It is a pleasure and a privilege for me to be here with you this morning. My name is Heidi Haverkamp and not only did I attend seminary with your rector, but she introduced me to the man who became my husband. I have known her many years, however, she did not invite me here this morning to tell you stories about the old days, but to talk about a book that I wrote about Lent. I was a parish pastor myself for ten years, here in the diocese of Chicago, but about six months ago I stepped away from parish life to focus on my vocation as a writer and teacher. I’ve just published my second book with the Presbyterian press, Westminster John Knox – I did submit a manuscript to two Episcopal publishers, but it was the Presbyterians who were interested (what can I say?) – I am grateful to be under contract for a new three-volume series, and I write regularly for The Christian Century magazine.
My Lent book is called Holy Solitude, and one of its core scriptures is the forty days that Jesus spent in solitude in the desert wilderness before his public ministry began. It’s also always the gospel for the first Sunday of Lent. Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River, and then Mark tells us that “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Around the Jordan are green things, gardens, and farms, but just up a short way from the water, the land is dry as bone and all rocks and sand. This is where the Holy Spirit pushed Jesus to go, as Mark tells us: to fast, to endure the heat and cold, to go be with wild animals, Satan, and angels, for forty days. In other words, to encounter danger both within and without, to encounter himself, and to really, deeply, spend time with God. This was solitude as an extreme sport – very, very difficult. But also, imagine how wondrous and beautiful the vastness of the desert land and sky would have been, especially the stars at night. And how prepared, solid, alive, and able to depend completely on God, Jesus would have been.
He is not the only one to spend time alone with God in the desert in scripture, to prepare for ministry. John the Baptist spent many years in the same desert in Judea. Moses tended sheep alone out on the deserts of Midian, where one day he was startled by a burning bush. Hagar met God in the desert, trying to escape from slavery, and named him El-Roi, the God who sees me. Elijah fled to Mt. Horeb in fear and encountered the presence of God, not in an earthquake, or a great wind, or a fire, but in the sheer sound of silence. The Israelites were alone in the desert with God for forty years. The story of Noah that we heard this morning might be an example of the opposite of solitude, being stuck on a boat full of people and animals – and things did not go well for Noah when he got back to land, I’m afraid.
So, in my book, I am not trying to say that solitude is an endurance feat, or a way to get some peace and quiet necessarily, or to focus on your goals and plan of action. Solitude is a way to spend time with God – a way to open yourself to the presence of the Holy Spirit, a way to grow your relationship with Jesus. Solitude can be used for many things, but in Lent and as Christians, I want to invite you to use it – whether you spend forty days or just four seconds in the moments of your day – to reach out for the presence of God in your life. To recall to yourself the power and love that Jesus has for you. That may make me sound more like an evangelical than an Episcopalian, but you know, having a personal relationship with God in your life and nurturing that relationship, is an amazing gift that God offers each one of us. And that relationship can become a bedrock and a deep well that we can use to serve others, to face fear and danger, to do our best work, to do the best for our families and friends -- by depending on God and not just ourselves. Having a relationship with God and Jesus is not just about “me and God,” but about loving my neighbor and changing the world.
But how do you have a relationship with God? What is that? A relationship with the ineffable eternal? I find that evangelicals often have better language around this than mainline Christians as I’ve had a few of them as teachers in my faith journey. One put it this way: “God is never more than one thought away. If you want to experience God in your life, think about Him. Talk to Him.” That’s it! Just think about God.
A Roman Catholic, Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite nun from England, says to forget about all the fancy prayer methods and disciplines – just sit still and let God love you. That’s it. That’s how you grow a relationship with God.
My book has a very long title: Holy Solitude: Lenten Reflections with Saints, Hermits, Prophets, and Rebels. I wrote it because I wanted to think about people who had spent time in solitude, trying to grow their relationship with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Whether you love solitude or dread it in your own life, using it to sit with God can be wonderful but also tricky. Solitude is a place to encounter God – the holy, the great mystery, the great love and grace. But it is also a place where demons and the Evil One may lurk, wanting to grab and shake us, pulling us away from God. They can come as distractions, boredom, bad thoughts, a sense of pointlessness, a sense of selfishness.
I wanted to write a book that help people create more solitude and places of open emptiness in their lives for God, with a back-up army of people in scripture and Christian history who had encountered or practiced great solitude themselves, including Jesus himself, and who not only emerge unscathed but had their lives changed in turn, changed the world around them, too. Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Thomas Merton, Howard Thurman… I believe we all can do this, not just through forty-day sojourns in the wilderness or years spent in a monastery, but also through moments in everyday life.
Again, not to calm your mind, exactly, or to find peace, or to focus your to do list, but to talk to God, about what you’re doing or worried about. To lean on Jesus, and even to ask him, as one of my elderly parishioner taught me, “Jesus, I can’t do this today, so I need you to come and do it for me.” I realize this may sound corny, or evangelical, but you know, God didn’t come down to earth in Jesus Christ to tell us how follow the rules or fix the whole world or find the right answers, but to have a deeper relationship with us.
The thing is, our moments of solitude and our times alone with God are not always beautiful or blissful. And Jesus shows us the way by starting his ministry in a desert. Sometimes we find ourselves in a solitude or loneliness we did not choose, and that is hard. And yet, we can step back and remember that this is the kind of place God usually chooses to reveal Godself to people – desert places. Why is that, I wonder? We will talk more about this if you come join me in the workshop after worship. But when we are feeling alone, we can know that Jesus did, too. And that God wants to be close to us even in those tough desert places.
One desert place I am especially aware of today is Parkland, Florida, where seventeen people – mostly teenagers – were killed in sprays of gunfire from an AR-15 assault rifle in a high school last Wednesday, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. I am someone who simply becomes totally overwhelmed whenever these terrible shootings occur in our nation – where in many places, an AR-15 is easier to buy than a handgun, a car, a dog or cat, or a box of Sudafed. We might well ask, well, what can solitude do about school shootings? The thing is, solitude what gives us the strength to do the work God is calling us to do, whatever that may be. Solitude, prayer, and coming to church, puts our center and strength not in our own strength, or our own wisdom, which is mortal and flawed, but in God’s, which is eternal. Solitude – or prayer – is something we often discard these days as frippery, but as I learned over and over in my research, solitude is a formidable force. I will just mention one saint and rebel, Catherine of Siena, who spent three years alone in a closet in her parents’ house, leaving only to go to Mass – she spent three years alone with Jesus. But then you know what she did? When she emerged, it wasn’t long before she was changing all of Italy with her activism and witness, even changing the mind of a Pope. She changed the world – because of solitude. Not solitude for its own sake, but for the sake of God’s love and so then, for love of her neighbor. Martin Luther King was no hermit, but he spent time in solitude as suggested by his teacher and spiritual director Howard Thurman, who wrote from the heart of his life of deep prayer and meditation: “Of all weapons, love is the most deadly and devastating, and few there be who dare trust their fate in its hands.”
In memory of the people who died on Wednesday, and for their loved ones now left with terrible holes in their lives and hearts, I want to close with a passage I think of as the Valentine’s Day verse of the prophet Hosea – chapter two verse fourteen, “Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” I pray this Lent, for God’s love to allure and tenderly hold all those in the wilderness, whether one not of our choosing or of Lent, a wilderness set in time. I pray that we will all remember to let God love on us, and to believe, really, that God’s love is the only thing that can ever really transform the world, as we can make space for it to move in us and through us, for us and for our neighbor, in Christ’s name. Amen.