Last Sunday in worship I mentioned the parable of the lost sheep, the one where the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go find the one that strayed (Luke 15:1-7) . I said that’s what God is like, a seeker after lost things. It was only an aside, just a few throwaway sentences, so I’ll forgive you if you don’t remember.
On Monday I came across a sermon by Amy Butler that mentioned the same parable and asked whether we might also see the sheep as lonely or alone, and not just because it had lost its way. She suggested that maybe the sheep was isolated because it had taken an unpopular, but righteous stand on a controversial issue, or spoken out with courage on behalf of someone else.
Let me offer another possibility. Maybe the lone sheep was struggling with a mental illness that made it feel disconnected from the rest of the group or that made it harder to blend in and be accepted. Maybe the sheep felt rejected by the group. Maybe the sheep wasn’t lost. Maybe it was just lonely.
In the wake of the tragedy at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC, you will hear a lot of talk about gun control and limiting access to firearms for those who have a history of violence or mental illness…all appropriate conversations to have. But how does the church fit into that conversation?
I would suggest that the church ought to be building a society that doesn’t allow loneliness and isolation and mental illness to turn into death and destruction. Everyone needs emotional and spiritual outlets, connectedness and community. No one should fall through the cracks because we don’t care enough to reach out to them, to listen to them, to spend time with them, or to provide for their basic needs, including their mental health needs.
Over the last several generations, our world has changed. Our social fabric has started to fray and break and unravel. The support systems of natural connectedness that used to keep people from suffering alone in silence are no longer in place. In Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass writes:
“We want lives of authenticity, meaning and purpose. In traditional societies these were part of the social fabric handed down from one generation to the next. Now, the ties that bind have been cut. These qualities are no longer givens. In mobile, hyper-individualistic society, we search on our own for things that used to be born into us.”
And sometimes, especially if we’re suffering from a mental illness, we don’t find meaning or purpose or authenticity even when we search for them. That’s a tough situation that gets even tougher when we’re searching alone. No one should have to search alone.
While others figure out where to draw the line on guns, the church ought to start drawing the line on loneliness. We ought to say, “Never again. We won’t stand for it. Not in our communities, not in our schools, not in our workplaces. It has no place in civilized society. It’s happened too many times and we’ve failed to act. We will not fail to act this time. We are a nation whose values have always been informed by Christian principles, and we worship a savior who searches for the one off by himself, alone and lost and scared. We are people who care for one another, and loneliness will not be tolerated.”
Everyone needs to know they are loved. Everyone needs to know they are accepted. Everyone needs to know they are forgiven. Everyone needs to know that they are not alone. That was Jesus’ primary mission and message, and it ought to be the primary mission and message of the church.
In the coming weeks you’ll hear a lot of Christian voices say a lot of different things in the aftermath of another tragedy. What if we as the church did something radical instead? What if we refused to be baited into the political back and forth of gun control and instead focused on Kingdom principles?
What if we focused on love, acceptance, forgiveness, inclusiveness, and the transformative power of the shepherd who takes lost and lonely and scared and sick people, puts them on his shoulders, and carries them back into the fold?
“And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.'” -Luke 15:5-6