February 5, 2012

Alone With God


In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed..  (Mark 1:29)

A man from Toronto, tired of the cold winter, decided to go to Florida.  Unfortunately, his wife was on a business trip at the time, so he emailed her to let her know what he was doing, and to invite her to meet him there, when her business was concluded.

When he arrived at his destination, he sent his wife another e-mail to tell her he had arrived safely.  Unfortunately, he got one letter wrong in the e-mail address, - and instead of reaching his wife, the e-mail was directed to an elderly woman in Hamilton; -a pastor’s wife whose husband had died, just the day before.

When the pastor’s wife received the e-mail message, -- she screamed, then fainted.  Members of her family, (who were with her at the time), ran to her assistance.  They found her slumped over the key board of her computer.  When they glanced at the screen, they understood why she’d fainted.

The email read:  “Dearest Darling.  Just wanted you to know I arrived safely.  Looking forward to you being with me tomorrow.  Signed, your husband.  P.S.  It sure is hot down here!”

We’re living in the age of communication.  We’re far more connected with other people than any previous generation.  But sometimes this constant communication can get us into trouble.

A recent study of 1,000 students from countries around the world, (conducted by the University of Maryland’s International Center for Media & the Public Agenda),  discovered that when cut off from their media for just one day, the students suffered serious withdrawal systems including:  distress, isolation, confusion and boredom.

It’s not uncommon for those using social media today to be connected to literally hundreds of ‘so-called’ friends.  So wired has our younger generation become, that some people can no longer bear to be alone.

With Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Skype, Flicker and many of other social media sites all competing for our attention, and millions of people online every hour of every day, - it’s hard to imagine that anyone could ever feel lonely.

And yet, according to several studies, Generation Y, (the most internet-savvy of all the generations), is also the loneliest.   For example, 30 percent of Australians between the ages of 25 and 34 reported feeling lonely and bored.  And like any addict, they experienced withdrawal symptoms when not able to use their internet tools.  They’re addicted to the constant flow of information that comes via the internet.

When first introduced, technology was marketed as a labour saving device that would improve the quality of life, yet for many it has become an instrument of enslavement.

Parents tend to worry about what their kids are accessing on the internet;  - are they viewing inappropriate material;  are they being cyberbullied; and are they at risk of being contacted by a sexual predator.  But now socialbiologists are now becoming concerned about the effect of the internet on the brains of young people.  Apparently, there is scientific evidence that amid all the texting, poking and surfing, children’s digital lives are turning them into much different creatures than previous generations, and these changes are not necessarily for the better.

For starters, there is the problem of (what is called) continuous partial attention.  We all know the dangers of texting or talking on the phone while driving a motor vehicle, but what is happening to young brains still in the development stage?

Each time children and young people receive a message or text, the dopamine reward circuits of the brain are activated making them more attentive to environmental stimuli, at the expense of concentration and focus.  This constant stimulation also affects how their brains absorb new information.  Long term, this may have a serious, negative effect upon their ability to do the high-level thinking that experts say is necessary in high level professional jobs.

Turning off all forms of media, even for just a short while, can be very frightening for those accustomed to the constant flow of information and noise.   But it may also be extremely important for those seeking to achieve their full potential.

This is where our faith and our desire to follow in the steps of Jesus Christ may be of very special benefit to those of us who live in the Communication Age.

In our New Testament lesson this morning, from the Gospel of Mark we encounter Jesus at a time when He is being bombarded by crowds of people seeking healing and wanting to hear from Him words of Truth and Life.  In fact, as we read through Mark’s Gospel, we get the impression that everyone is always in a hurry, always busy.  The word ‘immediately’ appears some 50 times in Mark’s Gospel.

For example, when Jesus was baptized, Mark writes:  “And immediately the Holy Spirit sent Him (Jesus) into the desert.”  (Mark 1:12)   When Jesus encounters Simon and Andrew as they are engaged in their work of fishing, Mark says:  “And immediately they left their nets.”   Later while Jesus was healing people and casting out demons, we read:  “News spread quickly over the whole region.”  (Mark 1:28)

Finally, after a very fast paced beginning, Mark says that: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  (Mk 1:39)

Even in the fast paced, very successful and meaningful life that Jesus led, there was a need to withdraw to a quiet place, to be alone with His thoughts, and to communicate with His Father, God, in prayer.
Jesus doesn’t just go off to a quiet place to waste time or do nothing.  He goes there to recharge His spiritual batteries.  Being there enables Him to later return to His work and be far more productive.

For peace of mind, fulfillment and sanity, it is absolutely essential that human beings withdraw from the chaotic pace of life, on a regular basis, for times of solitude, prayer and reflection.  Those who fail to take these times, inevitably suffer the consequences.

If you think that living in the fast track, is a problem unique to our modern world, then think again.  In the Gospel of Luke, there is a wonderful story of Jesus being hosted by two sisters, Martha and Mary.  (Luke 10:38-42)

Jesus comes to their home.  While there he begins to teach a group of followers who gather around Him.  Mary comes to join the group, even though she is a woman, and women were generally excluded from such discussions.  Martha on the other hand, is far too busy.  In fact, she eventually comes to Jesus, complaining that her sister isn’t helping her with the work.

“Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?  Tell her to help me!”

How many times have you heard a cry like that, or perhaps uttered one yourself when a family member or co-worker has been off recharging their batteries, and you felt the whole load of work was piled on your shoulders?

But we need to realize that being still and quiet from time to time is God’s will for our lives.

A pastor of a large congregation once was accosted by a member of his congregation who complained:  “I phoned your house several times on Saturday, but I couldn’t get you.”

The pastor explained that it was his day off.

“What?  A day off?  The devil never takes a day off!” exclaimed the annoyed parishioner.

“You’re right,” replied the pastor, “and if I don’t take some ‘time out’, I’ll be just like him!”

Everyone needs times in their life where they simply slow down and be still.  Such times of quiet reflection, – are essential for the revitalization of our souls.

More than a century ago, a traveller was making a long trek through the jungles of Africa.  To carry his gear, he’d hired a group of local natives who knew the jungle and could guide him to his destination.

The first day out, they made excellent time, walking quickly along a jungle path.  But the second morning, the native couriers refused to move.  They just sat around their camp site, resting.  When he demanded to know the reason for their inactivity, the traveller was informed that they’d gone too fast the day before, and were now waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.

There’s an ancient legend told about the apostle John who was then bishop of Ephesus.  His hobby was raising pigeons.  One day, an elder of his congregation was passing his house, on his way back from a hunting excursion.  When the hunter saw John playing with one of his birds, he criticized the old apostle for spending his time frivolously.

John looked up at the hunter, and observed that the string on his bow was loosened.

“I loosen the string on my bow when it’s not in use,” replied the hunter, “if I didn’t, it would lose its rebounding quality and fail me in the hunt.”

“Well”, replied John, “I’m relaxing the bow of my mind so that I may be better able to shoot the arrows of divine truth.”

Time for relaxation and quiet is important, but even more important is what we do in such times of withdrawal.

If we truly want the peace and fullness of life of which Jesus spoke, we need to use our times of solitude to commune with God, - our creator and the source of our power and strength.

But prayer is more than simply asking God for help.  There are times when such asking is essential and when it should be a part of our prayer time.   But there are other times when prayer should be a matter of listening.

The true meaning of prayer is time spent with God.  It might involve asking for things.  It might also involve thanking God for what we have received.   But often, it is just time to listen for and to feel, the guidance of God.

There is a story in the Old Testament Book of Elijah, where the prophet is instructed by God to “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” (I Kings 19:11-12)

“Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.  After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.  And after the fire came a gentle whisper” (or as some translations express it, ‘a still, small voice’.

It was in the still, small voice, that Elijah experienced the presence of God.

When we are constantly being bombarded by noise and messages, and when we never take time to withdraw from the frantic activities of our lives, - we miss that ‘still, small voice’ of God speaking to us; guiding and calming us; recharging our spiritual batteries.

During the Dark Ages of European history, back some one thousand years ago, when society had sunk into mindless corruption and immorality, and when the Christian church had allowed the negative influences of that society to degrade it, - (much like what I see happening in many parts of the church in the western world today), - the only thing which saved the Church and its message, was the fact that a few, devote Christians withdrew from society and went off to solitary places for prayer and contemplation.

Soon monasteries were formed, and the devout that gathered in them dedicated their lives to such menial tasks as copying by hand, over and over again, the pages of the Bible so that its record would not be lost.  Other members of the monasteries engaged in teaching and healing, but no matter how they occupied their working hours, - they dedicated many hours a day to prayer and private devotions.

Had these ancient monks not followed such lives of total dedication, we wouldn’t be here this morning worshipping the one true God, whom we know and experience, because we have the Good News of Christ, which was recorded for us in the Bible.

Mark’s Gospel tells us that at the end of his prayer time, Jesus got up and got on with his ministry, saying to His disciples:  “Let us go somewhere else, to the nearby villages, so I can preach there also.  For that is why I have come.”  (Mark 1:38)

In other words, when our prayer time is finished, then it’s time to get going again, doing the things which God has directed us to do, in and through our daily routines.