Ministerial Musings: Sacred Solitude (A Sermon)
One thinks of the memoir Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton. Or the extended essay A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Wolfe. Or maybe even the CD Solitude Standing by Suzanne Vega. I think of the quote at the top of today’s bulletin. Greta Garbo is often quoted as having said, “I want to be alone.” According to her, though, “I never said, ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said, ‘I want to be left alone.’ There is a difference.” Indeed, there is a difference! We all need to be left alone sometimes. We all need space, privacy, room to reflect, time to pray.
Jesus did, too.
Every once in a while, when he was tired from all the people who crowded around him seeking healing or a blessing, Jesus ascended a mountain or a hill to be alone, to pray, to rejuvenate his soul. Reflecting on this, Annemarie Kidder and Eugene Peterson wrote, “In communion with God in solitude from his demanding everyday life, [Jesus] refreshed his body and spirit so he could continue his work with those seekers of healing and hope who crowded around him. The richness of solitude provided both a deep spiritual rest and the physical and emotional renewal necessary to live with both deep compassion and conviction. Solitude helped Jesus to see — and to live fully” (2002: 2).
But sure enough, the people found him and back to work he went.
I once heard a pastor say that this is the model we are to follow — that there is no rest when we are about the work of Christ. We may want to take a break, but, when sought, we are to put away the novel, turn off the soothing music, blow out the scented candle, dump the herbal tea down the drain, and get back to work.
Really? That’s what we’re supposed to do? Didn’t God create a Sabbath for spiritual, physical, emotional, and psychological refreshment? Where is the commandment that says, “Thou shalt be a workaholic always on the go working thyself to death”? We honor the Living One by living — and not just for others. Sometimes we have to live for ourselves. How can we effectively minister to others when we are worn to the nub constantly?
You have probably heard this example before, but it bears repeating. When you are on an airplane and the flight attendants explain how to fasten your seatbelt and where to find the emergency exits, what do they say you are to do in the event of a loss of cabin pressure? When the masks come down from the overhead compartment, you are to fasten your mask first and then help those who need assistance. Why? Because if you cannot breathe, you will be of no assistance to those who need you. It is absurd to think that you can help another person breath when you are gasping for air. You cannot help another heal when you yourself are sick. You cannot take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye when you have a great big plank in your own.
Whether or not people allowed Jesus time to rest, he himself saw the value in it and sought it when he knew he needed it. That is the model for ministry that we are to follow.
Ever since the 1980s, the phrase “work ethic” has become a fundamental part of our language in a rather negative way. The phrase has always been around. Years ago, though, it was defined by characteristics such as honesty, pride, customer service, reliability, and industriousness. Over the last three decades, though, it has come to mean something else. Today, “work ethic” means that you are to put your job above everything else, including your family and your health. You have a good work ethic if you work over twelve hours a day and do not take a sick day (even when you feel like death), nor do you take any vacation time because that will make you look lazy.
That is not having a good work ethic. That is letting yourself become a slave. No one lying on his/her death bed, says, “You know what? I wish I had spent more time at work.” However, we live as if we cannot work enough, because we think that is what is expected of us if we want to be successful, if we want to get ahead in life.
While I was in seminary, I worked for a couple years at one of the biggest law firms in Boston as a computer trainer and PC support specialist. There was an attorney there who was about my age at the time. He was married and had a young daughter. He was going through a bitter divorce and could not understand why his spouse was leaving him. I could not understand why this brilliant Harvard Law graduate could not figure out that literally working from 6:00 a.m. till 10:00 at night (even on weekends) wasn’t somehow a contributing factor.
Alan is like many of us. Work, work, work… The boss is God. Everything else is secondary at best. Singer-songwriter Steve Earle once said, “If there is such a thing as a workaholic, I’m it, and that’s what passes for leisure.”
But work (even if we totally enjoy what we do) isn’t leisure. We need time to pause, to breathe, to fill our wells. We need sacred solitude. If we believe that our God is still speaking, and we want to hear what God has to say, then we need to pause and listen and draw near to God, because God’s voice isn’t a loud, bellowing roar. It is a still small voice. If your life is always filled with clamor, then you will never hear it and your soul will shrivel up.
Find those moments, my friends. Find your mountaintop. Climb it. Claim it. Bask in the glory of the One who will follow you to the summit. Don’t let anyone pull you down from that height. Relish it. Carve it into your schedule. Make it yours and yours alone. In those moment — those sacred moments — you just might be surprised at who you find, because you just might find yourself. Amen.
John III Tamilio
John Tamilio III is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, an accomplished guitarist, and a nationally published author. His first book of poetry, Blind Painting, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Letters in 2003. He and his wife, Susan, live in Lakewood, Ohio with their children: Sarah, “Jay” (John IV), and Thomas.