Sunday, February 28, 2010


One of my favorite e. e. cummings poems goes like this:




The poem is usually referred to by the title "loneliness" and it's worth pondering a bit to see all that cummings packs into this tiny little creation, the emotion that he communicates in a number of different ways ... I think cummings understood well what God says about you and me, "It is not good for the man to be alone."

There is a huge difference between solitude and loneliness. Jesus was a great advocate of solitude, and the rest of the Bible backs him up. "Be still and know that I am God," declares Psalm 103. Mark 1:35 tells us that "A great while before day, Jesus got up and went to a solitary place where he prayed." Solitude is almost a requirement -- at least sometimes -- for a relationship with God.

But loneliness is different. While solitude can be abundantly full of the presence of God, loneliness is desperately empty. Solitude offers the opportunity for reflection; loneliness drives me to despair. When we seek out solitude, we give God room to work in us. Sitting quiet for a half hour in the mornings, reading my Bible and praying, and sometimes just staring out my window at the pine trees, is a discipline of solitude for me. Leaving the radio off when I'm in the car is another that I practice from time to time. Do you have disciplines of solitude? God will honor these times with his presence.

Yet God can use loneliness also. There is an emptiness in loneliness that allows us -- sometimes forces us -- to face our brokenness, to face our wounds, to face the reality of ourselves in a new way. One of the formative experiences of my life was in 1998 when I graduated from seminary. For graduation, my wife gave me a wonderful gift -- three days alone in the Boundary Waters. I prepared and plotted, rented a solo canoe and chose a route that looked pretty remote. I intentionally didn't bring a novel or any other time-fillers -- I was so looking forward to the solitude. After a hard day's paddle to my first campsite I settled in to enjoy the peace and quiet -- and I was immediately uncomfortable. Nervous. Fidgety. The hours crept by. I got my fishing rod out. I paddled around the lake. I watched a moose. I tracked a bear. Another hour crept by. I began to face a hard truth: without something to do, I was nearly frantic. All the peace and quiet was stressing me out. The isolation I had longed for was killing me. At the bottom line, I had to learn a difficult truth on that trip -- I was not the man I thought I was. I had thought I was all about peace and quiet, that I loved solitude and that I was quite comfortable with myself.


So that trip became an enormous learning experience for me. It was not good for me to be alone. I began to see a lot of my drivenness didn't come from my class demands at seminary, my hectic schedule wasn't something being forced on me from outside. I filled my days because I was afraid to be quiet, afraid to be alone.


Those three days became a defining experience in my life. A few years ago I talked to a friend who spends a lot of solo time in the Boundary Waters and told him about that trip in '98. "You think three days is bad," he chuckled. "Five days is the real crazy time. If you can get past day five you're good up to about ten. But five is really tough." I don't know that I'll have a chance to do a five day solo trip anytime soon, but I'd like to try it. I'd like to plan for solitude -- including some good activities like a novel and a journal and a route that requires me to move from place to place. I'd like to plan that trip as a way to seek God. And I expect that some of it would be uncomfortable and lonely, and that's okay, because God can use that to teach me as well.

I think guys especially struggle with this business of being alone. Most of us have so many walls up that it's easier sometimes to be alone, even if we are lonely. But we want to be alone on our own terms, and come back to rub shoulders with others when we're ready. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, but we need to give God access to our rhythms of together and alone so that he can use our solitude and our loneliness and our togetherness and our community to shape us and to teach us. At the risk of stereotyping, women tend to be hardwired more for relationships. So there are a lot of isolated men hiding behind their walls, involved with lonely women who wish for them to come back into the relationship. But too many men haven't figured out how to invite anyone inside the walls, how to not be alone, even with someone else. Even in a marriage, even in a room full of people, these men are alone, and some of them don't even know it. They just think they're miserable because ... well, just because. Have another beer and try not to think about it.

So we discover again that God knows what he's talking about. It is not good for the man to be alone. There are deep wells to explore in this, but it starts with facing our isolation and seeking God in the solitude.

1 comment:

  1. You hit a sensitive part of my soul with this entry. Although God is slowly working on me in this regard, I must admit to being quite fearful of loneliness. For many years I watched my mom life with the pain of loneliness - an unquenchable ache. I can, at times, feel alone even when in a mob of people. In fact, I'd be willing to state that loneliness can be more painful when other people are around.

    And yes, there is a substantial difference between solitude and loneliness. There are many times when solitude is a blessing, especially when God's Spirit has joined you in said solitude. Sadly perhaps, I have never experienced a positive side to loneliness. Perhaps one more thing that God is still working on in my life.

    Thanks for your timely entry.

    PS: I've almost finished the book "The Hole in Our Gospel" by Richard Stearns. Excellent book, I'll be recommending it on my blog and at my church. Kind of the the anti-loneliness gospel.