Friday, January 26, 2018

Two Are Better Than One: A Pastoral Letter to the People of St. Mark's

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

My daughter is a big fan of Grey’s Anatomy, so we’ve been working our way through the series on Netflix. Recently, we watched an episode which follows the dramatic ups and downs of a couple who had been married for 60 years. As is typical in medical dramas, the story begins in the emergency room with the wife being diagnosed after a fall. A diagnosis of a dangerous medical problem leads to a risky surgery, and then a moment of triumph when the woman awakes and makes a funny comment to her anxious husband. Along the way, the husband shares with the medical staff his deep and abiding love for his wife and the secrets of the success of their 60-year marriage.

And then the story takes a sad turn: the wife dies suddenly in her sleep. The husband reports the outcome with sorrow and resignation. Paperwork is done. Sympathy is offered. And then he leaves. Alone. The last shot is of the elderly man walking slowly out the hospital doors utterly and completely alone.

I immediately turned to my daughter and said, “He wouldn’t be alone if he were a member of my church.”  Remarkably, she didn’t even roll her eyes at me. She just agreed: She knew that if a member of St. Mark’s called to say his wife of 60 years had just died unexpectedly, I’d already be on the road to meet him at the hospital and give him a ride home — if someone else from the church didn’t get there ahead of me. People from St. Mark’s would have made sure that everything was organized for the funeral, dropped off casseroles so he had something to eat, checked in with him in the weeks afterwards, and sat shoulder to shoulder with him in the pew as he wept out his grief on Sunday mornings.

But the Grey’s Anatomy episode depicts a reality for more and more people. Sociologists have been charting a steady reduction in social participation and a growing sense of loneliness since Robert Putnam first identified the trend in his 2001 bestseller, Bowling Alone. As recently as September, former surgeon general Vivek Murthy wrote in a cover story in the Harvard Business Review, “There is good reason to be concerned about social connection in our current world. Loneliness is a growing health epidemic. We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.”

And that loneliness is taking a toll.  Studies have shown that lonely people are more likely to have a variety of health problems, and are more likely to die earlier. Loneliness is a significant contributor to addiction, and a lack of social connection plays a key role in the opioid epidemic.  Gun violence, especially mass shootings, has been linked to social isolation.

For those reasons alone, we in the church might choose to address the growing sense of social isolation that is taking a toll on many in our communities, and sociologists say we are well equipped to address it. A 2010 AARP survey found that people who considered themselves spiritual and regularly attended worship services were less likely to report being lonely than those who did not. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam wrote, “Faith communities in which people worship together are arguably the most important repository of social capital in America.”

But building communities full of people with strong relationships with one another is more than just another service project: it is the heart of what it means to live as Christians.  “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ,” St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12. “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.”

Advice on how to care for one another in Christian community is found in virtually every letter Paul wrote to the early church. “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way, fulfill the law of Christ,” St. Paul writes to the Galatians. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” he advises the Philippians. “Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them,” he instructs the Thessalonians.

Our calling as church is to stand opposed to the cultural forces that are pulling Americans apart and increasing our loneliness, and to build the kinds of deep, loving relationships that allow us to support one another through the trials of life and to celebrate with one another in moments of triumph.

And we often do so well. During our Mutual Ministry Review this spring, several people highlighted the connections they had made while serving on ministry teams, such as the Altar Guild, Bible Study, Outreach, and Choir. They commented on how the relationships formed in those groups meant they were surrounded by friends praying for them when something went wrong in their lives. They remembered fondly fellowship gatherings over the years that gave them a chance to get to know other people from St. Mark’s, and the lifelong friendships born over a Hawaiian Feast. Many spoke of the friendships they have made here as some of the most important in their lives.

But we are not immune to the cultural forces working against those connections, either. We often feel pulled in multiple directions, trying to meet conflicting expectations and needs. We devote ourselves to our work, we commit ourselves to our children’s education and interests, we care for aging parents. All of which are very important, but the result is that we are here less often for each other. As worship attendance becomes less frequent, we may go weeks or months without seeing old friends on Sunday morning. Families feel discouraged because their children are the only ones there, and they have a hard time getting their teenagers to come because they do not see peers at church. Newcomers find it harder to make connections, since they don’t see the same faces week to week. We gradually stop doing the things as a church that used to give us a chance to be together and serve others, because there are too few participants to sustain them.

Poet Wendell Berry wrote:
Community, I am beginning to understand, is made through a skill I have never learned or valued: the ability to pass time with people you do not and will not know well, talking about nothing in particular, with no end in mind, just to build trust, just to be sure of each other, just to be neighborly. A community is not something that you have, like a camcorder or a breakfast nook. No, it is something you do. And you have to do it all the time.

We have arrived at a point where we must choose: will we succumb to the cultural forces pulling us apart, or will we decide to do community? And are we willing to do it all the time?

There is no doubt that what we are struggling with is not unique to St. Mark’s, or even the Episcopal Church. It is not unique to religious organizations. Across the board, Americans participate in civic activities less than ever before. It is almost laughable to think that the handful of us here can reverse that trend.

But I believe, with God’s help, we can choose to be the kind of community that is an answer to loneliness. The kind of community where we pass time with people just to build trust, and be neighborly. The kind of of community where deep, faithful friendships develop over time.

All we have to do is show up. Even when we are tired. Even when we don’t really feel like it. We have to show up not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of the people around us. For the sake of the person feeling lonely and afraid, who needs someone to pray with today. For the sake of the frazzled parent, who is at their wits’ end managing a rambunctious toddler today. For the sake of the new widow or the adult child mourning a recently deceased parent, who needs someone to hold their hand while they cry today. For the sake of the new visitor, who needs someone to turn in the pew with a big smile to greet them today. For the sake of the person returning for the third time, who desperately needs to see a familiar face today. For the friend who has been traveling for weeks and who longs to be reminded they are home today. For the sake of sharing life’s joys with one another – the good news of engagements and grandchildren, new jobs and planned retirements, of healing and hope.

All we have to do is show up for one another.

In the coming year there will be many opportunities to show up. We will gather for worship every Sunday morning at 10 a.m., and at 5 p.m. for Compline. You can meet up with friends and make new ones at the fun fellowship activities the vestry is sponsoring every other month. You can show up to serve others at St. Paul’s Soup Kitchen on the first Wednesday of the month, or by worshipping with the residents of Bridges by Epoch on the third Wednesday of the month. You can join the pastoral care team in showing up for the aged, the sick, and lonely, bringing them communion or just going by to visit. You can show up for Bible study on Wednesday or Friday mornings or for our Lenten soup supper series in February and March. You can show up for our Pentecost Party when I set off on sabbatical on May 20, and for our Welcome Sunday party on the Sunday after Labor Day. You can show up for one another while I am gone on sabbatical, so that no one’s needs go unmet. You can even come to worship in the summer (yes, we actually do have worship all summer long!) for the sake of one another and the priest taking my place at the altar.

And yes, I know what I am asking is hard. I know you are very busy with important things. I know you struggle to find time for everything you need to do. I know that you cannot do everything. I know that even if you do your very best, you will not be able to be here every Sunday, for every service project, for every meeting, for every social event, or maybe even for most of them. I know there will be times when you need to be somewhere else, when other responsibilities and relationships must take precedence. I know that sometimes doing even one more thing feels impossible.

But St. Paul wrote, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” So I am asking anyway: Will you renew your commitment to show up for one another? Show up for one another for the sake of the One who showed up for us. Show up for one another because in the long run, the friendships that result will be what bring you the most joy, and will be what sustains you in difficult times. Show up for one another because when you bear one another’s burdens, you fulfill the law of Christ.

And as Paul says, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

Come, taste and see that God is good.

Your sister in Christ,

PS. In 2019, I hope to offer two travel opportunities that will give us opportunities to deepen our relationships with one another and with the wider community: a second mission trip to visit our mission partners in Haiti, and a pilgrimage to the Cathedrals of England. For more information, indicate your interest on the sign up sheet today or let me know directly that you're interested in one of the trips.