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The loneliness of following Jesus
I used to work at Hersheypark. Those four years of dutiful service to the rides department of the amusement park were very joyful for me--I loved the work (I remember working twelve double shifts in a row once). For others, Hersheypark’s greatest asset with the community of workers, we all eventually realized that that wasn’t the point. Every morning we would sign in and get assigned a ride. Everyone dreaded this time because they might get the horrible assignment of a kiddy ride. That assignment meant that for seven hours, you’d be stuck at a ride with a bunch of kids all by yourself.
Talk about being lonely.
At that point, everyone knows operating rides is about that—not about making friends. But still, we sometimes confuse the point of something for a byproduct that seems more better. We go to a baseball game to hang out outside, we go to college to get married, we get a driver’s license to detach from our parents, we become a part of a church to make friends.
The church is really about those who are yet to join, not just about making friends. The point of what we’re doing isn’t just about finding your community and friends—if that’s all it ends up being for you, then you’re missing the point of your existence.
Though friendship and belonging is a great byproduct of what we are doing, it is not all of it. We strive to make room for the next person to join and feel welcome and accepted. We want to work it out so that we are maximizing our efforts to the end. And we are constantly surrounded by examples of that work—over and over again our cell leaders prove that to me and to others.
If you’re in a cell that hasn’t done a lot of welcoming lately, it might be a cell that needs to close, and that’s OK. We aren’t trying to create cells with hard walls where no one can “get in or get out,” we want to create an environment with a revolving door. You can come and you can go. Even though we’d like you to stay, we welcome your arriving as much as your departure. That’s a “healthy cell.”
Of course, with that in mind, suffering becomes an integral part of what we doing. Feelings of loss, rejection, sorrow really resonate with long-term Christians, and rather than turning those feelings into resentment and anger, we would do better to embrace those feelings and relate better to Jesus.
During this season of Lent, we relate to the suffering Christ which Isaiah wrote about hundreds of years before Jesus even walked the earth.
1 Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Jesus is a man of sorrows and familiar with our pain. We are meeting him in his pain this season as he meets us in our pain, too. We embrace suffering because we can’t avoid it, and when we own it, we become its masters and not the other way around.
We embrace our loneliness and as opposed to being victims of it, we experience the great and rich tradition of solitude with Christ. Just like we embrace our hunger and we fast, we embrace our boredom and we study, we embrace our fatigue and we rest. We embrace our loneliness and find God in it, and pray.
So open yourself up to the loneliness that comes with following Jesus and don’t afraid to acknowledge it and know it and not immediately look for a remedy.
The truth of the matter is that Jesus is the antidote for our loneliness, life in him is really what fulfills us. Not because it offers us friends and a spouse, but because when we engage in the church, we actually start fulfilling our purpose in life. When Jesus tells us to engage in the “Great Commission” and go and make disciples of all nations, he’s talking about church planting—the work that we are doing here. The apostles interpret this and help spread the Good News all across the Mediterranean, North Africa (and into Sub-Sarahan Africa), and South Asia. We’re trying to do something similar.
And though the path to making disciples can be lonely, filled with suffering, and rejection, when you are immersed in a loving community, serving a loving God, and cherishing this life-giving work, and truly fulfilling the purpose for which you were created, it is a great joy all of the time.
But I don’t want to dismiss the fact that it can be lonely, it be hard, and difficult. And it be much more tempting to stop doing the work once our needs our met. But I challenge you to own those negative feelings this Lent and continue to push through making the right sacrifices for the sake of the mission for which you were created.
That loneliness that I am referring to is something of a humble loneliness, one that comes when we are serving God and following Jesus.
Another kind of loneliness plagues our metropolis of course. You can see it in the ear-budded generation. In their cubicles and Center City studio apartments. In the overcrowded Northern Liberties bars where muffled voices and loud music and social lubrication make one thing they are in community and not lonely, but the hangover the next day and the number you inadvertently gave the person whose first name you don’t’ recall, reveal the story. As the song goes, “in bar light, they looked all right, in daylight, they looked desperate.”
Authentic connections are so rare these days, the church should be thriving through it. Instead, we are often not, often ashamed of what Jesus has given us, or depressingly satisfied since our needs are met. And all of a sudden, when the attention isn’t on us anymore, and Jesus calls us to the next person, the next neighborhood, the next venture, that individual who never bothered getting into the work that welcomed him, feels isolated, rejected and alone. He ends up being a naysayer, and that is a recipe for a short-lived faith and commitment. Let’s actually get deeper than that. We have so many among us that are ready to do the next thing—Sara and Nate are ready for a new thrift store; Nick and Adam keep looking for our next building; Justin and James are writing our next song; Sarah and Jonathan are shepherding our cell leaders. We are doing what’s next all the time and it is incredible and we do it despite our suffering, despite the sacrifice, and despite our limitations. God fills us.
I think Jesus calls us to go and those people and offer them a life that quenches their loneliness. Something more than a one-night stand, the artificiality of Silk City, the superficiality of Facebook and Twitter.
We are actually trying to foster a sense of intimacy that isn’t sexual by nature, which is hard to come by in this country. We want an intimacy that isn’t easily overcome when friendships don’t last the way we expect them too.
That’s what Lent is about. We are experiencing the suffering we would normally experience, just knowing about it.
So, what do we do with our loneliness?
I think we have to embrace loneliness. When we are alone on a weekend night and everyone else is out, lose the “fear of missing out,” and be alone with God. Take advantage of that and realize that you are not entitled to much more. That’s a hard lesson for a serious extrovert to really understand. I love being out, being with friends, and I hate missing out! And our community is so vibrant and so full of life that we can’t help but miss something some of the time! But there are beautiful opportunities that present themselves in those moments, being flexible enough to make that happen totally worth it.
We often are so overworked, over busy, and don’t have time for much else, that we lose our sense of loneliness, our sense of solitude, and in the middle of our overbooked schedule, even our sense of self. We have to find loneliness.
Go be like Jesus, and find a lonely place. Be alone with God and pursue him. Do so at the expense of your social calendar, at the expense of your sleep, as the expense of your comfort and see what he reveals to you.
I can give you some recommendations on places to venture on personal retreat, but you don’t even have to leave your house. Go housesit for your friends while they are on vacation. Spend a day by yourself in the Wissahickon and see if you can embrace your loneliness enough so that it turns into solitude with God. Pray earnestly and see what he is telling you.
God is everywhere, but he’s especially revealed to us in silence—we’re following Jesus’ example, but the examples of the great sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers that have come before us.
That kind of disciple creates a beautiful opportunity for service. Take advantage of it. Empathize with those who suffer. Go and lead us into what’s next. Connect with those who have the same of loneliness that you have. Make a new friend tonight, and follow up with them this week. Get connected to a cell and relate to others. This doesn’t solve your loneliness because it offers you friendship, a relationship, or whatever else—but this kind of service helps you get closer to God.
Thank God you have enough feelings left in you to know that you are lonely! Go and be alone, and come back to us with the energy and the excitement to plant the church. And if you don’t have that energy, pray that God would give it to you. It truly is the most natural thing that you can do.
Lent is really about realizing that it’s OK to suffer, it’s OK to be weak, and to find our wholeness in God. In our culture, where loneliness might be one of the worst pains, it is good to know that Jesus and others saints after him, strived to be lonely. So in your pain, find comfort in that—but then also learn to own it, find it, and serve God through it.