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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.

Eventually he came up with a prayer. He prayed that before he died, he’d see the most beautiful sights, hear the most beautiful sounds, and feel the most beautiful feelings. He couldn’t think of much else, and he wasn’t sure what to do with the other 57 minutes he was supposed to be out there praying. He scratched mosquito bites, flicked ants off his legs for a while, and climbed down the tree. He walked until he was several paces away from his friends and lay down in the grass. He rested his head on his interlocked fingers, looking up, feeling strangely quiet and at peace. Something began to happen.

He writes, “I had this feeling of being seen. Known. Named. Loved. By a Someone bigger than the sky that expanded above me. Young science geek that I was, I pictured myself lying on a little hill on a little continent on a little planet in a little solar system on the rim of a modest galaxy in a sea of billions of galaxies, and I felt that the great Big Creator of the whole shebang was somehow noticing little tiny me. It was as if the whole sky were an eye, and all space a heart, and I was being targeted as a focal point for attention and love. And the oddest thing happened as this realization sank in. I began to laugh. I wasn’t guffawing, but I was laughing, at first gently, but eventually almost uncontrollably. … It was … an overflowing laughter, as if all that space I had been feeling opening up inside me was gradually filling up with pure happiness, and once it reached the rim, it spilled over in incandescent joy. “God loves me! Me! God! At this moment! I can feel it!

Gradually the euphoria subsided and he moved closer to his friends, who were having their own spiritual experiences. They were telling each other how much they loved and appreciated each other – saying the kind of mushy, vulnerable things teenage guys rarely say out loud, and pretty soon most or all of them, including McLaren, were sniffling, moved to tears at the connections they were feeling.   And then McLaren remembered his prayer in the tree. And wham! It hit him. God had answered his prayer. He’d just seen the most beautiful sights in the radiance of all creation, heard the most beautiful sounds in his friends’ declarations of love, and felt the most beautiful feelings as a result of both.[ix]

Did Jesus climb a tree, laugh and then weep when he went off to a deserted place to pray? I kind of hope so. We have no way of knowing what he did, but we know that the gospels tell us over and over that going off to be alone to pray was part of his routine; it was what he needed, what fueled him for his life and ministry.[x] His pattern was work, rest and prayer, and then back to work. His time away in prayer gave him new energy – and most likely, new insight so he could continue doing what God called him to do. That is the purpose of spiritual practices. Thomas Merton wrote, “Go into the desert not to escape other men, but in order to find them in God.”[xi] We don’t adopt spiritual practices to impress God, or get brownie points. They have value only insofar as they help us to grow in love for God, self, neighbor and God’s creation. As the hymn, “Breathe on Me Breath of God,” puts it,

“Breathe on me breath of God.

Fill me with life anew

that I may love what thou dost love,

and do what thou wouldst do.

But it’s hard to fit quality time with God into our already busy lives, isn’t it? Probably one of the last people I’d ever thought I’d quote in a sermon is Antonin Scalia, but I love this little story: Apparently Justice Scalia invited his law clerk to church. The clerk told him, “I’m just too busy.” Scalia replied, “Well, I’ll tell the creator of the universe that you were too busy to see him.”[xii]

It’s about priorities. Lent is a chance to look at priorities, and it’s a chance to try things on. During Lent here at First Presbyterian Church, we’ll explore different forms of prayer, and you can subscribe to receive a daily email about different prayer practices, because some fit one person while others fit another. Next Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday, we’ll get a head start with practicing the presence of God, and then over the course of the Sundays in Lent, we’ll look at tuning into God in prayer, in lament, in nature, in story, in blessing, and in journey. My prayer is that together, with the encouragement of this community, we each find ways of tuning into God that fit us, that inspire us, that help us to breathe more easily. And, maybe, even to laugh.

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.

[i] David Lose, “Freedom For,” February 3, 2015,

[ii] Brian D. McLaren, Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 1.

[iii] “Breathe on Me, Breath of God,” lyrics by Edwin Hatch (1878); music by Robert Jackson (1888). It can be found in Glory to God, the Presbyterian hymnal, at #286.

[iv] Wayne Muller, Sabbath (New York: Bantam Books, 1999), 84.

[v] Richard Rohr, The Naked Now (New York: Crossroad Books, 2009), 101.

[vi] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 190.

[vii] McLaren, 223.

[viii] Rohr, 102.

[ix] McLaren, 7-9.

[xi] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1972), 53.

[xii] “Why is it important to spend time alone with God?”

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