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Presence … Prayer

jesusatprayerMark 1: 29-39
Introduction to the reading

Jesus and the disciples so far – Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John – are still in Capernaum, where, as we heard last week, Jesus taught in the synagogue on the Sabbath. While he was teaching, a man with an “unclean spirit” had suddenly interrupted: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? I know who you are!” Jesus told the unclean spirit to be silent, and then he drove that spirit out of the man. At once, Mark says, Jesus’ fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

We begin to see that in the three vignettes of this morning’s Gospel reading:

  • the private healing of a relative of one of the disciples;
  • Jesus as a healer of many others;
  • and the beginning of Jesus’ preaching ministry in Galilee.

There’s also another important, one-sentence event tucked into this reading. Listen carefully…


The hymn that we just sang – Precious Lord, Take My Hand – was not written by the famous big bandleader Tommy Dorsey, although many people, including me for a while, thought that it was.

The composer was in fact Thomas Andrew Dorsey, the son of a black revivalist preacher. This Dorsey was born in 1899 in a small town in Georgia, but the family moved to Atlanta about ten years later. A talented boy, Thomas began to play the piano and came to love blues music. Later, when they moved again, to Chicago, he attended classes at the College of Composition and Arranging. Soon he was on the stage under the name “Georgia Tom”, leading jazz bands and playing barrelhouse piano in one of Al Capone’s speakeasies.

Thomas became a Christian for himself at the National Baptist Convention in 1921 and converted his musical talent into writing gospel songs and trying to get them published. It was three years before that happened, but when it did, his career really took off. His work became known and his reputation grew. And then tragedy…

In August 1932, while [playing] in St. Louis, he was handed a telegram: “Your wife just died.” He rushed to a phone to call home, but all he could hear over the line was, “Nettie is dead! Nettie is dead!” A friend drove him through the night [back to Chicago]. He arrived home to learn that his [newborn son] had also died.

“I began to feel that God had done me an injustice,” [he] later said. “I didn’t want to serve [God] anymore or write any more gospel songs.’” But the next Saturday, while alone in a friend’s music room, he had a ‘strange feeling’ inside – a sudden calm and a quiet stillness. “As my fingers began to manipulate over the keys, words began to fall into place on the melody like drops of water falling [through] the crevice of a rock: Precious Lord, take my hand, Lead me on, help me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn… (Morgan 289)

Thomas Dorsey had entered the deepest and perhaps darkest part of his soul, a place of unmitigated suffering. God was waiting for him there, silently waiting.

Verse 35 from today’s Gospel reading: In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.

• Maybe it was his routine, to start the day with morning prayer, a Jewish custom. Many people start their days this way.
• Maybe he prayed with thanksgiving for the gifts of healing and exorcism that were benefitting so many.
• Or perhaps, he just needed alone time with God the Father. It was exhausting, what he was doing, and the crowds would just not leave him alone. Then, when he did get out for some alone time with God, they hunted him down; and when they found him, they said that everyoneand they meant everyone – is searching for you.

Jesus realized that while everyone was seeking to be in his presence, he himself needed to be in the presence of God. So here he is alone, in a dark, solitary place, under great pressures and stress… and God is waiting for him there. Precious Father, take my hand. Lead me on. Help me stand.

There was a piece in last Sunday’s New York Times “Sunday Review” section titled “How to Talk to the Angel of Death.” It was written by Kate Bowler, an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School and author of “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.”

For two and a half years, Bowler has been living with stage IV colon cancer that has spread to her liver. Every three months, she undergoes a CT scan to see whether the tumors in her liver are growing. “I live for three months, take a deep breath and hope to start over again. I will probably do this for the rest of my life. Whatever that means.”

Bowler has found, like Job, that her friends and family have differing reactions to her being in this dark state of being.

  • Some she calls minimizers. They “often want to make sure that suffering people are truly deserving [of] compassion” or they remind the sufferer that “cosmically, death isn’t the ultimate end.”
  • The teachers try to help the sufferer focus on how the devastating experience is supposed to be an education in mind, body and spirit.
  • The “hardest lessons come from the solutions people. There is always a nutritional supplement, Bible verse or mental process I have not adequately tried.”

Bowler, however, asserts and affirms the healing power of simple presence, which, as I read it, she understands to be the holy presence of God, the presence of Jesus with her, silently waiting for her to just be.

  • Acknowledgement of the situation, which is also mercy. “Oh, hon, what a year you’ve had.” Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on. Help me stand.
  • And love. She writes: “There is tremendous power in touch, in gifts, and in affirmations…These seemingly small efforts are anchors that hold me to the present… They say to me: …’Yes, the world is changed, dear heart, but do not be afraid. You are loved, you are loved. You will not disappear. I am here.”

God meets us in the places of our deepest need. God is waiting for us there, silently waiting. From the prophet Isaiah:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. (Isa. 40:28-29)

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…
you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.

Bowler, Kate. “How to Talk to the Angel of Death”. NYT Sunday Review.
28 Jan. 2018: 1, 7.
Morgan, Robert J. Then Sings My Soul. Nashville: Thos. Nelson, 2003

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
February 4, 2018

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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