Saturday, April 28, 2018

What socialites don’t get about loneliness

Photo by Louis Blythe on Unsplash

At present, given my life is full of people and love, I’m possibly the worst person to write this, but it wasn’t always like this in my life.
There was a time when God drove me long into a grief so lonely I despaired even of the times I had people all around me, for they would so quickly leave my side, and there I was again, by myself, with nothing. It lasted for days enough to fill months for close to a year. But that year grew into three! And even when I was surrounded by people, even loved ones, there was often an isolated ache in my farthest soul — an unfathomable lonesomeness. Here is what I learned.
Having tried everything, all efforts failing,
I became resolved to one thing:
I couldn’t change it.
There is something most of us don’t get about loneliness unless we’ve been there for an extended season. That thing is the powerlessness of it; the unchangeability of it.
Loneliness has been described as every kind of pain all at once.
The socialite doesn’t typically look deeper than their own blessed circumstance; sorting loneliness is about calling someone over, getting into the car, or buying tickets to an event. It’s a problem to be solved. The only things absent from such a life are disempowerment and grief. It’s not their fault, and it’s not ours when life is going swimmingly.
The thing about loneliness we all must recognise
is that it’s never a choice.
It’s not like a lonely person chooses to be this way. The relational logistics of their lives have made it that way, whether by loss or lack of opportunity or by desertion or other sets of circumstances beyond their control, like the structure of their family.
Loneliness is a condition of life beyond the control of the lonely person.
The first thing a person in loneliness would do if they could change one thing is they’d wave a magic wand over their loneliness and banish it. They would give everything else that they had and convert it to love and intimacy and connection.
A major challenge of loneliness is it’s
a condition of life that cannot be readily changed.
If our lives are filled to the brim, even to the point of exhaustion, with love and intimacy and connection it’s very hard to connect with the lack of love and intimacy people experience in their loneliness.
In loneliness, there’s the absence of the right person or people to care sufficiently for us and that’s a scary prospect.
Loneliness is the constancy of fear of realised abandonment.
The hope of the person in their loneliness is the Saviour who is met through an encounter with the risen Jesus, His Presence with them, and ultimately His Presence through others, for loneliness requires practical, bodily, physical solutions.
Hopefully fellow believers’ have the desire not to leave anyone on their own in loneliness.
Socialites have a ministry of getting to know lonely people and finding ways of drawing them out in ways that work for them.

But let’s not misunderstand the point of this article: Loneliness is not a choice to be snapped out of.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The commonest and least common things I hear when listening

Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash
I was at a Christian men’s gathering some time ago, when something happened that happens in my life regularly. An old acquaintance, who is now a mentor to the young and a ministry leader, sidled up to me and did what I always recall him doing; he bragged and boasted and buffooned — all to ‘the glory of God.’
To be sure, nothing about him this day was anything about the glory of God, quite the opposite. How lucky was God that He had such a diligent and gifted servant doing His bidding for Him! Seriously.
And yet this is common place in our age.
Christians telling others how wonderful they are.
We aren’t too wonderful if Jesus needed to die
to save our sorry souls.
I’m a listener. I’d prefer to be the talker (for my own selfish and prideful reasons) but at social occasions it’s as if I have a sticker affixed to my forehead that everyone can read — ‘see this guy: he will listen to you, ad nauseam.’ Some people take a sickening glee in expounding their special worth and deeds so that I can marvel. Perhaps if you’re a listener you can relate — maybe you’ve noticed the same thing. My weakness: I’m much too nice most of the time to challenge them and confront the ugliness of their attitude. (This is something I’m praying on changing.)
Unfortunately, as a listener, I hear those who should know better do what never brings glory to anyone, least of all themselves or God. They enter the buffoonery of bragging and boasting. (Don’t worry, I engage in it too, but fortunately that talk is limited mostly to discussions I have with my wife — poor her!)
Let the words of the prophet Jeremiah ring out:
Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord. (Chapter 9:23-24)
I’ve usually found the person who boasts most takes least responsibility for their mistaken actions — when they’re not being awesome they’re incredibly withdrawn.
The commonest thing I hear when listening is how wonderful the person before me is — singing their own praises. The least common thing I hear, however, is the wonderful person before me singing someone else’s praises.
The best sign that we follow Jesus is that we herald Him and not ourselves. A good sign we’re followers of Christ is that we praise others and not ourselves.
The test of our faith in Jesus in our narcissistic day is how much we talk others up and any of the talk about ourselves down.
Christian: stop boasting of your good deeds and great character. Let others do that, and if our hearts are right, that praise will tempt us to cringe.

DISCLAIMER: more people will read this than I have personal contact with. I want to reassure anyone I do ministry with as mentor, pastor, coach, counsellor or chaplain that this is not about you. I’m not thinking or speaking about YOU. It’s a comment of concern in the context of the general social environment.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Why grief is so interminably complicated

Photo by Ivan Karasev on Unsplash

This is the third and final in a series that emerged in one conversation with my mother and father as we reflected on grief — through it God livened my memory for what grief is.
Grief is not simply one level of loss — there are ripples and variations and ramifications of loss, an effect of multiplicity, in every loss. Have you noticed that, those who read this through experienced eyes?
We don’t just lose our partner, a child, a marriage, a dear friend, a career, our freedom, a livelihood, our reputation, a hope we’ve clung to for years, our identity. That’s what it looks like on the surface.
But loss is much more insidious and invasive than that. Reflect back over the loss that struck you and broke you, and in your grief you will find you also lost friends, had other hopes crushed, felt isolated and were impinged by overwhelming fear, lost your confidence, gave up on life, saw negative shifts occur in your career, and did things you would never do which you cannot undo or explain. You saw people not only turn away from you, they turned on you. If it was the death of a loved one, you possibly lost another person in that period too.
Loss didn’t just happen once,
it kept happening.
Grief involves a series of losses that
compound upon each other
to confuse and confound us.
And yet the best thing about loss is that it does confuse and confound us; from a gospel viewpoint, God gets our attention. It ends badly if all we do (with the little strength we have left) is shake our fist at Him. It ends well, though, when we admit we have less control over life than we thought we had. That’s the call of loss in our lives; that finally we wake up to the fact that without God we’re perishing; with God we stop entertaining harmful fantasies and lies. Truth, when we accept it, begins to set us free… yet I’m getting distracted.
The reason every day is so unpredictable in grief is we lose confidence that our world is stable. We almost come to expect more bad things will happen (which is another lie we should avoid believing).
Our world is unstable because our grief is so complicated. There are jagged shards protruding from all angles of our lives and they threaten to pierce every moment. Life is a powder keg of pain. We don’t know from one moment to the next just what is going to happen within or without. And some of those moments are so tormenting they seem to last an eternity. Hell is slow!
Grief is gravity and uncertainty
and inescapable and tortuous.
Considering the audacity of life to withdraw all favour, grief is the ultimate human challenge that we never expect. It betrays our understanding of life, leaving us in ruins from the inside out. But truly it only betrays the lies we lived in. Grief brings us into fellowship with truth, hard as that is.
Grief is intended to teach. Its intention is to leave us in no uncertainty as to how truly vulnerable we are. And the complexities and complications in grief are needed so we have nothing left but to reach out to God who will save us.

Grief, and ‘what’s wrong with my memory’

Photo by Brittany Gaiser on Unsplash
Loss is truly a state of situation where we don’t just lose someone or something, we lose part of ourselves in the event and ensuing process; the identity goes through deconstruction, and that overhaul, for the fortunate ones, is the genesis of reformation.
One of the greater deficits we find with the sheer stress of it all, are the mental shifts that leave us bereft for an explanation. We can think we’re going mad, dazed in confusion, because our mind plays tricks on us that shatter our confidence.
It’s because within the mind — the conscious mind — there are like seven rooms, with space, for thought, for cognition, for creativity, for attribution, for communication, for problem-solving. The unconscious mind escapes in sleep and carries us off into a fantasy the opposite of nightmares, which is why we cannot face the initial waking moment in grief — when we can wish for anything but consciousness. But it’s the conscious mind that we’re interested in, for the terms of memory.
If there are seven rooms, the notional complete picture of a conscious mind able to perform all the tasks we expect it to, some of those rooms are completely occupied in the stress implicit of grief. Some of them are partially full with a convoluted, confused mix of information designed to confound us easily. (These are the same conditions someone with sleep deprivation experiences.) But all rooms are somewhat affected, and there is less mental efficiency and output overall.
A large part of the problem for those who grieve who are aged is the torment within the thought that is Alzheimer’s disease — the commonest dementia. Sharp and cavernous grief can mimic dementia, at least to persons unqualified to assess it, who fear such a ‘could-it-be’ diagnosis. And we know that there is early onset dementia, so the fact that we can develop it at any age means anyone experiencing the memory deficits outbound of loss can feel threatened — which further exacerbates stress, adding pressure to the already crowded accommodation facility in our mind. Little wonder we can feel confounded.
It’s good to know there’s a reason loss impacts memory during grief, because it explains it; that major stress inhibits the mind. Acknowledging stress helps us know we best go gently, not expecting too much, even anticipating the mental, emotional and spiritual limits we face. Thankfully grief doesn’t limit memory permanently.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Want to be Alone, but hate being by Myself

Photo by Ryan Walton on Unsplash

How paradoxical it can be in the season of loss, to prefer neither of the opposed options — to be with people or to be alone. I know this enigma of being very well, and anyone who’s ever grieved will possibly relate with the state of needing people yet not feeling safe with people.
Here are some thoughts for reflection:
Only now, years hence since my initial mortal wounding, when through it Christ breathed Spirit into my soul, do I look back and truly thank God for the times I invested out of my comfort zone with a few trusted others. I recall being at family events, especially, where everyone ‘got’ where I was at, but they were useless (and felt useless) for knowing what to say or how to engage with me, a normally larger-than-life kind of person, sedated by the loss that wrecked my confidence.
Fortunately, there was one cousin-in-law who somehow met me where I was at. That couple of 15-minute interactions I will never forget. She was just there for me.
If you’re a helper, just be there. You don’t need any special words or skills, just a heart of compassion that is willing to put yourself off for a short time, completely focused on the grieving person in front of you.
Those family events weren’t bad in and of themselves; they were hard because everyone else’s lives were going along normally, and mine had been re-railed through a momentary hell.
When you’re grieving, everywhere you look there are reminders of what you’ve lost. And people draw these out, because there are couples and children and happy people everywhere, or so it seems. The heart loses sight for the things we’re to be thankful for; we know they’re there, but the heart simply cannot feel thankful, apart from fleeting glimpses that tease us into thinking we’re over the grief. Of course, the grief recurs, again and again, ad infinitum!
Then there are the majority of times we’re conscious when we cannot stand being by ourselves. Yet, when all is said and done, and our meetings with others are over, that’s where we find ourselves, again and again, ad infinitum; alone! Sure, we can read our Bibles and encounter God, but in these times of enforced aloneness, even time with God can truly seem overrated, and the suggestion to do same can come across as a platitude. And yet, this is precisely the time when many of us encountered God for the first time by His Presence.
In grief, and this is sad but true, it’s normal to wish to be alone and, at the same time, hate being by ourselves. Find and make time to share with empathetic comforters. These kinds of people love to listen, and won’t find any of what you’ll share boring, repetitive, unreasonable, silly or unkind. They will simply understand.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Grief, a journey misunderstood, walked with few comforters

Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

Someone said to me recently that grief was a journey impossible to understand unless you’ve walked it. Such a wise observation deserves some expounding.
I had no idea there was such a thing as suffering until I was hit by the plank of grief in 2003. It challenged and transformed my worldview. It was a reality that held me in a constant state of shock for months; an aloneness that thrust me into sole dependence on God (thank God!). Very few people truly knew the depths I fell to. But there were many who knew my life circumstances.
I had few comforters, but those I had were all I needed. Not that others’ misunderstanding didn’t frustrate me. But grief taught me…
We cannot expect many to understand the abyss that grief is.
Yet this is such a paralyzingly sorrowful truth for those suffering.
They cannot understand if they’ve not been there. And that is no proud, exclusionary statement — we would give anything for them to understand us, for it is at such times that empathy is the life saver the grieving person craves for, even if there is no answer for our cataclysmic lament.
Empathy truly is a currency for loss…
Empathy is like fine gold.
What we, the grieving, would give for the comfort of speaking
our sorrow to an ardent listener.
How do we love the person who is grieving?
We listen in a way that sees them accepted
in everything they say.
It is a great comfort for someone grieving for the listener to say, ‘I don’t have a clue what you’re experiencing or facing, but I am interested in staying here with you, being with you in simple ways, and truly it is no burden, but a privilege to be here with you and for you (for however long we can).’
Even though grief is a walk where so many we encounter, those we’ve known beforehand, have no clue and express no heartfelt empathy, there are those we encounter who are godsends. The former are those who we expected to help us, and perhaps our expectations were part of our ruin. The latter, however, are those we perhaps knew slightly beforehand, but are now powerhouses of empathy when we need it and have even become intimate friends. The latter are those also who came into our lives, like ancient Esther, for such a time as this.
It is of little comfort to those pilgrims on the lonely trek of loss to reconcile that few will understand. The good thing, however, is those who have grieved understand this loneliness in a profound way. These are sweet and pleasant comforters, kind to the enth degree.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Echoes past of deep calling to Deep

Against the flow of growth, away from the pain of present, and into the pain of past I went. A pain where deep strived to again meet Deep; where deep called to Deep, and Deep answered.
I had to stop from where I was lost, to go back to a time where I’d been truly found; a time where there was nothing if not depth. This kind of season there was nothing else but depth. There was no time nor vision for superficiality. A time like this, fifteen years ago, is what God was calling me back to.
Of course, I resisted. I didn’t want to plunge into my pain. I would’ve preferred a different, easier way. But there was no such alternative. God gave me up to my sins in order that my sins would drive me back into Him. It is God’s way to reconcile us to Himself.
God has shown me a purpose to pain — that He is in the centre of that kind of storm. The Lord showed me my greatest connection of intimacy with Him, ever, was amid my darkest hour.
He showed me afresh that it was then, when I had nothing else in the world, where He was IT, and was all I had left, that He was my all — even as my depth cried out and heard the answer of Depth cry back.
It is only when we’re at our depths that we can hear the cry of God’s Spirit at depth — ‘I love you and I am here with you and will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid.’
Only as I cried out in a lonely pitch-dark shrill, as if feeling I’d been abandoned by God, did I hear God cry back deep in my spirit. That cry of deep crying out to Deep and hearing Deep cry back has never left me.
Isn’t it ironic that Deep cries back to us only when we fall to the depth of Deep?

Sunday, April 15, 2018

For through pain, we heal pain

Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash

There are many realities that make us feel too much in this life. For every problem there is a solution, and where the problem causes pain we opt for a solution that propounds the pain, unless we enter the pain raw within the problem itself. If we take the courage to enter the pain and not run from it, then we enter Jesus there. His Presence is known when we go to the cross.
But, we hate pain.
Rather would we enter a temporary refuge of escape — and the world is full of routes away from God.
God is met more easily than any of us recognise, but we don’t like to encounter Him, because of what we must travel through. To go there we must traverse deathly places where our existence is challenged and where we must jettison our existential cry. To go there is to lose the ego, the self that chooses comfort.
To enter the pain, and to be there in it, is to heal the pain.
Entering the pain with the spiritual tenacity of enquiry is to meet God in the healing of that pain. Suddenly we’re in the very courts of overcoming. It’s liminal space. The idea is that we repel it. It looks and feels and tastes like death, yet it is the very light of life.
Through pain we heal pain, in Jesus’ name. Pain: we find God there.
Pain is the invitation to feel. To feel is to overcome pain.
In the meantime, feel this…
You may not amount to much
in this world’s grand design
but there’s a world coming
where you’re destined to shine
There’s a place made for you
where success is irrelevant
where everyone has merit
whether or not you’ve been benevolent
Come know the true Jesus
that man of the cross
despised by the world
who’s now heaven’s boss
Though you were made to feel empty
immediately you’ll be made whole
this world’s pain Jesus will heal
He will give you back what it stole

Friday, April 13, 2018

The hardest thing about listening

Photo by Anna Vander Stel on Unsplash

As a pastor and counsellor I’ve found what is indispensable is also non-negotiable; that in listening we must denounce the intrusive self.
The intrusive self is never too far away; like the enemy it prowls like a lion.
Our ego and agenda would be painted all over the billboard that is our life if we had anything to do with it. Even as listeners we can be praised as listeners, and some have honed their skills so well that they live off such praise — oh yes, I’ve caught myself in this practice many times. It’s a drug. But like all drugs it masks authenticity, and it robs interactions of what they could be.
Our listening must be more.
The hardest thing about listening is having to consciously put my agenda, ego, opinion and urges to one side. I think I have so much to offer the conversation. But listening is about something more. It offers something else. People don’t ever come to me to be told what to do, even if they think they do. They come to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying, even if they don’t realise it.
The hardest thing about listening is understanding that by listening properly we may have no impact, or worse, the other person may think we gave them less than nothing and even took from them instead. Indeed, we should look to have no impact, then be surprised within ourselves when we do. Having listened, we need to be comfortable that we didn’t meet their needs, even if we have. When we do this we may be surprised how much more focused and effective we are for the other person… isn’t that our aim?
The hardest thing about listening is realising that
our help helps most when it appears to help least.
Put another way, listening involves the vulnerability of autonomous self-sacrifice — not a sacrifice that is veiled in making us look good, but a sacrifice that comes from knowing and accepting, ‘I offer you nothing but my interest in you… plain and simple… not my advice, not my opinion, not my performance, nor my practised and polished benevolence.’ Really what I’m saying is, ‘I offer you my wholehearted mindfulness.’
The practice of listening really isn’t about us at all. If it has anything about us in it, our authenticity is taxed, and the person listened to has been robbed of the sort of attention we could have given them.
Listening involves a mix of lovingly letting go of my stuff and rigorous self-discipline to focus on the other person.
And still, listening is in being so attentive that, if there is anything we share, it is brief and for their benefit.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

What reward for faithfulness?

A common refrain I hear in the pastoral conversations I have is the precise question, ‘What exactly is going to be my reward for sticking this season out?’
It would be easy to say to such people, just toughen up a little, you just need to be obedient, or do you realise what the consequences would be for not doing God’s will? But such seasons of life are tough.
They are. Why otherwise would normally devoted followers of the Lord so willingly consider walking away because bearing their cross is too hard, too long, too difficult. Their vision for endurance, waned. Their purpose, withered. Their passion, stripped.
Blessed is every follower of Christ to have arrived at the place where serious thought for abandoning God is given because we feel so abandoned. Suffering is a painful reality that teaches us what we otherwise could not learn; we don’t have the control over life that we would like to think we have. God causes us to be there for a while. He knows we would not learn otherwise. None of us thinks it’s too short of a time. At the time we think it’s a blight on God, yet afterward we see it was simply a blight on ourselves.
Well, the hard season isn’t centrally about reward. But our heart must know and accept this truth, and none of us can convince another person against their will. And truthfully, it’s only God who can change a heart.
God gives us life —
the challenges, situations and opportunities
 — and it is up to us to experience them all as well as we can.
Faithfulness is about reward, but not the kind of reward we crave. Occasionally faithfulness is rewarded this side of death. Overwhelmingly faithfulness is rewarded on the other side. But we don’t think about that this side. We should! That should be our focus… one hundred years ago, and back through the pages of Christian faith’s long history, eternity was the focus. It’s what the Bible says.
It can seem that faithfulness doesn’t matter these days. That people are prepared to cut and run. But in the long run faithfulness is the only thing that matters. On the final day.

Not even Jesus was rewarded in this life for faithfulness, and His was a life unsullied. What little, then, does reward for faithfulness mean, even if we are forgiven for craving it?

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Finding contentment in a chaotic, confused life

In a season of reflecting over the fiftieth anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s passing, there is a stark image presented by the man himself as he speaks to students from Glenville High School in Cleveland, Ohio, on March 31, 1968 — five days before he was assassinated.
Dr King recounts a story of riding the school bus in the segregation era, having to sit on the back of the bus, the white children sitting at the front. He recalls placing his mind on the front seat and promising himself that his body would be there one day.
That’s a passion unbound by the circumstances with which he was presented. He crystallised this following concept in his being:
“No army can withstand the strength
of an idea whose time has come.” 

― Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885)
Dr King refused to be identified as someone lesser than someone else. He proves the possibility that we, in our minds, can transcend the milieus we find ourselves in. The mind is unimaginably powerful; invincible when it’s indwelt with the thrust of integrity and virtue.
When our mind insists on being held by a vision, no matter how lofty, the heart is encouraged. And when the heart is encouraged, faith, as a process, is inevitable. When faith walks forward with feet adorned with the shoes of courage, it’s the forerunner of an anointed destiny.
If we live a life that is full to the brim to the overflowing, we don’t resent it. Bitterness only spurns a hope that could otherwise be chosen. If pressures fill our lives, we must live as if change will inevitably come. If it is loneliness, we trust it won’t always be that way. If it is grief, we know the sun must rise on some soon horizon. Confusion and chaos may be our present location, but contentment amid such noise assures us of a peace-laden destination.
Contentment begins in the mind resolved to choose hope in the mirage of despair.