Home Isolation and Away Pt. 2

The last week has been a blur as I look back at the seven days in my apartment where time itself seem to have been eradicated. I remember craving fast food like fried chicken and pizza and chips. I also had a repeated impulse to check my phone or to watch an endless stream of youtube videos or play video games. There was always a low grade anxiety in the background that made me edgy and irritable and impatient when I spoke to my wife or felt guilty about how ‘unproductive my day was’.

They were all like symptoms of withdrawal. Maybe I was addicted to fried food and social media. And like an addict, I didn’t know what to do with myself without those things in my life. Going through it wasn’t pleasant to say the least. But at least now I knew the things I that controlled my life more than I thought I controlled it.

Social media promised me a sense of connection with others and reality as long as I was constantly engaged replying to and checking messages and feeds. Fried chicken, burgers, fries and pizza promised a world of quick and easy enjoyment every meal with minimal cooking and preparation. But all they did was make me more anxious, more impulsive and impatient and unable to enjoy living more deeply.

Joy takes time. Depth is slow. A gardener needs to plant and prune, water and fertilize his soil before he can enjoy the fruit of his labor over many years. All that fast food and social media gave me was something to run away from who I really was and what I really wanted: meaningful connection and activity.

Home isolation and away Pt. 1

For a long time I’ve been trying to give myself COVID but to no avail. After all, what could be better than natural immunity? But kissing and hugging my wife or my sister or mom and dad didn’t do it. Not wearing a mask seemed to make no difference. But last Tuesday, on the 21st of April I finally did it. I finally caught the dreaded disease from Chinatown, the one and only Wu Flu, COVID-19. It turns out that all one needed to do was to go out every day to see friends and eat out to weaken your immune system and then pick up the flu first. On Sunday, at a family dinner I caught up with a friend who later tested positive and that’s where I probably got it. On Tuesday, I showed up for work, tested positive too and was promptly sent home with the parting gift of a resident family’s verbal tirade.

Of course I’m writing all this facetiously. In NSW, the rules for those with COVID is to isolate at home for 7 days. I was not looking forward to it. I remembered the last time this happened. I was isolated under state wide lockdown in the midst of college assignments and church ministry. I did enjoy less social contact and having more free time to myself. But I also think I enjoyed it less than I thought.

The last lockdown was also a time of stress and anxiety, boredom and doubt, and a reluctance to break out of our usual busy Sydney lifestyle. Alone in the stillness and quiet, where time dilates, the only person you’re faced with is yourself… and God. It’s scary to face either one. Isolation is really a battle with yourself. It’s a battle between the fear of missing out and all your fears and desires lurking behind one’s solitude. It would be much easier to be doing anything else. This time it would be compounded by the fact that I would miss both my wife and son’s morphology appointment at RPA hospital as she entered her third trimester and our anniversary get away that we’d planned for months. I’m glad I had a copy of the desert fathers with me. Because it seems like there’s nothing else like isolation that makes you feel like a monk in his cell.

On Maslows Hierarchy of Needs and Spirituality

I was having a conversation with a patient earlier last week. I didn’t know how she had seen me before. But she knew me as a ‘deeply religious man’ now after learning of my studies. She found herself even apologizing for her painful reactions.‘Oh s—-!’ I was amused. Poor thing. But her next comment made me pause.

She believed that humans needed to have all their physical needs met before they would even consider their spiritual ones. She was studying in grad school and knew something of Maslow’s hierarchy which postulates that humans first seek to have physical needs met before climbing up to the relational and then the spiritual ones. The highest goal of this pyramid was self actualization.

Now that I think about it, it has some freaky similarities to NeoPlatonism. Anyways I digress. To her most of her life’s problems stemmed from her physical health and her relationships. She just had no room for spirituality. Is spirituality and religion simply a luxury? Is it something that only the rich can pursue? If this were the case, religion would flourish amongst the wealthy and powerful.

I realized that there’s some superficial truth to what she’s saying. It’s hard for people to worry about their eternal destinies when they don’t even know if they have a destiny for tomorrow. And we don’t lack stories of celebrities like Morgan Freeman going on a spiritual pilgrimage before returning to the West with their new found wisdom.

But a look at both Jesus’ words and the history of Christianity and Western society would question this.

While Christianity often meets people where they’re at first, whether it’s by building orphanages or feeding the homeless, it does not seek to replace its message with its deeds. A person is not just a soul trapped in a body but an embodied soul. And Christians have always believed that God is most glorified and humans most satisfied when both body and soul are healthy. The well fed and the hungry die equally without being reconciled to God.

Christianity experienced the greatest growth in the early church in the urban margins before branching out to the rural and upper classes of Rome. It has continued to flourish likewise in the suburbs of Nigeria or Iran. And if we look at Western society as a whole, we live in the most materially abundant and safe time in its history. Yet people have never been more irreligious. Religion has no place in government or media, nor even in schools or family gatherings.

How do I make sense of these paradoxes? A rich and poor religion and physical and spiritual needs. I think there’s a spirituality that is only for the rich young ruler and a true one that everyone needs. There’s a search for spirituality that’s nothing more than self justification for one’s life, medicated by techniques like ‘mindfulness’ or ‘meditation’. They’re both equally devoid of context and any meaning. There’s a way of living that seeks only physical needs and the spiritual as an add on to one’s life. And there’s a way of living that sees the spiritual in the physical.

Jesus himself brings this great paradox to earth in his incarnation where the divine and human unite and the finite and infinite meet. Jesus shows us that God cares about both equally. Yet he affirms the primacy of the spiritual. All of the material world and its finitude is seen in relation to the infinite and immaterial God. Life and death as we know it are therefore only symptoms which we describe as ‘sleep’. Our physical life is simply the outpouring of our spiritual life. We exist either towards eternal life in God or death and separation from him.

What I’m trying to say is that Maslow’s pyramid is really a circle (or is it a spiral?). When Jesus fed the 5000 by the sea of Tiberias, he reprimanded the crowds for only following him for their physical appetites. They saw the event as nothing more than a free meal and him as nothing more than a food truck. But if only they knew who the one multiplying the bread was! They would have asked for the food which never perishes which was to believe in Jesus. Peter his apostle recognized this when he admitted that Jesus had the ‘words of life’. Where else could he go?

We’re constantly surrounded by worries – where we’ll live, how much we’ll have for our families and if the world is becoming a better place for our children. It’s easy to see our physical problems because they’re our most urgent ones. And an abstract spirituality that simply offers therapeutic techniques is just not worth looking at in such a state. But if we rightly understand life as a manifestation of the spiritual then our physical predicament becomes much more serious.

We die because we’re dead spiritually. Like our ancestor Adam, we’re separated from God and turned out from the garden of Eden. Men work to draw their food from the earth and then return to the ground they were taken from, finally consumed by their labors. Women bring others into the world through great pain and expend their life in those of their children before passing on. A physically needy world is a curse. I have no doubt about it. But in some ways it’s also a dream. Jesus has entered that dream to make reality known, to show us the spiritual in the physical and finally to remake it for our good. If only we would trust him as he ought to be. What I wish I’d said to her was ‘come and see’.

Letters from Lockdown: Faith, Hope and Love

What will get us through a lockdown, pandemic and Afghanistan

1 Corinthians 13:12–13 (ESV): For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

When lockdown started I wondered how I was going to cope with isolation. Well it’s been two months now. And the result is: pretty well. That’s not to say I’m thriving. But I’ve been able to use it to recharge and focus on my responsibilities. Daily tasks have been more convenient. And though it’s a struggle to be self-disciplined, I’ve had a wonderful wife who helps me structure my life more effectively. Most of all, I’ve had more time to enjoy her. Excluding our Sydney elites and the professional middle class, I would say that I’m okay. Not good or great, just okay.

That’s the problem of contemporary life though isn’t it? We live in these self contained silos. It just serves to reinforce whatever we already think life is like. No wonder the protestors hate the anti-protestors and the vaccinators the anti-vaxxers. If self-righteousness wasn’t a problem in the past, it’s unavoidable now. It wasn’t until I encountered the stories of how others were doing through close friends and family and those they work with that I realized that I had become a cold-hearted chad. I mean I was burnt out. Maybe this didn’t make me any less selfish. It just revealed my self-centeredness more. Enjoying Amazon deliveries and Ubereats while people protested on the streets was solipsism at its finest. If a man killed himself during COVID and I wasn’t around to see it, then he wasn’t really a man.

In the nursing homes, the lockdown is taking its toll on the elderly. Isolated from family, some have stopped eating. They would rather die. Some have faked illnesses to draw attention even from staff because they’re so lonely. Others have become a shell of themselves and lost all personality. My wife cried as she performed a physical assessment of an old man with dementia. As she checked on him, she held a phone to his trembling face. And as he heard his daughter’s voice, he couldn’t stop weeping. He was blind and mute.

I watched as hundreds of Afghanis flooded Kabul’s airport attempting to escape the Taliban. I watched as many clung onto the wheels of the airplane, knowing that it was certain death. And I watched as they fell hundreds of feet from the air. They were in such fear from the Taliban that they would rather have dropped to their deaths. I watched as the president of the most powerful country on earth turned his face away from a country his nation had shaped for 20 years. He blamed his predecessors. And he explained that his motives came from a desire to protect American lives.

I listened as a relative of mine narrated her struggles through the lockdown. I felt her loneliness, her anger and her question of “why?” I saw that such isolation for her was torture. And the longer it went on for, the dimmer her hope grew. Because life as she knew it, was disappearing from her eyes. Though she was doing all she could to stay home and stay safe, in her heart, she was there with the protestors, fighting for their homes and businesses and livelihoods and freedoms. And yes even amidst the anarchists and conspiracy nuts.

But all I could do was #staysafe. What I realized is that we need to face the reality of the situation. Lockdowns benefit those who can work from home. They drive up property prices. They increase debt to those who can ill afford it. And they increase the gap between rich and poor drastically. So with the courage of honesty, maybe we need to explore some ways of navigating through this together at a community and state level rather than just muzzle dissenters, professors from UNSW included, to claim that “the experts are on their side.”

This is not an anti-lockdown rant. But maybe it’s a plea. I don’t know to who. To God perhaps? I doubt Gladys would see this. With some help from the apostle Paul, we need to think about the state of the world as it is. We need it to drive us to seek the knowledge of both God and ourselves. And we need that knowledge to transform this world, in faith, hope and love.

What we need to stop doing is pretending that hiding in our homes, ordering take out, and online shopping are moral badges to be proud of while we blame the pandemic on everyone outside today. The ones outside are the ones delivering our food and parcels. Faith in God, hope in Christ and love for him and our neighbor. After all our toys and things, and our skills and competencies, that’s all that remains. Those are the essentials. So in earnestness you can pray for the lockdown. But pray more for the elderly, for the vulnerable and most of all for yourself. Because how we’re responding is showing us who we are.

There Is No Magic Pill: On Waiting For Grace

Some people are drawn to despair and destruction. Solitude and loneliness beckon to you like the abyss under a skyscraper on a windy night when the moon shines but nothing is illuminated. And as you stand on the precipice of the roof you feel yourself pulled to stand on the edge…and maybe even jump? The prospect is exhilarating yet nauseating, knowing that you are one-second away from oblivion.

Is this me? Will I have to tread the road not taken? I was reminded of this in a film called Lucky Per about a Danish prodigy who leaves his clerical family to become an engineer only to throw it all away. Not even a woman’s love could save him from his destiny. He ends his life poor, in a wilderness of his own, working the land from his cabin, slowly dying from disease.

I’m reminded when I read the biblical story of Cain, who was condemned for a sacrifice that wasn’t good enough for his Father. The unbearable pain of rejection became resentment for his brother Abel because he was loved. Then resentment became bloodshed. And Cain became doomed to wander the earth forever because he added guilt on top of guilt. With every step his brother Abel’s blood cried out for justice. Could he have helped it?

There’s something about nothingness that is alluring. It’s not so much that you want to die, you just don’t want to live. Life is so painful let alone when you’re haunted by guilt! Why bother? How do you find rest? Emptiness haunts you left and right. Dread and alienation dog every step. It reminds you that you’re different from everyone else and everything else. So being nothing can seem more attractive than being itself.

It’s almost like a primeval call harkening you to return to where you came from. “Naked you were born into the world and naked you shall return.” Is it a curse from God? A pig farmer who once cursed God upon a hill and became the richest man in Copenhagen. Yet his son Kierkegaard became the most anxious man of Europe. His father forever believed that his family was cursed by God. Perhaps like Kafka, it’s the disappointment of my father that always follows me. And my sensitive childhood only serves to remind me that someone is coming for me. I don’t know who. But one day they will find me out.

These questions run through my head at night. Where have I gone wrong? And what can be done? What can possibly wash my hands of the unknown crimes I’ve committed blindfolded? Is God dead? Have I killed him? It certainly appears that way. Out damned spot! Out. But no amount of washing is sufficient. I think that Lady’s Macbeth cries would be more heard than mine.

These days I find the solace of friends the most soothing to this emptiness. Yet as I fill it up with friends, it drains just as quickly away. It leaves me even more exhausted. It’s a hell of a drug. I can’t exactly define what this emptiness is. Maybe it’s a haunting of death in a broken world exiled from Eden. And sometimes I think I love it too much because it’s all I have. Still… what am I meant to do with it?

Maybe, just maybe, there’s nothing I can do. Maybe I don’t need to do anything. Maybe what is required is an act of faith — to seek and humble myself under God, to recognize that only God can provide joy and fulfillment in his own time and in his own way. Maybe faith is the true defense against anxious and weary living, a pursuit of life that only takes from you until you have nothing left to give. But how can I rest in something that doesn’t even seem real in this moment? That’s the real leap of faith — to rest and wait.

Sometimes we think there’s a magic pill. We’re so results oriented. We want a solution to our life’s problems and a fix to it. But maybe there is no fix. All other fixes are only means of escaping and running away and hoping the problem doesn’t resurface whether its Netflix or alcohol or shopping and even Christian ministry.

Maybe God means for us to face this head on. After all, the story of the Exodus reminds us that there’s a rock in the wilderness where springs of life flow from. Maybe in the midst of darkness is light. Only in confronting this nothingness will we become ourselves. We will overcome as a light in the darkness for others. And the darkness will not overcome it. We will truly be.

I have read in Lewis, in Kafka, in Steinbeck and in Dostoevsky sayings that are wise and beautiful. But never have I read in any of them, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” The grace that God gives and the rest he lays you down to is a life and a joy that never stops giving. It gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. It raises you up on eagle’s wings. Though even youths grow weary, you will run and not be tired, you will soar even amidst a fragmented and forsaken world. You will know who you are and who God is in the midst of it all. You can wail and pour out your soul because weeping may tarry for the night but joy comes in the morning. We just need to wait.

”Other People Have It Worse”: Modern Stoicism and Self Pity

Does knowing that someone else has it worse than you really ease your suffering? As I thought about this, I was seared with a memory from years ago. I had just broken up with my first girlfriend. “It’s okay Nathan. There’s plenty more fish in the sea.” The Confucian advice was from my well meaning dad. I just sat crying into my rice as my mom and sister exchanged glances and shook their heads. Another memory flows from its subconscious dregs into my mind — a recent friend of mine became a pastor in a rough area. Being from a more privileged background, the suffering and disorder he encountered was overwhelming. One way he continued to keep himself going was by minimizing his difficulties. After all, how can he complain when so many of his flock have it worse?

Thinking through this matters because suffering is real. In fact, it may the most real part of life. Life is suffering. Unless you close your eyes. So how do you find comfort? How do you counsel? And how do you understand what you will inevitably go through at some point in life? Without understanding suffering you may find yourself broken, shipwrecked, and damaged beyond recognition. You may become someone you never knew.

This was the case for many wives and children waiting to welcome their dads home after the Vietnam war, only to receive someone who was dad half the time and a raging alcoholic the other. This is the case for every single guy and girl after a break up or divorce. Who will they be now? The gym provides little answer.

While reminding yourself of the triviality of your suffering keeps self pity and pride in check, its objectivity doesn’t help you suffer well. It doesn’t give you the resolve to overcome it or to ease its sting. Suffering is costly. It eats you up the more you have it. Everyone has a breaking point. At its worse, such a stoic saying simply denies it and leads to the pretense that “I’m fine. And you’re fine.” And therefore nobody is.

It is written somewhere in the Psalms that those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy. As I listened to pastor Tim Keller preach from this Psalm I realized this: that what comforts and heals and changes you is not knowing that people have it worse but that no one had it worse than Jesus. This man was a man of sorrows. But his sorrows were for you. His life was one trial after another and ended in agony – forsaken by God and condemned to die nailed on a tree by men. And it was all for the joy set before him.

Just as he wept for the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept bittersweet tears on that cross for us. His pain was undiminished. But his resolve was firm. And his joy was magnified. Because he knew it would reconcile humanity to God and ultimately fix this broken world. The darkness of alienation from God and men was worth every tear if it meant we could share his joy.

So when I suffer, without denying what I experience, I can remember that Jesus had it worse. I can continue to live, sowing tears and knowing that not one will fall to the ground and be wasted. Each drop will be reaped with joy. And though we don’t quite know what suffering will do to us, we know that we will be like him and see him as he is – one who suffered and triumphed and laughed over life even in death. This is the hope of redemption and the immeasurable glory that no suffering can overcome.

The Belly Buster

Around Christmas time, I saw a man with cropped hair, olive skin and arms that tried to squeeze out of his gray tank top. As he ducked and weaved his way through the crowds at Westfield shopping center, one bright Unicef worker dared to break through the blur and stand up to the tanned hulk.

Commence the pleading! First came the convenience: “just 2 mins of your time sir.” Then as his clipboard rattled, the cause was put forward — “a cure for AIDs.” But it was too little. And too late. The tank top’s bags had too much momentum. They propelled him forward rolling past the clipboard and spectacles with the polite flash of pearly teeth. Maybe he was shopping for a girlfriend. Then there would be no stopping him.

I shook my head at the man. Now I wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t even the most generous person. But at least I wasn’t like that man. That’s what I thought. I enjoyed the amusement fo a second and then used the distraction to skip past the Unicef booth — hopefully unnoticed. The booth was an island among the 7 seas. Currents of people would ripple away from it. And there water often dried.

So I escaped. I survived not just the harassment to my schedule but the pangs of my guilty conscience. After all, who were they to ask for my money? How did one choose between all the noble causes that existed? What about the money I already gave? The entrance to Platypus shoes ended my day time reverie. I slowed my pace as I relaxed into the glassy cases of Vans and Timberlands and Converse. Not even the shop assistant’s questions fazed me. I was there to do my Christmas shopping. I was there to find the right Vans for me.

The Vans expressed how I felt about myself at the moment. Black and white. Size 10s. Lows. They are me. I am them. I would get around to other needs eventually. But 1st I needed to be me. I checked the label for its authenticity and satisfied with it, walked out with a black box. At least I’m keeping it minimal. So I thought.

Today We Said Goodbye: On Leaving St. John’s

Is it harder to lift your eyes to lead a service or to say goodbye? Today Sophia and I formally we were leaving St. John’s Anglican Cathedral. I’ve never enjoyed public speaking and I was definitely not going to enjoy it now. St. John’s had been my home for the last 4 years and Sophia’s for the last 11. I’ve said goodbye many times in my life. I’ve moved around 10 times. It never gets easier. But today announcing that we were leaving our church was one of the harder goodbyes I’ve had to say since I became a Christian.

St. John’s has been a home away from home this side of eternity. And it was a good home for 4 years. It wasn’t perfect just as no hotel or roadside inn is. There are some doors that need mending. And sometimes the roof would leak. You didn’t always like those you ate dinner with. And you would sometimes wonder whether the inn down the road had a better bed and breakfast. We are a weird bunch. And yet we were still together.

Our lives had intertwined for a brief period. Yet we find ourselves coming away from St John’s bearing the marks of every person we have met. Like soldiers who have gone through a war together and survived, we served together for a common cause: to see the city of Parramatta transformed by the hope of the risen Christ. Sometimes in those few short years it seemed to me like every day was the same. And yet looking back, I can see glimpses of God at work in our city, in maturing our growth groups and in drawing people of all colors and ages to him. There was no big battle. There was only the quiet hum drum of St John’s on Hunter St. We met countless toddlers, youths and university students and elderly folk who had come to meet Jesus.

But what ultimately bound us together was not what we did. We were soldiers who had survived. The resurrection of our souls brought this weird eclectic bunch together and continues to do so today, tomorrow and in eternity. I know we’ll be united again some day because we’ve been raised to new life with our Creator. And that day will make today a momentary pause; just a gentle breeze that passes through life. It would as though we had never said goodbye.

Here and now we’re separated by time and space, near yet far. I may see someone from St. John’s on the street again someday. And if I do I hope it’ll be like old times. And we might say ‘hi’ and ‘how’re you doing?’ And some I know I will never see again at least in this lifetime. So for now it’s not so much goodbye, but ‘till we meet again’, when we will see one another through clearer mirrors than we have ever known.