“Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’”
I have yearned to be all flame. My deep seeded inclination to please others is deeply rooted. It has only been in recent years that I have come to understand and recognize how deeply and strongly this root is. Slowly I am coming to recognize the desire to please is welcomed, the orientation toward others has been the misplacement. It is in essence my cross to bear. It is the “thing” that is dying and at the same time by God’s grace being renewed. Isolation, though initially unrecognized has been one of God’s forging tools.
Shelley Trebesch’s Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader invites the reader – you and I to understand the significance and purpose of isolation. In reflecting upon the book I recognize how significant isolation is to becoming “all flame.” Reading the book brought an “after” sense of having already experienced a significant isolation. Yet I wondered if I had read it during that season would I have been fortified to stay steady? I would like to think that I would have, that her words and illustrations would have provided me with insights so that I would not be dismayed or disoriented. Yet if that were the case would I have listened?
I am not so certain I would have. How does isolation fit into an achievement oriented Christian leadership? The really short answer is, it doesn’t. The longer answer is, well, more complex. Let me back up just a bit. We do not often talk about isolation or being broken for that matter. When we are working with lay leaders or even on a job search for a new pastor the job descriptions do not ask if the applicant has experienced those things or even invited them to write about the experience. No, most often we want to know about the churches they have led, the successful programs that have been implemented. There is a trajectory that is anticipated. It reminds me of an old Bernstein Bears storybook, we want “good, better, best” or “fast, faster, fastest.”
Trebesch reminds us that God does not work that way. Personal isolation will often be experienced in order that we might experience God in some new way. Ministry isolation is often a combination in which we (the individual) experience a time of personal isolation as well as isolation from ministry. How we experience and process isolation ultimately influences personal and ministry fruit. In the first year of seminary I entered what was a significant season of isolation. Interestingly I thrived in my seminary context while experiencing complete disorientation and isolation in my church context. “Paradigm shifts change the way people view a particular situation by changing the worldview orientation of the person.”
I began to understand the crucible of refining goes through isolation. We are reminded that isolation can happen involuntarily (as I experienced) and voluntarily. If we choose the voluntary path, we might just have had wise mentors speaking into our life helping us to recognize the signs. Some are fortunate to have the opportunity to take a sabbatical period after a certain number of years of service. If we enter into voluntary isolation it would not be unusual to have a certain purpose in mind. The opportunity is that as we release our plans and purposes to God, God takes what is offered and may well transpose it to bring about deeper capacity for relationship with God and in ministry.
It’s the pesky involuntary isolation that throws us. The process of stripping, wrestling, intimacy and release toward the future are aspects in the process. A few learning highlights:
- Stripping: Various identities that have been forged or adopted are removed. Painfully I experienced a period when I was so working hard to please everyone that I ended up pleasing no one, least of all myself. Hard, challenging, difficult = release.
- Wrestling: This process led me to question and redirect. Letting go had to happen so that I could redirect and refocus. Who is God really and who am I really?
- Increased intimacy: “This stage of isolation encompasses a number of different characteristics, among them openness, honesty, weakness, or brokenness and vulnerability.” So be it.
- Release to look toward the future: I’d like to shortcut isolation. Perhaps in some ways I am still present in it. I cannot say what or where I will be but I have moved from involuntary and am now, perhaps within the refining of voluntary isolation. There is a strong sense of “coming out” into what is next. Trust is probably the best descriptor of where I am right now. I am trusting God and God’s way even as I do not know the way (and sometimes express my anxiousness!).
I wanted it.
Desired it greatly.
Yearned for its coming.
But when it did come
I fought, resisted,
ran, hid away.
I said, “Go home!”
I didn’t know
the fire of God
could be more than a gentle glow
or a cozy consolation
I didn’t know it could come as a blaze.
searing my soul,
chasing my old ways,
smoking them out.
Only when I stopped running,
gave up the chase,
did I know the fire’s flaming
as consolation and joy.
could I welcome the One whose fire
I had long sought.
– Joyce Rupp
 Roberta C. Bondi, To Pray and To Love: Conversations on Prayer With the Early Church (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1991), 6.
 Shelley Trebesch, Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader (Altadena, CA: Barnabas Publishers, 1997), 10.
 Ibid., 35, 36, 38, 40, 42.
 Ibid., 40.
 Joyce Rupp, “August: Hearts on Fire” in May I Have This Dance: An Invitation to Faithful Prayer Throughout the Year (Notre Dame, IN: Ava Marie Press, 1992), 105-106.
8 responses to “all aflame”
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Carol, as I read your post (and those of our cohort) this week, I find these are wonderful “lead-ins” to the. Your’s was especially thoughtful and well written, encouraging me think deeper about the crucible of refining that the isolation we experience can bring.
Your comment about asking future employees about these kinds of experiences is wonderful. I have often thought about the fact that we do look for “superstar” material for ministry positions. Any signs of weakness or flaws in a persons life or character, especially in their past, we quickly disqualify them. We even do this in lay ministry position – where (in my church over the years) sins of the past or personal struggles that have become know become “unforgivable” and held again them forever. Rather than seeing those earlier struggles as God’s refining, growing , stripping and realigning us – or, dare I say –equipping us to minister better to hurting, suffering and imperfect people. How often we fail to see how Jesus choose the “losers” to be his disciples…how much better would we serve a lost and hurting world if we made room for those who have “been there, done that!” Great insights for this Lenten seasons. Thanks Carol.
Your words are gracious and encouraging, as always. 🙂
Perhaps one of the possibilities that isolation gifts us with is not only to know the stories of others, but to see our own stories as well. It may provide us with the opportunity to see ourselves (thinking corporately here) and have a better sense of any present or past isolation that a church might have experienced. We might see God’s work in new and fresh ways.
Carol, there was so much in your post that I wanted to respond to because of the richness and the things that stirred in me. But then I would writing another post! So I decided to focus on one. You wrote, “We do not often talk about isolation or being broken for that matter. When we are working with lay leaders or even on a job search for a new pastor the job descriptions do not ask if the applicant has experienced those things or even invited them to write about the experience. No, most often we want to know about the churches they have led, the successful programs that have been implemented.” I believe that if you, as a leader, have experienced a period of isolation, and have allowed God to work deeply in you—if you have been transformed in this time of isolation—then you won’t need a question to be asked in the interview process—it will come out in the way you, the leader, respond to these questions. When you have experienced transformation, after a hard season of isolation—you can’t help but respond out of a place of transformation, hope, renewal, and all flame! Thanks Carol!
I agree with you :). And I am listening!
My critique is directed more at our churches or church institutions that do not have on their radar to consider the journey of isolation and the fruit it produces. Hence I have seen churches hire where the leader does not know or has not experienced it.
Brilliant post. Thanks for sharing. Great writing.
I like your question, “How does isolation fit into an achievement oriented Christian leadership?” I agree with your answer too. I remember hearing (or reading) a message many years ago by A.W. Tozer. Tozer said, “God will not share His Glory with man.” The Glory belongs to God, not to us. And when we think the Glory belongs to us, perhaps it is time for a good, strong kick in the pants or an Isolation experience. The saddest thing to me is when a Christian leader doesn’t recognize when she or he is in need humility. My most difficult times of ministry were when I worked with such people who were totally out of touch with who they had become. It was sad, very sad. But it was also tragic, very tragic.
I get the sense for every one of our cohort members that we do get it. And we have all been through our own brokenness. This is a good thought since it means that this program is producing the kind of leaders that are needed today. And that is a great encouragement for me.
By the way — and this is a side note — my wife and I (Baby Boomers) went back to our church last week after a nine month absence. I would like to chat about this sometime. — Bill
Let’s figure out a way to connect. I am hopeful of coming down to PDX in the next couple weeks!
We sang a song in church today, which reminded me of our reading. One of the lines was “we have become a talent show, help us find new life in you.” It speaks so well of what we can happen and our need for repentance.
One of the gifts of our cohort is that we would “stand” with and beside one another in our seasons – whether isolation calls or not. Blessings friend.
Your post reminded me of this poem by Preacher/Poet George Herbert, called The Collar. In it, He cries out against the stripping, and yet finds himself in the end at another place:
By George Herbert
I struck the board, and cried, “No more;
I will abroad!
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free, free as the road,
Loose as the wind, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it,
No flowers, no garlands gay? All blasted?
Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.
Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit and not. Forsake thy cage,
Thy rope of sands,
Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
Away! take heed;
I will abroad.
Call in thy death’s-head there; tie up thy fears;
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need
Deserves his load.”
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
And I replied My Lord.
I love that and then end of his rant, he hears the patient, still and quiet voice of God. I have had this experience, and found God’s grace … perfect. And God is faithful to walk with us, be it in a rant, be it in a passionate desire to go deeper with Him, or a slow approach to transformation, He stays with us.
Thank you for your post, Carol.
Carol, thanks for your post. When we think of the fire of God, it’s rarely something powerful and all consuming. I often think of the beautiful and simple flame of a candle… I love this line in the poem “I didn’t know the fire of God could be more than a gentle glow or a cozy consolation. I didn’t know it could come as a blaze.” We’re comfortable with a gentle glow or cozy consolation, but the blaze is something completely different. It’s messy, it’s painful, it’s overwhelming, and it’s more awesome than we could ever imagine. When God shows that side of himself we often say “why is he mad at me? why doesn’t he love me anymore?”
Your post reminded me that I have a narrow view of God. May I lay down my idols….