Tuesday, February 10, 2015

My senior year in high school I had a parking permit that allowed me to drive to school.  Our high school had limited parking and a permit was required, and they were difficult to secure.  Suddenly, because I could drive to school, I was very popular in my neighborhood.  Every morning, as my car filled with riders, I took up a collection for gas.  None of us had much money, so I ended up with a handful of quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies.  We would stop at the Clark gas station on the main drag through my hometown and get gas every morning.  Some mornings it was $2.00 and sometimes less.  That was in the days when there was an attendant who would pump gas for you, so I would roll down my window, hand him a bunch of change, and he would roll his eyes and put the gas in my car.  One day he asked me, why don’t you just fill up your tank instead of stopping every day to get a little bit of gas?  Wouldn’t that be a lot easier?  I told him I would love to fill up the tank, but I didn’t have the money.  Because we put in a little bit each day I was always running on empty.  There was a stretch of time when I ran out of gas on several occasions as I drove home to school, and I would walk to a nearby house and call my dad – if he was home from work – and ask him to come and pick me up.  Finally, after picking me up one too many times, he told me I was going to have to start charging my riders more or I would have to walk home the next time I ran out of gas.

Fortunately, I can now fill my car with gas but there are still many days when I’m running on empty.  There are days when I’m tired and worn down with a crowded schedule and I feel I’m sputtering and about to run out of gas.  I’m not the only one; you feel that way as well, don’t you?

This morning, we are studying another passage from the gospel of Mark, as the lectionary takes us further in chapter one, where we read these words –

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.
30 Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.
31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.
33 And the whole city was gathered around the door.
34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him.
37 When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you."
38 He answered, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do."
39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

So let’s take a closer look at some of the lessons from this passage –

1.  Refueling is a spiritual act.
If you are like most people, you’re probably tired a good deal of the time.  Living in a 24/7, always-connected, always-on world means we seldom have time – or take the time – to relax.  An increasing amount of research is beginning to make one thing very clear, and that is the failure to allow our bodies and minds to rest is taking a terrible toll on our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

But we don’t need research to tell us this, do we?  We already know we need more rest and a break from the stress of modern life.  But who has time to rest?  The emails, phone calls, texts, and job and family responsibilities keep coming at us, causing us to push harder and harder, with the end result that we are increasingly exhausted and stressed.

Among the many fascinating elements of the ministry of Jesus is his practice of slipping away from the crowds and from his disciples for times of quiet reflection and prayer.  Interestingly, it seems that Jesus was more likely to slip away when the demands upon him increased and the needs surrounding him were at their greatest.  This story, in fact, takes place immediately after Jesus was inundated with people seeking to be healed and was at a time when the demands upon him were the greatest.  It was the time, his disciples would believe, when he needed to be most available to meet the needs of people.  And yet there he was, slipping away quietly in the early morning hours to take the time to pray and to refresh and recharge himself.

Mark tells us that very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed (Mark 1:35).  I am not a morning person, although in recent years I’ve tried to reorient by body clock to be more of a morning person.  I go to bed earlier and get up earlier, but I have to confess that it’s a struggle.  Those of you who attend the early service have most likely noticed that early morning is not my natural habitat.  For me, that most natural time for worship comes only once a year for our church – at 11:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve – now that’s my time of day!  Tanya and I are completely opposite when it comes to our body clocks.  She gets up a little before 5:00 a.m., when I’m still dead to the world, but I’m awake long after her in the evening.  She is very much a morning person, and I have to be honest, I kind of resent morning people.  I’ve resent them because they got up first and built the world to revolve around their schedules.  If you are a night person you understand that you have to adapt to the world of the morning people!

But whether we are morning or night people here is how we often live – it is when we are at our busiest that we tend to be least likely to do what we really need to do, and that is take the time to refresh ourselvs physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  That is worth repeating – it is when we are at our busiest that we tend to be least likely to do what we really need to do, and that is take the time to refresh ourselvs physically, emotionally, and spiritually. 

When life gets busy and stressful, sometimes the first things to go are the things we need the most, such as time alone, time in prayer, time pursuing a spiritual discipline that will put fuel back into our tanks, energy in our steps, and passion in our hearts.  Too often, when life gets busy and stressful, we continue to push ahead and charge forward, when we really need to retreat; to retreat into a quiet place where we can refresh ourselves through a time of quiet prayer, reflection and meditation.  Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee, wrote Saint Augustine, one of the greatest minds in the history of the church.  Augustine understood that our hearts need time of rest and quiet, or else we will fail to withstand the stresses and pressures of life.

2.  Refueling is a necessity.
When I was in seminary, I often thought about the fact that the schedule was, perhaps, a way to prepare ministerial candidates for a ministry that is 24/7.  I went to class morning and early afternoon, and then I went to work at my first job until it was time for dinner.  I ate a quick dinner and then went to my evening job, which was from 6:00 to 10:00 at night.  When I returned home to my apartment it was time to begin my studying for the next day.  It prepared me for a schedule that involved a lot of hours but it also, unfortunately, ingrained in me the idea that I needed to be accomplishing or doing something almost every hour of the day.

I have a hard time sitting and a hard time relaxing, and when I do, I generally feel guilty, as though I am wasting valuable time.  And I sense that many of us live this way.  Many of us will run out at the drop of a hat to express care for someone else yet never take the time to care for ourselves.  As Jesus told us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we could add that we should care for ourselves as we care for our neighbors.

After a time away – taking time for prayer and solitude – Jesus was most prepared to continue his work of ministry.  When his disciples found him and told him, everyone is looking for you, Jesus was ready to go to work.  But before continuing the work of ministry, Jesus knew the power of taking time for quiet prayer.  After a time away we can sense within him a staunch resoluteness to go about his work.
If Jesus found it necessary to take a break and refuel, who are we to argue?

3.  Refueling is a reflection of the important work of ministry.
Here is an obvious fact – you don’t have to go searching for people in need, because they are all around us.  In fact, if you respond in any way to the needs of people, they will find you!  Mark says the whole town of Capernaum gathered at the door of Peter and Andrew’s home.  That would be a little annoying, wouldn’t it?  It wasn’t a huge town, but with a population of about 1,500 people imagine what it would be like if they all showed up at your house, knocking on the door, looking in the windows, stepping on your flowers, and leaving their trash all over the lawn.

What we see is that the response to the ministry of Jesus – especially his healing ministry – quickly gets to the point that it became overwhelming to the disciples.  On more than one occasion, the disciples ask Jesus to send the crowds away.

If you are providing a life-changing, life-saving service to people, they will not only beat a path to your door, they will knock down your door, knock over everything in your living room and every other room of the house as they search until they find you, and then they will drain every ounce of your energy as they draw life out of your life and into theirs.  That’s not being critical or cynical – that’s just how we operate as humanity.  When we are overwhelmed with our needs and our sufferings, we don’t generally think about the impact our needs and our sufferings have upon others.  So if someone who is in need or is suffering is not thinking about you, you better think about you and make sure there is some fuel in your tank because the work of ministering to others is so important we don’t need to have people burning out.

People are so hungry for ministry.  It was obvious, as so many people came to Jesus, that people were hungry for ministry.  Last summer, when I was preaching through the book of Jonah, I mentioned that church people sometimes criticize those who turn to God or come to church for the wrong reasons.  I think it’s worth mentioning again the question I asked – is there a wrong reason for people to turn to Jesus or to come to church?  There is an oft-leveled criticism that some people come to church or turn to God simply because of what they can get.  So what if people come to Jesus or to church for what they can get?  Maybe the crowds were there simply for the healing, but so what?  They came to Jesus.  There are some reasons for coming to Jesus or to church that might be better than others, but if a person is coming that’s a good thing, even if their motivations are somewhat suspect.  We shouldn’t be too quick to judge people’s motivations, because those motivations grow out of very deep and important needs.

And, after all, don’t we all do that?  You’re coming for what you can get for your children or for yourself, and what’s wrong with that?  Faith is not just an intellectual exercise or agreeing to a list of theological precepts; faith touches us on a very practical level as well.  Faith is, practically speaking, what gets us through the difficult days, the difficult weeks, the difficult months, and the difficult years; faith is what sees us through the darkest and most difficult times of life.  We all come to church, to faith, to God because of what we can get, and let’s not be hesitant to admit this, because it is in God that we find our needs in life can be fulfilled. Years ago, in a church where I served as the Student Minister, I scheduled a Christian rock group to come to the church to play on a Saturday evening for our youth group.  That’s not unusual now, but at that time it was still fairly controversial, this idea of “Christian rock music.”  We didn’t have many people there, and to be honest, I was kind of relieved, because they came in and just took over.  They moved things off the platform like they owned the place.  That made me nervous to I walked out of the sanctuary and ran into one of the guys in the band in the hallway pulling the front off of a breaker box.  He was hooking wires into the box and running them into the sanctuary and I was certain he was going to get electrocuted or blow up everything. 

And then the music started!  It was really loud – which is not a bad thing, in my opinion – and during the last song the kids were standing on the pews and dancing around.  And this was during my Baptist years, so dancing and church did not go together!  Near the end of their program I was standing in the back of the sanctuary when suddenly the door opened and three people stepped into the sanctuary.  They were there to prepare communion for the next morning and looked rather stunned at what they saw happening in the sanctuary.  They were lovely people but this was not the type of event that excited them.  They just stood there in the back watching, with very stern looks on their faces, and when the final song ended they immediately made their way towards me, looking very determined and unhappy.  I just knew it was the end for me at that church.  Before I could open my mouth to even begin stammering some kind of explanation as to how I could allow such behavior in the sanctuary one of them spoke up and said I can’t say I find this to be music, but if it gets kids to church on a Saturday night I’m all for it. 

Maybe those kids were just there for the music.  Maybe they were just there for the free pizza.  But they were there.  Maybe the people of Capernaum were just there because they had hopes of being healed.  Maybe they were there for selfish reasons.  But they were there, practically knocking down the door of Peter and Andrew’s house to get to Jesus.

I don’t know that it matters what gets people to church and to Jesus; what matters is they get there.  It’s important work, and it’s work that is important enough that we have to be up for the task over the long haul.  Don’t get into a position where you burn out and give up.  One of the reasons I’m so grateful for a time of sabbatical this year is that I’ve been doing ministry a long time and I’m tired.  I’ve got some years left in me and I want to be able to use those years effectively.  I’ve seen too many people quit over the years, not because they dislike the work of ministry or because they have grown uncaring, but because they’ve grown so tired they could not continue.

Are you tired and weary?  Are you running on fumes, feeling as though you are barely hanging on to life and to faith?  If so, stop.  Stop pushing harder and stop, step away, pray, and allow God to give you Fuel for the Journey.

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