A Short Prayer on a Long Weekend
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, May 19, 2019
Reading: Mark 6:30-44
The prison doors made a terrible sound when they were locked behind us. I vividly recall the look on all our faces when the final bolt was set and we knew that we were not coming out for eight hours. It was a visit to a penitentiary in New Brunswick many years ago with a group of clergy and pastoral caregivers to witness firsthand the work of a prison chaplain. It gave us the opportunity to meet inmates, talk about things in their lives that had brought them to the point where they ended up being incarcerated, and it was terrifying.
As we walked around with the chaplain, I must admit, I was in awe. I thought it was one thing to be in a pastorate with members of the congregation it’s another for the congregants to be in a penitentiary! After it was all over we had a debriefing session. The doors were locked behind us as we walked to freedom. As we sat down in a coffee shop, I asked the chaplain, “How do you survive as a chaplain in an institution as terrifying as this?”
He said that there were two very simple things that he needed to do. The first was to get away, and the second was to get God. For him, being able to get away, to rethink, refocus, and be in a normal setting, was an important part of his experience as a chaplain. If he didn’t do it, the pathology of the institution would become a determining fact in his own life.
He also needed to get God. There were times when in the intense cauldron of a prison, where God was such an integral part of the healing and the restoration of those there. He said, “There are times when I need to get God, because I cannot be giving out to people, I cannot be in a position where I'm hearing horrendous things, and processing them in my life, if I don’t have a sense of God in my own life.”
Sometime before, I had been a student chaplain in a psychiatric hospital for people who had severe mental disorders. I knew to some extent how important it was to get away to reflect, but also to have one’s own spiritual batteries recharged. But it was nothing compared to what this chaplain was going through in that prison. It seemed to me that there was a fundamental principle at work here, that it’s not just in the extremes of a prison cell, or when you're dealing with psychiatric issues, but in life in general. Getting away and getting God are wise words, regardless of where you may find yourselves.
When I look into the Scriptures, it’s fascinating to realise that there are twenty incidents that I could find – you might find more – twenty incidents where Jesus deliberately got away from the crowd, from the maelstrom following him all the time, to pray and to reflect and to be with his Father, or to be in fellowship with his disciples. Twenty times. He went to the wilderness, the Mount of Olives, out on a boat, to his hometown, he even went into the city. He went away for the purpose of prayer, reflection, and meditation.
The great Eugene Petersen, in a beautiful book, The Jesus Way, said the following:
Day by day, week by week, month by month, as Jesus’ identity as God among us was filled out, detail by detail, he prayed each detail into the form of a servant. His daily persistent praying kept every notice and recognition that came his way. Every gesture he made, expressive and revelatory of God and God’s salvation.
He’s arguing that Jesus prayed himself through his ministry, and that his relationship with the heavenly Father, and his desire to meditate and to be filled with the power of God was an integral part of his ministry and outreach. Jesus often preceded these moments of self-discovery, revelation, and power with a time away.
In today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark, we read something very similar. The context is, I think, very important. Jesus was not having a good week; he had witnessed, the beheading of John the Baptist. Herod seemed to be gloating in his victories over those who espoused Jesus of Nazareth and the kingdom of God. There was a question in his hometown about whether he was really the Messiah. He says, “A prophet hath no honour in his own home.” He couldn’t even go home, home wasn’t looking great. Then he commissioned the disciples to go forth and to spread the good news of the gospel, to proclaim the kingdom of God and to do the work of a missionary on his behalf. Now, in this passage, they're coming back, reporting what they had done and seen, and relaying their success.
What does Jesus do at that point? Well, you would think, wouldn’t you, if you were into a good marketing policy, that you would gather the energy that you've just received from the disciples, and tell them to go back out there again and do it. But no. Jesus says, “Come and rest a while, go into a deserted place, be by yourselves, and rest a while.” In other words, don’t go charging out again, fueled by your success, but stop, rest, reflect. Of course, Jesus didn’t let them go by themselves. He went with them, and the rest and the retreat that he had with them was a powerful one.
Why did Jesus do that? He did it because he knew that even greater challenges lay ahead. He knew that there would be a rush by the crowds to know more. He knew that there was a hunger in the heart of humanity, a need for a shepherd or a leader, and he recognised that there would be a great following. But before that, there was the need to rest and to get away. Why? Because it was a prelude to power. Every time Jesus did something miraculous, like the feeding of the five thousand, every time he went away and restored himself, and those around him.
I love the cadence of African-American preachers. They can turn a phrase and use it like no one else. I’ve never forgotten a sermon that I heard many years ago in Boston, by a well-known African-American preacher, and the title of it was, “Rest for Zest”. He kept repeating it, “rest for zest”, and “if you don’t rest, you’ll have no zest,” and “if you don’t take time away, you won't have time for God”. He soared into the stratosphere. But I’ve thought about it: this is a moment of rest for zest, this is a moment to get away to recharge your spiritual batteries. Jesus wanted this for his disciples. He knew that it was an important part of their life.
Now as we know, he went into a boat and sailed off, and if they had sailed off in Galilee and had gone to the other shore to get away, this would not be a quick motor launch from one side to the other. This would be a day-long trip of four or five miles in very simple boats. And so the time at sea, the time with the disciples, was that deserted place, a time of rest and renewal. Rest and renewal is not something our modern world knows much about. I think a lot of people would subscribe to the notion that it’s important to get away at times. But what Jesus is talking about is not just getting away physically, but for the purpose of having some time for God, and some time for fellowship. In the midst of this world that we’re in, it’s so hard to find.
My heart goes out to – and I say this all the time – to caregivers, dealing with a sick person in their family, or caring for someone in need. There is a need for those caregivers to get away, to recharge their batteries in order that they can give to somebody else. It might sound like a simple thing, but believe you me, if you're in the position where you're a caregiver, it is often fraught with all manner of problems, both scheduling and guilt. People feel they can't get away, leave their responsibilities. But sometimes you need to step to one side and to recharge your batteries in order to be supportive of someone else.
In times of crisis Winston Churchill would say, “I can't go on anymore, I'm going to have a nap.” His famous power naps were his moments away to recharge his batteries. Even with the greatest crisis, in the midst of battles he took time to rest and restore himself. In a day and age of immense stress, and noise, our 24/7 world, it is so important to have moments of rest and regeneration so that we can reconnect. A time to rest for zest.
I read an incredible statistic in a science magazine about those who live in urban settings, and how we are bombarded with noise, even if we don’t realise it. Some of the statistics are incredible, for example, the hum of a power line can be heard for two kilometres. That the sound of a chainsaw can actually be heard for eight kilometres. A coal power generator can be heard twenty-four kilometres away, and an airplane can be heard eighty kilometres away. It was a remarkable essay about how sound travels, but becomes so cumulative that we don’t discern the individual sounds, they are always just there.
Recently Stats Canada did an analysis of stress in our lives and concluded that 46 percent of us, on a daily basis, live with significant negative stress. There is positive stress, but negative stress. Sixty-two percent of it is to do with work, eight percent family, 12 percent finding time for things, and 12 percent finances. The point being made in this essay about noise is that we don’t realise it, but we’re completely bombarded by things. Our minds don’t switch off and connect with God because they are continually being overly-stimulated.
Now look, I know it’s not realistic for everyone to go into the woods and hug a tree for a week. I know that that’s not possible, but there’s a need for us to think about how, in our own lives, with some discipline, we take time to get away, to be quiet, to rest for zest.
Jesus talks more profoundly about the need to get away. In the Gospel of Matthew, before the magnificent passage on the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus had these words of instruction for his disciples in The Sermon on the Mount. You've heard it many times, but I want to repeat it.
When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
For Jesus then, clearly the model for prayer is that sense of both getting away, but also getting to God.
The thing that touched me the most about the chaplain who served in New Brunswick was that he did that job for many years and you could see the influence he had on people’s lives, and inmates who after their release, would connect with him, often for years after moving to other parts of the country. There was a bond developed, because they knew that in him, there was someone who cared for them and that care came from the very heart of the God with whom he connected.
It was the same with the crowds following Jesus, who went around the hillsides of Galilee and sat on the green banks waiting for Jesus and his disciples to arrive. He said that they were like sheep who needed a shepherd. They wanted to connect with him. But they weren't just connecting with Jesus, they were connecting with God. They saw in Jesus the incarnation of God, they saw in Him the full presence of God. What they wanted more than the bread, more than the fish, was God.
That is why I'm so delighted that Reverend Lori has her program, “Hearing God”. There’s a need in our lives to connect almost daily with God, to hear, and to listen, and to learn. It requires some effort on our part, that’s what Jesus said: “Go, close the door.” In other words, do something, set yourself apart in your life in order that you can hear God.
What concerns me about our culture is that while we have the massive advantages – and young people in particular – of education and travel, technology and opportunity, for so many what they lack is that daily sense of God in their lives. That sense that they can hear God, be present with God, and actually know God in their lives. What’s the point of having everything else if at the end one doesn’t have the very love and compassion, joy and forgiveness of the very one who made them in the first place?
Maybe part of the stresses of our world and the driven-ness and this desire to make sure that we justify ourselves, stand out and be important, is driven by a lack of the kind of the peace of resting in the presence of God.
Many of the great biblical characters who preceded Jesus were alone. When Moses was up on the mountain and saw the burning bush, he was alone. When David was told to meditate on the word day and night, he was alone. When Isaiah experienced the cherubim and the seraphim, he was alone and in prayer. Great, powerful things come from prayer; great, powerful things can happen because of prayer. But if you don’t rest, you don’t have the zest, and if you don’t take the time to dwell on the power of God, our busy lives just pass away.
I love a long weekend! Hopefully for most of us, it gives us an extra day of rest. Use the day, make part of it time to reconnect with the very power of God. Make the effort, make it today. Take the time, just meditate and pray.
I love the great Irish blessing, you've probably heard it before. I sent it to a friend of mine in South Africa last night after I heard his father had died, and how connected they’d been. I said, “This is my prayer for you”:
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace of Christ,
of Christ the light of the world to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you.
A short prayer on a long weekend. Amen.