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

On Not Winning Religious Arguments

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There is always someone with another quarter to feed the outrage machine. I admit I’ve spent my fair share of change but think I’m about broke. Mea culpa. Kyrie Eleison. My ashtray is empty, my has been card declined, and my overdraft protection is zero.

I can choose to be mad forever at the injustices in our world or do something about them in a positive, loving way. When people start dying for turning around in the wrong driveway, it’s time for all of us to take a deep breath. To paraphrase Jesus of Nazareth, we are at a live by the sword, die by the sword moment. And now, more often than not, we seem to be dying by the sword.

Anger, directed outwardly toward others or bottled up inside my soul, isn’t going to change how anyone else thinks. I admit it, it feels great to get it off your chest. There is value in making a well-reasoned point-to a point. What our society has come to define as “culture wars” are, in fact, not conflicts ultimately about beliefs – what you or I believe about scripture, human sexuality, God, or the church. They are issues of identity. For example, my view of scripture is central to my identity as a person and fundamental to how I see the world. It is the same way for my traditionalist sisters and brothers.

Years-long debates and disaffiliation votes don’t change someone’s identity or who they see when they look in the mirror. If anything, they, as we’ve seen, harden the resolve of all parties involved. Extended arguments make it more challenging to find grace-filled, Holy Spirit-led solutions. Why? We’ve stop seeing something sacred in each other’s identity. Once you’ve “othered” your neighbor, no matter who your neighbor is (even if they’re your blood kin), it’s hard to love them as you love yourself.  

I’m beginning to wonder, is there winning a religious argument? Is there a point in getting into a religious argument? No, not really. There are no winners. We all lose at one level. Which of us is getting the Bible right or wrong? Probably, none of us. How do we know we’re interpreting the Bible correctly? We don’t. Whose vision of God is leaner and meaner?  Yours or mine. I don’t know. We’re both right. We’re both wrong. I do believe our greatest sin is that of certainty. Of this, I am certain.

I admit it; I’m physically and emotionally drained. Will we come to a point where we recognize that those we’ve demonized are not demons?  I hope so. I do not believe there are demons in the United Methodist Church. There are plenty of flawed humans and ordinary sinners. I count myself among them. United Methodists are regular people trying to win our version of the world’s oldest unwinnable argument: religion. If we speak peace, we talk to Christ; then we can talk to each other. If the Catholics, Protestants, Serbs, and Muslims can keep speaking, Methodists have every hope for the future as well (United or not).

–Richard Bryant

Ideas Gleaned from Re-Reading the Diary of Anne Frank

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If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be [routinely] practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings; that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (“the secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible of circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to an insane asylum.
—Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

As I watch the rising tide of fascism from my front-row seats here in early 21st-century America, I’ve started to re-read some of the 20th-century classics which chronicled the rise of fascism in central Europe both before and during the second world war. Since the beginning of Lent, I’ve spent time with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Viktor Frankl, Hannah Arendt, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and most recently, Anne Frank.

After re-reading Anne’s diary alongside Arendt’s, The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem, I’ve come to a few conclusions. Namely, most of us (hopeful, western religious types) are taking Anne’s famous quote, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart,” out of context. We see what we want to see and hope for the future, something beyond anti-Semitism, death camps, and gas chambers. I’m no longer sure that’s what she meant. Instead, I think she’s asking us to look beyond the superficialities of the moment, something we desperately need to do at a time when democracy itself is under a once-in-a-generation existential threat and religious practice is reduced to a zero-sum game-of one fundamentalism fighting another to the death.

As one must do in good Biblical textual criticism, you must look at the next verse. Context matters. She followed that hopeful line with an almost apocalyptic sentence that referred to the “ever approaching thunder” and “the suffering of millions.” Hardly the pollyannish revelations of a young woman who thought goodness lay at the center of every human heart. Anne knew the full horror of fascism’s once-unleashed terror and how it enabled ordinary people to commit unspeakable crimes.  Hence, she saw what Arendt would later describe during Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem.

Whether they were Dutch collaborators (in Anne’s case) or Nazi soldiers, ordinary recruits from German homes-regular people did the job of exterminating their fellow human beings. Middle class German husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons committed crimes against humanity; day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year until they came for her. Horror, as Arendt would observe, is contradictory. It is banal, evil, brutal, inane, and insane all at the same time. Anne sees and senses this. It is evident in her diary. She considers the randomness of her situation when she writes, “I keep asking myself, whether one would have trouble in the long run, whoever one shared a house with. Or did we strike it extra unlucky?” 

Like Anne Frank, we are also burdened with the inane and insane banality of civilizational ending violence. Instead of killing thousands of people in organized camps, Americans opt to do it in groups of 5-20 at a time using a weapon called the AR-15. We can be so unlucky as to walk into school or a bank one morning and pay with our lives. We can only hide for so long from the weapons which may kill us or our neighbors (husbands, wives, daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers) who’ve lost touch with reality and have lost the ability to see humanity as human. As with Arendt, Frankl, Frank, and Bonhoeffer, this type of evil is not only becoming normalized; it’s also adapting to the 21st century, like artificial intelligence, into something so banal that we can’t see our reality for the fascism it is becoming. Unless there is a series we can binge, we’re prepared to go to vigil after vigil for the dead we know and those we do not know. We mouth the words of memory, say “never again,” and return home to watch the final season of Succession. At this point, some of us will become victims while others will become perpetrators. Who assumes what role may depend on, as Anne said, “striking it extra unlucky.”

I fear this: it will be too late to realize what’s happened when, to paraphrase futurist Ray Kurzweil, the armed singularity occurs. We will be hiding in attics, writing in our diaries. The most dangerous place to live will be a country with more guns than people, and everyone is convinced that everyone else’s religion is wrong. News flash: we’re halfway there.

–Richard Bryant

The Day After

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What do you say on the day after a school shooting?

Life is too holy to be reduced to a culture war argument about the 2nd Amendment.

Life is too fragile a gift to squander.

Life is too precious to accept murdered children as a way of life.

Life is too valuable to waste another day living in anger.

Life is too brief to worry about what others think of us.

Life is too important not to tell the people we love that we love them one more time.

Life is too sacred to be taken for granted.

Life is too beautiful to destroy with weapons of war, whether in Ukraine, Uvalde, or Nashville.

Life is a gift from God; we’re all responsible for each other’s lives.

Life is all we have, have it well.

–Richard Bryant

Ask These Questions Every Day

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  1. Who am I? (This is the question of identity)
  2. Why am I here? (This is the question of purpose)
  3. What am I going to do while I am here? (This is the question of ideas)
  4. How will I implement the answers to question 3? (This is the question of living into your purpose)

–Richard Bryant

A Different Kind of Lenten Self-Denial

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So, what if we take denying ourselves (for Lent) literally? We deny ourselves because we realize we can’t make it alone. We need someone else to help us carry the cross. Self-denial as the most basic Christian means of asking for help.

Usually, we deny our personhood because it challenges the idea of a relationship. We encourage our autonomy because it rejects the concept of community. We underscore our individualism because it also rejects intimacy. Self-denial creates a safe space for us to hide if we so choose. Lent, by design, isn’t the best season for sharing. It’s that way by design. Lent makes us quiet, private, and shy. This is what happens when we deny ourselves. I’m not so sure it should.

To “deny yourself and take up your cross” invites us into what the cross really means — not just death and suffering, but God choosing human relationships. The cross represents God’s commitment to humanity. The cross represents what we do when we are not in a relationship with the other and think only for ourselves. Because to be ourselves is to be sure of our connectedness. If we reject the cross, we leave each other.

I think that’s what Jesus is saying.

Because Lent cannot be just about ourselves and our sacrifices, somehow, we must define our identity as connected to Christ and a community of believers. We don’t do Lent alone. Lent is a radical communal experience in many ways. People are willing to wear crosses on their foreheads when buying groceries. People are eager to talk about their Lenten disciplines — out loud, even to strangers.

Why? Because we realize Lent is not just about us. Lent is a denial of the self in the best way, not the reclusive self that denies the need for Christian community or the self that thinks it can survive on its own. The solitary self that rejects the most profound challenge of humanity — belonging.

Jesus’ charge is not a demand to deny your true self. Instead, it’s an invitation to realize we need other people. Desperately. Intimately. Because this is what being human is all about — intimacy. Belonging. Relationship. Attention. To what extent do we barely know ourselves without all of the above in our lives, without others acknowledging who we are? We can’t be ourselves on our own. And when we do, it is a self-absorbed existence. It is to become narcissistic in its purest form, where those around us are only pawns to placate our self-perceived power and importance.

Let’s face it. This is easy to do. And this is where many of us go astray. The self-talk of autonomous importance, self-sustained life, and power-driven ideals. And where does this end up? Broken communities and congregations. And for what? Our sense of authority? Perhaps this is one aspect of “denying yourself.” The feeling that our power trumps that of our people, the Scripture, and our God.

So here is our chance. To deny the impulses that demand reliance on us alone and seek the help of others. To curb the expectations that suggest ministry is a singular existence that works out of some skewed assertions that we have all the answers. Finally, to reject the temptations that try desperately to convince us of our worth without the call of God we initially heard.

The denial of self? It’s embracing the truth that we can’t live in this world alone. We need Jesus. We can’t live our lives without being in a relationship with others.

A different kind of self-denial, indeed.

–Richard Bryant

Thank God For Monday

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Yesterday was a long day. Most Sundays are demanding. This one was a humdinger. In addition to the standard stuff and nearly 70 in worship (yes, we keep going up each week), we had one of those meetings in the afternoon. You know the kind of meeting I’m discussing: a disaffiliation meeting. Following our annual conference procedures, our church council hosted a question-and-answer session. Well over fifty were in attendance between those in person and on Zoom. The purpose of the meeting was for the council to take the congregation’s temperature on disaffiliation. If the council decides there is enough interest, they will pull the trigger (so to speak), and we will go forward with the process. If not, the status quo will hold.

Two weeks prior, the church council began to collect questions from the congregation about the disaffiliation process. They placed a heavy wooden box in the narthex and set up a specific email address to receive questions. We weren’t overwhelmed with questions. However, there were plenty of good queries to occupy the council, and all gathered for the planned two hours.

The chair of the council (and I) sent the questions out to the entire church, saying these were the questions we’d received and would attempt to answer at Sunday’s meeting. Early Sunday morning, the council chair received an additional e-mail; a new story was floating that I, the pastor, had written all the questions to shape the debate. Oh Lord, these people watch too much of one television network whose name I will not say. Are we not able to check the conspiracy theories at the door? For the record, the people who wrote the questions self-identified in the meeting, and I made it clear I was used to having a target on my back (as pastors often have) but questioning my integrity made me mad as hell—my day got worse from there.

Disaffiliation is my kryptonite. The closer I come to it, the weaker I become. I’ll come right out and say it. It’s a soul-destroying (also a local church, friendship, and family destroying) process that steadily erodes my faith, my faith in humanity, the church, and other people from the inside out. That’s not pessimism; that’s reality. I didn’t attend seminary to become a paid shill for the United Methodist Church. I wanted to become a pastor, preacher, and poet of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I love his biases and opinions. I work daily for them to become wholly and entirely mine. If I seem one-sided for any position, it is for the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I have a personal agenda. It is for love, grace, and forgiveness. I push the Beatitudes, day in and day out. I have this phrase I like to ask people on Sunday morning, “How would this look through Jesus’ eyes?”

How would our disaffiliation process and the quest for self-righteous division look through Jesus’ eyes? Frustrating. Of course, I’m biased. I can’t think the guy who said the Beatitudes would believe that any of this is a good idea. I’d bet everything, while loving us and forgiving us, he wants us to do much better in the loving our neighbor department. Again, I’m biased-for Jesus. What do I know?

I’ve got to get away from disaffiliation. The problem is that there’s nowhere to hide. Like the COVID pandemic that preceded it, this virus seems to be everywhere. God help us all.

–Richard Bryant

You Can’t Postpone Joy

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  1. Don’t postpone joy. Seek joy. Let joy find you.
  2. Similarly, you cannot live without food, water, and shelter; you cannot live without joy.
  3. Joy exists beyond the present. Remember the joys of the past. Look forward to joy tomorrow.
  4. Joy is spontaneous and exists in nature. It cannot be created in a laboratory.
  5. There is not a finite amount of joy in the universe. More joy can be created from thin air at any moment.

–Richard Bryant

Everyday Interactions

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  1. The small words and ordinary interactions we take for granted could have a huge impact on the lives of those around us. Think about how we’re heard.
  2. Remember the adage, “Leave a campsite better than you found it.” Apply that same maxim to every conversation in your life. If you interact with someone, leave them feeling better about themselves.   
  3. We can inspire people with simple actions, small gestures, and single words.
  4. Offer something, anything. To listen, have coffee, cook dinner, do laundry, or check on the kids.
  5. “Please” and “Thank you” are the heart of everyday interactions.

–Richard Bryant