Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Telling the Truth

Psalm 51
Ash Wednesday
February 22, 2012
William G. Carter

Today is the 280th birthday of George Washington, first president of our country. I don’t remember very much about him, but I do remember a legend about his childhood. His father asked, “George, did you cut down that cherry tree?” Young George replied, “I cannot tell a lie…”

            It was a remarkable thing for a future president to say, even if the story was probably a fabrication. On the last two nights, I watched the PBS biography of President William Jefferson Clinton. I don’t know if he ever declared, “I cannot tell a lie,” but it seems he may have told a few. And as I watch the current electoral scramble of others who are trying to claw their way to the White House, I listen to men who are so self-assured, so self-confident, so much in need to be “right” about everything, and I wonder if anybody in the public eye is capable of telling the truth.

            The ancient scribes attributed Psalm 51 to the greatest President of Israel. Actually he was the king, King David. It does not matter if David wrote the words. It matters that he prayed them. It matters that anybody prays this psalm. It is a confession of sin, an affirmation of brokenness, a one-on-one prayer before the God who knows our secrets.

            King David certainly had his secrets. One day he spotted a pretty lady and he had to have her. It didn’t matter to him that she was married. It didn’t matter to him that he was married. In passion he reached for her, she conceded, she conceived, and David tried to cover up what they had done. Yet God was watching, and God reported the whole sordid business to one of the prophets. The prophet made an appointment with the king and reported how God knew all about the king’s secrets. Caught with blood on his hands and guilt in his heart, David stopped maneuvering his own spin on his deeds.   

            So the words of Psalm 51:

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

            It is hard work to tell the truth. Sometimes people will not tell the truth until they are caught. Other times they will not reveal it even if somebody is hauling them to the penitentiary. Sometimes people allow themselves to become so confused that they don’t know the truth. The human heart is a devious muscle, creating a maze to circle around the things we have done and left undone. It is difficult to counter the fear and the creativity that creates every lie. It may take years for a good therapist to help people untangle all the stories they have created to cover the things they have done or endured. Or it might require a number of confessions, as one layer of deception after another is pulled away.  

Truth telling requires a certain kind of surgery. The surgeon must slice through the protective skin, breach the immune system, and perform an amputation of every pretense. It is costly surgery. It always results in the transplant of the heart. If successful, there is the cleansing of the lips. In the end, truth telling changes us. It makes us different people, with the deepening ability to trust in God.

I spent some time this morning reading the first few paragraphs of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. He begins his extraordinary description of Christian faith by talking about knowledge. “We cannot know God unless we know ourselves,” he says. “We cannot fully know ourselves until we know God.”

He’s pointing to something all of us avoid. Without God, we tend to inflate our own importance. As Calvin says, “All of us are inclined by nature to hypocrisy, a kind of empty image of righteousness in place of righteousness itself.” (Book 1, Chapter 1) We contaminate ourselves by arrogance, and convince ourselves we are better than we really are.

But honesty demands otherwise. If we really know ourselves, if we know our weaknesses as well as our strengths, if we know our fears as well as our affirmations, this truthful knowledge frees us to lean completely on God. If the bones are creaky and energy is wavering, we lean ever more on the God who is stronger than us. If we see with honesty that our lives are too short and that our efforts will never be completed, we look toward the God who will finish what we cannot.  

So the ashes offered this night represent many things. Certainly they are symbols of mortality. As such, they are tokens of loss, recalling the shortness of life and the limits that come from being Somebody else’s creature.

But I am thinking of the ashes as something else: they are the incineration of all unhealthy pride. Try as hard as we want, we cannot flourish without God. We spin a web of illusions. We try to convince ourselves how we are the center of all things. We begin thinking that our opinions are supreme, that our decisions are always justified, that we are able to manufacture our own future and write our own press releases. And God reaches down with fiery fingers and every presumption goes up in smoke. All that’s left are the ashes. If we choose to wear them, they are a sign of how much we really depend on God, and how carefully we should examine ourselves.   
            It is healthy to be honest. Eugene Peterson translates the Psalmist’s prayer this way: “Lord, what you’re after is truth from the inside out. Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life. Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean, scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life.” (Psalm 51:6-7, The Message)

            You know, that’s something for us to reflect upon. The dirty ashes smeared on us tonight are a holy sign that God is making us clean. I am ready for that. How about you?

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

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Jesus on Fire

Mark 9:2-9
Day of Transfiguration
February 19, 2012
William G. Carter

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Maybe you weren’t keeping track, but today is exactly between Christmas and Easter. It is halfway, and this is the story that the church tells at the midpoint of that journey. Jesus took his closest friends up a mountain, and suddenly he was transfigured.

Maybe there is some significance in the timing. There are a lot of people who worship here on Christmas, and a lot of people who worship on Easter. Maybe those people are going to miss the importance of this story. The angels sing on Christmas, Jesus the Christ is born.  The child of God has made his home among our homes. The angels return on Easter, and announce that Jesus is risen. He is raised from the dead and returning to the Father. In between, there is this story.

It’s not only a story told between Christmas and Easter, it is told between Epiphany and Good Friday. On Epiphany, we remember the arrival of Gentile wise men to worship the Jewish king; we sing of these “three kings” and learn about their generous gifts. On Good Friday, hardly anybody is around to worship Jesus as he is enthroned upon a cross. He is abandoned by his friends and dismissed Pontius Pilate. In between worship and desolation, there is this story.

We call it the story of transfiguration. We don't know what that is. Transfiguration is an invented word with no predecessor. Certainly all of our words were invented at some point in time, and we don't know where this particular word comes from. The only time it ever appears in the Bible is when Mark, Matthew, or Luke tells this story.

What is a transfiguration? Mark does not say, but he shows it. Jesus shines as bright as a candle in full flame. Christ is full of fire. It’s this visionary moment that has no ready-made meaning. It can't be reduced to a simple, flat message. If that's what you want, you won't get it from this story. There is no practical life lesson on the mountain. And Mark says those who see it are terrified.

Up until now, it is clear that Jesus has great power and authority. We have spent four weeks together on the Gospel of Mark, with more to come. We have heard how Jesus drives out the nasty spirits, heals the headaches, cures the cripples, and cares for the needy. And every time a demon wants to identify him, and say, "We know who you are," Jesus tells it to be quiet. But here, on a wayside stop between his birth and his death, between his ministry and his departure, some of us get to see that there's more to Jesus than we thought.

You and I are included I seeing this vision - - did you notice that? It is a privileged group: Peter, James, and John, along with anybody who hears this story. We are given some inside information. Someone must have told Mark about it, and now he's going to tell us. And this is why he tells us about this fiery moment: because the truth about Jesus is not obvious.

Some folks don't seem to understand this. They want the Christian faith to be completely obvious to everybody, and act as if it's a simple plan of A-B-C to make everything better. Just follow the words on the bumper sticker and they will change your life. Just repeat after the preacher and you, too, can be happy and successful. Some of those people have TV shows on Sunday night television, and they preach success and power and blessing and good, old-fashioned affluence. They point to the good things in life and say, "These are the signs that God loves us."

Yet Jesus himself never talks this way. He has just told the inner circle of his followers, "Pick up your cross and follow me." His words are still in the air as he takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain.

Others would like to believe the Gospel is pure mystery. They worship a cloud of incense without any clarity. Someone once said, "Faith is a leap in the dark," that it's like a holy question mark dangling from the sky and you jump in order to grab it. Maybe you will land and maybe you won't. Well, that is not quite the same thing as faith. It might be speculation, but it's not faith.

So here's what we see on the mountain: that the Jesus who we thought was a human just like us, is still a human being, but he really isn't like us. The countryside medic is also a holy man. The first-century Jewish male is not bound by time, race, or gender. The Galilean servant whose ministry leads him through the dust is really the Holy One through whom the world was created. We thought we comprehended Jesus. We believed him to be a wise teacher, nothing more, and then discovered his secret identity is a bright star burning like the sun. We thought we apprehended him, but he is beyond all of this. That's what we discover on the mountain.

Madeleine L'Engle has this to say about the transfiguration in one of her poems:

Suddenly they saw him the way he was,
The way he really was all the time,
Although they had never seen it before,
The glory which blinds the everyday eye
And so becomes invisible. This is how
He was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy
Like a flaming sun in his hands.
This is the way he was — is — from the beginning,
And we cannot bear it. So he manned himself,
Came manifest to us; and there on the mountain
They saw him, really saw him, saw his light.
We all know that if we really see him we die.
But isn't that what is required of us?
Then, perhaps, we will see each other, too.[1]

What Madeline’s Transfiguration poem suggests we have a hard time looking at one another for the same reasons we have a hard time seeing Jesus. Looking closely, she says,   requires a kind of death: death to my superior attitudes, death to my agenda, death to all my judgments and prejudices. All of these require a kind of cross-bearing, which is good preparation for Lent.

One of our members says he visited a church full of people with a skin tone different from his. He was surprised to discover that they shopped in the same stores and had the same jobs as the rest of us. “Never realized I was a racist,” he said, “but now I see differently.”

All of us judge others on our own suppositions.  I remember a few years ago at a conference. I'm standing with a bunch of people in a buffet line. There's this one guy, looks like a pretty boy. Tall, thin, tanned, hundred dollar haircut. I took him to be a mountain biker or a professional athlete who turned out well. I was noble. I engaged in the first rule of friendly conversation and asked an open-ended question. "Where are you from?" Right outside of Denver. "What do you do?" I'm a Presbyterian minister.

By now, my eyes are turning green with envy. He's about my age, but he has only one chin. I said, "What's the name of your church?" Columbine United Church.

"Columbine?" And he said, "Two members of my youth group were killed. I was at the high school on the day of the shootings, holding the hands of the wounded, talking with some of the survivors." I was ready to discount him because of his haircut until I discovered that he knew all about carrying the cross.

It's always worth giving somebody a second look. There is more to everybody that we realize, and we learn that if only because there is more to Jesus than we realize. Jesus doesn't fit into our mould; if anything, we are the ones who are being reconstructed in his image. And we can't nail him down and keep him on a cross, anymore than you can keep him safe in a sealed tomb. There is more life at work in him than we realize, more love than we ever thought possible, more power than we can contain. Remember how Madeleine L'Engle puts it?

"This is how He was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy like a flaming sun in his hands. 
This is the way he was — is — from the beginning . . ."

Last Sunday, we baptized one of God's children. We did it, not because it’s a social nicety, but because we believe there is more holiness going on in the world than anybody usually sees. On the surface, a pretty baby, a precious child. But below that, she is the latest of God’s many masterpieces in the making. We have an obligation to tell her that, to teach her that.

Last week, a friend spoke eloquently at his brother’s funeral. “You can see all the layers of my brother’s life,” he said. “He was a son, a husband, a father, a business man, a friend. That’s how we knew him. And when you scrape each layer away, you see him for what he truly was, at his deepest essence. He was a child of God.”  Somebody taught him how to see.

On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached the good news and got three thousand converts at the 9:00 service. He said, "Looks like we'd better baptize them." And it probably took most of the day. It's amazing what God can do; always more going on than we ever thought.

Not long after that Peter was praying on top of a roof, and the Spirit said, "There's an Italian soldier downstairs who needs the Gospel." He didn't want to do it; after all, the man was an Italian. But the Spirit said, "Get up and go!" So he got up, and preached about Jesus, the living Jesus, and the man believed, and Peter said, "Bring me some water; I'm going to baptize him and his whole household, because if God says yes, who am I to say no?"

Then God pushed Paul and some friends into Europe. They landed in Philippi, down by the river. And there was a woman named Lydia, a very wealthy woman. She already believed in God, even though Paul and his buddies weren't doing all the preaching. And they baptized her whole household, because God is so loving and holy and active, you never quite know what's going to happen.

That's the testimony of the scriptures. If Jesus is who the scriptures say he is, there is no way we can reduce him to a careful little formula. He is enfleshed like us and he is able to know what it means to be a living being. And he is greater than us, stronger, more loving, and therefore he is able to help us in our weakness.

            So here we are today, halfway between the cradle and the cross. We get a brief glimpse of the God with whom we must contend. The carpenter with calluses from working the wood is more than a carpenter. The peasant in the muddy tunic is suddenly so dazzling that we don’t really have the words to describe him. The village healer who opened blind eyes by rubbing mud on them is the very One who burns so brightly that we cannot completely see him.  

            If we thought we could avoid all this God stuff as unnecessary, look again. If we thought we could dismiss Jesus as somebody who only lived a long time ago, take another look. If we thought we had solved all the mysteries of the universe, Jesus appears, to push us beyond everything we knew. This is where faith begins, true faith. Not by tying everything down, but by discovering to our shock and astonishment, that when it comes to God, there is so much more.   

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

[1] Madeleine L'Engle, The Irrational Season (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977) 194.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Unable to Keep the Secret

Mark 1:40-45
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
William G. Carter

A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean."  Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

            About twenty years ago, I met some people with leprosy for the first and only time in my life. It was on the island of Molokai, in the state of Hawaii. There is a little community on the north shore of the island called Kalaupapa. It’s a quiet corner of paradise. But the quiet does not diminish its painful history.

            In 1866, the Hawaiian government established Kalaupapa as a leper colony. For over a hundred years, people who contracted that dreaded skin disease were sent there to die. Leprosy stirred up fear. Fear led to segregation. If the tell-tale spots appeared on a teenager’s arm or a woman’s leg, they were quickly banished to a two-mile-square peninsula bounded on three sides by the Pacific and with a sheer cliff on the fourth side.

Segregation led to indifference. In the early days, the lepers of Hawaii were put in metal cages and transported in the hold of a cargo ship. As time progressed, they were placed on mules and sent down a winding cliff side path. Nobody ever returned from the leper colony. If you contracted the disease, you were cut off from all your loved ones and sent into isolation. The only thing you had in common with your companions was your illness.  

            The National Park Service maintains the site today. There are just a handful of senior citizens there, most of them recovering from Hansen’s Disease, the modern name for leprosy. They are treated with a simple antibiotic as outpatients, and they lead normal lives in little bungalows by the sea. The people are free to leave the place where society once banished them. But they stay there for the most part, because it is the only home they know.

            It’s strange to hear of such places, where human beings were once sent to be forgotten. They were dismissed because of a virus that nobody understood. It was enough to terrify a family and frighten the neighbors. The victims of this illness were mandated by the scriptures to announce themselves: “I am a leper. I am unclean.” Every cautious person kept their distance.

            We don’t have many analogies for understanding this. If there is a disease that keeps somebody hidden, it is an embarrassment. The family will not talk about it. Circles of isolation form around a person who can only be categorized as a victim. He is a victim. She is a victim. Stay away. They have a disease.

            This doesn’t happen much in our experience, but it can happen. The call may come. A young woman is in the hospital. It is an area down the hall and around the bend. You must be buzzed inside. Once inside, you must take precautions. Under no circumstances shall you touch them. For no reason shall your visit be longer than a few minutes. I recall, years ago, going to visit such a person. We conversed by intercom through a thick wall. I offered to pray and she broke down and cried. That made two of us. Within a matter of weeks, the illness snatched her away.

            Illness can be a fearful thing. Remember that movie “Philadelphia” from some years ago? Tom Hanks played a talented young attorney named Andrew. He is diagnosed with AIDS. He doesn’t want anybody to know it. But the partners find out, and they fire him from the firm. It is an unjust dismissal, and Andrew wants to sue. No other attorney will take the case. One after another refuses. Finally Andrew drops by the shabby office of an ambulance-chaser who advertises on television. The attorney receives him, but will not shake his hand. He motions him to a chair and keeps his distance. Andrew pours out his story. When he stands to depart,  he sees a box of cigars on the edge of the desk. He reaches for one and says, “May I?” The attorney says, “Please help yourself.” After Andrew leaves, his attorney pushes the rest of the box into the garbage can.

            Disease destroys human community, especially if you do not know its source. In biblical times, a disease like leprosy could strike without warning. Nobody knew where it came from or how it might spread. They knew what it could do – they knew it could diminish the blood flow in your hands and feet. They knew it could create scar tissue that ruined your countenance. Such a disease was a fearsome business. There was no obvious cure, no obvious hope.

            My guide at Kalaupapa was a man named Hyman. He was diagnosed with leprosy when he was ten years old. The health officials removed him from his school. He was given no opportunity to get his belongings or say goodbye. Once a year, on his birthday, his mother would travel to the cliff on Molokai that overlooked the settlement. She would wave a large red towel, and Hyman would find a towel to wave and return the greeting. One year she did not appear; that is how he was notified of her death. It was his disease. His disease kept them separate.

            Now, we don’t know much about the man with leprosy who appears in our brief Bible story. We know a little. He is a beggar; that’s how he got his food. He is a kneeler; he has an appropriate reverence for Jesus. And he places the whole matter at Jesus’ feet. He says, “If you want to do something about this, you of all people can do something about this.” That’s what we know about the man with leprosy.

            We know a lot more about Jesus. For one thing, he was angry. Irritated. To translate one of the verbs from Greek, he was “brimming with indignation.” Something about the whole scene made him furious. We can’t really say what it is.

            One of the scholars (Ched Myers) has done a close reading of the text. He says there is the hint that the diseased man had already been to see the priest, that he had made the trek all the way down to Jerusalem, that he had gotten an audience with one of the holy men, that he had been refused and sent away. So here he is, denied the health care that his own scriptures promised, and all he can do in desperation is to throw himself at the feet of Jesus. Jesus sees all of this, and he “snorts with rage.”

            So when Jesus heals the man, he does so as a judgment on a religious system that is spiritually bankrupt. The leaders profess to love God and love neighbor, but the truth is, they ignore God and push away neighbor. It’s as if, in the parlance of our own day, the religious establishment shrugs them off and says, “You’re on your own, so handle your own medical care.”

And Jesus will not let this stand. He heals the man with the disease and says, “Go back down there to Jerusalem, show yourself to that priest, and demand that he restores you to complete fellowship.” Why? Jesus says, “Let this be your testimony to them.” So we know that Jesus is angry.

            But we know something else about him. We know that Jesus wanted the man to be well. He said as much: “I choose for you to be clean.” Whatever stain this suffering has caused you, it is my intent to take it away. Just as Jesus went into the synagogue to straighten out a twisted man, just as Jesus went into a home to lift a women out of her migraine, he goes into the open field to cure a person with a dreaded disease. “It is my choice,” he declares, “to make you well.” With that, Jesus touches him.

            Now just a second. Do you know what that means? Certainly it means that the man is healed. His rash disappears. He can feel the blood flowing in his fingers and toes. His skin begins to glisten. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to restrain him from going to find that priest, presenting himself healthy and clean, and hearing the word that he is completely restored to God and his community. It means that.

            But it also means that, in healing the dirty man by touching him, Jesus becomes dirty himself. Whatever impurity is implied in that man’s skin disease has now contaminated Jesus. And this is his choice. “I choose this,” said Jesus, and he touches the skin of the leper. The diseased man becomes well; Jesus takes the disease upon himself.

            That, you see, is why everybody starts talking. That is why the buzz starts about Jesus. “He touches the leper.” The man with the pure power of God to heal steps over the barrier of an impure disease. Jesus destroys the ancient rules about clean and dirty. He sends the healed man back to the officials in Jerusalem – but the man has no need to go, because it isn’t necessary in his mind to play the old games about “clean” and “dirty” when Jesus himself will not stick to the rules. Jesus wants the man to stick to the rules of Leviticus, but he himself is really stepping around them.

            Meanwhile the healed man can’t keep his trap shut. And do you know what he is saying? He is saying, “The Man of God is here and he is going to get dirty, just like the rest of us. He is going to take all our filth upon himself – and then take it away.” And everybody starts talking about this. They have a contaminated Savior. They have a strong servant of God who will not leave them alone. Jesus breaks through the barriers to reach them and heal them. And even though he is dirty, more and more people start looking for him. They want to find a Savior like him.

            It was the Lutheran writer Walt Wangerin who wrote an imaginative story about this. He told of a young man, handsome and strong, six-feet-four with arms like tree limbs. This man pulled an old cart filled with new clothing. “Give me your rags,” he cried. “New rags for old.” Walt followed him through the city.  The Ragman took a stained handkerchief from a grieving woman, offering a bright linen cloth in return – and then he began to weep.

            He took the bloody bandage from a wounded girl and traded it for a bright yellow bonnet. She sat up strong. He carried her bandage and began to bleed himself. He took the shirt of a man who lost his arm, and gave a new jacket and a new arm, while the Ragman bore the wound. One person after another, he took their broken rags and replaced them with new clothes. “This Ragman is my Christ,” said Walt.

            And that’s who we discover in our brief Bible story from Mark. Jesus is the Strong Man of God and he comes to get dirty, just like the rest of us. It is exactly as the prophet declared:

He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised,
and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 
But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed. (Isaiah 53:3-5)

            No wonder everybody was talking. No wonder that the people around Jesus were unable to keep the secret. He went to them, as they are. He refused to let illness and disgrace to separate anybody from the love of God.

            And you know something? If we reach out like our Jesus, people are going to talk about us, too. They are going to notice that Christ doesn’t spend all his time in church. He goes out to where the people are, particularly the people who need him most. And he makes it crystal clear that they washed completely clean in his incredible mercy.

            Remember that place I mentioned, Kalaupapa? They are still talking about a priest who went to the leper colony. His name was Damien deVuyster, and, by accounts, he was a cranky man. Like Jesus, he had a dark temper, particularly when he noticed some form of injustice. He was assigned to serve the little Roman Catholic flock in Kalaupapa, prompting a number of his colleagues in Belgium to wonder who he had annoyed to get that assignment.

            But he did his job. He tended to the peoples’ needs. He dressed their sores, dug their graves, and He organized the community to build a chapel. For sixteen years, he led the worship services. Each mass, he stood to announce, “In the love of Jesus Christ, God loves you lepers!” Then one day, he stepped into a hot bath tub and did not feel the temperature. He had contracted the same disease by living among the people. So he doubled his efforts to build more homes for the residents, to feed more hungry people, to share the scriptures with more people. And on Sunday he stood to announce, “In the love of Jesus Christ, God loves us lepers.”

            For this reason, just a couple of years ago, the Christian church declared him to be a saint. Saint Damien, the Christian who reached out to the lepers and became one, too. Just like Jesus.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved.

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.