Creating Space for God
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This morning I am giving my last message to you as your Associate Pastor. As I was writing, it was a real struggle and I found myself fighting certain temptations. I wanted to write something relevant and thought-provoking and give you that wow-factor. But then I calmed down and decided to be myself - to speak the words that He has given me and trust that He will use them in ways I can’t imagine. That what’s this sermon is about – being yourself. It’s about how solitude can help us grow closer to God and to each other, but also how we can know ourselves better. Not the self that you think you should be or that others tell you to be, but the person God has created you to be.
When I was in grade 12, I fell in love with psychology and ended up choosing it as my major in university. It was the psychology of Carl Jung that got me hooked. His work on the self; this idea that people ‘wear’ different personas depending on where they are or who they are with really resonated with what I had seen and what I had lived. This idea that the false self is always working to hide the true self, has been explained in many different ways and words but it has roots back to the Bible and how God made us. We read about this in Genesis when God tells Adam and Eve who they are. But then the serpent comes along and questions their identity. He causes them to question whether they are enough. And we know how that ended. As humans, there is always the temptation to step into roles that we think we should play or accept the roles that others prescribe to us.
We further see this illustrated in our text for today. Jesus and his disciples have just suffered a terrible loss. John the Baptist has been killed and the disciples have returned from burying his body. Before that they were out on a mission, healing the sick and casting out demons. When they return to see Jesus, weary and grief-stricken, they decide they should give him a ministry report. They want to show him how productive they’ve been. But Jesus invites them to enter a time of rest. They’ve been so busy they haven’t even had time to eat. He tells them they are going to a desolate place. They are going to spend time in solitude. Of course, Jesus is pretty popular, and when the crowds see them going off in a boat and they follow them. So, Jesus continues to minister; to teach and preach. When it’s time for everyone to go home, Jesus, full of compassion, wants to give them food. The disciples assume they will be doing this out of their own resources. But the point of them coming away was not so they could continue to work. It was so they could rest in God and allow Him to work. And here we see a miracle happen. We see God respond to their need in a way they wouldn’t have thought to ask or imagine. Thousands of people are fed from two small fish and five loaves of bread. Had the disciples supplied all this food, everyone would have been grateful. But because God supplied the food, the hearers were more than grateful. Being witnesses to God’s power, they were transformed.
Perhaps entering into solitude then is just as much about our own transformation as it is about the way we minister to others. Solitude has become very real for a lot of us over the last year. Especially if you live alone. Even for those of us who live with other people, the time that used to be filled by getting together with friends over dinner and spending time talking after church hasn’t been an option for us. If we’re being honest, most of us aren’t enjoying all this excess solitude.
I remember seeing a meme at the start of the pandemic that said “they told us we would have to stay at home and be alone with our thoughts, so instead, everyone decided they would learn how to make bread from scratch”. Another saying goes “My mind is like a bad neighbourhood, I don’t want to go there alone”. This aversion we have to being in solitude is the result of living in our busy and noisy culture. We live in a society where silence is hard to come by. There is always noise from traffic, people, construction, snow blowers or lawn mowers, and the constant drone of sirens. Within our homes, we have noise from TV, radio, music, children. It takes a lot of effort to find quiet. Once we do find quiet, it can be a struggle to find the same quiet in our own heads. It’s a challenge to focus on being still before God. It takes practice. It takes discipline. It also takes us overcoming the fear we have of being alone.
Perhaps the great enemy of solitude today is technology. Ironically, technology was meant to give us more time in our days. When the first automatic washing machine was invented, this was a big deal. Now, people wouldn’t have to spend hours washing clothes. Instead, they could put their feet up and relax while the clothes were washed for them. That was a long time ago, and it seems like since then, for every piece of technology that is designed to save us time, more technology is invented to fill that “extra” time we now have. We’ve reached a point in society where we can’t bear to be without our phones. It’s so automatic when we have a spare moment to check our notifications and to browse. We never have to be alone now. Unfortunately, the companionship our phones provide us, don’t address the longings within us. There is so much research out there on the negative effects of excessive phone use, especially for young people. One study from 2018 found that teens who use their phones multiple times per day are more likely to report psychological distress, less life satisfaction, less happiness, and more anxiety than those who use it on a weekly basis. This is just one study but there are hundreds of others out there that show similar findings. Our inability to turn off our screens is harming us. Technology is not slowing down and it’s making us think that we shouldn’t either. We weren’t made to be constantly taking in information. We need to learn how to put the phones down. We need to learn how to be alone with our thoughts. We need to learn how to be present with God. When you do this, when you come to this place of silence and solitude of waiting for God to show up, you will find that he’s been there waiting for you to show up.
There is only so much we can do about the outer noise in our lives. It might mean investing in a quality pair of noise-cancelling headphones. But today I want to talk about inner noise. While we can’t always control the noise around us, we can cultivate an inner solitude that will address the longings of our soul and help us know ourselves through God’s eyes. Solitude is about learning to be with God yes, but it’s also about learning to be with yourself. No expectations, no judgments, just acceptance of who you are and trust that God will show you who he made you to be.
What happens in solitude?
Teresa of Avila wrote, “settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon Him in yourself”. We see in the Bible how Jesus began his ministry with 40 days of solitude. For Jesus, solitude was about being with his Father. It was also about confronting those temptations that try to lure us into our false self.
In his book The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen describes it this way:
Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude, we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. Jesus himself entered into this furnace. There he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant (by turning stone into bread), to be spectacular (by throwing himself down from the top of the temple), and to be powerful (rule over all the kingdoms of the earth). There he affirmed God as the only source of his identity. Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter – the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self…
Solitude is the place where God reveals Himself to us and where He reveals our own self to us. Solitude is where we learn what we need to let go of so that we can live freely in our identity as children of God. Solitude is where we hear the message that God has given us to give the world. Aside from the many examples in the life of Jesus, we see often in the Bible that God speaks in silence. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah is burnt out and trying to hear the voice of God. Elijah watches as a great wind passes, then an earthquake and then fire, and each time the Lord is not there. When God finally does speak, it is out the sound of sheer silence. In Habakkuk 2, we read that God sits in His holy temple and calls for the whole earth to be silent so that people can reflect and repent and see themselves in the loving light of God. In Zechariah 2, we are told to be silent as God has roused Himself from His holy dwelling. In silence and solitude, we hear from God and we see Him act.
I recently learned about a man named John Francis, a UN ambassador and an environmentalist. His story helps us answer the question, what’s the point of silence and solitude. In 1971 he witnessed the San Francisco oil spill and decided that he wanted to do his part to make sure this never happened again so he stopped using cars. He found that people would discover this about him and try to argue him out of his decision. One day in 1973 he decided to remain silent for a day. The next time he spoke was in April of 1990. His day-long vow of silence lasted 17 years. He talks about how, during his silence, he learned the importance of listening to people. He also says that his time in silence helped him figure out what his message is for the world. He realized that his concern for the environment should be a concern for how we treat each other because we are part of the environment. As we treat each other, so we treat the environment around us. John is a speaker and whenever he speaks, he brings his banjo along and plays it. He describes silence not as the absence of words, but as the space that makes the music. When we engage in silence and solitude, we make space to hear and experience God.
Solitude & Community
Solitude helps us hear God so we can share the message he has for us to share with the world. Solitude also makes us better at being with people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Life Together writes about how fellowship and solitude go hand in hand. He says that “one who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair”. Being able to be alone, well helps us be with others meaningfully. And being able to be with others meaningfully teaches us to be alone safely. What does it mean to be with others meaningfully? Silence and solitude teach us to temper our words. Humans, generally fall into 1 of 2 categories; those who speak too much, and those who speak too little. Richard Foster talks about how being silent makes us feel helpless. He says that “we are so accustomed to relying upon words to manage and control others. If we are silent, who will take control? God will take control… Silence is intimately related to trust.” When we are with others, there is always a temptation to use our words to explain and justify and rationalize. Solitude helps us engage with others, not from our own insecurities, but from a place of union with God.
God invites us to silence and solitude. As you enter this space, you are free to let go of all the expectations that others have of you and that you have of yourself. You are invited to experience God as you are; without the words of a preacher or the prayers of a mother or the melody of a song. You are invited to rest in God. Solitude allows us to rest. The disciples needed rest. Jesus needed rest. You and I need rest. In this place of rest, we sit with our longing and desires, not to fix them, but simply to be aware of them and trust God with them. In this place of rest, we can shed all aspects of the false self. And with practice and discipline, we get the answer to that question from earlier, what is the message God has given you to share with the world?
I realize that the best gift I can give you as your pastor, is not a spectacular message, but a tool to help you find the message God has given you to share. It’s the difference between one message of hope and 50 messages of hope. It’s the difference between reaching 50 people and reaching 5000 people. It’s the difference between hearing me speak to you and hearing God speak to you. This message is my two fish and five loaves that I have to offer and I’m trusting that God will multiply it beyond what I can imagine. I believe that when you engage in solitude God will speak to you and give the message that those around you need to hear. So, take time to enter into solitude and silence. It doesn’t have to be for 17 years. It can be for 5 minutes. When you go for walk when you wake up before the kids do when you are driving. Turn off the noise, invite God in, and wait for Him to speak.
When I do this, I hear the message that God has for me to share. It’s may seem like an obvious message, and yet the more I share it, the more I realize that profound meaning can come from simplicity. I shared this message in my first sermon here at Blythwood. It wasn’t on a Sunday morning; it was in a dimly lit sanctuary on a Saturday night at OOTC. I was so nervous. There were 5 or 6 people sitting in the pews. One of the women was someone I had connected with. She was drunk and high and someone who had had a lot of bad things happen to her. She knew it was my first time preaching and as we were about to start, she walked toward me and said “are you nervous?” I shook my head yes. Don’t worry she told me, you’ll be great! I appreciated the encouragement. I don’t know that I was great. But I know that I spoke truthfully with the message God had given me. I spoke about God’s love for each one of us and about how God’s mercy follows us even through the darkest of places. As I spoke, I saw this woman sitting directly in front of me, tears streaming down her face. She had shut out the noise in her life to hear the voice of God. And God spoke to her deep longing for Him. So, I will finish by sharing the message God has given me to share: God loves you. God sees you, God knows you, and God loves you. He loves you more than words can express which is why he used the cross to show you. And here, at the foot of the cross, you are invited to put down the false self you have been carrying around and take up your true identity as a beloved child of God.