Do you believe in divine appointments? Do world events and social dynamics arise to open doors of opportunity? More specifically, are things divinely managed in such a way that world events and God’s work coincide?
Consider the area of public health. The 1918 flu epidemic, the outbreak of mad cow disease in the early 1990s, the late 1980s and 1990s AIDS epidemic, and the Ebola outbreak in the 2010s were heartbreaking and special opportunities for the church. Some we met, some we missed. In these epidemics there was something about the denomination that could make us uniquely useful and helpful.
I was having a midafternoon lunch alone in a restaurant. Because of my own incompetence my cell phone was dead, so I couldn’t pan through Facebook cat photos. I could do nothing but abide peacefully with the humanity that surrounded me.
To my left sat a middle-aged guy nursing a beer and, presumably, panning through cat photos on his phone. Ahead of me a woman was doing the same: a beer, a phone, and cat photos. To my left was an old codger with a bottle of Coke. He was drinking out of a wine glass. But no phone. The remarkable thing about all three was that for the half hour I sat there none of the three drank anything. They would sip at their glass, but there was no noticeable change in the level of the liquid in their glasses during that time. All three felt that it was better to sit alone in public than to sit alone at home. Were they lonely?
Loneliness is a social epidemic. Epidemic is a strong descriptor, but not my own. Vivek Murthy, former surgeon general of the United States, calls loneliness an epidemic and likens its impact on health to obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day.1
In May and June 2018 the Economist and the Henry Kaiser Foundation did a study on the epidemic of loneliness in the United States and the United Kingdom.2 Their conclusions were similar for both countries: More than one fifth said that they often or always feel lonely. About 5 percent of people said loneliness is their major life problem. In the U.K. Tracey Crouch, official minister for loneliness, says this is a “generational challenge” affecting about 9 million people in the U.K., young and old.3
Other conclusions were interesting. Loneliness is stereotypically identified as a problem for old people. When the New York Times reported on this study, it accompanied the article with a photo showing a great-grandmother sitting alone on a bed. Research does not support the stereotype. Figures for lonely people younger than the age of 50 are higher than those who are older than 50, even if not by much.
Also, if pressed, many people would say that loneliness is more of a female problem than a male one. Nope. Women report being lonely at a 10 percent higher rate than men when the question is “Are you lonely?” But when asked if they were “not lonely,” both men and women describe themselves as not lonely at the same rate. This suggests that men are slow to admit being lonely.
Incidence of loneliness reflects only minor differences in income level, education level, and marital status. It is an epidemic that cuts a broad swath across all aspects of society.
In keeping with the times, researchers included questions about social media. Does Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram make people more or less lonely? Do people who see the exciting lives of others feel left out and lonely? Or do they connect with friends and feel part of a group and less lonely? The split is equally divided. One half of people who use social media reported that it helped; the other half said it hurt. One half said that social media helped strengthen their connections to people, so it helped them counter loneliness. One half felt that social media intensified their loneliness. In general, social media doesn’t cause loneliness any more than it helps solve it.
Does this epidemic of loneliness present an opportunity, a divine appointment, for the Adventist Church? Have we been brought here for such a time as this (see Gen. 50:20; Esther 4:12-14)? We have the people, the facilities, and the aptitude to help.
A few words are in order. Loneliness is likely to occur in the church at approximately the same proportions as outside the church. That is true of many societal problems. Our efforts to address the problem should include embracing our own.
Our efforts should be altruistic. I support church growth, but rather than a crass attempt to get more members, love and compassion should drive our response. We should embrace everyone, including those that we may feel tempted to exclude.
Our attempts to provide a cure to loneliness should be tactful. Marketing campaigns overtly directed to graying populations have backfired. While companies should use easy-to-open jar tops and large print, their campaigns fail when they present them as products for old people. I’m afraid the same would apply to church programs targeted at lonely people. Even the lonely may not necessarily want to go to a program billed for lonely people.
Cross-generational programs are very useful in addressing the loneliness epidemic. Young adult Sabbath School, senior clubs, and singing at nursing homes have their place. But we shouldn’t neglect activities that treat all ages with equal respect and value. This would include such events as church work bees, fellowship dinners, or church interest groups (photography, vegetable gardens, music, worship teams, or drama).
Consider tasking a multigenerational work group with developing your church’s response to the epidemic of loneliness in our communities. We might even study investing the people resources of our churches to help support the many community activities already in place, such as community food pantries, recreational athletics, arts and craft classes. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel; we can add to that which is already in place and build rewarding relationships in the process.
At the restaurant I decided to drop by the table of the old codger drinking a Coke. “Hi,” I said. “Do you feel like having some company?” We have become great friends.
Next time I see that middle-aged guy with the phone I’m going to chat with him.
Mack Tennyson is an associate treasurer of the Trans-European Division and a professor-in-residence for the General Conference Auditing Service.
I am in class, carefully taking notes. Suddenly I notice that I have forgotten to get dressed—I’m completely naked. I hope no one notices.
Now to figure out how to get out of class without anyone seeing me. I try walking nonchalantly. No one notices. Whew! That was a close call. The naked dream has struck again. Unscientific research has shown that almost everyone everywhere experiences the phenomenon. And there’s something spiritually and theologically significant about it.
Which is worse: guilt or shame? Our sins bring us legal condemnation: “For in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17).1 Sin also brings shame: “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself” (Gen. 3:10).
In my own day-to-day living I find shame to be more painful than guilt. Guilt will keep us out of heaven. But shame can generate in us an embarrassment that freezes us from ever talking with anyone, of ever seeking or finding help from any source, including Jesus.
In Eden’s tragedy Adam seems more concerned about appearance than moral reality. Note his response to God: “I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself” (Gen. 3:10). Even though the guilt of his sin has placed him under a death decree (Gen. 2:16, 17), Adam seems more worried about something else. To judge by his words, the shame of nakedness, the superficiality of appearances, is uppermost in his mind.
According to Paul, we may be guilty without knowing it. Having a clear conscience does not guarantee innocence: “For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted” (1 Cor. 4:4).
Rationalizing the shame of our nakedness has brought us topless dances and nudist beaches.
On the other hand, we may experience shame without deserving it, without performing any act of transgression. As the psalmist once lamented: “My face is covered with shame at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me. . . . All this came upon us, though . . . we had not been false to your covenant” (Ps. 44:15-17, NIV).2 Job, celebrated for his integrity, nevertheless spoke of being “full of shame” in the time of his affliction (Job 10:15, NIV).
Shame is so built into human DNA that there seems no limit to our power to feel it, even when our circumstances involve no actual connection with sins committed or sinful attitudes. Elements of the superficial play powerfully in the realm of shame: I may feel that I look either too fat or too thin, too tall or too short; too straight or too stooped; that I move too slowly or even, perhaps, too fast, or at least, that I eat too fast. I may have lost my job, my cash, or my keys.
Dress, a contrived layer over my skin, may be the most awkward and painful of all, echoing Adam: a zipper down; shoes that don’t match my dress; shoes that don’t match each other—as was once the case with a friend of mine who arrived at school to teach.
For whatever historical reason, my colleague’s discipline is heavily gender-biased, and generations of coeds have learned to admire her for her choice of footwear. Imagine her chagrin when their exclamation on her shoes one day was not of admiration, but of embarrassed astonishment! My friend looked down where they were pointing to discover that she was wearing shoes that did not match!
Besides fighting currents of cultural and moral shame, we carry around personal loads from our past, comprised of the shame of sin or stupidity that God and others have long forgiven: rudeness, disobedience, or something else equally out of place.
Or it may involve some social catastrophe that will not cease to torment you though everyone else loves to recall it just for hilarity’s sake—like the embarrassment of a ridiculous date in high school or college; or an incredible mess-up at your first summer job. Isaiah’s address to this pain is most precious: “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth” (Isa. 54:4).
While Adam’s response to God from some hiding place in the garden suggests his preoccupation with shame, God is totally focused on delivering us from the guilt of sin. He knows what is primary and what is secondary. He does not ignore our shame problem, but knows full well that simply psyching and flattering away our bad feelings doesn’t lead to restoration and proper covering.
The book of Revelation shows Laodicea, God’s last-day church, in the middle of an apocalyptic naked dream. The passage seems to support the idea that the shame of nakedness is a major burden and that the church needs to wake up and get out of its crisis as soon as possible. Jesus’ concern about delivering His people from their embarrassing situation is central to His counsel to the church in Laodicea: clothing and reasons for having it dominate the single verse of positive advice from Jesus for Laodiceans: “I advise you to buy from Me . . . white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed” (Rev. 3:18).
The white raiment shows up lateras the Lamb’s wedding feast approaches. Universal excitement rings out as a multitude thunders forth the cry, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty reigns” (Rev. 19:6). Then attention turns to the Lamb’s bride: she is dressed and ready for the party, “given the finest of pure white linen to wear” (verse 8, NLT).3 Nakedness out; pretty clothes in!
But these clothes are no superficial pretense. They represent total transformation from self-centered, self-displaying modes of life and attire, to the selfless, other-oriented service God’s people give the world as they are inspired, directed, and empowered by the Spirit of Jesus. They wear new clothes that are their own (verse 8) because they have accepted by faith the inheritance of righteousness (Heb. 11:7), a heritage they receive from the Lord of their salvation, who took Adam’s nakedness and mine to the cross that we might be clothed in the garments of His righteousness.
He has enveloped His bride in the robe of His own righteousness (see Isa. 61:10) so His glory and perfection will shine in her through endless ages of celebration. Want to party forever? Get dressed.
Mack Tennyson directs the SunPlus project, a program for strengthening financial processes across the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He and his wife, Sharon, assistant to the marketing director of Adventist Review Ministries, are proud parents of five daughters.