Friday, December 30, 2005

A Heretic for Our Times

He spoke in tongues. He cast out demons from his parishioners. Oral Roberts claimed him as his spiritual "son." He rubbed elbows with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, had special access to the White House, and flew in private jets. He built a Pentecostal mega-church in Tulsa. And then he underwent a conversion... to universalism!

NPR's amazing radio-documentary "This American Life" devoted an entire hour to profile Bishop Carlton Pearson, his conversion to the "Gospel of Inclusion," and the effects of this change on his life and ministry in their December 16, 2005 program.

It is worth an hour of your time. It is an amazing tale of honesty, conscience, struggle, tribulation, and perseverance.

Worship Around America

My colleagues from Cleveland, Reverends Kat Rolenz and Wayne Arnason, co-ministers of the West Shore UU Church, have been studying and experiencing worship on their sabbatical. They track their visits to mega-churches, emergent churches, and their conversations with leading UU ministers on their web-site.

Who wouldn't be intrigued by a church which calls itself "Scum of the Earth"?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Preparing to preach on Davidson Loehr

My sermon on January 29, 2006 will be an examination and a response to the provocative writings of Rev. Davidson Loehr, senior minister of the First UU Church in Austin, Texas. In 2004, Loehr preached the sermon "Living Under Fascism" and followed that up by writing a book entitled, America, Fascism, and God. Two lively discussions can be found here and here.

I encourage you to explore his writings as we gather on 1/29 to consider his arguments and their rammifications.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Quoted by Bill Tammeus

The Kansas City Star's religion writer Bill Tammeus quoted me in his 12/17 article, "Who do you say that I am?" This article compared and contrasted how different religious groups thought about Jesus. The section on Unitarian Universalism said:
In this tradition, Jesus is often honored as a wisdom teacher but is not considered divine and certainly not part of any Trinity, which Unitarians reject.

The Rev. Thom Belote, pastor of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, says that “if you ask a Unitarian Universalist if they believe Jesus was God, most would probably answer no. And it would be a tremendous mistake to interpret this reply as a negation, a rejection or a denial.

“We say that Jesus was fully human, no different than you or I, except that he made use of that humanity more fully than you or I ever will. … Jesus’ ministry did not so much point to a kingdom in a time to come. It said that the kingdom is already here.”

In my sermon on 12/18 I offered a more complete answer to Tammeus' question:
Dear Bill,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to contribute to your article. You ask how members of my religious tradition would answer the question, “Who was Jesus?” The question underlying this question is certainly, “Is Jesus God?” So it is probably worthwhile to examine the origins of this question. Long before there was such a thing as Unitarianism, theologians and philosophers debated the issue of Jesus’ identity and divinity. These Christians, like someone straddling a fence, had one foot squarely in the history and scriptures of Judaism and the other foot squarely in Greek philosophy. The creeds formulated in the early Christian churches were written in the language of Platonic and neo-Platonic metaphysics – substances, bodies, forms, and the like. The options available to them were not a simplistic dualism: “Jesus is either God or he isn’t.” There were many options: The Trinity is one substance in three bodies, or one body in three forms. Jesus could be co-equal with God, or a lesser deity, or a divine substance in human form, or a distinct body altogether. But, my point is, unless you happen to be a scholar of Patristic theology, most of us don’t spend a lot of time steeped in Platonic thought anymore. We are more comfortable thinking of this as a simple yes-or-no, take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

If you surveyed the members of a Unitarian Church asking them if they thought Jesus was God, most would probably answer you by saying, “No.” This answer gives the appearance of being an absolute, authoritative, and conclusive declaration. But, I believe this one-syllable, two letter answer says more than it seems to say. At least I hope it does, because the answer “No” doesn’t seem to say much at all. It would be a tremendous mistake to interpret this reply as a negation, a rejection, or a denial. We know that saying what we don’t believe does not a religion make, that a community bound together by what it opposes is not bound well. If you dig deeper, you will find that the “No” effectively – all too effectively – conceals what is actually a radical affirmation. We affirm that Jesus was fully human. And, we radically affirm that to be fully human is a good thing. We don’t so much deny Jesus’ divinity as much as we affirm his full humanity. We would say that Jesus is as fully human as you or I, except that he understood what it is to be human much better than we do most of the time, and made better use of his humanity than you or I probably ever will.

(Actually, if you did survey Unitarians, you’d probably get a number of answers that claim that we hold Jesus to be a “great moral teacher.” This answer may say more about us than it says about Jesus. We Unitarians tend to enjoy learning and promote education. Educational imagery is imagery we are comfortable using.)

But I digress. I’m not sure that the question of whether Jesus was divine or not is really the right question. A better question would be to turn this question on ourselves and ask, what does it mean to say that the spark of divinity resides within each and every one of us? Just as Jesus’ ministry did not point to the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven in some future time to come, but said, “No, look around, the Kingdom of Heaven is here if only we could open our eyes and see it,” so does Jesus’ life not point inwardly to his own divinity, as much as it points outwardly towards an embrace of the God-within each and every human being. Jesus’ example commands us to challenge those bigotries and prejudices, those hatreds and delusions, those injustices and ignorance, those principalities and powers that conspire to keep us from seeing what has been in front of us all-along: every human beings’ “Likeness to God.”

If you come to a Unitarian church during the Christmas season, you’ll probably hear the words of a woman named Sophia Lyon Fahs. Those words say, “For so the children come and so they have been coming. Always in the same way they come, born of the seed of man and woman. No angels herald their beginnings. No prophets predict their future courses… yet each night a child is born is a holy night.”

What Fahs is saying here is that it is not just the powerful and the privileged, favored and blessed, elect and select who get to be the chosen sons and daughters of God. We all are. We are all holy.

Sincerely,

Rev. Thom Belote
Shawnee Mission UU Church

Likeness to God

Here is an excerpt from William Ellery Channing's 1828 sermon, "Likeness to God." Click here for a great Channing site with complete versions of many of his sermons and essays.
What, then, is religion? I answer; it is not the adoration of a God with whom we have no common properties; of a distinct, foreign, separate being; but of an all-communicating Parent… To honor him, is not to tremble before him as an unapproachable sovereign, not to utter barren praise which leaves us as it found us. It is to become what we praise…

I regard this view of religion as infinitely important. It does more than all things to make our connexion with our Creator ennobling and happy; and, in proportion as we want it, there is danger that the thought of God may itself become the instrument of our degradation. That religion has been so dispensed as to depress the human mind, I need not tell you… To a frail, dependent creature, an omnipotent Creator easily becomes a terror, and his worship easily degenerates into servility, flattery, self-contempt, and selfish calculation. Religion only ennobles us, in as far as it reveals to us the tender and intimate connexion of God with his creatures, and teaches us to see in the very greatness which might give alarm, the source of great and glorious communications to the human soul. You cannot, my hearers, think too highly of the majesty of God. But let not this majesty sever him from you. Remember, that his greatness is the infinity of attributes which yourselves possess.

But remember, that this attribute is particularly proposed to you as your model; that God calls you, both by nature and revelation, to a fellowship in his philanthropy; that he has placed you in social relations, for the very end of rendering you ministers and representatives of his benevolence; that he even summons you to espouse and to advance the sublimest purpose of his goodness, the redemption of the human race.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Sermon: "What Type of Heretic Are You?" (Delivered 10/12/2003)

[Here's a blast from the past! A sermon I originally preached back in 2003.]

This month marks the 450th anniversary of the execution of Michael Servetus for the religious heresy of denying the Trinity. A quick recounting of his life will set the stage for the message of this sermon.

Miguel Serveto was born in 1511 to a noble family in Northern Spain. A young man of great privilege, Servetus had access to wealth and education. At age 14 he was sent to study under a Franciscan Monk. Guess what happens when you give an adolescent the tools to think for themselves and think critically about the Bible and theology? Well, what happened was the same thing that happens to our teens when they do Coming of Age. Servetus had an eagle-eye for finding inconsistencies, irregularities, and logical fallacies and was as argumentative as any teen would be. At age 20, he published “On the Errors of the Trinity.” a long theological treatise of disputes and complaints against Orthodox doctrine. The book was filled with vituperative rhetoric and scornful attacks. It was not received well. At the time he was living in an early Protestant community in France. They grew tired of his theological disputes and asked him to leave. Down in Spain, the Inquisition had gotten hold of his book and were looking to try him. Servetus went underground, adopting a pseudonym and going to medical school in Paris. While there he made the discovery that the lungs played a role in the circulatory system.

But theological dispute kept drawing him back. During his schooling he formed a relationship with John Calvin and the two debated theology. Both he and Calvin got into trouble with the Inquisition in Paris, and each left town. Calvin went into hiding and resurfaced as a Protestant leader in Geneva. Servetus meanwhile moved to Vienna. At this time, Servetus began work on his magnum opus, “The Restitution of Christianity” and engaged in a long written correspondence with Calvin. Filled with moxie, Servetus had the chutzpah to publish a version of this book prefaced with the correspondence between himself and Calvin, an argument he had clearly won. This upset Calvin, so he betrayed Servetus’ identity to the authorities. They arrested him, convicted him, and sentenced him to death. However, Servetus managed to escape right before his execution. On the run, wanted in Spain, Vienna, and Paris, where does he go, but to Geneva and tries to start up yet another fight with Calvin. There, he is arrested, sentenced to death, and was burned at the stake 450 years ago this month. The Catholics, meanwhile, were so mad that they didn’t succeed in executing him, that they burned him in effigy a month later.

The legacy of Michael Servetus in Unitarian Universalism is interesting. We claim him as one of our upper-echelon martyrs. At least two UU churches, one in Minnesota and one in Washington, have named themselves after Servetus. It is somewhat ironic that we celebrate Michael Servetus, because every single one of American churches traces its historical roots back to the Reformed tradition of John Calvin, not to the watered-down Christology of Michael Servetus. But, as Unitarian Universalists, we like rooting for the underdog. We like celebrating people who have opposed Orthodoxy, even if the heresy proposed as an alternative is not a particularly desirable one. (My family’s roots go back to the Cathars of France, a heresy within Catholicism during the Thirteenth Century. It is tempting to cheer my ancestors for what they rejected, but what they accepted wasn’t exactly much of an improvement.)

So, as many Unitarian Universalists gather this month to remember Michael Servetus, a powerful theological mind, a victim of religious intolerance, a man who faced his own death courageously, part of me does begin to wonder. Is this the end of the story? Is this all there is? Do we stop there with the simple proclamation: Hooray for Heretics! Boo for religious intolerance! I want to travel deeper here.

The word heresy is interesting. The word means deviation from orthodoxy. In fact, if there were no orthodoxy, there could be no heresy. This is an important point: the two are bound. You can’t have heresy without an orthodoxy. There is a second interesting meaning to the word as well. In Greek, the root of the word “heresy” means to choose. To choose. And this idea of choice is fascinating, because when it comes to what we believe, we do not have choice. I can no more choose to believe in God or not believe in God, or believe in the Trinity or not believe in the Trinity, that I can choose to believe that the sky is blue. You either believe or you don’t. In Unitarian Universalism, we don’t say that you can believe in anything you want to. We say that you are required to act in accordance with what you do believe. The matter of choice, then, in the word Heresy, signals a different kind of choice. A choice whether to follow what you believe. The heretic chooses to follow their conscience.

And boy, was Servetus good at following his conscience or what? He followed that conscience all over Europe, followed straight to Geneva, followed to the stake, followed his convictions all the way to the end.

But here is where I want to shake things up a little bit. I want to say that in our Unitarian Universalist heritage, which is a heritage of heretics, a heritage of choosers and conscience-followers, not all heretics are created equal. So, I ask, what type of heretic are you? What type of heretic are you?

Let’s face it, if Michael Servetus walked through that door, sat down, I would hope that he would not stay very long. Servetus would not be very patient with me, and he would probably strain my patience. Servetus was argumentative and arrogant. Belligerent and bellicose. Combative and cantankerous and contentious. Debate-prone and disputatious. He was rancorous, truculent, inimical, polemical, and irascible. He was the very embodiment of a confrontational, contrarian, an oppositional personality. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, a jerk.

Servetus represents the kind of heretic we should not aspire to be. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire towards following our convictions or being determined, only that we should not aspire to destructive or self-destructive behavior. With Servetus one gets the impression that he did not only believe in his ability to believe differently. He believed he was absolutely right, and he was going to flaunt it in the face of everybody else. So that is one type of heresy: It says to the Orthodoxy, “You’re wrong and I’m right!”

There are others ways to be a heretic too. One can be a heretic just by choosing to reject orthodoxy. This is the second type of heretic who does not know what they believe, only what they do not believe. This is the kind of heretic who says “no.” God – nope. Jesus – nope. Father, Son, Holy Spirit – nope, nope, nope. Grace – nope. Heaven – nope. Sin – nope. Prayer – nope. Church – nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. If the word Heretic means to make a choice, this type of Heretic has not really chosen, so much as this type of heretic has narrowed down the list of choices. In fact, one wonders whether this is really heresy at all, or whether it is an extreme form of anti-orthodoxy.

The “nope-nope-nope” heretic is not so much choosing as rejecting, not so much constructing as rebelling. People make powerful lives rebelling. We all know people who live lives of rebellion. Rebellion from parents, from religions, from the authority in general. Parents tell you not to smoke – you smoke. Parents tell you not to move to California – you move to California. Or maybe they don’t even tell you, maybe you just think they might, so you do. Many people live lives of intentional rejection of this or that. It is not like the orthodoxy of their parents or their religious homes have disappeared. That orthodoxy still lives in their minds, is constantly there for them to say “no” to.

There is a third kind of heresy that is not so much based in rejection as based in construction. This kind of heresy involves the stitching together of an alternative system of belief. It is not so much the choice to believe differently, as the choice to do the work of exposing yourself to an environment in which you can deepen and grow. This the heresy of building your own theology. Not an oppositional personality, but a constructive personality. The oppositional person has not moved very far from the orthodoxy. They can move to California, but their parent’s voice stays with them. They can reject the Trinity, but the Trinity is still very much with them.

In the book, “The Search for God at Harvard,” there is a story about moving from rejection to construction. In this book a Jewish religion reporter for the New York Times spends a year studying at Harvard Divinity School. At first he has these visions of his childhood Rabbi waving a finger and accusing him. He writes, “Rabbi Siegel still catches up with me sometimes, waving his finger and warning of the dangers of interfaith encounters. But I have other visions as well. Sometimes I see my Catholic neighbor who inspired me to be my own rabbi. At other times, I see my classmates, whose lives show me that deep and abiding spirituality can express itself through many paths. Or, in my mind’s eye, I see Prof. Diana Eck, who taught me that one can look at religion from within.” In this passage, Ari Goldman, the Times reporter, is moving from the voices of orthodoxy, to his own constructed faith, a constructed heresy built on his own.

Many of us have our own voices of disapproving authority figures, but are trying to build a spiritual system with a new cast of characters, a cast of characters that perhaps include the person sitting next to you, the person in your adult education class, the person in the choir or in your small group.

There is though, even another kind of heresy. It is not the argumentative and belligerent heresy of Servetus. It is not the anti-orthodox heresy of rejection. It is not even the constructive heresy as you form your own positive faith. What I am going to try to describe is a fourth way of being a heretic that isn’t oppositional or distant towards orthodoxy, a way of being a heretic that closes the relationship between orthodoxy and heresy, because the two are perpetually bound. There can be no heresy without orthodoxy.

If you are or have ever been in a close relationship, I want you to imagine that. It can be your husband, wife, partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, even a real close friend, or a relative. Now imagine something that you are different, or opposite about. You are clean and they are messy. You are introverted and they are extroverted. You are reserved and they are adventurous. In relationships, we do this, don’t we: I’m messy; she’s clean. I’m a morning person; he’s a night owl. I’m organized; she’s disorganized. Got it? Take a moment and come up with your own example? I want to propose that some of these dualities we think of are not absolutely true, but are for us sort of a myth. That we are not really all the time either one thing or the other, but we are a lot of times both. And your partner is both too. Most people are both messy and clean. Both outgoing and shy. Both reserved and adventurous. Sometimes one and sometimes the other, but that within each of you individually there lies some trace of both of these. However, we tend to polarize our differences to construct our own identities, but these identities, in turn, don’t allow us to be wholly who we are.

I’m proposing that we are all, in a way, actually both orthodox and heretical. What if there was a way to build a bridge between the polar opposites? The orthodox with a place for heresy within it and the heresy with a place for some orthodoxy. Not everything there so bad. Not everything here so good. The realm of what is possible expanding. It is my belief that in our relationships we sometimes build these myths that make things predictable, reliable. Roles that we follow. But sometimes these roles can be barriers as well. There is room to expand the roles, to leave the known roles and bring forth another side of your identity.

This is perhaps the greatest heresy of all. The heresy that ever seeks to expand upon any belief system or doctrine or religious institution, the heresy that proposes that yet more may be possible. The heresy that may bring back as new what had formally been rejected, that sings old words but sees them made new. The heresy that connects things and makes them whole, and frees us from assigned roles, frees us from reactivity and rejection, that frees us even from the new roles and definitions we’ve constructed for ourselves.

What I’m speaking of is the heresy of transformation. Not only in our actions, but in our minds and spirits, and in our whole selves. That is the greatest heresy of all, that there is something more as well as something else. It’s going to, I suspect, take a whole army of heretics such as these to transform this hurting, confused world, that always seems to be looking for another orthodoxy to adopt and follow. May we be shaken from the orthodoxies where we roost and always desiring a higher perch and a larger vantage point. May we not take for granted the freedoms and protections which Michael Servetus did not enjoy. For if we only build new orthodoxies, his martyr death would be for naught. Let us celebrate then, if not his personality, if not the theological system, now outdated, he proposed; then perhaps this, as Duncan Howlett has written of Servetus:

His was a very contemporary problem. What does a person do when they find themselves thinking what the rulers of society regard as “dangerous thoughts”? . . . Michael Servetus was not able to remain silent. He spoke the truth that was in him, and paid with his life for doing so. His was the problem of the ages, and so it is ours.


So, I ask that we strike some balance between speaking the truth we do know with bravest fire, and heretically remaining ever open to newer truth, that makes us whole and sets us free.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Humorous Church Video

This video has been making the rounds among some of my Mainline clergy friends. (The other videos at this web-site are not nearly as funny.)

Monday, December 05, 2005

Sermon: "Loneliness" (Delivered 12/4/05)

First Reading by Rev. Judith Walker-Riggs

“For every person stuck at home on Christmas Day, with nothing but a box of Kleenex and a good book, an orange and a mug of Cocoa, weeping in their isolation, there is another person stuck in a mélange of mismatched family members, bombarded by Uncle Thorvald’s political opinions, and Aunt Mildred’s religious rantings, and sister-in-law Sylvia’s greasy corn dressing, not to mention a group of high-pitched, excited children, carelessly breaking whatever they can before bedtime, who would give anything in the world to be alone, with a good book, an orange, and a mug of Cocoa.

“I learned this the hard way, when I accepted an invitation from a man to have Christmas with his family. And I’ve also learned this: that a lot of loneliness is the story you tell yourself about it. Not all, but a lot. Changing the story we tell ourselves is often the key to moving from losing ourselves in loneliness, to being able to use it, even to enjoy it.”


Second Reading by Emily Dickinson

The Loneliness One dare not sound --
And would as soon surmise
As in its Grave go plumbing
To ascertain the size --

The Loneliness whose worst alarm
Is lest itself should see --
And perish from before itself
For just a scrutiny --

The Horror not to be surveyed --
But skirted in the Dark --
With Consciousness suspended --
And Being under Lock --

I fear me this -- is Loneliness --
The Maker of the soul
Its Caverns and its Corridors
Illuminate -- or seal –


Third Reading “Adam’s Complaint” by Denise Levertov

Some people,
no matter what you give them,
still want the moon.

The bread, the salt,
white meat and dark,
still hungry.

The marriage bed
and the cradle,
still empty arms.

You give them land,
their own earth under their feet,
still they take to the roads.

And water: dig them the deepest well,
still it's not deep enough
to drink the moon from.


Sermon

As we move into the Holiday season, as the Calendar turns from eleven to twelve, as we draw closer to Christmas and Hanukkah and New Years, I want to lift up that this is a time of the year when loneliness becomes a powerful and painful thing that many people feel. For many people, the Holidays are a big old mind-trip mash-up of idealizations, projections, anxieties, insecurities, expectations: This is what my family should be like. This is what I should feel like. This is what I should give or get or have.

Speaking as a minister, you’d think that since helping people to get over the mind-trips they’re stuck in is something we’re charged with, that we ministers would have all those idealizations, projections, anxieties, and insecurities figured out. But during the Holidays, ministers may be particularly prone to these things as well. After all, we’re expected to express a lot of the magic of the season – as least as far as religious services go – and we’re expected to create it whether or not we really feel it.

In a book by UU ministers Jane Rzepka and Ken Sawyer, they tell the story of a minister about to celebrate Christmas eve but struggling to get into the mood. How could he speak to a packed sanctuary, “standing room only, pew after pew stuffed full of families reunited for the holidays, gathered in church if only for this one time all year to participate in the pageantry, the nostalgia, the beauty and the joy of the season… [all attention focused] on the miracle of birth itself, with the nativity of tale as an emblem of all such stories” when – to the month – it is the first anniversary of when he and his partner “gave up on the effort to repeat the same story… [their] fifth pregnancy end[ing] unsuccessfully, each [only having] begun with much cost and effort.”?

What I’m saying is that the Holidays can have the effect of magnifying any discrepancy there is between what we wish things were like and what they are actually like, what we’re told we should feel like and how we actually feel, what we should enjoy and what is not enjoyable, who we should be and who we are. A big old mind trip, I say. For some people, this discrepancy leads to anger, to snappiness. Others, melancholy. And for many people loneliness can be a big part of this.

There are a couple of caveats I might offer:

First, while I am aware that this morning I am no doubt speaking to some people who experience loneliness, I’m also preaching probably to some who do not, who feel connected and accompanied, and who do actually get jazzed for the whole Christmas season in a big time way. But I do guarantee that everybody here knows somebody who struggles with and suffers from loneliness. And I believe it is a good thing for those people here who do not struggle with it personally, to be reminded that loneliness is something that is a deep struggle for many people.

The second caveat I might offer is to say that while I cannot deny the reality of the deep pangs of loneliness experienced by many folks, there is a certain part of me that is quite hesitant to speak on the subject. The hesitancy is not in having nothing to say – to the contrary, “loneliness” is something that I struggle with and feel like I have something to say on the topic – but I am hesitant because even though it is a subject that has so much relevance, part of me wants to say, “Oh, that is not an important topic.”

There is a voice in me that says, “Hey, look at the world. War, poverty, hunger, disease, genocide, torture… that’s desperation, that’s need, that’s real pain and real anguish. And you’re going to worry about how the Holiday Season makes you feel?” I will admit that there is this part of me that rails when someone says they find the Holidays stressful, or painful. I want to say, “No, stressful is those folks living in the aftermath of the Pakistan earthquake. Or the Tsunami. Or Hurricane Katrina. Tough is being a Sudanese refugee, or a Guantanamo detainee.”

This type of reasoning reminds me, surprisingly, of a comedian from about a decade ago named Denis Leary. (Yes, this is the unlikeliest and most obscure sermon illustration of all time.) Denis Leary had a skit in which he played a brash therapist whose responses were what might be politely termed an “empathetic break.” People would come to him with their problems and he would say things like “Tough luck,” and “Who cares?”, and, “Nobody wants to listen to your whining.” The punch-line was that in the comedy routine people’s problems were resolved in this manner. If only real life were like this, if only we could say cavalierly, “That’s of little consequence.” I want to suggest to you this morning, as we enter into this discussion of loneliness and longing, that the solution is not found in some minimizing, some dismissing of this sense. The solution is not to be found in distancing, or rationalizing, or intellectually writing-off. Rather, we’re going to face what we’re faced with.

So, I want to tell you a bit of what I know, or at least what I think I know, about loneliness. The first thing to know about loneliness is that it is not the same thing as being alone, not the same thing as solitude. In the great religions, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, the proverbial enlightened sage sitting cross-legged on the mountain top: they all spend time in solitude, and yet, we would not call them lonely.

Loneliness is not a physical isolation – I suppose it is possible for it to be. But it is not likely for us to become castaways at sea, or to become lost in the rugged wilderness. These things don’t usually happen to us; for us, our floating adrift on turbulent seas and our wilderness wanderings are more likely to be metaphors of the soul than physical locations. Loneliness, paradoxically, is a thing that is sensed in the presence of others. Loneliness is often felt most acutely in the crowd. Our loneliness is magnified in the presence of others. What is this all about?

What loneliness is about, I might wager to suggest, is not so much a physical isolation, but a kind of non-connection with the many, many people who are actually very much all around you. This is I think what Emily Dickinson is saying, “The Loneliness, whose worst alarm / is lest itself should see / and perish from before itself / for just a scrutiny.” Emily Dickinson is not the most transparent poet, but what she is saying is actually something so profoundly upsetting that she uses lines of poetry in order to obscure and obfuscate the unsettling truth of it. And I’m going try to say plainly what I take that unsettling truth to be. As I read her, what she is saying is that if you probe that loneliness, and ask what it really is about, you will discover that the loneliness may in fact be rooted in realities that are something different than what we tell ourselves about loneliness.

The surface reasons we tell ourselves: I’m not likeable by others; I’m undesirable to others. I haven’t found the right other person. I’m so unique that it is impossible for others to understand me. I’ll just get rejected by others. This is not a place where I fit in with others because I’m different. But in the final stanza, Emily Dickinson offers a different resolution. She basically says, that if you plumb that loneliness, you’re really reading a map, not of other people, but of your own soul, and that such an expedition – a kind of spelunking of the soul – can either avoid all those closed off spaces, or unseal them, open them, illuminate them. And it is up to you to unseal them.

That is the great paradox of being around so many, but being so alone. Denise Levertov writes poetically of that person who is never fulfilled, never sated, never comfortable, always longing. Wanting the moon. She describes a type of longing – still hungry, still empty, still not enough – that, ironically, keeps one from moving beyond their own loneliness. Some people, no matter what you give them, still want the moon. Some people, no matter who they are with, are still lonely.

Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen, whose writings are the required reading of every seminarian, interprets Biblical stories as parables of loneliness. Fascinating is his telling of the story of the prodigal son, where the father welcomes back his ne'er-do-well progeny not out of a principled righteousness, or a particularly developed sense of forgiveness, or even love. In Nouwen's telling, it is actually a profound loneliness that was the motive force leading to the re-acceptance of the prodigal son. He welcomes him back because without him he was lonely.

Similarly, and more fitting a sermon delivered at the beginning of advent, the story of Mary and Elizabeth, is an instructive story on the subject of loneliness. And to read it this way, it does not matter if you read it literally, metaphorically, historically, or skeptically. According to the gospels, Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, becomes pregnant at an advanced age, and not without cost to their family. Basically, the Angel Gabriel arrives and says, “Elizabeth, the good news is your wish to have a child will be granted, but the bad news is that we will have to turn your husband, a priest (a speaking profession) into a mute.” Several months later, and several miles away, Mary conceives a child – the story tells us – under even more unusual circumstances. I don't think it would be too much of a stretch to imagine that this would have been a lonely experience – whatever we think the experience really was. I don't think it is too much of a stretch to imagine that both women experience isolation, worry, a feeling like there is no one else in the world who could possibly understand. And then, Elizabeth and Mary meet. And it is in this joining of two lonely souls, they are able to say words to one another that no one else, not even Joseph and Zechariah, are able to say: I understand what you're going through, you are not alone.

A big part of loneliness, not all, but a big part is the story we tell about ourselves... and about others. Changing the story that we tell may make us a little bit more OK at those times when we feel alone. And changing the story may serve to unseal those caverns and corridors, let a little light, or another person, in.

Change the story: you are not the only one; there is somebody else who gets what you are going through. Really, they do. Change the story: welcome the prodigal one and ease your lonely heart. Change the story: Face a crowd full of faces that struggle with what you struggle with, who feel in the ways that you feel.