We Are Not Alone 2-22-15

Today we introduce this new series on community and spirituality by examining a problem in our society – the decline of social institutions that have been the best ways for us to know that we are not alone. Today we present the problem as we go into the wilderness with Jesus. Listen for the word of God for you in the brief story of the temptations from Mark:

Mark 1:9-15 It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens:  “You are my Beloved, my Own.  On you my favor rests.” Immediately the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan.  He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him. After John’s arrest, Jesus appeared in Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God: “This is the time of fulfillment.  The reign of God is at hand!  Change your hearts and minds, and believe this Good News!”

February 22, 2015

We Are Not Alone 

In his classic book Bowling Alone from 2001 Robert D. Putnam argues that civic participation has seen a precipitous decline in the US across the board since WWII. It’s not just churches and religious institutions that have been in decline – it’s all kinds of civic groups, political groups, and of course, bowling groups. Self-help groups have grown, including AA. But social groups not focused on the self are not growing.

Putnam attributes some of the decline to a change in the way we think about reciprocity. He makes a distinction between specific reciprocity “I’ll do this for you, if you do that for me.” and generalized reciprocity. “I’ll do this for you, without expecting anything back in the confident expectation that down the road someone else will do something for me.” Generalized reciprocity, he shows, is on the wane in the US.

He gives 4 main reasons for the decline in civic engagement. Pressures on family money and time, including the pressures of having a two income family, he says cause about 10% of the decline. Another 10% of the decline he estimates to be caused by suburbanization, sprawl, and the time of commuting. A bigger factor, 25% or more is the changes in social media use – TV and computers. This factor has probably grown even more since he wrote his book. He estimates half of the difference though is simply a difference in generational values and customs, many of which in turn are influenced by television and social media trends.

One of the reasons this book was so popular is that Putnam goes on to illustrate the effect that this reduction in social capital is having on our society. By comparing states that have high degrees of social engagement and community involvement, he shows how the erosion of social capital in US undermines our concern for public education and for the welfare of our children, and for the safety of neighborhoods.

(It was interesting to see, by the way, one of the questions that was used to measure the differences between different parts of country. They asked a random sample of people, “Do you agree or disagree with the following statement, ‘I’d do better than average in a fist fight.’” They’ve been asking that question for decades, and have found a high degree of correlation among the people who say that they would do better than average in a fist fight with people who live in states with low degrees of civic engagement. Interesting.) Social capital also helps people with economic prosperity, and health and happiness.


So, this book is a description of a general trend over the last several generations in the US. We are all part of that trend. Some places more than others. Pennsylvania, according to his statistics in the middle of the pack in terms of the erosion of social capital. That’s not good, but it’s worse in the deep South, according to Putnam. The states that rate the best on his scales of social groups are in the upper west – the Dakotas, to Wyoming and Washington.

In our sermon series from now through Easter, we are going to talk about ways that we can address this problem of isolation and loneliness, this collapse of community through the spiritual resources of our faith. As you know, I always tout the church community for the gift that it offers to us, addressing a problem that many of us in our modern society hardly know we have.

Mostly using the assigned readings, we will be talking about ways that we can accompany each other on our spiritual journey, the power of Christian community for accountability and encouragement, for healing and happiness, and for caring for the common good.

As I studied the assigned reading for this Sunday, the story of the baptism and temptation of Jesus in the gospel of Mark, I had an interesting surprise. In Luke and Matthew the temptation story is a longer account of Jesus confrontation with Satan in the wilderness, but in Mark it’s just a few short lines.

I think of Jesus temptation in the wilderness as being a very lonely experience, a totally alone time of Jesus fasting 40 days in the desert and confronting his demons, but when I read Mark I was surprised to read how Mark didn’t think of him as being alone at all. Mark says Jesus was “with the wild animals” and that angels came to minister to him, and of course that he was tempted by Satan.

I’m sure none of us would want to be with the wild animals or with Satan, and Jesus was did face them alone, but it’s clear he was not alone. Some people recall the Isaiah passage, “And the wolf lay down with the lamb” to imagine Jesus facing the wild animals and bringing a new sense of peace to God’s creation.


Whenever we are in the wilderness, whenever we face our particular demons we feel alone. The growing state of isolation in our society created by TV and social media, by the decline of our cherished institutions and support systems, creates its own kind of wilderness for us whether we know it or not.

Lent is a time to face into our wilderness temptations and experiences as we journey with Jesus toward Holy Week. It is a time to seek justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with our God no matter what wild animals or struggles we face. Every week on this journey, we are going to remind ourselves that “We are not alone.” Say it with me. “We are not alone.” No matter what wild animals we face: “we are not alone.” No matter what temptations or struggles, “We are not alone.” We are not alone.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Responsive Hymn:  3124  How Shall I Come Before the Lord