How are you feeling? No seriously. How are you holding up in the midst of everything that’s going on these days? It’s pretty quiet at our house, most of the time. Like a lot of you, Pam and I have been hunkered down at home for months. There’s not a lot of noise and confusion going on at our place. Apart from when the grounds people come around to cut the grass every week, mostly it’s pretty quiet. But I wouldn’t call it a peaceful quiet.
Part of the problem, I know, is that I’m trying to stay in touch with what’s going on out in the world. This week alone, I’ve gotten daily updates on the pandemic. I’ve followed the questions about schools opening, or not. I’ve read about all the politics as we approach November’s election, the well-deserved tributes to congressman John Lewis and the upheavals of protests for social justice. The world is anything but peaceful right now, and I know that when I allow myself to “take in” all this chaos, I’m not just taking in the information, I’m taking in the turbulence, uncertainty and anxiety right along with it. One article I read yesterday was about Hurricane Isaias “Churning toward Florida.” Yeah. Churning. That’s a good word for how all this feels right now.
The story I opened with, about Jesus feeding all the people with just 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, is very interesting in this context. This story, to me, is really about the tension between two different theologies. Jesus recognized that the people were hungry, and he instructed his disciples to feed them. The disciples looked at the crowd, looked at the food they had, and said, “there’s not enough to go around.” Jesus, looked at the crowd, sat them all down and fed them. Not only was there enough to go around, what they had left over was far more than they thought they had to begin with. So, the clash of the two theologies in this story goes like this. The disciples were operating out of a theology of scarcity, but what Jesus had was a theology of abundance. Scarcity is always about the fear that there will not be enough to go around. Abundance is the faith that, in God’s grace, there will always be plenty.
If you think about all those news stories I was just mentioning, it might be interesting to ask yourself a question. How much of what’s going on in the world is driven by a theology of scarcity? There’s not enough “whatever” to go around, so I better get mine while I can and too bad for all those who don’t get theirs. Well gee, I think we could fit a lot of things into that “whatever.” There’s not enough money to go around. There’s not enough healthcare, enough food, or fresh water, education, fair treatment, power, you name it. Scarcity is a zero sum game, which means that it’s all about winners and losers. The only way for me to get more is for you to get less. The disciples could have had a pretty good meal on seven loaves of bread and two fish if they had kept it all for themselves. But that’s not what Jesus wanted.
And just to be clear, I’m not talking about socialism versus capitalism here. Capitalism is not inherently greedy any more than socialism is inherently generous. They both depend on the good or bad intentions of the people in charge. It is entirely possible to become wrapped up in a scarcity model regardless of what your political or economic philosophy might be. The bottom line is, for those who are truly driven by a theology of scarcity, no matter how much or how little they might have, nothing is ever enough.
Now, when I started into this sermon, I had in mind that it was going to go in a very different direction: loneliness. That happens sometimes. As it says in John’s gospel, the wind of the Spirit blows where it chooses. That’s not always convenient if you’re a preacher. Originally, I was impressed by the fact that, in this morning’s passage, Jesus was looking for some alone time in the midst of his ministry. He had just learned that his friend John the Baptist had been beheaded by King Herod. He was grieving. He “withdrew to a deserted place” to be by himself. But the crowd followed him, and owing to his compassion, he put aside his own needs and tended to the people, teaching, healing and, eventually, feeding. Then finally, after the day was over and the crowds were gone, he was able to be alone for a while. Right in the midst of his needing to get away, this story looms up about scarcity and abundance.
Of course, we can all understand that need to be alone sometimes, but what strikes me is that a lot of us have had way more alone time recently than we’re used to. We are social creatures. We were born that way. We evolved that way. We don’t do very well when we’re alone too much, and loneliness is a big part of what has made our current pandemic so hard to take. Some of us have been feeling a scarcity of community, and that’s not a comfortable place to be.
I once read a book that had a lot to say about loneliness. It’s called “Soul Prints” by Marc Gafni. Gafni talks about loneliness and the profound impact it can have in our lives. He begins the book by telling a story of a time when he was on a speaking tour, flying around the country. He found himself alone in a hotel room in Denver one evening. There had been a mix-up at the airport, which meant that the books he usually carried with him had missed the flight. This was in the days before Kindle, or computers for that matter. So, with no interest in television and nothing else to read, he opened up the drawer by the bed and pulled out the Gideon Bible he knew would be there. This is how he tells the story:
At the front, I was surprised to see a detailed index of how to use this Bible. If you’re depressed, read Psalm 19, it said. If you’re drunk, read Psalm 38. If you’re feeling lonely, read Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” the famous psalm begins. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. . . .” I read the psalm, he said, slowly, carefully, yet I have to admit I still felt lonely when I finished. Just as I was about to close the book, I saw a note scrawled at the bottom of the page. “If you’re still lonely, call Lola.”
He went on to say that after he had recovered from laughing, he had “one of those magic moments of grace where everything makes sense in a new way. He wrote…
I realized that to a large extent what drives me, and I think what drives all of us, is a desire to move from loneliness to connection, from loneliness to loving.”
That’s a great insight, I would say. Of course, loneliness isn’t solved very well by the kind of loving you’re likely to get from someone named Lola in a cheap motel room. But the point is that at a very deep level, we’re all driven by loneliness. It is built into our genes.
Gafni talks about how the opening chapter of the Bible makes this point beautifully. We all know that the Genesis creation story begins with the world being “without form and void.” “Darkness was upon the face of the deep.” And out of the darkness, over the course of a cosmic week, God brings into creation one thing after another. And at the end of each day God pronounces it all good. It was good. “God saw the creation that he had made and behold, it was very good.”
But then we go on to chapter two, and for the first time (not only the first time in the Bible, but the first time in all creation) for the first time, something is not good. “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone….” As far as our humanity is concerned, according to the wisdom of our scriptures, the fundamental “not-goodness” of creation is loneliness. Isn’t that interesting? As Gafni put it…
“As long as the human being is lonely, all of the good of creation cannot sate him. As long as the human being has no one with whom to share her experiences, as long as the human being feels alienated, separate from and empty, then all of the objective goods of the universe will be irrelevant. That is the experience of loneliness – to feel apart from, severed from, alienated, and empty.”
In my own experience, reflecting back on my life, I’ve probably never felt more alone than I did during the four years I was in the Coast Guard. I was a sheltered child, and my time in the military was a bit of a rude awakening. One particular memory that sticks in my mind comes from the time I was stationed in Virginia. I had a weekend off, and I was traveling around all by myself trying to get the lay of the land. I found myself up on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Those of you who been there know that it is an absolutely glorious place to be. I remember pulling off at one of the little turnout areas so I could get a good look at the scenery, the hills going off in all directions. I got out of the car and stood at the railing. I was staring out at all this beauty and I remember very clearly thinking, “if only I had someone to share this experience with.” That’s the feeling of loneliness. We do not do well in isolation from one another.
Obviously though, we have to make a distinction here. The original Hebrew word in the Bible that we translate as “alone” is levado. But Levado is not so much about being physically alone, it’s more about being alone emotionally. When the Bible says it’s not good for people to be alone, a better translation would be that it’s not good for us to be lonely.
Being alone is sometimes a very good thing. Jesus often sought out aloneness to deal with the pressures of his life. There were times when the crowds became so overwhelming, so demanding of his time, his energy, his healing ministry and his connection to the Spirit of God that he just had to take himself off alone to recharge his batteries. But there isn’t any suggestion in these stories of Jesus that his time alone was necessarily a lonely time. It is entirely possible to be alone with God and not be lonely at all. Though we often think of the two as more or less the same, being alone and being lonely are very different.
Over the last couple of years though, I keep noticing articles about how dangerous, even life-threatening loneliness can be. I remember one article posted on a website called Live Science which went by the title, “Loneliness Breeds Belief in the Supernatural.” Heavens. They seem to think that’s a bad thing. Anyway, part of the article had this to say:
Humans have evolved as social creatures, so loneliness cuts to the quick. Living in groups was critical to the survival and safety of our ancient ancestors, and “complete isolation or ostracism has been tantamount to a death sentence.” This was from University of Chicago researcher Nicholas Epley, who led the study.
More recently, studies have continued to show that people who experience a lot of loneliness are at higher risk for disease and premature death. Loneliness is serious business. If we put it in the terms of my earlier comments, loneliness is often one of the things that drives a theology of scarcity. When we’re alone too much, it’s easy to begin feeling like there will never be enough human contact in our lives.
But loneliness can also be the necessary starting point on our journey toward loving and connection. That’s the conclusion Gafni comes to. There’s a section in his book on the gifts of loneliness, learning from loneliness. Basically, what he says is that loneliness is not a good place for us to be except that it teaches us how important it is to set our lives up in ways that are loving and socially connected so that loneliness doesn’t come to dominate our lives. It may not be good for people to be lonely, but when we are, it can be a powerful motivation for us to seek out the friendship and fellowship we need in order to live full and rich lives.
And as true as that is in normal times, it is especially true in the midst of a pandemic that has a multitude of people spending way more time alone than they are used to. That’s why we’ve been trying to focus on maintaining connections in the best ways we can lately. Through phone calls, online gatherings and programs that help us all stay connected. Much as we love our building, we are learning, at a whole new level, that the church is the people. The church is you, and me, and all of us together. I hope—if you find yourself sinking into loneliness while we are in this forced separation from one another—I hope you will reach out, pick up the phone, let us help. It’s good for all of us, that we do everything we can to stay in touch.
In closing, there’s a story I really love that brings all this together for me. It’s about a man named John Fawcett, who wrote the words to the song, “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.” He was a pastor over in Great Britain at the turn of the 19th century. He had been serving a small, rural Baptist church near Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire for a number of years and he loved the people and loved the community that he served. But he found it almost impossible to support his wife and family on the tiny stipend the church could afford to pay him. One day he got an invitation to lead a large, prestigious church in London. He decided that for the sake of his family he just couldn’t pass up the opportunity. So he announced to the congregation that he’d be leaving them.
Of course, back then, leaving for the city was a matter of packing up all his worldly goods into a wagon and hitching up the team. While he was doing all that, his entire congregation gathered round to see him off. They stood in tears and begged him not to go, and after a time he decided that was the voice of God calling him to stay in that rural community church, which he did; for the rest of his life. And out of that experience he wrote these beautiful words.”
Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.
Before our father’s throne we pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, our comforts and our cares.
We share each other’s woes, each other’s burdens bear,
And often for each other flows the sympathizing tear.
When we are called to part it gives us inward pain,
But we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again.
That is about the most beautiful expression of Christian fellowship I can imagine; sharing one another’s burdens, being kindred in fellowship, ministry and worship. During this time of pandemic, while we are separated from one another, I hope that you take this story to heart. I hope we can all learn from our loneliness, how critically important Christian Fellowship is. And I hope, that through the experience of the wholeness we find in our fellowship, we can truly embrace a theology of God’s abundance. When we trust in God, there will always be enough, and more than enough.