Of all the things that we do in ministry, at the top of our list of priorities should be our own spiritual health.
If your picture of solitude is a monk in some European monastery in the hills who devotes his whole life to prayer and rarely speaks a word to another human, know that I am far from being that person.
You’ve probably heard the airplane analogy – get your own oxygen mask on first, then you may assist other passengers. So, whether you are running the lights or standing under them, the best way to serve and lead others is to be sure that you are tending to your own spiritual condition.
While numbers one and two on the list of spiritual priorities are prayer and Scripture reading, I would like to talk about the lesser-practiced discipline, solitude.
Let me begin by saying that I am a major extrovert. If your picture of solitude is a monk in some European monastery in the hills who devotes his whole life to prayer and rarely speaks a word to another human, know that I am far from being that person.
I would argue that the type of solitude represented by the monk, while good, should not be the norm for the typical Christian today. Practically speaking, we have families, bills, jobs and all sorts of other commitments, which prevent us from packing up our lives and pulling away from the world. However, this does not mean that solitude is unattainable as, it is still necessary for our lives.
I like to define solitude as an “inner stillness before God.” Using this definition, it is possible to be completely alone and quiet, yet not experience solitude. On the other hand, we can be on a crowded subway train, or in the throes of Christmas program dress rehearsals, and still experience solitude.
The way that we learn solitude is to practice solitude.
The best way to begin is to actually get alone with God. I highly recommend taking at least a day to begin (even though more days are always good).
Get away somewhere where no one will bother you, no cell phone will vibrate, no email will ding, and get quiet.
Personally, I find that it takes a couple of hours of being quiet, before I can actually be quiet. My mind is racing, worrying about the things I might be missing, or things that are coming up on my calendar, and not attuned to this time that God has given me.
Read your Bible.
Write in a journal.
Go for a walk in the woods and talk (and listen!) to God.
Even take a short nap – you probably need it!
None of the above is a waste of time, but each serves as good spiritual activity, and each also are great for reducing stress.
There are a few places in my life that are now very special to me, because of the moments of quiet I have experienced there. A small Christian camp, a quiet monastery run by delightful nuns, and a hilltop called “God’s Mountain” overlooking a valley with incredible sunsets, come to mind.
Just thinking of these places causes me to quiet my heart and listen again to God. It is this very practice of what I will call “big solitudes” that train our hearts and minds for what I call “small solitudes.”
Solitudes Needn't Be Large
Small solitudes are one of the keys to living a life of praying “without ceasing,” as Paul commands in 1 Thessalonian 5:17. Solitude should not be a temporary state, but rather a way of life for the Christian, and looking for small solitudes is a great way to help us make it a way of life.
It is really very simple: allow the normal things of the day to draw your attention to God and his work around you, instead of distracting you from God.
That hot, smooth, satisfying beverage you drink in the morning that slowly warms your body, awakens your mind, and lifts your spirits, can become a God moment. Instead of quickly drinking coffee while on your way out the door, take just a moment (even if you only have a moment), and breathe and thank God for the day (and for coffee!) before that first sip, then allow that first sip to be a gift from God, instead of a tribute to Starbucks.
Keep your eyes open for more opportunities to talk and hear from God during the day: the sunrise or sunset, getting all green lights on your commute, the amazing assortment of foods we are able to enjoy, a call or text from a friend. All of these and more are small gifts from God that can call our attention to his goodness and work around us.
Allow these small things to draw you back into an attitude of prayer and thanksgiving.
When it comes to people, consider saying silent sentence prayers for the individuals you encounter, even if you do not know them. Pray for the empty chairs when you first arrive to church in the morning, pray when you hear the sirens passing by on the road, pray for that person you see across the room who you may not even talk to that day, but know just lost their job.
Solitude is all about learning to quiet our noisy lives, hear God’s voice, and respond to him in prayer.
I have such a long way to go to living a life of solitude, but I hope that you will join me in the journey.