Loneliness. Every school day of my childhood I saw it written on Dad's face when Mom, my siblings, and I hurried out the door. Even now, I close my eyes and can see him sitting in his wheelchair at the kitchen table, sipping coffee through a straw and waving good-bye. His grin couldn't hide his dread of spending another day with only the television to keep him company.
In fact, Dad's face came immediately to mind when I heard that Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, had appointed a Minister of Loneliness in response to the Cox Commission report which said the following about the pervasiveness isolation in society today:
“Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate. Throughout 2017 we have heard from new parents, children, disabled people, carers, refugees and older people about their experience of loneliness.”
This report was already old news to Dad in the 1960s.
Had the report been issued in his day, he would have ridiculed the idea of a government appointing a minister of loneliness, the UK equivalent of a cabinet position in the US. Dad knew the government couldn't cure his loneliness. He also knew that the people of God could.
And the people of God did.
Often, when my siblings and I came home from school, we found our pastor and Dad visiting in the living room. When a retired clergyman moved in down the street, he played cards with Dad several afternoons a week. Our uncle, who was married to Mom's sister, often stopped on his way home from school to chat with Dad. Members of my parents' Sunday school class dropped by, too. For years. For decades.
I can still see Dad's joy when the people of God revealed His presence through them.
When I heard about the Minister of Loneliness, I was tempted to ridicule the idea as homage to the people God used to cure Dad's loneliness. But instead, God used the memory of those dear people to reveal my self-righteousness. When was the last time, He asked me, you were the cure to someone's loneliness?
I couldn't recall the last time.
Conviction, repentance, and the pestering of the Holy Spirit spurred me to action. Who do you know who is lonely and what can you do to relieve it? Names and faces came to mind.
- My mother who lives in a memory care unit.
- A friend isolated by her spouse's wrong choices.
- My sister-in-law who just broke her ankle.
- An elderly woman in our congregation who is homebound when winter weather hits.
- The dear uncle who used to visit Dad and is now caring for his wife.
- Young families in the area caring for children with special needs.
But I'm only one person, I objected. And my daughter needs my help when her baby comes in a few weeks. My own ankle's still healing. I have a book contract to honor. Where will I find time to minister to loneliness in addition to everything else? God's answer didn't let me off the hook, but it did make the task manageable.
Do what you can, He said.
Which, I realized as I took some deep calming breaths, is every believer's loneliness ministry. We are called to do what we can within the limits of our circumstances. That means I'm called to minister to loneliness without neglecting the needs of my daughter after the baby comes just as you're called to minister to loneliness without neglecting the care of your child with special needs.
Here's what that looks like for me.
- Visiting Mom twice a week, calling to give her a head's up on the drive over, as that relieves her loneliness a little more; keeping her well-stocked with library books as reading helps her pass the time; and bringing her over on Saturdays for dinner and games.
- Texting my friend a couple times of week, asking her how she'd like me to pray.
- Digging outget well cards for my sister-in-law: one from our family and one for Mom to sign; texting her and my brother to see how they are doing and what I can do to help.
- Sending cards a couple times a month to the elderly woman in our congregation because someone said she loves to get cards.
- Calling my uncle and aunt every couple weeks while visiting Mom, using the speaker phone so everyone is part of the conversation, even if that means coaching Mom on what to say.
- Touching base with special needs families in the area via email, FaceBook, or text.
- Serving on the planning committee for an area special needs family camp that provides a long weekend of fun and support for families and fosters lifelong relationships.
Every believer's loneliness ministry will look different. They will reach different people in different ways and in different places. But in the end, God will use every believer's ministry to accomplish the same thing.