Loneliness. Anxiety. Grief.
And did I mention loneliness?
So many people are suffering. Even those who feel blessed with health, family and work have heavy hearts on behalf of others. We know that so many have lost loved ones, jobs, community, peace and joy.
For a Christian, living through a pandemic is of a piece with all of life. We are always in God’s hands, in sickness and in health. God loves us. He has a good plan for us. And He brings good out of bad. We know this.
But sometimes it can still feel hard to lay hold of the goodness that is always ours in Christ.
So how can we move from loneliness to joy? How can we feel part of a community even when isolated?
[Rd. 1 Thess. 1.]Today’s reading provides the keys to unlock the answers to our hearts’ deepest desires. Paul, Silas and Timothy open the letter with a seemingly simple greeting: grace and peace to you. And yet, even as we read those words, something opens up within us. Because the human heart is an idol factory. We are masters at manufacturing complicated maps of what we think we need. But grace and peace, we realize, are what we actually need.
The authors of the letter go on to say that they are “always” thanking God for the Thessalonians and “continually” mentioning them in prayer. They call the Thessalonian church their “brothers and sisters.” And here, we realize, is our community. It’s one that is always there for us. It’s only a prayer away. And better still, it’s continually available to us if we choose to continually pray.
The Bible teaches us that Christians are one family. We are one body. We are one. We share the blood of Christ. We share in each others’ sorrows–and also joys. Thus, in praying for others “always” and “continually,” we can be connected to people always and continually. We can have community in a very real, tangible and divine way–even when we’re alone and perhaps especially when we’re alone.
I discovered this when first divorced. Living apart from my X meant that I had to be physically separated from my young children at times. It felt unnatural and wrong. I had an image in my head of what motherhood looked like, and it wasn’t this. But I discovered then that although I couldn’t see my children all the time, I could pray for them all the time. So every time that I missed them, I would walk around the reservoir in Central Park and pray for them with all the passion I had. I discovered through my loss a connection so powerful that it surprised me. It also strengthened them in a way I could never have done by myself even if physically present.
God invites us into this powerful intimacy and privilege–the community of praying for others–all the time. But as for me in the example above, it can sometimes take deprivation to realize this invitation. We can use our loneliness as a helpful reminder to lift up in prayer family, friends, our leaders, those in prison, the sick, the dying, the grieving–anyone and everyone. In doing so, we are united with them, all of them. Praying for others is an honor that fulfills us. We are made for this type of deep community: the fellowship of prayer.
In addition to offering grace and peace and community, the letter also reminds us that joy is ours for the asking. The authors praise the Thessalonians for welcoming the message of the gospel of love “in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” In reading those words, we again feel our hearts strengthened. The Holy Spirit brings a supernatural joy irrespective of our circumstances. God made the human heart with the capacity to both grieve and also feel joy at the same time. We are made in God’s image. He, too, grieves over us and with us and also loves us with a deep joy.
And when we find that hard to believe, we can look to Jesus suffering for us on the cross. He died to give us eternal life. By His wounds we are healed. He lived the perfect life we never could and enabled us to have perfect intimacy with a holy God by paying the price for our sins.
So no matter how sad or lonely we feel, we can remember that we have intimacy with God. He alone satisfies our hearts deepest desires. If we remember that God is holding us by the right hand, we can take comfort. If we cling to the hope that one day God will wipe away every tear, we can believe that we are not grieving in vain. If we remind ourselves that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose, then we take heart. And if we feel overwhelmed and listless, we can remember Jesus already did the work. Ours is only to want and need–and ask.
It’s all too easy to forget the truth of God’s love, especially when life doesn’t look the way we expected. But if we pray for others, we can have community instead of loneliness. If we ask for a fresh indwelling of the Holy Spirit we can have supernatural joy in the midst of suffering. And if we trust God despite our circumstances, the message of love will ring out from us like bells.
Grace and peace will be ours, all over again. Instead of wandering lonely as a cloud, we will be able to live lives of purpose and beauty, even if alone. Amen.