According to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, 30 to 50 percent of Americans are introverts. Perhaps this is one reason independent Christianity appeals to many of us. You know the type—the Jesus-and-me mindset where we forge on alone, just us, our Bibles, and our Lord. It’s a good, good life.
Or is it?
A decade ago I was sitting on my dorm room floor, sobbing over some boy (you know who you are, Greg), when my roommate arrived.
“You okay?” Kelsey asked.
“Yes,” I sniffled. “Jesus and I have some things to work out.” In seasons of fatigue, fragility, or fear, I curl up in a down comforter like a hermit crab and wait for everyone to go away. This was obviously her cue to leave. But to my dismay, she sat down.
“Court,” she said, “sometimes we need a prayer that’s stronger than our own.” I mulled over this borderline blasphemy. My prayers are strong enough, thank you very much. Yet she didn’t budge.
“Fine,” I said. “You can pray for me, I guess.” She put an arm around me and asked God to heal my heart. Because Kelsey helped carry me to Jesus, I encountered him in a deeper way. In that moment my maverick brand of Christianity began to lose its luster.
Real Faith Requires Real People
The Christian life is almost impossible without community. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone . . . the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.” Whether you’re an introvert, an extrovert, or somewhere in between, the call of Jesus is clear: we are created to live in right relationship with God and one another. Perhaps nowhere is this more beautifully described than in the second chapter of Mark’s Gospel. To the paralyzed man in Capernaum, four faithful friends make all the difference.
One day they hear that Jesus is back in town. Rumor has it that he heals people, so these men come up with a plan—a kind of surprise party conspiracy. They will take the suffering paralytic to see Jesus. They load him onto a mat and off they go. But when the five travelers arrive at the house where Jesus is speaking, there’s a problem. It’s filled to overflowing, and no one has the good sense or the good manners to make way for a paralyzed man. His situation looks hopeless. Yet his friends are determined.
Perhaps you have a friend like this—someone whose default response to an obstacle is “We can work with this.” If my friend Anna is in town and I have to work late, we’ll have this text exchange:
Anna: Okay if I make dinner?
Anna: Mind if I look in your cabinets?
This, my friends, is trust. It takes some pride-swallowing as I let her in—not just to my life but to my cabinets. Because we are not so good with housekeeping, she is just as likely to find Play-doh in our cabinets as she is to find food.
We’ll come home to the most amazing smell, and she’ll explain how she made sweet potato curry out of past-their-prime yams, and almond scones, too, because she found almond paste. Resourceful friends who don’t get turned off by a messy cabinet or a grumpy mood, a long journey or an unmoving crowd, who find a way to care no matter the uphill battle, they are gold.
Fortunately, the paralytic had resourceful friends. If the crowd won’t part for the paralyzed man, his friends will part the crowd. They head to the roof and begin to dig. Below them, the house falls silent. Jesus looks up to find the source of the noise, only to be hit on the forehead with a shower of splintered tile. The roof begins to lift away. Then slowly, carefully, down comes the mat. The paralyzed man’s friends lower it until it comes to rest right in front of the rabbi they seek.
This man couldn’t have gotten to Jesus on his own. There are times we can’t either. Designed by God to depend upon others, there are seasons when we don’t have the legpower or the willpower of the faithpower to get to Jesus alone. Yet when we seek out Christian community, we begin to belong to people who will carry us when we cannot make it on our own.
Choosing Community Over Isolation
“Two words of advice,” my mentor said as I headed off to my first pastorate. “Don’t isolate.” His words rang in my head as I fought the temptation to go it alone, not just as a Christian but as a pastor. Isolation in ministry can be the death knell of health and vitality. I needed advice, counsel, and new friends, but it was a fight to form those new relationships when, at the end of a long day, what I really wanted was a Survivor marathon and a vat of popcorn all to myself.
When our family moved to a second pastorate years later, I had to resist the urge to isolate once again. Just as I began contemplating the hermit crab shell, one woman invited us to join her couples’ small group. “We know your schedule is busy,” she said, “but if you join us to study the Bible and share life when you can, we’d love to love on you.” She and her husband and two other couples loaded my husband and me onto the mat and carried us straight to Jesus’ feet.
Following Jesus is a team sport, especially if you’re in ministry. It’s a communal practice. A group effort. Our true selves flourish in community because we are created in God’s image and God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is a community.
When my friends and colleagues become paralyzed by doubt or financial pressure or toxic relationships, I am part of the team that loads them onto a mat and carries them to Jesus. When I’ve faced graduate school angst or pastoral transitions, marriage or new motherhood, they have carried me.
For women in ministry in particular, this call to let others carry us is vital. Each Sunday that I wear a dress without pockets and have to figure out how to clip a microphone pack onto it, every time I show up at a pastors’ breakfast and discover I’m the only woman present who isn’t on the catering staff, and all the times I’ve been invited to ministry conferences for “pastors and their wives,” I’m reminded that ministry still is, in some ways, a man’s world. All the more reason for us to reach out as women, bond together, and admit our needs to one another not only as ministry professionals but as those called to serve Jesus with our own unique gifts, needs, and graces. We will all have a turn—or 2, or 12—on that mat.
Jesus looks at this paralyzed man, dusty from his trip down through the roof, years of suffering written in his twisted limbs. Then he looks up to what used to be the ceiling, where now there’s a gaping hole, blue sky, and four earnest faces. He does not ask what they need. It is all too clear.
“My child,” Jesus says tenderly, “your sins are forgiven. Stand up, pick up your mat, and go home.” Just like that, the healing power of God restores the man’s faulty limbs to full function. Where there once was shame, now there is exhilaration. Scripture tells us the man jumps to his feet. N.T. Wright calls this story a reminder not to “stay on the edge of the crowd.” In times when we’re stuck there, mired in sin or shame, isolation or indifference, it’s also a reminder to let others help us to the feet of the one who loves us best.
Courtney Ellis speaks and writes on faith, family and ministry, and serves as Associate Pastor at Presbyterian Church of the Master in California. She loves a park play date and a good 10k race. You can find her at www.courtneybellis.com.