It’s hard to imagine any church board meeting in the next couple of weeks in which we don’t discuss handshakes or hand sanitizers. Or how to visit the most vulnerable members of our congregations. Or how the peace can be passed without human contact. Or how communion can be distributed while minding the scientifically recommended gap.
As you have these conversations, here is a tender statistic to contemplate: about one-third of Americans over the age of 65 live alone, and more than half of Americans over 85 live alone.
For several years researchers have been warning us that an epidemic of social isolation and loneliness is sweeping America and endangering the lives of its victims, many of them older adults. Today, in response to an epidemic of a very different sort, we are being told to practice social distancing–especially around older adults.
We need to take both epidemics seriously. But even as we enact social distancing, we must find ways to combat social isolation.
In the 10th chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus encounters Bartimaeus who, we are told, has been blind from birth. Mark records:
50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
It is striking that Jesus did not assume he knew what Bartimaeus wanted. He asked. Human beings have more needs at any given moment than we can quickly see or recognize. It is always good to ask, even in times of crisis: “What do you want me to do for you?”
In this simple poem, contemporary American poet William Trowbridge makes a call that is measured both in distance and in depth.
Long Distance to My Old Coach
by William Trowbridge
The reception’s not bad, across 50 years,
though his voice has lost its boot-camp timbre.
He’s in his 80’s now and, in a recent photo,
looks it, so bald and pale and hard to see behind
the tallowing of flesh. Posing with friends,
he’s the only one who has to sit—the man
three of us couldn’t pin. “The Hugger,”
they christened him before my class arrived—
for his bearlike shape and his first name, Hugh.
He fostered even us, the lowly track squad.
“Mr. Morrison,” I still call him. “You were
the speedster on the team, a flash,” he recalls
with a chuckle. That’s where his memory of me
fades. And what have I retained of him beyond
the nickname, voice, and burly shape? The rest
could be invention: memory and desire’s
sleight-of-hand as we call up those we think
we’ve known, to chat about the old days
and the weather, bum hips and cholesterol,
our small talk numbing as a dial tone,
serious as prayer.
What connects the two people in this poem to one another?
How can their conversation be at once as “numbing as a dial tone” and as “serious as prayer?”
When was the last time you made a call like this? How did it go?
How is your congregation working on social distancing? How is it working on social isolation?
How can we do both kinds of work well at the same time?