Come Apart…Before You Come Apart

“Come … apart into a desert place, and rest a while….” (Mark 6:31)

What comes to your mind when you hear the word desolate? Is it positive or negative?

An English dictionary offers synonyms like bleak, barren, miserable or lifeless. A “desolate place,” then, could be a desert with nothing but sand dunes as far as the eye can see. (But even sand dunes are beautiful.)

Perhaps solitary would be a better word to describe such a place. It’s not barren or lifeless; it’s just empty of people.

I grew up on a wheat farm in the Nebraska Panhandle, with nothing to see but the distant horizon and our nearest neighbor’s farm a mile away. Some might consider that desolate, but to me it was “home sweet home.” The methodical clank of the windmill driven by the relentless wind and the song of the meadowlark are sounds I still cherish when I desire solitude.

Jesus considered desolate places to be very desirable. Rather than avoiding them, He sought them out as places refreshment. Consider the following examples where the ESV translates the Greek word eramos as desolate:

Mark 1:1-12; Luke 4:1-15:  Jesus was baptized in a desolate area, and was led by the Holy Spirit to spend 40 days in the wilderness. Here in this desolate place, Jesus turned away Satan’s assaults.

Luke 4:42:  After thwarting a mob’s attempt to kill Him in Nazareth—and after an exhausting schedule of healing, miracles and encounters with demons, Jesus sought out a desolate place for respite.

Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12; 9:1-6: Jesus spent a night praying in a desolate place before choosing 12 apostles and sending them on a mission.

Mark 6:30-32:  When the apostles returned and reported to Jesus, He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away to a desolate place by themselves.”

Luke 5:15,16; 9:18, 28:  Jesus routinely retreated to desolate places to pray. On one occasion, His disciples asked Him to teach them to pray. Three of them witnessed Jesus’ amazing transfiguration on a lonely mountaintop. 

Luke 22:39: So routinely did Jesus seek solitude that Judas knew where to find Him—and hand Him over to His enemies.

Many years ago, I preached a series of messages I called “God’s Mountain Men.” Like the mountain men of the old West, these men in the pages of Scripture preferred solitude over the crowds and noise of the city. Lot, for example, chose the ease of city life, while Abraham preferred the shade of an oak tree and a tent. Seasoned by the wilderness, Abraham became so bold in his relationship with God that he dared to negotiate face-to-face with the Almighty on behalf of his nephew in the city. One day, after the sun had set, Abraham entered into a solemn covenant with God (Genesis 15). There is no greater example of faith in God than Abraham.

Abraham’s grandson, Jacob the schemer, was molded into a man of faith after twice encountering the God of his grandfather while camping in a desolate place (Genesis 28:10-22; 32:22-32).

Moses spent 40 years in the wilderness herding sheep. Lessons that he had never learned as a prince in Egypt prepared Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt and through the desolation. His first encounter with God at the burning bush was frightening—and the second encounter almost deadly. Extended visits with God on the summit of Sinai, however, deepened the relationship—even to the point where Moses dared to speak with God as “friend with friend.” Times spent in solitude with the Lord in the tent of meeting were so transforming that Moses’ face would actually glow (Exodus 33:7ff. 34:29). (Can you imagine him walking through camp in the evening with his face radiating like a lantern?) 

David experienced solitude in the wilderness, both as a shepherd and as a long-term fugitive from Saul. Having experienced desolation in the desert as well as the delights of the palace, he would write: “One thing I have asked of the Lord, and that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4). Solitude shaped David into the “man after God’s own heart.” 

I could write about the prophets, John the Baptist and even Paul as examples of great men who were shaped by the wilderness.

But I offer one man as a case study: Elijah the Tishbite, who suddenly emerges into the biblical narrative in 1 Kings 17. At one of the darkest moments in Israel’s history, this man from the hill country of Gilead boldly confronted King Ahab and warned of severe drought in Israel. Elijah then went to live in desolate place across the Jordan River. After three years of severe drought, Elijah reappeared to announce the end of the drought and to challenge 450 prophets of the pagan god Baal to a showdown. The outcome would clearly demonstrate to his watching countrymen whether Yahweh or Baal was the true, living God. (I assume most of my readers are familiar with the story in 1 Kings 18.) 

On the summit of Mount Carmel, two altars with two sacrificial bulls would serve as object lessons for the people of Israel. Would Baal, the god of the storm, deliver the fire? From early morning to noon, Team Baal chanted and ranted furiously with no response. Then Elijah called the people over to the altar of Yahweh, where a simple prayer was dramatically answered when a lightning bolt ignited and consumed the bull—and the altar. The decision was rendered: “Yahweh is God!”

Elijah challenged the crowd to seize and kill the prophets of Baal. Then, after praying for rain, Elijah ran back to the city of Jezreel to discover that he was wanted—dead or alive—by the evil Queen Jezebel. For some reason, the queen’s warning completely deflated God’s prophet. No longer bold with faith and wanting nothing to do with the city, he fled into the wilderness and prayed to die. (The very thing he had tried to escape.) However, refreshed with sleep and catered by angels, Elijah trekked through the desert to Mount Horeb—the very Mountain where Moses had enjoyed rich fellowship with God. Elijah secluded himself in a cave. His pathetic response, when the Lord asked, “What are you doing here?” revealed his desperate loneliness and disappointment with God. Ignoring a violent windstorm, an earthquake and fire outside the cave, Elijah was intrigued by a low whisper.

God restored His broken prophet, and Elijah finished his life mission with strength and courage. What a lesson for me. For all of us. 

Sleep deprived, physically exhausted and emotionally empty after an adrenalin high, the great prophet had come apart at the seams. Had his earlier boldness been mere bravado? Fearless before 450 prophets, he wilted at the threat of one woman. His great faith faltered. Like us, he was just another man, after all.

Our Creator, who formed us out of dirt, knows that we need respite and solitude. We need times to refocus, refuel and refresh our relationship with God. That is why He ordained the Sabbath day as a time of rest. That is why Jesus said and modeled that the Sabbath was made for man, not as just one more rule to keep. We need down time. We need rest stops—desolate places away from the rat race. With all of our “labor saving” devices and appliances, many of us remain gerbils running on a wheel, but going nowhere fast. Stress, a word almost devoid in the Bible, saturates our conversations today.

One obvious exception was Jesus. He is never described as being in a hurry. He always had time to touch a leper, visit with a Samaritan or counsel a rabbi. He had time to hold little children on His lap while the disciples stressed over the schedule. Most of all, He always had time to pray. Preferably in a quiet, even desolate place.

Do I require less? Can I expect to run “full-bore” 24/7 without complications? Can you?

Living again in a city and limited physically, I can no longer trek through wilderness. So, where is my desolate place? My place of solitude? My tent of meeting? It doesn’t need to be a remote mountain.

For me, at this stage in life, my desolate place is the recliner in our living room between 5:00 and 7:00 am. The house is quiet. I’m alone with my Bible and my second cup of coffee. It’s a time to read. To contemplate. To talk to God. To listen for that “quiet whisper” that drew Elijah form his cave.

It is my time to come apart from life’s demands…lest I come apart myself.

Come Apart before You Fall Apart

Seems like I just put the garbage can out yesterday and here it is Friday, already!

I don’t know if it is a sign of my age or if it is the age in which we are living, but it seems like time is accelerating. I also hear that comment from friends both young and old.

Isn’t it strange that we have so many “time saving” devises that our ancestors never enjoyed? Yet, we struggle to find enough time to get everything done. My grandmother, living on the farm, never enjoyed an automatic washer or dryer. Winter or summer the clothes were hung on the line, often coming in frozen on bitter cold days. She cooked and baked bread and pies on a coal stove. The garden occupied spare moments in the summer followed by canning the produce in the fall. Winter evenings found grandma quilting or embroidering or crocheting. Grandma couldn’t even imagine warming up leftovers in just a few seconds or minutes in a microwave.

So with all our time saving equipment, why is life so hectic? Why are we so exhausted at end of day? I believe there are several possible reasons such as trying to cram more things into our schedule. My grandparents and parents, and for that fact, even my wife and I never heard the words, “soccer mom.” Contemporary parents often strive to provide their children with opportunities to expand their athletic or artistic skills. That is good, unless after dropping off and picking up two or three children, the parent feels harried and exhausted.

Today two-wage-earner-families is the norm. Mother needs to punch the clock at work, but the household duties are still there when she returns home. I am not saying that a mother working is a bad thing, but it does add responsibilities that grandma never had. If either parent also volunteers at the school or church or in the community life becomes more demanding, but there are still only 24 hours in a day.

Another reason for the faster pace may be more subtle but just as demanding. We choose to do all the above but are motivated, not out of true necessity, but from our own egos. How important I feel when I can share how busy I am! Richard Foster, known for his writing and teaching about spiritual disciplines, describes it as playing like I am the CEO of the universe, at least my universe. I confess that as a pastor I appreciated affirmation for working long hours and keeping a busy schedule. But, I must also confess too often it was the image I sought.

Other reasons for our increasingly busy lives include the social media. Facebook and our smart phones scream for our attention and steal discretionary time that we used to enjoy. Consider also our near addiction to entertainment such as television. None of these are evil in themselves. But when they begin to steal time from important things they are harmful.

If your life has become hectic, I will let you decide whether any of the above is relevant in your life. What’s more important is to identify potential dangers of trying to cram too much into the time we have. First, there is the risk of adverse physical symptoms. Stress takes a toll on the human body. We weren’t designed to run on adrenalin 24/7. We are created for both work and rest- to create and recreate.

Our world has been designed for both working and resting. There’s day and night. The Sabbath rest was first modeled by the Creator. After six days of creation, God rested. I am confident it wasn’t from fatigue but to set a pattern for those of us living in bodies of flesh. The Sabbath, a day of rest, was created for our benefit not as a duty to keep. Jesus made that crystal clear when he said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) While reviewing the Ten Commandments with the Israelites, Moses reminded them that the Sabbath Day was given to provide rest for laborers and livestock. Even the Land was to be granted rest every seventh year.

Jesus personally sought times for solitude away from the daily grind of ministry. “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35) When his disciples returned from a mission trip, Jesus “took them with him and they withdrew by themselves…” (Luke 9:10)

Solomon created one of greatest poems about the seasons of life.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:

A time be born and a time to die,

A time to plant and a time to uproot,

A time to kill and a time to heal,

A time tear down and a time to build,

A time to weep and a time to laugh,

A time to mourn and a time to dance …

Solomon continued with his list of potential activities. Check them out for yourself in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

One thing is certain, life isn’t meant to be lived with the pedal to the metal 24/7.

We must come apart from the stressful demands or we will come apart at the seams.

I offer a few prescriptions to help put balance in the routine of life:

  • Plan times for respite. Take a break from the hectic schedule to recharge batteries and refuel the spirit.
  • Seek solitude. Find a place to be alone in the midst of Nature.
  • Practice silence. Unplug the smart phone, pull out the ear buds and turn down the relentless media bites. Listen for a word from your Creator.

Surrender control. Step aside and let Jesus be the CEO of your busy little world