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The Silent Epidemic

July 4, 2022… A beautiful day in New Britain-Chalfont.  The sun was shining, the neighbors gathered, the parade participants ready to make their way down Butler Ave. to Main Street, ending at North Branch Park. A special thanks to the Lenape Valley folks who welcomed people to our church lawn with waters and toys for the kids.  There is nothing quite like a warm LVC welcome!  I was privileged to be a part of the welcome crew yesterday, meeting our neighbors and passing out waters.  Those quick encounters may open the door to future opportunities.  But even if those momentary encounters are just that… momentary… they are still valuable connections in a world struggling with the silent epidemic called loneliness.

Americans are “starving” for connection.  A recent Harvard study found that 36% of Americans, including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children feel “serious loneliness.” The impact of this loneliness can be seen in the brain.  One study found that when mice, social creatures like us, are forced to live in cages by themselves, that isolation changes their brains’ basic architecture and causes nerve cells to shrink.  To say that people can be “starving for contact” isn’t far from the reality of what’s happening in neurobiological terms.  During the pandemic, health precautions created a society built on isolation.  Loneliness defined many of our lives.  But even as the world has opened up, for many the isolation has continued in subtle yet devastating ways.

As I walked around the crowd yesterday, I met a woman who was sitting in a cluster of people with three generations represented.  I asked if she was sitting with her family.  She said, “No.”  “Just friends?” I asked.  “No, I have never met these people before.  I just wanted to be where the people are.”  She left me with a haunting comment.  “You know you’re lonely when you go to a parade or grocery shopping just to be where people are.”  There in the middle of a large parade crowd, the loneliness was palpable.  How many of us know that feeling?  We think that loneliness happens when we are physically isolated from others, but many of us know what it feels like to be alone in a crowd, wondering if anyone really ‘sees’ you.  The Three Dog Night hit, One is the Loneliest Number, reminds us that “two can be as bad as one… it’s the loneliest number since the number one.”

The cost of loneliness is high. Loneliness is linked to early mortality and a wide array of serious physical and emotional problems, including depression, anxiety, heart disease, and substance abuse.  The bottom line: loneliness hurts.  I spend a good portion of my week visiting people… some are in crisis and obviously need pastoral care, while others just need a moment of human connection.  Just months into the pandemic, we reopened our church to ‘in person’ worship, before many churches were even considering that step, because we knew that people need that human connection.  We are created to live in community.  We sing the old standard hymn, “Blest be the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love.”  Those love connections are good for the soul, but also for the heart and mind and body.

Jesus understood our human need for connection.  When the man with leprosy called out to Jesus for healing, Jesus crossed the road.  He reached out to touch the man breaking both social convention and Jewish law to make that connection.  Imagine how long it had been since this man had felt the warmth of human touch.  Jesus could have healed him from across the road, maintaining safe social distance.  But Jesus knew that the man needed more than physical healing.  In 1962, Bobby Vinton released the popular song, I’m Mr. Lonely.  Vinton wrote that song while he was serving in the Army, describing a young serviceman away from home with no phone call… no letter… “I’ve been forgotten…” he cries.  The Harvard study confirms that those lonely people are all around us, perhaps living next door to us, perhaps even in our own homes.  Is it possible that a Vinton song from 60 years ago is giving voice to their silent cries?  Is that song giving voice to the cry of your heart?

Two thoughts to speak into a world that is becoming increasingly lonely.  First, we are never truly alone because our God is faithfully present.  Scripture is replete with the promise of God’s presence.
Be strong and courageous.  Do not fear… for the Lord goes before you.   He will be with you;  He will not leave you or forsake you.  Deuteronomy 31:8
Where can I go 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 hold me fast.  Psalm 139
Jesus said, “Surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20
Second, we are called to be God’s hands and voices… the skin on God’s presence in the lives of others.  “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)  We are God’s front line of compassion in a lonely world.  Spend quality time with the people in your life. Talk to a friend… take the time to listen well. Compliment a co-worker.  Start a conversation with a neighbor.  Thank the store clerk.  And smile!  As you become God’s instrument of grace in this world, you may find that even your feelings of loneliness melt away.

With you, crossing the road,
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