Listening

Silhouette of a Man image courtesy of Markuso, http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

Today’s scripture readings seem especially pertinent to the busy people we have become in the early 21st century. We go, go, go, from before sunrise until after sunset, but the prophet Isaiah says that those who wait for the Lord will find renewed strength and vigor. We may try to save many people and situations, giving too little thought to the God whose power we need. But the Gospel of Mark shows us that even the real Messiah needed to pray. This is ironic, because Mark’s portrayal of Jesus is especially full of action. As we read the opening chapters, the most striking thing about the story is Jesus’ intense schedule of teaching, healing, and serving. We would not imagine that he has time for quiet contemplation. Yet it is turns out to be essential to his life and ministry.

There probably has never been a period of history like ours when so many people lack time for solitude and reflection. When we are not carrying heavy workloads, we are faced with more options for entertainment than our minds can process. Advertisers manipulate our senses in the competition for attention. We’re connected by smart phones, tablets, and notebook computers to more voices than we could ever fully process. In the constant rush, it is easy to neglect the voice of God.

At some deep level, I think we understand Jesus’ need for quiet meditation. Even for the most extraverted personalities among us, I believe it’s possible to become so frazzled by listening to many voices that a deep need rises to pull away for a while and contemplate. Contemplation allows us to measure our conversations against our beliefs and values, and decide how to respond. I think that’s what was happening when Jesus rose early to pray.

Some biblical scholars suggest that Mark’s choice of words recalls an earlier experience. They remind us that when Satan tempted Jesus, as recorded just a bit earlier in this chapter, it was in the wilderness. And, these scholars say, it is to a “deserted place” that Jesus returns when he encounters temptation again.

What is the temptation Jesus is facing? Perhaps we get a clue from the disciples, who hunt for Jesus, and say to him “Everyone is searching for you.”

Princeton professor Lenora Tubbs Tisdale writes, “The disciples’ desire seems to be that Jesus come out and revel in his increasing popularity by continuing to perform miraculous cures. But Jesus resists their request, and its implicit temptation to use his God-given powers inappropriately. Rather his vocation requires him to move out of Capernaum and into other neighboring towns of Galilee where people have not yet heard the good news he has come to proclaim.”[1]

Tisdale goes on to say that the activity of prayer in the Gospel of Mark is not simply a time for comfort and rest. Rather, prayer is an exercise that takes the one praying into a battle zone where good and evil struggle for power. When Jesus prays in the deserted place, it is, according to Tisdale, an act necessary in order for him to avoid the temptation of sacrificing God’s will to human praise. When Jesus prays, he hears a voice calling him to a walk a certain path toward a special destiny.

If you check out an old Ernest Hemingway novel from the Edwardsville library, there’s a good chance that I caused part of its wear and tear. I like Hemingway’s style, and I like his perspective on some places I know well, like Michigan, and other places I never will visit across the ocean.

In his novel The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway introduces us to the character Jake Barnes, making his way through Europe shortly after the First World War. One day while he is walking the streets of Pamplona, Spain, waiting for daily bullfights to begin, he walks into the cathedral to offer a prayer. Hemingway imagines Jake’s stream of consciousness:

“I knelt and started to pray and prayed for everybody I thought of, (my friends) and myself, and all the bull-fighters, separately for the ones I liked, and lumping all the rest, then I prayed for myself again, and while I was praying for myself I found I was getting sleepy, so I prayed that the bullfights would be good, and that it would be a fine fiesta, and that we would get some fishing. I wondered if there was anything else I might pray for, and I thought I would like to have some money, so I prayed that I would make a lot of money, and then I started to think how I would make it ….”

Jake’s effort to pray is representative of a trap we can fall into. He is someone so full his own agenda – so full of talking – that his prayer is short-circuited before it gets very far. In contrast, Jesus’ prayer includes a lot of listening, for listening prayer is the way to stay focused, on the right track, in touch with the God’s will and a purposeful life.

Keith Harris is a fellow Presbyterian minister, who shares an old story passed on by immigrant families about a little boy who was given a priceless possession by his grandfather: his gold pocket watch. His grandfather said, “Treasure this, and every time you open it up, let it remind you that I love you.” One day, while he was working in a local icehouse, the watch fell from the boy’s pocket. When he realized he had dropped it, he was ankle-deep in the ice and sawdust covering the floor. He searched frantically. But he couldn’t find the watch anywhere. Suddenly he realized what to do. He stopped scurrying around and became very still. He listened, and he listened. Finally he heard the sound of ticking, and it wasn’t long before he found the watch.[2]

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus provides a model for living a life of purpose. When, for a time, we pull away from activities, interruptions, and all the things that call for our attention, we can hear the “tick” of God’s spirit, calling us to the path and to the activities for which we were made and put on this earth. Make time to pause in prayer, paying attention to the prompting of the Holy Spirit – in our time and place, we must be listening.

[1] Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, “Dangerous Prayer,” Pulpit Resource, 9 February 2003.

[2] Keith C. Harris, “Reflection” for September 10, in Daily Devotions: September 6-10, 2004, published by Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, Illinois.

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~ by JohnH1962 on February 8, 2015.

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