[The following is from the sermon I preached on March 12, 2017 at Saint Peter’s Church. It is based on Mark 1:29-39, and the audio can be found here.]
For the whole year of 2017 so far, and now in the season of Lent, we’ve basically been talking about following Jesus: how to be with him, do what he did, and, as a result, become like him. Moreover, we follow him in community with others, and this following and community happens in the presence and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
For the first Sunday in Lent, we heard about Jesus’s most basic requirement for following him, which was this: if anyone wants to be my disciple, he or she must deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow me. It’s a discipline of self-denial and self- renunciation. It’s requires a certain kind of self-imposed suffering, in other words — suffering on purpose, you could say, so that suffering on accident doesn’t overtake us. So that we can remain who we are in Christ, and live like him, even when life becomes overwhelming.
And the Christian way of doing this and preparing ourselves for this is through the regular practice of various spiritual disciplines. And not surprisingly, to learn what those disciplines are, again — we look to Jesus and ask how we can do what he did. So this morning we’re getting very specific and asking about one particular practice Jesus observed.
It tells us in Mark 1 that
35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.
In other words, Jesus had a regularly rhythm not only of prayer in his life — it does say he went to pray, of course, and we could talk about prayer — but prayer is something we do talk about fairly often.
It also tells us that Jesus had a regular rhythm of moving into silence and solitude. Two things we don’t tend to talk about as much.
Now, we’ve mentioned in previous weeks that hurriedness and busy are the greatest barriers to spiritual life in the body of Christ. And today’s topic is closely connected to that. Because if business and hurry are the biggest threat, then silence and solitude are perhaps the most effective practices to protecting ourselves against busyness and hurry. Main because they force us to learn how to value unproductive time (at least in the way we normally measure productivity!)
The 17th Century philosopher Blaise Pascal made an interesting comment about this: He said:
All the unhappiness of [humanity] arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own room. – Blaise Pascal
The problem is, silence and solitude are two of the most difficult and counter-cultural spiritual disciplines today for Christians to regularly observe and incorporate into our rhythm of life. Again, because they force us to value unproductive time! So much so that, the most severe punishment that you can get when you’re in prison in the United States is Solitary confinement!
But the point is that, for many of us, being alone with our thoughts, and being still long enough to get to a point where we’re not the ones talking anymore, or the voice in our head isn’t running the show anymore — this is not something most of us are any good at. So it’s going to take special intentionality if we want any chance of implement a practice of this in our lives. So that’s what I want to talk just a little bit more about this morning.
Let’s look again at the gospel reading from Mark 1. Before it says that Jesus woke up early and went to a solitary place to pray, what was he doing? He was with the crowds, wasn’t he. Healing them, greeting them, casting out demons, preaching about the coming of the Kingdom of God! Ok, Jesus was in activist mode, if you will. He engaged the world publicly and socially, and was with the people. He was among them and thrown into the mess of their lives.
So we have to first recognize, that when we’re talking about silence and solitude, it’s always in the context of a Rhythm of Life. Because what did Jesus know how to do? He knew when to say no. He knew when enough was enough, when he needed to rest, and when he had expended his energy — physically, emotionally, spiritually. It was time for him to be with God and get filled back up.
It’s amazing how much in this story when get a glimpse of Jesus’s humanity isn’t it. From community to solitude, back to community, then back to solitude. From engagement to silence, back to engagement, then back to silence. And again and again this rhythm repeats itself. Because it’s vital. And we see this throughout the gospels — not just in this one passage. And of course, Jesus spends a full forty days fasting and in solitude before beginning his public ministry.
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer discusses the importance of “The Day Together” as well as “The Day Alone” — how both are essential for spiritual success. He writes, and this quote is in your bulletin:
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community . . . let him who is not in community beware of being alone . . . Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.
In 1968 Cesar Chavez embarked on a spiritual fast for 25 days to affirm his personal commitment and that of the farm labor movement to non-violence. He fasted for another 25 days in 1972, and in 1988, at the age of 61, he endured a 36-day “Fast for Life” to highlight the harmful impact of pesticides on farm workers and their children.
Chavez knew that he had to do internal, spiritual work at the same level of intensity to match the goals of his outward influence, if his movement was to succeed. Of course, Jesus did the same thing by fasting for 40 days before beginning his public ministry.
Martin Luther is famous for saying:
I have so much to do today that I’m going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to be able to get it all done.
And I don’t know what Luther did for three hours during his prayer time, and I’m not saying you need to do that, or that you have to fast for 26 days. But one thing I do know — I strongly doubt that he was the one talking for all of those three hours. Almost certainly, he was listening. Almost certainly, there was deep silence during that time.
And this isn’t just some pious, religious thing. This is actually essential for how to be a healthy and happy human. It’s part of following Jesus too, many people who aren’t Christians have learned this as well.
A 2011 World Health Organization report called noise pollution a “modern plague,” concluding that “there is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population.”
Even just the daily demands for our attention put as burden on the parts of our brain involved in high-order thinking, decision-making and problem-solving. As a result, our brain energy that goes to being attentive and just being fully presence gets drained. Which makes us distracted and fatigued. We can’t focus or be creative, and so on. And sleep alone, though it’s critical, doesn’t entirely relieve us of this burden.
So silence is a partial remedy for this epidemic. It’s good for you — it’s good for your brain. It relieves tension and stress.
Our cognitive functions are replenished and restored when we’re in environments with lower levels of sensory input. In silence. Even just the quiet and stillness you find when going for walk or being in nature ― this allows your brain to let down its sensory guard, so to speak.
A study at Duke University Medical Center in 2013 confirmed that silence regenerates blood cells, and extended and regular periods of silence can even help treat and prevent mental illness, from depression to dementia!
Silence It’s been proven to give you better:
- focus and productivity
- emotional intelligence
- higher levels of compassion and empathy
- and better listening!
So that’s just on the psychological level. And psychological health and the spiritual health are of course connected, but speaking even more directly to our spiritual health. The 16th Century Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila, insisted that if you:
Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon [God] in yourself.
We really can cultivate an inner solitude and silence, that sets us free from loneliness and fear. If loneliness is inner emptiness, solitude is inner fulfillment.
The thing is, most of us only know how to go sleep or take a vacation or tell the kids to play outside, or turn on music when we’re driving, to get away from the noise. That kind of silence might feel like relief at first, but it rarely gets beneath the surface to do the work on our minds and on our souls we need.
Neither is silence and solitude just about being alone a lot. As I’ve shared with y’all before, I’m someone who really can be content to be alone much of the time, but that’s not the same thing as silence solitude. Loneliness and isolation are both huge problems in our society. More people live alone today. More people get cut off from community, even though we’re so virtually and technologically connected.
The kind of solitude and silence that Jesus lived with, allowed him to go into the crowds and into the noise and still have silence and solitude working inside of him. If we possess inward solitude and silence, then we can both be alone and with others without fear and without undue influence by either environment.
So the regular practice of silence and solitude offers us a freedom: to be alone, but not to avoid other people, to rest and be quiet, but while still being able to hear the gentle whisper of God’s voice (that our Old Testament reading mentioned, in the story of Elijah going on the mountain to wait for God to speak to him.)
Here’s what I’ve found: when we sit long enough without doing anything, without planning anything, and without analyzing anything, it gives us a chance to be less driven by or addicted to noise, words, people, and performance. It forces us to trust God! To release our own agendas and control, and it makes room for God to act and speak more than just our own acting and speaking and thinking.
Now, let me make an important qualification along those lines though. Sometimes we’re in certain seasons of life — and I know this now with even just one child in my house, just one, and a wife who spends most of every day with him — I know that sometimes it feels like we can’t even begin to do this. And if that’s where you are, let me tell you. It’s ok. It’s ok.
It’s ok, this is not a requirement for God to love you. This is not a requirement to be a Christian. God speaks nothing but peace to you and will wait as long as it takes for you to meet him in this way.
So why do this then? Well again, as with all of the spiritual disciplines, it’s because it’s good for you. It’s what God made you for. It’s a gift! God made us to have these rhythms of communal engagement, as well as silence and solitude.
And the beautiful thing about the gospel is that it sets us free from bondage to sin, so that we get to live the life that is good for us, not so that we have to. The “have to” approach doesn’t really work.
Silence and solitude are not, in the end, about success or failure. They are about showing up and letting God do the rest. They’re just a means through which we make ourselves available to God for the intimacy of relationship through which only God can do the work of transformation.
As a young person growing up in the Evangelical church, I was well acquainted with the concept of “quiet time.” But “quiet time” — maybe you’ve experienced this too — quiet time was rarely quiet. More often it was filled with thoughts and reflections and readings and wordy prayers. And I’m grateful for being taught how to have a conversation with God. It has and will still nurture me.
But that kind of practice isn’t really about being silent.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. – Viktor Frankl
What I’ve at least begun to experience that we get from a regular practice of silence and solitude is precisely this new, ever so slight lag time between stimulus and response that allows us just the right amount of self-control to decide the best way to respond rather than just to react.
So the pressure is not on you! It’s the opposite. You let go of all that pressure, and surrender your place in the control seat of your life, but just a few minutes a day. Start with 10. I think you need at least 10 to make a difference. I’ve tried 5, and it’s usually not enough. And hopefully, you will be able to build up to 20, but give yourself a break if that takes a while and you struggle. I certainly do.
It helps a lot, though, by the way, to first establish a sacred place where you always do this. Same place, same time, every day. This makes a big difference.
And the outcome of this, are things like, as the book of James talks about, taming the tongue. Is our speech lazy and reactionary sometimes? Silence and Solitude will help with that. Are we uncomfortable in conversation with pauses and with listening, constantly rushing to get the next word in and talk about ourselves? Wanting to adjust our image? Or are you content to let God handle that sort of thing?
Or, is your tendency to often feel like you need to straighten others out? To correct and influence them? That’s a very insecure and unhappy place to be, actually, and silence and solitude will help with that too.
So let’s sit silently together for just a moment, and then I’ll pray for us.
Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Also published on Medium.