Acts 10:44-48 † Psalm 98 † 1 John 5:1-6 † John 15:9-17
Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg had some big news this week. In an auditorium that appeared to be full of tech workers, he announced that Facebook was getting into the online dating business. “There are 200 million people on Facebook that list themselves as single, so clearly there’s something to do here,” he said at the conference.[i]
The room filled with cheers, but it was a jarring announcement for many outside commentators, who noted how closely the news comes to an avalanche of press about Facebook’s mishandling of personal information—our political views, where we live and work, what we do and what we like and what we buy—all there for advertisers and the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service to exploit. Why, they wonder, would we be inclined to potentially expose even more of our personal information, and, in fact, some of our most personal information, to a platform that has proven unable or unwilling to protect what it already has?
The other irony many noted was that most of the younger faces in the room would not be particularly inclined toward Facebook anyway—by and large, they use other media like Instagram for sharing, and Tinder for finding a partner. In truth Facebook’s new service would serve an older generation—which is not to say that it wouldn’t be a value.
Facebook’s focus seems to be on creating more meaningful connections—moving beyond meetups to long-term relationships—and using its massive user platform to do it, and no doubt increase its traffic and bottom-line along the way.
The news caught my attention because I’ve been thinking about other data that suggests that, even with all these new technologies helping us to connect with others, as a culture, we are feeling as isolated and alone as we ever have. Now, to be fair, this is surely a complicated thing to measure. But we are talking about it more at the moment than we have in a while. In January, for example, Britain appointed its first Minister for Loneliness[ii], charged with addressing what Prime Minister Theresa May called the “sad reality of modern life.”[iii]
The health care company Cigna released the results of a survey of 20,000 American adults, measuring where they fall on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a frequently used tool that examines feelings of loneliness and social isolation. A score above 43 is considered lonely, and Cigna found the average loneliness score for all Americans is 44, with young adults scoring several points higher.[iv] Depression, social isolation, feeling stressed or overwhelmed—by some measurements they have never been higher among college-aged students.
And public-health leaders are concerned. Loneliness is linked to heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes, and suicide, if left untreated. The former US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy has written that loneliness and social isolation are, “associated with a reduction in life span similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.”[v]
When experts examine what’s behind all of this, the culprits are many. “Constant busyness takes a toll not only on the quality of relationships, but also on the skills young adults use to forge them,” notes Rachel Simmons[vi], an educator, who has written a book on the subject. Personal worth and notions of success are associated with activity and keeping up, when what we may need most is unhurried time, shared face to face with others—the kind of time that cultivates civility, companionship, friendship, and peace. But our culture of individualism works against this. So people are living alone and aging alone more than ever.
The steady decline of many of our institutions doesn’t help either. They drew people together in common—labor unions, civic associations, neighborhood organizations, and yes, religious groups, churches, mosques, synagogues and the like.
But before we give ourselves to a vague nostalgia, and pine for the way things never really were, we should examine with care.
One of my dear, long-time friends is getting ready this month to marry off the last of his three daughters. He’s one of two families that our family has camped with for about 15 summers—the dads and kids, that is. So my two kids have spent time with his three and another friend’s one and built many rich memories together.
All three of his will be married off by the end of the month, while none of the other three are particularly close to that mark. And that got me thinking about how our institutions shape culture. You see, our friendship goes back to college days, which was, as it turns out, where we all met our spouses. I’d hate to call it a meat market, but there is a way that this evangelical college we attended and the culture that shaped us there, was a strong influencer in leading us toward marriage.
And my friend’s three daughters have all attended colleges that I would generally consider to be of the same ilk. My two, and my other friend’s daughter did not. I suspect that makes a difference. My friend and his three girls were also deeply involved in a big evangelical church culture that in a thousand ways, spoken and unspoken, reinforced the understanding that so called traditional marriage is the norm. In effect, they were shaped to do just what they have done.
I know that many of you have been in marriages for many years. Many of you found your spouses in high school or knew them even before that, in a time when our towns were small and social life was structured in a profoundly different way than it is now. Here too, cultural institutions supported these so-called traditional norms that worked for many, while isolating others when it didn’t work. You see, I didn’t realize it until later, but within my evangelical Christian upbringing, “good” Christian colleges were the places we went not only to get an education, but to find a spouse.
Now, I happen to take issue with some of the assumptions that this evangelical tradition and so-called traditional culture imposes both internally and externally on us. While it works for many, it has too often disenfranchised others, pushing them to the margins, and creating all sorts of unnecessary pain and social dislocation.
It isn’t my intention to re-litigate this today, but simply to note the power institutions, like the church have. And I suspect that what we are experiencing now, while it may feel to many like decline, is actually a reorganizing and renewing that is inviting us to consider again how to reconstitute our life together in ways that draw the circle wider as we are together drawn toward the community and belonging of the God who loved and claimed us first as belonging to the cosmos and to one another.
You see, that’s what is going on in Acts as Peter, astonished, realizes that even Gentiles are meant to be a part of this new community constituted by Jesus. I suspect it is nearly impossible for us to understand what a radical idea this was, being those Gentiles who have come to understand ourselves as the privileged insiders some two thousand years later. This was a revolutionary development that is a backdrop in most of the New Testament. It was a profound cultural shift that, driven by this movement that began to be institutionalized, reshaped society.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus tells his followers. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.”[vii]
There are new Gentiles in our midst that we are discovering belong to us, are a part of us, are us. In this generation we have begun to discover that God’s love envelopes those that we have shut out. And this has created a chaotic reality that we are still dealing with, and even battling as a larger culture.
But our work as followers of Jesus, our work as the institution that we call the church, it seems to me, is to give ourselves to the reshaping of this institution in ways that take into account what we have learned of human need and God’s love. Our work is to recognize again the power we have, the power of the Spirit to reorganize life in the shape of God’s love, in ways that draw people from social isolation to belonging, and from loneliness to love, that celebrates the richness of this life we have been given and that we see around us.
And this institution is not our enemy, but a tool to express what is embodied in Peter’s astonishment, and ours: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
Thanks be to God.
[i] See Here & Now May 2, 2018 reporting “How Will Facebook Change Online Dating?” Retrieved on May 4, 2018 from http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2018/05/02/facebook-online-dating.
[ii] See Ceylan Yeginsu’s January 17, 2018 NYTimes article “U.K. Appoints a Minister for Loneliness”. Retrieved on May 4, 2018 from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/17/world/europe/uk-britain-loneliness.html.
[iii] Eric Klinenberg, “Is Loneliness a Health Epidemic?” in NYTimes, February 9, 2018. Retrieved on May 4, 2018 from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/09/opinion/sunday/loneliness-health.html.
[iv] Heidi Stevens “Young Americans are the loneliest generation, and their phones aren’t to blame” in the Chicago Tribune, May 3, 2018. Retrieved on May 4, 2018 from http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/stevens/ct-life-stevens-thursday-americans-are-lonely-0503-story.html.
[v] Eric Klinenberg, “Is Loneliness a Health Epidemic?” in NYTimes, February 9, 2018. Retrieved on May 4, 2018 from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/09/opinion/sunday/loneliness-health.html.
[vi] Rachel Simmons, “Why are young adults the loneliest generation in America?” May 3, 2018 in The Washington Post. Retrieved on May 4, 2018 from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2018/05/03/why-are-young-adults-the-loneliest-generation-in-america/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.8c5c936e33e5.
[vii] John 15:12-13.
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