Tag Archives: Isolation

Grappling With “Never”

“And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” Luke 1:20 (NIV)

“I don’t know what to with never,” Wendy confessed to me one afternoon.

There are some moments in this life journey that are etched indelibly in my brain’s memory bank, and this is one of them. When the two of us were married Wendy inherited two teenaged daughters. Still, we had always desired to have a child together. After multiple surgeries and what seemed like endless months of fruitless attempts to conceive, Wendy’s admission of fear as we stood silently in our despair on the back porch felt like a giant weight on our souls.

The story of John the Baptist’s parents in today’s chapter holds a special place in my heart. There is so much happening in the subtext of Zechariah’s conversation with the angel Gabriel that is completely lost on any reader who has not walked through the long, depressing, desolate path of infertility.

A few of observations:

  • I find it ironic that Dr. Luke diagnoses Zech and Liz’s infertility as “Elizabeth was unable to conceive.” Perhaps there’s more to this story than is told. Nevertheless, having walked this journey I know that it’s also possible the low sperm count or poor motility were the culprits of their childlessness. Of course, this medical knowledge was not available in their day, but it makes me sad that Elizabeth got the blame.
  • I’ve been digging into the theme of exile on this chapter-a-day journey over the past months. The truth is that Elizabeth and her husband were in a personal exile of their own. When you are walking the path of infertility you realize that the vast majority of people don’t understand and it’s usually emotionally painful when they try. Furthermore, you’re not sure you want to talk to those who’ve been through it themselves. Those who walked the path and ultimately conceived are just a depressing reminder that it hasn’t worked for you. Those who never conceived are a reminder that “never” is a possibility which you don’t want to face and don’t know what to do with (a la Wendy’s confession). Infertility can be horrifically isolating for the couple going through it.
  • When the angel tells Zech “Your prayer has been answered.” My husband’s heart shoots back with a cynical “Which one?” If Zech’s heart was like mine, then there’s a section of it calloused over from month-after-month, year-after-year of fervent, unanswered prayers and wiping away his wife’s river of tears.
  • When Zech asks Gabriel “How can I be sure of this?” he is, once again, being defensive and protective of the hearts of both his wife and his own. Infertility is a vicious cycle of summoning faith, raising hopes, and having them dashed again and again and again and again. The last thing the elderly husband wants to do is put his wife through it one more time.

It’s easy for the casual reader to point the finger at Zech’s lack of faith. I’m sure many Jesus followers will hear messages this Advent season comparing Mary’s simple acceptance of Gabriel’s message to Zech’s rather obvious doubt. My heart goes out to the dude. He’s been made the Steve Bartman of the Christmas story for two thousand years, but I get where he’s coming from.

In the quiet this morning I find myself contemplating the long-term effects that disappointment and unanswered prayer can have on one’s spirit. As for what to do with “never,” Wendy and I worked through it together with God. We discovered, and continue to discover, deep lessons about joy, grief, faith, perseverance, character, maturity, and hope. At the same time, there is a lingering sadness that rears itself unexpectedly at odd times, which in turn pushes me back to the lessons already learned. I plumb their depths once more.

Still, if Gabriel showed up in my office this morning and told me Wendy was going to have a baby, I totally believe that the subtext of my reaction would land somewhere between sarcastic and cynical.

Zechariah would understand.

Reaching the Islands

Sing to the Lord a new song,
    his praise from the ends of the earth,
you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it,
    you islands, and all who live in them.
Isaiah 42:10 (NIV)

 

As I read this morning’s chapter I couldn’t help but notice the word “islands” popping up.

…he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.

Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them.

Let them give glory to the Lord and proclaim his praise in the islands.

Today’s chapter, penned by the ancient seer Isaiah, continues his prophesies concerning the coming Messiah. The imagery of the islands speaks the great lengths to which Jesus will reach with His love and Message. Those living in remote isolation will discover hope that Messiah brings. Praises will ring out, not just from the cities and population centers, but also from the remote and distant islands.

I can’t help but think about Paul Simon’s I am a Rock lyrics this morning as I mull over this island metaphor:

A winter’s day
In a deep and dark
December,
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I’ve built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

Don’t talk of love,
But I’ve heard the words before;
It’s sleeping in my memory.
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.
If I never loved I never would have cried.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me,
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain,
And an island never cries.

How apt on this deep, dark December morning to be reminded that many of us dwell on an island amidst a sea of people. This week as we surround ourselves with family and friends, many of us feel more isolated and island-like than ever. Islands can be a place of deep, remote isolation.

That’s exactly why Paul reminded the followers of Jesus living in the bustling capitol of the Roman Empire that there was no distance, or power, that could separate us from the love God that is in Christ Jesus. Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled. Jesus love reaches us no matter how far out or in we have isolated ourselves, or have been isolated.

We simply must have ears to hear Him knocking, and open the door.

Toe-Touching

source: vinothchandar via Flickr
source: vinothchandar via Flickr

“And the name of the city from that time on will be: THE LORD IS THERE.”
Ezekiel 48:35 (NIV)

When Wendy and I are eating, whether it’s just the two of us at breakfast in the morning or whether we are at a restaurant with a group of friends, our feet tend to find each other under the table. Our feet will touch, and remain touching. If it’s breakfast and we are barefoot, or if it is summer and we’re wearing flip-flops, our feet may caress the other softly. Most of the time, however, they just touch. It’s simple physical touch, but it’s far more than that; It’s a spiritual connection rooted in presence.

In the very beginning of creation, God said, “It is not good for one to be alone.”

  • When I was a child sick with fever and pneumonia, I wanted to know that mom or dad were present as I struggled to get to sleep.
  • When my grandmother was near the finish line of her earthly journey, our family scheduled a round-the-clock vigil so that at least one family member would be present with her when the time came for her to pass into eternity.
  • Despite technology’s ability to stream the sound of our daughters’ voices and moving images from Colorado and Scotland, I find myself longing to be in their presence (btw: Madison will be home today and we will be present with Taylor in 3.5 weeks!).
  • As my parents toured care facilities and contemplated the next step of their life journeys together, I wanted to be present with them in the process.

I found it interesting this morning that the end of Ezekiel’s final vision from his Babylonian exile, and the end of his prophetic messages from that foreign land, are a vision of eternal home, and a declaration of God’s never ending presence. Loneliness and isolation are horrible experiences. There is a reason why isolation is considered an extreme form of punishment in prisons. Theologians have long speculated that the real terror of hell is not fire and brimstone but utter loneliness and separation.

This morning I will drink my coffee with Wendy at our dining room table, I will read the morning newspaper, and I will slide my foot beneath the table to softly touch hers. Mid-day today I will hug our daughter when my folks deliver her to Pella. Our family will enjoy time in one another’s presence celebrating Tulip Time. Tonight I will sit in Madison’s presence and have a quiet, face-to-face conversation.

Today, I am thankful for presence of loved ones and I am thankful for the promise fulfilled of God’s eternal presence.

“…surely I am with you always….”
– Jesus

God With Us

"Adoration of the Shepherds" Rembrandt
“Adoration of the Shepherds” Rembrandt

His eyes are on the ways of mortals;
    he sees their every step.
Job 34:21 (NIV)

Our children are grown and are walking their own life journeys. As I sit to write this Christmas Eve post, Taylor is spending her Christmas holiday in France. I’m so thankful that she will get to spend Christmas with her friend, Mal. Madison is a flight attendant and will be serving others in the friendly skies on Christmas this year. I’m quietly and intensely grateful that her layover in Chicago tonight will afford her the opportunity to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with Uncle Terry, Aunt Bonnie, and Ellie.

I don’t get to see my children as often as I used to, or as often as I would like. Even with digital communication and my propensity to send snail mail, there are stretches of time in which they will not hear from me. That does not mean, however, that I am absent or unconcerned. My eyes are on them, their Facebook posts, their blog posts, and what they are listening to on Spotify. My thoughts dwell on them daily. My prayers cover over them even when they are unaware.

So it is with all of us and our heavenly Father. Like Job, I believe we all go through periods of intense loneliness in our respective life journeys. We feel isolated from God. We are tempted to think that God is absent and unconcerned. Yet, as Elihu reminds us in this morning’s chapter, our heavenly Father is not absent. His eyes are upon us. He sees our every step. My experience as a father bears witness.

On this eve of Christmas I am reminded that this is the very heart of the Christmas story: “You shall call Him Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.'”

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Let’s go and see this thing.

Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas.

 

Child-Like Reactions in a World of Adult Suffering

Creative Commons photo by James Wheeler via Flickr
Creative Commons photo by James Wheeler via Flickr

But if I go to the east, he is not there;
    if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
    when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
Job 23:8-9 (NIV)

This, I have come to know: Children see in part, and they know in part. A child’s understanding of the adult world is incomplete. A child’s perception of reality is innocently askew. Children see bogey-men in the shadows, yet their fear is real. A child in an empty room may feel utterly alone in the universe, even when the house around them is fully occupied. For a parent, a child’s warped perception of reality can be alternately endearing and maddening.

We reach a point in adulthood, if we are fortunate and wise, when truth catches up with honest misperception. Having ventured out on our own road to waypoints on the broader horizon, we glance back to find that our vision has expanded with our experiences. What we once saw, as children, in black and white we now see in full Technicolor. When we were young we never saw those details in the background of our child-like perceptions, but now we look back and they suddenly appear to us in high-definition.

I have also observed along my journey that when we experience suffering as adults our reactions are often very child-like. Adult pain unconsciously brings out the screaming, fearful, lonely child in all of us. We want to be embraced. We desire to be comforted. We want to hear a confident whisper in our ear letting us know that everything will be alright. I wonder if, in those moments of pain, we don’t also regress back to our childish misperceptions.

I thought of this as I read Job’s words today. He feels utter isolation from the omnipresent God. It seems to me that his perceptions are askew, yet his feelings are real. Maybe that is the point. Job is on a journey, too. He is progressing through his pain and his feelings and perceptions are working themselves out amidst the mind-bending, spirit quenching realities of his suffering. Like an innocent child suddenly thrust into the harsh realities of an adult world, Job is desperately seeking his spiritual bearing. He will find his way. He will look back from that way-point on the horizon and see this stretch of road with greater clarity. But that’s not where he is in this moment. And, that’s okay.

Comfort

English: Comfort in Grief
English: Comfort in Grief (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And E′phraim their father mourned many days, and his brothers came to comfort him.
1 Chronicles 7:22 (NSRVCE)

The first funeral I ever officiated was for a nine week old infant. I was a snot-nosed kid right out of college. The grieving parents, barely older than me, sat zombie-like through our initial meeting and through the service. I don’t remember what I said, though I’m quite sure it was canned and safe and perfectly inadequate for the moment. I didn’t have a clue what they were going through and I wasn’t sure what to say or how to love them well in their grief.

Along life’s road there are many different tragic experiences that can be both painful and isolating. I have experienced a few of them myself. Wendy and I have experienced a few of them together. Some of life’s tragedies are isolating because they are not understood, or can be grossly misunderstood by others. People love you. They care about you, but they feel awkward and inadequate in their ignorance about what you’re going through. Rather than saying something inappropriate and stupid, unsure how you’ll react if they bring up the subject, they choose to simply not say anything at all.

I was struck this morning by the one sentence I pasted above which is stuck in the midst of E’phraim’s genealogical record. E’phraim had lost his sons to ancient cattle rustlers. His brothers coming to him in his grief and provide comfort was, I thought, a beautiful picture. To be honest it reminded me of times when I was comforted in my pain, and other times when I’ve felt completely alone.

Today, I’m thankful for those who have had the courage to step through the veil awkwardness and ignorance to provide presence, love, and comfort in some of the darkest moments of my journey. Today, I’m recommitting myself to returning the favor.

Ever More Connected. Never More Alone.

Earbud love 1
(Photo credit: Dano)

Jonathan said to David, “Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do for you.”
1 Samuel 20:4 (NIV)

When the shit hits the fan and your life falls apart at 2:00 in the morning, who are you going to call?

I have heard a variation of this question asked numerous times over the years. I believe it’s a more pertinent question than ever. The America I observe increasingly exists in a culture of personal isolation inside a mirage of community. We connect on-line with strangers thousands of miles away and do not know the names of our next door neighbors. We bow our heads towards our cell-phones and walk down the street in our electronic cocoon, insulated from the flesh and blood people we bump into. In the winter we stay inside our warm homes and make friends with television characters. In the summer we stay in the air conditioning and vicariously experience love and adventure on television.

Never have we been more connected. Never have we been more alone.

I begin to wonder if Thoreau was a prophet. When he talked about the masses leading lives of “quiet desperation” did he realize the silence came from everyone having ear buds stuffed in their ears? Our individual heads are filled with the noise of the millions of song, movie, television and video options that exist at our fingertips. The silence comes from the fact that most often people sitting next to each other in public aren’t talking to one another. In fact, they are barely aware of one another’s existence.

Perhaps I’m overstating it. I hope and pray that I am. I don’t hate technology. I embrace it. It’s just that I begin to fear that when the shit hits the fan at 2:00 in the morning, many people find that they have thousands of names on their contact lists and in their LinkedIn network, but in the moment of personal crisis they realize they have no one they can call to say “help me.”

I am blessed to have what I consider a relatively long list of men whom I would not hesitate to call at 2:00 a.m. and whom I know without a shadow of a doubt would respond to any request with Jonathan’s words to David: “Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do for you.”

What about you?

Parade of the Downhearted

English: Christmas lights in Sanok
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chapter-a-Day Psalm 68

God places the lonely in families;
he sets the prisoners free and gives them joy.
Psalm 68:6a (NLT)

“Christmas is such a happy time of year,” Wendy said to me as we drove to rehearsal the other night. The Christmas lights on the businesses along Franklin Street were shining bright in the crisp night air and the Vermeer Windmill was decked out with all of its holiday decorations.

I wasn’t trying to be a Scrooge, but the first thought that came to my mind and my response to Wendy was “It’s not a happy time of year for everyone.” I know that the holidays can be incredibly stressful for some. For those who have lost loved ones or who struggle with loneliness, the holidays can be a time of increased anxiety and depression.

I can tell in the quiet this morning that my heart and mind have made the turn toward Advent. Advent comes from the latin term meaning “revealing.” It is traditionally the season followers of Jesus prepare their hearts each year to celebrate the birth of our Jesus on Christmas Day. Psalm 68 is a song of procession and was meant to be sung as people paraded to the temple to worship. It made me think about all of us who are making a procession towards Christmas. As I read the lyrics of the opening stanza of Psalm 68, I found it interesting those whom it describes in this processional to praise:

  • Fatherless
  • Widows
  • Lonely
  • Prisoners

How appropriate, I think, for the downhearted to be called out for this parade. The whole reason for Christ to come as a baby, to live among us, to die for our sins, and to be raised back to life, is that which is broken in all of us might be healed. Consider that in His first public message, Jesus proclaimed his personal mission statement when He quoted these words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

This morning I’m thinking about the upcoming Christmas holiday in relation to the downhearted, the lonely, the grieving, those in bondage to their destructive thoughts and behaviors, and those who are suffering emotionally and physically. As we proceed toward Christmas, I’m praying that those of us who are suffering. Instead of experiencing increased levels of loneliness, isolation, anxiety and pain, I’m praying for us all – myself absolutely included – to find the healing and hope which can be found wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

Chapter-a-Day 1 Peter 5

from hqas via Flickr

Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. 1 Peter 5:7 (NLT)

The other night we were visiting with friends at their house. One of their children was angry over a host of childish issues and, while we were there, he decided to run away from home in anger. Wendy and I love this child and have watched him grow up. He’s like a member of our own family. It was interesting for us to watch him stew in his own misery convinced that nobody cared for the injustice of his life. We commended his parents later for not overreacting to his very public act of packing in front of guests. I especially appreciated when his mother lovingly reminded him to grab his pillow and a sleeping bag because he’d probably need it sleeping out in the cold that night.

I love 1 Peter 5:7 for it’s direct simplicity. I have leaned on this verse countless times, reminding myself of it over and over and over again as I’ve gone through particularly difficult stretches of life’s journey. There are so many times in life when we feel alone and isolated in whatever situation we find ourselves. “Life is unfair. Life is unjust. God doesn’t care. In fact, maybe there’s no God at all if this is the way life is!”

1 Peter 5:7 is an antidote for moments of personal crisis. I have found two distinct encouragements in the verse. First, I need to act to cast my cares and worries on God. This requires me not to keep my destructive thoughts and emotions to myself but to take them to God. I have talked to God, I have screamed at God, I have whispered desperate prayers, and I have wept before God like a baby. The act of physically and audibly getting your cares out is cathartic and healing.

The unburdening of soul through conversation with God makes room for the second part of 1 Peter 5:7, which is the important reminder that God cares. I believe this to be true, though there have been very specific moments along the journey that I’ve seriously questioned it. A petulant child even in an adult body, I have more than once fussed at Father God about His injustice and uncaring attitude as I spiritually packed my bag to run away.

After giving his parents and guests a good dose of teen-aged attitude coupled with the silent treatment while having a snack for the road, our young friend must have thought better of his decision to run away. Without saying a word he headed to bed rather than the front door. Someday he will look back and realize how silly it was allowing a momentary feeling of injustice to let him feel so uncared for when the larger truth of the matter was he was raised in a loving home with two parents who care for him more deeply than he could imagine.

And so this runaway has found the same to be true with Father God. Once I unburden my soul and get out my anger, fear, anxiety and pain I am ready for a dose of truth; God loved me so much that He sacrificed His Son for me. He cares for me and loves me more deeply than I can possibly imagine despite my refusal to see it in the moment.

Today, as I write this post, I am able to see it clearly and am grateful for all the times Father God has smiled quietly to Himself as He lovingly reminded me not to forget my pillow and my sleeping bag

Chapter-a-Day Numbers 4

Open door at Hidcote Manor
Image by Neosnaps via Flickr

And that’s the story of their numbering, as God commanded Moses. Numbers 4:49 (MSG)

I deal with numbers every day. When it comes to serving customers, businesses  do a lot of number crunching. How many calls come in? How many calls per agent? How many agents can handle certain scenarios. How many seconds does the average conversation take? What is the cost per minute per interaction?

It’s no wonder that those tasked with actually talking to customers tend to dehumanize and depersonalize the people they serve. The disembodied voice in their ear is just a another “call.” That voice is call number 43 for the day.

How easy it is to feel like an impersonal number in today’s world. We become one of a faceless throng at work, at church, and in our communities. And now, thanks to digital technology, we are increasingly sitting alone in our homes to become disembodied pieces of pixelated text in our social networks. What effect is this having on me? My loved ones? My church? My community?

I’m reminded this morning that the climactic event in God’s story is when “the Word [Jesus] became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” When God sent his Son into the world to become the ultimate sacrifice for my moral failure, it was an intensely personal, flesh-and-blood act of love. In light of that act, Jesus’ invitation to each of us is not that we sign-up for a number to get into heaven and then stand in queue. His desire is that we each invite Him inside our heart and home to engage in an everlasting, interpersonal dinner conversation:

“Look at me. I stand at the door. I knock. If you hear me call and open the door, I’ll come right in and sit down to supper with you.”  (Revelation 3:20)

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