Solitude on the Road

“Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone. “  — Paul Tillich

While my husband is in his classes, learning the next echelon of leadership within the military, I am been alone. I am reading and writing and trying not to feel the pain of this loneliness, but Tillich’s wisdom rings all to true. I find myself in this new and place where nothing is familiar. The landscape is different. The climate is strange and I find myself in this new community in which I feel like a stranger. Or as Stanley Hauerwas might say, I am a resident alien.

I am not on the move. I am here in this place.

When only ten days ago, there was a different kind of solitude that marked my days. For just four days, between Pennsylvania and Kansas, I found myself in solitude on the road — and it was glorious. Just me and my little Prius on the road. My parents (among others) had expressed concern about this plan. They were not sure it was wise for a young woman to travel alone. They feared I might be lonely.

I assured them that I would be stopping to spend nights with dear friends. I would extend my trip to make time for these visits with these dear friends. I would not be totally alone. I wasn’t. I got to eat and walk and talk with these dear friends after hours on the road all by myself. Theses a good thing. It was reassuring for my parents to hear because loneliness is a bad thing. This fact even made the news last week. 72% of people in the United States of America feel isolated. The facts and figures of this study are suspiciously absent from the reports that I’ve found, but the word isolation is not. It is repeated in every article. we are isolated from ourselves and each other. This is what defines our loneliness.

It is not news, however. It is a conclusion that was drawn way back when in 2012 when this article appeared in The Atlantic concluding:

Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention. But now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are. Facebook denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect.

Isolation  or even disconnection is not what I feel on the road. Behind the wheel, careening down the highway, belting out Dixie Chicks lyrics, I don’t feel disconnected from my community or my neighbor, but quite the opposite. I feel connected. I feel like the world is so big and beautiful and there is so much possibility. With every song that comes on the radio, I am flooded with memories of people and places that I have loved. I can’t help but giggle at the wonder of it all.

When my throat has gone hoarse and there is nothing but static on the radio, I roll down the windows and open my heart to pray. Jesus makes a big to do about going to find a quiet place to pray. Or at least, that’s how we think about it. We are the ones that are struggle with the silence and perhaps even the isolation, not Jesus. There is no struggle in him. No fanfare as he withdraws to a deserted place to pray (Luke 5:16, NRSV). He is not isolated, though he may be alone. He does this several more times before he tells anyone how they ought to pray. That’s when he tells them not to forget about themselves. This isn’t a chance to zone out but a chance to see yourself as a part of God’s transformative power.

Like me, I imagine that Jesus needs a little space for this. This is no small potatoes, after all. He needs that time away to sort though all of the thoughts in his head, to be grateful and even to wonder about what might be ahead if he can ever be part of God’s transformation. Even if he doesn’t need that space, I do. Jesus might know his place but I have some questions. So I’ll take the empty road snaking through at the mountains or the deserted road that cuts through a town with empty store fronts to reconnect with God.

There is glory in this. Tillich is right. In this world, where there always seems to be someone grabbing for our attention — something that is apparently being called an attention economy — there is a certain graciousness to allowing ourselves  be alone with our own thoughts and questions. It can be overwhelming, as it feels now that I am settled in one place with too much time to think and ponder by myself. It can surely be painful but there is a certain glory in it — a glory I struggle to name but one I have seen on the road.

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More Questions Than Answers

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It wasn’t that long ago that started serving as an interim pastor at a small church celebrating 200 years amid questions of whether or not there will be a future beyond this anniversary. This morning, before worship began, one of the members called our attention to a news story about a church in a neighboring community that at least to him sounded so much like his own church. He really thought we should read it because after 170 fabulous years of ministry, all of a sudden that church is closing. In fact, today was their last Sunday.

These concerned church members want me to give them the solution. I’m the interim pastor. I must know. They want me to give them the answer. They want me to tell them  what the future looks like. They want so much to know what they need to do before they meet that same fate, but I don’t have the answer to their questions. I do not know what the church will be like. I only know that it is changing and it might not look the same in five or ten years. Or maybe it will. I don’t know. I wish that there was a divine checklist that would mark our way into that future, but there is no such thing. So it seems we really do walk by faith, not by sight.

It seems that my faith comes with a whole lot of questions. It is these questions that seem to define my ministry. It’s all I do. It’s what defines my ministry. I’m shouting into the abyss and questions I’m hurling at the people around me hoping that God might reveal some clarity.

Because I do not know the future of the church. I cannot know the future of the church so I have nothing but questions. I have no set answers. I have no vision of what the church will be. I only know that it will continue. God’s awesome redemptive work in the world isn’t over yet but I don’t know what that will look like. And because I don’t know this, because I don’t have this awesome divine checklist in my back pocket, most of my ministry feels right now feels like a failure. I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m leading these poor blessed people into some sort of quagmire that none of us understand.

That’s the feeling I couldn’t shake when I got in the car. But, I turned on my podcasts and turned my attention to This American Life in which I got to hear the story of a San Francisco-based writer and father who sat in shock and dismay through his daughter’s the end of the year musical in her after-school program. Seems innocent enough but most musicals featuring grade-school aged children are not about corporate greed. Little kids pretended to be a bunch of power-hungry tech-mongers plotting the eviction of innocent people that got in the way of their dream. It upset some people. Obviously, it upset the parents in the tech industry. One parent tried to express his concern. To which the director of this after-school program wrote back to say it was fictional. In that letter, written to all of the parents, she added this further explanation: we do not attempt to answer questions with our art, but rather to ask questions.

We might not have any idea what the future holds. We might not know what the church will look like but this sure felt like an answered prayer. I turned off the podcast for a moment. It wasn’t very long but I wanted those words to sink in so that I just might hear them as a blessing and an affirmation. Before I ever dreamed of leading churches, I dreamed of creating art. My ministry has become my art. I do not intend to answer God with my ministry, but rather to ask questions. It is this art that is my life work and it is good.

Published, Printed and Praying

More and more, I’m answering the call to write. So much so that I seem to be writing about writing. This seems a tad ridiculous so I hope you’ll forgive me for this — but here I go again writing about writing.

You’ve already heard about the columns I’ve been contributing to the new United Church of Christ blog New Sacred. So that’s old news though maybe you haven’t seen my newest article over there. If not, you’ll find it here. My most recent article is about spinning plates. Go figure.

CHReader-Fall-2015-Cover-Med-Res-RGBThe other bit of writing I have been doing was for the Church Health Reader which my dear friend from seminary edits. For the current issue on trauma, I wrote a bit about the amazing ways that churches are creating sacred, holy, healing spaces for the veteran community. You can find the Fall 2015 issue here. Or better still, please subscribe to this wonderful magazine.

In the programs and models piece I wrote, I interviewed three different projects from the a really big church’s ministry called RezVets to two United Church of Christ pastors following their passions within and beyond their local churches. I created a piece of artwork to accompany the article. It’s a black and white sketch of one of the healing circles shared by one of these amazing ministries. The artwork is called Circle of Trust. It is my hope to use my Etsy shop ::May It Be So:: to offer a contribution to the smallest and newest of these amazing ministries. I will donate 50% of the sale of this piece of artwork to support the good work of the Touchstone Veterans Outreach at St. Andrew’s United Church of Christ. Find the listing for my original artwork here.

I can’t even put words to how amazing this ministry is but I hope you’ll read the article and get just a taste. You can find the Church Health Reader article online here. If the article inspires you, I hope you’ll click over to my Etsy shop and purchase Circle of Trust to show our resounding support for this good work. After all, it’s Veteran’s Day, and we should do more than say thank you — as I was reminded this morning here.