The Beauty (and Sneakiness) of Ordinary

I’ve known for a long time that I’m kind of ordinary. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy wrestling through this depressing truth. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I know all the “right” responses to this…”There’s only ever been one of me in all of history”, “God made me special”, “If I were the only photo-13person on earth, Jesus would have still come for me”, “No one shares my fingerprint or DNA, literally and metaphorically”, etc, etc etc.

It’s just that my culture of famous, notable ministers, of passionate coffee-drinking, creative/hipsters changing the world, and social media allowing me to see it all, have combined to give me a deeply entrenched inferiority complex, leading to some rather profound spiritual wounding. Those with intense and successful ministries, tell me that to really be a disciple of Jesus, my life must be radical. My deeds awesome. My sacrifice epic. In fact, they use their personal examples of how God has used them, to encourage me to pursue great things for my great God. And I agree with almost everything they say, even as I come up short by comparison. Then, there are creative/hipsters out there who live these amazingly interesting lives pursuing their dreams…and who inadvertently shame me for, ironically enough, financially supporting their creativity through my consumption and encouragement of their attempts to change the world.  Then, Facebook lets me see glimpses of other’s extraordinary lives that look so much more meaningful and, honestly, more fun, than mine… that my heart, immediately and without too much of a push, goes to some dark and self-condemning places.

It isn’t hard to see how I could begin to think, “Hmmm…this says something about how God feels about me… that His plan for me is so…ordinary.”

What bothers me most is not that I will never win a Nobel prize, or build an orphanage in Asia, or lead a movement-starting ministry. It is that God has called me to be ordinary. As far as I know, I am not living a disobedient life to my Savior. And as a result of my faithfulness to Him, I live in a rather nondescript suburb of a pretty average city. I am pursuing an important, but not a particularly world-shaking profession. I go to a healthy and loving local church, but we aren’t pumping out best-selling books, hosting large conference or creating paradigm shifting worship albums. My personal ministry is very fulfilling, but no one will look at my “numbers” and do anything but yawn. Most of my days are spent getting kids off to school, cooking and cleaning, driving, bed time routines, conversation and Parks And Rec reruns with my husband in between it all.

I am ordinary. By both providential calling and gifting. Sigh.

What I’m finding though, is that ordinary can be beautiful. And learning to find Jesus and His love in the ordinary parts of life is actually a most extraordinary pursuit. Because, while ordinary is where I live, it is where Jesus lives too.

In the naps, in the snuggles, in the casseroles, in the traffic jams, in the coffee, in the time spent pairing up socks.

He is enough. I am enough. 

There is beauty in the sacrifice required to be a parent to kids day in day out, in learning to put the needs of another in front of my own and learning to enjoy it even. There is beauty in being fully present at my church every Sunday…faithfully worshipping God, serving others, offering my gifts, and receiving the gifts of others. There is beauty in a marriage that is best represented by an open front door, a well-used kitchen table, a refrigerator with kids’ report cards and artwork stuck to it, and a bed that my beloved husband and I have decided will only, and ever be, just for the two us to share. There is beauty in following Jesus as best as I know how in the middle of all of this.

Most healing…most growth…most blessings…are found in the ordinary places of our lives. And the gift wrap they come in is the ordinary people and relationships that we often overlook. “Ordinary” can be sneaky that way.

Not everyone gets to change the world. But everyone can be changed.  Jesus extends the invitation to become more like Him, (which is indeed quite extraordinary) in the midst of our ordinariness. And it is a goal that everyone has the potential to reach. I can be a success in His eyes, in my eyes, by being exactly who He has created me to be, exactly where He has placed me, doing exactly what He has asked me to do.

Micah 6:8 He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.


 

The greatest love stories are those that play out all around us in the middle of ordinary.  An Ed Sheeran song, of all things, gives beautiful words to this in a wonderful married person’s love song. He sings, “We found love right where we are.” Most of us do, you know.

If you haven’t seen The Lego Movie yet, what are you waiting for? It is a celebration of how ordinary is often a sneaky cover for extraordinary. And, I totally could have given this speech.

 

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“I Want My Heart Back.”

I was watching an episode of Chuck of all things, when my insides spoke up and broke my heart.

If you haven’t seen Chuck, I refer you to Netflix. It is a sweet and funny tv show from a few years back that, even with a silly plot, has these great characters you grow to love. The heart of the show is, Chuck Bartowski, who is an adorable chuckfinale_350120127155713underachiever, underemployed at the Buy More, a Best Buy rip-off. Part of a bigger story than he knows (aren’t we all, really), Chuck ends up with a spy supercomputer in his head. (Stay with me here.) He ends up with the very skilled and amazingly talented CIA agent Sarah Walker as his handler.  And together they grow. Sarah is incredibly driven, successful in her field and practically invincible. But, because of a broken past, she has chosen to shut her heart down. She is cold, calculated and unable to truly connect with those around her. Chuck on the other hand, while a slacker and goofy, knows how to love and how to be loved. He has friends and family that he is deeply attached to, and a real life – beyond just a mission. As time goes on, Sarah realizes that being connected with those you love is worth the risk, and she opens herself and her heart up to love. Over the course of their story, Chuck wins her to his way of doing life. She does not win him over to hers.  It is a great love story – a broken heart meeting a healthy heart… and the contact leads to healing. 

This is how all healing takes place by the way.  (Minus the spy supercomputer, in most cases.)

I don’t even remember the scene I was watching, but as this theme was playing out in front of me, I heard from deep inside me, a voice cry out “I want my heart back!”

And it was my voice.

It can be a powerful moment, when your insides tell you something is broken, without you even asking. (I actually think this happens much more often than we realize – we just have to be paying attention.)

It has been one of those seasons of life…experienced by us all…when what was color has turned gray.  When the joy that normally bubbles up goes flat. When external circumstances conspire to divert valuable attention and energy away from the care of my internal condition. When busyness takes the place of being known by others. And it seems like I either consciously or unconsciously decided that thinking about how I feel is easier than actually feeling how I feel.   I’ve spent years living from a head that was trying desperately to control and minimize my heart. This is why watching Sarah Walker stumble through an emotional learning curve moved me so. It is so familiar.

One of the great problems with this life strategy, which is very common by the way, is that when you attempt to shove bad emotion in the closet, all the good ones go with it too.  We may be aiming for “no pain”, but what we get along with that is “no love”. The cost to maintain such an arrangement is much more than most of us are willing to pay.

There’s a reason why Solomon teaches us in Pr. 4:23,  “… to guard {our} heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Because, when we lose our heart…we lose pretty much everything else along with it. 

We all do it you know…return to what is familiar in the midst of stress and pain.  Some people indulge their anger. Others medicate in whatever way makes them feel better. Some hide and withdraw. Some compensate with achievement. When he got overwhelmed, Peter returned to fishing. I tend to watch a little too much tv…and this time, both God and my heart came looking for me.

The question open to us all then is…how do we find our way back? To joy. To the whole-heartedness Jesus intends for those who love and follow Him? 

When we take our turn on the very human part of the journey that leads through darkness…

When we fall away from what we love…

When we end up on a road we didn’t intend to take…

When powerful emotions like fear and anger and sadness and disappointment stand so front and center in our lives that we will do anything to get them to sit down…

When we lose touch with that part of us on the inside that breathes life and gives color and taste and vitality and passion to our daily existence…

How do we find the way back?  The way back is the same for us all…we get our broken heart next to a healthy one…

We get ourselves next to Jesus and those who love Him.

And then we let the contact lead to healing.

Ps. 34:18 The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

(Below is a little clip from Chuck that pretty much sums it all up.)

Navigating The Terrain Of The Heart

The heart can be challenging territory. Exploring its depths is alternately a beautiful, sometimes terrifying and ultimately mandatory endeavor for those who want Jesus to be at home there. It is the core of who we are – not just what we feel, but the seat of our identity and life’s vitality (Pr. 4:23). God created us with hearts at the center of our being (Ps. 33:15), speaks to us through them (Heb. 3:7-8), longs to make them whole (Ez. 11:19), and blesses us with His presence in them (Eph. 3:17).  Who we are and were made to be is contained within it (I Pet. 3:4). And in certain seasons of life, He invites us to slow down (or stop), look around and see what lurks and lies hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) there (Pr. 20:27). simple heart map

Romantics, counselors, artists and poets often know its terrain well, as do those with relational gifts of mercy and compassion. Over the years I’ve met some people with such emotional health and warmth – they know how to love, be loved, relate well, be honest with and communicate their feelings, understand something of their motives, confess their sin and still know they are forgiven and wanted by the Savior and others. I love these people. I would like to be one of them some day. Sigh.

Intellectuals though, those who lean into their heads, often think spiritual maturity is found in books. In knowledge. In idea acquisition and mastery. I know this because I have spent much of the first part of my life in this camp. While the intellect is a valuable part of each individual, a head with out a heart is incomplete.  Those of us with this bent sometimes try to  justify and differentiate ourselves from our ‘heart-informed’ brethren by saying rather ignorant or arrogant things like, “Well, I’m just not emotional.” (Um, really?) Or, “I prefer to use my brain more than my heart.” (Implying that they are mutually exclusive, or one is better than the other.) Or, “I don’t have the gift of mercy.” (As if that makes it ok to be an insensitive jerk – because you know, God made me that way.)

So, recognizing my inherent weakness in this area, I’m making this a topic of prolonged study. (ha ha – intellectually studying the emotional heart…yes, humorous, I know…) In doing so, I’m learning some interesting things about the process of digging into this vital and life-giving part of my life. I thought I’d share them here in bullet point form.

Navigating The Terrain Of The Heart:

  • Brutal honesty is a key navigation tool. There are days I really like to lie to others and myself. Oh, I do it subtly enough. I usually cloak it somehow, under humility or self-effacing humor. Sometimes I prefer to blame others and point fingers, or claim ignorance, but the result is the same. I am trying to minimize that which I am responsible for and make me look less bad than I actually am. What I’ve found is that I’ve got to be brutally honest about what is going on in my heart. Am I angry? Sad? Disappointed? Is there some sin in there that is ruling over me? If I don’t name the emotion or sin properly, no matter how embarrassing or revealing it may be, then what I do with it will almost always be wrong. Which leads me to my next point…
  • Find a travel buddy. Just like you should never swim alone, you shouldn’t really go in to the heart for extended periods completely alone. Sometimes looking at things of the heart is like looking at clouds with a friend and trying to find shapes in them. “I see a bunny!” And your travel buddy says, “Are you sure? Because, to me, that looks kind of like a tiger that might want to eat you.” The equivalent might be, “I’m angry!” And your friend says, “Are you sure?  Because to me, you look terrified.” My point is, having another point of view can open your eyes to things you would never see on your own. And back to the first point, it doesn’t do any good if you lie to your travel buddy. We need their honest evaluations, which means they need to work with accurate information.
  • Jesus gets to lead the exploration. Unfortunately, I think many folks approach their hearts like they do most other things in their lives: with their agendas, expecting Jesus to join right in and follow their lead. Yeah, about that…Jesus doesn’t follow our lead. And the sooner we drop our expectations, our right to choose our speed, route, destination, etc. the sooner we actually get somewhere. It is sort of like when my 7-year-old sits behind the wheel of our parked car. It is sort of cute, but we aren’t going anywhere till she takes her actual seat. I know this because as I’ve dug in to my heart, I know I’ve said things like, “Jesus, let’s talk about my anger issues.” And He’s said, “Actually, I want to talk about your idolatry. And until we deal with that, we aren’t going anywhere.” I have the choice at that moment to get out of the driver’s seat and hand over the keys…or not, and stop all potential progress.
  • Pack some snacks. I suggest this tongue-in-cheek because the journey to whatever is going on in your heart can be a glacial, circuitous one that can take a long, long time. I’ve seen Jesus show up in some people’s lives and bring heart-healing rather quickly…but that has not been my typical experience. Instead, the sanctification process in my life is often much slower, messier and more unpredictable than I like, am comfortable with, or would choose on my own.

(originally published in a slightly different form 12/8/11.)

And My Answer Is…Yes.

Jesus, my answer to you is yes.

To whatever it is you ask, to whatever it is You want. To wherever You lead, even and especially when I don’t know where we are going. Yes to following You through pain and things I would never choose for myself or my most beloved ones. Yes to the loss of choice and how that terrifies me. Yes to a season of darkness if it means I learn to find Your hand in that very darkness.

Yes to following You into places in my heart that cause me to grimace and wince because of their raw power. Yes to opening up my most private, shameful and personal memories, allowing you to speak to them and change my perception of them. Yes to Your changing my habits and patterns that are so ingrained and hidden, only a serious disruption of “normal” brings them into view. Yes to my paying attention to and cooperating with whatever disruption it takes for you to save me from myself. Yes to letting you pry my hands off of my beloved status quo.

Yes to You loving me enough that sometimes You tell me “no.” Yes to letting You break my heart if it will save me from the damage that some of the things I love do to me. Yes to letting go of things that are less so you can give me more.  Yes to releasing that which has been holding me tighter than I have been holding it.

Yes to walking in to the unknown and to following You down paths where no one can go with me. Yes to a heart sickening loneliness if it teaches me to learn to love and relate to You more authentically and healthily. Yes to Your plans for me, even as it means the death of my dreams for me. Yes to not running from fear of You when You choose to flex Your muscles, to exercise Your sovereignty, to call attention to the fact that I am helpless before You. Yes to laying down my desires and my control tendencies, to opening my hands and being willing for them to stay empty for as long as You want. Because yes, I believe You want to eventually fill them with more than I had before. And Yes to You taking as long as You want to accomplish Your purposes in my life, even as I think I’ll die waiting for You.

Yes to You stripping away my illusions of how I think the world works in exchange for You teaching me the truth of how it actually works. Yes to the grief that comes along with seeing truth for the first time and realizing how long I’ve lived with lies. Yes to following You to places of repentance and an accurate self-view that can be so devastating.

Yes to Your request to physically occupy more space in my heart that I have given away to idols and taken for myself. Yes to not just allowing You to take up space, but to my inviting You in, willingly and wholeheartedly. Yes to learning and re-learning how to love you in a way that actually honors You, rather than in a way that is convenient for me.

Yes to resting in You and to letting You lead. Yes to slowing down even as my heart pushes me to speed up. Yes to letting You be You, even when it is so bewildering, confusing and doubt-inducing. Yes to Your heart for me and yes to trusting You with my heart. Yes to the lifelong process of acknowledging, with my head, mouth and life that You are indeed God and that you are indeed good.

My answer to you is yes. May it always be yes.

(originally published 5/18/13)

What Does My Calendar Say About The Condition Of My Heart? (Jesus pt. 105)

I was talking with an acquaintance in ministry a few years ago.  A very high energy, dynamic leader with great capacity, a lot on his resume and at the time, a lot on his calendar and metaphorical “plate”.  He was ‘crushing’ it in ministry, with quite a few ‘trophies’ on the shelf to show for years of hardthat's just dumb and dedicated work.  I am confident that his desire was absolutely to do God’s will, to advance the kingdom, and to bless others. By any reasonable standard, he is a success at what he does.  Yet, in the course of our conversation, I heard him, while not in these words exactly, pray this idea, “Oh God, help me sustain an unsustainable pace.”

I was so sad.  And a little angry.  Because this prayer crystallized for me so much of what is wrong with us, with our ministries, with our spirituality, with our culture.  Busyness replacing relationship. The arrogance of thinking one is the exception to the limits we all have.  Basing one’s worth on the product produced, the effort offered, the “trophy” to show for it all. Falling into the comparison trap with others.  I know this from personal experience.  Our calendars offer a remarkable window into the condition of our hearts. Into our thoughts about who we think God is.  Into our thoughts about who we think we are. 

Years ago, I was trying to find a way to juggle the responsibilities of full time ministry while living overseas, being a wife, and a mother of 3 under the age of 8, with one of them under a year old.  I recognized the uniqueness of that particular season of life…and I was terrified of failing.  FYI – whenever you are afraid, pay attention, because often, fear is telling you something on the inside of you needs attention.  Another FYI – most of us do not operate from a place of freedom and security, in the knowledge that God’s grace is enough and we do not have to earn His approval.  Instead, we do the tasks in our lives because we are afraid of something: failing, the disapproval of others, not being enough, being alone, of being still and quiet, of empty time on the calendar, rejection, insignificance, etc.  My fear was/is failing.

So when I ended up at a conference with other women who were in the same field as me, I looked around for someone who was doing it well.  Balancing the demands of the work, faith and family, staying sane, both cultivating a spirituality and depth that was not only healthy, but looked like something I might want to emulate.  When I found her, (a very cool 50-something with a nose ring, by the way) I asked for a bit of time, to pick her brain about this: How can I do all that God has asked me to do? Because honestly, if I think about all the needs, all the possibilities, all the people out there who need Jesus and me…I’m a little overwhelmed.  I was looking for some type of strategy to help me manage it all.

You know, Jesus was asked the same question.  In Mark 12, a religious leader came to Him and asked, ““Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”.  Here was a teacher of the law, very aware that, in his paradigm of the faith, he had well over 600 laws to obey each and every day. Imagine! I’m actually tired and overwhelmed just thinking about what his life and religious practice must have looked like.  The guilt.  The fear of failure. Of comparison to others. Of not being good enough. I suspect his internal monologue and mine, bear a striking resemblance, emphasizing inadequacy and judgment. Because…while I don’t have a quantified list of 600+ things-to-do-today-to-make-Jesus-happy-with-me…I kind of do.

And then there is the phrase “most important”.  In Greek, it is the word “protos”, where we get our English word, “priority”. I think that part of what the teacher of the law is asking is, “Jesus, what I have to do is so much, I’m pretty sure I’m going to fail somewhere. So tell me, if I only get one or two things done, what is the most important? What should my “protos” be? What should get the first of my energy and effort, so that my priorities are not mis-ordered?”

Jesus answered Him with a surprisingly short to-do list.  In fact, Jesus pretty much said, “Oh busy one, you are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking about task, you should be asking about relationship.” Jesus answered with, “The most important one…is to love Me…”  Our protos, our most important task, above all others, that which should get the first and best of our time, energy and attention,  is to be in a healthy relationship with God. That’s pretty much it. He isn’t the one asking us to get a lot done for Him. We are.  His to-do list for us is a one item-er.  Healthy relationship.  With Him. And by extension, with others.

Flash forward to the women’s conference I was at, and the older woman’s response to my question, “How do I do it all?” She simply said, “I just figured out years ago, that what God wants me to do is almost always less than what I think it is.” She was gently telling me that I was asking the wrong question.  Rather than asking how I could get it all done, she said, “Why don’t you ask God what He wants you to do. And then ask Him how He wants you to do that.”

I left that conversation changed.   I’ve been attempting to purse better questions about my spiritual life ever since.  Jesus seems to love a really good question, by the way.  Right now, He and I are discussing this one:

What does my calendar say about the condition of my heart? 

(Or if I really wanted to get brave, I could ask my family what they think my calendar says about how I feel about them.)

Because, how we choose to use our time, energy and resources says an awful lot about what is going on inside of us.

 

Making Things Round

I was leading a women’s retreat in Germany this past weekend.  It was a wonderful time to say a joyful “hello” to beloved friends whom I had to say a tearful”goodbye” to years ago.  And during this time, I learned a beautiful German phrase and concept that has deeply blessed me.  About halfway through, I asked a friend how she felt it was going, and she answered, “It isn’t round yet.”  What she meant was, the circle wasn’t closed. The start was good, and she could see the intended trajectory.  But the story of open circleour time together, of the material we were talking about, of what it might mean to her personally, was still open and not quite finished.  It needed some closure to be able to hold it properly.

As I walk with Jesus through the life He has planned for me, I’m learning that He isn’t nearly as uncomfortable with un-roundness as I am. In fact, the discomfort of unfinished things seems to be a primary shaping tool He uses to lovingly heal and grow His children.

Of course, sometimes prayers get answered in the way we want. Lives move forward. Decisions get made and get made well.  People grow and transition to whatever is next.  Progress can be seen.  Joy in the past, in the now and in the potential future is experienced.  Things become round all the time, and will become ultimately so upon His return…all this is cause for great celebration.

But then…there are the dreams that are birthed with the best of intentions, and then get shattered just within grasp.  Disappointment with God’s plans, unanswered questions, the unknown ‘why’ behind a painful ‘what’.  Loss.  Grief.  Shame.  Seasons of life, difficult relationships, wounded people…sometimes they can be like rocks in the middle of a river…instead of moving downstream with the rest of us, life just flows on around them. They are awkwardly stuck in an unfinished place for all to see…and people pass on by, wondering why they can’t move on like everyone else. At least that is how some un-roundness in my life has felt to me.

My experience with life in Europe has been an un-round thing for me for a while now.  Coming to grips with the reality that we will not be able to return in the near future, watching that dream die and seeing that God’s plans for us are different than we thought…I’ve been wrestling with the almost universal mid-life experience of realizing that important external elements of my life are not what I would choose for myself.  At the same time, I’ve been attempting to walk in the very individual experience of realizing that the most important, internal elements of my life are very much within my control. My character.  My responses. My spiritual orientation – towards Him or away from Him. In the face of disappointment, will I become better or bitter? Will I create with what I’m given, or consume?  Will I take responsibility for my own personal/heart growth, and choose a life that is spiritually and emotionally healthy for myself and others…or will I choose to continue the destructive patterns and life strategies that have hurt me and those I love for so long?

Even when we think we don’t have choice, we always have choice.

These are some of the tensions that have been stretching me for a few years now: opening my hands and letting go of good things, so that Jesus can fill them with better things.   Learning how painful a chisel must be to marble, yet what a joy the resulting beauty must be. Embracing the truth that pain can be a fertilizer that grows the most beautiful things in my heart.

When we are stretched…we never go back to our original size.  And now, after walking through a prolonged season of stretching that has lasted years… my trip back to Germany, where so much of my stretching began, has allowed me to see that I am bigger.  My heart is bigger. The Jesus I know is bigger. How He works in my life is bigger. God has allowed me to come full circle, and I am grateful for the relief and release that comes from the closure of it.

At the end of our weekend retreat, my friend let me know that the themes of our weekend did eventually become round.  (As a Bible teacher, that was so great to hear!)  What a gift to me to realize that I did too.

 

Meditations On Loneliness

Sometimes, loneliness is not about the absence of people. I know this because I’ve never lived alone and I’ve still been lonely. I’ve never not been connected to my family, to my surrounding community, either of believers, of neighbors or co-workers, and I’ve still been lonely. I have lived my entire life in the presence of many people, many of whom knew my name and liked me, and I’ve still experienced terrible loneliness. How is it possible to be lonely, butmail never having been alone? While I know some people whose loneliness is a direct result of lack of contact with people, (those who live alone, are housebound, who are new to an area or culture, whose work or geography isolates them, whose life circumstances are tragic, etc) there is another form of it that I am more familiar with. It involves being disconnected. Let me explain.

We all have two worlds – our inner and outer world. The outer is very familiar to us, it is that which is outside of us, which we present to others and which all can see. Our outer world includes our physical selves, what we choose to post on Facebook or social media, our accomplishments, our words, our body language, our conversations, our attendance, our appearances, our choices…etc. It is the part of us that is open for everyone to interact with and see. But it is our inner world that is most truly who we are. In our inner worlds are those parts of us only we and God see – our memories, preferences, emotions, the stories we choose or are not able to share, our dreams, our fears and doubts, our character, our internal monologue, our thoughts about things, events, people…and this is the part of us that we sometimes (often) choose to hide from others for a variety of reasons. Maybe it isn’t safe or we aren’t comfortable with who we are on the inside. Perhaps we’ve figured out that people prefer a different self than who we are, so we pretend to be the preferred person. For some, what is going on inside of us is such a mystery to us (and maybe so powerful as to make us afraid of it) we can’t even explain it to others. Maybe we are ashamed of what is in there.

And so, when we choose to relate to others through our outer world, if it isn’t aligned properly with our inner world, our deepest, truest self, we can feel disconnected. Deeply misunderstood – and how could we not? People are relating to a part of us that isn’t authentically us. Our bodies may be one place, but our hearts are somewhere else.  It is like being very hungry, yet eating potato chips. Or having an itch on your shoulder blade, but your friend scratches your nose. It just doesn’t satisfy. And it can feel kind of awkward. This practice means we can be painfully lonely on the inside, even when our outside has a very full social calendar: because we are trying to connect with the wrong part of us.

This can hurt because…

Disconnection is one of the most painful of human experiences. We are wired for connection. In fact, God said it isn’t good for us to be alone. (Gen. 2:28) Even a cursory reading of scripture and observation of how the world works and how humans thrive indicates we are meant to be in community with each other. We are not solitary creatures. When we are forced into cultural forms and patterns that deny us connection with people, it produces loneliness. And a whole lot of pain.

I sometimes explain to my visiting non-American friends that America is what happens when you get everything you want. We wanted bigger houses, more stuff, bigger yards and privacy. So we bought them with our time and relational bandwidth. We don’t have time or energy for other people anymore. Not the way we were meant to anyway. We rarely live near our friends and family, and we are too busy working and driving to see them significantly. As a result, we are now a very lonely people, sacrificing the daily interaction people historically had with their communities in pursuit of our wants. How else to describe a society that is so affluent and materially blessed with all we could ever want, yet is so depressed, overweight, anxious, fearful of the future, angry and lonely? We are disconnected from each other.  And it hurts.

Disconnection/loneliness has one of its roots in unshared experience. We don’t just want to be connected to anyone. We long to be connected to people who like us, who are like us and who understand us. This means that often, we are looking for those who have similar experiences to us. Yet, how to find those people if our experiences are locked away in our inner worlds and we don’t share them with others? This is a conundrum. And it can become more complicated if we are in pain or experiencing loss (I wrote about this in more detail in Meditations On Grief). Not everyone has lost a parent, has a spouse with a cancer diagnosis, has a chronically sick child, is infertile, has been betrayed by a loved one, etc. We need to find those people we can connect with around our pain. When connecting points are missing, either because we haven’t shared our experiences or because we don’t share the same experiences, we feel alone and lonely as a result.

Disconnection has another of its roots in shame. Shame is the powerful feeling of being unworthy of connection. (Daring Greatly by Brené Brown) We feel that there is something so wrong with us that if someone else knew it, they wouldn’t want to relate to us. The girl who was told, implicitly or explicitly, that it is her body people want, not her. The boy who struggles with a porn addiction he can’t control. The couple whose marriage is in shambles. Abuse victims with tragic stories tucked away in their hearts. While the circumstances are different, we all feel shame. WE ALL FEEL SHAME – which again, is the feeling that if others really knew us and our inner worlds, they wouldn’t want to connect with us. So we hide. We disconnect from the world around us. We become lonely. Gen. 2:25 describes how God intended for mankind to live. It says, “The man and woman were both naked, and they felt no shame.” We were made to be seen and known, with no hiding and no shame. Connected to others. Just a few verses later however, man and woman sinned, are flooded with shame, are now disconnected from God and each other and begin to hide.  We’ve all been lonely ever since.

God has a heart for the lonely. Ps. 68:6 says, “God sets the lonely in families…” God says that He will be with us always. (Jn 14:16, Matt. 28:20, Ps. 23:4) One of the primary things He longs for His children to learn is to abide in Him – to be with Him. (Jn. 15:4) If we can learn this, we will never be alone. He knows our hearts (Ps. 33:15) shares our experiences (Heb. 4:15), knows what it is to be lonely (Matt. 27:46, Matt. 26:40) and frees us from our shame (Rom. 8:1, Ps. 34:5).  He also longs to restore us into healthy relationships and connection with others. (Jn. 13:34-35) God has a heart for the lonely and wants to meet our need with Himself. If we can learn to open ourselves to Him and let Him love us, He is a most satisfying friend. 

But sometimes, we still need friends with skin on. While God indeed is great, and He loves us and wants to be with us, it is still possible to be painfully lonely, even with Him in our lives. Because we are made for connection. With more than just Him. With each other. We’ve been hardwired for it. So, part of relating to Him means we learn to relate to others better. In more healthy ways. We learn to not hide our inner selves from those in our relational circles. To share our experiences and stories, to really and truly listen to the experiences and stories of others and connect around them. To learn our shame is a liar, telling us things about ourselves that aren’t true. To create places for others, if they choose, to lay their shame down in the presence of safe people who love them.  These are most powerful spiritual skills, not often taught and often not learned. We often prefer the spiritual skills of Bible study and prayer, because they are safe in the realm of our outer world – and we can do them alone. But if we can learn to practice the subtle and messy skills of community, they invite us to relate more healthily to others and to God at the same time. They hold the potential to ease our loneliness.

(originally posted on 5/28/13)