Some years ago I watched the movie “Into the Wild,” which is based on the true story of a young man named Christopher McCandless who journeyed alone through the North American wilderness in the early 1990’s. My convictions have changed since then and I don’t watch R-rated films anymore. So if you’re interested in seeing it, be warned that I wouldn’t watch it again. (Also spoiler alert, because I’m going to talk about the end of the movie.)
There seems to be an epidemic of loneliness among believers, and it even mirrors the one we see outside of the faith, in the rest of society. I’ve been thinking about this for the last few weeks, and this movie keeps popping into my head.
To summarize it, Christopher McCandless is the son of wealthy parents, and he graduates with honors as a top student and athlete from Emory University. Instead of launching into a promising career, Christopher decides to give all his money away ($24,000), destroy his identification documents, and basically set off on a journey of self-discovery, stripped of his previous identity. He doesn’t tell his family where he’s going and merely sets off. On his way to the Alaskan wilderness he meets a hippie couple named Jan and Rainey, who take him under their wing. There’s one scene that keeps running through my mind: Jan tells the story of her disconnection from her own son and how she hasn’t spoken to him for years. She then lovingly grabs Christopher’s face with tears in her eyes and asks, “Do your parents know where you are?” It’s a powerful image–the plea of a mother who knows the heartache of this separation. Later on in his travels he meets an older man who offers to adopt him. They have a wonderful connection, but Christopher is so tainted by the idea that he needs to prove himself and find his identity in isolation that he turns down the opportunity to be adopted and belong. Christopher eventually makes it to Alaska and sets up camp in a broken down bus, in his efforts of self discovery. Here he finally realizes that he would rather spend his life with his family, but by then the river between him and civilization has grown too much for him to leave. He mistakenly eats some toxic berries and moose hunters find his body a few weeks later. His sister later returns his ashes to alaska in order to honor him.
Jan’s plea for Christopher to reconnect with his family grabs my heart every time I think about it. In his face she likely saw the same look of pain she saw in her own son’s eyes before he went searching for identity and belonging.
In the Old Testament Godly families expanded through bloodline, but in the New Testament they did so through the restorative work of Christ. We are born again into a family of God. We are all called to be mothers and fathers of the faith regardless of marital status. What defines both is maturity and a willingness to father/mother, not necessarily someone’s age.
So then why do so many Christians head off into the woods of loneliness after they’ve committed to Christ? Why do they attempt to burn their identity in the fire and leave their loved ones behind?
In Africa I spent time at Iris Ministries (led by Heidi and Rolland Baker) during a three-week mission trip that changed my perspective in so many ways. The Bakers’ ministry cares for countless orphans, plants churches, feeds the poor…the list is a mile long. They live in the supernatural provision of God, who supplies them in impossible situations. There ministry lives and breathes the power we see demonstrated by Jesus in Mark 14.
14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Jesus, much like the Bakers, didn’t just see a sea of people who were hungry. Jesus saw a sea of people ready to be adopted as children of God through the miracle of multiplication. Jesus saw orphans whose needs had to be met not only through Him and his disciples, but through the supernatural ability of God.
He didn’t look at them and say, “You’re responsible for feeding yourself. You should have packed a protein shake. Go deal with it and come back tomorrow.”
And here is where I believe we are called to more. See, I don’t believe that we have a selfish church that purposefully abandons or neglects people. (Yes, the church as a whole is crazy diverse, and there is currently a movement of only surrounding yourself with only people you consider “influential”, which is producing a lot of bad fruit and elitism…but that’s for another blog.) If the church isn’t selfish then, why are we seeing this epidemic of loneliness? Perhaps it’s because we’re overwhelmed by the sea of faces that we know we can’t feed by our own strength, and that will cost us more than we want to sacrifice.
I never personally saw the Bakers refer to the children as “the orphans”; they always used their names. It seems like a small detail, but it had a huge impact on me. Often in our church circles today we tend to label people according to their lack instead of how Christ views them. Maybe this mindset is what the church as a whole needs more of: instead of labeling people as having an “orphan spirit” it takes what it has and blesses it to the Lord – all the while calling people by their name. My prayer in my own life is that I would carry the spirit of adoption, because that’s what Jesus promises in Luke 18:28.
28 Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Jesus promises that you will recover in this life all that you leave behind for His sake. We as believers are the hands and legs of that fulfillment for each other. A thriving church faces the lack in full faith. Our lives are meant for tremendous tension when facing the multitudes of need, otherwise it’s not the power of the gospel; it’s our own strength.
Liz Flaherty lives in South Carolina with her husband Andy. They’ve been married since 2005, and have spent the majority of their marriage ministering to and mentoring people in areas of sexual wholeness and identity. In her book, The God of My Parents, Liz shares her powerful testimony in which she faced immense grief, rejection, drug abuse, pornography, and homosexuality. Her heart is to inspire the Christian community to address these issues with love, respect and honesty.
Liz and Andy have two cats, named Paddie and Ginger.