FEAR NOT: LONELINESS
Genesis 2:15-18 Psalm 139:5, 8-10 John 13:34
The third in a series of six.
I asked you after the first sermon in this series to fill in the blank in the following prayer: “When I am afraid of _______________, I will trust in you, O Lord.” This prayer was on the Connection Card that week, and so even though I didn’t ask you to fill in the blank for me to see it, several of you did. Out of those few, two of you mentioned specifically your fear of being alone.
It’s a real fear. I read a book 20 years ago that is still fresh in my mind. I thought of it immediately when I saw those cards. It’s called Touching the Void by Joe Simpson.
The author had climbed one of the highest peaks in the Peruvian Andes. It was the first ascent on a very challenging route. He was on his way down, lowering himself down a wall of ice, with an ice axe in each hand and crampons on both feet, when the ice gave way. When he finally landed, he knew immediately that he had shattered his right leg.
He was not climbing alone. He had his partner to help him. But it really was a hopeless situation. The weather was rapidly deteriorating. After twelve hours of doing everything possible to help his friend, it became clear they were not both getting off this mountain alive. Either they both would die, or one of them had a slim chance to live. And it was not the one with the broken leg who had the slim chance to live.
So, in the most shocking moment of the book, Joe Simpson’s climbing partner cut the rope that was holding him as he dangled in mid-air. He fell into a crevasse, where he shouldn’t have had any chance of survival.
But here’s the part of the book I can never forget. Even though Joe Simpson knew he would soon be dead – probably very soon – he could not stand the thought of dying alone. He had to find other human beings. Then he could die. In other words, he wasn’t afraid of dying. He was afraid of dying alone.
So somehow he found a way out of that crevasse that should have been his grave. Then he willed himself down off that mountain. It took three days to crawl, literally crawl, five miles. But he made it back to the base camp, where his climbing partner thought he was seeing a ghost. And now that he had found another human being so he could finally die in peace, he decided he would rather live. Which you may have already guessed, because he is the one who wrote the book.
We are born with a tremendous need for companionship. And an equally deep fear of abandonment. To be all alone, forgotten, with no one with us who cares if we live or die – this is one of our greatest fears.
God liked what he was doing while he was working on creation. He was impressed with his work. There was no one around to compliment him, so he complimented himself. Every time he created something new, he said, “It is good.” Until he created the first human being. Then he didn’t say, “It is good.” He said, “It is very good.”
Everything is good – very good – until we get to Genesis 2:18. This is where we find God’s first acknowledgement that his creation was not absolutely perfect in every way. God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone.”
John Milton said, “Loneliness is the first thing which God’s eye named not good.”
So what did God do after he realized that it wasn’t good for the man to be alone? You women would probably answer that like this: God invented a new, improved model of the human being. Human being 2.0.
So we have the first marriage. But this part of the Bible is not about marriage. Its meaning is broader than that. It is about the need we all share for other people to be part of our lives.
Sue Bourne did a documentary film recently called “The Age of Loneliness”. You may have seen it on public television. It’s a little long to play the whole thing in worship, but here is Sue Bourne giving a synopsis of her findings:
(YouTube Video: “The Age of Loneliness”)
Did you notice Olive, the 100-year-old smoker? And she’s still driving? That has nothing to do with this sermon, but I just had to mention it, because I know you noticed it.
The loneliness Sue Bourne has documented in Great Britain has very much crossed “the pond”. It’s very much present in the United States. She calls it an epidemic. And she says it is worse than it used to be due to certain societal changes. What are these changes?
1) One is that we are moving more. My Great Aunt Louetta was born in the same house where she lived pretty much her entire 95-year life. At the very end, she had to move to a care center, which was a short distance away in the same town. There aren’t many people any more like my Aunt Louetta.
Only 24% of Americans live in the same town their entire life. On the average, we now move 11.7 times in a lifetime. I’ve been lucky. Even though United Methodist pastors typically move a lot, I am well below that average. But as those of you who have moved know, with every move you have to start all over, with a whole new network of friends. You might stay in touch with those you left behind, but it’s not the same as being able to spend time together. So I want to publicly thank Helen for moving with me so often and for complaining about it so little.
2) Another societal change that contributes to loneliness is social media. Which might seem backwards. Isn’t social media a wonderful new tool to allow people to conveniently connect with other people? We can now stay instantaneously in touch, with words, pictures, even emojis. You would think the miracle of social media should have us well on our way to ending loneliness.
It’s the opposite. The United Methodist clergy in our area recently met with the campus pastor at College of Idaho. He told us that one of his biggest challenges is getting students to come out of their dorm rooms. They prefer to live a cocooned existence in front of their screens. Many of them are not very good at relating to another human being face to face. And many of them are lonely.
Facebook is a big part of life for many people today. What could possibly be wrong with connecting with other people on Facebook? The problem often is that everyone is posting happy messages and happy pictures with lots of other people and lots of smiles, and when that’s all you see and you compare that to your life, it makes you feel even more unhappy and even more lonely than you already are.
That’s probably more a younger person’s problem than an older person’s problem. Remember, Sue Bourne said in the video that there is loneliness at every stage of life. But the life stage where the epidemic of loneliness may be spreading most rapidly is the stage with limited social media participation.
3) The third societal change that relates to our loneliness is that we are living longer. It used to be that you would probably die shortly after you retire. Now retirements lasting 35 years or longer are not uncommon. Not for men, so much as for women.
The life expectancy figures we hear are deceptive. You may have heard the life expectancy for a man living in the United States is 76 and for a woman it is 81. But the older you get, the more your life expectancy goes up. An average man at age 65 can expect to live to 83. An average woman at age 65 can expect to live to 87.
Of course once you make it to 100, you have it made. Because very few people die after age 100. So our friend Olive in the video, might keep on living indefinitely even if she doesn’t quit smoking.
All these figures simply mean that a lot of people have a lot of time on their hands after the daily social interactions that were part of their jobs have come to an end. Even people with a lot of friends may start struggling with loneliness. Especially if you leave all those friends behind and move to Arizona.
A lot of people are surprised by this statistic. The greatest indicator of happiness in retirement. Most people would guess it is how much money you have saved. Or maybe how many days of sunshine you have where you go to retire. Or how many rounds of golf you can play. Or how many happy hours you participate in.
But far and away the leading indicator of happiness in retirement is none of these. It is the number of meaningful relationships you have.
Which I find really interesting. There are lots of financial planners who specialize in getting people ready for retirement. There are lot of books, and magazine articles, and retirement seminars, and programs on radio and television to make sure you plan ahead, so you will have all the money you need, so you can do all the things you have always wanted to do in your golden years. They provide a useful service. Most of them do. There are always a few shysters. But they all operate on a flawed assumption. That lots of money means lots of happiness in retirement.
But it’s your meaningful relationships, not your net worth, that will have the most to do with whether you will be happy or miserable in the last two or three decades of your life. Also your health. That’s a pretty huge factor, too So don’t follow the example of smoking-like-a chimney Olive, even though she did make it to 100.
We come now to the part of the sermon with practical things we can do. These come today in two broad categories. God has given us two huge and wonderful answers to our need for other people. One is community. The other is himself. And in particular, his son, Jesus.
1) Community is what churches are supposed to specialize in. We are supposed to be the place for lonely people of any age to find the friendship and the belonging we all crave.
Not everyone is going to find community in a church. There are other places and other ways, so people who don’t go to church can still have their friendship and belonging needs met. And not everyone who goes to church has their friendship and belonging needs met at their church. Again, there are other ways. But still, a church that is not good at helping people find community is probably not a very good church.
Jesus was big on community. One of the first things he did was organize a small group, his 12 disciples, because he needed them and they needed him. And they also needed each other.
He gave his disciples a new commandment, intended not just for the original 12, but also for all of us ever since who have called ourselves disciples.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one
another; even as I have loved you, that you also love
one another (John 13:34).
Love is experienced in community. With other people who know you, and accept you, and can be real with you, and you with them. Once you experience love in community, you will wonder how you ever lived without it. Because without it, you haven’t really lived.
So we try our best to offer you opportunities for community here at church. We have a pastor’s class that starts Saturday. We have life groups that are always accepting new participants, and new groups that are always starting. Wednesday night we call “Midweek”, but we might just as well call it “Community Night”. You can meet people over a meal and then after we eat, we have a number of groups for all ages. Choir is one of those groups that meets on Wednesday. Today we are organizing a grief group or groups, depending on the interest and need.
This is not a comprehensive list by any means. And if I gave you the comprehensive list, that would not mean that is all we offer. One great thing about this church is we are always looking for new ways to offer you community.
Most people won’t find their need for community met here in worship. It’s just too many people. Then again, I’ve watched you as you have loved one another as Jesus loves you, right here in worship. Someone is sitting alone. Someone is crying. Someone is having a hard time. Someone has not been here before. And you’ve been right there. Even for someone you’ve never met. Letting them know that they are not alone. Someone cares.
2) The other way God has addressed our loneliness is Jesus. Jesus is the friend we can count on. At one point, Jesus said to his disciples, “You are my friends. I once called you servants, but now I call you friends” (John 15:14-15). That’s why the hymn writer, Joseph Scriven in 1855, was inspired to write the hymn we sang earlier: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!”
We have a friend! We have a companion! We have someone who knows all about us and loves us with a love that never fails! Jesus said, “I love you so much, I will even give up my life for your loneliness and lostness and unlovedness.”
Our task is simply to trust that. And then live into that. That love that makes us come alive. Because we know God has provided the ultimate answer to our fear of being alone. Nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus.
One of our Vietnam Prisoners of War, one who lived to come home, was a P.O.W. for seven years. For five of those years, he was in solitary confinement. He was alone. And yet he wasn’t alone. Here’s what he said: “The only way I didn’t lose my mind, is that I remembered that I wasn’t really alone. God was with me. And that if God was with me, somehow it was going to be OK.”
That’s what it says in Psalm 139, one of the great passages of the Bible.
Where can I go from your Spirit [O God]? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there; if I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, and your right hand will hold me fast (verses 7-10).
We are never alone. There is nowhere we can go, there is no circumstance we can face, there is no loneliness we can feel, that can keep us from the love with which we are loved. Always.
God, thank you for loving me. You know everything about me and you love me still. I trust this. Thank you for always being with me. Help me to love you in return. Help me to seek you, to know you, and to share your love with others. And help us all, O God, to be a church so filled with love for other people that when people come here they will feel that love and they will know that they have never been in a place where they felt more loved. Help us all to invest in relationships. It’s an investment that pays rich dividends. Thank you, God that you have provided the answer to the loneliness that has become an epidemic. May we be part of that answer for each other. In Jesus’ name, Amen.