Home Sermons “Alone”


Date: July 8, 2024/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

July 7, 2024 (Proper 9)


1 Kings 19:1-18

Do you remember the show Northern Exposure?  Before it made the unfortunate error a great many shows make (I’m looking at you, Moonlighting, X-Files, Bones, and any number of others), having the two main characters hook up, it was a good show, with a really interesting ensemble cast.

The premise of the series was that a young Jewish doctor from New York, Joel Fleischmann, signs up for a scheme to help pay off his school debt.  He went to an isolated community in Alaska and served as the tiny town’s only doctor.[1]  The pace of life and the culture of Cicely was a huge shock to Dr. Fleischmann, and most of the drama and comedy of the series come from his trying to fit in—or, in a lot of cases, trying to make the residents of Cicely fit with his vision of what life should be like.

I don’t know if Northern Exposure is in syndication or on some streaming platform now, because I really haven’t looked; so it’s been years since I’ve watched it.  But one scene sticks out in my mind right now.  In that scene, Joel is lamenting something, perhaps the slow pace of life in Cicely compared to New York.  I think he was talking to John Corbett’s character, Chris, who was the DJ on the local radio station, although I don’t know for sure.

In the course of the conversation Chris (or whoever it was) asked Joel if he had ever simply sat by himself, alone, without talking, for as little as five minutes.  Did he think he could do it?  If not, what was he afraid might happen?

And Joel didn’t have an answer.  I can’t remember if he ever tried it at all.

What Chris (or whoever it was; could have been the young Native filmmaker Ed,[2] but it was probably Chris) was telling Joel was that he would benefit from the spiritual discipline we are looking at today:  solitude.

I suspect what Chris challenged Joel to do is something a lot of folks find frightening.

When I was in seminary, taking a class that required me to see a spiritual director regularly, and then take a retreat on my own, I decided to go to the beach for my retreat.  That was partly because the only monastic house I knew of in the area was sort of hard to get into.

I would have been better off to have done some more looking for a suitable retreat center, but I didn’t.  Instead, I checked into a motel room with a kitchenette right on the beach.  I forget exactly what town I was in; it might have been Rockaway, where I had camped a few years before.  I brought my stuff in and unpacked, and then went for a walk on the beach.  That night I made my supper, had a little fire in the fireplace in my room, and did a little reading before bed.

By the end of the next day, I was tired of my own company.  I felt like if I didn’t go talk to another human being, I was going to go mad.  So I walked down the road and had supper at a little restaurant, then visited a used bookstore, just so I would be around other people for a few minutes.

Looking back at it now, I suspect my impatience with solitude was a clear sign of how much I needed it.  Mike and I, at the time, were living in a two-bedroom duplex, where there was absolutely no place to get away.  If he had the television on, I could hear it even out on the back deck.  I was in school full-time and doing a part-time internship at my church, and then I would come home, and Mike would come home, and our house was tiny and claustrophobic with two people and three cats.  So if anybody needed to get away and have some time alone, I did.

But the issue wasn’t just time alone, getting some peace and quiet in a place where I was in control of the TV and whatever other noise might come up—Mike liked to play the piano, he had a violin he was trying to learn how to play, he’d pick up my guitar; and then he would put on the stereo and make mixtapes (remember those?) to take to his shop and listen to while he worked.  It was time alone with God that turned out to be difficult for me; and I doubt I’m the only one.

You may or may not remember what happened in Exodus after God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites.[3]

Part of the reason we so revere those ten over and above all the other commandments in the Bible is because they came directly from God, not mediated through Moses or anyone else.  But after Israel heard God give the Ten Commandments, they went to Moses and said, “We cannot bear hearing from God directly; from now on, you talk to God and then relay his message to us.”

Being in God’s presence is a fearsome thing!  And that’s what makes the discipline of solitude so difficult.

The point of the discipline is that we need to spend time alone, just us and God, for the health of our souls.  But that thing we most need is the thing we, like the Israelites at Mount Sinai, most fear.  So we drown that need out with noise—Richard Foster says the discipline of solitude is as much about silence as it is about being alone—with crowds, with whatever we think can keep God at arm’s length.

And if Chris asked us, like he asked Dr. Joel Fleischmann, if we could even imagine simply sitting quietly, alone, for even five minutes, we probably couldn’t give him an answer, either.

It’s human nature, I think, to try to make things as easy as possible.  We buy food processors and use them to grate cheese instead of doing it by hand with a box grater.  We put our laundry in an electric dryer rather than carrying it outside and hanging it on a line.  We have riding mowers instead of using an old-school reel mower, which uses no gas or electricity, just the power of one human being pushing it.[4]  And really, there’s nothing wrong with any of that.  But there are some things that nobody’s invented a labor-saving device for, and one of those is our spiritual life.

The spiritual disciplines, especially solitude, are things we do, in the words of President Kennedy’s 1962 speech about space exploration,[5] “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

I don’t see anything wrong with using technology to make burdensome tasks like mowing the grass easier; but that doesn’t work with the spiritual life.  There aren’t any shortcuts to spiritual growth, to greater Christlikeness.  We have to put in the work.  We have to shut off the noise and spend quiet time alone with God.

The insert in your bulletin today offers some suggestions how you might do that.  There are plenty of options—and not all of them require leaving home and spending days on retreat.

You could set aside one place in your house where you could go—if you’ve got the space, and if you can make it truly quiet (this would never have been an option when we lived in that little duplex, but where we live now it’s quite doable).  You could simply go for a drive in the country…but keep your radio off.  Make it a time when you specifically seek out God’s presence.

Again, this is something that is difficult; like the Israelites at Sinai, like the first humans in Eden after they ate the forbidden fruit, we fear being face-to-face with God—and understandably so, because God is God and we are mere mortals.  But it’s something we need.

Elijah needed solitude and rest after the showdown with the prophets of Baal, and especially after that event caught the attention of the wicked Queen Jezebel and prompted her to send him a death threat.  He ran as far away from Jezebel as he could, well out of her reach.  He rested under a broom tree and an angel fed him.

But then he needed more.  He needed time with God; so he went to the place where Moses went to be alone with God, the mountain which in our reading today is called Horeb, but which in other texts is called Sinai.  On Sinai, he spoke to God, poured out his discouragement and anxiety about what his enemies were wanting to do to him.

Then God said, I will pass by—just like what happened to Moses in the same place back in Exodus 34.  So Elijah waited.

And then came three natural occurrences that Elijah and his people understood as demonstrating God’s presence.  First there was a terrific windstorm, just like what the oldest of the Psalms, number 29, interprets as being “the voice of the Lord.”

Then came an earthquake—Elijah would have remembered that when God came down to Sinai in Moses’ time, the mountain quaked.[6]

And after that there was fire:  Moses was called to free Israel by God speaking out of a burning bush;[7] the Israelites were led out of Egypt by a pillar of fire;[8] and when Moses was with God at the top of Sinai, the people below saw the peak of the mountain engulfed in flames.[9]

All dramatic, noisy phenomena, and all understood as signs of God’s presence; but this time God wasn’t in any of them.  Instead, God showed up in the sheer silence (or as other translations call it, a still small voice) after the noise and commotion ceased.

Sometimes it’s that way for us, too, and even though it’s hard, we have to put ourselves in places where we can find God in stillness and solitude.

[1] Roslyn, in central Washington, stood in for the town of Cicely, Alaska.

[2] Darren Burrows, who played Ed, is actually from Kansas.

[3] Exodus 20:1-21

[4] I have a reel mower, a new one, that I bought several years back; the problem is that you can’t let the grass get too long before using it, and we tend to let the grass get awfully long between mowings.


[6] Exodus 19:16-25

[7] Exodus 3:1-6

[8] Exodus 13:17-22

[9] Exodus 24:15-18