Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Practicing our Faith:  Contemplative Prayer

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Luke 6:12-18, Psalm 131


A mother went to a famous spiritual teacher for help with her son.  "My son has horrible eating habits," she said. "Please tell him to stop eating foods with so much sugar. He will listen to you "  The Teacher listened sympathetically. "Please come back next week and make this request again."

The mother agreed and returned seven days later. "My son’s problem continues," she said. "I am concerned about his health. He rarely eats any fruit or vegetables.   Please, won’t you talk to him about the danger of eating too much sugar?"

"Please, come back and see me in another week," the Teacher said. The mother was disappointed, but again she left and again she retuned one week later. One more time she made her plea. This time the Teacher agreed to talk with her son.

When their conversation was over, the mother said, “I'm grateful that you took the time to talk to my son, but I don’t understand why it took three requests for you to do so."


The Teacher looked at the woman and said, "I didn’t realize how hard it would be for me to give up sugar."


If I were as wise as that teacher, I would probably ask you to come back in 7 days or more realistically seven times seven days for today’s sermon. I try not to preach on things that are very far from my experience.  Another way to say that is to say that my goal is for my talk to match my walk.


The practice under consideration today is contemplative prayer or solitude or what Brother Lawrence in the 17th century called “practicing the presence of God”.  I am confessing to you now, that I am long on theory, short on practice for this one.   Every sermon is a work in progress; this one particularly so.


Many of you know the name of Henri Nouwen.  Nouwen was a Catholic priest who spent much of his vocational life as a professor in institutions like Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard.  For the last ten years of his life, he lived in a community with physically and mentally handicapped people.  He wrote 39 books.  For many of us, he is a trusted guide to thinking about faith and spirituality.


Nouwen sees a pattern, an order, in the text we heard from Luke.  It is the pattern of Jesus’ life, which could be the pattern for ours.  He says, “This is a beautiful story that moves from night to morning to afternoon.  Jesus spent the night in solitude with God. In the morning, he gathered his apostles around him and formed community.  In the afternoon, with his apostles, he went out and preached the Word and healed the sick.”[1]   



Jesus’ pattern is

Solitude   a  Community  a Ministry


If that is Jesus’ pattern, then it should be ours.  But some have argued that we often work in the opposite direction.  We try to organize a ministry, a work that needs doing and then realize that we need partners, so we form a community.  But sometimes, the work of the ministry and/or the work of maintaining community become too much and so we burn-out and end up in solitude, alone. 


Jesus’ pattern starts with solitude.  He spends the entire night alone with God, then he calls together the twelve who will form his community and then they do ministry together. This is a cycle.  It happens over and over again.  Jesus withdraws to be alone with God, then he spends time with the disciples and then they do ministry, sometimes all together, sometimes spread out in different places. 


Solitude   a  Community  a Ministry


I suggest that Protestant churches today are pretty good at understanding community and pretty good at understanding ministry, but just not really good at solitude. 


Here is a definition of discipline which I had never heard.  Nouwen says that in the spiritual life, “the word discipline means ‘the effort to create some space in which God can act.’  Discipline means to prevent everything in your life from being filled up.  Discipline means that somewhere you’re not occupied, and certainly not preoccupied.  In the spiritual life, discipline means to create that space in which something can happen that you hadn’t planned or counted on.”[2]


In Nouwen’s terms, Jesus “created some space in which God could act” every time he withdrew for solitude with God.  He carved out a space in which he was not answering the disciple’s questions or teaching the crowds or healing the sick and debating his opponents.  He carved out a space where he connected with God.  In solitude with God, Jesus heard the voice of the One who called him “beloved.”  Whether the crowds said “Hosanna” or “Crucify him”  did not affect Jesus, because he was being sustained by the most important voice which named him beloved.


This practice of solitude is not the kind of prayer where you tell God what you need or what your loved ones need.  It’s not primarily where you thank God or praise God, although that can happen in solitude.  What we are talking about here is the creating of a space in which you can listen  “to the One who calls you ‘my beloved daughter,’ ‘my beloved son,’ ‘my beloved child’.  To pray is to let that voice speak to the center of your being . . . and to let that voice resound in your whole being,”[3] 


Nouwen says two things about this that I find really important.  First, he says that if you can hear that voice, God’s voice, naming you Beloved, then you can “deal with an enormous amount of success as well as an enormous amount of failure, without losing your identity, because your identity is that you are God’s beloved.” 


Wow, if you know at your core that you are loved by God, you can deal with an enormous amount of success as well as an enormous amount of failure.


The second thing, Nouwen says is that this knowledge leads on to ministry.  “ . . .your freedom is anchored in claiming your belovedness.  That allows you to go into this world and touch people, heal them, speak with them, and make them aware that they are beloved, chosen, and blessed.  When you discover your belovedness by God, you see the belovedness of other people and call that forth.  It’s an incredible mystery of God’s love that the more you know how deeply you are loved, the more you will see how deeply your sisters and your brothers in the human family are loved.” [4]


This practice of solitude with God is starting to sound very important and powerful.  So why don’t we do it?  Or, let me rephrase that, why don’t more of us do it?  Because I am sure that some of you are quite familiar with this practice. 

So why don’t more of us do it?  Why aren’t Protestant seminaries turning out pastors who all have at least this one tool sharp and ready in our toolboxes?


This tool requires 20-30 minutes of silence and isolation, maybe more, on a daily basis.  This tool requires us to unplug, and shut down our need to produce, to justify ourselves, to be occupied and multi-tasking.  To describe this tool as counter-cultural doesn’t begin to describe it. 


If you don’t already practice this, then try it.  Try sitting still and silent for 7 minutes.  Don’t tell God anything.  Don’t consciously think about anything.  Just be.  What will happen is that as soon as you get quiet, you will remember someone you were supposed to call, an appointment you need to make, an e-mail to return.  Your internal life will be like a banana tree with monkeys jumping up and down.  The first step in this practice is to learn to silence those monkeys, to let them do their jumping without your attention. 


Our internal monkeys do work against us, but before we have to deal with those internal monkeys, there are external forces.  There is noise, noise, noise everywhere.  There are households where the television never goes off.  Maybe that’s not yours.  There are households where the computer never goes off or where a buzzing, beeping cell phone never goes unanswered.  There is always something we can attend to, something other than that elusive voice of God.  We can always distract ourselves. Or we can say that we just don’t have the time.  I have come to believe that we find the time for what we want to find the time for. 


Some of us are masters of the schedule.  Every hour in the day is accounted for, because we pride ourselves on being efficient.  And maybe we delude ourselves into thinking that if we can control our schedules, we can control our lives.  That’s why I love Nouwen’s definition of discipline  -- to prevent everything in your life from being filled up, to have somewhere you’re not occupied. 


Time, noise, distractions, internal monkeys – all of those are possible, but I suggest two deeper reasons this is not a more common faith practice. 


When you get quiet, it gets real.  Some of us prefer to avoid our internal reality.  In the third century, thousands of Christians went to live as hermits in the desert of Egypt.  They went to a place with no distractions, to face the devil.  They did not think that the devil lived in the desert.  They went to face the demons that lived inside themselves.  They called these demons by names like greed, anger, lust and envy.  Practicing solitude means confronting our demons.  And often, we prefer noise and errands and meaningless busy-ness.


And there is another deep reason we may avoid this.  It takes most of us a lot of effort to silence the noise and still the monkeys and face our demons, if we make that effort, we expect to see some results.  If we made that same effort to learn to make a basket for example, we would see something. Some kind of basket would emerge and we would know for next time to soak the reeds longer or cut them longer or shorter.  Or to keep more pressure on as we weave.


If we make the effort to listen to God, we will expect to hear God’s voice in a very tangible way or to find a sign from God in the clouds or our morning coffee.  And if we don’t, we may think that we have failed.  We have all heard someone’s story of God speaking to them completely out of the blue, without any effort on their part.  If we have been sitting in silence with God for a week or a month and we don’t think we have heard from God, we may tell ourselves that we don’t have what it takes to be spiritual and we may quit trying. The value of this practice is not measured in what happens during any one period of solitude; the value happens over time.    Spiritual growth is usually slow growth. 


Let me close with some words from another trusted spiritual guide, Thomas Merton. 


“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore, I will trust you always thought I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.  I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”[5]


Brothers and sisters, you have heard my confession – this discipline of solitude requires effort which I have not always done well or consistently.  Hear also my affirmation:  It is good and right to create a space where God can act.  It is good and right to listen to the voice of God which names us beloved son, beloved daughter, to listen until that identity resounds at our core. 




[1] This main ideas of this sermon come from an article by  Henri Nouwen, “Moving from Solitude to Community”, Spring 1995 Leadership Journal http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/1995/spring/5l280.html

[2] Nouwen, p. 1

[3] Nouwen, p. 2

[4] Nouwen, p. 3

[5] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York:  The Noonday Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux,   Image Books, 1956), p. 85.