A man made an appointment with the famous psychologist Carl Jung to get help for chronic depression. Jung told him to reduce his fourteen-hour workday to eight, go directly home, and spend the evenings in his study, quiet and all alone. The depressed man went to his study each night, shut the door, read a little Hermann Hesse or Thomas Mann, played a few Chopin études or some Mozart.
After weeks of this, he returned to Jung, complaining that he could see no improvement. On learning how the man had spent his time, Jung said, “But you didn’t understand. I didn’t want you to be with Hesse or Mann or Chopin or Mozart. I wanted you to be completely alone.” The man looked terrified and exclaimed, “I can’t think of any worse company.” Jung replied, “Yet this is the self you inflict on other people fourteen hours a day”
For several weeks, we talked about the Holy Eucharist and Communion. The benefits, the mystery and also the way in which it binds us together as a community. When we spoke of the community, I shared with you the statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey: “Individualism therefore has no place in Christianity, and Christianity verily means its extinction. The individual Christian exists only because the body exists already. In the body the self is found, and within the individual experience the body is present.” However, without further investigation, we could come to believe that we can only practice our faith when gathered together as a community, but with all things, we must seek the proper balance, because there are also times, in practicing our faith, that we must be alone with Jesus. There are so many fine lessons in our Gospel reading this morning, but that was what I kept thinking on.
First there was the encounter with the Gentile woman, of Syrophoenician origin and the tongue-in-cheek bantering between her and Jesus. Then, in a different town, the people bring Jesus a deaf/mute and asked Jesus to heal him. It is here that we read, Jesus “took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” Jesus healed him. The man could hear and speak, but in order to do this great work in his life, Jesus brought him to a private place, away from everyone else.
Christianity cannot exist outside of the community of the faithful, but the individual needs private time with Jesus, so that Jesus can do great work within them. However, like the fella who went to visit Carl Jung, so many of us, when we have time alone, will fill the air with all sorts of noise, because the idea of being alone or even alone with Jesus, is terrifying. Yet the truth remains: we must have community and we must have this time alone with Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best in Life Together: “One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.” His conclusion, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” His reasoning for time alone with God: “Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out.” (p.77f) Therefore we need community, but we need the alone time as well.
What does this alone with Jesus while at the same time being in community look like? It is about like this very moment we have now. We are gathered here as a community, but there is also this reverence, awe, (and when the preacher shuts up) silence. A time of being together, but also a time to listen to ourselves and to God. A place of encounter between the Creator and the created. A time to be alone with Jesus so that he might perform a great work within us. It sounds easy—sit quietly with Jesus—but it is actually hard work and requires practice. Why? Because we don’t know how to stop. To stop doing, talking, digesting every form of media… we simply do not know how to do what our parents and everyone else tried to get us to do the entire time we were growing up: we do not know how to sit still and be quiet, but… we can learn. If there were two pieces of advice I would give you on how to sit still and quiet with God, it would be these 1) be intentional and 2) have a pen and paper handy.
First, intentionality. I have one of those brains that’s always traveling somewhere, but if I’m focused on one particular task, I can stick with it. However, if I’m going to be focused on a task, I have to schedule that time. I make an intentional “appointment” to accomplish a certain work. I think that the same is true with our private time with Jesus. Yes, we can have those moments throughout the day, but in order for that greater work to be accomplished, we need to intentionally schedule time to meet with God. That might sound ridiculous to some, “Excuse me God, but tomorrow I have the 9 a.m. hour free. Would that work for you to meet?” Sounds silly, but if you don’t schedule that 9 a.m. hour with God, then I guarantee you something else will fill it and it won’t be God.
Second, pen and paper. Best friends. I love the post-it note. I’ve scheduled my appointment to complete a particular task. I’m focused and in the groove. Yet, even though I’m focused, some random piece of information pops into my head, “I need to write that message to the Bishop.” At that point, I have a couple of options: I can stop what I’m doing and write the message or I can go on with what I’m doing, but afraid I’ll forget to do it or… I can pop off a post-it note and jot it down: “Write message to Bp.” I can confidently stay focused on what I’m doing, knowing I won’t forget the other bit. The same is true with that scheduled time with God. All sorts of things are going to come up during it. If I let a thought or concern persist, then my time with God is a wash, but if I’ll take just a moment to write down that thought, then I know it is safely dealt with for the time and I can get back to God.
Again, this may all sound a bit too pragmatic in our relationship with God and spending time with him, but let me ask you this: how’s your current system working out for you?
Just as we were intentional in coming here today to spend time with God in the family of the faithful, we must also do the same in our private time with Jesus, because we need both: community and time alone with our God. The two are inseparable. What is the end result? Henri Nouwen, in Can You Drink this Cup?, described it best: “Community is like a large mosaic. Each little piece seems so insignificant. One piece is bright red, another cold blue or dull green, another warm purple, another sharp yellow, another shining gold. Some look precious, others ordinary. Some look valuable, others worthless. Some look gaudy, others delicate. We can do little with them as individual stones except compare them and judge their beauty and value. When, however, all these little stones are brought together in one big mosaic, portraying the face of Christ, who would ever question the importance of any one of them? If one of them, even the least spectacular one, is missing, the face is incomplete. Together in the one mosaic, each little stone is indispensable and makes a unique contribution to the glory of God. That’s community, a fellowship of little people who together make God visible in the world.”
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, author and inspirer of all things holy, hear our prayers for our Church. Send forth Your Spirit that we may humbly be guided by your Divine Will. Touch our hearts with true generosity to raise up a house of God for the inspiration and renewal of all your faithful. We ask this in Jesus’ Name. Amen.