Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Letter to the Church from the Lonely

Today is church day. It’s Sunday; that’s what you do. As I leave the apartment, there is one man slumped on the concrete steps outside the door, smoking. His eyes go from my Bible to my dress, then roll a little.

I don’t know his name and avoid looking at him. I’ve said exactly three “good mornings” and five “thank-yous” to people who live in my apartment building, and nothing more.

The church I picked from the Internet meets in a middle school, and it is my kind of church, filled with people who care about deep things. I can tell because I actually hear some guy with glasses say the word “exegetical” as I go past, the first I’ve heard it spoken out loud since leaving Taylor University. It sounds a little like home.

Inside, a guy with a banjo is playing somewhere. Lots of young people, everyone wearing jeans. In the auditorium, the chairs are a blessed shade of orange, the same tacky color of my home church’s pews before the remodeling, the color of community as I knew it growing up, the color of child-like faith. I actually smile, seeing their ugliness.

Hardly anyone is there yet, because I am perpetually early. So I sit down off to one side, right in the middle of a row so that people will hopefully have to sit next to me.

Except they don’t, because the auditorium isn’t full. There is plenty of space. So I people-watch for the next ten minutes. These are good people, I can tell. They smile like they mean it. They love their kids. They gesture as they talk about things of God, because they really care.

I hear snatches of conversation from people around me, but they’re talking over me. Maybe they are so involved in their small groups that they don’t know who’s new. I should go and find someone, but the auditorium is tiered on different levels, and for some reason, that makes it seem more deliberate, more intrusive. Besides, what would I say?

By the time worship starts, I’m crying, just a little, and I feel guilty because I realize it will make me look really spiritual, like the lyrics to the song are moving. And they are. We just sang about the lonely being put in families. And I want to jump up on the stage and shout, “I am lonely! Why will no one talk to me? Why will no one be my family?” and just see what they will say, what the body of Christ will tell me.

Really, though, it’s not all bad. God has been here for me. I didn’t leave him behind in Indiana. And I’ve met some wonderful Christian people at work. My family and friends from home have written and called and reminded me that I am loved. The silence is teaching me things about faith. And I remember this, but I still feel like I’m missing something.

Now they talk about visitors, ask us to raise our hands. I do, confidently, unlike a few more hesitant families near the back. I’m not afraid to draw attention to myself. I don’t want to slip out of these doors unnoticed.

The guy with glasses who talked about exegesis makes eye contact with me from across the room, then quickly looks away. And the ushers see my hand too and pass me a packet with information about the church and a pen and a magnet with the service time.

We take communion, and the prayers are beautiful and the lyrics of the old hymns are the same and I know the harmonies. And I am a part of something, and it takes the burden away for a little while. These are my brothers and sisters, even though they haven’t greeted me. I know I’ve done the same to others, back when I was safe and around people who knew and loved me. I’ve ignored the outsiders too. It’s not their fault, not really.

The sermon is about idolatry, about putting anything above God or thinking it will satisfy, and it is moving and powerful. And the pastor asks us what we have turned to this week when we’ve been hurting. Is God alone enough for us?

I have turned to people. I have written letters, made phone calls, started long Facebook conversations. I have also prayed and read my Bible and made a list of things I’m learning about God. Should I feel guilty for one, but not the other?

Visitors, after the service, are directed to go to a table in the back, where I meet one of the welcoming committee, who asks me where I’m from. “Indiana,” I say, “but I just moved here.” Then I turn in my visitor card, but decline the coffee and stale cinnamon rolls.

I didn’t fill in the “How can we pray for you?” section.

How can I be angry at people for not giving me what they didn’t know I needed? So I fish it back out, scribbling, “I just moved here, and the transition has been hard. If you could pray for that, I’d appreciate it. Thanks.”

I turn it back in and get a CD with worship music and an introduction to the pastor, who is glad I’m visiting and asks if I have any questions.

And I do, because I always do. So I ask: “Is it wrong to need Christian community, in addition to God? Is that saying that God is not enough?”

The pastor assures me that this is not the case. My mind summarizes his argument quickly, neatly: We need relationships with others as a smaller category of our need for God, because what we need and love about them are reflections of God himself.

This is true, and this is beautiful.

I smile, thank him, and start to leave, almost heading down the wrong hallway toward the gym instead of the exit. I take a drink out of a chlorinated fountain to pretend I meant to go that way.

Then I linger, just a few seconds, looking at the people in the hallway outside the auditorium. Waiting for someone.

Because, the night before, I had dreamed that one of my friends had come to me and given me a hug. I have had exactly two hugs in the three and a half weeks I have been here.

When I woke up that Sunday morning, I had prayed, “God, please bring someone to me to hug me today. Please.”

And why wouldn’t God answer a prayer like that?

I don’t know. But he hasn’t, and I’m giving him one last chance. Because the reason the body of Christ has arms is to give people hugs. Right?

Then I feel too uncomfortable to wait, even though it’s only been five seconds. So I leave.

I wish I could have written this blog post on the prayer card, because then maybe they would understand. Maybe next week they would greet me and give me a hug. Silly idea. There wasn’t enough space.

Someday, I will feel like this is home. I will have a family, and they will be there for me when I cry and they will know my name and meet my eyes and maybe talk about exegesis with me. And I’m not angry at them for not being that for me right now, because they can’t know and I’m partially to blame and none of us are perfect, not yet.

But, later, I hope I remember what it’s like to be on the outside. I hope I look for ways to love the lonely, and I hope you do the same. Because writing this is hard…but I feel like I need to do it. I need to say that I am not fine and ask you to find other people around you who are not fine and give them a hug.

Before you feel bad for me and fly out to Minnesota to comfort me (although I’d be happy to see you), let me assure you that most days are not this lonely. That is not the point. When I say that I am enjoying life here, I really mean it. It's just that some days, particularly Sundays, are hard.

And on most days, there’s at least one lonely person within your reach. Please love them.

Because God is enough…but he knows we need each other too.


  1. As someone who has travelled to MANY churches on "home assignments" as an MK-- churches where we actually "knew" people (or they knew who we were)-- I know that churches can sometimes be the most lonely of places. Maybe because our expectations are higher. :) Here's a hug from someone who has sat through MANY akward/lonely jr high and college classes and definitly done the whole hide out in the bathroom thing. *HUGS!!*

  2. It's not just college students who are lonely. It's middle-aged soon-to-be-widowed people like me who are still wondering why it's so hard to find folks who want to be in genuine community. Hang in there. God's got this...somehow. :)

  3. I got taste of this in Colorado this summer. I went to a church by myself many weeks. Don't let the loneliness and cynicism keep you from being the outgoing person you are. Also, if you ever want to talk or pray, I'd love to do that with you.

  4. Great reminder. Some days I joke about our church's greeter ministry because getting into church feels like "running the gauntlet." This is a powerful reminder that there are those that need that greeting and that connection with family. I need to remember not to be in my own little world when I enter church and reach out to those around me who are alone.

  5. On the other hand, you interacted with at least nine other people that morning who may not even have a relationship with God, let alone good relationships with other people.

    Don't take this as a directed criticism at you, because I (and most Christians in America today) are just as guilty of the same thing: inward focus.

    For example, the smoker on the steps. He saw you were headed to church and rolled his eyes at you, and you deliberately ignored him as you passed by. You don't know his name; I'll guess that you also don't know if he's married, or if his family lives nearby, or if he even speaks to them. Yet while you went to church and lamented that nobody went out of their way to love you as a sister, he likely sat at home watching something on TV, equally unloved.

    American Christians have this overemphasis on "coming in." They want people to "come in" to God's presence, "come" to church, "enter in" to fellowship with each other. Our Messiah, though, "went out:" He went out to the towns and villages, went out to the synagogues; he sent out his disciples one or two at a time, and his final instruction was again "go."

    The Biblical pattern of coming and going is, unerringly, this: We do not come to God, for "There is none who seeks for God, all have turned aside," but God comes to us; and then we, filled with God, "go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation."

    1. Absolutely, Asher. That's actually why I included the part about the show that I am just as guilty of treating people as outsiders as the churchgoers I talk about later. There are a lot of passages that focus on loving other believers as the main trait that should distinguish the church (John 13:34-35), but even this is supposed to mark the Christian church as Jesus' disciples to people in the world.

  6. You know what? This day kind of ended up in the phrase "I need a hug." The thing for me is it annoys me when someone says something that's not mean, but I take it as personal then I get all depressed.

    I donno, things happen.

    Thank you for the post, Amy Green. You're such a wonderful person. Believe me, you're getting a big hug whenever I see you next. (:

  7. Moving to a new place is really, really hard. When we moved from Indiana to North Carolina, I did two things. 1) I cried every day for about three months, and 2) I got lost every time I set foot outside our apartment (yes, even just to go for a walk).

    I wrote in my journal that I "hated" it here.

    And now, as we contemplate moving away, the tears resurface, not because I still hate it here, or am remembering that lonely time (and I was here with my husband, and still quite lonely, because he was working all day and I was being a stay-at-home-wife, which isn't that common anymore). It's because I finally feel like I "fit" here. I have several very good friends. My kiddos have good friends. I love my church. And leaving would feel like someone tearing a part of my heart out. But, I'm shy, and this phenomenon of "fitting in" took years to occur.

    All of that mostly to say, I feel for you. You are not alone in that moving-to-a-new-place loneliness. And, it will get better. God does not intend for us to live in a vacuum. (And I'm glad that people reached out to you yesterday at church and that you found out some of them meant to a few weeks ago as well, but were not able to).

  8. I stumbled upon your post today as I was sitting down to write something very similar. Thank you for sharing and making yourself vulnerable, sometimes it's nice to know you're not alone.