Our journey through significant words of scripture and faith continues today. The word this week is alone.
The dictionary defines the word as “separated from others; isolated; exclusive of anything else.”
In Genesis God says “It is not good that humans should be alone…”
Proverbs claims “The one who lives alone is self-indulgent…” (18:1)
The wise elder of Ecclesiastes looks back on life and puts it this way: “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.” (4:9-10)
Which sounds a lot like the inscription Susan found for the inside of our wedding rings, “Two can find what one cannot.”
On the night of betrayal, Jesus tells those closest to him they will soon be scattered and alone, leaving him alone. “Yet I am not alone because my Father is with me.” (John 16:33)
It is a word with nuance. In text after text in scripture there is indication, as we’ve seen that being alone in life runs counter to living in faith. This is more than about marriage. It is about living in community with others, having others in proximity to your life.
Mary Oliver catches this spirit in her poem, How I Go To The Woods.
Ordinarily I go to the woods alone, with not a single friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore unsuitable.
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of praying, as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds, until foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear almost the unhearable sound of roses singing.
If you have ever gone into the woods with me I must love you very much.
For Oliver, she is alone when she chooses. Jesus too, chose moments to be away from others, from the crowds, from the disciples. As Oliver gets closer to nature in her aloneness, Jesus deepens his connection with God, in his aloneness.
Then there is the alone of separation. The alone that fosters loneliness. The terror of the disciples after the crucifixion when they are separated. The fear of Elijah when he hides from Jezebel alone in a cave.
The widow of Nain, left alone, like widows down through the ages, with no resources following the death of a loved one.
In childhood, Helen Keller was isolated from others in her aloneness because of her inability to see and hear.
It is this alone that we can see and not see all around us. The woman at Grace Café, who week after week, sits alone at a back table. The neighbor we greet in passing, but no next to nothing about. His reputation claims, “he just wants to be left alone.”
The family member who cut themselves off, or maybe was cutoff. We have not taken a step toward reconnecting, because, well, she should first.
The odd dresser at school. Someone said he just wants attention. Maybe he really just needs conversation.
The beloved spouse trapped in the insidious isolation of Alzheimer’s disease whose only comfort is in the actual presence of companionship.
“And God said, it is not good that humans should be alone.”
Finally there is the alone of action. This is the loneliness of making a decision, taking a stand, making a choice that no one else will.
Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas knew that way of being alone. In fact, in a sense, he is still alone 110 years after he died. No law bears his name. Not a single list of Senate "greats" mentions his service.
Yet when Ross entered the Senate in 1866, he was considered the man to watch. He seemed destined to surpass his colleagues, but he tossed it all away with one lone act of conscience.
Conflict was dividing the government after the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson was determined to follow Lincoln's policy of reconciliation toward the defeated South. Congress, however, wanted to rule the downtrodden Confederate states with an iron hand.
Congress decided to strike first. Shortly after Senator Ross was seated, the Senate introduced impeachment proceedings against the hated President. The radicals calculated that they needed thirty-six votes, and smiled as they concluded that the thirty-sixth was none other than Ross'. The new senator listened to the vigilante talk. But to the surprise of many, he declared that the president "deserved as fair a trial as any accused man has ever had on earth." The word immediately went out that his vote was "shaky." Ross received an avalanche of anti-Johnson telegrams from every section of the country. Radical senators badgered him to "come to his senses."
The of the vote the galleries were packed. Tickets for admission were at an enormous premium. As a deathlike stillness fell over the Senate chamber, the vote began. By the time they reached Ross, twenty-four "guilties" had been announced. Eleven more were certain. Only Ross' vote was needed to impeach the President. Unable to conceal his emotion, the Chief Justice asked in a trembling voice, "Mr. Senator Ross, how vote you? Is the respondent Andrew Johnson guilty as charged?" Ross later explained, at that moment, "I looked into my open grave. Friendships, position, fortune, and everything that makes life desirable to an ambitions man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever." Then, the answer came -- unhesitating, unmistakable: "Not guilty!" With that, the trial was over. And the response was as predicted.
A high public official from Kansas wired Ross to say: "Kansas repudiates you as she does all perjurers and skunks." The "open grave" vision had become a reality. Ross' political career was in ruins. Extreme ostracism, and even physical attack awaited his family upon their return home.
One gloomy day Ross turned to his faithful wife and said, "Millions cursing me today will bless me tomorrow...though not but God can know the struggle it has cost me." It was a prophetic declaration. Twenty years later Congress and the Supreme Court verified the wisdom of his position, by changing the laws related to impeachment.
Ross was appointed Territorial Governor of New Mexico. Then, just prior to his death, he was awarded a special pension by Congress. The press and country took this opportunity to honor his courage which, they finally concluded, had saved our country from crisis and division.
The Philippians were feeling alone, isolated as they faced persecution and ridicule. In writing to thank them for gifts they had given him, Paul addresses their feeling of alone, by claiming his own loneliness, from prison, no less. Then, like Christ, to offer that he is never, truly alone, for Christ is always with him. And Christ is with them.
It seems the nuance of alone is choice. The moments of being alone in life that we may choose: for prayer, meditation, a walk in the woods, enhance our connection to God, and to one another.
It is when alone is not a choice, that it is counter to what God intends for humanity. So it is that the most effective counter to the alone of another, is for one, you, or me, to be that instrument of God, that Jesus and Paul both proclaim, God’s presence. God has declared that it is not good that humans should be alone. So our question to ourselves is: “How can I be God’s presence to another so that they are never alone.”