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The group Three Dog Night had it right: “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.”   They may also have been onto something in the next lyric: “Two can be as bad as one, it’s the loneliest number since the number one.”   As Nicholas Kristof opined recently, we may be facing an epidemic of loneliness in this country.   Nearly 25% of people live alone now and 20% report feeling lonely often or all the time.    Sometimes even people who are married exist in such strained relationships that they report being lonely despite still being married.   The health effects are startling.

There is good evidence to support the notion that the opioid epidemic is being fueled in no small measure by loneliness.   Traditional civic associations have broken down in many places, including the number of people who still belong to and regularly attend church.  But beyond those who begin to take heroin or other opioids to soothe the pain of loneliness, research shows that being lonely most or all of the time creates hormonal imbalances that affect blood pressure and other internal organs.  Lonely people tend to eat less healthy, too, and go to doctor appointments less frequently, leading to obesity in some cases (and to all of the health issues associated with obesity).  One expert claims loneliness can have more deleterious effects on health than smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. 

When I asked my wife Sunday evening what I should write for this week’s blog, she mentioned loneliness as we formally enter the holiday season this week with Thanksgiving Day in the U.S.  She also mentioned how she has not been able to forget about a striking article in the New York Times from nearly two years ago already that detailed how Britain has formally appointed a Minister of Loneliness to deal with that country’s epidemic of lonely people and all of the social, mental, and physical issues that result from this. 

It reminded me, too, of a news story I saw in the 1990s.   In New York City in an effort to cut costs, the Meals on Wheels organization had proposed ceasing daily deliveries of meals to seniors and other homebound persons in favor of making a single delivery of frozen meals once a week or perhaps even bringing in two weeks’ worth of meals just twice a month.  On paper it made good fiscal sense. 

But at the ground level of people’s real lives, it was devastating.  One woman interviewed for the article tearfully confessed that the Meals on Wheels delivery person was usually the only human contact she had on any given day.   But if that got cut down to once a week or twice a month . . . well, with whom could she ever so much as say “Hello”?

The article in the Times back then featured a photo that reminded me powerfully of that traditional painting of the older man praying over his daily bread.

Except in this case it was not a heartwarming portrait but a heartbreaking one as a lonely older woman prayed over her daily Meals on Wheels entrée in front of a small black-and-white television set that was still on even as she prayed.   It was a vignette of loneliness.  It also made me recall calling on people when I was a seminary intern.  Frequently I called on single people—either never married or older and now widowed—and was so often struck by the fact that even while I visited with folks in their living rooms, they never turned off the TV.  But then I realized: that’s because they could not countenance turning off the TV.  It is usually the only way there are other human voices in the house.

“Look at all the lonely people” The Beatles implored in their song “Eleanor Rigby.”  “Where do they all belong?”  In the run-up to this week’s holiday, there has once more been a spate of articles on people’s fears that politics in the Age of Trump could ruin Thanksgiving Day meals in case some rogue uncle in the family throws out some incendiary political talking point.  But it seems much more likely that there will be too many people this Thursday—and then onto into the weeks of Advent and Christmas—who might welcome a good old fashioned argument in case it also meant actually having someone else to talk with.

In Britain the Minister of Loneliness has begun giving grants to local organizations to buy board games, establish clubs, invite people to come out and meet others.  They have established “Friendly Benches” in public parks where strangers are encouraged to sit and strike up conversations with others.

It goes without saying that those of us in churches ought to feel a Gospel compunction to address this phenomenon too.  In another blog some time back I mentioned how for years I graded lots of sermons on the Luke 15 parable of the Lost Sheep.  In many of those sermons my students quoted a traditional line associated with this parable: God counts by ones. 

But if one is the loneliest number, then surely this is where God starts to count.  God counts the value, the preciousness, the uniqueness of each lonely individual and calls us to do the same.  “Look at all the lonely people.  Where do they all belong?”   They surely can belong to Jesus and to the people Jesus has called into fellowship with one another and with the Triune God.  

“Once you were no people” Peter wrote in his first epistle, “but now you are the people of God.”   Let us pray and work to bring all those lonely “no people” into that people of God in this holiday time and at all times.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

7 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Excellent, thanks. I can’t imagine what loneliness must be like on the Prairies and other rural places, but loneliness in NYC is especially bad, and I would imagine other cities too. For churches, welcome is one thing, embrace is another.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    A very thoughtful and valuable reflection. Thanks Scott.

  • Ann says:

    It does surprise me in a world full of loneliness that the number of people walking into our churches on Sunday mornings keeps dwindling. Are churches not seen as places to find community? That’s not been my experience… quite the opposite… but it does make me wonder. There is a desperate need for people to be seen and loved and belong- such an opportunity for the church.

    • Eric Van Dyken says:

      Hi Ann. My experience mirrors yours. I think there is another dynamic that is inescapable, though. Churches that preach the gospel will also experience the impact of the gospel. And the gospel is repulsive to those who are not being saved, because it convicts them and they don’t want to hear it. So a church can be friendly, loving, accepting, affirming, etc., while still seeing lonely people visit but not want to stay. The gospel is polarizing (I Cor 1:23, I Peter 2:8).

  • The statistic on loneliness is also noted in Timothy Egan’s new book, A Pilgrimage to Eternity (page 13) as he explores the “collapse of religion in the world that created it.”

  • Steven Skahn says:

    Excellent piece. Thanks.

  • John Suk says:

    True. I’ve learned that there are far too many lonely people still in the closet. Maybe we could make it safe for them outside?

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