Loneliness…and the sparrows

ImageHe was a visitor in our high school Sunday School class.  He should have fit right in.  Just by happenstance, the class was all boys that day.  All private school and homeschool Christian young men.  And even though he had long since passed the 6-foot mark, he wasn’t towering over anyone in our overgrown class.  But me, I suppose.

I tried to be cordial but he was clearly uncomfortable.  I asked him some questions, but he stuttered so badly that I wasn’t sure whether my attempts at friendliness were making things better or worse.

I felt for him.  His siblings were grown and gone.  He was a homeschooled missionary kid living in a land where the average height of the natives is a good 14 inches shorter than him.  When in the States, his family would travel church to church, never staying long enough for him to be anything but a stranger.

A shy, stuttering home school student looking like no one in a sea of look-alike nationals.  Talk about a recipe for loneliness.

I don’t know if he is lonely or not.  It wasn’t like he bared his soul to a strange group of lanky cut-up high schoolers and their teacher.  I’m just using my Sherlock Homes-like powers of deduction to suppose that if I were him, I might have trouble making friends.  And I might be lonely.

And, frankly, I felt for him.  Even if I might never see him again, I cared.  Perhaps because it brought back memories of some of my teen years.  Perhaps because I thought of some other people I knew who as high schoolers seemed like misfits—through no fault of their own they were just in places that friends were hard to come by.  Good friends, that is.

When I was just starting high school, I was finding that the kids that I had grown up with seemed to be taking a different path in life than me.  Not right and wrong necessarily—just different.  We had different priorities, we wanted to talk about different things.  I stopped getting invited to their birthday parties.  What started as “BFF” came to a jagged end.  Some of my friendships died a natural death, some a thousand unnatural ones. It seems like drama over nothing in the rearview mirror—only because it is so long ago.  But it was painful then.

I invested my time in other pursuits, like “Cubbies.”  I discovered in junior high that I loved kids.  Working with pre-schoolers was the highlight of my week.  I was better at it then than I am now, I’m sure.  Just a lot less inhibited.

I can remember little ones come flying toward me with their arms outstretched saying “Miss Danielle!” and lighting up my heart.  One of them came to give me a hug and said, “Miss Danielle, you’re my BEST friend!”  The memory of that still brings tears to my eyes (although he would be mortified now if I reminded him).

I didn’t have many friends my age then, but I guess God knew I didn’t need many.  I didn’t need to be running around with other high schoolers doing whatever it is that teens do.  I was better off investing my life in the hearts of little ones and building relationships with wise adults.

It was perhaps a somewhat lonely season of life.  But it was just that—a season.

And now, having the benefit of being able to look back, I guess what I wished I could say the 6 foot plus high schooler in my Sunday School class was this—remember the sparrows.

In a familiar Bible passage, Jesus says this: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows…”  Matthew 27:29-31

Jesus is speaking in the context of persecution, but he makes some universal points very clear:

I know.  I care.

Like many other Bible passages, I tend to discredit this one as too familiar.  Too simple.  Too well traveled to be holding valuable insight.

But recently, it struck me like never before.  Jesus points to creatures that to us seem virtuously worthless.  You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.  No personality.  No unusual skill.  No good looks.  Just noisy birds intent on filling their big bird mouths and making their little bird nests.  Like every other sparrow.

And Jesus says this: God the Father knows those sparrows.  Individually.  So much so that not one of them will fall to the ground without His notice.  If He takes such loving care of sparrows, how much more does he care for his children?

He knows.  He cares.

Jesus is driving home a point that I still find difficult to believe—that the Father is intimately acquainted with every detail of our lives.  He doesn’t miss an event so small as a hair lost.  He is closer than a brother.  More diligent than a shepherd.  More attentive than a mother with her little one.

His children—regardless of how empty and barren they may be tempted to feel— can cling to the truth that they are intimately known and extravagantly loved.  Whatever season of life they are in, they have not been forgotten.  They have not been left waiting in the wings while some more pressing need is being addressed.

I wonder if that young man who visited my Sunday School class will be the next D.L. Moody, Charles Spurgeon, Adoniram Judson, or John MacArthur.  Perhaps a season of life when every sentence is a struggle will turn him into an orator who weighs the value of every syllable he speaks.  Maybe he will value his relationships with others so highly that his contributions into their lives will be transforming.  Maybe he will have more time on his hands as a young man to invest in things that are going to matter for eternity than most.  Maybe he lost a few hairs today.

I don’t know.

But the Father does.



There I was.  Surrounded by friends. And none of them were mine.

I watched the people standing in line for food, sitting or standing at tables, and milling and talking. I didn’t know a soul.

Okay, I did know a soul. I saw two souls I knew—casually. I said hello and they greeted me in passing. Then I was alone again.

I filled my “Tim Scott for Senate” tumbler with watery pink lemonade and then wandered again around the adjoining rooms looking to see if there were any familiar faces I may have missed. Nope.

So I got in one of the lines—knowing only that there was probably food at the front and that I was starving. I made small talk with the lady in line behind me. She was running for school superintendent. I wished her well.

I filled my plate with cold BBQ pork and meatballs and then went in search of a place to sit. There were several empty tables outside, so I made my way to one. Another couple soon approached with their plates of food and asked if they could sit across from me, and I readily agreed. But between the stiff breeze and the blaring speakers behind us, it was evident that any attempt at conversation would be no more than a futile shouting match. So we ate and listened to the blaring music.

It was hard to guess exactly how many people were there at this fundraiser for Tim Scott for Senate, but from my table, I could see that the parking lot was full and overflowing—people were parked on the grass and kept coming.

All the politicos were here hobnobbing, I guess. Like I said, I didn’t recognize any of them. I felt alone, but it didn’t bother me that much. I was about to finish my plate of food and head for home where my dog was going to be better company than this entire crowd.

When I thought about it, I realized although I was a nobody in this group, I was probably not the loneliest person here. In fact, it occurred to me that perhaps the loneliest person here was Tim Scott himself. Now I need to qualify this, because I don’t know. In fact, I really have no idea.

But think through this with me. Imagine having thousands of people in your life. Thousands. And they all want something from you. You stand for hours while different people come to the front of a line to shake your hand and take their picture with you. You make small talk with each one as they come up and try to act interested and excited to see them. Then they walk away. And you greet the next one.

If you hear from any of them again, it’s going to be, “Hi, I’m Joe. I was a sponsor of your Charleston fundraiser. I’m having this problem…I think Congress should…” And that will be your relationship.

Mind you, Tim Scott is well liked in South Carolina and on this planet in general. So he probably has it better than most politicians. But even so, how many real friends does he have? I wonder. And how much time could he possibly invest in those relationships with his real friends to keep them healthy?

What kind of relationships do you create when every email that goes out with your name on it is begging for money?  When even your birthday party costs money to attend?

Perhaps he is also thinking right now “Here I am, surrounded by friends.  And none of them are mine.”

The fact is that loneliness is not a rare occurrence. In fact, I’m convinced that everyone is lonely sometimes—whether single or married, rich or poor, introvert or extrovert. I’ve heard moms talk about the loneliness of being around little people all day; fathers confess the loneliness of the pressures they face; teens feel lonely because they have no friends they can trust; college students moan about the loneliness of dorm life; graduates talk about the loneliness of the transition into the work force; I even recently read an article about the loneliness pastors face.

Perhaps the puzzling part is not that so many people struggle with loneliness but that we assume so many people do not. Loneliness is no respecter of persons and has nothing at all to do with the number of Facebook friends you have. I believe it has to do with the availability of another understanding soul that we can connect with on a deeper level.

Some of us choose loneliness because we have bought into the lie that somewhere out there is another human being that we will be able to bare our soul to completely who will not judge us in the smallest way— but just listen to all the good and all garbage we want to spew and then knowingly make some wise and loving response that fixes everything. And raise us up so we can stand on mountains.

Some of us have realistic expectations, but we find ourselves lonely because we either don’t have the time or the energy to invest in healthy relationships with people that we respect enough to make ourselves vulnerable.

Regardless of the reason, loneliness is…well…it’s lonely. It get it. Believe me.  It is incredibly painful.

Loneliness itself is not a sin—I even wonder if Jesus was lonely at times. But it can lead to sin. It can lead to discontentment, to bitterness, to jealousy, and generally to unhappy, unfruitful living.

But it doesn’t have to.

I think the greatest service that loneliness can perform is to teach us our need for our Savior. King David was thoughtful enough to record for us some of the times that his lonely soul took refuge in his shadow of our Savior’s wings. When you have no time and no energy for anything else, start there. Read Psalm 34, Psalm 103, and Psalm 63. Earnestly seek God. Let your thirsty soul look for water where the springs of living water flow.

But even that is not an instant or permanent cure…which may sound heretical on its face. But I believe that even though God wants us to draw near to Him, He doesn’t encourage us to live lives in isolation. It isn’t healthy. It’s like the difference between fasting and starving. One can be constructive, the other will kill you.

So that leads me to what is perhaps the second greatest service that loneliness can perform—to teach us to compassionately care for others. It can make us more patient. More kind. More considerate. It can teach us that life isn’t about us. There is a world of people out there that God created to be part of a community who are also starving for companionship.

I complained to a friend that I was lonely and they surprised me by saying, “I can’t fix that for you.” Bummer. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but they were right.  The best cure for loneliness was seeing past myself into the needs of others and exercising the initiative to build bridges into other people’s lives.

Be a friend—because there are those who need your friendship as much as you need theirs, maybe even more.