Encouragement for a lifelong journey of faith

Category: The isolated isolate (Page 1 of 2)

November 8, 2020 — Jesus deserted and alone


Today’s Bible reading

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to the disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and became anguished and distressed. Then he said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, even to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with me.” Going a little farther, he threw himself down with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if possible, let this cup pass from me! Yet not what I will, but what you will.”  Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. He said to Peter, “So, couldn’t you stay awake with me for one hour? Stay awake and pray that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” – Matthew 26:36-41

More thoughts for meditation

When modern Israel wants to show contempt for the occupied Palestinians, they cut down their olive trees. No one cuts down an olive tree out of kindness, they are much too valuable, almost sacred. When Roman Emperor Titus laid siege to Jerusalem in 70AD, he cut down the olive trees in the suburbs to build the siege works. Many of those trees forested the Garden of Gethsemane, no doubt, the garden on the Mount of Olives where Jesus prayed before he was betrayed. Gethsemane was a popular spot outside Jerusalem’s walls to cool off, be seen and relax. The people who cultivate the rival sites of the original garden for today’s pilgrims to enjoy replicate the pleasure the grove might have provided Jesus, who often went there.

In today’s reading, Jesus prays alone in Gethsemane. He is dragged off alone from there. He is deserted by his disciples there. He leaves the muffled quiet of the olive trees to be nailed to a tree amid a forest of jeers.

It is significant that the Lord’s agony started in a garden. Archetypically, a garden is a place of delight, a place of love, a place to drink wine, a place where lovers meet in the moonlight, the place of intimacy. The garden is paradise. The Garden of Eden was Paradise. Adam was the first to inhabit it. Paul types Jesus as a “second Adam,” the first of us in the new creation. Jesus is a redo, a re-entry into Eden. Jesus tells the repentant thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Just before he is crucified, Jesus sweats blood in a garden as a lover. He is not the great King, full of pain because the sheep will not heed the shepherd; nor is he there as the great Magus, full of sorrow because nobody wants to pick up on the truth he has revealed; nor is he the great warrior, frustrated in his efforts to defeat the powers of sin, death, and darkness. These pains and frustrations mostly take place elsewhere, among the crowds, in the temple, in the desert. The garden is for lovers, not for kings, magi, and warriors.

It is Jesus, the lover, the one who calls us to intimacy and delight with him, who sweats blood in the garden. Jesus is alone, misunderstood, lonely, isolated, without support. We see his suffering as a lover; the agony of a heart that’s ultra-sensitive, gentle, loving, understanding, warm, inviting, hungry to embrace everyone, but a heart which instead finds itself misunderstood, alone, isolated, hated, brutalized, facing murder.

You have probably been falsely accused or cut off by a friend. I suspect Walter Wallace’s mother and wife feel alone in their grief, even though they are surrounded by supporters and media attention. Jesus knows that kind of isolation and loneliness. We see him in Gethsemane as a lover who’s been misunderstood and humiliated. He’s the upright man publicly accused of lying, now vulnerable and defenseless. He’s the sensitive woman who discovers someone has been telling a false story to her friends and they are all suspicious she was ever who she pretended to be. You may have been there and also prayed something like, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me!”

Suggestions for action

It has been such a bruising year! If you’ve been following politics, you may end up exhausted and hopeless, wondering if there is anyone actually in the community to which you have been giving attention. If you hoped for societal change in the face of systemic, murderous racism, the tragedy still reverberating in West Philadelphia surely made you cry with frustration and pain. The virus comes into town like a cruel power to cut down our olive trees. Jesus is drinking that cup with you.

The isolated may isolate, but Jesus is isolated with them. Our loneliness may be an existential reality for us, but Jesus is with us there, too. [Sings Andrew Yang]

November 7, 2020 — Paul content in prison

Isolated in Philly

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Philippians 1:12-26

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. My confident hope is that I will in no way be ashamed but that with complete boldness, even now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether I live or die. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. Now if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean productive work for me, yet I don’t know which I prefer: I feel torn between the two, because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, but it is more vital for your sake that I remain in the body.

More thoughts for meditation

Statistics are hard to come by, but 60-100,000 prisoners are in short-term to long-term solitary confinement in the U.S. The federal government has a “supermax” prison in Colorado in which inmates spend years locked in small cells for 23 to 24 hours a day. Studies investigating the effects of the psychological and physical isolation in prison have found them to be detrimental to the mental health of the inmates, particularly to mentally ill inmates. Adverse effects include sleep disturbance, anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations and self-mutilation.

Prior to his conversion, the Apostle Paul was someone who imprisoned other people. He locked up countless Christian believers, both male and female, and cast his judicial vote for their execution at times. After his conversion, the imprisoner became the imprisoned, an experience which so stamped Paul’s identity that he referred to himself as a “prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:1). The book of Acts records Paul being locked up on three occasions – at Philippi, Caesarea, and Rome. Paul was not alone in this experience. Peter and John were also repeatedly thrown in jail, and, like Paul, they too were sometimes busted out of jail by divine intervention. Paul mentions a fellow prisoner, Junia, a woman, in Romans 16. The early church was actually led by a bunch of jail birds, and God was a primary accomplice in their escape!

Paul was not in a supermax prison when he wrote to the Philippians. But I think he was subject to the same psychological problems regular and super-isolated prisoners are. To the Philippians he wrote about pondering whether he should live or die! His isolation under house arrest was a lot like what we are experiencing in our Covid-19 prison. Experts say the lockdown is causing post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression and insomnia. Long-term effects are likely to be OCD, chronic loneliness and even  agoraphobia. Like Paul, people have had more thoughts about dying in the virus season. The CDC reports that “the percentage of respondents who reported having seriously considered suicide in the 30 days before completing the survey (10.7%) was significantly higher among respondents aged 18–24 years (25.5%), minority racial/ethnic groups (Hispanic respondents [18.6%], non-Hispanic black [black] respondents [15.1%]), self-reported unpaid caregivers for adults (30.7%), and essential workers (21.7%).”

Suggestions’ for action

At the end of his letter to the Philippi church plant, Paul assures them, “I have learned to be content in any circumstance. I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing. I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13).

These verses are often taken to mean we have supernatural abilities because Jesus gives me strength. And Jesus giving us strength and ability beyond what is normal for us definitely happens. But to think that happens all the time and is what Paul is saying seems like a particularly Eurocentric interpretation, mostly based on an outlook of conquering the world and proving one is worthy and powerful. I don’t think Paul is powerful and I think he suspects he is going to be killed which, according to post-biblical history, happens after yet another imprisonment.

The strength Paul says he has comes from the “secret of contentment.” In quarantine or not, healthy or not, mentally ill or not, plenty of friends around or not, employed or not, respected or not, I can do it. The “all things” actually comes at the emphasized-beginning of the Greek sentence. I think he is assuring the Philippians that Jesus is with him and with them, no matter what, in all things. Being content in our living relationship with Jesus, perpetually saved, is joy. Then we can say, “Even if I am in prison God will be with me and might even use prison. If I die, that might even be better than being alive. I am strong enough to go through anything in Christ.”

Have you learned the secret of contentment? I don’t mean “have you mastered it.” Are you hanging on to the secret in your isolation? Are you mad at God because things aren’t normal and you are not happy and successful?  Happy and successful or normal, you can do it.

Pray: Teach me the secret of contentment in you, Jesus.

November 6, 2020 — Hagar thrown out with a baby

Hagar and Ishmael in the Wilderness by W.L. Taylor

Today’s Bible readings and excerpts

He will be a wild donkey of a man.
He will be hostile to everyone,
and everyone will be hostile to him.
He will live away from his brothers.”

So Hagar named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “Here I have seen one who sees me!” –Genesis 16:12-13 [Nicole Mullen sings it]

When the water in the skin was gone, she shoved the child under one of the shrubs. Then she went and sat down by herself across from him at quite a distance, about a bowshot, away; for she thought, “I refuse to watch the child die.” So she sat across from him and wept uncontrollably.

But God heard the boy’s voice. The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and asked her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Don’t be afraid, for God has heard the boy’s voice right where he is crying. – Genesis 21:15-17

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. But one, the son by the slave woman, was born by natural descent, while the other, the son by the free woman, was born through the promise…. But you, brothers and sisters, are children of the promise like Isaac. But just as at that time the one born by natural descent persecuted the one born according to the Spirit, so it is now. But what does the scripture say? “Throw out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman will not share the inheritance with the son” of the free woman. – Galatians 4:22-3, 28-30

More thoughts for meditation

The relationship cut-off is among the most difficult things someone has to endure, especially when someone just “ghosts” on a relationship you thought was significant. Hagar’s relationship with Abraham and Sarah is full of the threat of being cut-off.

There are reasons for this tendency to cut-off. For one thing, Sarah and Abraham are immigrants. They came from Iraq to Palestine and had to find their way in the world by relying on God and one another. They are kind of cut off from their family system and its resources. Their situation feels fragile.  It’s not the same, but it is a bit like all the thirtysomething children who won’t go see their parents in Kansas because it is Covid season and they shouldn’t threaten them with death. The parents often feel painfully cut off and Zoom does not solve their problem.

For another thing, Sarah can’t have children. No matter how much Abraham loves her, in an agrarian family children are crucial. In a patriarchal family, an heir is important. So she feels like an outcast, like everyone must be looking at her feeling sorry for her. I suppose that is a little like watching people who have children living in “pods” with other families and you are single, stuck in your apartment most of the time – and now the winter spike is coming and you will really have to stay there.

Sarah gives the slave who was bought to be her personal servant to Abraham so he can father an heir. Hagar becomes pregnant with Ishmael. Sarah thinks Hagar is looking down on her and treats her so cruelly she flees into the desert. There God finds her alone by a spring of water. God’s prophecy about the boy she will have is a bit alarming. For one thing, “He will be hostile to everyone, and everyone will be hostile to him. He will live away from his brothers.” The isolated isolate; maybe he’ll have a congenital isolation defect. You might think you have that defect and that’s why you never reach out to anyone.

Hagar goes back and gives birth and Ishmael grows into a preteen. Sarah miraculously becomes pregnant post-menopause and gives birth to Isaac. She sees Ishmael playing with and maybe mocking her son and here we go again. Against Abraham’s wishes Hagar and Ishmael are sent off into the desert with provisions that don’t last long enough. God finds her again, weeping. Terrible things happen to us and then miraculous things happen in the middle of them. There is probably a promise lurking in the Covid season. Maybe it can’t be seen unless through eyes that have cried.

That’s how Paul uses the Hagar story. Those stuck in the natural world will try to drag us down and terrible things are bound to happen. But we are children of the promise.

Suggestions for action

Some things need to be cut-off. Whatever comes from slavery needs to be cast out.

Some things will never be cut off, like the promises of God expressed in the ever-loving work of Jesus, who is seeing us and finding us in our wilderness. Giving birth to an heir is nice. But being born again as an heir is even nicer. God revealed purpose in both Sarah and Hagar, despite the ways they felt cut off. I hang on to all that.

Covid season is deepening some relationships but wrecking others. Experts observe when people are experiencing greater stress from sources external to a relationship, they struggle more to problem-solve within their relationships, and may inadvertently take out their stress on each other (experts tend to prove what we all already know). Divorce rates and domestic violence are spiking along with the infection. Perhaps the cut-off cut off, the isolated isolate.  But a relationship cut-off is so traumatic! — especially for the one cut off, but also for the cutter. Such an act needs to be well-considered. Don’t do it in isolation, like a policeman pushed by fear and reactivity to pull the trigger. Have as much dialogue as possible. God sees you and hears the cries of the child in you. God’s presence might give you the courage to get in or back into relationships.

Pray: Help me to remember I am a child of the promise when I am  alone or feeling alone and weeping.

November 5, 2020 — Absalom can’t receive the good given

Absalom James Tissot (1836-1902 French) Jewish Museum New York Poster Print (24 x 36): Amazon.ca: Home & Kitchen

Absalom by James Tissot (1836-1902)

Today’s Bible reading

Then Absalom sent a message to Joab asking him to send him to the king, but Joab was not willing to come to him. So he sent a second message to him, but he still was not willing to come. So he said to his servants, “Look, Joab has a portion of field adjacent to mine and he has some barley there. Go and set it on fire.” So Absalom’s servants set Joab’s portion of the field on fire.

Then Joab got up and came to Absalom’s house. He said to him, “Why did your servants set my portion of field on fire?” Absalom said to Joab, “Look, I sent a message to you saying, ‘Come here so that I can send you to the king with this message: “Why have I come from Geshur? It would be better for me if I were still there.”’ Let me now see the face of the king. If I am at fault, let him put me to death!”

So Joab went to the king and informed him. The king summoned Absalom, and he came to the king. Absalom bowed down before the king with his face toward the ground and the king kissed him. – 2 Samuel 14:29-33

More thoughts for meditation

King David’s family system makes you think. He has several wives, neglects his children, the frailties and enmities of the crew regularly boil over. His favorite son, Absalom, kills David’s firstborn son and eventually succeeds in taking over the kingdom for a hot minute. What problems in your family system are cropping up during Covid season?

One of the things that happens in David’s family is the fruit of isolation. Amnon, the oldest, is pining away for his half-sister Tamar until it  makes him depressed. Tamar is Absalom’s full sister. She is lured over to Amnon’s quarters, where he rapes her. She goes to lives at Absalom’s house while he plots for two years to get his revenge, which he does by getting Amnon killed. The deceived deceive.

The plotter flees to his maternal grandfather’s territory where he is in exile for years. David pines for him so much he finally lets him back in the country, but he refuses to let him see his face. Finally, Absalom sets his cousin Joab’s field on fire so he can get some attention. Joab is David’s right-hand man and gets him an audience, where he is reinstated.

Absalom uses his restoration to hatch another plot. This time he uses his fabled good looks and charm to win himself followers and undermine his father. Eventually he leads a coup and David has to flee the city. The exiled exile. Absalom’s craftiness is an apple that did not fall too far from the tree, and David’s tricks result in defeat for his son. The poor child ends up alone, hanging from a tree, either by his neck or, famously, by his long, luxuriant, perfect hair. David has told everyone not to kill him, but Joab conveniently forgets and gets his vengeance for a burned field and a shamed king.

In the New Testament Matthew is particularly known for portraying Jesus as the “son of David” (e.g.: Matt. 1:1–17). He is finding parallels. Just as the Lord’s ancestor, King David was betrayed (and expelled from his kingdom) by those closest to him, so too is Jesus. This parallel might be why Matthew portrays Judas’s fate in light of Absalom’s. Jesus is to Judas as David is to Absalom. Or, put differentlyif Jesus is a Davidic Messiah, then Judas is an Absalomic betrayer. So, just as Samuel’s narrative leaves Absalom isolated, alone, and hung from a tree by his own self-ambition, so too Matthew’s narrative leaves Judas.

Suggestions for action

The straightforward lesson from the Absalom story is usually: “Watch out or you might be blinded by your ambition!” Even more likely for most of us it is “Watch out for ambitious people who will do you in. You’ll know them by their beauty and smooth talking.” We often don’t learn either lesson and end up grasping for what we want or what we have lost. In the same way, Absalom can’t be content with the good given in his supposed isolation and ends up totally alone.

  • He doesn’t let Tamar heal. He makes her issues his problem. For two years she has to listen to him dominate the future with his plot. Then he leaves her alone as he flees to the grandparents. What are people hearing all the time from you, locked up with you in isolation? What is the world hearing from our church?
  • He wastes his father’s forgiveness. As soon as he is back in relationship he goes off on his own. It is amazing that, by this time, David has gone through a major public repentance and written Psalm 51, yet so little of it has rubbed off on his favorite son. What is bouncing off your resistance to change while in quarantine? What graces are we wasting as a church?
  • He is walled in by his own interests. Everybody likes him. He’s rich, famous, and beautiful but he wants more. It would not be surprising to find out that a man as wily as David had some tricks up his sleeve. But Absalom goes for the throne. Do you think you are settling if you find the goodness in every day you’ve been given and in every person with whom you are presently stuck? Do you not want to be you in your circumstances so much you will destroy as much as possible in retaliation? As a church, are we blind to what we’ve been given because of what we want to be instead?

Pray: Meet me in my strange isolation Lord. Some days I have trouble knowing who I am and what I have been given.

Add to the laments on the page some people are using to pray! We’ll have a book of Covid-19 Lamentations!

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