This months blog is written by Martin Lees, a Reader and a member of the Singleton Leadership Team
“It is not good for man to be alone” – we are designed to be social animals. God Himself is a community – Father, Son & Holy Spirit in perfect communion – and we are made in his image. But one main consequence of humanity’s rebellion against God (as personified in Adam and Eve) is a breakdown in relationships, not only between God and us, but also between human beings. In the West, to a greater extent than in Asia and Africa, we have come to jealously guard our individualism; and our sense of belonging to a wider community has been eroded. In the UK, more than anywhere else in Europe, loneliness has recently been found to be an epidemic affecting all strata of society, and all age groups. Single parents, divorcees, sole traders, home-based workers, the widowed and the housebound can all be vulnerable to loneliness. But it is not only (or necessarily) those who live alone who suffer loneliness. Both adults and children of dysfunctional families, where relationships are distant or broken, can also be lonely. Others focus so much on material prosperity or career progress that they fail to nurture relationships sufficiently, and become isolated.
Lonely people with a Christian faith can find solace in the belief that at least Jesus is a true friend, who has promised to be “with us always”. The ascended Christ in the Book of Revelation promises that whoever seeks relationship with Him will be rewarded with that loving companionship in eternity. (“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” Rev 3:20).
But if we can shed our blinkered Western attitude we will realise that Christ offers much more than this individualistic solution to loneliness. One of the key aspects of God’s mission to restore all of Creation is to restore relationships among humans.
So when Jesus announces that “The Kingdom of God is upon you” he begins to demonstrate that groupings within society are no longer barriers to relationships. As a Jewish man, he instigates a conversation with a Samaritan woman at the well; he invites himself to the home of Zacchaeus, the dodgy tax-collector and local pariah, for tea. He chooses Matthew, another tax-collector, as a disciple, along with working-class fishermen and a member of the radical Zealot group, and welds them into a tightly-knit “band of brothers”. He is happy for a prostitute to show him honour and gratitude. He dares to touch lepers. He overrides his disciples in allowing children to approach him so that he may bless them. But he is no “inverted snob”, being happy also to converse with Roman centurions and to dine with Pharisees. (In fact many of the episodes recorded in Jesus’ ministry involved the very social activity of eating together!) Even while dying on the cross He welcomed a repentant thief to journey with him. So, in a society which was very segregated socially, Jesus models community and inclusivity.
Jesus’ teachings reinforce this message; he used corporate images in his teaching – a body, and the branches of a vine. His parable about the Good Samaritan teaches that each of us should regard any fellow human being as their “neighbour”, deserving of our concern and care, even if they are from a people-group we don’t naturally gel with.
Even after his death Jesus continued to break through social and cultural barriers: the Holy Spirit, who was sent in His name, enabled all the foreign visitors to Jerusalem to hear the apostles’ preaching in their own languages – a direct reversal of the Tower of Babel episode, when God scattered the nations on account of their arrogance. The fragmented international community was being brought back together.
St Paul recognised that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, male nor female but all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Loneliness and isolation just don’t exist in God’s kingdom.
So the most powerful witness to the gospel by us as the local church is to be a community with a truly shared life, where diversity is celebrated rather than shunned, and where we genuinely care for one another. Jesus prayed that His followers would be one as he and the Father are one – that’s set the bar pretty high! But to truly follow Jesus’ teaching and example our community must also embrace those outside it, “the sojourner, the fatherless and the widow” or, in our society – the lonely and the marginalised.
That’s why we launched our community café, The Grapevine, three months ago – not because local people are desperately in need of more coffee, tea and cakes (!) but to provide that opportunity for social contact and companionship within a welcoming environment – to build a sense of community. The café has been greatly appreciated by many, some calling it a “lifeline”.
The next challenge is to reach out to those who feel isolated (either permanently or temporarily) but perhaps cannot get to The Grapevine when it is open, nor to other opportunities for social contact. The parish is too large for Tim to provide pastoral care for all such people, so we want to form a Pastoral Visiting Team who can share in this ministry.
So if you have a heart for coming alongside those in need, and have some time available during the day, do consider prayerfully whether God might be calling you to this important ministry and have a word with Tim.