Lord, you have examined me.
You know me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
3 You study my traveling and resting.
You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
4 There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,
that you don’t already know completely.
5 You surround me—front and back.
You put your hand on me.
6 That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it.
7 Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
Where could I go to escape your presence?
8 If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!
9 If I could fly on the wings of dawn,
stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean--
10 even there your hand would guide me;
even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
31 When Judas was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Human One has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify the Human One in himself and will glorify him immediately. 33 Little children, I’m with you for a little while longer. You will look for me—but, just as I told the Jewish leaders, I also tell you now—‘Where I’m going, you can’t come.’
34 “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. 35 This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”
We’re in the midst of a winter worship series about the most common fears experienced by Americans today. And we’re calling this series “UN-afraid: Living with Courage and Hope” because even though we all experience fear and worry and anxiety, we don’t have to let that fear control us or rob us of joy. We’ve been using Pastor Adam Hamilton’s book by the same title as a guide because in this book, Pastor Adam gives a summary of research and therapeutic methods used in the mental health and care community to help people address these fears, as well as a wealth of insight about how God’s Word and spiritual practices can enhance these suggestions for helping us take our lives back and live in hope. So we’ve learned already that our brains have the ability to imagine or catastrophize fears and worries, which can make the fears appear bigger than they actually are. We learned one acronym for FEAR which is False Events Appearing Real. Last week we talked about how sometimes those fears may be projected onto other people, which can lead us to sometimes make wrong decisions about how we characterize or even treat people. And as we’ll hear again today, God’s purpose in creating us was to love others – all others, even those we might consider as enemies. But today instead of focusing on fears of others, we’re going to be focusing on a fear that researchers in the U.S. and Great Britain have called an epidemic. And that is the fear of loneliness.
I think probably all of us at some point have felt lonely. You can even be in the midst of a crowd, and not really know anyone and end up feeling alone in a room full of people. And there’s also the likelihood that at times most of us have been alone and have enjoyed moments of solitude – having the house to ourselves for the first time, or sitting by the lake or being out on the golf course and felt good about the moments you had to yourself. So we can be alone, and not necessarily feel lonely. And solitude can be good for us from time to time. Sometimes it is only when we still ourselves and quiet all other voices, including our own, that we begin to feel the presence of God. So solitude can be a good thing. But we also need community and connection; we were created for relationships.
If you’ve ever done a Bible study on the book of Genesis, you know that there are two versions of the creation story. In the first version, it takes you through each of the seven days of creation, and at the end of each day, God calls everything good. And after the sixth day, when God saw everything God had created, God called it supremely good. In the second version, after a description of the plants and animals and rivers and the garden of Eden, God creates the first human. And for the first time, God says something is not good. Chapter 2, verses 15 & 18 tell us, “The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it.… Then the Lord God said, ‘It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make him a helper that is perfect for him.’” So God created another human; we might call it the new and improved “Human 2.0” version! And even though this passage is used a lot in wedding ceremonies, that’s not the whole picture here. God looked at the solitary human and said it is not good to be alone; humans need companionship; humans need a way to be in relationship with other humans the way that God the Trinity – Creator, Son and Holy Spirit – are able to be in relationship. Our relationship with others is meant to mirror this perfect love, this agape love that we explored last week, that only seeks to give and to bless.
So, what happens then, when we humans don’t have that relationship with another. And I’m not talking about marriage or dating relationships here, I’m talking about any meaningful relationship with another – with a friend, coworker, relative, or partner. What happens when our imaginations get involved in those times when we feel lonely and we find ourselves catastrophizing about why no one likes us, or we tell ourselves that because we’re alone now we’ll never have meaningful relationships again, or we’ll spend the rest of our lives alone. And so we may begin to withdraw from public gatherings in order to protect ourselves. But this prevents us from finding connection, and soon this leads to a feeling of chronic loneliness, This is the epidemic that more and more mental health professional are reporting that they are dealing with in their teen and adult clients and patients. Did you know that loneliness impairs immune response and makes people more likely to develop serious medical problems like heart disease and stroke? According to one study, loneliness increases the risk of early death as much as smoking or being 100 pounds overweight. So, why is this becoming an epidemic?
For one thing, the world is a lot different than it was 100 years ago. Back then, the average American spent their entire lives in the same community into which they were born. Now, the average American will move approximately 11.7 times in their lifetime. Imagine putting down roots, only to be forced to relocate every 10 to 12 years.. it would be difficult, but not impossible to sustain those relationships. This, by the way, is one reason why Neighboring is so important! If we don’t make the effort to get to know those who move in near us, imagine how lonely they might feel! It also used to be that the average American would hold at most 2 to 3 jobs in their lifetime. Now, millennials are begin told that in order to stay on top of their game, they should expect to change jobs about every 3 years. Imagine the impact that would have on forming any meaningful relationships with colleagues, if you know that you’re not going to be around long enough for those relationships to grow, or you’re not going to physically see each other after a few years.
We know that the incidences of divorce have increased in America, and sometimes that means severing ties with friends and relatives, which can lead to feelings of loss and loneliness. And then there’s retirement which can be another reason that relationships are lost. You’ve worked so many years with a particular group of people, but when you don’t see each other every day you begin to lose touch. Or you’re finally free to move to a sunnier climate, either permanently or for part of the year, and you don’t know anyone there. Or you pick up and move across the country to be closer to your children and grandchildren, and you leave behind your best friends. A study recently revealed that the greatest indication of happiness in retirement is not your bank account, or investments or 401K – it’s not how many days you can spend in the sun or on the golf course – it’s actually how many meaningful relationships you have after retirement. So maybe, in addition to investing our money for retirement, we also ought to be investing in our relationships so that when we retire we’re able to stay connected, or we know how to invest and build up new relationships.
There’s one more leading cause of loneliness today, especially with younger generations, and that is technology. You might think that with all the technology at our hands, that we would be more connected today than at any point in human history. But what happens when you’re looking at the things your friends are posting on Facebook or Instagram, which make it seem like they are living the fairy-tale life, and you’re over here with dishes and laundry to do, and you missed another day at the gym, and your real life looks nothing like that? We start comparing our life to this distorted version on Facebook and we start thinking there’s something wrong with us. And what happens when text messages and emoticons start taking the place of physical communication. Instead of being able to see one another’s actual facial expressions, or hold a hand, or give a hug, we’re just staring at a screen and putting our entire self-worth on the line, which is completely dependent on the time it takes for someone to reply to us or like our status. Studies show that those who are between 11 and 25 are actually the most vulnerable to this chronic loneliness, and instead of being the most connected generation, they have become the most isolated generation.
So, what are some of the ways that the therapeutic community suggest we can deal with these fears of isolation and loneliness. To begin with, they’re going to try to help you uncover the root cause for these feelings. We’ve just listed many of these. Something from your childhood – parent divorce, being left alone for much of the time during your formative years, or the loss of a parent or grandparent. Or it could be something you were told a lot as a child, either from classmates or family members: you’re too fat, you’re dumb, no one wants to be around you, no one likes you. Even without subconsciously realizing it, when something like this happens to us in our childhood, our minds either latch onto words, or put words into our minds that tell us our worst fears about being alone. Therapists sometimes refer to these as the tapes that play over and over in our mind, and that lead us to assume the worst, to catastrophize about why we’re lonely. So a therapist can help us realize where these fears originate and the, they can help us confront our assumptions about others by helping us realize the filters through with we see events. Maybe that person that didn’t return your call or email was actually busy with something in their life that day, or that person that didn’t return your wave may not have seen you because they were thinking about a conversation they just had with their boss. The next thing they may do is help you make a plan for reengaging with others. They may ask, what groups are you involved in. Are there organizations in the community that you can get involved in that relate to an interest or passion or volunteer opportunity? They will encourage you to get out of your house, to get out of yourself, and to get connected to people – the very thing you may be avoiding.
We also want to know what help we can find for these fears in the scriptures and spiritual practices of our faith. We’ve already seen that from the beginning of creation, God intends for us to be in relationship. And I believe God has given us two very clear ways to do this; one is through the Church, and the other is Godself – through our personal relationship with Jesus, our relationship with our Creator, our relationship/our communing with the Holy Spirit.
Let’s talk about Church first. By church, I don’t mean the hour of worship on Sunday mornings, or the building where we meet. I mean the community of faith tasked with loving one another. The letters of Paul and James in the New Testament are full of instructions for how to live together in community. The Church, formed by God’s Holy Spirit, is the body of Christ in the world. We are formed as a people to live out the same inclusive love and compassion that Jesus showed us in his own life, especially to those whom the religious practices of his day excluded – the poor, the sick, the women and children, the widowed and orphaned. Remember that the Jewish temple had sections where only certain people were allowed. And there were laws about ritual purity that developed into stigmas such that whole people groups began to be excluded and shunned from the community. But Jesus touched and healed the ‘unclean’ and the marginalized and those no one else would associate with. And that is our task as the Church. To reach out to the lonely, the left-out, the shunned, the shamed, the have-nots, and to show them love and compassion and bring them back into relationship with the Beloved Community and with Christ. Jesus said,
“I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:34-35)
I’ve spoken before about how meaningful it was for me, after being hurt and disillusioned by a distorted understanding of God and church to finally find a faith community as an adult that was open and accepting of me, a sinner. To allow me to bring my hurt and brokenness and doubts about God and just love on me until I believed in God’s love for myself. Some of these same studies I’ve mentioned about the epidemic of loneliness today have also looked at those who don’t seem to have these struggles, and they found that people who are connected to a faith community are less likely to struggle with chronic loneliness, because of the increase of emotional support. So let me ask you, how are you getting connected to other members of this faith community? We’ve tried a variety of small groups in the six months that I’ve been here, and we haven’t had enough participants to gain any traction. But small groups are where relationships are formed. You can sit side by side in worship with the same group of people for 50 years and never develop a relationship that goes beyond public niceties. So I want to encourage you to look for opportunities to connect with a small group. There’s a Sunday morning group that meets weekly, there are some new opportunities listed in your bulletin for getting together at least monthly. And beginning in Lent, I’m going to be looking for 12 individuals to join me in an in-depth Bible study.
It’s also important to note that the research on loneliness points out that not all expressions of faith produces positive outcomes. Worshiping alone and believing in an angry and vengeful God were two of the factors of faith that can actually contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation. So the Church has an important responsibility to be communities of welcoming and compassionate connection. One of the ways we can do that is by looking for those who walk in here already feeling lonely, or those who are here for the first time. So, will you help me with that? Will you make sure that they are more than greeted, but that they are welcomed? That means engaging in conversation while also respecting boundaries. That means exchanging contact information and inviting them for coffee or lunch. As a Church, we are tasked with the responsibility of creating authentic expressions of welcome, compassion and care, so let’s all commit to looking for ways we can do that well.
The other help for loneliness is looking to our relationship with God. I love the Psalmists words from our scripture reading today that say of God,
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me… Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?…If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (Psalm 139:5, 8-10)
Today, I read these words as a blessed assurance of God’s presence in my life, and of God’s love. But I’ve heard these same scriptures used almost as weapons to instill fear of a God who sees and knows everything you do wrong. When I was growing up, I shared a room with my younger sister, and we had a day bed with a trundle that can be compressed and slide under the bed when you’re not using it. And that’s where I slept. And I remember that some nights, as I would start to pray, I would be overcome with such a fear of what God must think of me, that I wanted to roll myself under that bed in order to hide from God.
Friends, I am one of these that has experienced chronic loneliness. I have had times that because of my anxiety, I let my imagination run away with me about what others and God must think of me, to the point that I assumed the worst and distanced myself from others. I withdrew from friends and began to isolate myself, which led to depression and a life that seemed to have no purpose or meaning. And yes, I had to seek out the help of a therapist and recovery community to help me unwind those tapes that would play in my mind about an angry, vengeful, punishing God – and by extension, the disapproval and judgement that I assumed others felt towards me. And I am so thankful that now I can say, “What a friend I have in Jesus.” I am so grateful for a loving community who showed me the unconditional love of God! The love I have come to know in the person of Jesus Christ, and in the indwelling of God’s Spirit within me, and within God’s beloved community is a love that is expansive, inclusive, merciful, compassionate, and always present!
Today, I don’t hide from God when I pray; instead, I sit and bask in God’s loving gaze. We practiced this in worship last week, and I want to encourage you to try it on your own. There is a quote by St. Augustine that says, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” So find some time to sit and rest in God’s love of you. Instead of imagining God’s judgement or disappointment, let your mind dwell on God’s compassion. Instead of imaging that we are all alone, or that no one likes us, read scriptures that remind us of our “friendship” with God, of God’s never-ending and relentless love. Start a devotional practice with the GPS guide, and spend time with your new best friend, Jesus. God has said, I made you, I know you, I watch over you, I'm with you wherever you go; you can push me away, but I'll never leave you; I know all the creepy, cruddy things you've done and I'm still going to walk with you and pursue a relationship with you. Because God is our friend! How deep, and how wide is the never-ending love of God!