Martin Luther King Jr. said that 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning was the most segregated hour of the week.

And it has been proposed by the blogger David Hayward @nakedpastor, that it’s also the loneliest.

For me, some of the loneliest days of my life were when I was coming out. I was a young seminary student in Texas. I was in love with a woman. I didn’t know what the future held for me. I knew I would get kicked out of seminary if anyone found out. I knew this meant I would lose my job at my church. I didn’t know how my parents would respond. It was indeed a lonely time. And every Sunday I would go to church and be lonely. My church did nothing to affirm me; it offered no solace. It was not a safe place to share what I was going through.

So when I came out, I left my church job and I left the church.

We know loneliness is different from being alone. Loneliness occurs when our wants and needs for social interactions don’t match up with our reality.  We are lonely when we want more human connection and depth of relationship than we are currently experiencing. It doesn’t matter what age, gender, education level or income we have. Loneliness is something we all experience. In fact, in America today, we are experiencing a loneliness epidemic. More people of all ages are experiencing more loneliness, more frequently than ever before.

Loneliness isn’t always bad. And in small doses can be helpful. Like hunger and pain, loneliness may be part of a biological “warning system” to enhance our chances of survival. Some studies suggest that feelings of loneliness motivate us to reconnect with others. But we were not designed to live in isolation from others for long and chronic loneliness and isolation is actually bad for our health.  And the opposite is true too. People with strong ties to family, friends, and community have a 50% greater chance of outliving those with fewer social connections. Spending time with people it seems to be more important than exercise and eating right J. In fact, a new study has found that the 2 best indicator of whether a person will live to 100 is strong relationships and social integration.

How have we gotten to this loneliness crisis? With all advances in technology and industry, we move around more now, we work too much and as much as I love social media, it too is contributing to our loneliness. It’s ironic that platforms and apps designed to help us connect to others can actually cause us to isolate ourselves even further. And loneliness is contagious. We can enter into cycles of behaviors that reinforce our loneliness and increase their negative impact on us without us even seeing it.

How isolated are we? Research shows that the number of Americans with no close friend to rely on has tripled since 1985. The average American says they have only 2 people that they can talk to about really important stuff. According to an AARP survey of people 45 and older, those 45-50 were almost twice as lonely as those over 70. (this surprised me!) And loneliness among millennial is even more prevalent. They are in fact, the loneliest demographic. So maybe loneliness doesn’t look like what we thought it did. But we do know as our seniors age over 70 they become at risk for loneliness and isolation as their mobility decreases and their social circles fracture.

By all accounts then there is loneliness in this place today. What do we do when loneliness comes to church? The Bible is full of stories of folks experiencing loneliness even when they don’t call it that. We can imagine the loneliness that characters of the Bible must of felt. When Hannah cries in church in misery and desperation for a child only to be accused of being drunk. When Moses fled from his home, pursued by the Pharaoh and wanted for murder. Jesus in the wilderness- alone and lonely. The psalmist as we read earlier and in Psalm 8 when they cry to God, “what is a frail mortal that you should be mindful of us, a human being that you should care for us?” And Jesus in the garden when he asks his best friends to stay there with him and pray for him only to find them asleep.  We could go on.

So how do we care for those who are lonely? We must recognize that loneliness doesn’t always look like what we think it does. It reaches all of us.  And maybe the best solutions are going to be intergenerational. The work is on us to make this a welcoming place, where people feel cared for, where we can voice our loneliness and where people will hold our stories and experiences as sacred.  When I was that lonely seminary student, it was my friends and elders of my faith that got me though. They were the one’s who held me tight, gave me encouragement, strength and hope. We are called to be this to one another.

How do we do this? We must maintain a counter-narrative to the world’s message that rugged individualism and self-interests are signs of success. The church must stand as a place that cares and values relationships more than polity and dogma. In his book, A Pastor in Every Pew, the author writes that a clearly stated promise based on the hospitality of the Jesus, that people will find caring relationships in our churches is one of the most important factor in most people’s decision to affiliate with a congregation. Think about it. Why do you come here?  The naked pastor suggests that we are all here for relationship. Not just to hear the sermons, apparently.

Faith is all after all, all about relationships; our relationship with God, the presence of the Spirit in our world, humanity’s relationship with creation, the promises of God to never leave us and the unity of believers across time and place.

For these caring relationships to exist they must be grounded in the belief that all people are of sacred worth, loved by God and we must treat others in ways that help them become what God has destined for them. This is sacrificial caring. This means putting other’s needs above our own. When we listen to the needs of others, when we notice when you aren’t here, when we visit you when you can’t come, when we hold you in our prayers, and when we give up power and control that keep you from being authentically present with us then we are modeling the care of other as taught be Jesus. The Spirit empowers us to do these things. And when we do, we experience the oneness that comes from being the body of Christ.

I asked the youth this week, how do you know people in your church care about you? The people who care about us smile when they see us. They talk to us. They ask me questions about myself and they listen to me! Let us all do these things for one another.

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” – Dorothy Day from The Long Loneliness

Let us continue to build a caring community based on God’s sacrificial love. And may our pews not be lonely.