Judith Smith stepped out on to the balcony of her sixth floor flat. Across the courtyard, the caretaker was going about his morning duties. She waved a cheery good morning to him, and saw his equally cheerful reply. As he turned his back, she took a deep breath, a last look at her empty apartment, stepped over the edge of her balcony, and crashed to her death on the pavement below.
In her apartment, they found a note that read, “It is no use living any more. My husband is dead and I am alone. Nobody ever knocks at my door. My phone never rings. I cannot face this loneliness any more”.
When the caretaker heard about her note of loneliness, he said that if he knew beforehand, he and his wife could have easily made friends with her.
A lady a few doors down, when she found out about it, likewise said that she herself gets lonely and would have been glad of the company.
Judith Smith is in many ways a symbol of our times.
Ironically this loneliness is found most in communities that are close, like units or apartments.
On June 23 this year, Fairfax Papers around Australia ran a large article by Andrew Masterson entitled: “Loneliness, what it is, how it makes you sick, and how to cure it”. He quotes Professor Stephen Houghton who is director of the Child and Adolescent Related Disorders at the University of WA, saying that “Loneliness is a major social, educational, economic and health issue that will reach epidemic proportions by 2030”.
Maybe the Beatles all those years ago had it right when they sung, “Ahh, look at all those lonely people...”.
Indeed, it appears that many in our community are lonely. Exact numbers are hard as some like to be alone while those who are lonely don’t necessarily tell others that they are. In Australia, last year, Lifeline conducted a survey and reported that 60 per cent of respondents said they "often" felt lonely. The organisation also revealed that 55 per cent of callers to its crisis line (13 11 14) lived alone, "often without strong support networks".
If we are to characterise loneliness all researchers in the field tend to agree on one measurement point: loneliness is characterised by a lack of meaningful friendships.
"Loneliness is a subjective experience," said social work professor Dr Mark Hughes, from Southern Cross University here on the Gold Coast. Queensland. He says that “It's the feeling that you don't have sufficient social connections”.
1. REASONS FOR LONELINESS.
People are lonely for all sorts of reasons. People moving from other countries often feel isolated within the community because of the colour of their skin or poor English skills, and so few get really close to them. Some feel lonely when their closest friend moves away. Some feel lonely when they move away and they don’t know any person in their new area. People whose spouse have passed away feel very at lone. Often when a person befriends another that has another friend, chances are, one will feel “left out” and thus feel lonely - as the saying goes “two company, three is a crowd”. Often successful people feel lonely. They have many artificial friends, but no significant friendships. The aged feel loneliness as they start to outlive their friends. Those in leadership can experience loneliness – as they say, “its lonely at the top”. Interestingly, if you google Loneliness and Facebook, heaps of articles pop up suggesting the link between loneliness and Facebook – both those seeking connection with other but also the more you use it, the more some feel lonelier.
So many feel lonely, and chances are, there are several lonely people amongst us this even though we are surrounded by people.
Jesus experienced loneliness. On two occasions in Mark 1:45 and Luke 5:16 we are told that Jesus withdrew to “lonely places”. But it was in the Garden of Gethsemane that Jesus experience loneliness. It was the night before He was to die. “Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane” (Matthew 26:37 NIV) and He asked them just to wait for a moment while He went and prayed. For some reason, Jesus took Peter, Andrew and John. According to Matthew, Jesus begun “to be sorrowful and troubled” (Matthew 26:37 NIV). In fact, Jesus said Himself: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:37 NIV). Then He asked those three close friends to stay and support Him. Jesus prayed, and boy did He prayed. He returned to His friends and discovered them asleep. This happened three times on that lonely night. His friends couldn’t even support Him during His time of great need. Jesus felt alone.
The next day, when Jesus was being crucified, when most of the disciples had ran, He again felt abandoned, not only by his friends, but by His Father. He cried out: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus experience incredible loneliness because His only friends fell away.
2. HOW JESUS HELPED LONELY ZACCHAEUS.
There is a story of an encounter between Jesus with a rejected and lonely man named Zacchaeus and Jesus.
Zacchaeus lived in Jericho was an important trading city.
Zacchaeus was the chief tax man of Jericho. This meant he was a collaborator with the Roman Empire. The Romans sold tax collector rights to the highest bidder. The tax man then exacted all he could from the people to cover cost and make a profit.
Tax men became a hated class. They were looked upon as both exploiters and traitors. Most loyal Jews did not befriend the tax man. In fact, children spat on the ground as the tax man walked by as a sign of rejection. Of all people he was a lonely man.
When Jesus came to Jericho Zacchaeus was eager to see him. Perhaps he had heard stories of the respect and friendship Jesus offered to outcasts.
Zacchaeus was so determined to catch a glimpse of Jesus that he, a small man, climbed a tree to see him pass by (vs.3-4). People often think that being short is like some disability. I should know, people often remind me about my vertical challenge in life. When I was 13 I was in my school’s top basketball team. Then I stopped growing and my mates soon over took me which meant that I didn’t end up with my basketball career in the top team! I don’t think it’s so bad being shorter than others. I’ve just been on planes for a 30 hours in economy class. I’ll tell you, I was glad that I had short legs!
Zacchaeus was short and couldn’t see over the crowd so he climbed a tree so he could see this Jesus.
To his utter surprise Jesus stopped beneath him and asked him to come down from the tree immediately (v5). Then Jesus said to him how He wanted to go and stay at his place. Zacchaeus obey. He climbs down the tree and before the amazed crowd, he and Jesus set out together toward his home.
There is a scene in Lloyd Douglas’ story “The Mirror” in which he imagines a conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, said Jesus gently: “What did you see that made you desire this peace?” “Good Master, I saw, mirrored in your eyes, the face of the Zacchaeus I was meant to be”.
As we watched Jesus and Zacchaeus setting off together down the street, the little man Zacchaeus seems inches taller and his shoulders are square and his head upright. He is walking with Jesus.
While at his house, Jesus must have challenged Zacchaeus about his evil dealings for Zacchaeus promised to give half his wealth to the poor and give to those he has cheated four time the amount. Friendship, the friendship of Jesus, had worked its miracle. “Salvation” said Jesus, “has come to this house” (Luke 19:9 NIV).
Jesus added something else - something that only Zacchaeus would know what it meant. Jesus said: “this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9 NIV). No one had thought of or called him by that name for years. They had many a name for Zacchaeus, ugly names, hateful names. But Jesus changed it all. He said: “this man, too, is a son of Abraham”. What an encounter Zacchaeus had with Jesus!
The most startling fact in the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus is that Jesus stopped and spoke to the lonely outcast. We can almost hear the element of surprise as we read of what happened. Neither Zacchaeus nor the crowd hid their astonishment that Jesus took the initiative, offering his friendship to the man who was up the Jericho tree.
Lonely people usually remain in their loneliness until someone cares enough to get through to them. It is the nature of loneliness to turn us in on ourselves. We become like people in prison, we cannot escape. Our very aloneness makes us unpleasant and unattractive, which separates us further from those about us.
3. HOW JESUS HELPS WITH OUR LONELINESS.
As Jesus helps Zacchaeus, I believe He wants to help us as well. When I was a teenager, I went through bouts of loneliness – perhaps it was my introvert personality, perhaps it was just a feel sorry for myself adolescent kinda thing? My parents gave me a book called “Just Good Friends” by Joyce Huggett. In her book, Joyce gives some practical suggestions to deal with loneliness. It isn’t an easy road, but it shouldn’t be hard either.
A. Befriend Jesus: First, befriend Jesus. Don’t underestimate nor devalue what I am saying. Friendship with Jesus is intimacy. It is availability. And it is constancy. Jesus’ offer of friendship means that we shall never, ever, be alone again. Other friends may depart - because of marriage or work or disagreement. But Jesus will not. In the Book of Hebrews, we read this promise: “God has said, "I will never leave you; I will never forget you." So we can be sure when we say, "I will not be afraid, because the Lord is my helper…” (Hebrews 13:5-6).
When we are lonely, one of the first things we must do is to take the risk of responding to the love of Jesus. In practice this means exposing our loneliness to God in prayer, committing the pain of our loneliness to Him and taking the leap of faith so that we land in the arms of God.
B. Stop Feeling Sorry For Yourself: Second, stop feeling sorry for yourself. Ninety per cent of loneliness consists of self-pity. As long as we continue to feel sorry for ourselves we will continue to feel lonely. Self-pity is the chief ingredient of loneliness and is a difficult hurdle for many people to overcome.
C. Face The Facts: Third, face the facts. As we know loneliness is a feeling; a deep gut feeling. The problem with feelings is that they masquerade as facts. If I feel abandoned or rejected or isolated or cut off, therefore, I am quickly persuaded that someone somewhere has cast me on one side, rejected me or neglected me. This may or may not be true of our friends. But check the facts. Sometimes we may isolate ourselves from others because we have relied too much on feelings. Often loneliness exists in the attitude of mind rather than the situation.
D. Learn To Respond To Friendships: Fourth, learn to respond to friendships. Some people, I find, live their lives suspicious of others and aloof, not willing to trust themselves in friendship, being fearful of the risk of getting hurt. We can never develop lasting friendships until we are willing to respond warmly to others. In a survey of more than 40,000, people said these qualities were most valued in a friend: 1. The ability to keep confidences 2. Loyalty 3. Warmth and affection.
These are the ways to keep a friend. Be there. Be helpful. Be faithful. Be loving. Be supportive.
Dale Carnegie once said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in people, than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
4. HOW WE CAN HELP THOSE WHO ARE LONELY
Here’s the challenge for the church – reach out to those around you – chances are – they are lonely and would value your friendship.
In your places of employment there are lonely people. In your apartment block or age care centre there are lonely people. In our church there are lonely people.
In that Fairfax Papers article on loneliness, Andrew Masterson wrote that “Despite researching at different ends of the country, and at different ends of the age spectrum, Hughes and Houghton both found that the primary treatment for loneliness was meaningful social connection. "You can have one great friend and not be lonely," said Houghton. But you can have 30 friends and still be lonely because they're not quality friends… it's about having a friend you can trust, that make you feel part of a group. It's about quality."
This is what Jesus did. He sought out the ones – like Zacchaeus. It’s about the ones – such as the parable of the lost sheep where the farmer leaves the ninety-nine to seek the one. When Jesus sought out Zacchaeus, He said about Himself, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10 NIV). He came not only to be a friend of sinners, but to save them.
In our church settings, we each need to seek out the ones. They are here.
And what did Jesus asked when He sought Zacchaeus? He wanted to go to his house. As Jesus didn’t have a house, he wanted to go to Zacchaeus’ not because it would be one of those fancy houses. It was because Jesus and Zacchaeus could go and talk and find out about each other. Saying hi to someone at church is good, but inviting them for a cuppa makes a bigger impact. Remember the words of Jesus who in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats said, “I was a stranger, and you invited Me into your home" (Matthew 25:35 NLT). Church, seek out the ones!
As a church, we have to work hard at this. When Jesus came to Zacchaeus’ house, it probably wasn’t a standalone house like many of us live in today. Houses back then, and this is also reflected in Romans times, houses and even communities where built onto common courtyards where neighbours saw and interacted with each other every day. Today, we drive onto our driveways, press the remote control for our garage door and in we go and the door goes down – we don’t interact with our neighbour as much! We have to work hard at building community.
Loneliness is real. It affects many. As we encounter Jesus, may some of that pain be carried. But may His example inspire us to look out for the ones.