Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Purpose of Loneliness

A study by the American Council of Life Insurance reported that the most lonely group in America are college students. That surprised me when I read that! Next on the list are divorced people, welfare recipients, single mothers, rural students, housewives, and the elderly.

Loneliness is a growing problem in our society. To point out how lonely people can be, there was a man who placed an ad in a Kansas newspaper. That’s not to say that people in Kansas are lonelier than anywhere else; it just happens to be where the ad was placed. It read: “I will listen to you talk for 30 minutes without comment, for $5.00.” Sound like a hoax, right? But he was serious! In fact, it wasn’t long before he was receiving 10 to 20 calls a day, and I’m sure that some were probably repeat callers! The pain of loneliness was so sharp and so deep that some people were willing to try anything for a half hour of companionship!

Loneliness is one of the most common of human feelings. It is also one that most of us will fiercely deny having. That’s because to most people, to be lonely means you must be doing something wrong, or something must be wrong with you.

But loneliness is not the same as being alone. The key difference between the two is how we perceive our situation. In the movie “Cast Away” Tom Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a Fed-Ex executive whose plane crash-lands in the South Pacific. He ends up stranded on a remote island with no other human being around. Eventually Fed-Ex packages from the plane wash up on shore – someone’s divorce papers, a pair of ice skates, a party dress, a few videos, a volleyball … A few days later Chuck cuts his hand during a failed attempt to make a fire, and out of frustration throws the volleyball, leaving a bloody palm print on it. After he calms down and bandages his hand, he notices that the handprint looks kind of like a head with long spikey hair. He draws a face on the handprint and names the volleyball “Wilson,” the brand name that is imprinted on the volleyball. The package that had washed onto shore now has a face and a name. And Chuck Noland now had a companion. Even though he was alone, he was no longer lonely.

On the other hand, you can be in a crowd of people and not have a sense of connection. I remember a number of years ago being at a concert for a singer whose music I really enjoyed. It was a sold-out concert, but somehow a friend had a pair of tickets because someone couldn’t go at the last minute, so my husband Jim and I were able to go, and we were really excited to be there. As the show progressed, the fans in the arena all shared a sense of connection with each other – we were all there for a common purpose: to enjoy the live performance. Suddenly I made an observation: many of the songs were sad. A few were intended to be sad and reflective. But even in the upbeat, happy songs somehow had a twinge of sadness to them. Suddenly I lost the connection with the singer and the others around me. I felt like I was the only one who noticed. Even though nothing had changed about the performer, and nothing had changed about the people around me, my perception had. I went from fulfillment to loneliness … *snap* just like that.

Jesus himself felt the sting of loneliness at a time we might think that he had everything going for him. At his baptism in the river and heard his Father proclaim, “You are my Son, whom I love; with You I am well pleased.” What happened next seems curious … He was led by the Spirit, but not to start his ministry right away. Jesus was led to the desert for 40 days. Think about it for a minute … Here’s Jesus, who has spent the past 30 years with his family and being part of the community, being led by the Spirit to the isolation of the desert wilderness for nearly six weeks! I’d venture to say that it didn’t take more than a couple of days before he felt lonely for human companionship. I don’t think I’d last more than a few hours. But Jesus was not alone. Satan was also there, tempting Jesus, trying to break him any way he could.

Loneliness in and of itself is not sinful. But left unchecked it can drive us to making a host of wrong choices to fill the void from our disconnectedness – behaviors such as drinking, addictions, unhealthy relationships, even suicide.

Clayton Longtree was lonely in Moscow. The weather was dreary, the Marine barracks were dirty, old, and cold, and he didn't get much mail. Though guard duty at the U.S. embassy was a trusted position of honor, his work was often dull and exhausting; it was a ceremonial job with little action. In letters home he doodled U.S. planes dropping bombs on Red Square; he tried writing to an old girlfriend, only to learn she had married someone else.
It was when Clayton met Violetta in the fall of 1985 that life in Moscow began to brighten. She was tall, fair-skinned, and beautiful, and she was a translator at the embassy. Clayton had been warned about fraternizing with Soviets, but he had seen enough friends and superiors date Russian women that he felt comfortable doing the same. He and Violetta took long walks in the park, had tea, and even managed to be alone a few times in her apartment.

Violetta introduced Clayton to her "Uncle Sasha," who peppered him with questions about his life in the United States, his political views, life in Moscow, and life in the embassy. Clayton enjoyed the older man's interest. Then one day Sasha pulled a prepared list of detailed questions from his pocket -- and Clayton finally realized that Violetta's "Uncle" worked for the KGB.

But Clayton kept meeting with Violetta, and with Sasha. He began making excuses to his superiors, and using elaborate techniques to make sure he wasn't being followed when he met with his Russian friends. Life became more interesting -- more like the spy novels Clayton loved to read.

After he had been seeing Violetta for six months, Clayton's Moscow tour came to a close. He asked to be reassigned to guard duty at the U.S. embassy in Vienna... Clayton Lonetree was lonely in Vienna. But soon Uncle Sasha arrived, bearing photographs and a letter from Violetta. As he watched the young Marine excitedly rip open the package, Sasha knew Clayton was ready for something more than talk. The first item Clayton delivered to the KGB agent was an old embassy phone book. Next came a map of the embassy interior, for which Clayton received $1,800. He used $1,000 of it to buy Violetta a handmade Viennese gown. Then came three photographs of embassy employees thought to be CIA agents, and another $1,800 payment.

Sasha proposed an undercover trip back to Moscow, where Clayton could at last visit Violetta -- and receive KGB training. Clayton arranged for vacation leave from the embassy. But now he began to get nervous. He started to drink more; he lay awake nights trying to think of a way out of the KGB web. He hadn't realized that when he traded the trust of his nation for sex and cash, he traded his soul as well.

So in December 1986, Clayton tried to trade it back. At a Christmas party he approached the Vienna CIA chief, a man whose real identity he would not have known except that Uncle Sasha had pointed him out earlier. "I'm in something over my head," he said.
The confession begun that evening ended in August, 1987 when Clayton Lonetree was found guilty on all charges of espionage. Today he sits in a military prison cell, a thirty- year sentence stretching before him.

God does not use loneliness to keep us from Him. He uses it to draw us closer to Him. In the First book of Kings we find the story of the prophet Elijah. For those who are not familiar with Elijah’s story, I’ll give you a brief overview.

Our story begins in 1Kings 16. Ahab was king of Israel, and verse 19 tells us that “Ahab did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.” He worshiped the god Baal, which of course made the God of Israel pretty mad at Ahab and the people of Israel. The Lord sent prophets to tell Ahab that he needed to change his ways, but Ahab and his queen Jezebel had all the prophets killed – except for Elijah. Being the only remaining “opposing” prophet, Ahab and Jezebel had Elijah hunted down like Buggs Bunny in rabbit season. Elijah eventually meets up with Obadiah, a follower of the Lord who happened to work for Ahab, and tells Obadiah to have the king, 450 of the prophets of Baal, and all the people to meet him at Mount Carmel.

So, everyone meets at Mount Carmel, and Elijah challenges Ahab and Baal’s prophets to a showdown: You prepare a sacrifice to Baal, and I’ll prepare one to the Lord. Whichever God starts the fire from heaven, is the true God. Ahab, I’ll let you and your 450 prophets go first.

Of course, nothing happens from Baal, God lights the fire, the people of Israel are in awe, and the 450 prophets of Baal end up getting slaughtered. Queen Jezebel didn’t take very kindly to that, and vows to have Elijah killed by this time tomorrow. And Elijah goes into hiding, barely escaping with his life.

For six weeks Elijah hid, knowing that anyone who recognized would turn him over to Ahab to be killed. It was during this deep solitary experience that God prepared Elijah to hear his voice. We pick up the story in our Scripture reading from this morning:

1Kings 19:9-13
And the word of the LORD came to him: "What are you doing here, Elijah?"
10 He replied, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too."
11 The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by."
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Elijah had to quiet himself, quiet his thoughts, quiet his fear, to hear God in the gentle whisper. It was not long after that when God brought others along side of Elijah, to encourage him, to walk with him, to persevere.

God created us to be intimately connected with Him and with other people. Yet we often feel cut-off from Him and from those around us. So let’s look at some ways that we can reconnect, or help someone else to reconnect:

1. Acknowledge your feelings. Even though loneliness is something we all go through, it is not a sign of weakness, and it is not intended to be permanent. Slow down from your own busy-ness, confess your loneliness to God, and listen for His voice in the “gentle whisper.”

2. Reconcile yourself to God. As we have seen, loneliness can motivate people to do things they would normally not do. Many feel trapped because they have not received the forgiveness offered by Jesus. In the story of the Prodigal Son, the son expected at best a reluctant acceptance from his father, but that was not the case. He was welcomed like a long-expected guest of honor! Friends, that is how God receives us when we reconcile with Him. It isn’t until someone reconnects with the Father through Jesus Christ that they will truly overcome their loneliness.

3. Remember the promises of God. Many times in the Bible God reminds of us His promise that He will be with us:

Psalm 23:4 – God is with us, even in the valley of the shadow of death.

John 15:4 – Jesus abides in us, helping us to bear fruit

Hebrews 13:5 – God will never leave us.

Paul writes to the church of Rome (Romans 8:38-39) – For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And when God’s presence seems to be far from us, God tells us in Jeremiah 29:13 that if we seek him we will find him, if we search with all our heart.

4. Not only is he faithful time and time again to be with us, God will bring others to walk alongside of you, in ways that you don’t expect. Yet, if we are not open to receiving the unexpected from God, we can end up pushing people away and become more cut off from others. Develop relationships with godly people – people who you can laugh with, pray with, cry with, confide in; people who “get” you and give you a sense that you are valued. Minimize your ungodly relationships, because in the end they can make your loneliness worse.

5. And finally, Refocus your attention. Take your eyes off your own situation and look for ways to connect with someone to be a blessing to them. Last Sunday we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What better blessing can you give someone than to share the message of the Gospel, and the bookmark in your bulletin is a great way to help someone to reconcile with God.

Chuck Noland had resigned himself to spending the rest of his life on the island, until one day a sheet of plastic from a port-a-potty had been washed ashore. Chuck used the plastic as a sail for a raft and was eventually rescued at sea. In a quiet conversation with a friend a few weeks after his return to Memphis, he shares this about his island experience: “I knew, somehow, that I had to stay alive. Somehow. I had to keep breathing. Even though there was no reason to hope. And all my logic said that I would never see (Memphis) again. So that's what I did. I stayed alive. I kept breathing. And one day my logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in, and gave me a sail. And now, here I am. I'm back. In Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass... And I've lost her all over again. I'm so sad that I don't have Kelly. But I'm so grateful that she was with me on that island. And I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?”

God uses loneliness to get our attention, to draw us closer to him. Quiet yourself to hear him in the gentle whisper. Be open to the unexpected ways he tries to reach us and be reconciled with us. Reach out to those you know who are lonely. Extend a hand to someone in need.

For, Tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the Lord could bring?

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