Thank you. Let me reflect a little on what we just did. The first
thing to note is that my experience was probably not exactly the
same as yours, but there are likely some similarities. If you couldn’t
hold your breath for the entire 30 seconds, you probably still got
a sense of what it feels like. Thirty seconds is not an amazingly
long time to hold your breath, but for most of us, it’s enough
to notice, and maybe even long enough to get a little anxious about
breathing, and to start wondering what we’re going to do with
ourselves, and how soon the time is going to be up. Maybe it’s
different for you sitting in the congregation, but for me to stand
up here on the chancel for 30 seconds without speaking or singing
or anything feels like a long time.
That is the best way I could think of to illustrate the idea of
solitude here in a group of people. The concept of solitude is not
difficult to grasp, the purpose of it is not complicated, but if
you’re anything like me, it’s difficult to do. This
morning I want to talk about solitude, some of the biblical illustrations
of why it might be important, and encourage you to try this as a
practice through Lent. What we won’t be able to do during
worship this morning is give you an opportunity to share your own
experience of solitude, but I hope you’ll have a chance to
do that when you meet with your deacon group in the next week or
Our text from Mark 1 is one of the places where the gospels note
that Jesus went off to a deserted place to pray. As we said last
week, Mark is the shortest of the four gospels, so the narrative
clicks along pretty quickly, but this is still Mark Chapter 1 --
just a few paragraphs away from last week’s text where Jesus
was baptized and immediately driven in to the wilderness by the
Spirit for forty days. Mark doesn’t specifically mention that
Jesus prayed and fasted during those forty days, but Matthew and
Luke’s gospels give that detail, and tell us that Jesus was
alone. Jesus is busy in the first chapter of Mark: he’s baptized,
tempted, begins his ministry, calls disciples, casts out an unclean
spirit, heals the sick of an entire city, heals a leper, and makes
the religious leaders mad -- all in the first chapter. And ¾
of the way through that chapter, in the middle of all this activity
-- teaching, preaching, healing, all that really important stuff
-- verse 35 says “In the morning, while it was still very
dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place where he prayed.”
An interesting thing for Jesus to do when there was so much to
do and so many people needed him. He’d been up late the night
before, because when Sabbath ended at sundown, the whole city gathered
at his door –that’s how Mark says it -- and brought
all those who were sick or possessed by demons. Can you imagine
looking out your front door at sundown and seeing that? When the
disciples hunt Jesus down at daybreak the next morning, they say,
“Everyone is searching for you.” I bet.
If you have ever been in a position of being responsible for taking
care of another person or people day in and day out, you have a
little sense of the weight which was on Jesus’ shoulders.
Caring for young children, aging parents, a spouse who is ill, patients,
clients, emergency situations where people are mentally or physically
ill -- all of this is exhausting work. Exhausting ministry. People
needed Jesus all the time.
We know that at other times in his ministry, notably after his
last meal with his disciples and just before his arrest and crucifixion,
Jesus withdrew to pray by himself. Solitude and prayer at times
of intense stress and pressure are the bookends of the beginning
and end of Jesus’ ministry. That fact all by itself would
make it worth paying attention to, and perhaps trying for ourselves.
I am making a distinction between solitude and simply being alone.
Many of us are alone -- by ourselves at home, in the car, or even
where we work -- on a regular basis. This is not always our choice.
If you are single because of death or divorce, there is probably
grief in that time alone. Folks who are introverts may enjoy time
alone, but few choose to be alone all the time. That is different
than what I’m calling solitude: a time of intentional stillness
to be in the presence of God. Solitude is a much rarer commodity
than being alone. It’s rare for several reasons. First, solitude
takes intention on our part. It’s increasingly easy to be
plugged in all the time -- even multiple ways at the same time.
We have the TV on the radio on and our cell phones close at hand.
Often when Tim and I are watching the news at home on TV, he’s
reading different news on his phone. Of course, we need to keep
up with what our children are doing, what our parents are doing
what our relatives are doing and what our friends are doing and
what people we don’t know at all are doing, right?
Solitude means unplugging from those things for a set amount of
time. Last week I talked about Celtic Christian practices, and that
they came from a culture which engaged God in the world, rather
than withdrawing from the world to find God. What I’m encouraging
us to do with solitude is not to withdraw from the world, but to
include God as one of those places where we connect; to make God
important enough that we set the other connections aside for a time.
Although I would call solitude a kind of prayer, it isn’t
the kind of prayer which we may be the most familiar with. Solitude
is not primarily about talking to God--expressing concern for people
who are ill or in trouble, praying for ourselves or even praying
for the world -- solitude is about being in the presence of God.
It may be about listening for God, but fundamentally it is about
simply being. It’s a way of acknowledging in the midst of
our busy lives or our empty lives or our grieving lives or our joyous
lives or our lives that are a complicated mix of all of those things--
that there is more to our lives than our lives. Solitude is a way
to acknowledge that God is important enough for us to pause and
simply be in God’s presence.
I’m not going to tell you how you have to do this. I recognize
that everyone’s commitments and schedule and temperament are
different. There are some specific suggestions in the Lent booklet,
and I hope you can share more in your deacon groups. Again, spiritual
practices are not competitive, the goal is to find something that
works for you so you can deepen your relationship with God and be
strengthened for your walk with Christ. If you find something which
works for you, and can share it with someone else, that is how we
support one another along the way.
So in that spirit, I want to share some things I have learned about
myself along the way. I have shared some of these before: if you
have paid close enough attention that you still remember, God bless
you, but I’m going to repeat it, because it is still true
for me. I did not begin a regular practice of solitude until I had
to do it for a seminary assignment. I had to commit to a certain
amount of time regularly and keep a log. I found this much more
difficult than reading or writing a paper, because there are no
shortcuts. I couldn’t say, “The assignment is to sit
in God’s presence for 15 minutes, but I can power through
and get it done in 10.” Not only does it not work that way,
I clearly don’t have a natural aptitude for stillness. Hardly
anyone does. When I try to sit still and clear my mind for any period
of time, my mind -- which is pretty unruly -- starts making lists
of what I need to start doing as soon as this quiet time is over.
And as you have probably experienced, once you try not to think
about something, that’s all you can think about. I cannot
keep myself from being a person who makes lists. That does not disqualify
me from practicing solitude. What I have learned to do is make the
list before I start, so it’s outside of my head, and to put
prayer on the list. It doesn’t always work, but it helps.
There are other things which help me which are external physical
things, but I like stuff, so that works for me. I sit in the same
chair in the same spot. I have an oil lamp which I light and a beautiful
prayer shawl that I put around my shoulders. I also have a cat who
thinks that any lap is an invitation for attention. This used to
distract me, until I realized I could allow this cat’s enthusiasm
and desire to be loved to be an image of my relationship with God.
This may sound silly to you -- that’s fine. We all come to
God in the context of who we are. What I’m suggesting is that
if you haven’t tried solitude, or haven’t tried it recently,
see what works for you, and be patient if you don’t feel successful
immediately. It takes effort. Investing time in doing “nothing”
can take a lot of effort.
Solitude doesn’t turn us into someone else. It won’t
turn you from an extrovert to an introvert, or a busy person into
an idle one. No spiritual practice does that -- because that isn’t
the purpose of spiritual practices. Spiritual practices can help
us see ourselves the way God sees us; they remind us why Jesus claims
us as beloved. My conviction is that for each of us, no matter our
personality, temperament, or experience, being comfortable alone
with ourselves is a gift. It is not a gift which we give ourselves,
but like any gift of the Spirit, it is something we are given by
the grace of God. Grace is free, but we still have to accept it.
Sometimes the most difficult person to tolerate and accept and forgive
is ourselves. We may even keep ourselves busy doing in order to
avoid the fear of being, and being ridiculed or rejected, or somehow
less than who we try to appear to be to other people. God’s
grace means that we’re allowed to be who we are. There is
nothing we can do to make God love us more. There is nothing we
can do to make God love us less. With grace, we can see ourselves
the way God sees us, and hope for the same things that God wants
for us. I pray that we will each know that promise and accept that
grace. In Jesus Christ, Amen.