stay.

I won’t spoil the ending too much because I really do want you to go watch it if you think you can handle it, but I’ll let the director’s own words speak into it, “You can’t kill the monster, you can only integrate it.”

I’d highly suggest after watching the film to go read Jennifer Kent’s interview about it. It’s profound into how she uses horror to portray her own experiences with grief. For instance, she articulates, “I’ve lost people, I’ve lost my dad, I know what that feels like, and it feels like it’s never going to end. So I think it’s important to have stories that can help you through…Can you imagine this story as a domestic drama? It would be so melodramatic and stupid. I like films where I’m forced to feel something… If cinema can be visceral, then it’s great. And horror allows that to happen unashamedly.

Yet again, horror demonstrating something that no other genre probably can.

These types of horror stories may be hard to come by, but I assure you, there’s goodness to be found in this genre… though that goodness may be unsettling and may urge you to leave the lights on.

Inside Out: When We’re Left Longing

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**This post contains spoilers to the film Inside Out. Proceed with caution**

Samuel Rutherford, a Puritan pastor known for his soulful letters, once wrote to one of his congregants from his jail cell, “I would not exchange my sadness for the world’s joy. O lovely Jesus, how sweet must thy kisses be when the cross smelleth so sweet.”

I recently had the chance to see the new Pixar animated-film Inside Out which I found beautiful and full of wonderful truth, but also asking important questions like, “just what purpose does sadness have in this life?” We all feel it, some more than others, and I had (have) to wrestle with the implications of that question: should I not just avoid sadness? Should I not just shove it in the corner of my soul and continue on in my own naive joy?

Samuel Rutherford was a man who knew the co-existence of joy and sorrow all too well. A man who lost his wife and two children, who battled depression, and was exiled from his church congregation by the High Court, Rutherford knew both grief and hope. Quite different than despair, Rutherford’s sadness was characterized by longing. As I’ve read his letters, many have brought me to tears. There’s a joy amidst the sadness, and I’ve only been bettered by having read them (and I’d highly recommend them).

In Inside Out, there was a moment that left me gutted. The imaginary-friend, Bing Bong, began grieving over the fact that he was removed from his creator’s consciousness and was left wandering in the maze of his creator’s unconscious memories. He was forgotten by the one who loved him. He was without purpose and without a friend.

But for the first time in the film, Sadness found purpose.

Sadness sat next to him and allowed him to grieve, to cry, and to just recognize the sadness that should rightfully exist in him. It’s good to recognize our unfulfilled desires for things like friendship and a place of belonging. Like Sadness and Bing Bong’s conversation there’s relief in those expressions of grief. For some reason, we heal by acknowledging our troubles. Like Rutherford’s own troubles expressed in his letters, I was offered consolation and the space to feel sad for want of restoration.

But why? Why is there relief in recognition of something that doesn’t necessarily have an immediate answer or resolution?

The most profoundly troubling thing in Inside Out for me was that Bing Bong was eventually forgotten entirely. There was no resolution for him. He fell into a pit of oblivion. Literally.

So why would recognizing that there are things in my life that are painful be of any use to me?

Why would longing for what was or what could be leave me any better than not longing at all?

For Rutherford he would not “exchange his sadness for the world’s joy,” but only in light of the sheer fact that there must be something better – a future hope held fast in a past reality, “how sweet must thy kisses be when the cross smelleth so sweet.”

If not for a future hope, I can’t honestly say I’d be able to live consciously with sadness. If my future is like Bing Bong’s, what’s the point of sadness? If not for a future hope, all joy is worldly, temporary joy. I’m with Rutherford on that, and yet, a future hope is nothing without grounding. What does it mean when I’m told to just “keep on keeping on” if keeping on just means I’ll eventually hit a dead-end?

I, like Rutherford, long for the intimate kiss of Jesus, for His – already but not yet – embrace of me, and I’m only assured of that by an objective reality in the cross. The cross that “smelleth so sweet,” so sweet, yet so painful. A cross that was bore for us that we may experience lasting joy, but a cross that we too must bear.

Sadness has a purpose, for I suppose that without sadness in this life we can’t experience real joy. Without sadness, hope is nonexistent, or to give an example, I’d never long for intimacy if I never felt lonely. A severance of longing, or numbing, is one great way to defeat real joy. Attempting to fill our ultimate longing with things that will never fill it is another.

Longing contains both joy and sadness, and I’d never long for Jesus without recognizing my own longings. To recognize those longings, or to grieve, is often excruciating, but I’d never need Jesus without that need.

We can’t remove sadness without also removing joy.

We can’t long without suffering.

We can’t be kissed without the cross.

Falling Through the Cracks of Same-Sex & Traditional Marriage

“Loneliness is the greatest plague of our generation. The fight for gay-marriage is simply a response to it. Church, we are doing something wrong in our approach. Until we can be a nest of intimate friendships and a holistic community for the lonely, estranged, and non-married, a traditional sexual ethic will never be attractive.”

I wrote that last week in a bit of frustration over the responses I’d been reading about the recent SCOTUS ruling, and I wanted to follow-up on explicitly what I meant by those words. Hopefully this post will explain a bit of my frustration from both sides’ responses, and maybe this post will offer a little hope of something better.

If you haven’t been able to notice by now, if you know me or read this blog, I talk about loneliness and isolation a lot. Not just because I deal with both, but because I’m beginning to recognize like Henri Nouwen did that “loneliness is one of the most universal sources of human suffering today,” and I’d like to see a way forward for me, for my friends, for my community, for my church, and for my culture.

I was visiting a church service this morning by myself in my hometown looking through the church bulletin which was covered in pictures of beautiful families, and as the pastor ran through his pastoral prayer for the congregation, I felt a tinge of isolation. His prayer hit on all the families in the church, the kids, those adopting, the grandparents, and those married without children – all wonderful things to pray for – but I felt like an oddball by its conclusion. Very rarely do I hear of single or celibate people being prayed for within churches. I hear many sermons on marriage and parenthood, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a sermon in person on singleness or the goodness of celibacy, despite what I see in scripture as a commending of those who are single. Add to this the little phrases littered throughout Christian culture like “family first” and “focus on the family”, and hopefully you can begin to see just some of my frustrations with being a celibate man in the church.

It often feels like there isn’t room within the church for those outside the context of biological families. I’m not saying this is always the case as I (and many others) have been blessed by a beautiful church home which has loved me incredibly well, and I only hope to love them a fraction as much as they’ve loved me, but I feel as though this is a rare treat. There’s definitely a pressure present in the mainstream of Christian culture in America of feeling as though I have two options: get married or be alone.

This is what has me sympathizing (but not agreeing) with the Left over the recent SCOTUS ruling. Although I don’t believe in a sexual ethic of anything but a man and woman engaging sexually in the context of marriage, I do understand the dark corner in which those with a homosexual orientation or who are experiencing same-sex attraction have been cast.

There’s a tension in our culture that if you don’t fit into the mold of a traditional family that you will forever exist in isolation and loneliness. For many who’ve considered themselves “gay” or “same-sex attracted” within the church, there’s this seeming, unwritten dichotomy in most places:

1) go away… and don’t get married despite not being in the church.

2) stay… but magically shift your entire orientation, and get married.

Is it any wonder there has been such a push for gay marriage? There’s an assumption in place that only in marriage can we escape loneliness. So why wouldn’t the LGBT community long for the same thing? We’ve offered what we’ve considered to be the “antidote” to isolation, and we’re now angry that others are seeking the same antidote.

I want you to consider living the rest of your life with no promise of a spouse, no promise of kids, no promise of grandchildren, no promise of people to take care of you when your old, no promise of people to love you if you fall seriously ill, and no promise of ever experiencing lasting intimacy with another. These are just a few of my thoughts that circulate when I imagine a life without marriage in this culture. Does this not sound even just slightly despairing? It makes sense that gay-marriage would be inevitable does it not?

As I scanned my newsfeed last week through the outrage and celebration over the results of the ruling, I again felt overwhelmingly overlooked. As someone who identifies with a traditional sexual ethic yet also experiences exclusive same-sex attraction, both sides left me frustrated. I don’t agree with the impossible dichotomy imposed by some of those in favor of traditional marriage, but, besides not morally agreeing with same-sex marriage, I also don’t agree with the conclusion that by marrying members of the same sex that we have found an answer to the problem of loneliness.

Between the traditional family and (now) the progressive family, I feel like someone caught in no-man’s land, and I know plenty of others who feel the same. Consider the single women who long to be married but can’t, the men and women who’ve chosen to live celibate lives despite their sexual orientations, the socially impaired, the mentally handicapped, the widows, and all the others that Jesus alludes to in Matthew 19:12. Consider this in the church where the traditional family reigns supreme, but consider this with the progressive family as well. Loneliness still exists, and (gay or straight) marriage can’t solve that.

So where do we go for the answer?

That’s the million dollar question isn’t it?

I have a few thoughts, but I’d be foolish to claim to have a definitive answer to such a question.

I think my own church has been a really beautiful reflection of what it may look like to move forward, so much of what I’m about to say has been sparked by the hospitality I’ve already so received and have been allowed to personally give to others.

So hopefully without sounding too idealistic, the church needs to begin to be a nest for those inside & outside the framework of the nuclear family. We need it to be a place that if you were to no longer be married or have kids, for whatever reason, that you’d still have enough meaningful or intimate relationships to sustain you. Single people need a place they can expect lasting, intimate friendships and not be looked down upon or suspiciously questioned for it. Families need a place they can be cared for by other families and single people – others who enter into their dysfunction, help cook meals, help look after kids, and take part of their load and place it upon their own backs. The church should look like an integrated community of single people, married people, families, widows, the elderly, college students, those of racial and sexual minorities, and all those I’m too naive to name.

Or as Wesley Hill quoted J. Louis Martyn in his recent article, “the answer to loneliness is not marriage, but rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ.”

We need a way forward that proves that a life without sexual intimacy can still be a life full of intimacy in the context of friendship, community, and a “water thicker than blood” family. And perhaps by cultivating a community which includes those who’ve fallen through the cracks, we can begin to close the cracks themselves.

The Dignity in Our Loneliness

Loneliness is not an uncommon feeling to me.

For the better part of my sophomore year of college, I spent my time cramped up in my bedroom and frustrated by a lack of meaningful connection. During that time, I had to seriously wrestle with a stark and nagging loneliness that had been creeping around and was just beginning to show its terrifying face. I remember one-time sitting in a meeting with some others from my campus ministry’s leadership team, and we had begun to go around and share our high points and low points for the week. It was my turn, and I recall needing to confess that I had felt deeply alone. It was mortifying and not because of how people responded (which was actually incredibly well). I felt shame bubbling up in me to even release the words, “I feel really alone.” I don’t feel like I did it out of a desire for a pity party or just because I wanted the attention. I just feel like I had to. It had built up, and it felt as if without reprieve I’d surely just sink deeper and deeper into the mire.

It felt humiliating though to admit that to people. Though I remember a few approaching me afterwards and declaring to me those same words, “I feel lonely too.”

When people profess that they are lonely, we often pity them. There’s this underlying assumption that I often think about that goes sort of like this, “that poor soul must have no friends. Maybe they should join a church or Crossfit. Maybe they should get married. Maybe they should branch out a little more. Yet I still feel myself thinking those thoughts without often recognizing how much I feel their words myself.

I think the reality is that we are all lonely on some level.

We’re all on an even playing field. Happily married, mournfully married, unwillingly single, happily single, divorced, it doesn’t matter. Our estate is a lonely one.

At this point, you’re probably confused, maybe a little annoyed that I would make such a remark about you. You have your brunch friends and your date nights. You don’t wake up in a bed alone. You have at least a thousand Facebook friends, but yes, you’re still alone.

But hear me out, I only say that we are all alone, so that we might begin to recognize something beautiful.

Although we all feel alone, that feeling of loneliness is actually a God-given, God-reflecting, and good desire.

Ultimately, I believe there’s a point to the loneliness, and that despite the most intimate of relationships we still feel different degrees of loneliness but still feel lonely nonetheless. The most poignant definition of loneliness I’ve ever come across is simply this: “the want of [or longing for] intimacy“. It’s the state Adam was in in perfect vertical relationship with God, but still lacking closeness, horizontally, with another person even before there was the entrance of sin into the world. If loneliness is as previously defined, then can any of us truly claim to be in perfect intimacy with another? Do we ever cease longing for more closeness with another person?  There always a want for more closeness, for a friendship to be cultivated, for another to know us just a little bit more – this is to feel a little bit of loneliness.

To feel lonely isn’t to be inhuman. If anything, to feel lonely is to feel the desire for friendship and closeness that God has ingrained us with in which is nothing but a glorious reflection of Himself. Our desire for companionship isn’t bad, it’s beautiful. I am not saying the state of loneliness is good, but that the underlying desire within loneliness is. Tim Keller would agree:

“Do you feel like a wimpy, weak little people because you’re always lonely and you’re always needing people and you don’t feel like you don’t have enough friends. If you feel like that it’s because you’re like God. It’s not a sign of your imperfection. It’s a sign of your perfection.”

The problem is not that we feel lonely. The problem is how we have adapted to respond to those feelings of loneliness.

It’s no surprise to me that alongside our age of distraction which includes the rampant use of pornography, social media, shopping, and Netflix there is also a rise in feelings of isolation. Even with hundreds of friends available to us in a moment’s notice, we’re still aching for depth yet still settling for distraction. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard says this:

“…how often have men cried woe upon the solitary person or portrayed the pain and misery of loneliness, how often have men, weary of the corrupting, noisy, confusing life in society, let their thoughts wander out to a solitary place—only to learn again to long for community! …In the busy, teeming crowd, which as community is both too much and too little… the cure is precisely to learn all over again the most important thing, to understand oneself in one’s longing for community.”

When we feel lonely, running from it may be just prolonging the inevitable. If we’re afraid to feel lonely, we may be doomed to it. To a certain degree, it may mean that a good place to start is becoming a tiny bit more conscious of our desire for community, intimacy, and friendship rather than consistently running to an outlet to keep our minds away from those fears.

Imagine a broken world like this without this desire for intimacy, or to put it more simply, imagine a world where no one ever felt lonely. I’d imagine everyone would be content to themselves. There would be no community, no coffee dates, no netflix-binging with roommates, no marriage, no family unit, no friendship, no vulnerable conversations, no long walks together. An unredeemed* world without the feelings of loneliness would be a world of ironic isolation.

Feelings of loneliness are similar to feelings of physical pain. We need something like those feelings of pain to indicate to us that we are in an unhealthy or harmful place and need to move to something better – a place of isolation to a place of friendship. The pain itself is not bad. What causes it may be, but the pain is actually helpful if only we can find a way to respond to it properly. Numbing a dislocated shoulder won’t fix it but a painful relocation will. Like Kierkegaard said, “the cure is precisely to understand oneself in one’s longing for community,” but the cure often feels like it’s killing us.

To feel your loneliness is painful. There’s no denying that. We were created for intimacy with God and others. Vertically and horizontally, and it’s no surprise that after that intimacy was shattered with the Fall of man that Adam & Eve hid themselves from God and hid their nakedness from one another with their fig-leaf loincloths. We’re all terrified of exposing ourselves, and we’re all terrified of a life of isolation. In exposing ourselves, we risk rejection, we risk shame, and we risk our own comfort. In isolation, we lack the sort of companionship that encourages us to take risks, to journey, and to ultimately live.

But thankfully the story doesn’t end in isolation. Thankfully we have a God who knows our loneliness and won’t leave us in it. Thankfully there’s a redeemer who redeems by uniting all things in himself, in perfect intimacy. One who has known loneliness far better than we ever have and is with us in it. He who became lonely for the lonely came to draw us into His embrace.

This is the same Jesus who cried aloud to His Father in whom he was one with, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

From intimacy to isolation, He came to rescue us from our lonely position.

We won’t always feel lonely. Right now we often do, but this won’t always be the case, and until then, perhaps we may discover, as Henri Nouwen once did, that “what seemed primarily painful may then become a feeling that, though painful, opens for you the way to an ever deeper knowledge of God’s love.”

 

Stargazing and the Dark Night of Dostoevsky

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I finished Crime and Punishment this last year, and although it took me a little less than an eternity to actually get through it, I’ve got to say, I haven’t appreciated a book like it in a long time. I was intrigued by the dread of sitting inside the mind of a neurotic. I was startled at how well the human heart was conveyed. I loved the slow but realistic redemption that takes place over the book’s pages and the lingering grace and loyalty of a certain character. But all in all, I ultimately loved that I could come to understand Fyodor Dostoevsky through the dialogue and content of the book. Here’s two of my favorite lines:

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars,
The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”

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“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”

If you’re anything like me, then you will know that I tend to enjoy books once I understand a little of the author’s own life. If I can relate to them, chances are I will resonate with their books, so it’s a treat for me in the event that I read a book and feel as though the author has bled his own personal narrative into the words and pages of that novel. Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment is one of those instances.

Having read it, I was intrigued into what kind of life Dostoevsky must’ve had. I’m sure it wasn’t a pleasant one, but I knew the novel didn’t end in despair so maybe his life hadn’t. What I found between the book and his own life were some stark similarities in theme. Both contain extreme anguish, doubt, suffering but also, however ironically, a glimmer of hope.

His life didn’t kickoff pleasantly. Dostoevsky was son to a cruel father and to a mother who died of tuberculosis while he was young. In the two years following his mother’s death, his father passed away due to an apoplectic stroke. Also around that time, Dostoevsky’s first signs of epilepsy, that would plague him his entire life, had appeared.

In the following decade, amidst his declining health, eventual resignation from the military, and his pursuit of a life of writing, Dostoevsky was imprisoned and exiled for political reasons. It seems like something straight out of one his novels, but there came a moment that Dostoevsky was lined up in front of a firing squad which was stopped by a command from the Tsar apparently moments before the execution.

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After this point, Dostoevsky spent about another half-decade as an exile in a prison camp in torturous conditions without anything but his copy of the New Testament. Between all that’s been said already, the death of his first wife, the loss of his firstborn to his second wife, and his eventual agonizing death to epilepsy, Dostoevsky’s life seems to me nothing short of a nightmare.

But what I’ve found so interesting is not just the darkness of Dostoevsky’s life. No not at all. Though, I do think what is remarkable wouldn’t be as remarkable as it is without the darkened backdrop.

What’s truly intriguing to me is Dostoevsky’s clutching to the light of the stars amidst all the horrible darkness *. While doing some research on him, I stumbled on this quote which has resonated with me in more than a few ways:

“I want to say to you, about myself, that I am a child of this age, a child of unfaith and scepticism, and probably (indeed I know it) shall remain so to the end of my life. How dreadfully has it tormented me (and torments me even now) this longing for faith, which is all the stronger for the proofs I have against it. And yet God gives me sometimes moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple; here it is: I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one. I would even say more: If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth.

I don’t know if I’ve heard of such honesty and such faith in the words of a man, words that seem reminiscent of the man in Mark 9 who declared “I believe Lord, help my unbelief”.

Two things strike me in Dostoevsky’s words. One is his immense doubt that would lead him to declare that he would die “longing for faith”, and yet still he finds moments of peace in which “I love and believe that I am loved” – a statement which implicitly assumes great faith. And second, he doesn’t trust his own faith, but the one in whom his faith takes hold. The man seems captivated in these words. Christ has captured his greatest desires, “nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect”. It seems his head and heart are torn. When the rational doubts pull him one way, he knows on a desiring level that “there could be no one [else]”.  As Saint Augustine once said, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” I’d like to think Dostoevsky tasted that rest and knew he’d never find it in anything else again, as much as his doubts nagged him otherwise.

I’m not surprised that the bold portion of that passage came last. Between the reasonable doubts that plague us because of the suffering, death, anguish, and darkness in this world and the faith granted to us that sets our eyes upon the beauty of Christ even in it all, Dostoevsky decidedly found rest in the latter. Like looking upon a midnight sky to discover the stars shine brighter only when the night is darker, Christ meets us in the darkness with his penetrating vibrancy, which had turned out for Dostoevsky [and myself] far more true and far more captivating than the darkness itself.

* Apparently, Dostoevsky would literally stargaze to combat his doubts.