Bishop David Alan Bard urges us to cultivate a culture of connection and encourage virtues of kindness and respect as an antidote to the loneliness and meanness we see today…
Lonely and mean. No, those are not the results of my most recent psychological inventory or a descriptor of my enneagram type.
“Lonely” and “mean” are words frequently used to describe life in our society. In a recent essay in The Atlantic, columnist David Brooks asked, “Why have Americans become so mean?” He shares stories of nurses leaving the profession because patients have become so abusive, the rise in hate crimes (they hit their highest level in 12 years in 2020), and plummeting social trust.
Brooks acknowledges many factors contributing to such meanness but identifies what he considers the most important: “We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration.” He argues that we need to build up a healthy moral ecology by, among other things, encouraging genuine curiosity about the lives of others, engaging in intergenerational service, and constructing moral organizations.
In his essay, Brooks also makes a connection between loneliness and meanness. Loneliness is a kind of pain, and “pain that is not transformed gets transmitted. People grow more callous, defensive, distrustful, and hostile.”
Loneliness. Essayist Nicholas Kristof noted recently in The New York Times, “A majority of Americans now report experiencing loneliness.” Recent research correlates loneliness with physical illness and distress, substance abuse and deaths of despair.
Earlier this year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a report entitled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” Murthy cites research indicating that “social isolation and loneliness are significant predictors of premature death and poor health.” Data shows that lacking social connection is as dangerous as smoking up to 15 cigarettes daily. Among the remedies to the epidemic of loneliness offered in the report are strengthening social infrastructure and building a culture of connection, including cultivating “core values of kindness, respect, service, and commitment to one another.”
I am a bishop of the church, so what does this have to do with us? After all, our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, regardless of the social landscape. Yes, and . . . we offer the good news of God’s love within particular times, places, and contexts. And as we make disciples for the transformation of the world, we make disciples so that the world will be kinder, less violent, more just, more compassionate, more thoughtful. As the church, we have something to say and offer in a society that is lonelier and meaner than we would like it to be.
In the introduction to his recent book, Countercultural, United Methodist church consultant Gil Rendle penned these words: “It is time for the church to speak again because we live in a time of anxiety, and we live in a culture of crisis. In this time of anxiety and crisis, the truth that the church holds is both missing and deeply needed. . . . It is time for leaders, clergy and lay, to be quietly courageous and bring meaning to this world by honoring God and by loving neighbor. This simple act, well within the capacity of the church, would bring quite a change to a culture that is divided and oppositional.”
Rendle argues that congregations, along with other institutions of morality, “give us ways by which we can live with and value others. . . . [They] speak of the importance of the other, the common good, and at their best, what brings us together rather than what divides us.” He makes the case that the church needs to find and share its core message: love God, love your neighbor, include everyone, and live that out, recognizing the complexities of doing so. Later in the book, he says, “The questions that accompany the choice of a life-narrative and the subsequent steps of discipleship to live into that narrative prove curiously complex, making faith a life project of discovery with constantly changing and maturing actions.”
In a world that is filled with loneliness and meanness, we have a message to share about God’s love and our need to be kind in response to God’s love — a message that God loves us, that we desire to love God in return, and to love those whom God also loves. It is also a message about forming communities. In recent sermons, I have been preaching that the journey with Jesus is not just me and Jesus. It is Jesus and me, and all the people Jesus is bringing me with in the community called the church. Our message about God’s love and love of others is intended to shape our lives and change our world.
If we are to share and live this message authentically, we need to confess how we have failed to be the church as a community of love and forgiveness. We have not always lived up to our aspirations, and even now, some church communities seem captive to narrow stories more exclusive than inclusive. Knowing our history, we should always share our story with kindness and humility.
Friends, we have a story to share and live, a story of love, kindness, compassion, caring, and our need for one another and our need to care for one another. This story of God’s love for all in Jesus Christ has always been ours to share. Yet, in this particular day and time, where loneliness is epidemic and meanness an all-too-common social currency, this message is profoundly relevant and deeply resonant. Sharing and living out our message contributes to a healthier moral ecology, thereby transforming the world. When we share and live out our message, we help cultivate a culture of connection and encourage virtues of kindness, respect, service, and commitment to others.
May we find the quiet courage to humbly bring meaning to the world through honoring God and loving our neighbor. It is why we are here. It is who we are. It makes a difference.