1 Samuel 16:1-13 – Solitude of the Heart

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”

The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” So, he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”

Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

So, he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

So, Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah. (New International Version)

Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self. - May Sarton

Appearances can be deceiving.

One of the best ways to see beyond mere physical sight is to engage in the spiritual practice of solitude. Solitude is not loneliness but a deliberate retreat from normal routines to be alone with the Lord.

The faith of both Samuel and David were strengthened through solitude. It prepared them for public service and made them godly. Because they had established patterns of being alone with God, they had an inward solitude even when in a crowd. That is why Samuel could have an interaction with the Lord, even when among lots of people.

Solitude is important because it is the true path to listening well.  A person whose faith has been shaped through solitude has an ability to carry on a dialogue with God while, at the same time, having a conversation with others.

Christ’s relationship with the Father was formed through solitude. Jesus was able to have simultaneous conversations with God and people since he practiced solitude on a regular basis. Jesus began his ministry with solitude (Matthew 4:1-11); made major decisions through solitude (Luke 6:12); and taught his disciples to practice solitude (Matthew 17:1-9; 26:36-46).

Solitude is necessary because engaging the world is important. Effective interaction with others requires times of retreat for solitude with God. Solitude as a spiritual discipline:

  • Gives us freedom from the need for constant noise and activity.
  • Allows God to shape our faith rather than conform to the world.
  • Liberates us from other people’s expectations for us.
  • Helps quiet internal noise and racing thoughts so we can better listen to God.
  • Provides the opportunity for reflection upon and preparation for future events.
  • Creates encouraging speech for the benefit of others.
  • Fuels a desire to keep practicing solitude because of its benefit.

Solitude taught Samuel obedience.

Samuel learned obedience through years of solitude with old Eli the priest. “Speak Lord, for I am listening” became a way of life for Samuel, as he was trained in how to listen well. 

Samuel’s greatness as the Judge of Israel did not lie in his original ideas or the initiatives he took, but in simple obedience to the commands of God. Years of obscurity and solitude as a child created the ability to hear and carry-out what the Lord told him to do.

Even Samuel, as godly as he was, could not rely on personal observations about choosing the next king of Israel. Because he had long years of practicing solitude with the Lord, Samuel was able to clearly hear divine speech and anointed the right person as king. Samuel did not trust his own judgment but relied on God’s direction.

Solitude characterizes God.

Christians serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit. God has complete and perfect solitude along with focused engagement with humanity. Through spending time with God, people can simultaneously interact with divinity and humanity.

It is a bit like my wife who began her broadcasting career in radio by simulcasting the AM station in one ear of her headphones, and the FM station in the other ear. She could que a record for the FM station while, at the same time, forecasting the weather for the AM station. Her ability was born of practice and commitment to her craft.  In the same way, we have been given a vocation to engage the church and world, and the ability to have a solitude of heart while interacting with others.

God, unlike us, sees us completely, inside-and-out – which is why we are dependent upon solitude of heart so that we can make proper judgments. God urged Samuel to not look at the outward appearance because this is how wrong judgments happen.

Solitude formed David into a king.

David was on nobody’s short list to become king. He was so far out there as a candidate for the position that his own family did not even think it necessary to have him present for the sacrificial feast. It is just like God to have a way of choosing the people we think would be the least likely to do anything.

Being in the pasture day after day and night after night by himself was just the right curriculum that trained the next king. Shepherding was not a lonely affair for David. It was a rich experience of solitude which developed a solid relationship with God. Out in the field, away from all the wrong judgments of the world, David learned to discern God’s voice – a skill he carried with him the rest of his life.

Solitude is our path to spiritual maturity.

Solitude might seem unrealistic for extroverts, and only something for introverts. Yet, solitude is essential to creating a robust faith in God. The following are some steps toward the practice of solitude and allowing it to bring you into a closer walk with the Lord.

  1. Practice “little solitudes” in the day. The early morning cup of coffee or shower, the drive-time to work, the lunch break, the quiet at night when all is dark and everyone in bed are opportunities for solitude with God to reorient and redirect our lives.
  2. Find or create a quiet place designed specifically for solitude. It might be a room, a closet, or a chair. It might be outdoors. It can be anywhere that helps you be free from distraction and invites you to connect deeply with Jesus.
  3. Begin the day by spending at least 10 minutes alone with God in silence. Over time, work your way to even more minutes, even hours. I am a believer in an hour a day keeping the devil away. Eventually, take an entire day away, every few months. Consider taking a weekend or even a week away once a year.
  4. Read Holy Scripture slowly and meditatively. Listen to what the Spirit may be saying in your reading.  Keep a journal handy and write down your observations. Allow prayers to arise from what you hear from the Lord.

This might seem optional only for those with discretionary time – but it is no more optional than planting in the Spring to get a harvest in the Fall. Such fruit results in the slaying of giants….

**Above photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

Mark 6:30-34 – The Ethics of Rest and Work

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

So, they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So, he began teaching them many things. (NIV)

The Protestant work ethic is a real thing.

Although the German sociologist, Max Weber, coined the term, the idea has been around since the Reformation. Since I’m an old white Protestant minister with Northern European heritage, I can testify firsthand that phrases like “quiet place,” “get some rest,” and “solitary place” aren’t in my tribe’s vocabulary.

The typical understanding of sin in the Protestant work ethic is laziness, sloth, procrastination, and disorder. Heck, even sleeping and eating are viewed more as necessary evils than healthy practices. Hard industrious work is considered a high value. All other activities fall underneath it.

So, it is not surprising that today’s Gospel lesson rarely gets attention from anybody, especially with people who share my heritage. Yet, there it is in Holy Scripture for all to read. And I can’t think of any better or sage advice to give my fellow Protestant Christians as “get some rest.”

Having heard my share of folks, after me insisting they practice some self-care, say goofy things like, “I’ll have plenty of time to rest when I die,” I now go full-frontal retort with my own words that go something like, “And that death will happen a lot sooner than you think, if you don’t obey the Lord through solitude and rest.”

Moving from guilt to grace.

Although I know better, I often find myself burning the candle at both ends. Its far too easy for me to forget eating lunch because of work. And I sometimes catch myself wanting to justify to others the reason for putting my feet up for a few minutes. Make no mistake about it: The Protestant work ethic is mostly motivated by guilt, not grace.

Perhaps we need to say the phrase of Jesus out loud, using several different versions of the Bible. Go ahead. Say the following, slowly… gently… as if Christ himself were speaking directly to you….

“Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” (NIV)

“Come, let’s take a break and find a secluded place where you can rest a while.” (TPT)

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (NRSV)

“Come with me privately to an isolated place and rest a while.” (NET)

“Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” (NLT)

“Let’s go to a place where we can be alone and get some rest.”

Jesus (Mark 6:31, CEV)

I want us to see what a gracious invitation we are being extended by our Lord. This is the same Lord who said:

“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, CEB)

At odds with Christian discipleship.

It is high time we see that much of the Protestant work ethic is at odds with Christian discipleship. Although the ethic rightly lifts the need for faith to be expressed in diligence, discipline, and frugality, it elevates hard work as a visible sign of God’s grace. So, ironically, people end up working their tails off to prove the grace in their lives. And it has created a false self for many who are fearful of being seen by others as slothful and irreligious.

For example, I once had an elderly parishioner who often told me how little sleep she got, the part-time job she held, and the many volunteer opportunities she regularly engaged. I thought it odd that an older person could truly do so much without much rest. And my hunch proved spot on. Turns out she fudged on how many hours she really worked and slept, sometimes outright lying to me.

This lady felt compelled to prove to me, her Pastor, that she was on the straight and narrow, doing the things a good Protestant Christian does. What is sad about this is that the stories are multiplied with many other dear people obsessively relating to me untrue facts about themselves so that I will accept and affirm their superior religiosity expressed in hard work.

However, the axis of the world does not spin on effort and working harder but on grace and love. Behind all the posturing and continually striving for an almost superhuman work ethic are terribly insecure folk who need to rest in the grace of God in Christ.

Embracing both work and rest.

None of this is to say that work is somehow bad. No, work is inherently good. Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden to work it and tend to it. We need not denigrate work to emphasize rest. Whereas you might doth protest that younger generations today have no idea what hard work is, I will pushback by saying they intuitively see the foolishness of the Protestant work ethic and want to steer clear of it.

Millennials, I argue, are ready to roll up their sleeves and work hard. They just need a bit of direction from us older generations. And that guidance cannot be in the form of disparaging them. Rather it needs to be gracious, forging real mentoring relationships which are helpful.

So, let’s get a hold of what Jesus did: He worked, yes, worked, to get his disciples to a place of rest and refreshment. Christ wanted nothing to do with compulsively working without proper care of body and soul. Rest must come before work. We do well to follow his example.

Be present, O merciful God, and give us refreshment through the anxieties of the day and the silent hours of the night so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world may rest upon your eternal changelessness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

1 Peter 4:1-8 – Holy Saturday

The death of Christ, Holy Hill, Hubertus, Wisconsin

Christ suffered here on earth. Now you must be ready to suffer as he did because suffering shows that you have stopped sinning. It means you have turned from your own desires and want to obey God for the rest of your life. You have already lived long enough like people who don’t know God. You were immoral and followed your evil desires. You went around drinking and partying and carrying on. In fact, you even worshiped disgusting idols. Now your former friends wonder why you have stopped running around with them, and they curse you for it. But they will have to answer to God, who judges the living and the dead. The good news has even been preached to the dead, so that after they have been judged for what they have done in this life, their spirits will live with God.  Everything will soon come to an end. So be serious and be sensible enough to pray.  Most important of all, you must sincerely love each other, because love wipes away many sins. (CEV)

I haven’t been a confessing Christian my entire life. I can relate to Peter’s exhortation. I still remember what it feels like to live my life without any thought to God or spiritual matters. The thing about partying and immorality is that it’s a life filled with constant movement. Slowing down only makes one come face-to-face with what is truly inside the soul. 

If someone has an empty vacuous soul, or a damaged spirit, or a broken heart, then attempting to drink or work away the inner pain makes sense when there’s no regard for God. The last thing I ever wanted to do was suffer, yet until I had my spiritual awakening, it seemed I could never outrun the hurt no matter how hard I tried, even with all the constant locomotion.

Today is Holy Saturday – a quiet place sandwiched between the ignominy of the cross and the celebration of resurrection – a day of solitude, silence, and stillness. This is something of a lost day for many folks. In fact, many Christians haven’t had a thought that Holy Saturday could have any significance. Yet, this very day has its place in the scheme of the Christian life.

There cannot be resurrection and new life without death and dying to self. There must be suffering before there can be glory. Whenever Christians quickly jump to triumphal language about victory and speak little-to-nothing about suffering, then we are left with a cheap grace which has been purchased with the counterfeit currency of velocity. 

Today is meant for us to get out of our heads and wrap our hearts around the important reality that Jesus Christ was in the grave. It was real suffering on Good Friday. It was a real death on Holy Saturday. There is no movement. All is silent and still. Jesus is in the solitude of a dark tomb. There’s no getting around it. If we want a Resurrection Day with all its celebration and glory, then we cannot circumvent Holy Saturday. 

To put this in the spirit of the Apostle Peter: Are we ready to follow Jesus and suffer as he did?  Are we willing to stop our striving, manifested through constant movement, and embrace the Holy Saturday of solitude, silence, stillness with its contemplation and embrace of suffering?  Will you and I have sense enough to pray?  Will we practice a Christian counter-cultural shift and face the ridicule of friends so that we might take some much-needed time to be with Jesus in the tomb?  Or are we so antsy and anxious that we just want to leap into Easter with no solidarity with our Lord in the grave?

You may think I’m being a bit too hard or harsh or cold…. That’s because Jesus is cold. He has a bonified cold dead body. It’s no fake death. There’s no “swoon theory” here, as if Christ only passed-out and did a weird divine fainting spell. Nope. He’s dead. And if you and I want to live with Jesus, we must die with Jesus. 

Anyone who tries to promise new life apart from journeying with Jesus into the grave is a spiritual charlatan.  Only through death can there be life. 

On this Holy Saturday, let’s intentionally slow down, do less, give ourselves a large chunk of unstructured time, and put aside routine matters. Fill the time with unfettered access to God in Christ. Slowly read the Gospel accounts of Christ’s death and burial. Read the book of 1 Peter. Allow prayers to arise from the careful and mindful reading of Scripture. Feel the solidarity with Jesus, journey with him along the way from life to death… so that there might be a truly glorious resurrection filled with abundant life and flourishing – a life that doesn’t need hedonism and workaholism to feel happy and significant.

May you die well so that you might live well.

Loving Lord Jesus, today all is silent. You died a horrific death and gave incredible mercy from your wounded heart. Now you rest in the tomb as the soldiers keep vigil. I also keep vigil, although in a quite different way. I know this day doesn’t last forever; there is tremendous glory coming. Yet, for now I sit quietly mourning your death. Assist me, God Almighty, to enter the sorrow and the silence of this Holy Saturday. Today, help me to wait patiently and to sit with this constellation of emotions swirling around my heart. As I keep this sacred vigil, fill me with hope – not only looking forward to the celebration of your Resurrection – yet also to anticipate the hope of my own share in the new life you offer, as you lay lifeless and still. May your rest transform the brokenness of my own soul, my weaknesses, and my sin. I express my trust, O God, in your mighty power to do all things through Jesus Christ, my Lord, your beloved Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Temptation in the Desert

Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoi, 1872

Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:9-15, NIV)

We are in the season of Lent. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, we take a forty-day journey, leading to Holy Week and Easter. Jesus spent forty days in the desert being tempted by Satan. So, the church remembers this event with the season of Lent. This is the time of year in which Christians are to give awareness of the temptations we face on a regular basis. We intentionally seek to fast or give up something for six weeks so that we might see how much we attach ourselves to other things and rely on them, instead of trusting in God.

Just as it was important and significant for Jesus to be in the desert, it is necessary for us, as well. Jesus retraced the steps of his ancestors, the Israelites, who wandered in the desert for forty years. They had an extended time in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land because they needed to re-connect with God after having failed in their faith. Their trust had to be strengthened and developed before they could ever be ready to receive God’s promises.

Jesus faced down the devil and overcame temptation in the desert. The forty days were a necessary preparation for the upcoming three years of ministry that would culminate in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. But before any of that could happen, Jesus had to experience the desert.

We, like Jesus, need to have a desert spirituality. If we are not formed into followers of Jesus through learning to overcome temptation, then we are at risk to be shaped into followers of Satan. God desires to strengthen our faith. We, like Jesus, need to face down the devilish temptations which would impede our spiritual development.

In every sport, weightlifting has become a necessary part of athletic training. Athletes now know their muscles must be properly developed for their respective sport. Through weight training the muscle fibers are broken down with stress. Then, with proper hydration, nutrition, and rest, the muscles are re-built as better, stronger, and more agile. 

Christ in the Desert by Julie Lonneman

As Christians, the desert becomes the gymnasium where we are broken down through the stress of temptation so that we might become spiritually stronger in our faith. Without this kind of spiritual training, we become vulnerable to satanic accusations and become easy targets to demonic seduction.

After the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit “sent” him into the desert. The word is perhaps better translated as “thrown” or “hurled.”  It is an extraordinarily strong word conveying that the Spirit flung Jesus out into the desert.

Being tossed into the desert demonstrates how important spending time there was for Jesus. It was in the desert he learned to resist temptation in his ministry. There was real danger in the desert, wild animals, and vulnerability to the elements. Yet, put in that situation and having come through it, Jesus was able to deal with the crafty pursuits of Satan to distract him from his mission. 

Throughout the Gospel of Mark, after tossing demons out of people, Jesus would tell the unclean spirits not to tell anyone who he was. Part of what was happening is that Satan wanted to tempt Jesus to gain fame and power through popularity and accolades. And that was not the way of Jesus. Our Lord was not going to bring in the kingdom of God through the usual avenues of careful marketing and brand recognition.

Another practice Jesus kept up throughout his ministry was to seek places for solitude and prayer. The needs Jesus daily saw and dealt with were large and vast and never ending. Jesus resisted the temptation to continually work without any rest or guidance in prayer. It was through solitude and prayer that Jesus connected with his Father and would move from place to place traveling and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.  Jesus never gave in to the temptation to settle in one place and build a petty kingdom of his own, apart from the Father.

As Jesus went about the countryside telling people to repent and believe the good news, he often spoke in parables designed to encourage thought and reflection. He did not succumb to the temptation to always be black and white about everything, giving just the bottom line of his teaching to people. 

Jesus did not teach to get immediate results or to let people know which side of the fence he occupied concerning the issues of the day. Instead, Christ understood his business – a ministry of building something permanent that would far outlast his mere three years of ministry. Because of the desert, and through his Father’s affirmation, Jesus lived a unique three years on this earth that has never been equaled before or since.

Some years ago, I went on a leadership retreat in the Canadian wilderness.  We were so far out in the sticks that we needed special first aid training before leaving because if someone got severely injured it would be hours before any medical attention could be received. There was no cell phone service, no towns, no anything except mile after square mile of wilderness. We had to be continually vigilant to not attract bears. The wilderness can be a dangerous place. On one of the days in that week, we were each dropped off on our own personal islands for an entire day, alone. Being face to face with yourself can be hard to deal with, which is what a desert experience does – it exposes the idols of our hearts and the ways in which we are tempted.

A person need not be in the Canadian wilderness or in a real desert to experience the effects of desert life. The Holy Spirit has a way of throwing us into the desert through changes of circumstances so that we will flex our spiritual muscles to get into spiritual shape.

The top three temptations of people today are worry, procrastination, and gossip. So, how do we face down those temptations (and others) and retrace our steps back to the path of God?  Here are some lessons I have learned in my own wilderness experiences through God’s Word:

  • Know your weaknesses. Know yourself. Know the temptations of Satan. The three temptations just mentioned all come from a tendency toward perfectionism. We worry about the future and not saying or doing something perfectly. We procrastinate saying or doing things for fear of screwing up and not being perfect. And we gossip to others about their faults and weaknesses because it maintains the illusion that our perfectionism is intact, at least as compared to others. However, perfectionism is slavery. 

We have freedom now because Christ made us free. So, stand strong in that freedom. Do not go back into slavery again. (Galatians 5:1, ERV)

  • Understand the importance of timing.  When are you at your weakest, at your most vulnerable time? What triggers you to sin?  We know that when our kids and grandkids act up, we first wonder if they are tired, hungry, or have some other need. It is the same with us. Carrying a massive sleep debt, skipping meals, or eating poorly because we are constantly in a hurry will set us up for temptation.

Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8, CEB)

  • Look to God and others.  Do not rely solely on your own willpower or think you ought to resist temptation all by yourself, all the time. Even Jesus looked both to his Father and his disciples. During a time of intense stress, Jesus said:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:38-41, NIV)

  • Have a plan. Flying by the seat of your pants will not always work. One of the major ways I personally resist temptation is by having a daily plan of worshiping God, praying, and reading Scripture at set times throughout the day.

A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences. (Proverbs 22:3, NLT)

  • Overcome evil with good. If we apply this to the top three temptations people face, that means the worrier will love his/her enemies and pray for those who persecute. It means the procrastinator will take intentional steps of faith and risk, being real and vulnerable with others through accountable relationships. It means the gossip will seek to speak words of encouragement that build others up.

Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21, NRSV)

  • Realize you are never alone.  Angels attended Jesus. Even the Son of God was never on his own.  Whatever you are facing is likely not unique to you. Others face similar struggles. Our brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of problems when they seek to walk with Christ.

Let the desert shape and strengthen your faith. If the Holy Spirit has thrown you into a dry place, learn all you can about resisting temptation so that you can come out the other end a stronger, more faithful follower of Jesus Christ.