The Mod | Community and Solitude: A Corona-Paradox

Thursday, 21 May 2020

I have been a suburbanite my whole life.  Though I have lived within the orbit of several large cities, I have never lived in an urban context. Though I have momentarily lived in the country, I do not have an innate sense for rural life. Because of this, among other things, I am well-versed in the inherent challenges that suburban life poses for community life.  Separation of persons is etched into the fabric of suburban America. The design of our homes, and neighborhoods, and our road systems necessarily separate and seclude. Add on top of that our now increasingly digital lives and you find what some have called an epidemic of loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

But now we find ourselves in a time of pandemic.  Personal separation, or social distancing, has been governmentally mandated in some form or fashion. Thus, even if you have not personally experienced the effects of the Coronavirus itself, nearly all of us have felt its residual socioeconomic effects.  The challenge to live life in community with others has taken on a new shape.  But so has the experience of solitude.  Additional hurdles have manifested themselves in the pursuit of a local, communal life, while the quantity of time in solitude has skyrocketed for many. Dietrich Bonhoeffer highlighted this dual-challenge when he wrote, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls.”[1] Relationally, we find ourselves in a paradoxical time wrestling both with what it means to still live in community and with what to do with our new experience of solitude.

The Psalmist writes, “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart” (Psalm 51:6). There is great profit in solitude. God teaches us wisdom in the secret heart in these times. The practice of solitude is a spiritual discipline. It requires great discipline to extract the value and virtue of solitary time. How much more so in our world today!  How much so during the Coronavirus pandemic! For those who live alone (or even with roommates), the quantity of alone time the past two months is consuming, undoing, and can manifest itself in a persistent soul ache and ever-fluctuating distress. The dark night of the soul settles in. “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1).

My home has been the opposite.  With three children under seven years of age, things are in a persistent state of frenetic activity, swift emotional risings and fallings, and little personal and emotional space.  Solitude is elusive.  When found, it is a refreshing breeze of clarity and peace.  Being alone is pure oxygen for me. However, this is not so much the case for my highly extraverted wife.  A day of draining, all-hands-on-deck parenting paired with a deficiency of community engagement flattens her out.  Zoom and FaceTime interactions are poor substitutes for the face-to-face fellowship we crave. “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1).  We are on the hunt for both the gospel rest of community life and solitude.

What I have come to see is that the nature of a life in quarantine (or some form of restricted personal freedom) requires greater intentionality and creativity.  Our worlds have been shrunk – whether the world of our regular community life or our inner life of solitude before the Lord.

Recently, we introduced our kids to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), a classic family film from my childhood. The haphazardly shrunken adolescents find themselves in the Szalinski backyard for a great deal of the movie.  The tame, boring yard that they inhabited has now become a threatening jungle.  What used to be easy – coming back inside – has now become a great feat fraught with new perils. Interaction with family and their community has become interrupted and complicated.  It is a parable for this season of the Coronavirus. Community life is harder, but so is the experience of solitude.

While I have had plenty of moments of bucking against this experience and wrestling with my own idolatry and inner frustrations during this season, a large part of me has been thankful for this smaller world and shrunken life.  We have enjoyed more family time. I have had more frequent conversations with my neighbors.  I have read the Bible and prayed more.  I have had more time to focus on our home and neighborhood.  My appreciation and enjoyment of our home, our local park, our neighbors, our church family, and our God-given place has deepened.  I have been able to give thanks with more earnestness praying: “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance” (Psalm 16:6).

As a life-long suburbanite as well as a descendent of many Air Force brats, an appreciation of place has taken time for me to cultivate. God has worked this in me by His grace – slowing me down, opening my eyes to see the beauty present in ordinary people and places, and giving me courage to risk being known by others, while seeking to know them.  Increasingly, I have a deep longing to understand what it means to “live at the pace of being known” – to live at “Godspeed” as pastor and author Matt Canlis calls it.[2]  I believe that the effects of the Coronavirus are an invitation to this type of living, which is a deeper appreciation and experience of both community life and solitude with God in the local places where He has planted us.

Wendell Berry has been a prominent voice in this part of my pilgrimage. I have been struck by a particular passage in his novel Jayber Crow. The title character reflects on his life ambitions upon returning to his hometown as a middle-aged man in the following way:

“…I felt at home. There is more to this than I can explain. I just felt at home. After I got   to Port William, I didn’t feel any longer that I need to look around to see if there was some place I would like better. I quit wondering what I was going to make of myself. A lot of my doubts and questions were settled. You could say, I guess, that I was glad at last    to be classified. I was not a preacher or a teacher or a student or a traveler. I was Port   William’s bachelor barber, and a number of satisfactions were available to me as the prerequisites of that office.” [3]

 

I quit wondering what I was going to make of myself.  I felt at home. I was glad at last to be classified. I don’t know what to do with this! It goes against my outwardly ambitious inner drive.  It goes against my family narrative of “go out and find your place in the world.” And yet, while Jayber’s mentality if foreign to me, it is desirable.

It means fully embracing the community in which I have been planted by God. It means seeing a particular place as fundamental to my calling as a pastor, as a barber, or whatever it is. And it means enjoying the exquisite joy of being named by Christ and communing with His Spirit in solitude in whatever place I might find myself.

Your life is not “out there,” it’s right under your nose. God and His kingdom are not “out there” to be tracked down, He’s with you always and His kingdom is in your midst (Matthew 28:20b; Luke 17:21).  “Your people” are not across the country, they’re across the street and around the corner.  This is our local calling even as we seek and desire “a homeland… a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:14, 16).

I once heard a pastor at a youth conference sum up God’s arrangement for Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-2 as the following: being with God, in a place, loving people like crazy.  That sounds pretty good to me.

 

 

 

Greg Meyer (MDiv, Reformed Theological Seminary; BSE, Mercer University) serves as an Assistant Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in St. Louis, MO. Prior to coming to Covenant, he served churches in Mississippi and Georgia. He has served as a conference speaker with Reformed Youth Ministries, is a contributing author at Rooted Ministry, and has also written for the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (CPYU) and Orthodoxy Orthopraxy, Covenant Theological Seminary’s blog.

 

 

 

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together, 1st ed. (New York: Harper & Brother, 1954), 77.

[2] To learn more about the idea of Godspeed, watch the documentary at www.livegodspeed.org

[3] Berry, Wendell. Jayber Crow. (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000), 123.

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