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Blessed are those who Suffer Alone

Recently, we all lived through a pandemic. Everyone has stories of what that time was like for them. There are the many downsides we could talk about, those we loved and lost, the way our lives were irrevocably effected by that time of lock-downs, remote work and school, and a frightening disease we didn't know much about among us. There are stories of silver linings that came from that period as well, the small blessings we found along the way. But there is another pandemic in our society, one that is still with us and was also rampant during the period of COVID lock-downs, and that is the pandemic of loneliness.

There is a pandemic of loneliness in our society. I saw some statistics say that 60% of Americans report feeling alone, and the number is 75% when it comes to young people. Teen suicide statistics during the pandemic were so high that I saw one commentator say that loneliness was more life threatening than cancer for that age group during that time.

You don't need to be in a lock-down to experience loneliness or isolation. There are those who feel alone while in a marriage and those who feel alone even in their families. There are those who feel alone because they're afraid of being rejected for who they really are, there are those in our own congregation at IHS and in our workplaces, neighborhoods, and schools who feel alone though surrounded by others every day.

When human beings are isolate from each other, every other kind of suffering is compounded. When you are cut off from compassion and help, it intensifies everything else.

The good news that God offers to us is that we are not alone. The Gospel, or message of God's good news, is that God did everything imaginable to be with us and for us. God is with us and God is for us, and he longs for all of us to find our rest and our belonging in him.

The third chapter of John's Gospel is pretty well known because it contains one of the most well known verses in the Bible, John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." We don't as often hear the next verse, though this is meant to be one continuous thought and inseparable: "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him."

Words like "saved" and "salvation" have become so churchy that they lack almost all meaning. The message of this passage is that God's plan for human suffering and all that is broken and wrong in our world was to send Jesus. He was lifted up on the Cross to provide life and health to us in ways we can only imagine.

As we discussed in our ongoing Lent series last week, this is not a promise that we won't have suffering. Suffering is a part of the human condition and in this life, suffering is a guarantee. What God does promise us is that we do not suffer alone. God is with us in our suffering, with us in our despair, with us in our loneliness. God stooped all the way down to our place, he took on our human nature to live and die as one of us. He was lifted up on the Cross to provide a way to life only available through his Death and Resurrection.

He longs for us to find our belonging in his household. That is what our baptism is all about, a bond created between us and God that cannot be broken. When we are baptized, we are welcomed into God's household, accepted for exactly who we are, loved for who God made us to be, and filled with the same Spirit of God that was in our Lord Jesus. If you are baptized, you have been marked and sealed as God's own forever, and nothing that happens in this life, no amount of sorrow, suffering, trauma, or loneliness, can change that.

Since we have been accepted as members of God's household and formed into a community for God's purposes as his followers, as Christians, we are called to make communities of radical welcome and belonging. How can we truly make communities of belonging at our congregation of IHS and in our programs? What barriers are there for folks to experience that belonging, especially those who have been unchurched, who have traditionally been excluded or felt like they did not belong because of their identities or differences? What barriers of belonging are there still among us that we cannot see?

Ministries we do at IHS, like our coffee hour time every Sunday, our board game ministry Saturday Night Strategists, or our annual gaming convention Delcon, these can seem trivial. Coffee and donuts, board games and socializing, these things can seem less important. Actually, these are crucial ministries to those impacted by them.

For seven years, Saturday Night Strategists has made a space of welcome, fun, and belonging for folks experiencing loneliness, looking for connection, moving to a new area and wanting to meet new people, and beyond. We have made genuine connections, friend groups have grown up out of it. Love, dating, and even marriages have sprung up from it. There is a reason why SNS not only survived the lock-down period, but has grown and thrived since. This important work we do addresses a deep need for belonging, and through these ministries, at IHS we live out God's call to create communities of belonging.

If you are feeling alone, know that you do not suffer alone. God's love is with you. He offers himself to you today. If you care for someone who is suffering, you are not alone in that hard work you do, either. God's strength and grace are with you. May God continue to strengthen all of us and nurture us as we continue through this season of Lent.

How do you experience welcome and belonging? What are your thoughts on the pandemic of loneliness? Don't forget to join us on our forums as we continue our weekly discussions during Lent.

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