I can think of only two times when I’ve felt seriously lonely.
One was my first week as a student – 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, traveling 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 circle of family and friends to belong to.
This is the experience of many in our world.
I saw a newspaper headline recently that 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 line 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 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 Christians, that family is, of course, the church. “We are a family church!” a church poster proclaims. “Come to our Sunday morning family service!”
But let’s not fool ourselves – a church can be a very lonely community for some. It’s tragically easy for those of us who are “regulars” 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 from overseas. The language, customs and quite likely the skin color are different.
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 and the shy person, who find it excruciatingly difficult to initiate a conversation?
And how about that elderly person, the one who isn’t there because he or she can’t get along anymore? It may be that they have served the church energetically and enthusiastically for many years but now feel forgotten and neglected.
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” (Psalm 71:9).
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 that 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 recognized 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 living in Nottingham, England. He is also a freelance journalist who has written for several United Kingdom papers and various Christian publications. A version of this article first appeared in The Baptist Times, the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, and is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his blog, sedgonline.wordpress.com.