“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
 Shelley Trebesch, Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader (Altadena, CA: Barnabas Publishers, 1997), 10.
 Ibid., 40.