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Sunday, April 7, 2019
Scripture: Mark 1:35-39 & Psalm 46
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
I am not good at sitting still. When I have a day off, I make a long to-do list. When I’m on vacation, I like to know what the plan for the day is. I have always struggled with any kind of stillness. I have found that taking a run is a way of prayer that works for me, but that involves a lot of movement. Not everyone is this way. An ancient Christian practice of prayer involves a labyrinth. I know many people who love walking in a labyrinth to focus themselves on prayer. There is a labyrinth on Louisville Seminary’s campus, so one day I finally decided to try it out. I entered the labyrinth and followed the path for a minute or two, but instead of finding myself centered on prayer, I found myself wondering how to solve the maze as efficiently as possible. I guess I’ve got a lot to learn about patience and sitting still.
I’ve tried – at times – to imitate Jesus in devoting a regular part of my day to quiet times. That works for me at times, I think because I can treat it a little like a to-do list. During one summer break at college, I was a counselor at Camp Judson, which was the Baptist camp I went to as a kid. I would set my alarm to get up thirty minutes before the kids needed to rise for the day. I’d find a quiet place outside as the sun rose to pray for my campers. It was a lovely practice, but it ended with the summer. Now that I’m a parent, I’ve tried getting up before my own kids at times, but it did not matter how quiet I was, they would somehow hear me and get up. I figured there was no point in trying to beat them out of bed. I might as well sleep as long as they’d let me. I’ve tried with varying success to begin my days at the church with a quiet time in my study, but even that has proven elusive as a discipline. If it’s hard for me as a pastor, I can only imagine that many of us struggle with it.
Solitude, stillness, and silence are difficult to come by in our world, but I believe they are absolutely essential to the faith and life of any Jesus follower. It is tempting to think that these quiet times are selfish – that they’re solely for personal benefit – but I don’t think that’s right. Rather, I believe that solitude is necessary for relationships. It’s necessary for our relationship with God. It’s necessary for our relationships with others. This isn’t about introversion or extroversion either.
If we step back for a moment, we’ll see that life is a rhythm of withdrawal and engagement. We cannot pull back from life and never engage, and we cannot engage in all of life and never retreat. This is a church that loves music. Imagine with me if music never had rests – that the beat just went on and on and on. That kind of music would be terrible! Or imagine with me that the only way to get in shape was to exercise all day long every day. That wouldn’t work. Rather, good health requires both the exercise but also the rest from the activity. Or imagine with me that work never stopped. When you started your job, the only way to stop working was to quit. That wouldn’t work, would it? Even the mightiest among us wouldn’t last a week. Life is a rhythm of withdrawal and engagement. God made it that way, and we’re at our best when we are intentional about the rhythm of our lives. We need to be engaged. We need to be with others. But we also need rest and solitude.
Jesus modeled this in his own life and ministry, and I firmly believe that if it’s something Jesus prioritized, then it’s a really good idea for us to imitate it in our lives. He knew that solitude was necessary for relationship. Just take a bird’s eye view of his own ministry practice. Before beginning his ministry, he spent forty days alone in the desert being tested by the devil. Before he chose his twelve disciples, he spent the night alone praying. When he grieved the execution of John the Baptist, he took a boat out on the Sea of Galilee to be by himself. Following the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, Jesus went into the hills by himself. In today’s text from Mark, after Jesus completes a long night of healings, he went to a deserted place by himself for prayer before engaging in ministry again later that day. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is always moving. Mark uses the word “immediately” a lot about the purposeful work of Jesus, yet even Mark shows Jesus needs periods of withdrawal after engagement. In all the gospels, Jesus has a clear pattern of engagement and withdrawal. And if it’s vital for Jesus, then it should be the same for us, right?
Yet we are so conditioned to go, go, go. Jesus doesn’t go, go, go. God doesn’t even do that, giving us the example of a day of rest in creating everything out of nothing, even commanding us to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. It’s one of the Ten Commandments, meant not as a dull prohibition from fun or activity but as a way of pressing pause and becoming more fully human. I was in Israel a few years ago, and I got to experience a society that still had some vestiges of Sabbath in practice. The weirdest to me was the Sabbath elevators. In our hotel, one of the elevators would go to Sabbath mode at sundown on Friday. Since pressing buttons is considered work, those observing the Sabbath would wait in front of the elevator until the doors opened. When they finally opened, the person got on board. The elevator stopped at every floor to open its doors. The rider just had to wait patiently to reach his destination. There’s a lesson in there about patience and control.
We don’t particularly like patience or control, do we? Our busyness is an attempt to control our lives, for it stands to reason that if we’re working hard, if we’re trying something, then we’ve done our best to ensure the outcomes we hope for. Solitude and silence, however, remind of us God’s Sabbath promise for us. They remind us that we are not ultimately in charge. Yes, we have work to do, but like Jesus’ disciples and Jesus himself, it is absolutely necessary to step back in prayer while the world keeps on spinning around us. Richard Foster, whose book Celebration of Discipline has been guiding me this Lent, cuts through the clutter to speak the truth to us. “One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless. We are so accustomed to relying upon words to manage and control others. If we are silent, who will take control? God will take control, but we will never let him take control until we trust him. Silence is intimately related to trust.” Foster holds silence and solitude together like conjoined twins. They go hand-in-hand, and relinquishing control means stopping the chatter – the need to argue, the need to jabber at God without listening – and it means stopping the constant activity – to realize that life keeps on keeping on even when we stop.
Psalm 46 is such a beautiful example of this divine promise that God is in control. The psalms are so densely packed with imagery that it is worth taking a little time to unpack the poetic structure to see what the psalm is truly getting at.
1 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
So, how do we begin to take steps into solitude and silence? If you’re anything like me, we need to take very small steps before we grow into it. So, first, begin with using little solitudes. All days feature these little solitudes, but we have to recognize them. They exist all over the place. They’re there when you first wake up. They’re present when you are having your first cup of coffee. They’re with you when you drive. They’re there when you’re in a waiting room or when you’ve experienced an unexpected delay. Instead of turning on the TV or pulling out your phone, count those as a moment to reflect in silence. Instead of having a podcast or the radio on all the time in the car, use the silence to withdraw.
Once we’ve started to recognize those little solitudes, it becomes easier to develop an intentional quiet place or time. These are not accidental. Do you have a room in your home where you can just be quiet? If you don’t have a room, how about you designate just a chair for that purpose? When we build or renovate homes, we add “man-caves,” but do we ever give thought about having a quiet place? Your home likely has such a place, but we must be intentional about carving out that sacred space and time. You can have the same out in the community. Find a bench along the Grand River. Go for a walk in the woods or along the beach. Make a habit out of regular solitude, for God has designed us to need it so that we are restored in body and soul, ready to engage deeply with God’s world and with others.
As your practice of solitude grows, you may find yourself seeking to grow deeper in this. Maybe that’s the time you try a 24-hour period of silence. Imagine, even in a busy family situation, how that would disrupt your rhythms, how that would relinquish the way we need to control our lives and others through our words. Imagine how it would open the doors to new ways of relating to others. Maybe this will lead to setting aside 3-4 hours of one day four times a year to silently reflect on life, to set goals, to evaluate hopes and hurts, and to lay them at God’s feet. Just imagine that.
God made us perfectly, and to function our best, we need to be alone together with God. We need solitude. We need silence. We need withdrawal so that we can be more fully engaged with others. Couldn’t we all give ourselves a break?
 Foster, Richard J.. Celebration of Discipline: The Path To Spiritual Growth (pp. 100-101). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.