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.