How to combat loneliness - Vince Brackett
Has anyone ever heard the old bit that’s supposed to prove the limits of the mind to understand love and connection? SLIDE Basically, it points to the unanswerable-ness of: How do you know your mother loves you? Or how do you know your spouse loves you? Prove it. Well it’s not exactly something you prove, right? You can point to evidence, I guess. My mother has cared for me these ways. Or because my wife tells me she loves me. Or whatever. But in the end, it’s just not the same as “How do you know a shape is a triangle? Prove it.” Ever heard this kind of thing? Isn’t something like this in every romantic comedy ever? How do I know it’s love? The uncertain protagonist asks. And then the screw-up but loveable friend is the unexpected source of wisdom says: You gotta get out of your head man! Just go to her. Tell her “you complete me”. Right? Isn’t that like a major plot point all the time? That you can’t explain love?
Anyway, I actually love this. But how do you know I love it? Can you prove it?... Just kidding... No, I mean there are so many things wrong with how we conceive of love and connection in our transactional and consumeristic culture, that also has a strangely-strong belief in soul mates and that romantic love can fix everything, BUT this is one thing that I like that we, as a whole in our culture, accept: that love and connection, in any form, is not really something to be explained; it is something to be experienced, and then you know it
One of my favorite ideas in theology is related to this, I think: SLIDE It’s the concept of the Trinity - that we have God the Father (as Jesus referred to God), God the Son (that is Jesus, God come to humanity in human form), and then the Holy Spirit — described as “proceeding from the Father and Son’s relationship, flowing out of the love God the Father and Jesus the Son have for each other” Often depicted as a dove, as in this oil painting That’s one of the more mystical things in all of spirituality and religion, which can feel confusing or off-putting to many, and I totally get that! But I also kinda love it, because I think it’s like what I was just talking about
We actually talk like this all the time in the modern world.
We talk about groups of people or lovers in this way, as though the connection between them, which we can’t even begin to understand, has a vibe, a power, a persona to it, all its own, Beyond the people themselves. Something with its own force is proceeding from them -- the fabric between them, that makes up their connections. SLIDE We talk about a laugh being infectious, as it spreads through a group of friends. SLIDE Or we say sometimes that we can feel or see that a couple is in love -- when we look at the back and forths they share SLIDE In sports, we talk about the 12th man in football or the 6th man in basketball -- the home crowd at a game, that seems to take on a life of its own and affect the outcome of the game SLIDE We even use the word “spirit” sometimes — I walked into the room where the AA meeting was, and there was a spirit about that group, of warmth, of comfort, of welcome, of no judgment. Or conversely, I walked into that church, and there was a spirit about that group, of lots of judgment, of stuffiness, that made me feel like I might be condemned.
So, if you’re up for giving mysticism a chance, all of these examples are, I think, a bit at what the earliest theologians we’re getting at when they developed this way to understand their experiences of God as a Trinity, with God the Father, Jesus the Son, and then God’s Holy Spirit proceeding from the love between those two.
One phrase for the Holy Spirit based on this that I like is “the go-between God” — God’s Holy Spirit is that which “goes between” us, when we feel a deep connection with another person. When a mother gazes at her child, Or when friends listen to each other intently, Or when a group of people gather for prayer and worship and community on a Sunday, Or, if it doesn’t make you too uncomfortable for me to share, when lovers exchange a look.
I love that!
God is in the fabric of our relationships, our connections with others. God’s Holy Spirit is what we are perceiving when we experience connection or love in any of its many forms
One of the most famous expressions from the letters written by Jesus’ earliest followers which make up the New Testament of the Bible is from the Apostle John: “God is Love,” he wrote.
That grabs me. I like that interpretation of life -- of how all love and connection we ever experience in life is shot through with the Spirit of God.
That’s why it’s so unexplainable! Maybe, whenever we experience connection, we are experiencing something spiritual - maybe we are experiencing God.
We talked a bit last week about why this feels so important to us as a church: SLIDE Because all people need connection… it may be the thing we all need more than anything else in life -- even more than answers to our questions, even more than resolution to our problems The stakes are not low for this. How many people here have ever been in a situation where you’re surrounded by people, but you feel lonely nonetheless? On paper, that is unexplainable, right? It doesn’t make sense. You’re surrounded by people, how can you feel lonely? Or here’s the reverse question: how many people here have ever felt misunderstood in general, but then there was one person who finally got you, and a sense of loneliness left you? Or perhaps an experience in prayer made you feel that God understands you, and in that a sense of loneliness left you? Those sorts of experiences don’t make sense on paper either. But they’re real. Connection and love are mysterious, but they’re real, We need them for our lives to go well… And we need them if we ever hope for our lives to mean something beyond ourselves, if we ever hope to have connection and love and sacrifice to give to others
A big part of the way we think about the goal of our church is to help with the mysteriousness and unexplainable-ness of connection -- So you can experience connection and love with other people, and with the Go-Between God. That’s what our Small Groups are about, as we learned about last week -- providing space for connection to happen.
And to continue that thread this week, you may have noticed on the back of the small group list we distributed last week (and which I’m going to distribute again now) we printed this thing called “the personal check in”
SLIDE I want to unpack that for you all, and tell you why it’s changed my life.
This is a simple model of what I do with the people closest to me in my life. I do basically this thing (or close to it) multiple times a week, every week. With Kyle once a week in our weekly meeting, With my wife Keziah frequently throughout a week, as we update each other on our days, And with my men’s group once a week.
And the returns this has had for me, I don’t think I could totally explain — I am just hands down a happier, healthier, better person.
Let me walk us through a “for instance”, and you can follow along… Every week in my weekly meeting with Kyle, we take turns going through these three steps with each other How are you? (Kyle will ask me) I give a little update on my week but try to make it my goal to describe my current emotional reality in one sentence I had an argument with someone I love and I don’t know what to do now I got chewed out by my boss and I’m feeling defensive and like I’m three feet tall Less details than we may think are needed to share honestly The key is describing our emotional reality It’s of course important to give context in order to do that But we can often get stuck in updating and spending too much time storytelling about what happened, with whom, and the backstory about this and that Shooting for one-sentence can help with that How can I pray? (After I share with Kyle in our meeting, he wants to know what I need that I can’t give to myself) What help, rest, peace, guidance, movement or growth do I want from God? Maybe I feel ashamed, so I need encouragement. Maybe I’m stressed out and mad. So I need peace and calm, so I can figure out what to do next with a clear head We have here: consider the 6 Base Emotions I love this piece. Because finding words for what I need is really hard for me. I am such a classic example of how American-middle-class-white-boys were socialized when I was a kid I was taught explicitly about academics, BUT any social and emotional education was too uncomfortable for boys to talk about -- you had to inuit that or figure it out for yourself I did not learn how to identify feelings, let alone how to TALK about feelings Especially negative feelings, of course This gives me an entry point into something I’m not naturally good at: try on for size anger, then sadness, then fear, then shame… which one matches best? I am afraid… Actually, no, that’s not quite right… I’m mad. I need to feel understood. Pray for that! Pray (then Kyle prays for me) This is as simple as him bringing to God in his own words what I just asked for God, Vince is angry and needs to feel understood. Show him your understanding. Would he feel like he has an ally who gets it. There are no right words to pray. It doesn’t have to be eloquent. It doesn’t have to be long. It’s actually better when it’s not long And then the key here is Kyle taking some time to be quiet, and let me wait and try to perceive God. Prayer is relating to God, and just like relating to people, it happens over time. There’s no such thing as insta-relationship. We have to feel it out, over time. Finally, we have here an important caution we teach a lot here: be careful not to pray advice Giving advice to a friend is totally appropriate when they ask for it, but that’s not what prayer is for It’s SUPER easy to accidentally pray advice though. I do it all the time on accident “God, show Kyle he should just tell his boss how he really feels” See how that’s actually about me believing I have the right advice. Not about asking God for help. In prayer, we’re meant to leave the guidance up to God… trusting that he’ll speak to Kyle the right thing… I don’t have to.
So I wonder if this feels helpful to you like it does for me?
SLIDE But there’s one last thing worth sharing here. Our opening video today (and also last week, we liked it so much, we did it again) was from a great writer and speaker on leadership named Simon Sinek He talked about the difference between intensity and consistency He said most of us default to thinking intensity is more impactful Problems in an organization? Massive lay-offs! New CEO! Problems in your life? Make a huge change to shake things up! You come at things with intensity But, he argues, consistency is often far more impactful SLIDE For example, brushing your teeth -- his point? If you brush your teeth once, it will do absolutely nothing for you. BUT if you brush your teeth EVERYDAY, every dental professional agrees that is THE biggest difference maker for your dental health It’s not about intensity, it’s about consistency That applies to so much of life, not just brushing your teeth
SLIDE And that applies here. What will the personal check in do if you do it once? Pretty much nothing, I think. But if you do it consistently, it will combat loneliness in a massive way.
I actually had the most heavy experience of loneliness I’ve had in years a couple weeks ago. I had had a misunderstanding with a close friend over the phone, and my wife was out of town for a day, so I was flying solo with my two boys, and on top of that the night before she left she had forgotten to do something she’d promised to me but I didn’t say anything so now I’d let resentment build in me… It was a bad day. I felt alone. BUT, unlike experiences of loneliness from previous seasons of my life (I can think of one in particular when I was in college), only 24 hrs later, after this bad day, I felt totally stabilized -- no longer lonely. I believe it turned around quickly because of the years I’ve spent doing this consistently — with my co-pastor, my closest guy friends, my wife.
There are so many benefits to consistently doing this In addition to experiences of loneliness turning around more quickly Consistent practice with this will improve your ability to quickly and accurately identify how you’re feeling… which is just in general good for your whole life The “6 base emotions” thing -- again SO helpful to me And the encouraging things for people like me, who are only learning later in life how to identify and talk about feelings is that much of Emotional Intelligence is skills, that anyone can improve at There are some personalities and temperaments that have an easier time But ANYONE can improve at these skills with practice This will help you get more out of your relationships Relationships are built on people letting each other in to each other’s lives Letting others in doesn’t have to look like this model, of course. It looks lots of ways. But the helpfulness of a model is that it can get us started This will help your prayer life Prayer is fundamentally a relationship too. The more emotionally intimate experiences we have in relationships with other human beings, the more capacity for depth and emotional intimacy we have in our relationships with God Here’s one you may not expect: this is how many people find themselves able to kick the habit of pornography. Many people don’t realize: Pornography habits and addiction, as much as they are about sex, are actually more about attempting to meet deep needs in us that arise from feeling things like: loneliness, or stress, or out of control And so, not in all cases, but in some, more emotional intimacy leads to a disappearing appetite for pornography I can only speak for myself as a heterosexual men, but it’s worth passing on for us all: that on the surface it can sound very surprising to a heterosexual guy that kicking a habit of pornography might come through increased emotional intimacy with other men But if you peel back the layers, it makes sense. If pornography habits and addictions show up the most in people’s lives when they are feeling lonely, stressed, or out of control, then it stands to reason: The things that need to be addressed are those underlying feelings of loneliness, stress, and overwhelmed-ness. Just to say, most church settings are so scandalized by anything that remotely has to do with sex, that it can feel like they shut down all manner of reasonable thought and act in patently stupid or cruel or robotic ways, because that feeling of being scandalized consumes everything else. And that is such a horrible legacy of church settings, because, as a result, people (many of us here probably) who are feeling loneliness, stress, and out of control are taught that everything comes down to treating a symptom (here are the six ways to avoid pornography!) instead of addressing our actual needs. So we’re left berating ourselves for our lack of will-power to succeed at kicking the habit of pornography, and we’re STILL feeling lonely, stressed out, or overwhelmed If you’ve experienced something like that, I am so sorry! And should you want to hear more about this, if we have earned your trust here at BLV, we would love to show you how not scandalized we are when things that have to do with sex come up, and (hopefully) actually be helpful to you. You can send an email to me, or to Marijean, our head of Women’s ministry here. Our emails are in your program.
So I recommend today the consistency of some sort of personal check in Perhaps this model is helpful, but it’s certainly not the only way!
SLIDE And perhaps our small groups can be helpful too — Whether by helping you to make some new friends, discovering who might be people you can do regular personal check ins with Or maybe you know who those friends could be, and our small groups can help provide the intentionality and consistency to actually regularly do something like a personal check in Or just by providing you a weekly or monthly or every other week chance to get more practice going to the sort of emotionally vulnerable places that a personal check in takes us — Every one of us is stunted at this because our transactional/consumeristic culture does not do a good job of teaching us relational tools — So this is valuable practice that, with consistency, will leave us feeling more connected, less lonely, more loved, less self-hatred, more balance, less overwhelmed-ness
At the end of service today, we’ll tell you how the small group fair will work
For now, let me pray for us...