Only the Lonely

Sermon preached May 24, 2009

Texts: Psalm 88 (The Message); I Kings 19:1-13a; Mark 1:35-39

There is a red box in the atrium in which you can place suggestions for sermons. One of the suggestions in the box asks about what we might read that could be helpful, and while I am preaching today on a question drawn from the box, it is not that one. I will use that one some other time this summer.
While the question for today is not about reading, I want to begin by sharing with you a short passage from a book I just finished reading this week – Jon Hassler, North of Hope. Hassler was a Minnesota writer and North of Hope is set in Minnesota. It is the story of a young man who becomes a priest and of the young woman he loved in high school who has come back into his life now that they are both in their mid 40s. Libby is the woman’s name, and Libby has had a difficult life. You need to understand a little about this for the passage I want to share to make sense. Libby has been divorced twice, and her third husband is a doctor who has been sleeping with Libby’s daughter. It began when she was 16 and now the daughter is twenty-six and has been hospitalized for mental health reasons. The doctor has also been supplying drugs to a local tavern owner who has been selling them. Because she had discovered that this man had been sleeping with her daughter, Libby has left him. Just before the scene I am about to read Libby has just found out that her husband has died and she has asked her friend the priest to sleep with her, but he wouldn’t. This is just the kind of book you would expect your pastor to be reading – I know.
Rising from the bed, she had gone into the front room and looked out at Noonan’s Car Wash and the Buena Vista Apartments and was struck by the absurdity of living alone at age forty-four on a grimy street in a frigid city of strangers. She was unable to afford a used car. She was unable to get along with her daughter. She’d had a dolt and two perverts for husbands. She was so unbearably lonely that she’d frightened off the only good man she’d ever known by stripping like a whore in front of him. It was a relief to recognize after forty-four years of mistakes that they could all be gathered together and thought of as one overriding mistake. The mistake of having been born. (411)
Know what? I recommend this book.
The question that I pulled from the box was this: How can we experience loneliness in satisfying ways? How can we find God when alone? It is a good question for this weekend – the weekend of gratitude and remembrance. My earliest memories of Memorial Day are going with my mom and dad to her parents graves at Park Hill cemetery. Her parents died about a year apart when my mom was in her twenties – and I was only about 4 or 5. Loneliness is often a part of the experience of grief. This week I lost a great aunt, a woman who was like a third grandmother to me, and grief has again visited my door – and loneliness often comes calling as well.
Loneliness. The passage I read from North of Hope, set in the context of the story, may seem dramatic. But the experience of loneliness is real and sometimes deep and dramatic. It has always been so. Why God do you turn a deaf ear? Why do you make yourself scarce? For as long as I remember I’ve been hurting…. You made lover and neighbor alike dump me; the only friend I have left is Darkness. (Psalm 88) Can we experience loneliness in satisfying ways? Where is God in the midst of loneliness and can we connect with God there? What might our faith have to say about loneliness – about those times in our lives when we sing “only the lonely know the way I feel tonight”? I want to offer four succinct points.
The first point is that we will all know loneliness in our lives. I sometimes marvel at the paradox. We live in a crowded world. I believe that we are relational beings at our core, created for relationship and constituted by our relationships. Yet in this busy, crowded, relational world we experience loneliness – sometimes fleetingly and not too deeply, and at other times very deeply and profoundly. What makes Hassler’s novel work in the passage I read is that we can imagine unbearable loneliness because we have brushed up against it. The Psalmists words make sense because we may know at least something of what it is like to have darkness as our only friend. Henri Nouwen in his book Reaching Out, writes perceptively about loneliness. “Loneliness is one of the most universal human experiences…. It is an experience that enters into everyone’s life at some point” (14). Ironically, you don’t even need to be alone to feel lonely. Some of us know what it is like to feel quite alone in a room full of people. Teenage years, when we are often with people almost constantly can yet produce times of crushing loneliness, when we are afraid to share some important facet of ourselves for fear of being ridiculed or ostracized.
We will all know loneliness. Can there be some positive responses? What might our faith have to say to us?
My second point about loneliness is the first of three responses I think our faith suggests. Sometimes we should seek to work our way out of loneliness by finding friends. Okay, so this is not necessarily the most profound advice ever given, but still it is true. Maybe that begins by admitting our loneliness. One of the beauties of the Psalms is the range of human emotion they capture and Psalm 88, by expressing a deep loneliness invites us to admit to ourselves that we can be lonely. We don’t need to hide that. Some days we are going to have lousy days, and a part of that could be feeling terribly alone. One response, then, is to reach out to make friends. I didn’t quote a Scripture text for this point today, focusing readings on other parts of loneliness, but there are plenty of places in the New Testament where Christians are encouraged to embrace others, to love and care for others, to make friends. When we are lonely, we can seek out friends, and one irony in all this is that after admitting our loneliness, we often need to bracket it to be a good friend to others. It is my experience that beginning a conversation with “I am desperately lonely, will you be my friend,” is not often the best first move in a friendship. It may be what we are feeling, but we would do well to open ourselves to the other, to make friends by being a good friend and asking how others are doing.
But loneliness is not that easily avoided. We have friends, and still will have times of loneliness. Can it ever be satisfying? Where is God in the midst of this? Knowing that loneliness cannot always be avoided through friendship, we also need times when we embrace loneliness. I appreciate the way Henri Nouwen puts it: Instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into a fruitful solitude. To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude (22). The Scriptures have many examples of people turning loneliness into solitude, some even seeking solitude. Elijah, lonely and despondent, has the desert of loneliness turned into solitude as God speaks to him in “a sound of sheer silence.” Jesus takes time away to go to a deserted place to pray.
What do we discover when we embrace our loneliness, stay with it awhile, and let it become solitude? I think we discover something of ourselves in that process. Jazz critic Stanley Crouch wrote a review of a new book about Duke Ellington in the most recent issue of Harper’s. I read it in-between chapters of Hassler’s book. In his article, Crouch makes this profound observation. People are uncomfortable in silence because it can breed needless contemplation and may engender a floating into the deeper world of the self (June 2009, 73). In silence and solitude, we can plumb depths within that remain hidden in a busy and noisy world. Not everything we discover within will be to our liking, but it is there and needs to be acknowledged and woven more or less helpfully into our lives. When those deeper dimensions of ourselves are woven into our lives unconsciously it is usually less helpful than if we can do this consciously. Solitude allows for that.
But this plunge into the deeper self is not narrowly self-absorbed. Knowing ourselves more deeply makes us better able to enter into relationships, friendships, love. Thomas Merton, a writer and Trappist monk once wrote: It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am, the more affection I have for them. It is pure affection and filled with reverence for the solitude of others. (in Nouwen, 28). The poet Rilke, whose Letters to a Young Poet seem to be finding their way into recent sermons, wrote in one of those letters about the relationship between love and solitude. Solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person… it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself…. Love consists in this: the two solitudes protect and border and greet each other. (Seventh letter).
When we embrace our loneliness, stay with it awhile, and let it become solitude, I think we also discover something more of God. Next week we will celebrate Pentecost and the encounter of a crowd of people with God’s Spirit. But if the history of Christian spirituality is any indication, God is often encountered in quiet, in solitude. So strong is this tradition that a person like the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead could write in his book Religion in the Making: Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness…. Religion is solitariness; and if you are never solitary, you are never religious. (Religion in the Making in Anthology, 472). In solitude we discover the truth proclaimed in a statement of faith used by the United Church of Canada: “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone.” Elijah, lonely, despairing, wondering if his ministry is over and if his life should be, discovers solitude in the desert and hears the voice of God in the sound of sheer silence. Jesus, in the morning, while it was still dark, got up and went out to a deserted place to pray. The techniques to seeking God in solitude are many – verbal prayer, meditative prayer, silent prayer, focusing on the Scriptures – but God can be found when we are alone. In fact, God is often found when we are alone, when loneliness becomes solitude.
I cannot leave a discussion of loneliness and Christian faith without making a final point. Loneliness is a part of the human experience. We will all know it, and sometimes we will know its deep pain. If we sometimes know that, we need then to remember that others are lonely. Ah, look at all the lonely people, and these lonely people are people loved by God, people who God might want to reach through us. Psychologist Anthony Storr writes in one of his books: “to be able to be totally disregarded as a person is a kind of death in life against which we are compelled to fight with all of our strength” (quoted in Leo Buscaglia, Living, Loving, and Learning, 144). There are people in the world who feel totally disregarded as persons, people whose experiences of loneliness are long and painful and whose experiences of loneliness tend only toward isolation and not toward solitude. As Christians we need to reach out to such people in love and care. One wonderful part of the wedding liturgy in The United Methodist Church is the charge given all those at the wedding to “bear witness to the love of God in this world, so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends.”
When a song comes on the radio that sings: “only the lonely” we know we are included, or when we hear “this is for all the lonely people” we know we are among them. Yet the truth of our faith is that God is with us always, so that our loneliness might be a solitude in which we learn more deeply about ourselves, a solitude in which we hear the voice of God in the sound of sheer silence. Out of that solitude we are to love, to seek friends and to be good friends, especially to the most desperately lonely people in the world, those who feel completely disregarded. May we so bear witness to the love of God in this world so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in us generous friends. Amen.