In The Midst of Crowds
Statistical definition of the month of December: biggest crowds of the year — meeting in malls, at office parties, at church dinners — all of them besieged non-stop by relentlessly happy music, all of them wishing and being wished a Merry, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. A time of jampacked flights and car and bus and train trips as we go to be with the kids, or they come to be with us. The inevitable greeting goes: “Who’s coming home for Christmas?” or “Where are you going for the holidays?” Busy, exciting time!
But the season has another side. Psychological definition of the month of December: deepest and most painful loneliness of the year for those with no family (or none who care to come back), no need to hunt presents in malls (and perhaps no spare cash anyway), no circle of friends at work or at church insisting that we be a part of things. Surely it won’t surprise any grownups in this room to hear that for millions of people struggling with debt or failing health or the unalterable knowledge that they are just not essential anymore, this is the most depressing and difficult time of the year. And therefore, not suprisingly, a season of higher-than-usual suicides and lonely, unnoticed deaths.
I promise to be upbeat through the rest of the month, but I owe it to truth and reality to remind you of those who make no trips, who get no Christmas cards, and who cook no jolly dinners for the kids and grandkids coming back home from their own busy worlds for a few days to create family again. I also owe it to my calling (and yours) to remind us both that the lonely days of other months are much, much worse during this month when the lighted trees and houses, the brightly-colored ribbons and wrappings, and the insistently joyous music make loneliness more painful than ever.
It’s tough any time, of course. Sometimes when I think of my own mother, living alone for 25 years without complaints or bitterness, I wonder why there shouldn’t be medals of bravery struck for a million just like her. Courage on the battlefield, or in civic life, when others are watching and depending on you and will applaud your heroism, is a good thing. But unnoticed and unsung gallantry in some small house or apartment, all the cherished voices gone that once filled the rooms, is to me even more heroic.
And it wouldn’t be fair to leave out those who feel alone and taken for granted even when the house is full of people. A woman from Idaho writes to a popular monthly columnist, “I have lived nearly a half-century in a lonely marriage. In the 1940’s, men of my husband’s caliber boasted that for a two-dollar marrage license, ‘I get sex on demand, a clean house full of kids, clothes always mended, plus she can take care of the chickens and the garden.’ The marriage vows back then stressed the word obey. I quickly began to wither. Through the years our home filled up with children, all taught to love and respect and obey their father, although I was lonely. And I still am.”
Hers is a psychological loneliness in a house with a husband and children, but a woman from Virginia is literally alone. “I have only a few friends,” she says, “most of them more than 20 miles away. I have tried to meet people, but not had much luck. I’m 64. Most times I can handle being by myself. Still, it would be so nice to have someone to shop or eat with, to share thoughts with, to laugh with. Sometimes a week goes by without my speaking to anyone unless I go to a store or gas station. I cannot have a pet in my apartment. The only living thing I touch is my plants. The only human being who ever touches me is my dentist.
When I chose the sermon title, “In the Midst of Crowds,” I was thinking of some-thing that happened to a close friend of mine who is a minister. He was visiting in one of the world’s most crowded places, Los Angeles, when he was asked by a mortician to conduct a funeral for someone who would otherwise be unattended by either people or flowers. An attorney had taken care of the estate and arranged for the burial, by telephone, but had no plans to pay his respects in person, so my friend agreed to go. When he came into the funeral home he was escorted to a simple casket in a back room, where he looked upon a handsome woman of 62 who appeared younger. Her hair was still dark brown, touched only a little with gray. Her complexion was fair and clear, he told me, her features resolute and feminine.
But she had left the world with no kin or loved ones around. A distant cousin, far away, could not make it to the funeral. There would be no one. Or that’s how it would have been except that this thoughtful mortician meant for her to look nice and have someone plresent, even if only for a very brief service. So in response to his plea, my friend went, and has told me that the woman still haunts his mind as one symbol of the human predicament. Widowhood, loneliness, illness, premature death, forsaken: many walk that way, especially in California, where it is more common than in some places to live and die apart from loved ones.
But no region is exempt, and psychiatrists have repeatedly called loneliness one of our major social problems. One reason for the special anguish of modern loneliness is that so many of us now live in big cities. All those people hurrying somewhere, filled with purpose, some of them talking to others as they go, and you by yourself, with nowhere important to go and no one to talk to. I understand, of course, that not everybody who lives alone feels lonely. Some have learned to like solitude, at least as long as they are not ill or frightened, but even they want the solitude broken at times by a visit, a letter, a phone call. Jesus often went away by himself to find solitude, but in the rhythm of his life he also wanted company. He called his disciples, in Mark’s beautiful phrase, “that they might be with him.”
If he walked among us now he would insist, I think, that the church has a mission to the lonely. I seem to have talked so far about the loneliness of old age, but no age group is exempt. There are middle-aged men and women who feel desperately alone at times: salespeople on the road, sleeping at night in motel rooms, weary of the same tedious routes and not deeply convinced that what they are selling is worth what they sacrifice to sell it. One play every American would see, if I could manage it, would be Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which I consider a hundred times more powerful and compelling and essential than most of the sermons delivered from pulpits. Once you enter into the desperate loneliness of Willy Loman in that play, you will never feel the same about that illness of the human spirit.
It’s true that Willy is growing older, and starting to lose his touch, but he is not old by modern definitions, and as I said, no age group is exempt. I have known women in midlife, with busy, preoccupied husbands, and no children at home anymore, who turn to the wet bar in the den to pass the long hours until evening. I have seen firsthand a terrible loneliness in certain young men and women away from home to college, with no circle of friends yet. Even children, sometimes, when parents have no time for them, or when the time they do have is only perfunctory. But I must confess that whenever the word “lonely” comes to mind I usuallyt think of people like the woman my friend went to speak a prayer over in the mortuary room in California: people in one or two-room apartments, or in health care centers, unmarried or alone by the death of a mate, people hardly ever visited by anyone, people to whom the hope of a letter from some distant child or relative or old friend is the sustaining breath of life itself.
I made a resolution a long time ago to call my mother regularly and often after I read one day the diary of a woman widowed like my Mom who wrote on page after page the same three bleak and bitter words: “No one called.” I thought when my mother was alive that I was doing pretty well, but I wish now I had done even better. Do you suppose any son or daughter, after the death of a loving parent, ever felt they had written or called too often? More of us, I would guess, deserve the clever rebuke of a spunky living-alone mother down among the retirees in Florida. Her son called on one day he won’t forget for a while, and said to his mother: “How are you doing?” She said, “Not so good. I’ve been very weak lately.” He was surprised. “Why are you so weak?” “Because,” she said, “I haven’t eaten in 38 days.” Her son was aghast. “How come you haven’t eaten in 38 days?” She said, “Because I didn’t want my mouth to be filled with food when you called.”
I do not knock medical mission programs in Angola or Bangladesh or some other remote place. Good work is done there by heroic people. But I may as well confess the truth: I am much more excited about the vast mission fields right under our feet, about which we do so little: hunger, homelessness, illiteracy, loneliness — the list is long enough, God knows, but loneliness is the topic of this sermon so let’s consider how we could help with that dilemma. Churches hire ministers to be their surrogate visitors to health care centers and nursing homes, but most of them — including this one — know they can’t do enough by themselves. It isn’t always rewarding work, especially in nursing homes, as some of our own choir could tell you. For a while, a few years ago, we went to such a place to sing, but the combination of our own busy lives and the seeming apathy of some in our audience, and the drooped and sleeping heads of others, discouraged us and we convinced ourselves there must be some better use of our time.
I try to think what that might be. When my mother came up to live with us a couple of years before her death, we quickly realized two things: first, that given our early arrival and late departure from church, it would exhaust her to sit around waiting for us, and second, that the whole pattern of worship by our church would be unfamiliar and perhaps even disconcerting. So we called the closest congregation of the church she had spent her life in, and offered to pay to have her picked up and brought back each Sunday. They refused payment, so we made contributions to the church. It helped, I’m sure, that we were only a half mile away, but for two years different volunteers came every week to transport and to watch over her during their worship and fellowship time.
We do not have many in her category, who want to come but are dependent on others for transportation, but we lack an organized plan for those two or three. We have been fortunate in having a couple of people (whom I will not embarrass by naming) who have faithfully helped one of our cherished friends be at worship who otherwise could not come, but additional volunteers may be necessary in that instance and we now have a new need. Keith and Frida Russell, as of last Friday, have been moved to the assisted living unit at Andover Health Care Center. When I checked on them that evening, their granddaughter was visiting from New York and she and I had a long talk about the change in their lives.
I want you to consider something. Suppose that for many years one of your greatest joys in life was to come this beautiful room to worship God and to be with your friends — friends to whom you gave your time and your loyalty and such generous special gifts as the choir robes and that splendid oak music cabinet down in the choir room, and suddenly now you have no way to get here unless some of those friends come for you. I hope that someday we have a van and driver for such a service, but until then we have to count on individual volunteers. Keith and Frieda’s granddaughter told me nothing new when she said how much this church means to both of them at this traumatic time in their lives. I am confident there will be enough volunteers so sthat you can take turns, so please give Cathy Penney a call to let her know you are willing, and once we have a list we will work together to coordinate the trips.
This kind of caring has to be learned early. Under the excellent leadership of Vicki Burk, Cathy enney and Jane Taylor, our young middle and high school people are being taught that there is more to church life than Bible classes and lock-ins, pizza parties and ski trips. It’s fun to eat and play games and ski on lake water, but schools and clubs do that all over the country. If the church is to be anything different, it has to call on the kids to go serve someone from time to time, whether it’s fun or not. These three Christian educators I have named have the moxie to ask them to bear a burden once in a while, and when they do that, I hope parents will them total support.
I can think of no more powerful words in this season of the year than that immortal paradox spoken by Christ: Those who try to hoard their lives, end up losing them. Those who spend their lives for my sake, find them forever. Please remember, dearly beloved, that the church was intended to lose its life over and over, trusting that if it does it will always be resurrected to more intense and abundant life than before. Amen.
By ourselves, or in company with others, may we find a way,
gracious God, to let love speak through us. Amen.