Henri Nouwen wrote, “I have learned much, but the time has come to realize that neither parents nor teachers nor counselors can do much more than offer a free and friendly place where one has to discover his own lonely way…This experience is frightful as well as exhilarating because it is the great experience of being alone, alone in the world, alone before God.” – Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, 8-9
Christian Buzz-words are formed when God-given needs go unmet:
Community is certainly among the biggest buzz-words of the last decade. It has held its own with phrases like “Purpose driven” and words like “Missional.” These words come to the forefront of our thinking because they are the solution to great voids that we have faced and offer us the possibility of something better, something closer to what God intended, and a more authentic life. In the midst of a broken society full of dysfunctional relationships and increasingly mobile and distant families, a focus on community has been a great asset to this generation of Christians.
It is clear from scripture that we were created for community and companionship. Gen 2:18 says, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” In an effort to fill our lives with what we have lacked I wonder if we have often filled it so full of community or pseudo-community that we have still found ourselves hungry because we have not experienced the feelings of being placed squarely in the presence of God without distraction or competing interests. We go from work to the kids’ soccer to ballet to fast food to bed. We get up the next morning and repeat the cycle. We have bought into the American lie that if one of something is good, ten is better. We don’t know when to stop. As a culture/society we haven’t learned where health ends and obsession begins and we fill our lives up with more things than you can shake a stick at.
Experiencing the Stillness:
Many of us don’t know what it is like to be alone. We fear it. We don’t know what it is like to simply be. To experience the stillness. To behold the splendor of God and bask in his presence without distraction, without the radio playing or the kids screaming or the boss calling. Solitude. Take all the daily noises of your life and remove them one by one until you are left only with the sounds of your inner thinking, that voice inside your head that will not even allow you to experience total tranquility because he reminds you that you don’t have time for foolish activities like this. Bid him to be quiet as well and experience total silence. Realize the full extent of what it means to, “Be still and know that I am God.” – Psalm 46:10.
In 1 Kings 19, Elijah has been threatened with death by Jezebel. Elijah ran into the wilderness and prayed that he might die. He had enough of life. The stress was just too much. Life was so overwhelming that the wilderness looked appealing. An angel wakes him and feeds him and sent him on a 40 day journey to Mt. Horeb (which was Mt. Sinai) where he found a cave and fell asleep. He was awakened by these words from the Lord, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah has a pretty good answer, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left and now they are trying to kill me too.” God responds with the promise that Elijah will experience the presence of the Lord on the mountain (the last time this had happened the Israelites were receiving the very law and covenant they now were breaking). God sends a powerful wind, a great earthquake, and a raging fire but God was not in any of those. Then it came, “After the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.” It was there Elijah met the Lord and received a promise of protection and support that far exceeded anything Elijah could have imagined.
Elijah found the presence of God in the stillness and solitude of a cave in a mountain. I wonder how often we lack time in the presence of God because we have bought into thinking that God’s presence is only where two or three have gathered (Mtt 18:20). We have emphasized verses like Mtt 18:20 because we have seen the lack of relationships among Christians but in over emphasizing that it can be easy to go to the other extreme that we so fill our lives up with the grandslam spiritual mountaintops, with the great earthquakes, fires, and winds that we no longer hear the gentle whisper God is using to get our attention. It can only be heard in the quiet moments. You don’t have to try very hard to feel the earthquake or feel the mountain heat up from the fire or be blown about by the wind. It takes quite an effort to be still enough to hear the whisper.
Solitude – the Next Christian Buzz-word:
The trend is not here yet but it is on its way. The flooding of community, busy schedules, and endless activities and coordination is going to create the same kind of vacuum that was created by the isolation of the previous generation that made the need to use words like community. When we are robbed of God-given needs, movements generally arise to fill in those gaps and meet needs. The trend to solitude is coming because in the busyness and noise of it all we no longer hear the voice of God like we had been promised. We have been trained that big events happen with accompanying pyrotechnics and lots of camera flashes and television cameras. In the process we have missed the gentle whisper that only comes in moments of quiet solitude.
Realize the need, slow your life down, spend time with God.
My mom went on a spiritual retreat to the Oregon Coast. She speaks of the solitude and the great peace that comes from being still with God! I have tried to practice this in my life and am always amazed at what a great experience it is.
PS I agree, it is coming.
When we have experienced it, if we make it past the uncomfortable and unusual side of it, we realize how important it is. Yet it seems like most people still have a hard time making it a priority. Why do you think that is?
Matt, I so much agree. It is beginning to change my life, that is the time I seek to spend daily in this. And Nouwen has been an influence in my life to that direction. As well as Bonhoeffer in “Life Together”.