Blog: November 2020
“Real religion...is this. Look after orphans and widows in their distress...” – James 1:27
“At this stage I think I’d rather die from COVID-19 than loneliness,” shared the 88-year-old voice on the other end of the phone. “I’ve not seen my family in 7 months. I’m just so...so tired of being alone.” I was uncertain how to respond.
The past few weeks I’ve been returning voicemails left on my mother’s answering machine. News got out that she’s recovering in the hospital from a recent fall, and her friends are checking for updates on her recovery. It’s heartwarming to experience the concern of companions who span decades.
As someone spending 90% of his life thinking about issues impacting children and teens, I’ve found myself unexpectedly thrust into the world of octogenarians—female octogenarians more specifically. Allow me to make an observation—completely anecdotal—based on my recent conversations with Louise, Vernie, Pat, Nancy, Sheila, Marg, and Dorris. All widows. All living alone. All in their 80’s and 90’s.
Besides the fact that this pandemic is disproportionately impacting the health of our elderly citizens, there is an additional casualty: loneliness and social isolation. It’s a problem. It’s growing. Especially as we move into this holiday season.
My octogenarian sensitization is pushing me to see beyond my normal social sphere of younger colleagues, active 50-something-year-old peers and the friends of my young adult children. It’s opened my eyes to the painstakingly long, empty days our seniors experience who live alone...shut off from social contact with family or friends. Regular routines of socialization disrupted: church online, assisted-living dining rooms closed, bingo nights cancelled, book clubs on hold and the local Curves studios shuttered for mid-morning Pilates. “We’re just lonely.” That’s the cry bubbling to the surface.
A few years ago a friend shared a heartening story of his mother. She kept a list of names and numbers by her phone. Her husband of 60 years recently passed, so she’d often find herself a little melancholy at certain times of the day. “When I’m feeling a little blue,” she confessed, “I pick up the phone, call someone who is worse off than me and try to encourage them. It makes me feel a little better.” Her story surfaced in my memory this week.
“Fundamentally we are social creatures and part of what brings meaning to our lives is to maintain and foster those social connections,” Lisbeth Nielsen, from the Institute of Aging, reminds us. “Loneliness is the sense of suffering from being disconnected from other people.”
This holiday season approaches after many difficult and isolating months, with every indication that things are getting worse before they get better. Perhaps a special opportunity presents itself for those of us who own a phone.
What if each of us makes a list of people we know who live alone—individuals whose social connections have been disrupted, who are immune compromised, or in an assisted living facility on lockdown? Once we’ve compiled our list, let’s make a few phone calls and say hello, ask a few questions, express a word of gratitude or even say a prayer. Our listening ear and audible voice will be a welcomed gift.
The apostle Paul, when writing to the church of Galatia, says: “Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the Law of Christ.”
At this moment in history, loneliness certainly qualifies as a burden. Those of us blessed with the love of family and friends can carry a little burden for those whose wavering hearts pine for days of crowded kitchens and laughter around the supper table. A short phone call can fulfill the Law of Christ—and put a little Thanksgiving joy in someone’s heart.
“Please send me a copy of your paper,” I asked with a genuine sense of curiosity. “I really want to read it.”
“Come on Dad,” was the less-than-enthusiastic reply. “You know you’ll just critique it.”
My youngest daughter Madeline started a Master’s of Divinity program last month. Admittedly, I’m a little excited and find myself vicariously reliving my seminary days through her—asking about the books she’s reading, discussing lectures...and wanting to read her papers.
“I won’t critique it,” I promised. “Just want to see what you’re writing.” Wink. Wink.
So the paper arrived. Voraciously I began to read her epistle—something about pastoral counseling and the act of listening.Halfway into second page I noticed a couple of lines about a family dinner tradition.
“My father would bring out the ‘Gratitude Journal’ no matter who was at the dinner table.” She then described how everyone was required to share something for which they were grateful. “In my younger years it was boring and awkward,” she confessed. “Especially when we had friends over.”
Now a 26-year-old graduate student reflecting more deeply on her life, Madeline concluded: “Engaging in the Gratitude Journal made us more attentive, accepting where we were at that moment, and more observant of our thoughts and feelings.” I paused to reread those words. Wait...what? My rebellious youngest child remembered the Gratitude Journal.
For those who have experienced the blessing (and trials) of raising children, I’m sure you can relate. Despite the demands on our time, financial pressures, aging parents for whom we must care, marriages that need nurturing, and civic commitments requiring our duty—we tried our best, hoped and prayed that a few of the good things we did for our children stuck. The Gratitude Journal ritual took root!
I say ritual because the “Journal” found its way to the dinner table regardless of the current circumstances. Gratitude was part of our nightly rhythm. A bad day at school? We journaled. An argument with my wife about a credit card bill 5 minutes before dinner? We journaled. A tough loss on the soccer pitch? A crisis at UrbanPromise...we stopped, reflected, looked for the good and journaled together.
Robert Emmons, who studies gratitude at UC Davis, makes a similar argument. “And this is what grateful people do. They have learned to transform adversity into opportunity no matter what happens, to see existence itself as a gift.” The late Catholic theologian Henri Nouwan said it another way, “Gratitude rarely comes without real effort. The more we choose gratitude in the ordinary places of our day, the easier it becomes.”
Despite the incredible challenges of this historical moment, I still believe there’s an opportunity to “pull out” the “gratitude journal” —especially as we enter this Thanksgiving season. Let’s choose to discover things for which we can be grateful. In no way am I asking you to sugar coat life. There is real grief, real pain, real disappointment. But let’s push a little deeper and be intentional about seeing the good, pausing and thanking God.
Founder & President
Three retired women looked up from shelving books in our colorful library—faces covered with masks, eyes dancing with life.
“Hey Dr. Main!” calls one. “Hope you’re having a good day!” I nod, unable to show the big grin beneath my mask.
For a split second things seemed almost normal, forgetting momentarily that these amazing volunteers put themselves at risk to keep our little library beautiful and book-ready for our students.
Across the hall, Ms Cooper enthusiastically teaches American history to a small cohort of 6th graders. Our partitioned, “converted” sanctuary is now transformed into a makeshift classroom providing the needed 6 feet of spacing between each student’s desk.
It seems kind of normal, but then I remember Ms Cooper volunteers to place herself on the front lines each day, increasing health risks because she passionately believes in giving students vital human contact. Not to mention her four children at home who are learning remotely and a husband who is an essential worker.
Outside on the patio, sitting a table length apart, our Wellness counselor Shawna converses in a deeply personal way with a 9th grader whose body language suggests a “bad day.”
The moment suggests normal...but then I remember Shawna chooses to do in-person—rather than virtual—individual therapeutic sessions for 20 of our students every week, plus group meetings and Developmental Skills classes. More kids, more interaction, more exposure to harmful contagions.
This is our “new normal”....so far our team has done a remarkable job of keeping everyone safe.
They are the courageous, essential workers showing up every day and creating a sense of normalcy for our children. And our young people desperately need “normal” right now—normal routines, normal contact with adults, normal accountability, normal diets, normal amounts of encouragement and attention. Creating “normal” is critical.
That’s why we’re NOT canceling our annual Thanksgiving Dinners this year—a 33-year-old tradition at UrbanPromise. Celebrating Thanksgiving creates more normal.
No, we won’t have large gatherings and long buffet lines like previous years or multiple people handling serving utensils. But we will still gather and break bread together.
This year our Thanksgiving dinners will be smaller and held outside under a tent. Volunteers will pre-package individual delicious meals of turkey, gravy, collard greens, mash potatoes and macaroni and cheese. Our families, youth and staff will share a meal together.
We hope our modified Thanksgiving creates a sense of “normal” for our families and children—creating a moment to stop, celebrate and reflect on God’s goodness.
Despite the challenges 2020 has brought to our doorstep, we continue to be thankful for all that God has done. If you have much to be thankful for, would you bless our kids?
I need 100 supporters to underwrite a Thanksgiving meal for $10, and if you’re feeling generous consider making an extra gift of thanksgiving to help us continue to care for children this fall - $25, $50, $140, $490, $990.
- $25 helps us keep our library up to date for our elementary school children
- $50 creates more hands on opportunities for our middles school science program
- $140 supports our Wellness Center that is meeting a whole new range of needs right now
- $490 helps Ms. Cooper and our other teachers manage last minute shifts as we accommodate this new learning atmosphere
- $990 supports the tech in our classrooms that is difficult to stay on top of but more important than ever right now
A meaningful tradition that takes place around Thanksgiving dinner tables across the country is joining hands and sharing what you are thankful for. Would you share what you are thankful for? We’d love to hear from you. This year, more than ever, we need your help.
Thankful this year...especially for normal—
Founder & President
“Thank you for this article,” read the early evening email of October 20th. “I also now have Hope in my heart.”
A trove of encouraging notes fill my inbox. After each reflection I’ve sent over the past 6 months, a reply from Deb Walker often arrived within a few hours or days—thanking me for writing, explaining how she was now thinking a little different about a topic or how she’d forwarded the piece to a friend. Her words often encouraged me to turn off Netflix, get off the couch, power up my laptop and write a new reflection. Amazing what a little encouragement can do.
Sadly, those notes ended this week.
Unexpectedly Deb passed away a few days ago, much to the shock of Bill, her husband of 46 years, and the beautiful family they’ve faithfully nurtured together. Death is always difficult. Losing a spouse, parent, friend abruptly is disorienting. No time for last words, hugs or goodbyes. Her last email to me was never answered. That’s a regret I’ll live with.
If Deb life’s embodied one theme it was abundant encouragement and extravagant hospitality. I received both, frequently. In a society too busy to sit and eat together, Deb and Bill instituted a memorable ritual years ago. Every Monday night—emphasis on EVERY—the front door of their Hickory Lane home was left ajar and an open dinner table awaited any wanderer. No RSVPs needed. No Google calendar to confirm if it was happening. No phone call necessary to invite the Texan uncle unexpectedly swinging through town. No cancellation polices. No basket on the table for a donation. Just show up ...with appetite. Monday night: 6pm. Eat, fellowship, have your soul graced by the radical gift of food and inclusive table fellowship.
Sometimes 8 guests straggled through the door, other times 14 arrived together, sometimes 30 wafted in and out over the 2 hour window. A widow next door. An executive in town for business. A graduate student needing a break from peanut butter and crackers. A coworker recently divorced and lonely. A first time visitor to church. Eclectic and unpredictable. At times quiet and intimate, often chaotic and noisy. Food simple, tasty and plentiful. A birthday? Cake and ice cream magically appeared. A special occasion, a unique dish stealthily added between the Costco baked chickens and vegetable medley.
This was Monday nights at the Walker homestead—an old-fashioned open table. In a world of Uber Eats and Lean Cuisine, a regular communal dinner seems like a historical artifact of a bygone era. Not on Hickory Lane. No surprise that the center of gravity was....Deb Walker dishing out hugs, kisses, greetings and a buffet of great food. A reminder that Christian faith is often best experienced around a dinner table of people arriving as strangers, departing as friends.
Deb’s passing called an old book off my library shelf this past week: Loving Across Our Differences by Gerald Sittser—a wonderful book about how groups of people can build community by moving beyond things that divide us. Sittser elevates the “commands of mutuality” we find in the New Testament. “One another commands,” he calls them. “Greet one another.” “Forbear one another.” “Encourage one another.” “Serve one another.” “Comfort one another.” “Bear one another’s burdens.” “Stir up one another.” “Prayer for one another.” “Love one another.” There’s more. You can find them. Simple in concept, difficult in execution. Nobody understood their significance better than Deb.
If the foundational element of Christian behavior is love, says Sittser, how then do we practically love? Great question. Sittser’s answer: practice the “commands of mutuality.” The totality of love is encompassed in them all.
I still desperately want to hit the reply button and thank Deb for her last encouraging email. But I keep hearing her voice in my head. She’d first demonstrate a little “graceful forbearance” towards me and then, in her genteelSouthern drawl say, “Honey, where I am now I’ve got all the encouragement I need! You go find someone who really needs that message and give’m a little of that love.”
Thanks Deb, that’s what I’ll try to do.
Founder & President