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A Deserted Place

Lesson: Mark 1:29-39

I suppose it says something about me and my life that I find it more thought-provoking and even challenging that Jesus took time off to pray by himself than that he healed Simon’s mother-in-law. I’ve never liked that story much, anyway. Not only is she nameless, but as soon as she’s healed of her fever, she’s expected to play the hostess. Come on, now; couldn’t the disciples get up and get their own drinks for a while, so she could rest up? The point, say biblical scholars, is that in an honor/shame culture like first century Palestine, a crucial part of the story is that Jesus has restored her to her place in the community. In her case, that means showing hospitality to guests in her home; that’s what gives her honor.[i] Okay, I get that; but still, it’s Jesus’ retreat from the clamoring crowds that catches my attention. With the whole city gathered around the door, with his own disciples hunting for him, he still takes time out in the early morning before dawn to find some solitude and pray.

He must have needed it. He needed time away from the noise and all the demands to devote to his prayer life, his spiritual life; he needed to spend quality time with God. Jesus needed this. Jesus. Jesus needed to spend time on his relationship with God. What does that tell us about what we need?

This morning is a preview of coming attractions, so to speak. Lent, the season of preparation for Easter, is two weeks away. Every year, Lent offers us the opportunity to retool, reinvent or refresh our spiritual life, our prayer life. To work on our relationship with God. All relationships take time, or as my son corrected me, “All good relationships take time.” Lent is when we take a look at what that might mean for us.

How is your relationship with God these days? Maybe you used to have practices but let them fall by the wayside, or maybe you currently have practices but it feels as though you’re just going through the motions; your soul is dry, thirsty, empty, tired. Maybe you may feel a little toasted, if not burned out. When our worship planning committee met to plan Lent, their overwhelming consensus was that they are feeling overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed by politics, the environment, memos and tweets, hurricanes and the wine country fire; by too much guilt, too little time, too much pressure, too many shoulds.[ii] Maybe, like them, you want relief, energy, or inspiration to keep going. “Inspiration” comes from the same root as Spirit – which means breath, and inspiration means in-breathing. So our theme this Lent, taken from the title of a familiar hymn, is “Breathe on Me, Breath of God.”[iii]

This Lent we will look at ways we can recover or maybe find for the first time a sense that God is breathing in us and through us, refreshing us and equipping us. We will look at ways we can spend quality time with God, even amid the clamor of our lives. Priest and writer Henri Nouwen insisted that the noise of our lives makes us deaf, unable to hear when we are called, or from what direction. He said our lives have become absurd – because in the word absurdwe find the Latin word surdus, which means deaf. In our spiritual life, Nouwen said, we need to listen to the God who speaks constantly but whom we seldom hear in our hurried deafness.[iv]

There are a million ways to talk about prayer, but often spiritual writers say that’s exactly what prayer is: it’s listening for the God who is always trying to reach us. Usually when we talk about prayer, people think in terms of prayers: saying our prayers, the Lord’s Prayer, the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving we’ll pray in a bit. Prayers are good and important but prayersdon’t encompass the whole subject of prayer. Richard Rohr uses the word “resonance” to describe prayer. Echoing Nouwen, Rohr writes, “Prayer is actually setting out a tuning fork. All you can really do in the spiritual life is get tuned to receive the always present message.”[v]Similarly, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The longer I practice prayer, the more I think it is something that is always happening, like a radio wave that carries music through the air whether I tune in to it or not.”[vi] This kind of tuning-in prayer is not an attempt to change God’s mind about us or the things that happen. Rather, it is listening so that we might be changed. I don’t know if this story about Mother Teresa is true, but it tells a truth whether or not it happened. Mother Teresa was asked by a reporter what she said to God when she prayed. She replied, “Mostly I just listen.” The reporter then asked what God said to her. She said, “Mostly [God] just listens.”[vii] This is the kind of prayer that changes us, changes our hearts and minds so that things like infinity, mystery, and forgiveness can resound within us.[viii]

Brian McLaren tells a story about going on a weekend church retreat as a teenager. On Saturday afternoon, the retreat leader sent the boys outdoors for an hour of silence, telling them they were supposed to pray. McLaren climbed a tree. From there, he could hear a nearby superhighway and buzzing mosquitoes, but he wasn’t sure what to do.