Alone, Together

I spoke for the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina this past weekend. I went with my co-pastor, Kristie Sykes, and we had a wonderful time, though I do think she caught on to my plan to conveniently not have any cash when it was time to eat from the food trucks.

Outside of speaking at Left Hand, the Wild Goose Festival was my first live audience since Covid arrived on our shores. The people were wonderfully responsive, and they bought a lot of books, which makes my publisher happy. This was the second time I’ve given a keynote while the venerable artist Ken Medema sat at the piano and wrote a song themed to my message, which he sang as soon as I finished.  The audience was moved to tears.

The next day Kristie and I presented a workshop about planting Left Hand Church, which seemed to go quite well. We also attended enthralling sessions by Stan Mitchell, Josh Scott, and Brian McLaren, and enjoyed great music, including our own Heatherlyn and Jason.  The entire festival is held outdoors at a campground on the Appalachian Trail, and everyone in attendance had to be vaccinated, which made for a warm and inviting atmosphere.

I needed the Wild Goose Festival this past weekend. It was a balm for my soul. As I think a lot of us are experiencing, I am in a season of necessary inward focus. During this period, I am again reading James Hollis’ book, Swamplands of the Soul – New Life in Dismal Places. My first and second passes of the book were during times in which I was extremely busy and living with others. This reading is different. I live alone, and I have been lonely. It took being alone and being lonely for me to be ready to fully take in the book’s message. Some truths can only be received when you are looking inward.

In the book, Hollis quotes Clark Moustakis, “Loneliness is a condition of human life, an experience of being human which enables the individual to sustain, deepen, and extend their humanity. Efforts to overcome or escape the existential experience of loneliness can result only in self-alienation.”

I do not like what Moustakis suggests. I do not want self-alienation to be the result of avoiding loneliness. But I cannot make it untrue by wishing it to be so. After quoting Moustakis, Hollis continues with these words: “It is precisely our aloneness that permits our uniqueness to unfold.

He goes on to say we “inevitably overrate the value of relationship and underrate the value of solitude…The person who attains solitude is alone in his or her unique experience of the journey, yet such a person is conscious of an inner presence with which to dialogue. Out of such dialogue, the individuation process moves forward. How tragic, then, the repudiation of such an opportunity for growth.”

Um, okay. And where would this “inner presence” be found? Is alcohol involved, or gummies? Apparently, this “inner presence” is found beneath the ego with its constant demands. The “inner presence” is the realm of the soul. Hollis says the antidote for loneliness is to embrace loneliness.

On August 28 we had the first baptismal service in the history of Left Hand Church. Seven people were baptized by our co-pastors.  It was a beautiful evening on Lake MacIntosh, the mountains brilliantly purple in the fading summer light. I was baptized in 1961, in the baptistry of the Noble Avenue Church of Christ in Akron, Ohio. But as we began to plan for our baptismal service, I felt a strong desire to be baptized as Paula.

I surrendered to the hands of my co-pastor, Kristie, as she lowered me into the water. I had baptized her minutes earlier. I felt the water’s cool gentle presence all over my body. As she raised me from the water, still in surrender, I thought, “This is why immersion in water was the practice of the early church. To be lifted by another from the water into the air is surrendering to life as it is, not as you wish it to be, but as it is. For me, it was a surrender that brought forth Dag Hammarskjold’s words, “For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes.”  It was a surrender to life, which right now includes embracing loneliness.

We are born in water, shocked out of the womb into our aloneness as we take our first breaths.  I came out of the baptismal water ready to enter into my time of inward focus. I knew space was being held for me by those who collectively lowered me into the water and lifted me back up again. These people will keep an eye on me, reach out and touch me, and give me space within their cocoon of love. At its best, this is what the church is. It is learning to be alone, together.

A good marriage is also learning to be alone, together. I felt that throughout my marriage to Cathy, and I feel it from her still. I feel it from my children, my closest friends, and those rare and special friends you don’t see all that often who just somehow get you, as you get them.

I saw a few of those people at Goose. I spent an hour with the spiritual giant who used to lead our denomination’s largest mission agency at the time I led one of its large church planting agencies. His words were so powerful I committed them to memory. I spent a couple of hours with the pastor and theologian whose personal journey has added wisdom to his storehouse of great knowledge, and allowed him to bring words of healing and comfort into my life. The young pastor whose instincts for ministry are impeccable, thanked me for a probing question I asked about his experience with blessed failures. The therapist whose work on sexual education has helped many, greeted me as she always does, with genuine warmth and affection.

Wild Goose, Left Hand Church, my co-pastors, friends, and family – these are the people with whom I want to be alone together. These are my fellow-travelers. Some of them will run to the end of the platform and wistfully wave as my train slips away from the station, the ones who know that even when we are embracing loneliness, we are never fully alone.

This is a necessary and important time. Many of you understand. You have been here too. The call toward authenticity is sacred, and holy, and for the greater good. But sometimes it does call us into the deeper places we’d rather avoid.

And so it goes.

4 thoughts on “Alone, Together

  1. Dear Paula, you look well and happy in the photos at the top of the post- I am so glad! I liked this post very much, as it echoes something central to so many spiritual journeys, mine included. We are alone as ourselves, but by being a part of a spiritual community, we support one another in our journeys in ways we cannot do for ourselves, a blessing for sure. Godspeed!

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  2. This is so well written. You are such a phenomenal writer. Very thought-provoking. I feel like my IQ increases a few digits when I read anything you’ve written.

    But….Paula, I’m very sad to hear that you struggle with loneliness. I had tears in my eyes reading this piece. Your pain is very palpable to me and my heart hurts for you. The pictures I see posted above belie what you’re truly experiencing. You look radiant in these pictures but like you said, it was a balm for your soul and the pictures clearly indicate that you were in your element. I’m glad you were able to attend and participate in the Wild Goose Festival. I’m happy for you.

    What really impresses me is that you’re willing to make yourself vulnerable in order to be authentic about your experience and what it’s been like for you. That takes tremendous courage. And it took tremendous courage for you to walk away from your life as Paul and move forward in authenticity as Paula. You are a courageous woman. I just can’t stress that enough. Not many people could walk in your shoes. I know I couldn’t.

    Be well, Paula, and hang in there. I am hoping and praying that this dark tunnel you’re in is coming to an end. You deserve happiness and companionship. I want that for you. You are in my thoughts and prayers♥

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