Following Jesus

Combating a Pandemic of Loneliness

October 8, 2020 by

The memory remains etched in sharp relief these many decades later, probably because it was the first time I’d ever welcomed Christmas Day inside a county jail.

It was late on Christmas Eve when we arrived. My brother had a violin and another friend an accordion; the rest of us used our vocal cords to the best of our ability for as long as they lasted. There is nothing quite like concrete and wall-to-wall steel for bouncing sound around, and a jail has lots of it. Pretty soon the place was ringing with everything from “Silent Night” to “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” whatever it was the inmates wanted to hear. Many sang along as best they could.

We didn’t leave until we’d worked our way through the jail from top to bottom, spending extra time outside the sick bay and next to the solitary confinement cells. I don’t remember what time it was when we got home, but Christmas Day began well before the last carol ended. What I do remember is scribbling some notes on a scrap of paper before going to bed, including the words, “Immanuel – God with us.” Because alongside all that steel, all those bars and locked doors, we felt the powerful presence of God. Not remote, but proximate, right there with each of us.

In prophetic language, Isaiah gave the name to the promised Messiah. Then in Matthew’s Gospel the prophecy is repeated when an angel tells an anxious Joseph that the child his betrothed is carrying is to be this very Immanuel, the Word made flesh.

Isaiah used other names for God’s chosen one, including “Wonderful Counsellor,” “Mighty God,” “Everlasting Father,” and “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). But as much as there is something deep within the human soul that yearns for peace, for counsel, and for an almighty God and Father, I can’t think of anything that would have moved Joseph’s heart more powerfully than the intimation that in Christ, God was to be actually present, with us and among us.

champagne glassesProximate love as illustrated by Champagne glasses found in the ashes of the home pictured below. Once used to celebrate life’s happiest moments, the two are now fused as one in the crucible of suffering.

As the embodiment of God’s proximate love, Jesus walked among the people and lived with them. And when it came time to leave his disciples, he knew just how utterly abandoned they would feel, overwhelmed by their loss. “And remember that I am always with you until the end of time,” he said, even as he stretched out his arms in blessing and ascended to his Father (Matt. 28:20). They were not left as orphans, bereft of comfort; neither are we today.

That’s what I felt so powerfully in the wee hours of that Christmas morning. We were not alone as we walked the tiers of the jail with the good news of Christ’s birth resounding all around. Yes, we were celebrating a historical fact. But if that were all, the carols would have been just another drug to take hearts and minds away from the dreadful reality of being locked up. It is precisely because Christ is present when two or three gather in his name, that the good news has any purchase in a place like that.

Chaplaincy is, at heart, a ministry of presence. God knows there is nothing more hellish than feeling alone when the worst has happened; that’s when we need him with us. Whether in a hospital, hospice, prison, or any other field of work, to be a chaplain simply means to intervene with love and care. There is a beautiful tradition surrounding the origin of the word chapel, from which chaplain descends, of one man sharing his cloak with another, literally tearing it in half. Chaplaincy is all about a human touch, a listening ear, a word of comfort. Or simply being silent together.

Bill WiserA ministry of presence. In the background, the remains of a home.

That is why “Immanuel” so readily comes to mind in spaces of human suffering, at the side of a bereaved spouse or in a prison chapel. Following on the bush fires of Australia’s Black Summer, my wife Grace and I deployed to the fire grounds of East Gippsland, Victoria with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplains. Up close, statistics about destroyed properties and ruined houses became personal stories of grief and loss. And mile after endless mile of blackened trees.

We won’t ever forget spending time with a couple next to the heap of mangled steel and charred stone that used to be their home. As we watched, volunteers carefully and respectfully sifted through the ash, finding and preserving little bits of family history. It felt as though we were attending a funeral, and I suppose we were: when a home and all it contains is gone, something is lost that not even a new house can replace.

No matter our specific calling, as believers we are to embody the love of Jesus, now that he no longer walks this earth. Lest we forget, he even connects our eternal blessedness with our putting love into action – or not. And in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus equates the need for human company to that for food, water, and clothing.

That may seem a little extreme to our Western minds that so easily think of poverty in its external forms, but then we need to listen to Mother Teresa, who was well acquainted with deprivation in all its manifold expressions:

The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty – it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.

Proximate love is our calling, now more than ever as COVID-19 does its cruel work of separating people just when human proximity is most desperately needed. Even as a mental health pandemic threatens and it is vastly more difficult – or even impossible – to be present and alongside others, we must find new ways to love and to care.

This additional challenge does not absolve us of responsibility; nor will it provide an easy excuse when it is our turn to stand before the Judge. Though we may never find ourselves in a place where providing water or food will save a life, the nearest lonely person may be the person right next to us, or next door, or within reach of a phone call, an email, a text message, or meeting on Zoom. The means of connection is unimportant; what matters is the commitment to “being present.” It may be as simple as sharing our cloak with another, but that one act is a win against the pandemic of loneliness.

Bill’s reflections on Christian living have appeared in Plough Quarterly and, most recently, in Lessons from the Pandemic Lockdown at the Danthonia Bruderhof, New South Wales in Communities magazine, a self-described “forum for exploring intentional communities, cooperative living, and ways our readers can bring a sense of community into their daily lives.”


About the author

photograph of Bill and Grace Wiser

Bill Wiser

Bill Wiser lives at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in New South Wales. His daily activities include teaching and pastoral work...

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