Stepping Away to Step Back In
By Rev. Dr. Kristin Philipson
Mark 1:35; 6:30-32
July 4, 2021 – 6th after Pentecost
So it is officially summer, the solstice has come and gone and school is out. Many of you are in the midst of enjoying a long weekend. I love the summertime. For me, summer always brings a kind of shift in how I use my time. I’m not less productive – I still work through part of the summer – but what happens to me in summer is that I find myself engaged in more reflection and evaluation. In our ministry here at the church most of our programs and committees pause and so the work shifts from operating to looking back and evaluating the year that has gone by and to reflecting and planning for the year ahead. Less doing is happening, which means more time for reflecting and reviewing. Perhaps you find it’s the same in your personal life or your family life. We don’t need to worry as much about schedules and school and lessons and all these pockets of time open up, we’re less rushed. There’s definitely a palpable shift in how we spend our time that happens in the summer.
Back in the spring when I was planning the focus for this month of July one of you told me about your yoga practice and this discussions about sutras and philosophy and that it was all designed to help you live in harmony. That was the word that sparked something in me. All the evaluating and reflecting and the reset of vacation – all of this helps us to find harmony, particularly important right now because we’re all living through a time of great discord. Some of the discord is personal. Some of you, in these last weeks, have lost someone very close to you and there is sadness because their melody is suddenly missing from your life. Some of you are dealing with health diagnoses that have come as a shock; everything was fine, you even felt fine, and them this sudden discordant note. Some are moving through discord in their families; people you love are in crisis in their own lives and it is hard to know how to support them.
There’s also the collective discord that is challenging us. On Canada Day I took my kids to the Every Child Matters March led by Indigenous People here in Toronto. The discord at the proof of the presence of the unmarked graves of hundreds and hundreds at the sites of former residential schools is profound and painful – we have no words. There is discord trying to reconcile my experience growing up with the experience of Indigenous children taken to these schools – which still operated during the entire time I was at school, the last one closed when I graduated from High School. There is discord around the reality of our changing climate, fear, a sense of powerlessness. All of my extended family and my husband’s family live in Alberta and BC. It was 44 degrees Celsius in the Okanagan where my grandpa lives, 38 degrees in Edmonton. How do we find a sense of harmony within ourselves when we carry the knowledge of this kind of discord in our natural world – we know that the temperatures are soaring from human-induced climate change. Sometimes the sense of discord is enough to make you want to run away.
In the presence of discord we may want to just run away, and this is not a bad instinct. The thinking, reflecting, evaluating, processing we do when we step out and away helps us to work through the discord and move back to a place of harmony. One of the ways that I step out to process discord to find harmony is running. I run almost every morning if I can and when I have the energy. Lots of you have a practice like this – running or walking or swimming or cycling – it’s great exercise, a physical discipline, but this time we take to go off by ourselves is a spiritual discipline as well. One of the places I love to run is in High Park in Toronto.
This summer our lectionary (the weekly scripture readings we follow each Sunday) takes us through the Gospel of Mark, and as I was looking through the stories in that book what caught my attention was how often Jesus stepped out and stepped away to find some quiet by himself. I counted up to nine times in a book that is only 16 chapters long – almost every second chapter Jesus goes off by himself as a means of finding harmony. After one particularly harrowing day – Jesus was staying with Simon and Simon’s mother-in-law was sick and the whole town had shown up to be healed – Mark tells us that “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 says Jesus would take his disciples away to the lake, and that they’d go up into the mountains, they’d leave the crowd behind, retreat to a quiet place, heading out of the city, find a garden. The melody of Jesus’ life was often punctuated by discord, and that’s when he would go off into nature and quiet by himself, to put himself back together, to reorient himself. The deliberate seeking of solitude helps us process discord and find harmony again, and again, and again. Whether we are off on a run, or a cycle, a walk or a swim, we are engaging in the spiritual practice of solitude. This is what Jesus was doing when he went off on his own to quiet places; he was engaging in the spiritual practice of solitude. This kind of solitude is different from loneliness because it is a deliberate choice; it is the intentional choice to step out.
Solitude is an encounter with silence. Richard J. Foster in his classic book about Christian spiritual disciplines, A Celebration of Discipline, shares this proverb: “those who open their mouths, close their eyes.” Silence helps us to see more clearly and to understand, as John Woolman, the 18th century Quaker explains, “silence helps us to distinguish the pure spirit which inwardly moves upon the heart.” Solitude removes us from distraction so that we encounter our own thoughts and feelings so we can hear what’s going on inside of ourselves and in our world. Silence helps us to process discord and silence doesn’t just help us to hear ourselves. When Jesus sought solitude it wasn’t just to be alone but to make space for communion with God. Most of the time when Jesus went off to a solitary place it says that he went to pray, to talk to God. Often times when I’m on a run I’ll carry on a conversation with God; I’ll actually talk out loud, albeit quietly, because that helps me to keep my train of thought. I offer thanks for the beauty around me and for the people in my life. I talk through anything that’s unsettled my conscience and ask forgiveness. I talk about the challenges I’m facing and the help I need and the worry I have about the people who are close to me and I talk about my worry for the world and everything that’s facing us right now as humans. It’s a sort of communion, and I always finish my run feeling more grounded and hopeful – harmonious, even when I’m still in the middle of discord.
The practice of solitude is an encounter with Presence. For me, the trees in High Park have this quality of presence. They are just here. I often feel held by the trees in this park. To me, God is like the steady presence of the trees, this loving presence that holds me while I’m processing, integrating, learning, evaluating. It feels like an encounter with grace. Frederick Buechner has a wonderful quote about grace, “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are…. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.”
Sometimes revelation will come to me while I’m out on a run. Last year around this time I had been pondering a meaningful way to help people process what they were going through with the pandemic. I wanted to involve the whole neighbourhood and I wanted to help people process in a way that they didn’t need to come into the church building. I’d been mulling this over in my conversations with God and it was on a run that I saw these tags on someone’s tree in their yard. The tags had thank you notes for front line workers, but they got me thinking about what would eventually become the Lost and Found project, that morphed several times over the course of the pandemic. Jesus new that when we engage in the spiritual practice of solitude and silence, we can hear God speak to us.
Jesus stepped away, he sought out solitude, so that he could find silence, so he could hear, hear himself, hear God, hear the discord clearly and integrate what he was hearing into his life. He stepped away and when he stepped back in he was different, refocused, in touch with his intentions. What happens when we step away into solitude on a walk or a run, is that we start to see discord differently, our sense of power and agency with relation to discord changes. That’s what brings us to a sense of harmony again – and I have to say that harmony isn’t something we find once and then it’s with us forever; we have to keep finding it again and again and again, in the face of every new discord. When Jesus stepped back into his ministry after his time apart he decided to expand it, to visit all the nearby towns and villages (Mark 1:38). Jesus stepped out and stepped back in with more courage and conviction and hope. Christopher Grundy writes about harmony in this way, in a song called, “Stepping In.” “There is a prayer like a wide river/ it never ends/ does not begin/ around the world it’s always flowing and I am stepping in/ we are stepping in.” Harmony isn’t a sense of all problems ending, but the understanding again that God is with us as we work through them.
A prayer as we go:
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.