I remember loneliness well. It settled in like a long fog. Everywhere I moved, it was there. I had lost my tightly knit community for varying reasons—in the end, it was for one reason in particular: my friends and I were moving in opposite directions. The eventual separation didn’t happen overnight, it dissolved slowly like a patch of snow on a sunny day hanging on in the shade. There were good reasons for what turned out to be a lengthy loneliness, and my intimate knowledge of Christ deepened significantly, but that didn’t make the isolation any less awful. It was one of the saddest and hardest times of my life.
Looking back, I can see a spotty trail of lily pads that stretched between the riverbank of loneliness on one side and that of new and dear friendships on the other. Those lily pads were people or groups of people. Most of them unassuming Christ-followers who loved me in ordinary yet potent ways. A Saturday morning Bible study at a downtown Nashville coffee shop, a family I had dinners with while commuting to a church in Florida to lead worship, an occasional coffee with someone who knew how to listen well, and many others. Each was a temporary landing pad that helped me make my way from one side to the other. It’s just that at the time I wasn’t sure there was another side. All I knew was that after each interaction I had enough hope in the tank to keep going.
These memories spring from nearly two decades ago. Life has changed considerably for me. But I share them because the more I keep my eyes keen and ears attuned to my surroundings, the more I am aware of how many are living isolated and lonely lives—even the ones who appear social, those out on the block small-talking with the neighbors while the big questions and crises of their lives remain hidden. This is not to mention those who don’t come out at all. Or the elderly in assisted living with few or none to visit them, or the agile and mobile equally isolated because they’re glued to their phones, addicted to interaction without actual relationship. No matter the
reasons, we are a lonely society.
I will never get over how John, one of Jesus’s closest disciples, began his first letter.
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:1-3)
One of John’s primary reasons for writing was to reveal the dynamic fellowship we can have with Jesus and how that relationship leads to a whole community of relationships. One of the fundamental aspects of the Christian faith is that we are not to be alone! I hope you hear John’s passion for you. If you are lonely, you are invited into a fellowship with Christ that is dynamic and personal and you are invited into the fellowship of believers. John was getting at the dual nature of Christian fellowship—get to know Jesus and get to know us; get to know us and get to know Jesus! (Not that Christ and His disciples are one in the same, rather our fellowship with the Lord feeds our fellowship with others and vice-versa.)
However, two challenges immediately stand out. How many struggle to think about God on a personal level because their own father was cruel. It is not always easy to experience Christ in an intimate way, to have this fellowship with Him. Obstinate and formidable barriers exist. This is where the fellowship of the church comes in. By reflecting the sacrificial love and visceral compassion of Christ, like John and the rest of the disciples did, we demonstrate God’s goodness to those who have difficulty receiving it.
But this necessarily leads us to the second challenge: the church community—the fellowship of believers John speaks of—doesn’t always act the way we are supposed to. As many struggle to experience a loving God, just as many lament that for them the church community is equally freighted with baggage: betrayal, hypocrisy, gossip, abuse, power-struggles… These are real obstacles we cannot deny.
At the same time, their very existence should further compel us to be safe and broad lily pads for those who cross our paths. Temporary landing spots for some, and longer places of respite for others. We cannot fix a person’s view of God but we can reflect Him in loving clarity because we ourselves are being changed and renewed in His presence. In John’s terms, because we have fellowship with Him. We, equally, cannot solve the problems of the church at large, but we can be a difference maker in our own local churches. If the friends and acquaintances I met during my stretch of loneliness had abandoned the church for all its issues, who knows what waters I would have plunged into. I thank God for them.
If you have a hard time appropriating Christ’s love for you because of past wounds, or if the idea of being part of a church brings up equal distress, may a genuine Christ-follower be in reach. And if you have you experienced the Word of Life, do not keep Him to yourself. The lonely are all around you. Spread your lily pad wide. Who knows who might land in your way?
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