May 3, 2020

Only the Lonely, II:
Yea Though I Walk…

Passage: Psalm 23; John 10:10–18

Click here to listen to the podcast of this sermon.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. —John 10:11

Have you noticed that many people are setting up their home offices during this quarantine in the bathroom? They take their laptop in there and a plant and maybe other pleasant accouterments and use the vanity as a desk.

That would not have been my first choice, but these home workers explain: “I have a job. I have little kids. This is the only room in the house with a lock.” Plus the lighting is good.

The podcasts I listen to are being produced at home—The Moth; The Ted Radio Hour; Terrible, Thanks for Asking. Maybe they send a sound guy over there to help, and the sound guy helps Nora McInerny fashion a crude sound booth in her closet with plywood and blankets and pillows and cardboard to get the desired acoustic effect, but sometimes you can hear children thumping and screaming and crashing and banging and dogs barking in the background.

Even that internationally renowned podcaster Christine Hides sends her messages out from her closet. Tough to get any privacy when you’re sheltering with the whole family. You saw Stephen Colbert’s dog Benny leap into his lap right in the middle of The Late Show.

We’re experiencing a lot of intimacy these days. Some people are predicting a baby boom in December—coronababies. Others are predicting an epidemic of covidivorces.[1]  Divorce lawyers say inquiries are up 50%.

Ironically, the coronavirus is afflicting the human family with twin but opposite maladies—overcrowding and loneliness. If your problem is the former—overcrowding—I don’t have much to offer you; just be patient. You love your children; don’t put them up for adoption just yet.

But if your problem is the latter—if you are weathering this quarantine alone—the Bible has a lot of succor to offer you. Last week I noted that even before this virus pandemic there was an epidemic of loneliness in America and abroad. More Americans than ever before—35 million live alone; 28% of American homes have one person in them.

This doesn’t surprise us if we think about the convulsions of our brave new world. We are marrying later in life. I was 23 when I got married; my son was 31; that’s a sizable window of eight extra years of potential aloneness. He and I are paradigmatic of our respective generations, Boomer and Millennial.

And even though a 31-year-old is presumably wiser and more experienced than a 23-year-old, and therefore more astute about choosing a life partner, it continues to be true that half of all marriages end in divorce; the virus of loneliness is opportunistic; it is happy to leap into that relational breech. “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” asked Paul McCartney. That’s where.

We are having fewer children, and when we eventually get around to having them, it’s later in life; no one to take care of us when we get old.

We are a very mobile society. Once upon a time, Americans expected to be buried in a cemetery within walking distance of the hospital where they were born; many of us had lifelong neighbors. My wife and I have lived in eight different homes in five different states, and your story might be even more peripatetic than mine.

Once upon a time, there was a covenant of loyalty between the employee and the corporation. Some of you were able to find only one job in your entire lives, but you kept it for 40 years. Now we have free-lancers in a gig economy who might be in several workplaces in a single year. Professionally and domestically, our integral relationships seem to be more transient and ephemeral than they once were.

Almost half of all Americans describe themselves as lonely; 13% say they have exactly zero people who know them well; 41% of Britons say that their best friend is a pet or the TV.[2]

Not all of them are lonely. It’s important to distinguish between aloneness and loneliness. I love the way one therapist puts it. She says that loneliness is a lack, an absence, an emptiness, a need, there’s something missing.

But aloneness—others might use the word ‘solitude’—aloneness is a presence, a fullness, a joy, an aliveness. You are free. You are autonomous. You are enough. You don’t need anybody else.[3]

Not all people who are alone are lonely, but likewise some individuals who are surrounded by good people all the time feel unknown, unseen, and under-companioned.

Judy Garland was surrounded by papparazzi and adoring fans wherever she went, but she once said, “If I am a legend, why do I feel so lonely?”[4] I wonder if Taylor Swift ever feels lonely.

I was thinking of the kinds of folk who might be particularly vulnerable just now: People who once used computers at the library to communicate with the outside world, but not now. Completely cut off.

People in nursing homes. No visitors for six weeks now.

Deaf people, who used to read lips, in the market and on the bus, but not now.

Persons on the spectrum, the socially awkward, the eccentric, the odd. It’s a miracle that Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory is not lonely, because with his obsessions and compulsions, he lives on a different planet from the rest of us.

I’ve told you before how much I appreciate the Netflix show called Atypical about a high school student named Sam who is on the spectrum. Sam comes from a wonderful family and has loyal friends and is much-loved, but he is obsessed with Antarctica. He can tell you everything you never wanted to know about penguins.

These kind of folk have no idea how to copy well-worn customs or put on popular styles of life. These folk were distant from us, mostly misunderstood by us, largely inaccessible to us, even before they were sheltering in place.

Last week I told you about a 39-year-old woman who has lived alone for 16 years, most of her adult life. She says “I don’t have a partner, I don’t have a pet, I don’t even have a plant. Sometimes it feels as I am disappearing.”[5]

Aye, she just nailed the harrowing phenomenon of loneliness, didn’t she? She has a great job at Princeton University; she is surrounded by smart, kind people all day, but she is disappearing. We feel lonely if we feel unknown, unseen, unhappily secluded within the quarantine of our own inescapable, opaque uniqueness. Does anybody even know my name?

If even a fraction of what I’ve said is true, how fortunate, then, to hear about The Good Shepherd on the fourth Sunday of Easter every year. We hear from Israel’s King David, and from David’s distant descendant Jesus of Nazareth, David Redux.

Both able poets tell us that there IS someone who sees you, there IS someone who understands you, there IS someone who knows your name and will never forget it.

What’s the most famous and beloved passage in all of western literature? Is it The Lord’s Prayer, or the 23rd Psalm?

The shepherd is always there, providing sustenance for you, hydration for you, a secure and pleasant habitation for you—green pastures for you.

And if you must pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death—and you will—if you must pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, you need not fear, because the Shepherd is still there, that rod and that staff will guide you to and beyond the last of all your days. We are never alone.

Jesus says it: I know my sheep, and my sheep know me. I know their names, and I will never forget. They are mine, and I will die for them, if it comes to that, and it might.

Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Seminary, says, “I don’t like to think of myself as one of God’s sheep. I want to be the eagle of the Lord, or the tiger of the Lord. Sheep are dumb. They keep getting lost. I don’t feel lost.”

But then Dr. Barnes addresses his own vexation with that sheep metaphor. “Actually, maybe I am lost, maybe we all get lost now and then. Maybe you lost your way in a relationship that’s offered more hurt than love, or in a job that leaves you depleted and spent, or in the guilt of not being good enough, pretty enough, or smart enough for someone whose judgment cuts deep. Some of us have gotten lost in our battles against declining health. Others are lost in grief. And how many of us are just simply lost in our shame for things done and left undone?”[6]

If you are lost and alone, would it help to know that there is someone who is looking for you? And he knows your name.

We WILL walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. We WILL walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Contagion. But God is on our side, and against that illness.

And even if it takes us in the end, what lies waiting for us on the other side? We find that God has spread a lavish table before us, and that table will groan with the burden of its plenty, and our cups will overflow with the elixir of gladness, the chalice of mirth, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

[1] Dan Bilefsky and Ceylan Yeginsu, “Of ‘Covidivorces’ and ‘Coronababies’: Life During a Lockdown,” The New York Times, March 27, 2020.

[2] “An Epidemic of Loneliness,” in The Week, by The Week Staff, January 6, 2019. This article and many others rely on comprehensive surveys from the Cigna Health Insurance Company, which seem to be the gold standards in this research.

[3] Pragito Dove, “Loneliness vs. Aloneness: What’s the Difference?” Huffpost, August 24, 2015,

[4] Quoted by Dwight Garner, “Shame on Me, and You for Taking Pleasure in It,” The New York Times, August 2, 2011.

[5]Afia Ofori-Mensa, quoted by Julie Halpert, “Tools to Fight Loneliness, a Very Real Threat,” The New York Times, April 20, 2020.

[6]Slightly adapted from Craig Barnes, “Sheep on the Run: Psalm 23,” The Christian Century, February 13, 2002.