All the lonely people
Who are they? The importance of looking out for the lonely in our churches and beyond. By Colin Sedgwick
As I look back on my life I can think of only two times when I’ve felt seriously lonely.
One was my first week as a student – I found myself in a completely strange city, in which I knew not a single soul. The other was the first time I went abroad – far from home, travelling alone, I felt an ache I couldn’t begin to describe.
But I suspect that neither of those experiences remotely resembles real loneliness, because I knew in each case that it wouldn’t last. I knew that, shy though I was, I would make friends at university within a matter of days, and I knew that it was only a matter of time before I was back home from abroad.
So I can only imagine what real loneliness is like – a constant, inescapable, grinding, gnarling sense of being invisible to other people, of not mattering, of being excluded, of having no warm, laughing, squabbling circle of family and friends to belong to. How fortunate I am!
Yet this is the experience of many in our world. I saw a newspaper headline recently which spoke of “an epidemic of loneliness”. It was talking mainly about elderly people who are no longer able to get out much and who feel themselves to be just existing while the world goes by. Think, for example, of that annoying old lady at the front of the post office queue who desperately needs to talk for a few minutes to the cashier… this may be the first face-to-face contact she has had with anyone for a week.
But it isn’t just the old. John Lennon sang about “all the lonely people” and asked the question “where do they all come from?” And he also asked the even bigger question “where do they all belong?” Where, indeed?
Well, the Bible gives an answer to that. In Psalm 68:6 it describes God as “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows”, and says that he “sets the lonely in families”.
In ancient Israel the word “family” had a much wider, bigger sense than it does for those of us who live in the modern western world. A family might be a whole cluster of people related – some more, some less closely – to the pivotal father and mother. And for us Christians that family is, of course, the church. “We are a family church!” the poster proclaims. “Come to our Sunday morning family service!”
Which, of course, may very well be good.
But let’s not fool ourselves – a church can be a very lonely community for some, and it’s tragically easy for those of us who are “regulars”, us the in-crowd, to overlook the lonely, perhaps even consciously turning a blind eye. You can be lonely in a crowd.
What sort of people are we talking about? It’s not difficult to pick out a few…
There’s the newcomer, of course. How difficult it is to walk into a ready-made group of people who all seem to know one another!
There’s the student, especially the student from overseas. The language is different, the customs are different, quite likely the skin-colour is different. What a bewildering world our cosy, comfortable church may be!
There’s the single person in a church consisting mainly of couples. Never mind whether they’re unmarried, divorced or widowed, they’re pretty certain to feel “out of it” and alone.
And what about the childless woman in a church with several young mothers? What about the socially awkward person, the plain, downright shy person, who finds it excruciatingly difficult to initiate a conversation?
What about the gay person in a predominantly straight church? Whatever our take on same-sex relationships, does not the obligation to love and care still exist?
And what about that elderly person, the one who isn’t there because he or she can’t get along any more? It may be that they have served the church energetically and enthusiastically for many years, but now they feel forgotten and neglected. All right, the minister pops in from time to time, and there may be the occasional phone-call from someone. But – oh, how different things are from what they were!
There’s a terribly sad verse in Psalm 71, a psalm written by a man in old age: “Don’t cast me away when I am old, don’t forsake me when my strength is gone” (verse 9). He’s talking, of course, to God: this is a prayer. But may this not also be the silent cry of an old person directed to the church which they were once so happily a part of?
Is there someone in your church who might be uttering this cry right now?
There’s a saying that “it’s better to be quarrelling than lonely”. Well, I’m not quite sure about that! But I get the point. If you’re quarrelling with someone, at least they’ve recognised that you exist, at least they’re noticing you and taking you seriously.
Whatever, the message is simple: Look out for the lonely.
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister with many years’ experience in the ministry.
He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com