Milestones in our Faith: The Tension Between Loneliness and Community

Preacher: John Carter
Date: August 11, 2019

Scripture: Genesis 21:9–21 & Genesis 22:1–14


By way of background, as some of you know, I’m currently a PhD student in theology at Boston College. I grew up Baptist, and after attending Episcopal and Methodist churches for a couple years, had returned to being a Baptist in 2005. Before moving to Boston to start PhD work, I worked as a lawyer for a little over 10 years, and then, after having a call experience to become a minister, attended divinity school and was ordained as a Baptist minister in 2010, at a church called Crescent Hill Baptist Church, in Louisville, Ky. (You’ll notice in your bulletin that we’re singing a hymn written specifically for one of that church’s anniversary later in the service.)


My specialty in the theology work is a subfield called theological ethics or what’s sometimes called moral theology, which just means I that focus on the theology of human actions and their ethical and moral dimensions. And so as a sort of moral theologian, I can very much get behind the theme for worship this summer, “Milestones in My Faith.” As a general principle, I strongly believe that it is the challenges that we overcome in life (or that we don’t) that give our lives meaning.


Having said that, I think the danger in focusing on something called “milestones” is that it can sometimes give an overly linear depiction of the Christian experience, or at least it can for me—since sometimes my Christian “journey” feels less like a quest or a hiking trip and more like I’m on a treadmill, or even better, doing laps on a track. I *think* I’m making progress, and the scenery changes, but I keep seeing the same markers along the way, no matter how many times I’ve passed them before. (And of course, sometimes I don’t even feel like I’m on a track; sometimes it feels more like I’m in an Escher drawing, where the dimensions don’t make sense and random stairways lead to the backsides of doors and paths I’ve just come through.)


And in this vein, I’d like to talk about something that’s kind of a milestone for me, but it’s also a recurrent theme. Because that’s how my experience of being a Christian has unfolded. I’m talking about feeling like you’re alone.


I think this is important to acknowledge, because as often as we emphasize relationality, love for neighbor (even love of enemy), the communion of saints, and especially the communion of our church family here at United Parish, we can give the impression that there is no isolation, no loneliness, in the life of the “good Christian” and, well, on one hand I want to agree with that, and on the other I want to say, it’s seldom that simple.


In our lives, following Christ, there are times when we are going to feel alone, and there are times we undoubtedly, necessarily, irresolvably, will be alone, and at the same time, it is often the case that we are not as alone, without any recourse of human connection, as we imagine ourselves to be.


This is what I like about these two episodes that we just heard read from the book of Genesis: two different single parents, each out in the wilderness, each with the child that they loved and hoped for, each facing the tragic death of that child.


As a side note, I would mention that while many of you may have heard the story of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain, and how God provided a substitute sacrifice, I suspect that fewer of you are as familiar with the story of Hagar and the near death of her son Ishmael. In church, we often use the story of Abraham and Isaac to emphasize certain themes about the chosenness of the nation of Israel through the line of Isaac, but for right now, I’d like to set aside those themes which are commonly associated with that story and just focus on the parallels with the story of Hagar. They appear almost exactly right next to one another in the text, and by putting them together, we seem some really important things emerge: The attachment of parents to their children; the perilous nature of a child’s life in the ancient near east. And the consistency of how, when things felt most without hope, most alone, for each of these parents, they heard a voice from heaven saying, “Look up!” and when they did, they were able to see the resources that would save the life of their children. (The stories form such a lovely pair, like two panels in one of those religious pieces of artwork depicting saints which are referred to as icons, I wish we never told one of these stories without the other.)


After divinity school, I spent a year as a hospital chaplain at a hospital in Greensboro, North Carolina—a year that most definitely qualifies as a “milestone” in my faith. In addition to various types of pastoral visits with patients and their families, we chaplains were often called upon to offer a word of prayer at the time of a patient’s passing. And on many occasions, I stood with people by the bedside of their loved one, and the person standing beside me would say, tears streaming down their face, “When this person dies [my parent, my spouse, my friend, whatever the relationship was], I will be all alone! I will be all alone.” And almost invariably, there would be other people in the hospital room at that very moment who were there almost solely for the purpose of making sure that person speaking to me was not alone. And on the one hand, I don’t want to undervalue that a single person can make in our lives, that feeling of being alone if we lose them, but on the other hand, sometimes we just need to lift. up. our. eyes. to see that we are not as alone as we imagine ourselves to be. In  those situations in the hospital room, I wanted to say to the person who felt alone, “would you just look around and see the people who love you, who are here just for you?”


God brings people into our lives, wherever we are, who are there to be a gift, so that we will not be alone.


And yet, earlier in the story of Genesis, before the stories that we heard about Abraham and Hagar, God specifically commands Abraham, “Go! Go forth! leave your family house, to the place that I will show you!” Likewise, in the Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples, if they would truly follow him, they must be willing to leave everything behind. On the surface, it seems they’re being called to a new community to replace their old ones, but as we know, later in the Bible, later in Genesis, even, that “new community” can get pretty fragmented as well.


All this carries a lot of meaning for me. My parents still live in the house they bought in 1965. On both sides of my family, there are ancestors who settled as far back as the 1790s literally within 10 or 15 miles of where I grew up. And yet, I felt a leading to leave all that at the age of 18 to go to college 450 miles away. (And this was no departure borne of estrangement; I have always been and remain very close to my parents—to each of them.) Years later, during my years practicing law, when I felt like I had been a failure at some things I had been working at, I decided that whatever else changed in my life, whoever came and went, my family had been the constant, so around the age of 30 I moved back to Kentucky to practice law with my father. Several years later, in 2005, I bought a place to live in Louisville, Kentucky: the first deed I had signed, at age 34. And {shaking head in disbelief} the very next year, I felt the leading to leave again that I mentioned earlier: to change the course of my life and become a minister, again moving far away to go to school.


Like the Baptist and theologian that I am, I return to the Bible again and again, and I get no easy answers. I find Jesus, at the end of his life abandoned by those he had called friends, and unlike Hagar and Abraham, when he lifted his eyes up at the end, as he hung on the cross, he didn’t get help; all he saw was a godless sky. And yet after the resurrection, he tells his followers—and through the written text, he tells us today—“in my father’s house, there are many mansions. I go there to prepare a place for you; if it were not so, would I not have told you?”


Like with so much else in the Christian life, I consign this dilemma to the category of “paradox.” God did not create us to be alone, and in the end, in the final analysis, we won’t be alone. But in the meantime, in this created existence, at various points in our lives, we have to be alone. We have to face challenges, alone, feeling more alone than seems right or just or loving.


And yet, and yet, and yet .... I continue to believe that the biggest lie anyone ever tells themself is that they are alone. And in my life, that has always proved to be the case. To the contrary, if nothing else, in the darkest corners I have found myself, I have always encountered others who might have been alone if I had not been there. And through God’s grace, neither of us was alone.


And so, my sisters, brothers, siblings in Christ, may you have the courage to go into that recurring milestone, the wilderness of loneliness. But when you get there, don’t forget to look up, look around, and maybe see that you are not as alone as you feel; or maybe, you’re there so that when someone else looks up, they’ll see you. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Amen.