January 7 | Starting with Solitude





Starting with Solitude
Text: Mark 1:12-2:4
Speaker: Joel Miller

Today’s readings from Mark begin with Jesus alone in the wilderness, and end with Jesus surrounded by so many people a group of friends has to remove part of a roof just to get to him.  There’s enough that goes on in between it’s hard to keep pace. 

Jesus emerges from the wilderness with a message so short it can almost fit on a bumper sticker: “The time is fulfilled, the kin-dom of God has come near.”  Mark, and Jesus, call this, simply, good news, or gospel.  Jesus proceeds to recruit two sets of brothers, all fishermen; teach in a synagogue and cast out a harmful spirit; restore one of those brother’s mother-in-law back to health; go on a campaign across his home region of Galilee proclaiming his message and driving out more harmful spirits; restore a man with a dreaded skin condition back to full fellowship in the community; and land in a house where people are so eager to be in his presence they’re willing to dismantle whatever barriers there may be between them and him – in this case a thatched roof.  All that and we’re just barely out of Mark chapter 1.  Very soon the crowds will get so dense Jesus will need to get into a boat and push out into the Sea of Galilee in order to teach those on the shore– as if there isn’t room left for him on land to even stand.     

Of the four New Testament gospels, Mark is the fastest paced, the shortest and, very likely, the first written.  When the generation that’s been telling these stories for decades is close to dying off, you better hurry up and find a way to piece it all together. 

It’s no surprise some of the urgency of the task shows up in how the final text reads.   Better get used to it.  The Narrative Lectionary has us sprint-walking through Mark till Easter.

Stories of a formerly unknown figure rising to mass popularity aren’t especially unique.  But there’s a break in the crescendo of Mark chapter 1 that seems significant to the Jesus story.  Verse 35: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  Simon and his companions have to actually hunt him down and remind him of the obvious: “Everyone is searching for you,” they say.  Indeed. 

It wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last time Jesus pursues solitude.  It’s what he’s doing when 5000 people go searching for him and forget to pack a lunch, so Jesus feeds them with five loaves and two fish.  It’s what he’s doing before he meets a Syro-Phoenician woman who disrupts not just his solitude, but also his self-understanding, afterwards expanding his mission to the Gentiles.  It’s what Jesus does in the Garden of Gethsemane when Rome’s soldiers are closing in, and he knows the end is near.

It appears, amidst the growing crowds and conflicts, Jesus is always trying to return to the place where he started, right after his baptism – the solitude of the wilderness. 

Seeking solitude is a good practice for the beginning of a new year.  Whether or not you’re into New Year’s resolutions.  Whether or not you find January 1 a mostly arbitrary point to change calendars.  Here we are at the beginning of something, and here we are with an opportunity to have that something that we give ourselves to be defined by more than whatever the strong current of culture or habit would have us do.  Or, to make a more direct reference to Mark, more than what the crowds want or expect. 

Solitude, and the open heart and listening ears we bring to it, is one of the most powerful practices we have to make ourselves available to the deeper currents of soul and spirit that flow within us. 

I’ve shared before about our family’s usual way of ending one year and beginning the next – we make the long drive out to Western Kansas to celebrate Christmas and New Years with Abbie’s family.  When we’re mostly there, about 1/3rd of the way into Kansas on I-70, after passing through the Flint Hills, the landscape flattens out even more, the sky keeps getting bigger, and towns are so spread out they start advertising themselves hundreds of miles in advance.  And I hear those perennial Advent words of Isaiah still fresh in my mind:, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low, the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”  It’s a remarkable way to end a year, driving straight into some kind of fulfilled prophesy.  Like the first words of Jesus in Mark: “The time is fulfilled, the kin-dom of God has come near: repent and believe the good news.” 

This is it.  This is the time you’ve been waiting for.  It’s all right here.  Can you believe it?!

As an Ohio native, used to being surrounded by remnants of the Eastern temperate forest, it’s the massive sky and open landscape that get me every time.  If life at home feels full and a bit closed in, that space feels spacious and unhurried.  Big enough to hold anything – like the year ahead. 

Kansas is an ancient seabed that dried up around the time the dinosaurs went the way of the dinosaurs.  Now one can stand in an ocean of wheat and prairie grasses, as long as the wind doesn’t blow you over.  When you can breathe air at the bottom of the sea, anything feels possible. 

It’s a place that draws you into solitude even if you’re surrounded by people.  It’s a good time to listen to the open spaces within oneself.  It’s a good time to consider one’s life on the scale of millions of years.  It’s a good time to let solitude teach you how to close up one year and enter the next.  It’s that return, time and again, back to the wilderness. At least that’s how I’ve experienced it over the years – the gospel according to Kansas.  Maybe each of you have a place like that.  I hope so.

It may seem risky or misguided to prescribe solitude in a culture that has been diagnosed with an epidemic of loneliness.  This is a very real problem and I think about it often.  I worry about it for my kids and parents and culture.  Maybe worrying about other people’s loneliness is a way of avoiding one’s own loneliness. 

This is one of the gifts I think the church has for the world.  At our best, we’re a community that shows up and takes care of each other, despite not being related by blood, or having the same hobbies, or whatever it is that usually draws people out of their separateness.  It’s the kind of community Jesus was calling together when he went around Galilee speaking and touching and welcoming and driving out harmful spirits.  The kind of work he knew needed to be sustained with solitude.   Which is different than aloneness, and certainly different than loneliness. 

It was the poet Marrrianne Moore who wrote “The cure for loneliness is solitude.”  Loneliness cuts us off from others, shrinks our world, but solitude expands it, puts us in deeper communion with ourselves, our ancestors, the nonhuman world, God.  

When Jesus enters solitude, Mark says he prays.  Which is another way of saying he communes with the most spacious, most life giving, most generative aspect of reality he can fathom.  He is away from the crowds, but he is anything but alone.  He’s kneeling on earth that catches seeds and multiplies them into a harvest that feeds the multitudes.  He’s breathing in 70 million year old molecules that have been circulating since the time Western Kansas looked like a vast Sea of Galilee.  Exhaling them for the olive trees to take their turn.  He’s saying ‘your will be done,’ and he’s not saying this to Caesar or the crowds or his ego, but to a great Mystery he’s still coming to terms with.         

In solitude, we are perhaps more connected to what is real and what is good and what is worthy of our life energies, than we are when we are in the flow of village life, surrounded by people and tasks.  We are anything but alone. 

The cure for loneliness, the poet says, is solitude. 

Solitude may be exactly what the Spirit prescribes, sometimes whether we like it or not.  The same word used for Jesus casting out, driving out, throwing out, the demons and harmful spirits throughout the Galilean countryside, is the same word used for the Spirit casting, throwing, Jesus into the wilderness in the first place after he’d been baptized by John in the Jordan River.  Mark  1:12: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” 

In his first recorded instance of solitude, Jesus is essentially exorcised from society by the Spirit, and, having been cast out by the Divine Spirit, becomes filled with that same Spirit in such a way that when he re-enters his culture, he does so with a power and perspective he would not have had had the Spirit not cast him out in the first place.  In other words, the God-given gifts of his solitude go with him as he does what he knows he must do, as he proclaims and lives out a kin-dom that has indeed arrived.  And he returns to that solitude in regular patterns in order to replenish those very gifts that need to be given through him.

What if, when Jesus calls the fishermen to follow him, when he takes his ailing mother-in-law by the hand and welcomes her into discipleship, he is asking them to follow him not just among the crowds, but into a life that includes solitude and prayer?

So, this year started a little different….Rather than going to Kansas for New Years, Kansas came to us – as did Pennsylvania and South Carolina, the other places Abbie’s siblings and kids live.  Our first year of hosting the family holiday gathering.  And I’ll just tell you that having a guys’ night out at Pins Mechanical at Bridge Park Dublin with four elementary aged nephews squealing with glee at the free arcades and cheap pin ball machines, almost loud enough to hear them over the blasting greatest hits of the 90s and a thousand other people all around you is indeed a good time but isn’t quite the same as going for a solo jog into a massive Kansas sunset, pondering geological time and the fulfillment of prophesy.   

Sometimes you have to work a little harder to find your solitude. 

It’s the first Sunday of 2024, and if you haven’t yet found your solitude to begin the year, this service could be it.  Take a deep breath and tune in to the currents of soul and spirit flowing deep within.  Let this guide you during these days of war and rumors of war, in your work and your play, your relatioships with those dearest to you and those it takes every ounce of will to love.  And be prepared, the Spirit might exorcise you from the flow of daily life at any point into the gifts of solitude.    

Jesus said the time is fulfilled, the kin-dom is here, believe the good news.  Solitude is a way of getting in touch with this deepest of realities, then living as if it is indeed true.  It that spirit, we’ll have an extended time of silence, three minutes, before singing our response song.