Sunday, February 5, 2012

On Praying for a Snow Day

Mark 1:29-39
Ordinary Time
February 5, 2012
William G. Carter

35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 

            I think I am ready for a snow day. How about you? My last snow day was back around Halloween. The weather has been mild, to say the least. These days, it seems like Pennsylvania has mixed up it meteorology with Australia.

            And I confess there’s nothing I like better than a snow day – to call in and say, “Wish I could make it to work, but they haven’t plowed my street.” Then I will put a fire in the fireplace, make a pot of soup, and lean back in my chair with a good book. I love to have a day like that – a day to be still, a day to reflect, a day to sit by the roaring fire and chill out.

            When it snows, my wife announces, “I’m so glad that I married a man with a snowblower.” I say, “Let’s race for it.” She always wins. It’s amazing. So I make the coffee, cook up some eggs, and watch the Weather Channel to make sure nobody is changing their mind. If the snow day comes off, we kick back and take it easy.

            For some, a snow day is a burden, a pain in the neck – or a pain in the back and shoulders. For me, the snow day comes as a gift of a quiet spot in the middle of very active life. I can’t wait until the next one.

            We can understand why Jesus slips away for some quiet time, can’t we? Mark begins by reporting a typical day in the life of the Savior. Jesus teaches in the synagogue, casts out a demon, ruffles the feathers of a congregation, and cures a fever. Then he has a meal, served by the very lady that he healed. Word spreads all over Capernaum. Friends tell their friends. Children tell their parents. By nightfall, the whole city is jammed around his door, says Mark.

            Jesus heals one person at a time, curing this one who was sick, untangling that one who was twisted, lifting up this one who is downtrodden, leveling out that one who was manic. He muzzles the powers of destruction and won’t let them talk back. All in a day’s work – a very full day. It must have been exhausting.

            No wonder, then, that Jesus wakes up in the middle of the night and slips away. He goes to a quiet place and gets away from everybody and everything. Then he prays. We can applaud him for his self-care. If he retreats for a bit of silence, the getaway promises to restore his soul. No question that he needs some time away from all the activity. No question that even Jesus needs a snow day.

            All of us know about this. Life can be tiring and we yearn for some rest. There is physical exhaustion and mental weariness. We hear from the scriptures that Jesus was fully human, just like us. What that means is he got tired just like us. If he put in a long, hard day, he felt it the next day. In fact, a few short chapters after this, Jesus has another exhausting day. A crowd pushes close, backing him all the way to the Sea of Galilee. So he puts out in a small boat and teaches all morning and afternoon. In the evening, he says to his friends, “Time to go.” So they set out in the boat and Jesus promptly falls asleep. He was out, completely out. Even as a summer storm swirled in, and the waves got choppy, he was snoring through the storm. He was really tired.

            So Jesus gets up early one morning, slips out of town, moves away from the needy crowds, and he prays. After a hard day of doing the Kingdom work, he spends time in communion with the King. After laboring long and hard on the Sabbath, he takes a Sabbath – and he prays. At the center of all his holy activity of healing, teaching, and battling the evil spirits, Jesus pauses to speak to God, to listen for God, and to be still.

            It doesn’t last long. In fact, it lasts only for one sentence. It lasts only for verse 35. In the very next verse, Simon Peter and the others find his hiding place and say, “Hey Boss, everybody is looking for you.” Then the work starts all over again.

            What is striking to me is that it may be the only verse of silence in the entire Gospel of Mark. Mark is a very noisy book. It begins with John the Baptist shouting at the scorpions and the sinners. Heaven rips open, God thunders, and then Jesus is on the go. Every single day he is out there confronting the powers that demean human life. He out-shouts a possessed man and chases hell out of the synagogue. Then he walks next door and relieves a lady from her fever. No matter is too large or too small for his attention. They bring their sick, he heals them. His life is a noisy life.

            Yet at its center, there is quiet, calm, and prayer. Because of that silence, the rest of his life holds together.

            I bring this up because we lead noisy, active lives. Those of you are retired may be the most active of all; certainly a few of you are among the noisiest. It is difficult to sit still, and nearly impossible to be still. Even if we can find the quiet getaway, that doesn’t mean we will return rested or restored. How many of us have gone on a vacation, only to come home worn-out and weary. We need a vacation after the vacation! There is simply too much static noise in our souls.

            Almost six years ago, I spent some sabbatical time at a monastery in the red rocks of New Mexico. Some Benedictine monks built a place three hours from nowhere. I heard about it. I said to myself, “Self, imagine how peaceful and quiet that must be!” So I booked some time and went down there. Took two full days to get there, and it’s in the middle of nowhere.

            Imagine the quiet. So quiet. All you can do is pray. So I prayed everything I knew how, and then it was still quiet. So quiet. It started to drive me out of my mind. I have so much noise in my life, to say nothing of the perpetual soundtrack in my head. Suddenly in moonlit reverie, there was the howl of a coyote. I jumped two feet into the air. It was unnerving. That coyote would not shut up.

So what did I do? I got into a borrowed car, drove an hour back to the main highway where I could get a cell phone signal, called my wife and said, “Just wanted to hear your voice. How’s everybody doing?” In the absolute silence, I needed to hear her voice. I needed to hear my voice. We think we want some silence, but silence is so disturbing. I wanted to hear a human voice – maybe because I was afraid of hearing God’s voice.

Listen to that. . . Just be still and listen . . . Is this what Jesus did? Is this the kind of prayer that he offered? I think so. Prayer is so much more than murmuring a heap of words. It begins in stillness, and naming God in the place where you are. And then it continues in stillness. If the coyote hollers, acknowledge its cry and then be still. If you hear your heartbeat in the quiet, nod along and slowly let the sound evaporate.

            If you run out of things to say when you pray, hush up. And listen to the silence until you can befriend it. Should you listen long enough, you may hear God whisper, “You are my Beloved Child. In you, I am well pleased. There is plenty of work for you to do, but right now, you are completely mine. All mine. Before you belong to your family, to your neighbors, to your work, to your world, you are mine.”

            When Simon Peter shows up with his to-do list, you can smile and nod, in the full assurance that all those tasks do not own you.

            Listen, can I suggest a spiritual experiment? Let’s be completely quiet for two minutes. Put yourself in a comfortable position. Set your papers and hymnals aside. Decide right now to be still and to ignore every interruption. No whispering, no giggles, no coughs. Be still. Listen for the blessing of God . . .

            I think we have just had our snow day. Let’s have another one tomorrow and another on the day after that.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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