Every morning when I wake up, I participate in a bizarre ritual: I look at my dog and say, "Thank you for not being dead." Now, before you judge me, we have to put this ritual into historical perspective. First of all, Isabella is 16 years old... that's a lot of dog years. Secondly, I adopted her right before the COVID lockdown. During the height of COVID, I served as a Staff Chaplain at Phoenix Children's Hospital and was surrounded by death and isolation. Some of my chaplain colleagues in other settings were experiencing up to 17 deaths on each of their shifts. In adult hospitals, no visitors were allowed, and in my hospital, only one parent was allowed in the room at any given time. All volunteers were banned from the hospital, so a once lively environment became a lockdown nightmare. First responders were surrounded by constant death. I also live by myself and spent many hours in solitude during the height of the pandemic. I could not risk the lives of my patients by being exposed to the virus myself. Throughout all of this surreal experience, Isabella was my constant companion, my reminder of life, my living, breathing reminder that I was not alone. She was always there, and she was not dead. I really appreciated that, and although the world has once again opened up, I continue to appreciate and cherish her presence and her aliveness.
I am not the only one for whom companion animals contribute to mental health and well-being. Almost all pet owners report that their pet has a positive impact on their life, and studies have shown that a pet can lower stress and boost overall happiness. Thousands of people report that their pets helped them cope with the pandemic. Playtime with pets releases feel-good hormones. Many of us consider pets to be family members. Our pets are reminders that God does not want us to be alone.
We are experiencing a global epidemic of loneliness, a circumstance that is threatening to both our mental and spiritual health. There is even a new number, 988, to call for suicidal issues. We believe in a God who does not want us to be alone, and yet so very many people feel the spiritual malaise of isolation and loneliness. The title of our sermon today is taken from an attempt to put salve on the wound of loneliness. This remedy takes place in a grocery store. Imagine that you are at the grocery store and you have groceries in your cart. You are adding them up mentally, wondering why eggs and butter cost more than last week. You look at all the lines and try to guess which will be the fastest. You pick the line that looks the speediest and hope the cashier isn't new. When it's your turn, you return the cashier's greeting, watch the tally grow, pay what you owe, and then head straight out the door.
Jumbo, a Dutch grocery chain, thinks it does not need to be this way. A year ago, one of its stores designated a special lane for slow checkout. Signs direct interested customers to a kletskassa or a "chat checkout" where they exchange more than a quick greeting. Shoppers in this lane are encouraged to linger. Store staff are trained to ask how the day is going, whether the shopper's children will visit for the holidays, whether they have read a good book lately. The idea has proved so popular that 200 other Jumbo stores across the Netherlands will soon follow suit. The Jumbo chain discovered that some customers want meaningful human contact when they venture out. Many of them are elderly, and many of them live alone.
The Dutch ministry has a National Coalition Against Loneliness, which is part of the Ministry of Health. There are 1.3 million residents of the Netherlands over the age of 75, and in response to surveys, half of them say they frequently feel lonely. This Ministry is looking for new ways for people to connect.
One of the best cures for loneliness is volunteerism, and we see that in full force at Black Mountain, from Marilyn's presence in the kitchen to our worship leaders, our Council, the people who transport our donations to their destinations, the green thumb angels who trim our trees, and our expert bathroom cleaner, Tim. While we all benefit from these kindnesses, volunteering also eases feelings of loneliness and broadens our social networks. Volunteering is one of the best and most certain ways we can find meaning and purpose in our lives. The type of volunteering we choose matters less than if we find the activity personally meaningful.
We sometimes pay a high price for people who are experiencing loneliness because they can be drawn into cults or fringe groups. Timothy Egan, who wrote a history of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, reports why one city had more Klan members than any other city in Indiana: As one native son who attended a rally recalled, "It was the averageness of Kokomo—the dead-level typicalness of the town" that made it an ideal host for the hate group that had taken over the Heartland. The Klan made life less dull; it gave meaning, shape, and purpose to the days. In other words, the Klan became a panacea for loneliness and boredom. We need to present clear alternatives to fringe groups and cults.
In our text, we hear God saying, "Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand." At times, the kids I worked with over the years would say, "That's fine and dandy, but sometimes you need someone with skin on." Our second text assures us that where two or three gather in God's name, there God is with them. That means that God is here with us this morning. Notice that first there has to be some skin in the game before God arrives. We can be those people with skin on who reach out to one another to relieve loneliness and, in doing so, create purpose in our lives.
A few weeks ago, I asked you to write one word that describes what you value most about Black Mountain United Church of Christ. The responses were consistently in line with the theme of community. Here are your responses: embracing, friendly (3), community (2), anchor, kind, family (2), open, share, caring and loving, inspiring, awakening, nice, love, calm, reflection, blessed, busy, inclusive (got four votes), and the word that was mentioned most of all, with five votes, was welcoming. As we create a church profile, we can keep these important words in mind and continue to act out the message of extravagant welcome. We can make Black Mountain a spiritual version of Cheers... a place where everybody knows your name. In doing so, we embody God's desire that we not be alone. In doing so, we can come together to create purpose in our lives.
Today we will experience extravagant welcome as we are invited to partake in God's communion table. We will come forward, knowing that we are welcome, that we are accepted just as we are, that we are surrounded by caring people. Welcome to the table, and by the way, thank you for not being dead! Amen.