I really loved this short video by the Hillbilly Homemaker from just before Christmas. She’d just returned home from a fun trip with her family and was feeling down and sad in the way we all do on occassion. The simple remedies of “trusting God” or “joining a church,” while obviously always a good idea, weren’t cutting it in the moment. She went on to talk about anxiety and depression in general, and how going to church sometimes makes it feel worse. One particular line caught my attention. “I was at a church for two years,” she said, “and I never felt lonelier.”
That phrase—I never felt lonelier–stuck in the back of my throat that week as I was rushing from one task to another in the pre-Christmas mayhem. I know what she means. There have been moments when I’ve been in a church and felt an acute and terrible kind of loneliness that has almost no other correspondence in everyday life.
Why is that? Why is church loneliness worse than not having any friends at your job, or hating the thought of having to go to a party where you don’t really know anyone? The loneliness of sitting in church is the worst, I think, because it is the opposite of what is promised and therefore expected. You think you’re going to be close to God and showered with comforting blessings. You expect to be consoled and connected to Jesus and other believers. But what sometimes ends up happening is that you have to contend with those other believers as strangers or even enemies. Some of those other believers might be unfriendly or even hurtful. The congregation of God’s people proves unable, or perhaps unwilling to notice you.
Even more terrible is that the gathering is not just physical and material, but spiritual. When you go habitually over time, however embarrassing it is to be with other Christians, the task of worship binds you together mystically and spiritually. Before you know it, the initial loneiliness is replaced by other kinds of alienation, those resulting from misunderstanding and sin. It’s a bit like how misunderstanding and loneliness is so much more acute and painful in marriage than in friendship. You’ve been bound in some invisible and mystical way to the other person. You can’t fully apprehend until you feel its lack. It can’t be mended by anything other than being truly reconciled to the other. When the reconcilition never happens, the would feels incurable.
So I was quite astonished to be wandering around the lections for this morning, and hear with fresh ears the verse that the current age loves to take and use as a cudgel of affirmation under the guise of unity and togetherness, but serves instead to diminish the close spiritual bond Christians do share, even when they don’t quite know it. I’m sure you’ve heard the verse—how could you not? “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” says Paul to the Galatians, for I can do all things by a verse taken out of context.
But the context does matter, just like the physical reality of sitting in a room with a lot of other people once a week to face down the reality that God does exist and does have something to say about the way we live our lives and who we are, both individually and together. The context isn’t about personal identity in the way we think of it now. Rather—and you might want to go and read the whole, tightly bound argument that Paul is making—it is about how Christians are joined together through faith into the family of Abraham. Whatever they were or did before becomes a mere shadow in comparison to their lives now as sons and heirs according to the promise. In other words, rather than twisting around your personal attributes—male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free—to mean everything and nothing in some foolish stratagem of pride, what really happens is that no matter what kind of person you are, no matter where you come from or how much money you have, no matter your sex or marital status, when you are joined by faith into the household of Abraham you are bound irrevocably to all the other people as members of one family. Who you are is not by any means eviscerated, or robbed of meaning and richness. On the contrary, because you are caught up together with other believers in Christ with whom you have been crucified so that you might live, you are no longer a single person out there, all by yourself, forsaken and alone. At least, that is your spiritual condition. How you feel in your heart and mind and body when you stagger into some badly arranged and aesthetically sub-beautiful church building is quite another matter.
The lectionary makers paired this Galatians text with a bit from Isaiah:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
That might not be how you think about getting ready for church on a dark and chilly Sunday morning. I know it’s the middle of the Christmas season, and I’ve been doing my best to “rejoice greatly” in the over-familiar work of Salvation that God wrought by coming himself into the world, but also, like so many, the sense of brittle alienation, like being a shard of glass that might cause someone else to bleed, is my more customary sense perception when pondering the usual Sunday Morning. The thing is, you open yourself up in a vulnerable and terrifying kind of way by going to Church. You drag yourself out of bed by admitting that there is a God to whom you owe worship, who has the right to judge your heart and mind and soul. You want to go and commune with this God, but doing so means running the gauntlet of all the other people who feel similarly stretched and anxious. They will misunderstand you. Indeed, for a long while, they won’t know you at all. You will have to go through the embarrassing and fraught work of letting other people see you as you are—not male or female, slave or free but sinful and peculiar and probably socially awkward.
Meanwhile, the prophet isn’t done speaking:
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet,
until her righteousness goes forth as brightness,
and her salvation as a burning torch.
The nations shall see your righteousness,
and all the kings your glory,
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your sons marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
The imagery of marriage is so bothersome and apt. Joining a church is too much like getting married, except that you don’t know it until it is time to go away and find a new church. You have to move because of your job, or the place you’ve been going for a long while shifts and decides to formally adopt some heterodox theology, or the pastor decides to embezzle a bunch of money or turns out to be an adulterer or something. You didn’t want to leave. It was never your plan, but there you are.
I find it sort of comforting that Paul wasn’t writing just to one congregation, but a whole region full of sinners who had to move town occassionally, and obviously did not get along with each other as they should. In fact, he himself was always starting churches and then having to leave. His life was one long goodbye, a continual and nail-biting starting over. And yet, for everyone who is in Christ, who has been redeemed, all those people together are heirs of the promise. The Spirit lives in all their hearts and makes them cry out to God, their Father:
I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father.In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
The Hillbilly Homemaker concluded her video by suggesting that any tightnit church community where true love appears to prevail that nevertheless finds some stranger wander in should try to remember to include that person in midweek fellowship. If you’re hanging out with all your friends for some fun activity, try to think of the newcomers and the single people. I like that very much, because it is true. The church gathers on Sunday, but one way to make it less lonely for everyone is to invite each other for coffee, or lunch, or Bible study, or prayer. It helps to ease the loneliness of Sunday, of the person caught alone in the pew under the attention of a God who sees the heart and knows what kinds of thoughts come out of it. But I’ve found another and more poignant balm. In my church, at the very end of the service, when you’ve endured the sermon and trailed forward to offer yourself to Jesus and accept him, yet again, into yourself, all the whole church stands to pray what is called by the scinitilating and provocative name of The Post Communion Prayer. It is currently my favorite part of going to church at all. It goes like this:
Almighty and everliving God, we thank you for feeding us, in these holy mysteries, with the spiritul food of the most precious Body and Blood of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; and for assuring us, through this Sacrament, of your favor and goodness towards us: that we are true members of the mystical body of your Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs, through hope, of your everlasting kingdom.
Something about whispering this prayer, especially while feeling desolated and alienated, ameliorates the loneliness. For, indeed it is a true thing, for God came all the way into our lonely estate to reconcile us to himself.
So anyway, go to church!
And check out my substack.