Psalm 68:6 says “God sets the lonely in families.”
The Vancouver Foundation consistently claims that loneliness is one of the biggest challenges for people living in this city. Seniors isolated in their apartments, care homes or rooms are lonely; young moms struggling to raise children are lonely; refugees and immigrants are lonely; leaders are lonely; young professionals fixed to the internet are lonely; people riding in Skytrains and buses are lonely; even some married people shelter behind closed doors in their own loneliness.
It is hard to see loneliness as a part of our churches. We think that if we can get isolated people into groups of people that loneliness will take care of itself. Several people have told me over the years that the hardest thing is to come to a service, to stand in the middle of so many happy people, and feel all alone.
The United Kingdom has now appointed a minister of loneliness to deal with the issue among 2 million seniors who are isolated from community – 200,000 admitted they regularly go over a month without speaking to another human being. In our city, it isn’t surprising to see people drive or commute alone, shop alone, eat alone, order coffee alone, watch a movie alone, walk or jog alone, read alone.
Local studies say at least one in five of us experience the sadness that comes from social isolation – reaping the impact on our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Surprisingly, social media seems partially responsible for the sense of separation and human connection we tend to thrive and flourish on.
Connecting to community is essential for our overall health. Being part of a small group where you can share your life, get prayer support, learn with others, enlarge your perspective on God and sense a personal connection with the life stories of others seems to be something God has designed when he made us.
When’s the last time you shared a heart connection with someone who really saw you for who you are? When have you taken the time to initiate a contact so you could see someone else for who they are?
Why do you get out of bed in the morning? If you work, or have worked in the past, why spend your
energy and time putting out effort to accomplish anything? Who is going to remember what you did day
after day, week after week, year after year?
What a way to get depressed at the start of a year – Wondering if there is any purpose to what I do. All
of us want to accomplish something. Sometimes we’re successful and sometimes we aren’t. But what
does our effort matter? Won’t it all eventually fade away as others take our place, as the new way of
doing things replaces the old way, as another generation focusing on the possibilities of the future set
aside the past like yesterday’s trash?
Oh, reality. How harsh and how hopeful.
Tim Keller, former pastor of Redeemer Church in New York, writes something significant in his book
Every Good Endeavor (p. 29): He says, “Everyone will be forgotten, nothing we do will make any
difference, and all good endeavors, even the best will come to naught. Unless there is God. If the God of
the Bible exists, and there is a True Reality beneath and behind this one, even the simplest ones,
pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever. That is what the Christian faith promises. “In
the Lord, your labor is not in vain,” writes Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, verse
Keller says that as believers who want our work to matter we need to answer three questions: “Why do
you want to work? (That is, why do we need to work in order to lead a fulfilled life?) Why is it so hard to
work? (That is, why is it so often fruitless, pointless, and difficult?) How can we overcome the difficulties
and find satisfaction in our work through the gospel?”
Some of you will be looking to answer these questions from your past experience, some from your
current challenges and some from what is still ahead. You were designed to accomplish something
significant for God’s glory. If your heart is still beating the work isn’t done yet. Have you figured it out
and are you doing it. Take some time to share this with another pilgrim on the road with you.
Have you ever been certain that you were alone until you heard that noise in the darkness? Was it a
creak from the house, a footstep in the hallway, a mouse in the wall?
Sometimes we live our life as if we’re alone. We go through dark struggles and feel alone; we engage
and break relationships as if it is only us; we drive our cars and walk the streets as if we are alone; we
eat, we watch and we pray as if we are on our own. We even sit in church singing and listening as if no
one else can sense the motives of our hearts, the thoughts of our mind, or the distractions of our
memories and hopes.
But what if we remembered that God has invaded time and space – not just two thousand years ago
when Jesus walked in Galilee – but now, wherever we are. Not just invaded our time and space but
infiltrated our mind and heart.
David, the psalmist, says in Psalm 139:1-5 NIV, “You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. You
know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my
lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word in on my tongue you, LORD, know it
completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.”
Many of us, like former atheist C.S. Lewis, don’t want God to “interfere” with our lives.
The book of John records testimonies like that of ‘doubting Thomas’ for a reason. In John 20:30-31 we
read “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this
book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by
believing you may have life in his name.”
Every transformed life in our world is a creak in the dark for souls that feel alone. The question to face
now is, am I the creak that others can’t miss, or am I the one needing to stop and realize that right in the
middle of what I’m facing right now, I am not alone?
If you’ve ever seen grapes or roses or vines growing you might have noticed the importance of a trellis. A trellis is the support structure which enables the vine to grow up enough to bear fruit. This structure keeps it from slumping on the ground where its fruit will be ruined.
Ken Shigematsu, in his book ‘God in My Everything’, states that having a spiritual trellis for our lives “supports our friendship with Christ so that we bear the fruit of his character and are able to offer his nourishing life to others…. It serves as a pattern for life that enables us to experience the presence of Jesus in each moment of our lives, empowering us to become people who embody his love to others.”
Recognizing the importance of a spiritual trellis focuses our attention on the strength of the culture in our church family to support the growth of its members. A church filled with grace, hope, love, care and encouragement also needs to be a place of accountability, truth, learning, service and outreach.
Shigematus continues, “People grow – they become who they are – not because God zapped them while they walked across a field but because they make a conscious effort to respond to the grace of God and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, cultivate the gift they have received. Those who flourish in their lives with God have a Spirit-initiated rule of life, a rhythm of practices that enables them to welcome and respond to Jesus.”
What do you think? Is this right? How does it show up in your own walk with Jesus? What does your spiritual trellis look like?
Thursday was set aside for 12 hours of prayer with different leaders hosting each hour. During an hour hosted by our intern Yosef he played a song with a short clip of a John Piper sermon. The message declared that no pain that we have ever experienced is without purpose or meaning. God is working in us deliberately an eternal weight of glory. That thought requires deep meditation.
A friend of mine is a pastor at a church which has a prayer meeting every night of the week with Friday as a loud and long one. I confessed that while our church has built a healthy multi-cultural community, our prayer times together are still weak. They are building their church on prayer with 20% growth every year and new believers every week.
Today was an effort to say that it is time to reaffirm that only the Spirit of God does the real work in transforming dead hearts, blind eyes, deaf ears and numb minds. In pastor Tim Keller’s book on Prayer his wife used a story to get him to realize the seriousness of prayer. Here is what she said,
“Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine – a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget? Would you not get around to it some nights? No – it would be so crucial that you would not forget, you would never miss. Well, if we don’t pray together to God, we’re not going to make it because of all we are facing. I’m certainly not. We have to pray, we can’t let it just slip our minds.”
Does that illustration speak to you? Do you really believe prayer is that essential? Maybe your response and mine shows a lot more about what is happening in our life than we realize.
We live in a world of stories. We love to hear stories and tell stories. Our stories
fill out our sense of identity, purpose, need and hope. My son Richard was home
from Rwanda a month ago and he and his sisters and I were sitting around our
living room sharing stories. It got a little weepy at one point. My young
granddaughter Kylie stopped at the door for a moment, left and returned with an
armload of stuffed sheep. She quietly went to each person and dropped a sheep
into their arms then she left. We all hugged our sheep and kept telling stories but
that sensitive act of Kylie is a story worth telling.
The Christmas story is a story of God stepping into our weepy human story with
a lamb and weaving our story into his bigger story. The challenge for most
people is that there are so many different versions of Christmas stories that it
can be confusing. Getting the right story is important because that story will
define our sense of identity, purpose, need and hope.
The main Christmas story most of our children hear is that they are at the center
of the story. By being good and doing good they can get what they want. If they
get what they want they will be happier, with-it, smarter, comfortable, loved. All
their hopes and dreams will be satisfied.
Christmas in the first story is about what we give and what we get. When we get
older it’s about dressing up and getting out, eating, putting a smile on our face
and staying busy shopping – but it’s still about giving and getting. There’s a
popular commercial that boldly says “I want that.” That’s the first story.
The alternate Christmas story of the Bible is the one we quickly refer to at this
time of year and then put back on the shelf until next year. In this story God is at
the center and it is all about him – his love, his gift, his action, his sacrifice. The
story is plain and simple, nothing to attract Hollywood to make a film about it.
It’s about a sin-broken world wrestling with overwhelming issues, people making
self-destructive choices, desperate for a Saviour, hoping against hope to make it
through another day. It’s about the Creator stepping off his throne as our king
and being humiliated to becoming a baby in a refugee family. When we grow up
with this story we realize that the tag line changes from “I want that” to “He
Why is the right Christmas story so important when it comes to our identity,
purpose, need and hope?
Perhaps during 2018 we can focus more intentionally on exposing our hearts to
the right story.