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Posts Tagged ‘loneliness’

I recently put another birthday behind me. Shortly after that, my wife and I shared a quiet and reflective anniversary dinner. So much has changed since those first magical moments when love captured our hearts.

Finally, it’s been just over a year since my wife convinced me that we needed to make a commitment and join the church we had been attending. With some effort, I have managed to have some interaction with almost everyone, and have even forged somewhat meaningful relationships with a few people. But as for deep, close connections, that reality has not yet been realized—though I hope that one or two of these may ripen and bear the fruit of authentic Christian love.

In the meantime:

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room
Safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

— Simon and Garfunkel, “I Am a Rock”

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Dropping the Act

scaryclose

… we will never feel loved until we drop the act, until we’re willing to show our true selves to the people around us.

When I heard that I knew it was true. I’d spent a good bit of my life as an actor, getting people to clap—but the applause only made me want more applause. I  didn’t act in a theater or anything. I’m talking about real life. (xv)

No doubt about it, you will find many actors in your average church; people are terrified to take off their masks for fear of being judged. While Donald Miller’s latest book is about his personal journey from insecurity/isolation to intimacy and from failed relationships to freedom to be himself, much of what he writes is applicable to our relationships we have in church life.

Miller describes how he terrified he used to be of being known by others and how he felt people would only love him if he found ways to impress them. We see this played out in churches where Christians jump to serve in as many ministries as possible, in order to feel appreciated and acknowledged. I know how they feel: been there, done that. And one can’t blame them, because the alternative is that you’ll be largely invisible. So if we’re honest, more often than not, we are motivated by our desire for applause and adoration rather than for God’s glory. At the very least, the temptation is always there, for most of us are “attention addicts”.

self

Miller shares what a therapist once said to him: “when some animals feel threatened they make themselves appear bigger. She said it ‘s true with people too—they often make themselves appear better than they are in order to attract others and protect themselves from threats.” (31) What costume are you wearing to make yourself appear larger? Your job? Your wealth? Your education? Your good looks? Your biblical knowledge? Your position in church? Miller confesses that validation by others is very intoxicating. But then he “began to wonder what life would be like if I dropped the act and began to trust that being myself would be enough to get the love I needed.” (35)

We construct a false self to so others can’t see the shame we feel and we embellish that persona with all sorts of things. “Somewhere along the line I think many of us buy into a lie that we only matter if … We only matter if we are strong or smart or attractive or whatever” (56). However, “the more we hide, the harder it is to be known. And we have to be known to connect” (20). Paralyzed by the fear that we will not measure up to others’ expectations and petrified that no one will love us if they knew our true self, we continue to hide our imperfections and insecurities. But as Miller points out: “Grace only sticks to imperfections. Those who can’t accept their imperfections can’t accept grace either” (45).

“Perhaps that’s another reason true intimacy is so frightening. It’s the one thing we all want, and must give up control to get.” (98) And how do we control others? Through manipulation, which usually operates subtly. Miller identifies five categories of manipulation (104-108):

The Scorekeeper

“Whenever somebody starts keeping score in a relationship the relationship begins to die. A scorekeeper makes life feel like a contest, only there’s no way to win.”

The Judge

“When a Judge personality is religious, they’ll use the Bible to gain control of others.”

The False Hero

“The false hero manipulates by leading people to believe they have something better to offer than they do.”

The Fearmonger

“Fearmongers rule by making people suffer the consequences of insubordination. The mantra of the Fearmonger is: If you don’t submit to me I’ll make your life a living hell … Fearmongers are completely incapable of vulnerability and, as such, incapable of intimacy.”

The Flopper

“A Flopper is somebody who overdramatizes their victimhood in order to gain sympathy and attention. … Floppers assume the role of victim whenever they can.”

In a chapter entitled “The Risk of Being Careful”, Miller discusses the “roles that vulnerability and self-expression play in relationships” (138).  For most people, vulnerability is a frightening place to be, but then “How can we be loved if we are always in hiding?” (140)  So in church, for example, we put on our religious robes and pious masks and pretend we got our sh*t together. No wonder it’s so hard to find genuine fellowship with other believers. He goes on to ask, “Is there anything more toxic than the fear of being judged? Judgment shuts us down and makes us hide. It keeps us from being ourselves, which keeps us from connecting with other people.” (143) We say we believe God has accepted us in Christ but are we really living out that truth in our lives? Furthermore, we are commanded to “Therefore accept one another, just as Christ also accepted you” (Rom. 15:7; CSB).

Relationships are messy: manipulation, codependency, obsession. Intimacy and vulnerability is painful and scary because it means we have to be “naked” before each other—but we’re not comfortable removing the fig leaves we’ve covered ourselves with. Not everyone wants to be “scary close”; many people have inscribed on their foreheads “please keep your distance!”

keepback

Which leads me to the final point: ultimately our deepest longings can only be satisfied by God. But even then, that longing will not be fully satisfied here, but will have to wait until the eschaton when we will be finally and fully transformed. Miller himself discovered this as well: “I realized there was a subconscious longing in my heart that could never be resolved by another human being.” (213)

But knowing the reality of unfulfilled longing doesn’t dampen the desire for deep connection, for fulfilling friendship/fellowship and intense intimacy; and yet, the ache of that unfulfilled longing is actually for our good. For that yearning in our heart is a compass to point us Godward and a daily reminder that no substitute will satisfy.

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As I mentioned earlier, my recent studies seem to be converging; from another angle, it is also converging in that not a few of the books I am reading and/or reviewing are authored by female scholars:

Mary Patton Baker, Participation In Christ And Eucharistic Formation: John Calvin and the Theodrama of the Lord’s Supper (Paternoster, 2015)

Karen Jobes, 1, 2, and 3 John (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 2014)

… and thanks to Dr. Baker, I was alerted to:

Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Eerdmans, 2010)

I’ve always been puzzled why women are permitted to teach men and women in seminary, or even give “lectures” in church [but not during Sunday worship service], but are not allowed to preach in the Sunday morning church service. Can someone explain this inconsistency to me?

But back to Julie Canlis: during my morning commute to work I’ve been reading my friend’s copy of Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (Donald Miller, 2003) which I never got around to finishing when it first came out. In any case, to my surprise, Miller mentions her as his friend in his book!  So I until I get around to reading Canlis’ book, I decided to see if I can find any of her lectures online, but could only locate a few chapel talks (I was hoping for an academic talk based on her book). Intrigued, I played one of the videos:

Though I’ve never been one to seriously devote myself to any of the spiritual disciplines or liturgical practices, her talk on Lent I found very helpful and timely, given my recent (on-going!) struggle with desire/longing for deep connection and community rather than desiring God. Maybe there is much I can learn from the Desert Fathers and Mothers. I feel that all my busyness is masking a dry, desert experience my soul is undergoing, and I am glad for Julie’s reminder “that the Lord’s will for us is not always to jump immediately out of the desert and get fixed, but perhaps to be present to the desert and to what the Father is speaking to you that you can only hear in the desert.”

Thank you Julie, thank you … my journey in the desert shall continue—but I’m OK with it now.

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We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.

—Albert Schweitzer

This past Sunday, in his sermon on Acts 5:1-11, SG underscored the importance of “community”, in particular, for keeping each other accountable in the context of discipleship. However, in focusing on what he calls gospel-centered community, I don’t believe he intends to ignore or downplay the existential and experiential aspects of community (very important!). He further re-emphasized his desire to have every member be a part of a small group before the year is over.

While I certainly understand his motivation and largely share his vision, I am not sure that this is ultimately going to address the problem of cliques and indifference; indeed, in some ways, small groups may serve to solidify the boundaries. There are deeper issues to address and more foundational truths that need reiterating again, in my humble opinion. That said, the benefits of being a part of an intimate and intentional group of brothers and sisters outweighs any negative side effects.

My wife and I were the greeters this past Sunday; I love serving in this role because it gives me a chance to get to welcome visitors and to get to know the members. You can imagine then my sadness when one couple didn’t so much as say Hello, but simply took the bulletin and walked away (and this is not the first time). Oh well, they won’t get away so easy—we are greeters again next week! Mwah haha! As well, my wife and I will be inviting them for coffee or lunch very soon, so we’ll see how that plays out …

With such a small church, I thought by now I would be all chummy chummy with everyone; after all, we’re brothers and sisters, right? Greet one another with a holy kiss and all that love-one-another stuff, eh?

Silly me, I keep forgetting that loneliness is part of church life!

“I’m lonely. And I’m lonely in some horribly deep way and for a flash of an instant, I can see just how lonely, and how deep this feeling runs. And it scares the shit out of me to be this lonely because it seems catastrophic.”

― Augusten Burroughs, Dry

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Another Sunday feeling discouraged and disconnected. It’s been my experience that when you’re feeling down, Christians instinctively know to avoid you; it’s as if you become invisible. I don’t blame them. I’m not your typical, normal Christian, so I don’t expect too many people to understand me anyhow. So, like I said, I don’t blame them; I probably even creep out some of them!

Yes, brother, let me have some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. (Philemon 20; NET)

After coming home, I received a timely call from one of my closest friends. We spoke for almost an hour, since we haven’t seen each other or talked with each other for quite some time. Amazing how our timelines seem to be in sync — God has recently been awakening him from his spiritual slumber as well. I have to admit I was thrilled to hear the zeal and excitement in his voice: here was a man whose love for his Lord has been rekindled! And he lovingly exhorted me to not waste my gifts and my life, but to serve the Lord wherever doors open. He challenged me to pray more and ask God to empower me and use me where and how He see fits, not what I envision. As always, it boils down to what I constantly struggle with, the great deficiency in my life: prayer and communion with God.

I told my brother that I’m not so sure anymore what my gifts are; his were very apparent the day I met him decades ago: evangelism and exhortation. He reminded me we will stand before our Lord someday to give an account of how we used our time and our gifts. He challenged me by saying that he felt my gifting hasn’t changed and to stop trying to make excuses! (Like I said, one of his gifts is exhortation!) He told me to keep reading and studying the Word and opportunities to teach the Word will open up in many ways (whether at church, disillusioned saints no longer in church or one-on-one with a believer at work, etc.). He paused and challenged me to ask God to bring broken, downcast and lonely sheep across my path; this was something I’ve always had a burden for, he quietly reminded me.

I was much encouraged by the conversation and I was also thankful how it meshed so well with the good word that SG shared with the church today concerning “worship”: do we truly ascribe ultimate value and worth to God? Do we seek to worship and serve Him for show or for His glory? Do we seek the praise of men or the favour/reward of God? A timely and challenging message!  Thank you Lord for all these ways you are speaking to me and molding me.

The Spirit also reminded me again of the pastoral and prescient insight that IB shared with me over a year ago. Upon reflecting on this further, I realized that there is still some fear and hesitation on my part. May the Lord help me to cast away this spirit of fear …

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Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone

— Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Solitude”

Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. (Rom. 12:15; HSCB)

Feeling disconnected these days. Feeling out of place, feeling I don’t belong.

Isolated. Insignificant. Invisible.

I feel AWEful: Angst, Weltschmerz, Ennui

Discouraged that in such a small church of which I’m a member of, I still hardly know anyone. No connections, no community, no closeness.

I admit I’m not your typical Christian. I think my “weirdness” scares people off. Better put my mask back on.

 

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one

l(a
le
af
fa
ll
s)
one
l
iness

– e.e. cummings (from 95 poems, 1958)

This poem captures how I felt this past Sunday.

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