January 31, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
I Samuel 17:55 – 18:5
The fourth in a series of five.
There aren’t many things that embarrass us any more. We’ve had a President of the United States admit to sex with an intern. We’ve had an Olympic athlete who won a gold medal as a man and doesn’t mind talking about living now as a woman. We’ve had a “black” civil rights activist go on national television to explain why she’s been lying for years about her race. We’ve had the anchor of NBC Nightly News acknowledge that the stories he had reported had sometimes been just that. Stories.
It used to be that we would be shocked to learn that some famous person had an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, or an addiction problem, or a run-in with the law. It doesn’t shock us any more. Our embarrassment threshold is a lot higher than it used to be. But there is still one admission that no one wants to make. This one is just too shameful. This one we would go to any length to keep to ourselves. When Marla Paul confessed to this in a newspaper column she was secretly hoping no one would read it. What was this horrible confession that she was making? She going public with the truth that she was lonely.
Loneliness might be our last great taboo. It’s a horrible thing to live with it and even more horrible to admit to it. It’s the affliction of loners and misfits. But, let’s be honest. It’s also the affliction of respectable people. Like you and me.
We are continuing today our series on small groups. We’ve talked about what they are and why they are important. Last week we even talked about why they might not be all that great. Today we’re going back to the reason all human beings need to be in some kind of a group. Because at our core, we are all lonely.
Marla Paul was brave enough to admit that about herself in a newspaper column. She is a free-lance writer who lives in Chicago and works at home. Her husband was out of town for a few days, leaving her alone with their six-year-old daughter. She was staring at her blank computer screen, suffering from a bad case of writer’s block, when suddenly an overwhelming wave of loneliness swept over her. She’d left friends behind when she moved to Chicago. Working at home made it harder to make new friends. But even when she left home and made a sincere effort to reach out to others, no one seemed interested. Every woman she met seemed to have her friendship quota already filled and was no longer accepting new applicants.
Rather than wallow in self-pity, her fingers began to find the keys to tell her story about what it feels like to be lonely. “The loneliness is familiar and it saddens me,” she wrote. “How did it happen that I could be 42 years old and not have enough friends?”
She wondered, “Is it me?” Or are people just too busy for new friends? Are they so enmeshed in existing relationships that there isn’t room for any more? “Or”, she writes, “am I just imagining that everyone else has this tight coterie of fellowship except me?”
She ended with this:
I think there are women out there who don’t know how lonely they are. It’s easy enough to fill up the day with work and family. But no matter how much I enjoy my job and love my husband and child, they are not enough. I recently read my daughter Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling. I felt an immediate kinship with this bird who flies from place to place looking for the creatures with whom he belongs. He eventually finds them. I hope I do, too.
“The Chicago Tribune” bought her story and published it. Then a surprising thing happened. The newspaper was flooded with people responding to what Marla Paul had written. They saw themselves in her column. Lonely people in great numbers were making their voices heard. They were saying, “That’s me!”
It was mainly women, which shouldn’t be surprising. Marla Paul is a woman and she was writing about a unique form of loneliness that would be most familiar to other women. But don’t think this is just a women’s thing. We men are notorious for our friendships that are a mile wide and an inch deep. We are the ones who are so good at deep intimate conversations about who’s going to win the Super Bowl but who can’t seem to get the words out to talk about what we really care about deep inside.
There’s a book called Men: A Book for Women. That’s where I found this “Creed for Real Men”:
He shall not cry.
He shall not display weakness.
He shall not need affection or gentleness or warmth.
He shall comfort, but not desire comforting.
He shall be needed, but not need.
He shall touch, but not be touched.
He shall be steel, not flesh.
He shall be inviolate in his manhood.
And he shall stand alone.
Let’s be honest, men. We hear this and we know it’s not serious. It’s a caricature. It’s making fun of how macho we men like to think we are. But let’s be honest. Don’t we still try to live by this creed? As ridiculous as we know that is. It’s the way we were raised. It’s the way we’ve been culturally conditioned. And it sure makes it hard to have any really close friends. Most women have more close friends than most men. That doesn’t mean men need close friendships any less. And that doesn’t take away from the deep inner loneliness many men feel, but would never, ever admit.
Marla Paul wrote about her daughter’s first new friend when they had barely moved into their new home in Chicago. “Can she come over and play?” Of course she could. And Marla got her hopes up when the little girl’s mom walked her over to their front door. “A new friend for me, too!” she thought. Wrong. The mom had no time to spare. It was all she could do to breathlessly get out the words, “Hi, when should I pick her up?” Then she was gone in a flash.
I read that and I saw myself. I like to keep my conversations short and efficient. I’m too busy to take a lot of time to get to know people and to let them get to know me.
I wrote in our newsletter last October about one of my best clergy friends, Gary Ross. I’m getting to the age when my friends are starting to die. When Gary was my dad’s pastor, he scheduled every Thursday at 10 am for coffee with the men of the church. My dad never missed. When I heard that Gary was doing that, my first thought was, “Where does he find time to get his work done?” As I look back, I can see that was the best way he could have spent an hour or two on Thursday mornings. My dad could have told you that.
I’m learning. One thing I’ve learned about marriage is that when my wife has time to talk, I’d better have time to listen. And sometimes it’s the other way around. What a great thing it is to be able to say whatever you need to say and have another human being who cares about what you are saying. Or at least is really good at faking it.
Some of you send me church bloopers. I’m not sure who sent me this one. This was taken from a real church newsletter: “Irving Beltson and Jessie Carter were married on October 24 in our church. So ends a friendship that began in their school days.” Marriage should not end your friendship. My wife is my best friend. But don’t expect marriage to meet all your friendship needs. As Marla Paul wrote: “No matter how much I love my husband, it’s not enough.”
People need people. That’s the refrain that has been running through this series. God made us that way. “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). And immediately after this verse Adam is given a wife. Eve is his first and only best friend. So this verse is about marriage. But it’s not just about marriage. It’s about life. We were made for community. We were made for relationships. First with God and then with other people. It is not good for human beings to live relationally disconnected lives.
It’s not healthy. We talked about this a couple of weeks ago. Scientists tell us that deep interpersonal relationships are a factor in long, healthy lives. It’s ironic that people today who religiously wear their “fit bits” and who carefully monitor everything they put in their mouth pay so little attention to their relational life, which has at least as much impact on physical health as obesity, smoking, or high blood pressure.
We read today about one friendship that is described in some detail in the Bible. It is the friendship between David and Jonathan. Sometimes preachers today either choose this part of the Bible or are careful to avoid this part of the Bible, depending on what they either want to say or don’t want to say about homosexuality. It takes a very creative mind to find anything in the story of David and Jonathan beyond two men who were very good friends. One good thing about the greater acceptance of homosexuality today is that, let’s hope, we can stop wondering what people are whispering behind our backs when we have a close friendship with someone of the same sex.
David and Jonathan had a close friendship. “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (I Samuel 18:1). You’ve heard the expression “soul mates”. That’s what David and Jonathan were. They had some things in common. They were both fighters. They were both courageous. They were both accustomed to winning, not losing, their fights. And they both loved God. They had what we might call an affinity. Which is important in small groups, by the way. Something just clicked when they met each other.
But their friendship was based on more than that. There are lots of people who have a lot in common with us and we don’t become good friends with them all. What makes a friendship more than an acquaintance is the commitment you make to your friendship. “Then Jonathan made a covenant with David” (I Samuel 18:3). That means they could count on each other through thick and thin. And the rest of their story is about how that covenant was kept.
Jonathan’s father, King Saul, becomes jealous of David and tries to kill him. Jonathan, who was next in line to be king, might have been just as eager as his dad to get David out of the way. But no. There’s this thing called friendship that makes Jonathan go against his own father to protect David.
And then when Jonathan dies in battle, the same day his father, King Saul, dies in battle, David’s loyalty to his friend plays out as he takes care of Jonathan’s crippled son, Mephibosheth. Even though Mephibosheth is in direct line to the throne on which King David by now is sitting.
If only “Mephibosheth” weren’t so hard to say, I might preach a whole sermon some day on that story. It’s one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible.
It’s a lonely world out there. It’s a world filled with people like Marla Paul, like you, like me, who are in search of community. Let’s hope this church will be one place where we will find it.
Next week we’re going to wrap up this series. And next week, as you might have already guessed, we’re going to be giving you an opportunity to indicate your interest in being part of a small group. We need leaders. We will train you. But it’s really not very hard. If you’re a good leader, you’ll be doing a whole lot more listening than talking. And if you’re pretty sure you don’t want to be a leader, great! We need you, too. So give this some thought this week. Give this some prayer. God is doing something big in this church. And remember, whenever God is doing something big, small groups always seem to be a part of it. It’s God’s great, grand purpose in the world. Community.
Bill Richards was a college professor. He was on his feet, teaching a class, when his heart blew up. Technically an aneurism on his upper aorta had burst. When that happens, you’re almost always dead before anything can be done. But Bill was lucky. Blessed would be the more accurate word. A student called 911. Bill was rushed into surgery. The surgery lasted seven hours. Bill survived.
But even before the surgery began, the hospital waiting room was filling with his friends. Mainly friends from church. They prayed. They comforted his wife and children. Fifteen of them camped all night in the waiting room.
Bill loved his friends before all this happened. He would have done the same for any of them. But after his near death experience, Bill knew as he had never known before how much his friends meant to him.
A short time later a relative of Bill’s died. This relative was also a Christian. He had a church he attended off and on. But he was one of those “familiar strangers” we mentioned earlier in the series. He really hadn’t entered into any relationships in that church that went beyond surface level. Or outside his church either, for that matter. He kept to himself. He didn’t have any real friends.
There was a brief graveside service. Bill and his wife attended. And they were glad they did. Because in the vast expanse of that cemetery, they were the only ones who had shown up for him. It was the legacy of a friendless life.
We have a choice. God has given us the desire and the capacity to enter into community, to dispel the darkness of our inner loneliness. It’s scary. It’s risky. It’s time consuming. It’s messy. It’s frustrating. And it’s worth it. Just ask Bill Richards.
What a friend we have in you, Lord Jesus! Where would we be without your friendship? But Jesus, as we read the Bible about all the people who were close to you, we see that we need more than just you as a friend. So we thank you for the friends we have. We never want to take them for granted. We never want to let them down. But we also have a confession to make. The same confession Marla Paul made. There is still deep within our souls a loneliness. We might say it’s a loneliness only you can fill. But that’s not the whole truth. It’s a loneliness that can only be filled as we open our lives to others and let others into our lives and live as you intend for us to live, in community. Amen.