Will it be bitterness, or love? Revelation 21-22
What happens when relationships shrink?
We have been witnesses to this in real time during Covid. And not just witnesses. We have suffered this shrinkage. Conversations over coffee—gone. Planned lunches with old friends—gone. Trips to see distant relatives—gone. Chance encounters—gone. The number of friendly contacts is way down, and so is the quality of those that remain.
What recourse do we have in such deprivation? What do we have to fill those holes? Are you among the many today reported to feel increased loneliness? As even the college and young adult population experiences now! Like the young woman pictured on the bulletin cover. Although it could as well be a young man. Or someone middle aged. Or like anyone here this morning.
It could help to think of the difference between loneliness and solitariness. You can be solitary and not feel lonely. It all depends on being able to see alone time as prime time. Only in a solitary state do we get acquainted with ourselves and, ultimately, with God. In a truly solitary state, we get down to basics.
But when we are lonely, the pain of it can be so acute that it drives us to make bad decisions and into the arms of disaster. I could tell you some of my stories, but suffice it to quote the great Roy Orbison’s famous song--
Only the lonely, Only the lonely, Only the lonely Know the way I feel tonight Only the lonely Know this feeling ain’t right There goes my baby, There goes my heart They’re gone forever, So far apart But only the lonely Know why I cry Only the lonely Only the lonely Only the lonely Only the lonely Know the heartaches I’ve been through Only the lonely Know I cry and cry for you Maybe tomorrow A new romance No more sorrow But that’s the chance You gotta take If your lonely heart breaks Only the lonely
Orbison’s lyrics don’t mention bitterness, but it is the next emotion in the sequence. Deprivation has a way of souring us on life. Think of people who have isolation forced on them. How do they possibly cope? As they will tell us, it is difficult. Losing a spouse, people here know about that. Or being incarcerated, we can only imagine. Being a prisoner of war, or when as a nation entire, the Israelites were taken captive and marched off to Babylon.
Bitterness is a real option and one frequently taken. How real is proven by Psalm 137 in which Israel laments having been ripped from Jerusalem, forcibly exiled in a foreign nation, and mocked for their religious needs. The psalm begins, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion.” By the end of the psalm, they are bitterly wishing the same misery upon their captors, and worse. The Bible is honest enough to admit that bitterness is natural. But it need not and should not be permanent.
Companionship is of the essence of being human, of course, so the lack of its comforts propels the reckoning with ourselves. Those who have loss forced upon them can teach us who endure relatively minor deprivations so much. Without a vision, our souls perish.
We require under these deprivations some vision, some hope for the future to sustain us. We need a vision that, even when postponed, still has the power to animate us. And we have it, in the Revelation of John of Patmos. By 90 CE when it was written, Rome had destroyed Jerusalem and dispersed its population. The Temple was razed. Jewish worship was terminated. It was Babylon in place. John fled to the little island of Patmos off the coast of Turkey where a seeming fever in his brain ignited his epic account of what was at stake in the world. This is what love looks like, painted on the largest possible canvas. Love inspires opposition, even violent hatred and yet nothing changes the divine constitution of the world.
Whatever and however much John of Patmos may have lost, his response was not to be bitter. In his exile, his solitary confinement, love made its claim upon him.
To lodge his vision within us, conceived as it was in solitariness, may well require of us a period of solitariness. This is when solitariness replaces loneliness and becomes a vocation. If we ever go through this experience, it secures us in a place only we recognize and others bemoan and bewail. This is what love wrought, to paraphrase our passage from Revelation--
There is no Temple in the city because God’s presence is the temple. There is no need of sun or moon because God’s light shines on the path of our decision making. The light is there to guide the nations and their rulers, so needed everywhere, especially Glasgow today. The doors of God’s hospitality are never shut to anyone in need. The wealth gap will be disappeared. And evil thoughts won’t even occur to people. Because while you think you live in Newton or Boston, you actually live in the City of God.
This is what love wrought. You can persist and endure here, because you are nourished by living water, surrounded by healing flora, a constant remedy for the human and political conflicts of daily life. We may have voted for mayor or President, but the one on the throne is God. Any of us who see this and know it, are deeply capable of the love which passes all human understanding and exceeds in its powers all that we may ask or think or even imagine.
That’s why a famous philosopher could write: religion is what the individual does with his or her solitariness. What a curious notion, because we normally think of religion as being social, something practiced in public and visible from the outside. But there is an inside to religion as well as the outside. The inside of religion is known only in and through your solitariness. Without the solitariness, you don’t have any religion worth the name, just the forms observed for their own sake. “If I just do this, if I just do that more often, my loneliness will go away.”
It won’t go away. Loneliness will master us and madden us, and make us bitter, unless we make our solitariness a vocation. That’s when we can face the unknowns, like the ones so vividly portrayed in Revelation, like the ones we already are experiencing in the double emergency of this worldwide pandemic and climate crisis.
When we are lonely, we rush to quench that feeling by grasping at relationships, or at group activities where we are still lonely. But if you have mastered your solitariness, you will be prepared for anything.
What will it be? Bitterness, or love? Let it be love—amen!