An Epidemic of Loneliness

Social Media with it’s new and ever emerging platforms has presented an opportunity for endless virtual connections.  Through Facebook and others, we can now reconnect with old school friends, people from the old neighborhood and many others that we lost contact with and may never have looked up if not given virtual technology.  While at the same time, these “friendship” connections many times are very superficial and give a façade of relationships that don’t truly exist.  It may be true and quite rare that new friendships have been made through initial social media connections, the truth is, however, that your connections know very little about you, and you about them-there is no life-sharing taking place, just an exchange of ideas, jokes, memes and an occasional Check-in.

The same platforms that allow so many of us to connect also aid in the onset of real loneliness.  We can easily get caught up in comparisons.  We see our Friends who have 3000-4000 followers and compare that number to our list of a relative few (thanks to all 350 of mine!). We wonder why we aren’t as popular as others we know.  We become envious when others find that perfect someone and post loving images of the new discovery while we are still seeking love.  We are reminded through shared photos of better times and family ties that ended when the marriage failed and the families parted to opposite sides.  We become jealous when one of our friends post something trivial and receives several hundred comments or Likes, while we pour our heart out over an issue important to us and get crickets and a few emojis.

Beyond social media, the lonely attempt to fill their days with activities and surround themselves with the few friends they do have hoping that staying busy will keep their minds from the reality of living in solitude.  But no matter how busy one stays or how many drinks they have with friends, at the end of the day, literally, they each go home to empty homes of large rooms void of life or activity.  They go to bed alone and wake up the same way.  No number of virtual friends can replace the existence of just a single mate or close human bond that so many miss and long for.  And these lonely people are everywhere-on public transit, in restaurants, in the work place, at bars and yes, even in our churches. They may never let you in on their facade, but they are all around us.

When God created the first man, He was immediately aware that it was not a good idea for man to exist alone.  He understood the need for closeness, for companionship, for relationship.  Granted, there are many who prefer a life of freedom from the responsibility and accountability required to be in a relationship.  The Apostle Paul was one who preferred the life of bachelorhood because for him, a relationship would have been too much to tend to given his vocation of ministry.  He asserts that a select few are given the “gift” of living a single life.  While I am not one to challenge sound Biblical teaching, this one is a head-scratcher for me.  I would call living life without a significant partner to share it with, anything but a gift.  Those who lose spouses to death or seperation do not feel gifted.  Children who grow up not knowing a parent that turned their back on them do not feel gifted.  Orphans or those in nursing homes waiting for visitors do not feel gifted.

So where do we turn when the feelings of emotional isolation become overwhelming?  I can only offer some things I have learned or tried to incorporate.  The most important thing to convince yourself is that your situation does not define your value!  This is of great impact for believers.  Being called children of God hardly implies worthlessness!  The fact that God has our name tattooed in his palm should give us a sense of eternal value.  Another trick I’ve employed is to find activities wherein you can give something of yourself to those who need what you have to offer, e.g. volunteering with under-privileged youth or donating time to organizations who feed the hungry or homeless-things that are vitally needed that can give you a sense or accomplishment and purpose. Making efforts to spend time with your adult children or just hanging with those with whom you share things in common serves to soften the reality of loneliness.  Another tool is to use social media to find groups who share common interests so that you virtual activity is not limited to I.Q reducing banter with no purpose or substance.  There are groups for just about any interest imagineable. And if your loneliness centers around not being in a relationship, continue to be out there, willing to be vulnerable, bold enough to risk being hurt, and by all means not judging would-be suitors based on past experiences of which they played no part.

God does not desire that any of us should feel worthless due to loneliness.  We need to look for ways to reduce the pain of isolation and increase our sense or purpose and value.  We can’t sell something we don’t buy into!  If we don’t believe it, no one else will either.  Ask God to open up your heart and mind to all opportinities and possibilities as you work your way out of the epidemic of loneliness.

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The High Price Paid for our Worthlessness

We have entered Holy Week, those days approaching our Easter or Pascha remembrance and celebration of the events that have become the foundation of our faith and belief in Christ.  It is a somber time of reflection as we recall the written words depicting as best as mere words can the horror and excruciating pain suffered by our Lord on our behalf for the remediation of a sinful world. Even Hollywood with its special effects could never accurately capture in film the physical brutality of a suffering Christ.

It is so easy in this life with its trials and disappointments to lose sight of not only the heavy price paid, but the reason Christ endured our just punishment. Life sometimes is simply not fair, at least as we view fairness.  We work hard but are still laid off or our position eliminated, we take care of our bodies but still receive the negative medical report, we give it our best but our relationships still end.  The normal human response is to measure the obvious against the given standards of success and feel a sense of worthlessness as we recall a trail of failures. I know because I do this constantly.  Do I measure up?  Am I leaving anything of worth behind in my wake? Are people who come in contact with me left better or worse for the encounter?  While self-examination can be a motivating tool, it can also cause great harm if our measurements aren’t true because of corrupt criteria.  And to continue in our false sense of worthlessness is to completely diminish the work done by Christ on the cross on our behalf.  And therein lies the error of this line of thought process.

It is in these times that we are compelled to recall those verses we have all heard and grown up with but failed to apply on personal levels. This is what Holy Scripture has to say about our worth and value in God’s eyes:

Matthew 10:29; Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them fall to the ground without the Father seeing it? But even the hairs of your head are numbered! You are of more value than many sparrows.

Isaiah 49:15; Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she would have no compassion for him? Yet these may forget but I will not forget you. See, I have engraved your name on the palms of my hands-you are continually on my mind.

We are a people of emotional responses and triggers; we love passionately; we grieve over painful losses; we fear uncertain situations. But the journey of faith can be easily hijacked by our emotions.  In times of despair when all seems hopeless we have to hold fast to our knowledge of the written Word as our plumb line and not the false indicators of human response. We may or may not be moved by the verses above and others like them when we are at our lowest, but we have to hold them to be irrevocable truths that emotions can’t alter.

Our Lord would not have endured the cross for losers, failures, those deemed worthless.  In fact the opposite is true.  It was us who need hope, who need forgiveness and restoration that He is most compassionate toward and He proved it on that Good Friday as the world and all creation went dark while He took His last breath and temporarily surrendered to death. And it was all for love, a love we could never comprehend, and certainly never merit. Again, reflect of these undeniable truths:

Romans 8:35; Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness or danger or sword?…For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither the present or future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

1 John 4:9; In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

Ephesians 2:44; But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, made us alive together with Christ.

The death of Christ once and forever tore and removed the veil that separated sinful man from a Holy perfect God in that we are now made perfect having our sin removed from us as far as the East is from the West, and we are encouraged to boldly approach a God as His children and siblings of his Holy Son.  There is nothing we could ever achieve on earth, no title given, no award of prestige we could ever claim that has more value than being referred to as Children of God. While this designation should be grasped with humility and reverence, it should never be tarnished by the deceit of human feelings during trying times. He Who knew us before we were born died a horrible death so that we could be forever united with Him in a kingdom yet to come. He would not have done so had he shared the same appraisal of us that we accept as true.

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my soul cries out

I AM HE-The Proven Submission of Jesus

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Most of us have seen various depictions through movies of the events leading up to and including the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Some may have even felt a tinge of hostility toward the religious leaders and Roman rule who so viciously had Jesus beaten, tortured and put to death, as if they were actually in control of the events. The accounts of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest and trial are similarly recorded in the four gospels.  But the account John gives us has one added observation, one that leaves us with no doubt that the only person who had total control of the events that night was in fact Jesus.

This account aligns perfectly with the intent and theme of each of the four gospels, not to be viewed as inconsistent, but as different perspectives of the same story.  Matthew writes to Jews familiar with the Old Testament presenting the genealogy of Jesus and proof of Old Testament prophecy that Jesus in the expected Messiah. Mark’s audience is more to the Romans not familiar with the Old Testament prophecies.  Mark provides more stories of the miracles of Jesus as proof through action of His deity. Luke’s objective was to point out the human element of Jesus through various and detailed physical descriptions, including the anatomical aspects of the death of Jesus-fully God in the form of human man.  John on the other hand wrote in a way to show us from the very first verse that Jesus was the human expression of the eternal God-“In the beginning was the Word-the Word was with God and the Word  WAS GOD!”  So it’s only natural that John would remind us that even in death, Jesus God was present. This is how John reveals this to us in his gospel:

John 18:1-5;   18 After saying these things, Jesus crossed the Kidron Valley with his disciples and entered a grove of olive trees. Judas, the betrayer, knew this place, because Jesus had often gone there with his disciples. The leading priests and Pharisees had given Judas a contingent of Roman soldiers and Temple guards to accompany him. Now with blazing torches, lanterns, and weapons, they arrived at the olive grove. Jesus fully realized all that was going to happen to him, so he stepped forward to meet them. “Who are you looking for?” he asked. “Jesus the Nazarene,” they replied. I am he,” Jesus said. (Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.) As Jesus said I am he,” they all drew back and fell to the ground!

Jesus God invoked the very name He had given in response to Moses when asked “who should I tell them has sent me?”  God said “tell them I Am has sent you”. At the very verbalizing of the name ‘I Am” all who came to arrest Jesus were given full disclosure if they had any doubt of who Jesus really was-God!  Who was in the crowd that came that night to arrest Jesus?  The gospels give us enough information to determine that it was a mixed crowd of select religious leaders, the guards of the Jewish temple and Roman soldiers-Jews and Gentiles alike. It is given through Peter’s response in slicing off the ear of one of the religious leader’s servants that even the disciples were shaken at the betrayal and arrest of Jesus, so His response of “I Am” and the resulting “we all fall down” that they witnessed served to assure them too that Jesus was in total control.

I can’t help but imagine the reaction of the religious leaders when they found themselves on the ground at the mention of the name “I Am”. How long did they sit there? Were they in shock?  Did they begin to question their authority or Christ’s deity? How could they just get up, shake the dust from their cloaks and continue in this arrest?  What about the Roman guard?  They were strong and feared men who ruled by force and intimidation.  They were reportedly carrying swords on their person.  But at the mentioning of the name “I Am” they too were knocked backwards to the ground by the power of Jesus’ words.  There should have been little doubt to all who were present that night, the religious leaders, the Roman guard and the followers of Christ that this man was God in the flesh and in charge of the situation.

Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus portrays this very nature of total control of what’s coming ahead.  In John 10:14-18 Jesus spells it out for us very clearly:

 14“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

In Mark’s gospel, chapter 8, Jesus is again recorded as predicting to His followers what must come.  From the Message Bible,

30-32 Jesus warned them to keep it quiet, not to breathe a word of it to anyone. He then began explaining things to them: “It is necessary that the Son of Man proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religion scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive.” He said this simply and clearly so they couldn’t miss it.

Those who heard these words at the time perhaps did not fully grasp what Jesus was predicting.  I’m quite certain that given the crucial role the disciples would eventually play in the birth of the new church and the new gospel, Jesus needed them too to be reminded that night that His betrayal and arrest was prophetic and being orchestrated as part of the plan of salvation set forth from the beginning of time, when Jesus was the Word and was with God and was God.

For good measure, Jesus reminded even Pilate of His power and control, recorded again by John in chapter 19;

He took Jesus back into the headquarters[a] again and asked him, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave no answer. 10 “Why don’t you talk to me?” Pilate demanded. “Don’t you realize that I have the power to release you or crucify you?”

11 Then Jesus said, “You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above.

In no way is this a suggestion that Jesus laid aside the physical aspects of His humanity as to not suffer pain. Any inferred implication that this was the case is not supported by scriptural texts. Jesus was fully God with complete power and control but yet fully man, responding to the torture and pain as any mortal man would. Luke is quick to record for us the physical elements of Christ’s suffering. Jesus was clear and deliberate to everyone present at the time and all who choose to observe His recorded words today that He voluntarily surrendered His life-laid it down and relinquished physical control, suffered the humiliating torment of suffering and death ascribed to the common criminal of that period out of a pure love we can never fully comprehend.  Jesus God allowed Roman guards to beat Him about the face, pull out his hair and beard, spit on Him, mock him, discriminate against Him and publicly bully Him. He didn’t demand his rights-He didn’t sue for defamation of character or false arrest-He didn’t accuse the leaders of profiling or religious bigotry. He simple gave us His life of His own free will as the ultimate and supreme sacrifice for all mankind for all time to come, because He wanted to, because He could and because He loved us that much. The Great I Am proved His submission to us. How unworthy I am for such a sacrifice.

Hope in the Midst of Incomprehensible Tragedy

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While our community is still coping with the tragic loss of two police officers and a heroic civilian in a recent senseless act of crime, another inconceivable tragedy occurred a little closer to home. Two young children, the boy four years old and his sister just two, belonging to a childhood friend of our daughter, lost their lives when their home caught fire and all desperate rescue attempts failed. Both parents made valiant efforts to save them and received severe burns in the process.  Fire and rescue personnel on the scene burdened with the task of finding and retrieving the children were shaken and grief counselors were dispatched to the site. The loss of these two precious lives is devastating and the healing process will be endless and perhaps never completed.

How can any person explain such a tragedy in any way that makes sense? What words of hope and comfort can one offer that has any measurable impact on the extreme hurt and infinite grief that a parent or loved one experiences in such an event? Words become hollow-cliches become a mockery and even the most heartfelt sentiments are lost in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. And there will be those who will raise the question, where was God in all of this, a question that is hard for even the most devoted of Christians to fully address without sounding like a generic Hallmark Card.

It is in times like these that we must lean on what we know to be true and find some level of comfort in the words of our Savior. We all sang that song growing up in church, Jesus Loves the Little Children. We know from the recording in the Gospels this is true. Listen to the words of Christ recorded in this story in Matthew 19;

One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could lay his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples scolded the parents for bothering him. But Jesus said, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children. ”And he placed his hands on their heads and blessed them before he left.

Jesus was teaching on the coast around Judea and as usual families followed Him just to hear His words. When I imagine this scene I see children sitting on His lap, playing around His feet and soaking in the presence of their creator, even if they didn’t fully understand who Jesus was. Jesus was very clear about His love for them in His scolding of the disciples for their view of these children.  He further demonstrates His love and affection for them in this next passage found just a chapter earlier in Matthew 18;

About that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them.  Then he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven.  So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.  And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me.  But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.

One of the most beautiful things a person can observe is the pure, innocent, untainted love and trust of a child, so much so that Christ Himself established the child as the standard by which we are to be measured and ultimately fitted for our eternal reward. If we want to be great and exalted in the Heavenly kingdom, we must have the same heart and approach as that of a child. How much more value could our Savior place on any living creation! He indeed loves children. He sees every scrape, saves every tear, frames every smile and knows every name! These truths must be the source of comfort when none other can be found.

Just a week or so before this tragedy unfolded our own grandkids were playing and swimming with these two little ones who are no longer with us. We have this guarantee in life-nothing is guaranteed, including tomorrow. Tragedies like this are daily occurrences in our world, and all too distant until you know of the victims involved. As I watched my grandson this week I found a little extra energy, let him get away with a few things questionable and loved on him the best I knew how. He’s just five years old but I need to learn from him in order to inherit God’s kingdom. I don’t know if these two heartbroken parents can comprehend God’s love for them right now. The only way they can experience the love, peace and comfort that comes from Christ during this difficult time is to somehow find the resolve to become like the two precious little ones they’ve lost, loving, trusting and completely dependent on God. I pray they find the strength to do just that and that all of us laugh with those who laugh, mourn with those who mourn and hug our loved ones just a little longer than usual and allow His peace to heal all our hurts.