“Have you heard about what is going on in nursing homes? The residents are not allowed out of their rooms. Things keep happening and the staff take away more private property and putting it in storage. Now, the residents don’t even have their own clothes; they are wearing hospital gowns. They are supposed to exercise, but they are stuck in their tiny rooms. How much exercise can a person really get walking from their door to their bed; 500 steps a day? Their health is declining rapidly.”
Typically, the smell of a dentist’s office turns my stomach, but as I lay listening to my hygienist, it wasn’t the smell but her words that made me feel sick. Rows of rooms filled my mind. Rooms filled with withering old women and deteriorating old men. Those revealing hospital gowns draped over someone’s grandma, someone’s grandpa. Now these grandparents sit slumped over the edge of their bed, eyes staring at nothing, mind blank. They are dying. Dying of loneliness, inactivity, isolation–quarantine.
Why is it that isolation has such a negative effect on these elderly people? Or is it only the elderly who are affected by such separation? Don’t we all know that solitary confinement is the worst form of imprisonment? Or can’t we all identify with Tom Hanks in the movie Castawaywhen he, out of the insanity of loneliness, makes a volleyball his friend? We know long-term hospital patients need visitors. But do we also realize that we, we who are not stranded on an island, or locked in behind cement walls, are negatively affected by isolation? (And I don’t just mean isolation from all human contact.)
How many of us, while growing closer as a family during the mandatory Covid-19 quarantine, still felt alone? Though you saw your kids more in two months than you had in two years, did you still feel trapped? In short, total isolation can drive us to insanity or the grave; but so also can partial isolation—being cut off from our broader community. Though the effects may not be as marked or change us as rapidly, we felt them. What I am driving at, is the reality that we need more than just our immediate family. As Christians, we need our spiritual family. We need the church.
How can I say that? Are there not thousands of people (Christians and pagans) who live happy, healthy lives without ever entering church but to watch a wedding? Can people not find the community they need through friends, at work, during Bible studies? Is it necessary to go to church to stay sane and connected and healthy?
Yes, there are people who are relatively happy and seem healthy enough without Sunday service. Yes, connecting with friends outside of Sunday is important. God is not limited to the gathering of believers. He, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can lift the spirits of even the most alone. He is as near to our God-fearing, though isolated grandparent as someone surrounded by friends and family. However, God has chosen to minister to us through the humble means of Sunday preaching, congregational prayer, and the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s supper). God has chosen to minister to us in community with other believers.
But, what about private Bible reading? What about the sweet times of renewal and communion with God that come from a solitary walk or night alone journaling prayers? Didn’t many of David’s Psalms flow from rich times alone in the fields and meadows (think Psalm 23)? Or what of the astonishing ways God revealed himself to Abraham, Jacob, and Moses when they were quite alone (see Genesis 15, 32:22-32, Exodus 33:18-20)? Jesus Himself often slipped into a desolate place to talk with His Father (Matt. 14:23, Mark 6:46, Luke 6:12). Isn’t part of the wonder and uniqueness of God that He is personal? Absolutely!
God is personal and desires a personal relationship with us. Like a husband and wife, we must carve out time to be alone with our Lord. Without that time, sharing our heart with God, learning His heart, our relationship will soon grow stale and distant. (As it would for a husband and wife who only talk together when company is over.) This is not surprising as God Himself is communal.
Our God is a triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From eternity, He has existed in perfect unified community with Himself (Genesis 1:1-3, John 1:1-2). And from eternity He determined to create mankind for the purpose of bringing many of them—through His great grace—into eternal community with Him (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A #20; Acts 13:48). Even this side of heaven, He often speaks to us in community; addressing whole groups of people.
Even as we see God speaking to individuals throughout the Bible, so we witness Him addressing groups; communities. God spoke to Moses alone on the mountain and in the field (Exodus 19, 3). But He also addressed all of Israel as a whole multiple times throughout the Old and New Testament. From the same mountain on which Moses met privately with God, God revealed His power and majesty to all of Israel (Exodus 19:16-20). God used the prophets to declare His word to Israel as a group, not only to individuals. In Revelation, we see Jesus addressing entire churches, much like the Apostles do in their Epistles (Revelation 1, Galatians 1: 2, 1 Peter 1:2, etc.). And today, God has appointed Pastors and Elders to bring His word to entire congregations in Church (1 Timothy 3:2, Acts 2:42). In short, God chooses to speak to His people not only individually, but also communally—and that is why we need the Church.
But Sunday services do more then bring God’s word to us as a group, they throw us weekly in with this group. It is made up of people who are just as weak and needy as us. People who need frequent and consistent reminders of who God is and what He has done for us through Christ. People utterly dependent on the grace of God to save and sustain and sanctify us. And people who need fellow Christians to remind them of that grace, to point them back to Jesus’ completed work for us when they forget. We need only Jesus, yes. But Jesus says that the church is his own body. So, we need Sunday services because we need each other.
God is a communal God. While He loves to speak with us in private and ministers to us in quiet solitude, He has chosen to speak to and encourage us in community. This is not surprising really. If we are going to spend eternity living in community with God and other Christians, we should expect God to begin to prepare us now.
But what about those grandparents, living in mandatory solitude? What about the grandmas who are growing daily more discouraged because they have access to no believers who can turn their eyes back to Jesus? Or grandpas whose spirits are heavy because while they may hear God’s word preached online, they miss the encouragement and joy of listening with fellow believers. Or what of the Christians languishing in dark prison cells or hiding from in secret rooms from antagonistic authorities? What about them? Are they convicted to death by quarantine?
While I wish I could offer ten easy steps to solving these massive issues; I cannot. The only honest solution I can give is, pray. Pray that the Lord heals our land; our world. Pray that God lifts up weary heads and strengthens stooped shoulders. Pray that He shows Himself sufficient for those who are quarantined due to illness; those imprisoned for their faith (or their crimes). Pray that He would show us ways to encourage them despite distance. Pray that God would graciously bring them into community again. And above all, pray that He would hasten His return that all we who are in Christ, may forever live in sweet communion with Him and one another. Yet, while the Lord lingers, if there be any opportunity let us visit them in person, ministering physically to Christ’s physical body here on earth.
Elisabeth Bloechl is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, house cleaner, and aspiring writer. She lives in Indiana with her husband and daughter.