FROM THE VICAR...
A plague of loneliness
“Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.”
Loneliness was a widespread problem long before Covid-19 hit. A couple of years ago, the UK even appointed the world’s first Minister for Loneliness. But this issue has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the current restrictions on meeting and movement. Many will be struggling as never before.
Of course, it doesn’t just affect those who live alone: we should not underestimate the loneliness of living in a difficult marriage or an embittered family. It is quite possible to be lonely without being alone, just as it is possible to be alone without feeling lonely.
What comfort is there for the lonely Christian?
One reason God came to earth as a human was so that, as Jesus Christ, he could experience loneliness. We could point to many possible examples in his life, but it was surely in the run-up to his death that Jesus was plunged into his deepest loneliness. First, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter, James and John fell asleep in Christ’s hour of need – not once but three times. Then, when the soldiers arrived, all of Jesus’ disciples abandoned him and fled. Worst of all, the next day, Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Why so much loneliness? So that Christians have a God who is with them. Christ took the God-forsakenness we deserve so that we are not God-forsaken for all eternity. Christ was abandoned by God’s people so that God’s people won’t be abandoned by him. Therefore, the LORD says to the Christian, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10).
Why so much loneliness? So that Christians also have a God who understands: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tested in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need [e.g. loneliness]” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
Jesus Christ experienced loneliness in the past; he overcomes loneliness in the present; he will banish loneliness in the future. Let me leave you with a heart-warming passage from a brilliant old book called Practical Religion by J. C. Ryle (p.348):
"The Lord Jesus goes with His friends wherever they go. There is no possible separation between Him and those whom He loves. There is no place or position on earth, or under the earth, that can divide them from the great Friend of their souls. When the path of duty calls them far away from home, He is their companion; when they pass through the fire and water of fierce tribulation, He is with them; when they lie down on the bed of sickness, He stands by them and makes their trouble work for good; when they go down the valley of the shadow of death, and friends and relatives stand still and can go no further, He goes by their side. When they wake up in the unknown world of Paradise, they are still with Him; when they rise with a new body at the judgment day, they will not be alone. He will own them for His friends, and say, “They are mine: deliver them and let them go free.” He will make good His own words: “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20)."
4 observations on the coronavirus crisis
Many lives and livelihoods have already been lost, financial markets have plummeted, world travel has ground to a halt. Few walks of life have been left untouched by the COVID-19 outbreak and many are battling deep anxieties about family, friends and their own personal health.
Yet, in the midst of this unfolding tragedy, are there any lessons we might learn or any reasons for hope? The list here could be much longer but, for the sake of space, let’s consider four areas: fragility, equality, community and immunity.
Astonishingly, as a result of globalisation, this worldwide upheaval seems to have been triggered by a single bat in eastern China (the current theory is the virus was transmitted from a bat to a mammal on sale at a Wuhan market). Such a dramatic “butterfly effect” dents the hubris of our sophisticated modern societies and exposes how fragile we really are as human beings. “The life of mortals is like grass,” wrote David (Psalm 103:15), and so we would do well to pray with Moses, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
The coronavirus seemingly has no regard for racial, ethnic or national boundaries. It does not discriminate on the basis of skin colour, language, class or gender. It reminds us that, as those made in the image of God (Genesis 1:17), the things that distinguish us are far outweighed by what we share. Whilst the climate emergency ought to be uniting humanity in the face of a common threat, this has been undermined by those who deny or downplay its existence. No such problem exists in relation to the coronavirus. For a rare moment, humanity is united by a common foe. We are equals, seeking a global response to a global problem.
When God made the Garden of Eden there was only one thing he described as ‘not good’: for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18). We were made for community. This is the reason why, in many societies, solitary confinement is seen as the most severe punishment short of execution. Many people already knew the daily struggle of isolation long before the coronavirus struck. Now it has come to the masses. The necessary restrictions on meeting and movement may well lead to widespread feelings of exclusion and loneliness. In this respect, Christians have a wonderful opportunity to show love in the time of coronavirus. We follow a God who cares for the most vulnerable, and by resisting the urge to become insular, the church has the opportunity to display the Lord’s compassion.
In his book The Rise of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark develops a statistical argument that Christian commitment to providing meaningful care to those stricken by plague was a major factor in the exponential growth of the early church. Of course, many Christians will be in the ‘vulnerable’ category themselves, but they might still phone someone up for a chat or commit to praying: for governments, community leaders, healthcare workers and, of course, for the sick. The less vulnerable might offer others practical help such as leaving groceries on their doorstep (stock-sharing instead of stock-piling) or providing childcare for medical professionals working overtime. But, why can Christians afford to be so focussed on others? That brings us to our final point: immunity.
A widely available COVID-19 vaccine remains a long way off. Yet, what people need, even more than immunity from the novel coronavirus, is immunity from the underlying cause of every sickness and sorrow known to mankind – immunity from a disease far more prevalent (with a 100% infection rate) and far more virulent (with a 100% mortality rate), namely: sin. Mark Oden, a pastor in Italy, recently put it like this:
“Our species, according to Jesus, lives in the grip of a pandemic outbreak of the virus of sin. What is your hope in the face of that virus? The story of the Bible is the story of a God who came down into a world infected with this virus. He lived amongst sick people, not wearing a mask or a chemical protective suit, but breathing the same air as us, eating the same food as us and sure enough he was infected and killed. He died in isolation, excluded from his people, far from his Father on a cross that he might provide this sick world with an antidote to the virus, that he might heal us and give us eternal life.”
Jesus said, 'I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?' (John 11:25-26). As Christians approach Easter once more, let us cherish this immunity and share the message of Christ conquering the grave with renewed urgency and love.
Rev. Rich Duncan
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