I love that verse! Just a simple statement from the first chapter of Mark; quiet and understated, with no more elaboration than what you see above; and yet it speaks volumes.
These words come early in Jesus’ public ministry, when news of his teachings and miracles had spread quickly throughout the region of Galilee, and people were seeking him out all through the day and into the night. Everybody wanted to see Jesus, pressing in upon him with all their problems; bringing him their diseased to be healed, coming with the ones thought to be filled with evil spirits in the hope that they too might be restored. So many people, so many problems, so many demands on Jesus’ time and energy and spirit; it must have been overwhelming! Even knowing what we do about Jesus, you can’t help but look at these gospel stories and wonder how he possibly managed to help them all, and where Jesus – who, while fully God, was also fully human – found the strength needed to keep up that pace?
It’s that one verse gives us the answer: it was at that “solitary place” where Jesus found the strength and the courage to follow God’s will and not his own; to speak God’s words and not his own; to do God’s work and not his own. These times of prayer were moments of spiritual intimacy that took place between Jesus and his heavenly Father, moments essential to the work of the Kingdom that was to be done. Indeed, it was only after such quiet times of prayer and communion that his ministry could continue with purpose and meaning.
And it begs the question: if this time off to a lonely, solitary place for prayer and reflection were essential to Jesus, who was the very son of God; if Jesus knew that he could not live in the world or face the challenges before him without God’s presence and strength; then why would we ever assume it could be any different for you and me?
For so many of us, our regular daily life-cycle of word, action and obligation – which often exists solely for the sake of moving forward – quickly and easily takes priority over the necessary moments of quiet and standing still. And for us as Christians, people who at least ought to be somewhat invested in the spiritual aspect of life, such a thing happens at our peril! I know that in my own experience there have been far too many times when I’ve allowed myself become too preoccupied with doing what needs to be done, if only so I can immediately move on to the next thing to be done! Yet in the process of “accomplishing” all these things, I’ve neglected to garner the strength and the serenity necessary to live as God would have me; to be about the business of God’s kingdom and not the one of my own creation, to adopt God’s purposes for my life rather than my own.
Does any of this sound familiar? Let me put it another way: it is so very easy for any of us to run ourselves ragged, only to realize that we’ve forgotten why we were running in the first place!
Friends, such are the times when we most need to “go to a solitary place” for prayer and reflection; to renew our very relationship with God and to be refreshed by his very presence. Only then can we ever to get a handle on what is truly important about our lives; to learn when to hold on tightly and when to let go lightly; to find the strength and vigor to do what really needs to be done and to wholly embrace God’s gifts for accomplishing the task. Ultimately, leading lives that are meaningful and purposeful – going, as the old poem beautifully phrases it, “placidly amid the noise and haste” – starts with a discipline of prayer.
How and when that happens for us can take a variety of forms. It might well be, for instance, “very early in the morning” walking the dog in the stillness of a new day dawning, or while sitting alone at the kitchen table. Or, if you’re one who could not ever be considered “a morning person,” perhaps that time is in the evening, or amidst a few stolen moments taken in the midst of a busy day. Maybe it’ll happen while walking in the park, or sitting out on the deck with birds singing in the trees above you; or else in finding space in some quiet corner of your home (I once knew of a church member who had quite literally converted a broom closet in her house into a “prayer closet;” it was crowded, she said, because the mops still had to go somewhere, but it worked!).
Wherever that “solitary place” happens to be, the point is that we actually go to that place, and that we purposefully spend the time with God; and then not merely speaking to God but also and especially listening to God’s voice in the silence. I confess that even as one whose vocation is centered on the spiritual, I find I need to do this far more than I do; but I also can tell you that it has only been when I have taken the time to go to that “solitary place” that I can ever truly begin to do all of what God would have me do in my life, with my family, and in this ministry I am privileged to share with the good folk of our church family here in Concord.
In that regard, my prayer for all of us, especially in these upcoming weeks when summer relaxation becomes a more viable option, is that each of us will take advantage of the opportunity for going to that solitary place with God, so that we might renew that relationship in the quiet and in prayer; to turn off IPods and set aside the so-called “smart” phones” for a bit so that for a change we might do as the Psalmist has sung, “Be still and know that I am God.” Maybe this year we’ll all be able to say that we truly seized the day, but this time for the sake of being refueled and renewed by the Lord’s presence.
And by the way… if you’re looking for me, I’ll be the one sitting down at the dock in the presence of the Lord, drinking a cup of coffee as together we listen for the birds and silently watch ripples form on the surface of the pond.
c, 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry