text : Mark 6:7-13 and 30-32
theme verse : “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (Mk 6:31)
When is the last time you were quiet enough to hear your own heart beat? To feel it? Sense itsrhythm as if your very soul was trying to show itself to you in a marvelous and tangible way? Parker Palmer suggests “the soul is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy. But it is also shy.... if we will walk quietly into the woods, sit patiently by the base of the tree, and fade into our surroundings, the wild animal we seek might put in an appearance."To find a sacred way forward, we must first create a foundation, or baseline, for God to buildupon. Our starting point? Solitude.
opening : 'Beautiful Things' (Gungor) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
reading : Roy Peters
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
offertory : 'Revelation Song' (J.Riddle) :: Ashley Pease & Jenn Epperley, vocal; Susie Monger Daughterty, piano
Mark 6:7-13; 30-32
He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. 30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.
Last Wednesday night, this sanctuary was full of young and old, babies with that new car smell (but human, you know?) and saintly journeyers who have seen and been through some stuff. There were youth and middle aged, parents and singles and seekers and doubters. There were some grieving and others wondering why their body has betrayed them while another bounces up the aisle taking each step for granted. Many of you were there and so was I. It was a beautiful night to mark the beginning of a beautiful and deeply spiritual season we call Lent – which is something far greater than the glob of fabric you might pull out of your pocket. After those who chose to receive the mark of the cross in ash on their foreheads, we sat together in this space, mindful of our mortality, wondering about our deepest longings to be loved and connected to the One who fashioned us from the dust of the earth. Courtney invited us to put our hands over our hearts… to feel our hearts beat. To breathe in deep enough to feel our lungs press against the cage designed to hold them in place. It was a powerful moment to individually and collectively breathe deeply… asking the Spirit of God to fill us. When is the last time you were quiet enough to hear your own heart beat? To really feel it? Sense its rhythm as if your very soul was trying to show itself to you in a marvelous and tangible way? When have you slowed enough to focus on your very breath… one after another… each inhale and exhale holds almost an audible whispered word: “Gift. Gift. Gift.”
I once watched a doctor hold my newborn baby in the air by the ankles and give him a shake. I was alarmed. “What are you doing to my kid? Can you do that?” As a new parent, you have this sense that babies are so fragile, and you’ve got to handle them like grandma’s fine china. I remember driving home from the hospital with our first born going about five miles an hour with my hazards on the whole way. Traffic is stacking up behind us and I’ve got my arm out the window waving for them to “Go around!” I had precious cargo on board. But doc picked up my newborn son like he was rubber. But doc was doing all of this to help my son take his first breath. And this was more than a first breath… it was the gift of life itself. “Before anything else can be said about you, you have received a gift … God has given you life. Are you breathing? Gift. Gift. Gift. Isn’t that extraordinary? We quickly forget this gift when we get on about our lives. We bump up against failure and pain, heartache and abuse and loss. While we grieve and feel and try to express all that is brewing within us, “a truth courses through the veins of all our bumps and bruises, and [that truth] is this: We have received.” You are here. You are breathing. And this sacred season of Lent invites us to go back that far, that deep, to the very heart beat of God. It is the question of this first Sunday of Lent. Do you remember the gift of your life? Your very breath? How do you remind yourself that its there? If you went on a hunt for your very soul, would you even know what you are hunting for?
Parker Palmer, an author and educator, says
“The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, self-sufficient. It knows how to survive in hard places. But it is also shy. Just like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense underbrush. If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out. But if we will walk quietly into the woods, sit patiently by the base of the tree, and fade into our surroundings, the wild animal we seek might put in an appearance.”
We’re on a quest this Lenten season to regain the sacred rhythm that launched us in this world and today, we start with the gift and discipline of solitude as an entry point to re-connect with God in our extra-noisy, cluttered lives. Call it a soul hunt perhaps.
Jesus says to the disciples who have been out and about sharing the Good News they have come to know, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Do you make any space in your life for such a practice? We don’t tend to be creatures with great practices of solitude. We like the noise. We prefer the energy of the crowd. We don’t want to have to be alone with our own spirit… with God. However, we also have our limits with that noise, don’t we? “She’s too much,” we say. “I can’t deal with him today.” It happens to all of us.
An elementary school teacher gave her students the assignment of writing what life will be like when they’re 100 years old. One little girl named Emma offered up a very honest response. See if you can relate. How many of you are ready to sign up for that life now? Emma may be on to something. The truth is, we live in a society that values productivity, success, achievement, and all-star status. Imagining time of solitude… silent space to listen to your own heart beat and feel your soul and your very breath again… in and out… gift, gift, gift. Forget about it. But this is extremely critical to building a spiritual foundation that can hold the rest of your life. Even daily doses of solitude will save you from the crash and burn that often takes down too many of us when we just can’t keep up anymore.
When we consider the three years of Jesus’ ministry (Three years! That’s it. Talk about getting a lot of work done in a short amount of time) … the primary work of his three years was to get ordinary people like you and me to remember their very life; their very breath… remember that life is a gift and they have what it takes to bring the kingdom of God to earth. To be effective in an ongoing way, however, these disciples would have to learn to make space to be with God alone; not confusing activity, even Godly activity, with simply being with God… recharged, renewed. When we are in “go” mode all the time, we start to think it is we who are creating the world again and again in seven days. Now… Jesus had the disciples active, yes. They had to get out there and start being the church if there was ever going to be something we could call church for the long haul. And in our text from Mark’s gospel today (not a third person reference here), we see that very thing.
Jesus sends them out in pairs to teach and heal. They were told to pack light and weren’t given any daily stipend. No steak dinners. No luxury hotels. No lights and fog or cool skinny jeans like trendy worship leaders were starting to wear. “You are the equipment,” Jesus said. Big gulp. They weren’t ready for this, right? We never are. Or we always are and we just don’t think we are. But they’re out there, preaching and teaching and listening to stories and sharing stories and anointing bodies and eating meals with people and healing those they could and it. was. awesome! But as so often is the case… when life is flying high and the spirit is soaring in powerful ways, something sweeps the leg. In this case, it’s the death of their spiritual partner John the Baptist. He’s beheaded on the silliest of whims and it had been the disciple’s job to retrieve the body of their friend and bury him. So they’ve had this marvelous success and now this grief and, as the text says, “The disciples gathered around Jesus and told him all the things they had experienced on their journey.”
They surely had some one-up stories. “Man, this one spirit we exorcised was epic.” “Yeah, well, Pete preached this one sermon that was the number one downloaded message of the week across the land and the whole community came to faith.” Another chimes in, “This one lady we met and sang for tried to pay us in meatballs. She was all, “Hold out your hands!” just like that lady in the Wedding Singer.” The bigger issue, Jesus knows, is how these guys will sustain their spiritual life without being all consumed by outward successes. If they lose touch with the Spirit, they’ve got nothing. It is why Jesus insists on them doing what Jesus regularly demonstrated himself, “Go on to that deserted place and feel your heart beat again.”
Solitude is the longing for God… to experience God in an unmediated way. We so often try to mediate this connection with our words or theological constructs or religious activity. Solitude, however, is really this deep longing to find ourselves… to be in touch with what is most real within us. But as Ruth Haley Barton writes in her book, “Sacred Rhythms,” this inspiration of this Lenten series,
“It’s tricky to get the soul to come out. We are not very safe for ourselves because our internal experience involves continual critique and judgment and our tender soul does not want to risk it. And so, we settle for a noisy spirituality which oftentimes is just an organized group of people crashing through the woods together, making so much noise that there’s not a soul in sight.”
When we go and go and go exhaustion sets in … especially when we are accessible all the time. When our phones never get left on the dresser in the bedroom so we can be present to the humans we do life with, everyone loses. Most of us are more tired than we know at the soul level. “We are teetering on the brink of dangerous exhaustion, and we really cannot do anything else until we have gotten some rest.” I had a colleague who was sharing with me about this struggle… Sabbath… a holy word we throw around but tend not to pay attention to… Sabbath being a holy day when we rest, break free from schedules and commitments and being the supposed boss of our lives to remember that we are not God and are not expected to be. Sabbath. My friend was saying how we think of rest or Sabbath as what happens when we’re exhausted… we collapse at the end of our break-neck-speed lives and call that collapse Sabbath. But Sabbath is actually to come first. We are to work from our rest not rest from our work. Do you sense the difference? The intentionality is different and, I’ll argue, that our productivity will be much better as well.
And I know what you’re thinking… “I don’t have time do nothing. I don’t have time for solitude. I am the god of my life and I ain’t got time to listen for some other God.” We may be resistant in this way… or we may be a little softer while still hesitant. “I see the value… I crave the solitude but is there really any hope for me? I’m overcommitted and too far gone.” My guess is your spirit is telling you it needs this. We’re an exhausted people. Several friends posted this meme this week:
Does that resonate with you? You’ve got private pain and disillusionment that you’ve been trying to shore up with inspirational pep talks that sound like somebody else’s rhetoric more than God’s word to you. You’ve got heavy decisions looming and you’re exhausted to the point of not trusting your own judgment. Your ability to love and trust is wearing thin and you’re just simply on the brink of not being able to handle your life. What I want to say to you… if that’s what you’re feeling is this… “Don’t be torn down by such discouragement. See your restlessness as an invitation to do something different.” You need space to be with what is truly real in your life – to celebrate your joys, grieve the losses, shed the tears, sit with questions and feel your feelings. This “being with what is” is not the same as problem solving or fixing… it is being in that place and waiting for God to meet you there. We get so busy trying to make stuff happen rather than simply waiting on God to heal us from the inside out. It’s why Moses encourages the Israelites who have been backed into a corner by the Egyptians to hang in there. He says, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” (Exodus 14:13-14). Could you start there?
Choose a place that feels comfortable and safe… a favorite chair, a favorite tree. Settle into a comfortable position in your body. Feel your heart beat. Breathe deeply. Sit patiently until you begin to notice what is most true about you these days. Don’t rush. Don’t try to make anything happen. Let your soul venture out to say something to you that perhaps you have had a hard time acknowledging. Sit with what comes to you and become conscious of God’s presence with you in that awareness. Don’t try to do anything with what you are knowing except be with it. In other words, as Ruth Barton says, “Don’t scare it away.” Feel the difference between trying to fix it and just being with it. Barton says, “Feel the difference between doing something with it and resting with it. Feel the difference between trying to fight it and letting God fight for you. What does it mean for you to be still and let God fight or work for you in this particular area?” Solitude. It may feel strange at first but stick with it… regularly… the biggest changes in our lives come from the smallest adjustments, compounded over time.
I was on retreat with the leadership team of the Bethany Fellows in Arizona early last month. It was such a powerful week in the desert. I admit that my soul was parched. The noise was consuming. I was holding a lot with you and for you… along with my own spiritual and life noise. I have been on this particular retreat five years running now… to the desert… a place I never imagined appreciating so much. But it took my fifth return to feel God’s presence in a way that I have never before. You’ve got to stick with this stuff, you know. This time, stepping out onto that desert soil, I almost verbalized out loud what I felt in my spirit: “This place knows my heart. This desert has held my prayers before.” One of our disciplines is to spend the best part of two days in solitude… we practice silence… cut out the distractions… get your spirit knotted tighter with God’s. On that second day, I climbed a familiar mountain and sat on this rock for a couple of hours. This was my view. I thought of you… named you in my spirit… held your pains that I knew of and celebrated your joys. I sat with myself in a way I hadn’t for a long time. It’s sort of a big reflective year in my household. My wife and I both turn forty. We’ll also celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. This will be our tenth year of living and serving among you. The church turns sixty in just a few short weeks. And I just sat with my soul… and allowed it to feel what I hadn’t made time to feel. It was hard and it was sweet. There were tears and there was healing. There was uncertainty and there was hope. Now I stayed on that mountain for a good while… honestly part of it was I realized it was going to be a lot harder to get down than it was climbing up. There was no path… it was reaching, stretching and climbing rocks. But I also felt so close to God. I came down the better for having made the climb.
Look… I get invited into a lot of stories… greatest privilege as a pastor is your trust to say, “This is my life… it’s hard… will you hold it with me.” Of course I will. I know your pains and your uncertainties and rejections and questions and breakdowns and breakthroughs. I know you’re wondering if “just sitting in the presence of God” can really make any difference in your life. And I know it may be the hardest discipline of all. But if we want to have any foundation upon which we can build our faith, we’ve got to come away to a deserted place, a park bench, a hallway in your home, and rest in the presence of God. Let that practice become the baseline to the song God is playing through your life. It will put you in the flow of the sacred rhythm and ground you in a way that nothing else can. Lent is an invitation to look at your life in a whole new way.
It was awesome last Thursday to have part of the Chebny crew come by the church to receive their ashes as they were out of town for our Ash Wednesday service. That’s extra mile discipleship. “Ash Thursday” they lovingly called it. Pastor Courtney received them and made the mark of the cross on their foreheads… even Canaan in full Spiderman garb. As they left, Giselle asked Canaan, “Can you tell me what the ashes mean?” “I have dirt all over me,” he said. His mom then asks, “and what does that have to do with Jesus?” Canaan says, “He washes the dirt off of me.”
‘Tis the season for deepening our practice, friends. You’ve got to want it… give the extra time. Hold your heart. Feel your lungs breathe. I can’t wait to see what new life will find its way in our lives as gift… gift… gift…
 From Rob Bell’s “How to be Here.” Harper Collins. 2016. The quotes of these two paragraphs come from this work.
 Sacred Rhythms. Ruth Haley Barton. IVP Books. 2006. Her influence is evident in this message as well as in the formation of the entire series.