Lonliness, Community, and Religious Celebrations

Being born and raised in Chicago, I’m used to cold winters. Really cold winters. I’m used to freeze-your-face-off winds and you-better-wear five-layers days. What I don’t think I’ll ever get used to is the loneliness that I see happens in my life and others’ lives during the brutal winter months. That bitter cold forces us to withdraw into our homes with occasional one-on-one conversations in drafty coffeehouses. It causes a lapse in community, and ultimately a feeling of being unloved and uncared for.

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While generations before us would hope that their friends would still be alive after those long, hard winters, I often find myself wondering if my friends will emotionally make it through the harsh weather and what toll it will take on them.  What bad choices will they make in an attempt to be loved? What lies will they succumb to because no one is by their side to check that lie with the truth? How often will they think that they are alone?

This is the reason I get really excited for early spring celebrations like St. Patrick’s Day and Lenten celebrations. It’s the reason I rejoice in days like Purim and Cinco de Mayo. I may not celebrate all of these holidays. And I may not even celebrate these holidays the way others do (typically, with large quantities of alcohol). But I see this deep desire in people just to connect again — particularly as a community. Because, let’s admit it, parade floats really aren’t that interesting. But laughing and hugging each other without feeling socially awkward is pretty amazing. And feeling like we’re not isolated from society — that we have a place of belonging in the larger scheme of things — is pretty hopeful.

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But what about church? Isn’t that what church is supposed to be?

It is. But I’ve found that despite most churches’ best efforts, we are failing as a body at this. Rachel Held Evans had a incredibly insightful tweet about two weeks ago. She said:

          For all the people who come home from church feeling lonelier than when they left, please know you are not alone today. (March 9, 2014 – 3:33pm)

There are some bodies where this is not true — Where people leave church feeling like everybody goes WITH them as they go out to be salt and light in the world. But, for the large part, I think many people leave Sunday morning service feeling the way Rachel described. They longed to be a part of something, and they’re not quite sure they are. They may know they have friends. They may even know they are loved. But they may not feel invited into something greater. And it causes a deep hurt in the deepest realm of the soul. Over time, it erodes them until they just give up on the body. They leave church every week feeling more drained than they came in until they can’t even convince themselves to come anymore.

Which brings me back to lenten celebrations. Where I grew up, lent was a holy thing. And by that, I don’t just mean quiet. It was a community movement trying to grapple with beauty and love in the midst of suffering and lament. But we did so in the form of gatherings and celebrations. Sometimes they were silly and sometimes they were fun, but they were always profound. It was joy. Joy in the midst of sorrow. Because we were together. We were going to get over the cold and the financial hardship and the hardness that is this life and ultimately, even death, together. And we were going to do it believing God was with us. But we never SAID that. We just did it.

I long for a tribe like this again. I’m very blessed to have some friends and family who have this same longing. But I really LONG for church like this again. And I wonder how we got away from it. What could have been so valuable, or so distracting, that we would have exchanged this glimpse of heaven for the hell of loneliness?

I wish I could end this blog post with an idea to fix it. But I don’t think I can. Because I think the only way this gets fixed is that a couple of people long for it enough that they get together and DO it. And then invite others into it. Not as an evangelistic tool. But just in the context of their own friendships. If you miss it like me, pray that I find it. I’ll be praying for you to find it, too.

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