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Asking the clergy: How do you minister to the lonely?

Debra Bennet

Debra Bennet Credit: Gladys Rosenblum

In the midst of the summer holidays, National Cheer up the Lonely Day on Tuesday is an opportunity to reach out to people who might feel abandoned because they are confined to their home or medical facility, or are otherwise in a lonely place. This week’s clergy discuss religious teachings that demonstrate that although you may feel lonely, you are not alone.

Rabbi Debra Bennet, Temple Chaverim, Plainview:

In our fast-paced lives, connecting with others is a challenge. There are moments when retreating into our own worlds is necessary. But, as we disconnect from others, the effect can be isolation, finding loneliness in moments when we most long to connect. Community is an essential component of Judaism. When a loved one dies, Judaism encourages us to be with others, knowing we may face loneliness. The prayer we say in memory of the deceased, the kaddish, can only be said with a group of 10 adults. According to our tradition, in that moment of recitation, we cannot be alone. When we may wish to isolate ourselves, our tradition ensures we are surrounded by others. But our tradition takes this notion of connection one step further. By reaching out to others in challenging times, we come to represent something greater than ourselves. The Talmud instructs: “One who visits the sick should sit neither on the bed nor on a chair . . . [but] sit on the ground, because [God’s] Presence abides over a sick individual’s bed.” In being present for others, we help remind them that God is there too, even leaving physical space as that reminder. Yet, there is one missing element. When we make ourselves available to those feeling lost or alone, we bring a gift — the opportunity to listen. In English, the word listening can have a limited connotation. The Hebrew word for listening, lishmoah, though, also means “understand.” When we are there for an individual who faces a difficult time, we have the ability to listen to their words, to hear their pain and to help them feel understood in some way.

The Rev. Andrew D. Branch, Sr., pastor, Naomi Temple A.M.E. Zion Church, Roosevelt:

We minister to the lonely through the proclamation of the Scriptures. We are told in both the Old and New Testaments of the abiding divine presence. Psalm 46 begins “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) concludes with Jesus reminding us, “and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” We are reminded that God is with us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We also minister to the lonely through a lived-out Word. In my local church, our soup kitchen not only serves meals but unintentionally ministers to the lonely. We have faithful clientele who look forward to coming on Saturdays for the camaraderie and a home-cooked meal. I encourage members of the congregation as well as those who may be visiting our church for meetings, etc., to go downstairs and get a meal and interact with those present. It’s not a case of “us” and “them” but a “we” sharing in a meal as a larger community. It is a comforting space. Our actions are grounded in the notion that Christianity is best practiced in the context of community, not isolation. The first four of the Ten Commandments deal with our relationship with God, but the last six deal with our relationship with one another. A large portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount gives instruction on our dealings with one another. Meeting the needs of the lonely becomes an integral part of our ministry when we truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

Venerable Kottawe Nanda, chief monk, Long Island Buddhist Meditation Center:

Loneliness is considered to be a curse by most of our people. Loneliness can be experienced by anyone at any stage of life. Buddhist practitioners objectively become lonely to become mindful in the present moment. As a result the practitioner begins feeling serene inner happiness not associated with any thought of happiness perceived by five sensory organs such as eye, ear, nose, tongue and body. It is true that loneliness or isolation can have serious detrimental effects on both mental and physical health. People use many different strategies to deal with isolation. However, if they do not have good spiritual guidance, they will be frustrated. If they do have spiritual practice, they can use that loneliness valuably. The teaching of the Buddha appreciates the isolation as it is an ideal and an effective way to seek the inner happiness and the truth in oneself. In an isolated surrounding, if one is able to use the dhamma and practice the techniques for seeking the truth, one’s mind becomes peaceful and happy if that person could use the mind wisely in such a surrounding. Also, the Buddha encourages his disciples to resort to seclusion if the person can’t find a true friend. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha teaches that each and every one of us should find a companion who is his better or equal.If you can’t find that companion, it’s better to live an isolated life with spiritual practice.

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