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In verse 35, our Gospel lesson says Jesus got up in the morning while it was still very dark and he went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. I have often wondered what made this place deserted. What made it empty? Was it an abandoned place or was it simply never inhabited by humans? It couldn't have been too far from the maddening crowd because Simon and his companions found Jesus.
I can relate to that--trying to find a deserted place. I get up every morning at 4:45--well, I don't actually get up until 5:00. My alarm clock calls me. I sit up to turn it off and dangle my feet along the side of the bed. Actually, the smell of the coffee automatically begun at 4:50 is what really gets me up and down the stairs. My running clothes are in the kitchen chair where I left them the previous evening, and it is only after my first cup of coffee that I realize that the Lord has blessed me with the precious gift of life for another day. As I say, "Thank you, Lord," I am not sure I have thanked God for life or for the coffee, but I figure at 5:00 a.m. if anyone knows what I mean, it's God.
After returning home from the run--usually in the cold, I love to run in the cold--I sit at the same table where I came to life and it is there that I begin with my morning prayer time. In the winter it is still very dark and I'm alone. And though my family is still asleep and unaware that they too have been blessed with the precious gift of life for another day, it is not a deserted place by any stretch of the imagination. There's the sound of the clock ticking reminding me that time is of the essence, and the hum of the refrigerator, a sign of the abundance that God has given me.
The definition of deserted means to be empty, abandoned or forsaken. I cannot say that about any room in my house. Come to think of it, as I look back over my life and think things over, I cannot think of any place that was abandoned or forsaken. I once spent an entire week alone in the woods of northern Michigan working on a manuscript. I knew I was not alone there. I learned too late that deer hunting season had just opened. There were no 5:00 a.m. runs for me that week. I heard signs of both life and impending death of some other of God's creation.
You've heard the riddle--If a tree falls in the woods and there's no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? Now the answer does not trouble me, the question does, because it presupposes that there is no life in the woods. What made that tree fall? Termites? They heard it fall. Is human life the only life that is valued?
Our Gospel lesson says Jesus is driven to seek out a place of solitude after he has healed Simon's mother-in-law. And from the success of that healing, they brought to him all who were sick and the whole city was gathered around the door, and he diagnosed and cured many who were sick with various diseases. That could mean that the people who were brought to Jesus had more than just one ailment per person. You can imagine, "O Jesus, my eye hurts, my back, my head is spinning." And they came one after another like that. And he casts out not one or a few but many demons. Dozens of people plagued with emotional, psychological, and physical problems coming and dumping their troubles on Jesus. And Jesus deals one on one with the root cause of all the unhealthiness in the whole city. Got the picture? Jesus was burnt out.
I suspect the reason he got up early in the morning while it was still dark was because he couldn't get any sleep at all. You've had those days when the work snowballs and the more you do the more it seems there is yet to be done. Even Jesus had to slip away to a quiet place to focus on regenerating, to connect with the source of all life, healing, and strength so that he could go on to the neighboring towns to proclaim the message. That would mean Jesus slipped away to a deserted place without human crowds or multitudes.
But in this day and age, it is nearly impossible to to find a deserted place at least without spending your life and or your life's savings to get there. I don't know about you, but Mount Everest is out of my league.
The challenge is to find a place of solitude. That place does not have to be a remote location. It can be your kitchen while everyone is asleep. It can be a stationery bike at your health club where you read your devotions. It can be the track with your conversation with God in your head. Or even out loud. I guarantee you, no one will bother you if you talk to God out loud.
It is important that we first make space in our day and then we find that the physical place and the spiritual space will follow.
As a teen-ager, I had a friend named Donna who had eight siblings. Whenever I would go over to her house, I was amazed at the flurry of activity and sound. In the summer there would be the sound of the lawn mower, in the winter a snow blower, in the fall the sound of the rakes scraping the pavement raking the leaves. The television would be on on the first floor. Someone would have the stereo on upstairs, the washing machine would be on in the basement. Someone in the kitchen would be washing the dishes and listening to the radio. I didn't understand how she ever got any of her studying done. This was in the 60's and she said, "You always hear about people who have tuned out. Well, I am an example. I just know how to block out all that noise and hear what I need to hear, the sound of Mr. Baumgartener explaining those proofs and theorems so that I can get through geometry."
In the account of Elijah's encounter with God on Mt. Horeb found in 1 Kings, chapter 19, we are told that it is in the sound of sheer silence that Elijah encounters God. Sheer silence is something that we have to seek out just as Elijah did. I offer it doesn't really exist. I have a friend from our radio days who now works at George Lucas Skywalker's sound in California. Several years ago I had an opportunity to visit there and was taken into a viewing room where all sound was dead. No one alive with a sense of hearing could ever imagine what you could not hear in that room. It was not natural. It had to be manufactured. I remember thinking, "This is what it must be like to be deaf." A chill came over me. I was quite uncomfortable in that room and then my friend, Greg, flipped a series of switches to simulate the so-called silence in an average movie theatre, a low, monotonous hum of the air conditioning, an almost indistinguishable buzz in the electric light, a faint murmur of movie goers attempting to be quiet. I was comfortable again.
Jesus sought out this kind of quiet place, but we are not Jesus. Maybe for many the sound of silence is not silence at all. And the silence what we hear is that there is no one there. And the silence what we hear is that there is no one to care, that there is no one to laugh with you, that there is no one to cry for you. It is in the silence that we confront our demons, and so you fill up the silence with the clacking of keyboards, working later hours, the sound of tinkling of bottles, and the shouts of cheering crowds, the chatter of your children and other people's children as you volunteer for yet another PTA duty. For us, as for Elijah, the answer is not in the fire of noisiness. The answer is not in the whirlwind of activity in the fast lane. The answer comes to Elijah in the silence. Healing comes for Jesus in stepping away to a quiet place, and, ironically, for both of them, the answer and the healing was to go back to what they were already doing, but it was in the quiet place where they wrestled with their demons.
Where is your Mt. Horeb? Do you have to be as desperate as Elijah before you go there? As least he knew where to run. Have you staked out your spot? Do it! And once you do, keep a stash there, a Bible, a prayer book, a journal, a list of blessings and your own prayers of thanksgiving, petitions.
Praying in a deserted place? I don't think so. If the divine promises to be with us always, then no place is deserted. Instead, think of it as an oasis time to connect with the one who gave us life and who sustains it daily, the one who came down to live as one of us to show us the way and who connects with us in so many ways that we have to slow down just to catch a few of them.
Let us pray.
Omnipresent God, there is no escaping you. There is no escaping the wonder of your creation. Give us the movement of your Spirit within us that we might daily make time and space for you, the giver of all time and all space. Hear our prayer and speak to us. Give us strength to tune out the signals that jam your voice and distort our reception so that we may then go on to speak in living echoes of your voice, to live as you would have us and to have that peace which passes all human understanding. Amen.
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