This morning, I want to talk to you about an epidemic that is rampant in our world. This epidemic is growing at such an alarming rate that governments all over the world are scrambling to address the pervasive suffering that this epidemic is causing in people of all ages, all races, all classes, all faiths; this epidemic does not discriminate, every one of us is susceptible to the devastating consequences of this epidemic. Any ideas about what governments are calling this quickly growing epidemic? Loneliness. Loneliness or as some experts refer to it, social isolation is growing in leaps and bounds all over the place.
All of us have known the pain of loneliness. Some of us also know that loneliness can have a detrimental impact on a person’s mental health. Loneliness causes increased rates of depression, anxiety, and irritability. Research now shows that loneliness can also be physically harmful. Loneliness is linked to potentially life-shortening health issues like, high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity. Some experts have gone as far as to argue that being lonely for a prolonged period of time is more harmful to a person’s health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. One of the most socially isolating aspects of loneliness comes from the social stigma that surrounds loneliness. We simply don’t talk about our loneliness. This social stigma often prevents people from seeking help. “People think if they admit they are lonely it means people don’t want to be with them.” People just don’t want to admit that they are lonely.
Loneliness is a global problem. In the United Kingdom the situation has become so serious that the government has appointed a loneliness minister to address the issue. In Canada, studies have found that one in five Canadians identify as being lonely. One in five of us suffer from the shame and the fear that come from being lonely.
Watch the Lonely Bench
I can’t help but marvel at Sukhkaran’s courage. I know that I would not have had the courage to sit down on the Lonely Bench. At his age I would have been too afraid that if I sat down on that bench, nobody would have come to sit beside me. We moved around so much when I was a kid. I was always the new kid in class. Every year a new school. Sometimes more than one new school in a year. As a child, I had intimate knowledge of loneliness. All too often I felt the pain of social isolation, of not belonging. I cried so many tears because of the pain that consumed me because I had little or no connection to the strangers into whose midst I stumbled in and out of.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I finally found my people. I was fifteen, when I found my tribe when I happened upon a Lutheran youth group which lead me into the church. Finding my people, my tribe and finding a place to belong in church, made my life a lot better. But even a sense that I actually belonged somewhere didn’t end my loneliness. Even the church can be an incredibly lonely place.
One of my favorite hymns when I was a kid was “I come to the garden alone.” When the dark clouds of loneliness descended, I would hum this hymn to myself. My own particular garden was my bedroom. Like many teenagers, my bedroom was a refuge, a sanctuary, where I could struggle with all the pain and grief of figuring out who I was. “I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses.” Lonely and suffering, I would hum, “and the voice I hear falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses. And he walks with me and He talks with me, and He tells me I am his own.”
Oh, how I longed for Jesus to show up in my garden to walk with me and to talk with me and to tell me I am his own. I kept waiting for Him to speak with a voice so sweet that the birds hush their singing. Surely a voice as sweet as God’s own Son, could hush my fears, sooth my suffering, and comfort my soul. But you know something, Jesus never did appear. The only thing I ever heard in the silence of my lonely garden was the gentle sound of my own breath. I can remember sobbing away until I was so weary that all I could do was take deep breathes; breathes that began more like gulps of air as I desperately grasped at the ether to calm me down. Gulping and gasping until eventually, exhaustion would slow me down and breathing slowly and deliberately, in and out, in and out, in and out, until I could hear in my own head the melody of a kind of peace born of exhaustion, pain, grief, shame, and deep torment.
All too often, I exhausted myself while all the while, I struggled to summon up a super-natural-super-hero-God-of-power-and-might who would magically cure me of all my woes.
Please, don’t get me wrong. I am deeply grateful to my people, to my tribe, to my beloved home church for giving me the gift of belonging. I will never forget the life-line that they provided when they gave me the image of God all wrapped up in Jesus. I don’t think I would have survived the loneliness without the far-away-god-up-in-the-sky. I certainly wouldn’t have become the person that I am without that particular image of God. But there are days, when I wish I could go back to my garden and sooth my sobbing self with a vision of the DIVINE that is so much more than that super-natural-being, who never seems to show up, especially when I really need Him. For a very long time, I believed that God didn’t show up because I simply did not have enough faith. If only I could figure out the magic, or learn the correct words, or say the right prayers, of exhibit better behavior surely then and only then God, or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit would appear. No matter how many times my Pastor told us that we couldn’t earn our way into God’s good books, that all we needed to do was trust in God’s grace, I still felt like I need more or better faith. If only I could find the right words, prayers, incantations, works, behavior, spiritual practices, Jesus, God, the Spirit would show up and walk with me, talk with me and tell me I am His own, and the joy we’d share when we tarried there, none other would ever know.
Loneliness shows up whenever we do not feel connected. Deep connection to another or to others transforms loneliness into a deep sense of belonging in which humans can thrive. Is it any wonder then that the very word “religion” comes from the Latin “to re-connect”? Marcus Bork insists that part of being human involves a deep yearning for connection to life, connection to the DIVINE, connection to the SACRED. Religion is about deepening our connections to life, to the DIVINE, to ALL that IS SACRED, to the MYSTERY that permeates reality. These deep connections give us a fuller sense of the SACRED MYSTERY that we call God.
This morning, we have heard Jesus say, “Those who love me will be true to my word, and Abba God will love them; and we will come to them and make our dwelling place with them.” This could also be translated as: “We will come to them and we will make our dwelling place in them.”
Sometimes, I wish I could go back and tell myself that my image of God was way too small. That super-natural-being-up-in-the-sky is just that an image of God; an attempt to put into words the SOURCE of ALL that IS, the ONE in whom everyone and everything lives and moves and has being, the ONE who lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us, the ONE who is BEYOND the BEYOND, and BEYOND that also. The ONE who dwells in us, with us and beyond us. If I could I would tell my long-ago sobbing self, to keep taking those deep breathes and to listen carefully. For in those breathes you will hear a sound so sweet the birds hush their singing. For the melody of the DIVNIE, the melody of the SACRED, within your heart is ringing.
God didn’t need to show up, God was already there, deep within. Our very breathe is connected to every thing. Our yearning to belong, our yearning for deeper, fuller connection with the DIVINE lies within us, just as surely as it is beyond us.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; but the kind of peace I give you is not like the world’s peace. Do not let your hearts be troubled; do not be fearful.” Do not be afraid. For you are ONE, deeply connected, to the LOVE that lies at the very heart of all that IS, the LOVE that we call God. This LOVE lives and breathes in you. So, breathe, in and out and know that you are LOVE.
In addition to our yearning for deeper connection, Marcus Borg also wrote that humans share a yearning to make the world a better place. “Those who love me will be true to my word, and Abba God will love them; and we will come to them and make our dwelling place with or in them, within them.” Being true to Jesus’ word, following Jesus’ way of being is about loving; responding to LOVE with LOVE, being LOVE in the world. Sometimes we are the ones sitting on the lonely bench, waiting for someone to come to us, to connect with us, to love us. Sometimes we are the ones sitting down with someone who is alone on the bench, connecting with them, loving them. Sometimes we are alone in our gardens or in our rooms, longing for deeper fuller connection breathing in and out, listening to the DIVINE who dwells in, with, through, and beyond us. And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.
May you know the deep connection you share with the ONE who IS the SOURCE of ALL, the ONE who dwells in you, with you, and beyond you, the ONE who IS the LOVE that we call God. We are not alone. THANKS be to the MYSTERY, our SOURCE, our STAINER, our LOVER. Now and always. Amen