My first time stepping onto African soil was two summers and 7 months ago, and the memory still comes back like sweet music and a rainstorm.
I remember the smiling faces, the fish stands built up from harvested planks and perched outside the mud-caked villages. I remember children laughing and the way it sounded ringing off the hot tin roofs there. Reality and dream, swirling together as we tried to sort out how Africa would fit into God’s plans for our lives.
I remember the question no one asked when I first got to Africa. No one asked who I was.
Within days of stepping foot onto the cracked orange earth, I’d met over a hundred wide smiles and open hands, and nobody asked me about what I did or how I defined myself.
I was a little offended at first. I figured I was a pretty interesting person. No one seemed to care though. They told me in broken English that they liked my smile, and they told me to learn French faster. And they gave me stuff. Waxed African fabrics, home-cooked meals. The kids drew stick-figures of how they saw me. It all seemed strange–they didn’t even know me.
If you want to know the truth, people in Bingerville, West Africa barely sit around at all discussing who they are and poetry. They pray with each other and share food most the time.
BEER AND BEING KNOWN FOR SOMETHING
My friend Mary is one of the smartest people I know. She's smart for lots of reasons, but one of them is called "Ogilvy on Advertising". It's a book she told me to read one time, and I read it so that I could be more like Mary.
David Ogilvy is the Father of Advertising, and in 1963 he talked in his book about the art of using simple language. He gave an example of a beer ad that sky rocketed sales because it explained how beer was made. All beer was made the same back then, but one brand got famous just for saying what it was.
All the other beer people were probably really mad about that. They hadn't thought about just saying what they were.
ORANGE AND PURPLE AND GRAY PLANETS
Back in Africa, I was teaching a study for a group of young women, and we talked about the idea of the sheep door in John 10. This is one of the most beautiful parts of the Bible to me, a story about how lost things get found.
I asked the girls, "who feels lonely", and realized my mistake right away. In America, you ask, "who has ever felt lonely". That way, all the lonely people can raise their hand and look like they don't feel lonely anymore. But I only knew the present verb tense in French. What surprised me was that every woman there raised her hand. I asked again after that, to make sure I hadn't mispronounced something.
"Who feels lonely?"
Again, every hand went up. There's something heart-wrenching about looking across a crowd of hands connected to people who each claim to be on their own lonely planet.
I couldn't shake that whole mental picture for a long time, I thought about it for months afterward. Here's what it made me wonder. Are we all lonely and we just won't say it?
And I guess the whole reason I wondered was because I knew the truth deep down. That I felt lonely. Really lonely. I was facing some of my loneliest times there in Africa. I just didn't want to say it.
My favorite sunrise I ever saw in Africa was on top of this pile of cinder blocks one time. Me and Abe woke up before 5am and hiked to the highest place we could find in the village, and we stood there and watched the dusty purple and orange light burn through the blue night clouds. And we ate fresh mangos and tossed the peels into the wind, and we felt very alive that day because of the orange and purple colors and all that they meant. I read one time that everyone in Seattle is depressed because of the gray skies. I don't know if that's true. But I know this, it's sunny in West Africa almost every day and a roomful of people there raised their hands to me and said they felt alone.
There's one thing I know for sure about being lonely. Being lonely is something we feel and it doesn't always match something we are. We can feel lonely in a crowd. I think maybe that's why it's a strange thing to talk about to other actual people. You won't always have hard proof for feeling lonely.
And it brings up a lot of hard questions once you admit the thing. Should I feel lonely? What do I mean by lonely, since there are people everywhere? Do they feel lonely? Were we made to feel lonely?
As a kid I never liked the idea of God taking one of Adam's ribs, but I always liked the idea of Adam having a friend in the Garden of Eden. And I think it sets up a cool thing for us to see. The thing about the lost sheep, where Jesus did something about someone being alone.
In God's book, Adam gets a friend. Lost sheep get found.
A good friend shared with me recently that her New Year’s resolution was to find herself. I’ve admired her for years, so I felt surprised that she didn’t know who she was yet. She seemed like she had it all together. I asked her the thing that confused me the most.
“Who were you before?” Her answer was the loneliest answer I know of.
“I don’t know the person I was before. I don't recognize her.”
Isn't it interesting that our global population has grown, but depression's sky rocketed? In the last five years, depression has gone up by 47% just among millennials in the U.S.*
More people doesn't mean that we feel more known.
If you don't feel understood, then you're maybe a little like me, my friend who doesn't recognize herself, those guys who make beer, everyone in Seattle, and a room full of women I know in West Africa.
All these numbers prove this to us–that a lot of different sorts of people feel unknown, and it's made them lonely on a very full planet.
SHAME AND HOPE FOR LONELY PEOPLE
I talked with a group of friends recently about the difference between guilt and shame.
One guy said it this way: "Guilt says, 'I did something bad'. Shame says, 'I am bad'."
I thought that was a really good point. And the reason I bring all this up is because I think it's very important when it comes to understanding about the sheep door and how Jesus goes after lost things. I think shame is something we sink into when we feel unknown. I think it's one of the smartest things Satan does, and I'll tell you why. Shame makes us feel alone, even when we aren't. It turns us inward, so that all we can think about is our Self. In our shame, we don't hear God's voice calling us, and we don't see His hand reaching out. And not only that, we don't reach out to other lonely people.
With shame, Satan can imply things like
You aren't worth knowing.
You aren't understood.
You never will be.
Nobody feels the way you do.
I believe shame is one of the crucial ingredients of feeling alone on a planet full of other people.
Here's a cool thing to think about. We're never without the means to understand each other.
If I want to understand you and you want to understand me, all we really need to do is turn back outward. We try on another pair of shoes for a while. We walk around in them. Maybe we grab a coffee together.
But Jesus doesn't need a coffee date to understand us a little or a lot. He knows the whole story and the whole us. He says we are already known by at least one person (Him), and that we're worth going after, seeking out, and finding. That should cancel out our shame and despair, and our loneliness.
Our planet is not really so lonely if we can be found on it.
For the days that do seem lonely, we have hope because we are known. And hope is a very strong thing. Strong enough to stifle the voice of shame and fill a crowded earth.
*Ogilvy on Advertising, Ogilvy D.