In our gospel lesson Jesus is one busy guy. Last week he was in the synagogue casting out an unclean spirit. This week he is healing Peter’s mother-in-law, along with ALL who were sick or possessed with demons.” I don’t know how many people that is, but Mark tells us that the “whole city was gathered around the door” of Peter’s house. I don’t think Mark means this literally. It’s the kind of phrase I would use to describe a busy night in the Emergency Department at Mission Hospital! On nights like this, it truly feels like the whole city of Asheville is gathered around the doors of the ED waiting room! Suffice it to say, Jesus is a very busy man.
Yes, I know he is the Son of God. But Jesus is also fully human, so you know he had to feel downright exhausted every now and then. You know he had to reach the point where he didn’t feel like speaking to another living soul.
Apparently, this is what happened in our gospel lesson. Mark says “In the morning while it was still dark (in other words before anyone else was awake), Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place and there he prayed.”
A deserted place. Sounds like the kind of oasis he needed in order to recharge his batteries and find some peace and quiet. A deserted place. The Greek word used here [EREMOS] means “lonesome or solitary.” I don’t think Mark intends to say that Jesus is lonely. In fact, God is with him during this time apart from the worries and demands of the world. What Mark is saying is that Jesus needed some time to himself. He needed some sacred space where he could decompress from all the people who were demanding his time and attention. I know exactly how he fells. I’m sure you know exactly how he fells.
Have you ever had a day at work where there’s simply not enough coffee to propel you through the morning? You feel like it should be lunchtime, but you look at your cell phone and it’s only 10:30! Have you ever had a day where it felt like your kids or grandkids needed your attention every single moment? While you were taking care of them, you were trying to squeeze in a little bit of house cleaning and pondering how you were going to be able to put supper on the table as well. Have you ever had a day where the list of things that people needed from you was so long that you just wanted to hide from everyone?
I know you’ve been there. Sometimes we just need to put on our big boy and girl panties and deal with it. However, we cannot do this indefinitely. Being busy all the time leads to a laundry list of diseases that suck the life out of our bodies, minds and spirits: Depression, burnout, chronic fatigue, overeating and sudden burst of uncontrolled anger. It can even affect our organs and make us prone to a list of illnesses too numerous to mention.
When we find ourselves in this kind of desperate state, where life becomes overwhelming, it’s vital to our well-being that we find that “deserted place” Mark is talking about in our gospel lesson. It’s vital that we create for ourselves the kind of oasis where can recharge our batteries and find some peace and quiet.
Friends in Christ, I hope I don’t have to convince you how important this is. If Jesus needed it, then we mostly definitely need it. In fact, if we look at the gospels, we will see that this is not a one time occurrence for Jesus. It is a healthy pattern of living. In Matthew 14, after Jesus receives the news of the death of his cousin John the Baptist, Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
In Mark 6, the disciples gather around Jesus, telling him all they had done and taught. Do you know how Jesus responds? He says “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” To show you how busy the disciples were Mark says “for many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.” That’s pretty busy. And we all know that kind of busy where we forget to each lunch or settle for junk food instead of food that nourishes our bodies.
Luke 4 says “At daybreak Jesus departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them.” Oh yeah! Make no mistake about it. Finding a deserted place is not always easy. So we have to be very intentional in creating one. In fact, in most of the stories where Jesus goes to a deserted place, the crowds usually find him rather quickly.
One final example comes from Luke 5 which says: “But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”
Do you see a pattern here? Do you see why this is so important to our physical, mental and spiritual well-being? I hope so because this may be one of the most important life lessons we will ever learn.
And, trust me, I’ve learned it the heard way. I’ve pushed myself beyond the point of exhaustion more times than I can recall. Earlier in my ministry I suffered from a pretty bad case of burnout. But then, I went on a spirituality retreat, that was sponsored by our Synod. I took some time to create that deserted place, and it literally changed my life.
During that retreat, I learned about meditation, spiritual journaling and how to create a space in our busy schedules for Sabbath rest. I was given a lot of new tools for my spiritual toolbox.
When I left that retreat I vowed to practice what I had learned. I did further reading on the subject, and experimented with prayer forms and meditation techniques until I found the ones that worked for me. Slowly, but surely, things began to shift in my life. Responsibilities and busy schedules that once felt overwhelming were do-able. My interactions with others improved. I found that I was more compassionate and had the energy to help those I was called to serve. I can honestly say, I would not be the pastor I am today, if it were not for learning how to create “deserted places” in my life. I would not be able to do what I do, for Abiding Savior or for Mission Hospital, if I hadn’t learned how to better care for myself.
I know we all want to serve and help others. But, honestly, we cannot serve them well if we don’t first take care of ourselves. We are all familiar with greatest commandments: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. But I would like to argue that we cannot truly love our neighbor, if we don’t take the time to love and take care of ourselves. This is NOT a selfish thing to do. It is the most life-giving and life-sustaining thing we can do for ourselves and for others.
If you don’t know how to do this, we need to talk. If you don’t know how to create a deserted place, a place apart, then I’d like to give you the tools to be able to do this. Trust me, I have the time to help you, and you need to make the time to do it.
If you’re still not convinced that this is important, I offer you the familiar and beautiful image from our First Lesson. The context of Isaiah’s words is the Babylonian exile. If we think we’ve had a bad day or a busy year, trust me, the Israelites were living in an unimaginable and unbearable situation. Just think of all the pictures we’ve seen on TV of refugee camps. It gives us an idea of what they were going through.
One of the pieces of encouragement Isaiah gives them is found in our First Lesson: “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. God doesn’t grow tired or weary. God’s understanding is beyond human reach, giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted. Youths will become tired and weary, young men and women will certainly stumble; but those who hope in the Lord (To which I will add “those who take the time to go away to a deserted place”) will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.”
Friends in Christ, this sounds like the best life goal we could ever make for ourselves. So let’s follow in Jesus’ footsteps. When it feels like the whole city is gathered around our door, let’s take the time to find a place apart, so that we can continue to “run and not be tired; walk and not be weary.” Amen.
Copyright ©2018 by David Eck