By Jim Killam | Illustration by Nathan McDonald
As a newspaper reporter, I once attended a media event at Walt Disney World. We journalists would attend morning press conferences about new rides and attractions, and then the rest of the day was our own.
For three days, I was treated like a Disney princess. I could ride any ride, see any show, eat at any restaurant … all on Mickey Mouse’s dime.
The catch was, I was by myself.
There is a definite place in life for solitude. That place is a long way from Walt Disney World. As I watched Indiana Jones blow up an airplane, rode Space Mountain in the dark or got dropped from the Tower of Terror, I’d never felt more uncomfortably isolated. I’d get off the rides with hundreds of people and there would be no one to talk with, laugh with … even barf with.
I’d just had exactly the same experience as all of those happy, laughing people around me, but all I felt was alone and self-conscious — and that I definitely shouldn’t walk anywhere near small kids. I know solo travel has become a big thing, and maybe it works for some. No rules, no compromises, no agenda but your own. For me, the experience was just … empty. I couldn’t wait to go home, and to come back later with people I love.
Leaving it all behind
In the true 1996 book and 2007 movie, Into the Wild, Christopher McCandless graduates from college, disillusioned with materialistic society. He leaves home without telling anyone where he’s going, gives away everything he has and embarks on a solo quest to find meaning and purpose. That leads to random stops around the country, all with an eventual goal: Alaska. The ultimate wilderness.
Before embarking on the last leg of his journey north, Chris tells his friend, Ron Franz: “You are wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from the joy of human relationships. God’s place is all around us. It is in everything and in anything we can experience. People just need to change the way they look at things.”
Near the end of the film, Chris’ opinion has changed. His rejection of family, church and society has left him dangerously alone. To find himself, by himself, has been no answer. Facing starvation in the Alaskan wilderness, he writes in the margin of the book, Doctor Zhivago: “Happiness only real when shared.”
Church and elder brothers
During a time of family struggle a few years ago, we stepped away from church and small groups for a few months. We felt defeated, disillusioned and let down. A holy discontent, we reasoned. Church felt less like a close community of believers and more like one continuous argument over worship and preaching styles.
So we just stopped going. I never came close to abandoning my faith, but church felt empty. For the time being, the thought of just God, me, a Bible and a journal sounded pretty attractive.
Chris McCandless’ story haunted me those months away from church. What did my faith mean apart from the messiness of community? Did this all really just begin and end in my own head? What’s the end game in loving God but not the church?
Around that time I also read Timothy Keller’s book, The Prodigal God, in which he drew on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. Churches can be so unpleasant, he wrote, because we can see them as being filled with elder brothers — self-righteous, jealous, graceless jerks. Yet when I stayed away because of that, I had to come to grips with my own self-righteous jerkiness.
Keller also said this:
“There is no way you will be able to grow spiritually apart from a deep involvement in a community of other believers. You can’t find the Christian life without a band of Christian friends, without a family of believers in which you find a place.”
Long story short: We didn’t stay away for long. In fact, not long after we came back to the church, we felt God’s call to missions. Loving God but not the church had left me with an incomplete faith, and fewer people to share it with. Holy discontent didn’t stay holy for very long.
This month, First Free Rockford is engaging with a sermon series called Life in Community. Whether we’re married, single or widowed, it does us all good to realize community is where we thrive. God placed us in community to worship, grow and serve together — not to ride life’s roller coasters alone.
Views expressed on this blog are those of the writer alone. References to films, music or other works should not be considered an endorsement by First Free Rockford.
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.