The best gift for the lonely at Christmas
Are you one of those people who make a list and stock Christmas gifts the whole year through? If not, you will probably spend the last few weeks before Christmas worrying about what present will please your relatives, particularly those you don’t know well because you don’t see them very often. Yet the best gift of all, the one that literally changes lives, is the simplest. And, like an expensive fragrance, its effects last for a long time. I’ll come back to this later.
The best of times and the worst of times
Christmas can be the best of times and the worst of times (with apologies to Charles Dickens). For those who relish the season – the candlelit services, the Christmas dinner, the gifts, the air of bonhomie and so on, it’s the best of times. One of the deep blessings of Christmas is that it magnifies our sense of belonging, both in our earthly ‘bundle of the living’ and in the family of God. It affirms our sense of identity and assures us that we are valued and accepted. But for those who feel no-one wants to know them and that their lives are not worth living, Christmas is the worst of times.
These people are experiencing what is known as ‘existential loneliness’. Age UK says that over one and a half million older people are affected by it. They have grown older, absorbing ageist attitudes that constantly project old age in a negative light, such as being ‘past it’ and of no use to society. The best gift for them is hearing from another human being that God values them so much that he gave the best he had, his beloved only Son, to bring them into his family.
Loneliness from bereavement
Christmas can also be a very hard time for those who are lonely after a painful bereavement. For close-knit couples who have lived most of their lives together, the passing of one of them is like the tearing away of part of the soul. Sadly, this deep grieving can be compounded by isolation as people stay away because they don’t know what to say. A pastor in Wales once explained to me that many congregations believe it is only the role of the pastor to visit the bereaved. Seriously? Where is the instinctive reaching out from one human to another to offer comfort? A church in Southbourne runs a weekly group called ‘The Afters’, for people who are putting their lives together again after a bereavement.
When my neighbours heard that my 19-year-old grandson had been killed in a freak motorbike accident they came around and sat in my kitchen, drinking cups of tea, talking every-day trivia between themselves and scooping me up in conversation now and then. The best gift to give to the bereaved at Christmas is someone who will be there with them, not expecting anything back, but simply keeping them company.
Loneliness from isolating circumstances
Then, there’s the kind of loneliness caused when people become isolated in their own homes, because of immobility or frailty or lack of transport. Many bus routes have been axed to save money with devastating effects for older people who relied on them. Over half of all people aged 75 and over live alone, and two-fifths (about 3.9 million), say the television is their main company. Many can relate to this true, sad story. 84-year-old Edith, whose husband and daughter had died, spent Christmas day playing her telephone answering message over and over so she could hear a human voice. Often at Christmas, our national conscience is stirred by stories like this with businesses and churches putting a huge amount of effort into activities to reach people like Edith in their communities, usually run by volunteers who are pensioners themselves. For them, Christmas can be the best of times: the challenge is being able to keep helping for the rest of the year.
Clay pots and community
Whatever the cause, the answer to loneliness is not medication, it’s not entertainment or the internet – it’s people. God planned us to nurture one another’s souls, something that once came naturally in the communities we grew up in. But, even in Wales, communities have been weakened as globalisation has moved people away for work and businesses have become centralised. Even shopping isn’t entirely the local activity it used to be.
However, there’s a project that has been working quietly for some years now that is restoring communities in England, street by street. It’s called ‘Street Associations’ and is based in the Midlands. Although it is a secular facing work, the directors, Martin and Gina Graham, are Christians. Their aim is to change the culture of the UK by restoring communities and encouraging people to form a community in their own street. The results have been that lonely people are drawn out, neighbours get to know each other, and relationships are built. In a survey, 98% of people said it had brought generations together and 99% said it had made their street feel friendlier. Older people thrive and loneliness is eradicated. For more information see http://streetassociations.org/the-benefits/
Southgate Family Church, the Graham’s home church, decided to adopt this scheme in their own neighbourhood. Church volunteers put invitations through doors on their streets, inviting people to an initial meeting in the local community hall. Over 90 people responded. Pastor Nick Hoult says that not only is it building community in the street, but people are coming in to the church and the street leaders are developing a pastoral, praying side that strengthens their own faith.
For Christians, it’s an opportunity to obey what Jesus said was the second most important commandment – to love your neighbour as yourself. It also follows Jesus’ pattern of going out to where the people are. It isn’t a church plant as such, which looks first and foremost to preaching the gospel to those drawn in: it’s about individuals building relationships and through those relationships, the gospel can be shared. In fact, older people are best reached with the gospel through relationship.
‘If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness,’ says 2 Corinthians 4. ‘We carry this precious message around in the unadorned clay pots of our lives.’ Never mind the expensive presents and the fancy wrappings – it’s these unadorned clay pots that make the best gifts at Christmas.