Debating the Worth of My Existence

When news broke yesterday about the passing of Chris Cornell, I was saddened. Although I do not know him, I know his music. I love his voice, his poetry, his talent. I have spent many hours listening to his solo stuff, Soundgarden, Audio Slave, and Temple of the Dog. Knowing Soundgarden had reunited and was touring again brought a smile to my face.

I don’t really know why. Music does that to many of us, I guess.

But as more and more news began to spread, ultimately leading up to the report that it was suicide, the typical, and truly sad, predictable comments began to occur. The statements of “what a waste.” The jokes that are always in poor taste but pop up whenever something tragic happens.

I am used to this by now. In real life, tragedies happen and there is usually a manner of respect shown for the deceased and those left behind. But in social media and pop culture world, tragedies bring out the worst in people trying to bring attention to themselves.

His death is not occasion for a joke. His death is not the opportunity to decry all that is wrong with artists. His death is not the time to call it “a great waste.” His death is a tragedy. A wife is left widowed. Children are left without a father. Family members and friends will mourn his passing. And, in this instance, may even question if they played some role; if they should have done even more.

Chris Cornell’s death is no more tragic because he is a celebrity. But is no less tragic, either.

Cornell has spoken in the past about his struggle with drugs and alcohol. I do not know what his journey was like; if he was drunk or high that night or if he had been clean and sober for years. But that doesn’t matter.

But I do remember. I remember the places my addiction took me. I remember the nights when I was alone with my thoughts and it was not a great place to be. I remember the (mostly self-imposed) isolation. The days when my guilt beat me up for all the poor choices I was making and the nights when justification said “one more” couldn’t possibly make a difference. I remember receiving praise and compliments for my work yet believing in my self-talk which said I was not as good as the next person.

I was never suicidal. For that I am grateful. But there were many nights that I sat by myself and thought this world would be a better place if I was not in it. I loved my wife and my children. I loved the rest of my family. But really, would anyone miss me? Wasn’t I causing more trouble than I was worth? I was losing the will to fight to ever get well and I was hating the path that I was on.

Let me repeat: I was never suicidal. But there were a lot of days that I thought the only way I would overcome my addiction would be to die.

I don’t know Chris Cornell. He was a celebrity whose art I admired. However, maybe we can use the occasion of his reported suicide to ask people around us how they are doing—and actually want an answer. Maybe we can keep our eyes open for those who are isolating themselves. Maybe we can make sure to actually nurture relationships and not take them for granted.

Maybe we can reach out to families who are suffering loss. Maybe we can consider the power of our words and not speak them so carelessly.

Maybe we need to speak up for ourselves. Maybe you are the one who is hurting and you need to reach out for help.

I know the pain of being isolated. I know the uncertainty of wondering if my life is worth it. I know the difficulty of asking for help.

If you are hurting, please speak up. If you know someone who is hurting, please be kind.

When a tragedy occurs, avoid the temptation to “tsk” or to joke. Remember the pain that exists. Reach out and take care of those around you. Take care of yourself and speak up when necessary.

Remember that your life is worth it.

 

*The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK

That One Time I Preached a Sermon and Said We All Belong

Two weeks ago, I talked about loneliness. Last week, I talked about the difference between fitting in and belonging. Tonight, I want to wrap up this series by stating that thanks to God’s work through Jesus, we all belong. We no longer have to be alone; even though we may feel that way at times.

When I was talking about loneliness, I brought up the story of Elijah. He had a contest with the prophets of Baal and won! But after that, Elijah ran and hid. He was afraid of the queen. He thought his life was going to end. And when he found a cave to hide in, God came to him. God fed him. He provided for him. He even asked Elijah what was wrong.

And Elijah told him: I am done. I am exhausted. I give up. He goes on to also say I am the only one.

Have you felt that way before? Have you ever thought you were the only one left who was doing right? The only one in your life that actually cared anymore?

Have you ever been so overwhelmed with life’s circumstances that you were just ready to give up? Ever say, “I can’t do this anymore!”?

I don’t know about you, but when I get to one of those places, the first thing I usually do is isolate, just like I talked about a couple of weeks ago. I want others to hurt. I want revenge. I want to know other people are going through the same thing.

This is also why I work so hard at fitting in. I don’t want you to know I have that pain, so I dress up and put on a smiley face. I turn to my addiction to cover over the pain. I act like everything is all right. I put other people down so I that I can find myself with the end crowd.

Isn’t this all strange? We isolate by not allowing anyone to know how we are feeling, and then we do things we don’t really want to do so that we can fit in by taking the path of least resistance.

And we miss out on what God is offering.

Let’s read the story of Elijah’s encounter with God after the defeat of Baal’s prophets (I Kings 19:8-18).

Elijah got up and ate the food and drank the water. His body felt strong again, and he journeyed for 40 more days and 40 more nights to Horeb, God’s mountain where Moses received the Ten Directives. When he arrived at Horeb, he walked into a cave and rested for the night.

Eternal One (to Elijah): Why are you here, Elijah? What is it that you desire?

Elijah: 10 As you know, all my passion has been devoted to the Eternal One, the God of heavenly armies. The Israelites have abandoned Your covenant with them, they have torn down every single one of Your altars, and they have executed by the sword all those who prophesy in Your name. I am the last remaining prophet, and they now seek to execute me as well.

Eternal One: 11 Leave this cave, and go stand on the mountainside in My presence.

The Eternal passed by him. The mighty wind separated the mountains and crumbled every stone before the Eternal. This was not a divine wind, for the Eternal was not within this wind. After the wind passed through, an earthquakeshook the earthThis was not a divine quake, for the Eternal was not within this earthquake. 12-13 After the earthquake was over, there was a fire. This was not a divine fire, for the Eternal was not within this fire.

After the fire died out, there was nothing but the sound of a calm breeze. And through this breeze a gentle, quiet voice entered into Elijah’s ears. He covered his face with his cloak and went to the mouth of the cave. Suddenly, Elijah was surprised.

Eternal One: Why are you here, Elijah? What is it that you desire?

Elijah: 14 As you know, all my passion has been devoted to the Eternal God ofheavenly armies. The Israelites have abandoned Your covenant with them,they have torn down every one of Your altars, and they have executed all who prophesy in Your name by the sword. I am the last remaining prophet,and they now seek to execute me as well. They won’t stop.

Eternal One: 15 Travel back the same way you traveled here, but continuenorth to the desert of Damascus. There, I want you to anoint Hazael as Aram’s king, 16 Jehu (Nimshi’s son) as Israel’s king, and Elisha (Shaphat’s son from Abel-meholah) to replace you as prophet. 17 Jehu will execute anyone who escapes from Hazael, and Elisha will execute all who escape from Jehu.18 I will keep for Myself the 7,000 Israelites who have not bowed down to Baal or offered him kisses.

 

Did you notice that Elijah says the same thing twice? I have been devoted to You with all my passion! I have done everything! And I am the only one!

And notice God’s response: Go and stand outside and wait for my presence.

Mighty wind.  Not God.

Earthquake. Not God.

Fire. Not God.

Gentle whisper.

And Elijah had to hide his face.

And then God asks the exact same question. And Elijah gives the exact same answer. Only this time, I think Elijah whispers, or maybe sobs, out the answer.

And have you ever done that? Have you ever switched from anger to desperation when confronted with the presence of God?

Elijah is saying, “God, I’m the only one! I have done everything! And they still want to kill me! I wish I was dead!” And after God reveals Himself in a gentle whisper, Elijah is moved from his anger to clinging to God.

God responds by giving Elijah some things to do. Go and find these people. They will work with you. And there are 7000 people that you don’t know about who are just as passionately devoted to me as you are.

When we are in the midst of our loneliness, not only do we miss out on God, we miss out on God’s people that are all around us! I am certain that some of you here tonight feel all alone. Even though I know the love God has for you. Even though I know the love all of these people have for you, you still feel alone. And I hope you can hear the gentle whisper of God. I hope you can hear His voice telling you, “You belong.”

Over the last two weeks, I have asked all of you to write down on cards that thing that was keeping you separated from God. I have those cards with me tonight. I have read over them. Prayed over them. Shared them with the prayer team here at Freedom and they have prayed over them, too.

And I want to say a few things about these cards. The things that were written on here are painful. They are sad. They are real. They are common. Many people struggle with these same things, only so many people think they struggle alone. Also, these things aren’t just going away. Many of you will wake up tomorrow and still endure the same struggle.

But this is not the end of the story.

You are called. You belong. You are part of something much larger than you can imagine. You need to go and find others.

We are going to have a time of blessing. You will be reminded that you are a child of God. Hear God’s voice speaking to you; sometimes in a whisper. And you will be encouraged to go and seek others to come alongside us.

You belong here.

“You are a beloved child of God. You belong here. You are sent to go and find others and bring them here because they belong, too.”

That One Time I Preached a Sermon on Loneliness and Read Psalm 137 Out Loud

This is the manuscript of the sermon I preached at Freedom Fellowship on October 8. In order to overcome loneliness and find community, we must first acknowledge the loneliness we feel. This is Part 1 of a 3 week series.

Do you know when I feel the loneliest? Sunday morning during worship. Everyone is happy. Everyone is smiling. Everyone is looking good. And some days, that’s okay.

But some Sundays, that is almost unbearable. Because not only do I not feel that way, but I feel like I can’t tell anybody that I feel that way. I feel like everyone else gets to go write a Prayers for the People card and they will get it answered! But mine will just go unnoticed.

Let me say this again: it’s not true every week. But some weeks, some days, some Sundays there is something going on in my head, my heart, my soul, that is pulling me down until I feel like I can’t go any further. If something is off between my wife and me, I look at other married couples and wish that our marriage could be like theirs. If my children and I have argued during the week, I look at other parents and kids and wonder why my children aren’t as perfect as theirs.

And here’s the thing: I know they are having problems, too! I know because they have shared their struggles with me before.

But in that moment of my despair, it doesn’t really matter. In that moment, all I can think about is how awful I feel and how good everyone else looks. I take what is going on inside of me and compare it to what I can see on the outside of others, and I always come up lacking.

So some Sundays, I show up feeling great. I sing, I pray, I smile, I laugh, I am moved to tears, and through it all I feel closer to God and God’s people.

But other Sundays, I feel alone. I feel hurt. I feel like I have to hide what is going on inside of me. I still sing. I still pray. I still smile. I still laugh. I am still moved to tears. But through it all, I feel isolated and alone. And it bothers me that everyone else is doing so great.

Ever feel like that? Ever feel upset at or jealous of other people?

So have I.

So have God’s people for a long time.

Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon,
we sat and wept
when we thought of Zion, our home, so far away.
On the branches of the willow trees,
we hung our harps and hid our hearts from the enemy.
And the men that surrounded us
made demands that we clap our hands and sing—
Songs of joy from days gone by,
songs from Zion, our home.
Such cruel men taunted us—haunted our memories.

How could we sing a song about the Eternal
in a land so foreign, while still tormented, brokenhearted, homesick?
Please don’t make us sing this song.
5-6 O Jerusalem, even still, don’t escape my memory.
I treasure you and your songs, even as I hide my harp from the enemy.
And if I can’t remember,
may I never sing a song again—
may my hands never play well again—
For what use would it be if I don’t remember Jerusalem
as my source of joy?

Remember, Eternal One, how the Edomites, our brothers, the descendants of Esau,
stood by and watched as Jerusalem fell.
Gloating, they said, “Destroy it;
tear it down to the ground,” when Jerusalem was being demolished.
O daughter of Babylon, you are destined for destruction!
Happy are those who pay you back for how you treated us
so you will no longer walk so proud.
Happy are those who dash your children against the rocks
so you will know how it feels.

 

“So that you will know how it feels.”

That is a painful, vengeful, spiteful statement and I hate to admit it but I have thought it before.

I want to explain a little bit about what is going on in this Psalm. This is not one we read often. If ever. I only know of one song based on the Psalm, and it is a relatively recent one. But it will likely never be sung in worship. This is not a passage we are going to hear read before the Lord’s Supper or the offering. It is violent. It is angry.

But it comes from a certain time and place. Israel has been cast off into Babylonian captivity. They no longer live in Israel, the Promised Land. They are now captives, exiles, living in a foreign country. And as if that’s not bad enough, their captors are taunting them:

“Hey, you Israelites. Play those songs you used to sing! Strum the harp, sing out loud! Sing about Zion and Yahweh!”

And their response is, “How can we sing? Those are songs of joy. We have no joy, only despair.”

Please don’t make us sing these songs. It hurts too much to be reminded of how good things used to be.

God’s people. Maybe they still believe He exists. Maybe they still believe He is the Creator. But they certainly feel abandoned. Isolated. Alone.

And so they call out in vengeance: No. We won’t sing those songs. We won’t entertain you. But we will remember. And we will hope you get what’s coming to you. We hope someone comes and takes everything away from you, even to the point of killing your children.

Now I know that’s extreme. But listen to what is at the core of what of what they are saying: “So that you will know how it feels.”

And on my worst days, I want others to feel as bad as I do.

On my worst days, I feel like Elijah. And not the “best of the prophets” or “defeat all of Baal’s prophets” Elijah, but run away and hide and say, “I’m the only one” Elijah.

You know that story, right? Elijah has this contest against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. They call out to their gods to send fire to consume their sacrifice and nothing happens. They begin doing all sorts of crazy things trying to get their gods to respond. And this whole time Elijah is taunting them! “Maybe your god is asleep. Maybe he is using the bathroom. Try harder!”

And then Elijah digs a trench around his altar, covers his sacrifice with water until the trench is filled, then he calls out to God, and God sends fire to consume the sacrifice, the altar, and dry up all the water in the trench. And shortly after that, God sends rain for the first time in 3 and a half years.

Elijah was riding pretty high.

Until a day or two later. When the queen said she was going to kill him. And so Elijah runs and hides and when God comes to him, God says, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Elijah’s answer is: “I am the only one.”

And there are days when I feel like Elijah: I am the only one.

And sometimes, I don’t want people to show up and tell me it will be all right. I don’t want people to remind me of how good God is.

I want someone to tell me they know what it means to be in my shoes.

I have heard that Bob Strader has told kids at the Youth Leadership Camps at Abilene Christian University that sometimes the most powerful words we can here are, “Me, too.” On those days when I am feeling really lost, lonely, and dejected, I don’t always want solutions. I want to hear someone say, “Me, too.”

Because I think the thing we forget is that the first step in overcoming loneliness is acknowledging that we experience it. There are days I am angry. There are days I am confused. There are days I am hopeless and in despair. There are days when I do not want to turn to God. There are days when I do not want my community to surround me.

And on those days, I don’t need solutions. I just need to the strength to say, “I am hurting.” And I need to hear you say, “Me, too.” That is a powerful message to hear.

Tonight, we are going to take some time to acknowledge our loneliness in a couple of ways. There will be people standing around that you can go to and ask for prayer. And I am going to ask all of you to do something for me. Up front, there are cards and pens/pencils. Please come and write what that thing is in your life. Write it on this card, with or without your name—either way is fine, and put it in this box. I am going to take these and pray over them. So come up, write those cards, and then go back to your seat, or go and ask someone to pray with you, or go and pray for someone else.

Also, there are several cards up here that say, “Me, Too.” Take a few of them with you. Know that there are people here tonight who can speak those words to you, but throughout the week, maybe you will run into somebody else who needs to hear those words. Hand them one of these cards. Take several.

The band will play during this time of prayer and we will be close our time together with a prayer after a little while.

Let’s pray.

 

Overcoming Loneliness?

Sometimes, I am a really bad person.

Especially when it comes to dates: birthdays, anniversaries, special occasions. Now, there are some I always remember. My wife’s birthday, our wedding anniversary, our children’s birthdays are among those dates I always remember and do something special.

But I have four older brothers. I know all of their birthdays. But I often forget to call and rarely send a card. I know that my Mom’s birthday is one of two days in October; I can just never remember which one. My Dad’s birthday is so close to Father’s Day that I always just say, “Happy Birthday,” on that Sunday in June and figure I am covered.

My nieces, nephews, cousins, and other relatives all have birthdays. One every year. I think my wife remembers them. If I am friends with them on facebook I get the reminder on the actual date.

Now, my ability to remember special days for my family members is in no way related to the amount of time I spend thinking about them. I think of them often. When I see certain pictures or hear certain phrases or smell certain aromas memories come flooding back. I think about and love my family and my friends.

But I suck when it comes to actually telling them that.

_________________________

This past weekend, I was among a group of adults who spent some time with 18 high school students. We gave them the opportunity to share some of their struggles as well as important milestones in their lives. When it came to the struggles, one word popped up in almost everyone’s story: lonely.

As a parent, I observe the groups my children spend time with. At church, we are involved with the youth group. I am constantly amazed at the intelligence, wisdom, service, and maturity of this group. They are not perfect, but they are probably the greatest group of teenagers I have ever been around.

And some of them are more popular than others. Some always have a smile on their face. Some are always involved in all the activities and always have friends around them doing the same things.

And these were the ones who were saying they felt lonely.

_________________________

Loneliness is hard because it causes us to isolate from the very people who can help us the most because they relate to us so well.

Lonely people need to know other people are experiencing loneliness, too. Lonely people need to know they are not, well, alone.

Lonely has nothing to do with popularity.

Lonely can’t be overcome by continually asking, “Is everything okay?”

Lonely is not remedied with a formula; a one-size-fits-all cure; a uniform procedure.

Overcoming lonely starts with the admission, “I am lonely.” And it’s a long road from that admission to feeling better. But every journey, no matter how long, has a starting point.

_________________________

So what does my shortcoming as a relative have to do with loneliness?

How often am I around people I care for deeply but fail to say something?

How often do I look at somebody in the same room as me but do not take time to check in with them because I figure I will see them next week?

How often do I see someone with a smile on their face and just assume that everything is okay?

How often do I see someone in a crowd and assume they are doing all right since they have so many friends?

I have experienced loneliness before. I know that it is a jumbled mix of wanting to be left alone and wanting everyone to care enough to notice and say something. I know that people who are lonely want to find that one person they can talk to but they are afraid to speak up to anybody. I know that lonely people can find themselves in the midst of a large group of people and hide how they are feeling on the inside.

And I know that in my darkest moments of loneliness, I can approach the one or two people who have consistently expressed care and concern without seeming pushy.

So maybe, just maybe, if I want to be that type of person who can help others overcome their loneliness, I need to show some care and concern and interest in their lives.

It’s great that I think about how much I love my brothers. Maybe it would be better if I told them.

It’s great that when I look at people in the church auditorium I say a prayer for them. Maybe it would be better if voiced the prayer over them so they heard it.

It’s great that I genuinely care for people. Maybe it would be better if I showed it by remembering the things that are important to them.

As I said, the remedy for loneliness is not going to be the same for everyone. And in large part, the lonely person has to make a huge first step in reaching out and asking for help. But there must be people available to hear that call. We must make ourselves available to people so they will know who they can turn to when life is at its darkest.

And we can’t wait until people are in the grips of loneliness and despair before we begin to act. We help overcome (and prevent) loneliness by being people who genuinely care for and are interested in other people. We help lonely people by our willingness to consistently speak truth and encouragement into the lives of others.

It makes me sad to think that people I care for deeply may experience loneliness and ask themselves if anyone actually cares. It also makes me sad to acknowledge that I have not done enough to speak my love and care into their lives.

But that can change. I will do my part. I hope you will, too.

Breaking Out Of Isolation

Why do we isolate?

In times of grief, sometimes our first thought is to crawl into a figurative hole and cry by ourselves. We do this by binge watching TV while eating a gallon of ice cream. We do this by going to the bar and drinking until our card is maxed out. We do this by driving for miles and miles and hours and hours until we cannot afford the gas anymore. We refuse to answer the phone. We pretend we don’t hear the doorbell ring. The thought of church or parties or social events makes us sick to our stomach.

And the causes of our grief are numerous:

  • Death of a family member or friend
  • Loss of a job
  • Being a victim of abuse
  • A partner leaving
  • Being betrayed by a someone who was trusted
  • Struggling with depression, addiction, or other mental illnesses
  • Health scares
  • Moving to a new home

You can probably add more to that list. It is a fascinating truth of the human experience that although we are social creatures our first reaction in times of grief or extreme stress we often isolate.

Three things have happened this week in my immediate and extended family that were all stressful as well as being reasons to mourn. There was a time when I use to drown my feelings; hoping to forget and numb. Today, however, I fully experience all the emotion that comes with the various challenges life throws my way. And along the way, I have realized that I have learned some important behaviors; some actions I can take to keep from isolating.

First, I ask for prayers from other people. There are people in my life whom I trust. I know they are people of prayer. I go to them and ask them to pray for me. Because sometimes, I don’t have the words to speak. You may or may not be a person of prayer or faith. Let me recommend that you still find those who are and ask them to pray for you. Beyond the spiritual component of prayer, knowing that there are trustworthy, loving people caring for you can be a vital step in overcoming isolation.

Second, I talk to my partner. There was a time in my life when my wife did not hear what was going on in my life. Because I wouldn’t tell her. Now I do. You may or may not be in a committed relationship. If you are, part of that commitment needs to be sharing extreme joys and extreme pains. Intimacy demands openness. If you are not, I ask you to consider who your closest friends or family members are. Find that one person you can tell anything to and, well—tell them anything! And everything! We must speak out to others to avoid the temptation to go off and be by ourselves.

Third, I continue with my scheduled activities. This may not seem like a big deal, but it really can be. Being sad does not mean I should cancel my social activities. Being nervous is not a good excuse for missing work. Avoiding my friends’ or children’s activities will not make me better. I do understand that sometimes, our physical condition calls for rest and relaxation. Often, however, we are better off continuing with our schedules. If we don’t, we isolate. We hide. And we just make ourselves worse.

Are these suggestions a cure-all? No.

Are these suggestions the key to health, wealth, and success in all you do? No.

Will they cure your depression? No.

So why offer them? Because they are steps you can take to avoid isolating. When you are in the midst of grief, despair, or stress one of the worst things to do is isolate. Isolating potentially separates you from people who care about you. Isolating allows you to over-analyze with no other voices speaking into your life. It allows you to stay unchecked in your misery.

To break the burden of isolation, you need to find those few people who can keep you from being totally alone. Break the cycle of negative self-speak. Break the cycle of turning inward.

Find people to pray, share with your closest friend or partner, and do what you are scheduled to do.

And if you don’t who to begin with, email me: pdm95k@acu.edu

That will keep me from isolating, as well.