Thank goodness for Great Britain, our first cousins “across the pond.” As the social and political fabric of our own nation has unraveled these past few years, watching the corresponding dumpster fire in England stemming from the Brexit morass has granted our attention a reprieve from our own dysfunction. Or, at least, Great Britain’s mess has allowed us to say, “See, they’re as screwed up as we are!” Misery loves company, I suppose.
Because of the way Brexit dominates news from Britain, we may have missed a New York Times headline from last year. It turns out, as Prime Minister Theresa May was laboring futilely to craft a Brexit deal Parliament could swallow, she made another notable decision: Theresa May appointed Britain’s first ever Minister for Loneliness. When making the announcement, the PM said, “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.”[i]
To some, such a position in the government might sound like the epitome of the nanny state, until one remembers that the Ministry for Loneliness is the creation of the most un-nanny Conservative Party. But it is really necessary, this government portfolio to study and combat loneliness? Loneliness and isolation among the aged, especially after the death of a spouse, has long been recognized as a problem, but in recent years it turns out the problem is not unique to the elderly. Surprisingly, Britain’s Office for National Statistics reports that the 16 to 24-year-old age group report greater feelings of loneliness than those in the 65 to 74-year old age group. Ironically, the digital technology that leads to connection through social media appears to be a primary culprit. It turns out that electronic devices are a pale substitute for actual conversation and contact. Virtual relationships are not real, and they do not nourish. Ever-increasing connectivity is actually feeding social isolation and loneliness.
It also turns out that we share this, too, with Great Britain. Late last year health care provider Cigna with help from U.C.L.A. released a large-scale survey in which “most Americans reported suffering from strong feelings of loneliness and a lack of significance in their relationships. Nearly half say they sometimes or always feel alone or ‘left out.’” Assuming that we are a representative cross-section, this applies to us.
Our loneliness is borne in part, I think, by the transience of modern life. I lived for the first eighteen years of my life in the same small town, in the same house, with the same friends. Since then, I’ve lived in eight cities in five states. And even if we don’t change cities, we change jobs, companies, and firms like changing socks. That experience is now the norm, and it will only become more so, as what has been called the “gig economy” grows. The circle of friends and depth of relationships that develop from a rootedness to place are increasingly rare in our transient world.
Even when around other people, including people we know, we often feel unknown and lonely. In their song “Nobody knows me at all,” the Weepies sing, “When I was a child everybody smiled; nobody knows me at all. Very late at night and in the morning light; nobody knows me at all. Now I got lots of friends, yes, but then again, nobody knows me at all. Kids and a wife, it’s a beautiful life; [but] nobody knows me at all.” Does this resonate with you?
We are psychosomatic creatures—embodied spirits—and it should be no wonder that the lived experience of loneliness manifests itself in us physically. Loneliness is resulting in a social and health crisis. In the U.K., official Mark Robinson says that loneliness has been “proven to be worse for health than smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.” And here in the U.S., former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says loneliness is associated “with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.”[iii]
What can we do? Ben Sasse, the senator who was first a Yale-trained historian, says the antidote to loneliness is to identify, wherever one finds oneself, “a ‘thick’ community in which people know and look out for one another and invest in relationships that are not transient.”[iv] By virtue of our presence here, we have found such a community, even if we haven’t thought of it in that way. It is the church, specifically, for us, Christ Church Cathedral. Thick community may not be why we first walked through the doors. We may have come because we appreciate the historic architecture and well-crafted liturgy, or find ourselves moved by the beautiful music, or want to be part of a place that engages in outreach to those who live on the margins. But at the end of the day, each of these things is derivative of the church; they are what the church does, not who the church is. The church, at its essence, is the community described in John’s Gospel by Jesus today in his heartfelt prayer to God. It’s a dense prayer, with twisting language, but it’s super important. Understanding it may change our very understanding of why we sit in these pews.
Today’s passage is the very end of a longer prayer Jesus makes on behalf of the disciples he will soon leave, and, it is important to note, on behalf of all those disciples who will come after. In other words, us. Jesus says, in prayer, that he has lived his life in complete communion with God, so much so that it is not really Jesus who lives, but God who lives in and through him. Think of that! This is what the Incarnation means at the end of the day. We really don’t need to get tied up in knots about creeds and archaic doctrinal explanations. The Incarnation means that Jesus knows God—really knows God—and God knows Jesus even more deeply. And, if we want to know God, and what God is like, we must know Jesus, in whom God is and through whom God flows. But in his prayer today, Jesus goes a step further. He says to God, “Just as you are in me, I am in them, that they may be one, as we are one.”
This couldn’t be more profound. Jesus is saying that in the same way he and God are intertwined, we are to be intertwined with him and with each other. In the same way that God knows Jesus, Jesus wants to know us—really know us—and wants us to know him. That’s not about architecture, liturgy, music, or even outreach. That’s about the character of relationship we have with God. We know God by knowing Jesus; and we know Jesus by knowing one another, deeply, thickly. God loves us so much, from before the foundation of the world, that God wants us to be in relationships with one another that embody that love. It’s not too much to say that we are the love of God to each other. That’s what the church is. That’s why the church does all the things it does.
And, that is the antidote to loneliness and the remedy to social isolation. For everyone who walks through these doors, we are to be the thick community in which people know and look out for one another and invest in relationships that are not transient. We are to be the community in which no one is forgotten. We are to be the body in which our shared life in God runs deeper than politics, economics, race, age, orientation, or anything else. Church is not a place we go or a thing we do; it is who we are, and that identity is available to anyone who seeks to live through God’s love.
To return to Prime Minister May, in a siloed world of virtual connection, we are, each one of us, called to be Ministers for Loneliness. We are called in love to relate in love to one another, finding and assuring one another that none of us is alone. What we do here on a Sunday—raising our voices together in song, passing the Peace, kneeling side-by-side at the altar of God—these are rightly just the sacramental signs of the depth of our relationship: that God is in Jesus and Jesus is in us, that we are one as he and the Father are one. In his prayer today, Jesus says that the community that lives this way serves as a witness to the world. What a witness we could be.