Saturday, March 28, 2020

Dealing with loneliness

Months ago I read an article about how loneliness was an epidemic in our society. I needed no convincing. I'd seen it and experienced it. In spite of the crazy mix of social media that promises to facilitate all our relationships, we as a society were feeling more isolated, more alienated.

These days things have changed (how's that for an understatement?), but loneliness is still an incredible challenge for us. In the midst of social distancing, I'm in conversation with dozens of people. I hear over and over again how they're coping with the challenges of quarantine. Often the conversation comes back to some version of loneliness.

For almost three years now, I've been living alone in my cozy cabin. My nearest neighbors are relatively far away, a quarter-mile or more. My days and nights are pretty isolated. While I'm privileged to live in tremendous natural beauty among the oaks and the whitetails on the shore of this little lake, I've wrestled many times over the last few years with loneliness.

Out of that time, here are a few reflections on the benefits of enduring loneliness and how to cope with solitude.

1. Name it for what it is. You may not realize how lonely you are. It's a vulnerable thing to admit, even to ourselves, even during this crisis. You might experience loneliness as a deep sense of hurt, or fear, frantic energy, or even panic. Maybe you're focused on one idealized solution for your loneliness: You just want to go to a ball game, eat out at your favorite restaurant, or embrace that particular loved one. That longing is overpowering. Don't let that fixation cloud the real issue. That preferred solution might not be possible right now, especially in a time of pandemic. If you can name the fact that you're lonely, you can start dealing with the real need in a healthy way.

2. Recognize that your loneliness is the symptom of something good. Even before sin entered this world, according to Genesis, God looked at the man he had made and diagnosed isolation as a dangerous problem. "It is not good for the man to be alone," God said. (See Genesis 2:18.) The fact that you are longing for connection to others says that you are functioning as God intended. You need other people. You need conversation. At some level you need intimacy. This discomfort means your heart is healthy. Think of a teething baby. The baby's discomfort might lead to crabbiness and tears, but it's a symptom of a good thing happening. Your longing for connection means your heart is what God has created it to be. We need relationships.

3. Don't try to be holier than God. I hear so many people say that they just need to be more focused on a relationship with God when they're lonely. It sounds pretty holy, right? But it's not the way God created us. Yes, even in times of loneliness God is there for us. Yes, there's great benefit to spending time with God when you're lonely. But as noted above, God designed us to need other flesh-and-blood people. The Bible makes clear over and over again that a spiritualized connection with God is not enough. We need human community. Take advantage of the church right now. If you have church connections, use them. If you don't have a church yet, this is a fantastic time to discover new connections. Thousands of churches are expanding their online presence in many creative ways. Let those churches speak a word of hope and encouragement into your loneliness. I'm so privileged to be part of The Open Door Christian Church, and we're finding new ways to get online and connect with others. Take advantage. And if you are looking for a way to be connected at a deeper level, please email me. We have lots of new computer-based groups starting up specifically to help people stay connected.

4. That said, be smart about how you connect with God. One of the advantages to times of solitude is that we can pour out our hearts to God. We can be honest about the ache. If you're alone where you are, or if you have car time, don't be afraid to talk out loud to God about how you're feeling. (People used to think you are crazy if you did this, but these days people just think you're on the phone. It's great.) Two places in the Bible I'd suggest you spend time: First, the book of Psalms. It's full of all kinds of authentic, difficult emotions, and alongside those difficult emotions, there is a lot about what it means to have a relationship with God. Second, read the gospels––Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. When you are feeling far from God, it's helpful to connect with God-in-human-flesh in Jesus. Notice how often Jesus retreats into lonely places. Notice how often he intentionally builds relationship with those around him. When you're lonely, bring that loneliness to God and know that Jesus experienced what you're going through. It won't fix the hurt, but it's still a comfort.

5. Reach out to someone. When you're lonely, it might feel like you just need to hunker down and fight through it. Okay, but the best way to fight through it is to reach out to someone else. Phone a friend. While texts and emails are good, there's something about hearing the sound of the voice of a person you care about that is balm for the soul. Rediscover the lost art of phone conversations. Call an at-risk person and check in on them. Take time just to chat. Because you are hurting, and this conversation may not be your first choice, it's tempting just to get morose and stare out the window or stare at the TV screen or stare at the news feed. Roust yourself and initiate a conversation. It won't fix everything, but it will give you a human connection. One of the best ways to deal with the pain of loneliness is to care for someone else.

6. Don't be afraid to stare into the abyss. Loneliness is deep and painful. In the midst of that pain, you might find yourself facing some realities about who you are. It can be really uncomfortable. But it can also be a tremendous time of learning and growing. Let God shine his light on things that you don't want to acknowledge. Face your fears and your weaknesses. If you keep a journal, write about some of these difficult things you're learning. But––and this is important––limit the amount of time you focus on the dark stuff. A half-hour a day is plenty. Force yourself to STOP contemplating the difficult stuff after a while. Depression is a real danger in times of isolation. Consciously turn away from that trajectory when you need to.

7. Let music help you. Music is one of God's greatest gifts at all times, but especially now. The right music can help you in every step of dealing with loneliness. Don't be afraid to have a happy playlist that is just lighthearted and fun. Because of my sense of humor, one song on this playlist for me during this pandemic is the Georgia Satellites, "Keep Your Hands To Yourself." It makes me laugh every time as I think about all of us struggling with social distancing. (When you're lonely, laughter is like Popeye's spinach.) You can have another playlist that helps you with staring into the abyss (#6 above). Not long ago I invested time listening to Bach's B Minor Mass. I guarantee if you have any openness to classical music, that one will move you and call you into the depths. Another musical friend that will help you through the loneliness is a focused worship playlist. One of the songs on my worship playlist lately is "New Wine" by Hillsong. This was recommended to me by a friend not long ago, and it's a powerful word in these challenging times. I've noticed lately that live versions like this one carry a comforting sense of being together with a crowd right now. Take advantage of that.

Loneliness is hard, but it's not insurmountable. If you're wrestling with loneliness in these days, I guarantee you God is using this time for good in your life. Don't be afraid to need people and to reach out. Don't be afraid to ask God what he's doing in all this. Don't be afraid to laugh. We need each other.

Friday, March 20, 2020

It's not unprecedented. There are lessons to learn.

I keep hearing the word "unprecedented" these days. Usually, it's someone who is reporting on the COVID-19 situation. I hear it most often from people (think government officials) in some position of responsibility who are floundering a bit with how, exactly, they should be responding. Often they use the word "unprecedented" to prevent or respond to criticism.

I get it. We all feel like the script just got thrown out and we are making things up as we go along. Improvising. It's uncomfortable.

But this situation is far from unprecedented. It's just unprecedented in our lifetimes, or in the lifetimes of the last few generations. A few examples of precedents:

1. The Spanish Flu. The flu epidemic of 1918 had significant differences from this pandemic. However, there were huge similarities as well. Trouble is, very few people today can speak from personal experience to that outbreak and the social consequences we experienced. Fear, social distancing, and radical changes in the way society operated were part of that epidemic as well.

A lesson to learn: Most of what we are hearing about social distancing, hygiene, and sheltering in place comes from hard lessons we didn't seem to learn quickly enough in 1918. The Biggest Lesson to Learn seems to be that we should take these measures very, very seriously.

2. In the 1400s, the Bubonic Plague devastated Europe. Estimates are that a third of the population of Europe died. Social structures, economic structures, political structures, religious structures... all were severely impacted. This pandemic is NOT the same as the plague, thank God, and I'm not saying we should jump to a place of despair or fear. Still, we can learn from what people endured at that time.

A lesson to learn: Much of what we now know about disease transmission grew out of the Black Death of the 1400s. This crisis will increase our knowledge base, without a doubt. Of course, the dark underside of this lesson is that we will feel the discomfort that comes with new learning. For what it's worth, this is why so many people are criticizing the government, CDC, hospitals, big pharma, or whatever for being under-prepared. We hate being uncomfortable. However, it's the necessary companion to expanding our knowledge base.

3. In the early centuries of Christianity's development, one action that set Christians apart from their neighbors is highly significant: When disease struck a city, most people fled (if they could) to the country. It was their version of social distancing. Christians, on the other hand, stayed in the city and cared for the sick. True, some of those Christians became sick and even died. But most survived, in large part because they had networks of people caring for one another. And a much higher percentage of those they cared for survived because they received even the most basic nursing care. (Michael Green did a great job documenting this in his excellent book The Rise of Christianity.)

A lesson to learn: This is perhaps the most important lesson for today. Here it is: Within the realms of wisdom and medical necessity, care for people. How? Well, you could start by calling people who might be in need of help. Then expand that to people who are likely lonely or afraid. Be a voice of compassion and reassurance. Call a teacher who had the end of their school year yanked out from under them and ask how they're doing. Call someone who is wheelchair-bound and worries about their respiratory system being compromised in the best of winters. Chat with them. Pray over the phone with them. The simple rule of thumb: When someone crosses your mind, call/text/email them.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Taking the temperature of the morning

Eastern horizon getting brighter.
You can distinguish trees from grass from buildings.
Chickadees sing their two-note greeting, over and over.
Doe and three fawns browsing calmly through the meadow.
Red squirrel nosing around under the bird feeder.

They seem to think the world is going on as usual.
And it's a good place.
Not safe, or perfect. But good.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Weekend with the guys

I've got some company staying over at the cabin this weekend. Two fathers and their sons, long-time friends, will hang out, eat lots of excellent food, watch some movies, and probably work on a project to benefit Decision Hills. I expect prodigious amounts of laughter, some deep conversations, and a great deal of joy. It's good to have friends.

Thinking back, I'm deeply grateful for these men. We have been in and out of each others' homes countless times. We've all leaned on each other through intense trials. In the decade and a half we've been close, I can't begin to count the times one of us has provided a listening ear or a desperately needed hug for one of the others.

And the sons have grown up in that context of vibrant friendship. They're each figuring out their own way in the world these days, of course. But you can tell when you spend time with them that they've been deeply shaped by living in Jesus-focused community. Not just that, but in that Jesus-focused community, their fathers were deeply invested in the lives of others. Their fathers talked about faith and relationships. Their fathers intentionally came alongside them and invested in them. That makes a huge difference in the lives of young men.

Plus rumor has it that there will be a skid-steer, multiple chainsaws, at least one major bonfire, a vat of pheasant chili, wild rice brats, and a slab of salmon that just won't quit. I think it's going to be a great weekend.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Post-conference slide, or not?

I had the privilege last week of attending the Exponential Conference in Orlando, Florida with three of our leaders from The Open Door. It was a week full of excellent speakers, vibrant worship, and intense conversations. We rolled back into the tundra last night just before bedtime, and I know I've got a lot to process in the coming days.

The danger, of course, after an experience like this is that you can just let it all slide. Life fades back to normal and you ease back into the same ruts. I suppose that's true of any life-changing experience. The medical crisis passes, the passionate relationship ends, the mountaintop vacation comes to a close, and life simply slides back into what used to be normal.

The question is, how badly do we want things to change? Do we want things to be different enough that we're willing to endure the pain of change? By definition, change requires pain. We don't often think of that. Change means disruption. It's difficult. Most of the time, it's just easier to drift unintentionally back into being small.

Last week I had the privilege, on a professional level, of glimpsing what is possible. Our team spent several intense conversations hashing out the realities of moving toward that target in practical terms.

On a personal level, God graciously confronted me with some clear pictures of where I am and where I've been living. Am I willing to make the changes it will take to live differently? Am I willing to confront a more painful reality? The benefit is that I can start to live more intentionally. I can let go of some dreams and take hold of others. Am I ready? Is 2020, in fact, the year to live into a clear vision?

That's the work that comes after the mountaintop. That's the valley in which we are beaten into shape to receive the vision, in Oswald Chambers' words.

So this morning, I'm making concrete plans about how to implement what I've heard and seen. I'm doing my best to let go of the past and grab hold of the changes.

I'll keep you posted.