Silence and solitude

New yoke series, part 4

“Silent solitude makes true speech possible and personal. If I am not in touch with my own belovedness, then I cannot touch the sacredness of others. If I am estranged from myself, I am likewise a stranger to others.” Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging. [[Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging. (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994).]]

For the past few months we have taken a look at critical soul care practices for the busy youth worker. [[See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of the New Yoke series.]] In this final article in the series, we will take a look at another spiritual practice that has been life-sustaining in my spiritual journey and ministry. This last practice—silence and solitude—is perhaps one of the least popular for extroverted, people-pleasing, action-oriented people (like many of us youth workers). Yet it has been arguably the most profound spiritual discipline for me over the past 5 years.

There’s Never Enough Time

Before you write me off as someone for who silence and solitude comes easily, let me rest your wandering mind. Even as I type this article, my lengthy “to do” list is swirling through my brain. In fact, this article is a few weeks past deadline because I can’t get everything completed. Ironically, my calendar draws attention to the fact that tomorrow I’m scheduled to take a day of silence and solitude. It’s not good timing.

Can you relate?

Yet, I’ve seen the long-lasting fruit that’s come from these monthly days in my life and ministry over the past 5 years, and so has my ministry supervisor. Just a few months ago, the Executive Pastor at our church “mandated” a monthly day of solitude for our entire staff—in part as a result of witnessing the benefit our team members have gleaned from taking days of solitude. My soul has come to crave the monthly days of solitude to which I’ve grown accustomed. Last month I was unable to take my day of solitude (due to traveling), and I feel like I’m in withdrawal.

Jesus also practiced the necessity of pulling away. In Luke 5 we see a snapshot into Jesus’ ministry “to do” list. The Son of God was launching his ministry, calling his first disciples, preaching the Good News, and healing the sick. I’m sure his days were long and ministry-intense. But nestled in among Jesus’ work is a powerful statement about his rhythms of soul care: “But Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer” (Luke 5:16, NLT). Luke goes on to describe how Jesus healed a paralyzed man, defied the threatened Pharisees, ate dinner with an outcast tax collector, and taught the masses. And that’s only chapter 5! His schedule was certainly more demanding than mine. Yet, Luke intentionally includes the detail that Jesus often withdrew to “lonely places and prayed” (NIV). Jesus probably never had enough time, but he made the time to be with his Father because withdrawing was a matter of spiritual life or death.

A Life in Perspective

Time management expert Stephen Covey echoes this importance of doing what is most important to sustain our life. Covey discusses the wisdom of doing “first things first.” While I’m not sure he had silence and solitude in mind, Jesus does. I do not know of any activity in Heaven or on Earth that is more important than connecting to God. Silence and solitude provide an important environment for this divine connection.

Covey encapsulates our life’s activities into 2 categories: important and urgent. He defines important activities as having an “outcome that leads to the achievement of your goals,” and urgent activities as “demanding immediate attention [and] usually associated with the achievement of someone else’s goals, or with an uncomfortable problem or situation that needs to be resolved.” [[Stephen Covey, A. Roger Merrill, Rebecca R. Merrill, First Things First: To Live, to Love, to Learn, to Leave a Legacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.]]

More often than I’d like to admit, the “urgent, not important” #3 quadrant receives more of my attention than it deserves. All the while the “important, not urgent” #2 quadrant barely gets a sideways glance. Silence and solitude fits into that quadrant. Jesus rarely demands our attention in the same ways a crying baby does. Yet he knows, better than we do, of how sustaining, filling, and transformative significant time away with him is.

Paying Attention to Myself and to God

I cannot count how many life-altering, mission-critical realizations and decisions have come out of my silence and solitude. There are some days when I can hardly write fast enough because God’s speaking so clearly about a real need in my soul or leadership. Yet there are other days when I don’t feel like anything is happening between me and God. Regardless of the “outcome”, I know that day of silence and solitude is precious because it is simply a day I’ve been able to spend alone with my Creator, Sustainer, and Lover of my soul.

A Practical Guide to a Day of Solitude

If you’re new to taking an entire day alone with God, experiment with this guide (adapted from John Ortberg): [[John Ortberg, “How to Spend a Day Alone”, Christianity Today, 1998.]]

  • Evening Before: Prepare your heart and get a good night of sleep. Ortberg and others have been heard to say, “Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is sleep.”
  • Morning Of: Limit your exposure to noise and restrict your conversation with others as much as possible.
  • What to Bring: Brennan Manning insists that the only items to bring with you are your Bible, a journal, and pen. Often, I will still bring a spiritual formation book (like one listed below) and my iPod. Worship is one of the ways I most experience God’s presence, so listening to a few worship songs throughout the day allows me to deeply connect with God. (Plus, I’m just not as spiritually mature as Brennan Manning!)
  • 9:00-10:00: Prepare your mind and heart. Take a walk or do whatever will help you set aside concerns over other tasks. Write down tasks or worries than come to mind so you can focus your day on Jesus.
  • 10:00-11:00: Read and meditate on Scripture, taking time to stop and reflect when God seems to be speaking to you.
  • 11:00-12:00: Journal your responses, thoughts, and feelings about what you’ve read in God’s Word.
  • 12:00-1:30: Eat lunch and walk; reflecting on the morning. Process the condition of your soul. You may also want to consider fasting on this day.
  • 1:30-2:00: Rest, worship, or nap.
  • 2:00-3:00: Ask God to speak into your ministry. How might God want to inform your ministry’s direction, health, and activity?
  • 3:00-4:00: Write down any action steps or any other thoughts in a journal. You may want to do this in the form of a prayer.
  • Evening: As much as possible, make a slow transition back into noise and tasks. Share about your day with a spiritual friend or your spouse, or close the day in silence.

My prayer for you and me is that we would often withdraw to lonely places of prayer to connect with God, hear his voice, and care for our souls. My prayer is that within the demands of the important and urgent tasks, we would value the truly important and urgent task of experiencing the Father’s love. May our ministries be irrevocably transformed by our intimacy with the true Leader of our work.

Action Steps

  1. Listen to a 17-minute TED talk by Stefan Sagmeister on “The Power of Time Off”.
  2. Talk with your supervisor about taking a regular silence and solitude retreat. If it’s helpful, request it on a trail basis so you both can determine its effectiveness in your ministry.
  3. Go away for a time of silence and solitude using the guide above. Bring a new journal with you to capture the words, images, and thoughts God may give you.
  4. Complete this “Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership” Assessment from the Barnabas Ministry. This assessment can help identify the sinful aspects of your leadership and can serve as a great motivator for silence and solitude. Then consider: How might silence and solitude transform and impact your “dark side” of leadership?

Recommended Reading

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