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Bishop’s Column: Lift up the lonely this season

Posted: December 5 2018 at 12:00 AM

On Christmas Eve most of us will see pageants and hear sermons that focus on the people in the story of Jesus’ birth. The gospel writers used metaphors as well:

~“The Word became flesh and made his home among us.” John 1:14 (CEB)

~His name shall be called Emmanuel (God with us). Matthew 1:23

~Traditional hymns add: “Love was born at Christmas.” UMH#242, Christina G. Rossetti (1885)

These words or metaphors bring joy to this season as they offer assurances of God’s presence and love. But unfortunately many people don’t experience God’s presence and love in our society or even churches; people are lonely!

Recently I’ve been reading a variety of books and surveys (including the Cigna 2018 U.S. Loneliness Index, available online) that indicate that the number one threat to people’s health these days is loneliness. Lonely, isolated people are 25% more likely to die prematurely. Loneliness can be as toxic to the body (mind and soul) as smoking a pack of cigarettes every day! As these studies indicate, loneliness kills!

Only about half of Americans have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as a friend that one can have an extended conversation with about things that matter or regular quality time with friends in-person. In the last 50 years, we entertain half as many people per year now as then. How often do you have people over to your house for a meal?

Therapists report that not all depression is depression (there is certainly bona fide depression for many) but some people self-diagnose as depressed when in fact the description of their feelings has more to do with loneliness and lack of social interaction than depression. And in fact, people feel more shame to say that they are lonely than to say that they are depressed.

In Brene Brown’s, Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts, she emphasizes the impact of loneliness particularly on leaders. She cites Colonel DeDe Halfhill, who was the commander of the 2nd Mission Support Group at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and responsible for 1800 airmen and their daily operations. During her first year in her command, she gave a presentation to her airmen and then asked for questions. One young airman asked, “When is the ops tempo (the pace of current operations) going to slow down because we are really tired?”

Commander Halfhill acknowledged that they were being asked to do a lot as was everyone across the Air Force. Then Commander Halfhill remembered an article she had read which talked about organizations where employees report high levels of exhaustion. What was discovered was “that while these employees were in fact exhausted, it wasn’t just because of the ops tempo. They were actually exhausted because people were lonely. Their workforces were lonely, and that loneliness was manifesting itself in a feeling of exhaustion.” (B. Brown, p. 59) She then asked this large group of airmen to raise their hand if they were lonely. Much to her surprise, many of them indicated that they were indeed lonely…and exhausted. 

In talking to fellow commanders, Halfhill discovered that they might use the word, disconnected, but not lonely. Disconnected, however, is “such a sterile word. It’s a safe word. It’s not a word that conveys the true depth of shared human experience like loneliness.” (p. 63) How might we as Christians and members/leaders in our churches be masking the “true depth of shared human experience” with others words?

A wondering: when we talk about “clergy low morale,” are we really talking about clergy who are lonely, even using a sterile or safe description for loneliness? Many clergy are without deep relationships over time (for a variety of reasons) that give a sense of love and acceptance, that lead to the building of trust with others, but then without them can erode trust with one another. Yes, we may have family but do we friends? Are we lonely?

Another wondering: Generation Z (ages 18-22) is identified in the Cigna 2018 U.S. Loneliness study as the loneliest group in our U.S. population. Hundreds or thousands of friends on Facebook, but maybe not even 2-3 close in-person friends. I might add that they are also the least likely to be a part of a faith community. Is there any correlation to that? Has disconnection from a faith community created more and more loneliness in our society?

Yet another wondering: could it be that some of our local churches, struggling to stay alive and vital, exhausted by the effort, and discouraged at times, are also lonely? Again, we use the word “connection” but are some local churches isolated and disconnected from the other churches in their community, or with other churches in the district or conference when connection might lend insight as well as support? 

Still one more wondering: some elderly can also be very lonely. How often do the elderly in your community eat alone each day, often day after day? What could your church do about building relationships with them and sharing a meal, especially where there are few community resources for our elderly? What ministry or outreach is there for your local church when you focus on who is lonely in your community?

What wondering might you have this Christmas as you become more open to Christ being born through you and your church for “all the lonely people”?

~Bishop Sally Dyck

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