Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Other Side of the Mountain: Solitude vs. Isolation

Jesus went up the mountain alone. He climbed among the crags and trekked beyond the trails in search of solitude. Here the noisy and needy crowds would not follow. Here no one would find Him. Here there is momentary rest. He sits down upon a lofty ledge and slowly inhales the mountain air. Alone at last. He closes His eyes and exhales the very breath of God. Jesus is alone with His Father.

This was not the first time Jesus had sought a solitary place to worship and pray. He had often come privately to the mountainside, and He had just recently spent forty days in the wilderness apart from any human company. It seems clear that these habitual times of solitude were important in the life and ministry of Jesus. And many of His followers have learned from their Teacher the value of solitude in the Christian life. Most of us are at least familiar with the practice of a "quiet time." It is indeed very good to be alone with God.

But Jesus did not stay on the mountain. He did not build a cabin. He did not become a hermit. He did not forsake the crowds for a cloud. He always came down from the mountain and lived among the people once again. In fact, this time He climbs down from the cliffs with a certain twelve of the people on His mind. In just a moment, He will call the Twelve by name, and they will come to Him. On the mountain Jesus chooses solitude. Here in the valley, Jesus chooses His new family. He is most certainly choosing not to be alone. Jesus knows it is not good to live in isolation. 

The difference between solitude and isolation is as big as the mountain Jesus climbed. It is the difference between drinking and drowning. The water that can nourish you spiritually can also kill you spiritually when it floods your life. Rather than enjoying refreshing times of solitude, many Christians drown themselves in a sea of isolation. It's not that we are isolated from people entirely. We go to work and school. We have our hobbies and activities. We have our families and friends. Rather, it's that we isolate ourselves from the Christian community that Jesus established that day in the valley. It's not that we don't love God. We love to stay alone with Jesus up on the mountain! We just don't want to come down with Him and live with His family. We have Jesus, we think, do we really need the Church?

The Twelve knew what it was to experience isolation. It happened just before Jesus climbed another mountain. As usual, Jesus went up the mountain alone. Although this time the noisy crowds did follow. There was no moment of rest, no reprieve from the torture on this mountainside. This was no sip of solitude, but bitter gall served with spears. He inhaled only suffocating gasps, drowning in the sea of isolation. And exhaling the last blood-gurgled breath of God, Jesus died alone and abandoned.

Only one of the Twelve was there to witness Jesus' death. The rest ran scattered and scared into the dark corners of the night. One would hang himself, the starving soul who had walked out of the family meal. Even the man who in community had sworn allegiance to Jesus unto death, now when singled out, swore curses to save his life. The mountain of solitude had become the mountain of isolation.

But Jesus did not stay on this mountain either. Not even a sealed and guarded tomb, not even the ultimate isolation of death itself could keep Jesus from His family. He rose again, victorious over the grave, and He called His Eleven out of hiding. When they reunited, forgiven and healed as a family once more, Jesus gathered them all on yet another mountain. He told them He was leaving, but that He loved them and that He'd always be with them through His Spirit. The Spirit would unite them as one. More than ever, Jesus would be with them not just in the solitude of the mountainside, but especially in the community of the valley. From now on, the way other people would know they were His family would be the love relationships they would have with one another. And then He told them to go and invite more and more people into this family. If you are a Christian, the reason you are a Christian is because this family did just that. They left the mountain and went to live in the valley together.

We must not confuse solitude with isolation. Solitude Jesus experienced as our Teacher. Isolation Jesus experienced as our Savior. Because of Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension, we can experience times of solitude in right relationship to God. But we must not build our cabin on the mountainside and believe that is all we need. Because of Jesus, we are also saved from lives of isolation. Although we must walk up Calvary's mountain alone, we come down the other side into a family. We can opt out of this spiritual family about as easily as we can opt out of our biological family. As children, we can run away from home because we don't like our brothers and sisters, or because our parents are too strict, or because we got hurt, and in our pride we may believe we are better off. Or we may keep our family's address but never come home because we are too busy. The result is the same: spiritual isolation.

What Jesus gives us in response to spiritual isolation is not just some intangible theory of being part of the people of God out there somewhere. Far greater, He gives us local churches. That is, He gives us actual real people of His who live close enough to one another to gather regularly in one place and practice being the family of God. These people are bound to be sinful and messy. These people are bound to wrong one another and lack common ground sometimes. But families are families. The Twelve were not the best of friends when Jesus called them to Himself that day in the valley. Some of them were even enemies. But they did not come at first for the sake of each other. They came simply to be obedient to Jesus. And as they followed Jesus, they found that the more love and grace they received from Jesus, the more love and grace they had toward one another. Jesus gave them the very love that He commanded them to put on display. In this way, the local church is Jesus' means of displaying the glory of His grace to a watching world.

Jesus went up the mountain alone. As His followers, we should join Him. Jesus came down from the mountain and lived with His family. As His followers, we should join Him. This Good Friday, let us follow the suffering Jesus up the mountain where He died to make us His people. This Easter, let us follow the resurrected Jesus up the mountain where He gathers and commissions us. And then as members of His family, the Church, let us walk back down the other side of the mountain together.

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