There was nothing wrong with The Loneliness Sermon two weeks ago at the strong Bible-based church up the road. It’s just that I figured that The Sermon was a specialty for the Catholic and Orthodox instead. In this church I didn’t see it coming.
That night I was especially content to be there. I greeted and waved all round at folks and settled in a comfy pew with knapsack, duffle bag, bowed psaltery, reflective vest, hymnal, Bible, and the snack for fellowship hour — organic blue corn chips in crinkly cellophane in a big-ol’ ungainly bag like a plush panda prize from some fun house at Rye Beach.
The loneliness topic was necessary for the perfect reason, to illuminate a Scripture reading about St. Paul. The Pastor is always excellent at preaching, really holding the room for that full hour of learning. The sermon was clear and succinct and balanced and well paced, with a touch of gentle self-effacing humor. He began in humility and honesty, with a full disclosure: while he understands loneliness is a problem for many, he in his life has not really experienced loneliness himself.
(That sure got my attention. Really? What’s that like?)
As the first point of the sermon, our speaker affirmed loneliness as a socal problem, sharing with us some data from the U.S. Surgeon General.
(Oh gosh. Here come the Surgeons General and and their parade of warnings. Familiar ground. Loneliness heightens the risk for medical and emotional ailments and life outcomes. It’s like, say, consuming two packs of cigarettes a day in a fluffernutter sandwich. One Surgeon General concluded a loneliness podcast interview with this advice: First, we lonely people must start making relationships a priority, and dedicate quality time to our spouses and loved ones. Second, we should act confident. Then, we will appear more attractive; people will respect us and want to spend time with us.)
Back to the sermon. Its next point was that loneliness was never God’s intention for us. Adam had life in Paradise and communion with God; but God still made it a priority to give him Eve as his spouse, so we know that God wants us to have love too.
The Scripture lesson was a detailed thorough context for the story of St. Paul in prison at the end of his life, writing to Timothy about the status of members of the Christian community. Paul is waiting to be executed, forsaken by his trusted associates in Gospel work. The takeaway was that if we ever feel alone, we can reflect on Paul’s example. Can we make the claim that we have been forsaken by everybody? Compared to Paul, can we really say that our loneliness is that bad?
The next point is that we can never be truly alone anyway, because Jesus walks at our side. His is the second set of tracks described in the poem “Footprints.” When we see only one set of footprints in the sand, those are the times when Jesus picked us up and carried us.
(Luckily I caught myself cringing over gripping my head with clenched teeth, and had the presence of mind to sit up straight and stay that way. Still, my eyes were misting over. Jesus blessed me with two feet for walking, and I greatly appreciate being able to use them for things like trips to the garden center. It should not be His job to haul me around in a fireman’s hold. But I sure beg Him every day for a beach with some people going my way.)
The sermon conclusion is that Jesus is the answer to our loneliness. He stands by us — IF we stand by Him. First, we need to confess our sins, ask His help, turn our lives over to Him, and follow His commandments. Can we really say that we have done that?
In some instant instinctive reflex I scooped up knapsack, duffle, reflective vest, musical instrument, Bible (but not hymnal — that’s theirs), and the really loud chips. The plan was to slip down the back stairs and leave the loud chips in the parish hall before departing. But wait — that won’t work; the door down there makes a dramatic sheering creaky noise, audible throughout the building. Instead I bolted out the nearby front door, cellophane crackling with maximum ruckus, and into the cool night air.
The walk calmed me down a little bit. At home I immediately emailed the church to apologize and say that running out was not meant as disrespect or a decision against Jesus or His salvation. (It was a relief next day to see a very gracious message from Pastor. He reassured me that no disrespect was assumed, affirmed that the topic can be delicate for many people, and welcomed me to come back to church soon.)
Then after sending the email I walked to the store and for the first time sprang for a package of Lily’s brand sugar-free erythritol stevia dark chocolate drops, which is pretty much like opening your wallet and eating the money. Then back at home while rocking back and forth and staring at the wall I ate half of the chocolate drops before calming down enough to get ready for bed.
After the sermon it took a few days to cheer up some. It always does. I haven’t been ready to show up for more sermons. But for next time, just in case, the backup plan B is to come early and drop off the refreshments downstairs, then go upstairs and sit out of sight and listen to the lesson quietly from the vestibule near the exit.
It’s a fine church. Advanced Bible knowledge, excellent preaching, solid close-knit families, good music and hymns, warm-hearted hospitality. These folks are all ready to go whatever extra mile it takes, to take care of people and transform lives with the Gospel. What sent me out into the darkness was not the Loneliness Sermon at all. It was the Loneliness Sermon over and over, as steady water drops on my head and heart since Catholic grammar school. A core teaching in traditional Christian churches, in the pulpit, at coffee hour, and in interactions extending beyond the church walls (especially among women, especially women my age) is handling loneliness in a mature faith-based graceful manner. In the churches I’ve attended, after a while folks tune in to how grieved I am not having a family circle at home. Then in all good conscience and good faith they have to gently confront me about whether I am really saved at all, or saved enough. It’s a good question, too. Maybe some day I will have their faith, to find that the cure for loneliness is Jesus as our best and closest companion and true family, who cares for all of our needs.
Until then, to anyone who feels lonely tonight and was hoping for some advice from me, here it is. Lily’s does a very nice job with their chocolate. But the erythritol can upset your tummy. Just rip open that loud bag of blue chips and make some snackety racket instead.
Peace and all good comfort to you.
Such a wonderful piece of writing! I could relate to so much of it and had so many reactions while reading–recognition/identification, anger, laughter, compassion (for self and others) and sadness to name a few. I want to write more so will send an email as soon as I can This one hit me at a deep level. One thing I will say is imho Paul was human and must have carried a deep reservoir of moral injury and survivor’s guilt because of his earlier life.
I can so relate to the chocolate comfort and also to the sequelae 🙂 Bless you for sharing your journey and gifts of art and writing–and I loved the pictures and writing about the succulents.
One of your sentences really struck home, so I’ve cut & pasted it for the next chapter of this subject (hoping that is ok). Your insight has been food for thought ever since, and the comment deserves its own followup. It made me realize that my use of the word “loneliness” is in fact very specialized. If someone says they’ve never experienced loneliness, what it probably means is that they are not familiar with my variety and my configuration of unhappiness — but they might be experiencing very different varieties unique to them. Anyway, will formulate this and write about it. Thank you for your beautiful kind support as always! Mary