The Loneliness Epidemic

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It’s getting to the point,
Where I’m no fun anymore,
I am sorry,
Sometimes it hurts so badly I must cry out loud,
I am lonely.

-Stephen Stills “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”

One of our time’s most significant spiritual and emotional challenges is loneliness. That may seem strange to say. There is an epidemic of gun violence in our country. There is a horrible land war in Europe. One of the largest countries in Africa is falling into a civil war, bringing instability and refugees throughout East Africa and the Middle East. The United States, China, and Russia seem bent on barreling toward another Cold War despite everything we learned about the futility of mutually assured destruction and that most of the former Soviet Union has yet to recover from being the Soviet Union. Despite these facts, loneliness is as great an immediate threat to millions of Americans, if not more so, than Vladimir Putin, China’s balloons, or a collapsing bank.

People rarely admit to their loneliness or come right out and say, “I am lonely.” To say one is lonely is often viewed as a tacit admission of personal failure. So instead, you’ll hear people say, “I’m having trouble keeping up,” or “These burdens I’m carrying are too much,” and “I don’t know what to do.” Undergirding each of those expressions is a sense of isolation. The person in question has no one other than themselves to talk with, share with, and carry life’s most important decisions. Regardless of their circumstances, loneliness is the eventual byproduct of such isolation. They believe and often do have no one (family, friends, or other relationships) to whom they can turn in times of crisis. Our society has stigmatized loneliness as it has depression. It’s okay to say you are lonely. It is okay to reach out for a relationship. Humanity is hard-wired for connection. To deny this reality is to deny the most fundamental part of our being.

Change is a constant in our lives. We know this.  In the past three years, since COVID virus became a way of life, change has become even more dominant in how we see our lives and the world. Nothing remains the same. Church has forever altered into a hybrid model that will never return to the traditional 11:00 version we knew in 2019. Jobs that existed before the pandemic are gone forever. Millions of lives were lost. Our entire world was turned upside down. No wonder people feel lonely and discombobulated. What can we do?

I was inspired by this past week’s reading from Acts 2. It’s a reading that speaks out loud as an antidote to loneliness.  See for yourself, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate the food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” The words “together,” “temple,” “they,” “ate,” “glad,” and “all the people” jumped off the page. People who are together in the temple, eating together with people, are glad and are much less likely to be lonely. So, there are solutions to our loneliness epidemic embedded in Acts 2:46. Community and relationships are the building blocks to addressing loneliness.

Specifically, how might “community” and “relationships” shape our lives? First, make 15 minutes for someone else. Or ask for 15 minutes for someone else. Then, even if you can’t talk to someone for 15 minutes, tell them you will call them back later in the day and give them your promise. Make contact. You have no idea what that promise means to someone plumbing the depths of loneliness. Do this every day. Someone you know is lonely and needs to hear a voice, specifically, your voice.

We should give them our full attention when talking to lonely people. Don’t be distracted by our phones or the time. Please give them your undivided attention. They deserve your best. Make this a golden rule moment. If you were lonely, how would you want to be treated?

Radical hospitality is a buzzword in United Methodism. We want our churches to be welcoming and hospitable places. We conceive of hospitality in institutional terms. Hospitality is not unique to Christian communities. Whether you are in a mosque, temple, synagogue, or a book club; you have a responsibility to be welcoming. However, it is also something we can extend and manifest as individuals. People can always be more welcoming to other people. This is one way all of us can work to address the loneliness epidemic. Are we friendly? Are we approachable? Are we looking for those outliers who say their burdens are more than they can handle? In short, do we see the world through the eyes of relationships, hospitality, and human connection?

Loneliness, like depression, will not go away overnight. However, there are ways we, as people of faith, can help the world feel less isolated, alone, and vulnerable in this season of constant change.

–Richard Bryant

You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

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Traditionalists think United Methodists like me are the problem. But unfortunately, I think the people who self-identify as traditionalists don’t understand what it means to be a “traditionalist.” For many in our denomination, being a “traditionalist” is holding to one position on human sexuality and marriage. For me, being a traditionalist means many different things. It’s never been about the conflict between my vision of God and the rest of the world. Here’s what I envision when I hear the words “traditionalist” and “traditional”:

  • I eat the same thing for breakfast most mornings.
  • I watch the Andy Griffith show every day. Mayberry wasn’t perfect. Andy dealt with bigots, addiction, sexism, the place of technology in society, people set in their old-fashioned ways, greed, and hate. And he did it without a gun. I embrace that vision of traditional America.
  • I miss my grandmother every day. She died in August 2005. She made great biscuits.
  • I read the Bible every day.
  • Nutmeg.
  • I want “Softly and Tenderly” sung at my funeral. The words “come home” are powerful.
  • I believe love is the best tradition of all.
  • I believe people are afraid of God’s new plans because they prefer the traditions of slavery in Egypt.
  • I believe there are hurtful traditions.
  • I believe in the traditions of the Sermon on the Mount.
  • I believe Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, is largely absent from our debate on tradition.
  • I’m so traditional that I still believe that the Gospel is a Love Story, not a Sin Story.
  • I come from a tradition where people didn’t weaponize the phrase “The Word of God.”
  • It took guts for the Apostle Paul to walk away from his tradition. I love him for that.
  • I’m so traditional and rooted in the past; I remember when going to church was fun and not perpetually teetering on the edge of destruction. I miss that tradition.
  • I believe traditions, in their best sense, should give meaning to our lives.
  • Traditions should not be used to demean people from being whom God created them to be.
  • I say no to the idolatry and false God of manufactured human traditions.
  • Our task is not to protect tradition. We are to proclaim the Good News.
  • Tradition can quickly become a form of institutionalized violence.
  • The divine is bigger than any of us or our ideas for creating new Methodist traditions.

–Richard Bryant

There Has To Be A Better Way To Pray

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This winter has been hard on my congregation. So many people are sick with COVID, respiratory viruses, and other diseases that it’s becoming difficult to keep up with everyone. When I combine my congregational concerns with my father’s recent lymphoma diagnosis, I start dropping the balls I’m supposed to juggle daily. I went so far as to create a spreadsheet of prayer concerns (versus a list). It didn’t help. Once I got them down on paper, isolated in illnesses, homebound and hospitalized, church members, family, and friends, adults and children, life-threatening and chronic conditions, humans and pets, Ukraine, and America, I was even more overwhelmed. Where do I start? At the top? With the sickest? With my dad? The sheer human misery before me is too difficult to describe. I’m at the point I don’t know what to say to God about these concerns because I don’t know what to say. I am literally out of words.

I gather with a small group of church members to pray through our concerns and celebrations each Thursday at 10 am. After a few moments of Lection Divina, we read through each name and concern on our church’s prayer list. There are nearly 100 names. I wonder why we are reminding an omniscient and omnipotent God of realities of this God is already fully aware of. The exercise feels pointless. If God requires the constant repetition of my father’s name and the fact that he has Leukemia to bring him daily healing and comfort, are we praying to a God? Or are we just talking to ourselves? Is prayer, in the means we’ve constructed it, little more than a supernatural protection racket? We keep giving God our best words in the hope of blessings and eternal security, so bad things don’t happen to us. There must be a better way to pray.

Is there a means of prayer that does more than make us feel better by acknowledging our helplessness in the face of illness and tragedy? Are there prayers where we partner with God to help those who pray create and become the answers to their prayers? It’s gotten to where I don’t look forward to asking for prayer concerns and celebrations in our worship services. These are the most soul-crushing minutes of our worship hour. I do not want to deny anyone the opportunity to share their concerns. Yet once we share our pain, the joy leaves our sanctuary like air from a punctured tire. Persons with blessings feel too ashamed to speak up because they feel their prayers aren’t worth mentioning considering the “serious” concerns previously shared. That’s wrong as well. We must rethink how we pray, for whose benefit we pray, and if we’re praying to be heard by God or each other.

The most honest and genuine prayer I’ve been able to offer recently is this: “Look!” “Help” hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I’ve settled on the model of the minor prophets. If I’m asking God anything, I’m asking God to do what I know God is already doing: see the mess we’re in and, if possible, relieve some of this interminable suffering. I’ll be glad to do anything. I am burned out. I can’t keep repeating names and recounting suffering. Something has to give. Point me toward one person who needs something tangible. That’s a doable place to start. We can answer prayers together.

–Richard Bryant

Talking, Doing, and Making a Difference

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It’s hard to go through life feeling like your hands are tied. You see global problems and significant issues and want to act. But you can’t do anything. Your hands and feet are bound. If you could, you’d run to aid those who are suffering. You’d shout at the top of your lungs to draw attention to the cause of those you’re trying to help. That doesn’t work, either. When you open your mouth, you have no voice. The voice you do have is shouted down. No one can hear you or pays attention to your words. This is what I experience and feel when I watch the news. I see reports from Ukraine or the US/Mexico border and want to do something tangible to end the war and alleviate the rampant human suffering on display.

My first inclination is to pray. I have to admit I don’t know what to pray for, so I pray for an open-ended end to suffering, pain, and violence. Almost a year into Europe’s most significant land war since 1945 and after watching thousands of impoverished migrants who’ve walked for months across jungles to come to the United States, this seems like a paltry response, given the gravity of the respective situations. Here I sit, in my warm and comfortable home (office, church, etc.), muttering a few words after observing the misery of others and expecting the God of the cosmos to do something, anything, to alleviate the suffering strangers half a world away. I’m so tired of watching nothing happen, the evidence of war crimes becoming more apparent, and refugees not being welcomed into the United States of America. Recently, I’ve thought about my need to involve God in praying for the Ukrainian war or the migrants. I want the war to end and migrants to be welcomed not simply because I am a Christian or pastor but because it is the right and moral thing to do. People deserve to be treated well because of our shared humanity, not solely because a religious text instructs us to do so.

I guess, in some way, through my prayers, I’m trying to make myself feel better. At least I’ve done something, I’ll say to myself. I’m aware, I care, and I’m informed. I know God’s not unaware of the needs of the Ukrainians or the migrants, but somewhere deep down inside, I think my “seconding the motion” helps. Then again, who am I to tell God what God obviously already knows? Shouldn’t I be doing something rather than just talking about the problem?

Once I’ve said it, I feel like I’ve done something; I can check it off my list and then move on to the next item on my agenda. The thing is, here recently, I don’t feel better. I feel worse. I feel like I should be doing more. I feel like the more I pray, the worse the situation becomes. I see how overwhelmed the people trying to aid the migrants are with each passing day. I want to do something besides close my eyes and talk to God. I ask myself, “Where’s the middle ground between going to the Polish border or El Paso and sitting in Hillsborough and waiting for God to move on Vladimir Putin’s non-existent heart?” I don’t have an answer to that question. We’ve sent money to UMCOR. I’ve raised money and tried to help people on the border. If there is a blank, I’ve filled it in. All I know is this: our words aren’t cutting it.

What happens when Christmas is over and the willingness to be charitable fades? To borrow a phrase that’s popular at the moment, none of our altruism seems effective. The good we (collectively as Christians and as a denomination) do is all short-term, motivated by the emotions brought up by the Christmas holiday. We’ll keep praying and waiting on Vladimir Putin to do what Dr. Seuss allowed the Grinch to do-experience a change of heart. That’s the only way this stupid, vicious war will ever end.

–Richard Bryant

What Wile E. Coyote Teaches Me About Evangelism

I do love “Looney Tunes”. After watching a few episodes the other night, I realized there were some religious lessons to be learned in the ongoing battle between the Coyote and Roadrunner.

1.      Wile E. Coyote knew his community. The Coyote understood his neighborhood and surroundings intimately. From the desert valleys, mountain tops, train tracks, highways, and every possible spot to place birdseed; the Coyote understand the demographics, people, and animals in his desert.  This kind of awareness is crucial for evangelism. Where are the people, as a church, do we want to meet and invite to our community?

2.     The Coyote did the research. Before the Coyote made a new attempt to catch the Roadrunner, he tried to find the most effective means of doing so. He ordered books, plans, and developed ideas to adapt to his new situation. While not always successful, the Coyote always prepared, learned, studied, and equipped himself before trying to meet the Roadrunner. Evangelism is a ministry for which we develop. (Unlike the Coyote, we’re not out to “capture” anyone.)  We do want to know the gospel, the community, and how best to share the message of the Good News. Our plan: order something from ACME and start learning today.

3.     The Coyote never gave up. The Coyote’s failures are numerous. Despite his best efforts, he never gave up. The Coyote keep working, reading, and going back out into the community. The Coyote, if he’s anything, is a model of perseverance. To quote John Newton, “through many dangers, toils, and snares,” you’d think he’s describing the Coyote’s encounters with the Roadrunner.   The Coyote is, despite our pro-Roadrunner cultural blinders, a recipient of God’s grace, just like the rest of us. He’s been beaten up and beat down. Thanks be to God, he’s never out. I think there’s something we can all learn from the Coyote as we share God’s Good News.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Staying Behind Jesus in An Era of Outrage

Yes, we should be walking in the dust of our rabbi. How do we do this when its easy to be distracted by our era of outrage?

1. Pray up. Extraordinary circumstances require more prayer. Pray for your friends, enemies, neighbors, courage, hope, and those who are living with or in fear.

2. Look for opportunities to be a calming presence. Where has God placed to you, what are the moments where you’ve been called to talk, listen, and service those around you? Where are you called to diffuse situations like Jesus in John 7:52-8:11? (The woman caught in adultery)

3. Check in with the church community. In times like this we need our worshiping family, people who pray with us, corporate study of the scriptures, and praise.

4. Read Jesus’ words, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. When so many are overtaken by outrage, it’s good to remind ourselves that we are called to see the world through Jesus’ eyes.

5. Invite or ask people, people whom you have the opportunity to “simmer down”, to join you in church. (Again, this could be a family or friend. It doesn’t have to be a stranger. Who have you interacted with?) A key part of our faith is following up on our beliefs. Think of it in medical terms: someone goes to the doctor, then to the hospital, and the to an outpatient rehab. Coming to church should make people less angry.

6. Live less outraged. Make a choice to be happier. You have control over your own emotions. Unplug and moderate from those things in our culture that thrive on anger, negativity, and outrage.

7. Check you friends. Are you hanging out with people who bring out your best or only recycled negativity?

Richard Bryant