Friendship, Listening, and Empathy: A Prayer GuideTwo Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian LifeSabbath Keeping FastingA Renewed SpiritualityNurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationPersonality Type in CongregationsPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

First post in a new series: Friendship, loneliness, and prayer

Lynne Baab • Tuesday September 12 2023

First post in a new series: Friendship, loneliness, and prayer

A dozen years ago, Josh had three good friends. Josh had recently retired, and he was happy with the friendship rhythm in his new pattern of life. One of his friends arranged a tennis foursome most Friday afternoons. After playing tennis, the four men drank tea or beer and chatted for an hour. Another friend was a walker. He and Josh took a long walk two or three times a month and prayed together afterward. Josh's third friend was an amazing listener. His job involved long drives to do fairly brief tasks on the other end, and sometimes he invited Josh along. They had great talks in the car.

In the space of one year, Josh’s tennis friend died from a fast-growing cancer, his walking friend moved away, and his friend who was a great listener got a new job that was relationally intense and left him with very little free time.

Josh has been lonely for the last decade. He has slowly nurtured new friendships. The pandemic was a huge disruption in those new friendships. The pandemic also showed Josh how much he enjoys conversations with people he doesn’t know well. During the pandemic, he became borderline depressed because of the lack of opportunities for conversations during coffee hour at church and between pickleball games at the community center. Now that he can play pickleball and chat at coffee hour again, he feels better, but he still experiences more loneliness than he likes.

Josh’s wife has numerous friendships. None of her friends have died recently or moved away. Josh has observed her consistent efforts to keep up with friends. She has worked hard at all those friendships, but still . . . it just doesn’t seem fair that he experiences so much loneliness than his wife and others do.

It isn’t fair. I want to make a comparison that feels helpful to me. My mom has been slender all her life. She often talks about how hard she works at it, eating well and keeping active. She doesn’t like to talk about her lucky heredity. Like her mother and two older brothers, she has the long arms and legs of a true ectomorph, a body type that is almost always slender. I inherited my body type from my dad and his mother, much more rounded and prone to gain weight easily. In addition, I have not always eaten well. I made mistakes, but I was also unlucky in my heredity.

In the same way that I feel shame about my struggles with my weight and the overeating I've engaged in, Josh feels shame about experiencing loneliness. He knows he’s made some mistakes in friendships, dropping the ball sometimes and not initiating when he could have. He feels guilty about that. But he’s also been unlucky. [1]

With all the press these days about loneliness and the surgeon general describing an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation,” people like Josh can feel guilty that they haven’t always made as much effort as they could have in friendships. God offers forgiveness and a fresh start, but in the area of friendships, forgiveness is often hard to receive. Even if we are forgiven, the loneliness remains. And regrets are so powerful and hard to let go of. An additional challenge comes from the difficulty, even humiliation, of talking with others about loneliness. Ironically, we often need the support of others to receive forgiveness or let go of regrets.

My central passion, as always, is prayer. Often Josh and others like him who have talked to me about their struggles with friendship don’t have any idea how to begin praying about the mess of emotions inside when they feel lonely. Loneliness often feels like a personal failing, even when circumstances beyond our control play a role in our loneliness.

In this first post in a new series, I want to make a simple point: we can honestly, even passionately, grieve our regrets and losses related to friendship. God cares about how we feel about everything, including friendships. In the same way the psalm writers bring wild and uncontrollable emotions to God, we are invited to do the same thing with the painful emotions of loneliness. We can lament so many things about friendships today — the isolation that increased in the pandemic, the absorption with our phones that takes us out of conversations, our own loneliness and the loneliness of others — and we can bring those lament prayers into God’s presence.

At the same time, we can express our thanks to God for the connections we do have, for every good conversation and shared activity, and for moments when we enjoy the company of others.

My passion for holding grief in one hand and gratitude in the other is so helpful in the area of friendships. We can be grateful for the people we are connected to, while grieving that we have lost friends and often feel lonely. Or we might grieve for people we love who feel alone.

Thank you, triune God of relationship and community, for giving us relationships. Thank you for the friends who have blessed us at numerous times in our lives. Thank you for the people who have listened to us, shown care for us, and done a variety of activities with us. Thank you that you are with us, even when we feel lonely, and that you invite us to bring our honest feelings to you. At the same time, we grieve for the people who feel lonely too much of the time, and we grieve for the moments when we feel lonely. We lament that talking and praying about loneliness is so difficult. We lament the shame we feel when we think about the times we haven’t reached out to connect with others. Forgive us and bless us, we pray, in our thankfulness and in our grief.

Next week: one specific communication skill. Illustration by Dave Baab: Qualicum Beach, Vancouver Island, looking toward the mainland of B.C., Canada. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

My book on holding grief and gratitude in two hands is available in paperback, audiobook, and for kindle. I wrote a series of blog posts about grief and gratitude, and the first post is here. Some posts that seem relevant to grief and gratitude about friendships:

[1] Josh gave me permission to tell his story. 

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