One of the heroes of my faith is Henri Nouwen. He is a source of encouragement to many because he understood the Christian walk with its trials and blessings. He was able to articulate it in a way that challenges me to persevere in my desire to be God’s instrument. The greatest attraction for me to Nouwen, however, is not this encouragement, but that he understood what it is to be loved by God—something I did not understand for much of my life. This understanding is either implicit or overt in all of his work. An example is an article entitled Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry. Nouwen shares a day in the life of Jesus as told in Luke 6. He demonstrates the manner in which Jesus followed the sequence, as the title suggests, of moving from solitude to community to ministry. This sequence is in contrast with our tendency to move in the opposite direction. We often have great ideas and jump immediately into ministry. When things go awry or become complicated, we invite others to join and problem solve with us. Then sometime along the way, we remember to invite God into the process. Nouwen, of course, advocates that we turn the process around and follow the example of Jesus.
The point of the article is that before we minister to others, we spend time alone with God in order to have our foundation and identity grounded in God’s love. With that foundation, we then move into community and are able to release those around us from our need for them to be God; i.e., to be perfect. People falter and stumble and make mistakes (as do we!). When they intentionally or unintentionally slight us, we do not internalize it because our identity is not based on the way they treat us. Our identity is based on knowing that we are loved by God. God loves us and the waves of approval or disapproval do not define us.
The emphasis of the article is that we first must begin in solitude. I spend time alone with my focus on God. Developing the practice of solitude has been life changing for me. I relish time alone and as an introvert, replenish my energy in this way. It is easy for me to quiet the external noise. I just walk away and find a quiet place. The difficulty lies in stilling the internal noise. I spend so much time in my head that it has taken time to learn to let go of the endless thoughts–my lists, my worries, my strategizing, and my analyzing. I have learned in those precious times of solitude to keep my gaze fixed on God. The struggle has been worth it! It is a lifetime journey, but I have come to know that God loves me without condition!
Solitude is not a familiar concept in our fellowship. We are an active movement and more comfortable when we are doing. Action is vital to the kingdom work that we do, but we have missed a central practice of Jesus. The gospels offer many examples of Jesus spending long times in solitude with God. Luke 5:16 tells us that Jesus often went to a lonely place to pray. Mark 1:35 tells of Jesus getting up early and going to a solitary place to pray. The previous day was spent healing and casting out demons. I’m sure he was tired. Rather than spending the morning resting, he got up early to be alone with his father. Luke 6:12 says Jesus spent the night in prayer before he chose his disciples. We are familiar with these passages, but in my experience, do not spend much time examining them. This practice of solitude was central to Jesus. It seemed to be what gave him sustenance for his ministry. And what was he doing in the solitude? I do not imagine that Jesus spent the entire time talking. I believe he following the commands in scripture to “Be still and know that I am God, Psalms 46:10” and “The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth be silent before him, Habakkuk 2:20.” I believe that Jesus, in the midst of a challenging ministry, was leaning into God’s embrace and accepting God’s love and nourishment.
An especially poignant illustration of this is found in Matthew 14. The first part of the chapter recounts the beheading of John the Baptist. “After he was beheaded, John’s disciples buried the body and then went and told Jesus.” I have often read this verse quickly and moved on to the following events. I did not until recently grasp the significance of this loss for Jesus. John was the cousin of Jesus. They grew up together. He was also his forerunner and the person who baptized him. John was probably the one person who fully understood the ministry of Jesus and what it meant to be the Messiah. The death of John had to have been a blow to Jesus. When he heard the news, he tried to get away. Verse 13 says that “he withdrew privately by boat to a solitary place.” But the crowds followed and he had compassion and spent the remainder of the day caring for them through healing and then by feeding them. At the end of this long, challenging day, he sent the crowds and his disciples away and he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. He tried to do this earlier, but had to put it off. Throughout this day, I imagine his inclination was to run to his father—to spend time being loved by God.
That is the example for us. We have this same heavenly father who loves us. I was raised to set the agenda when I spent time with God. I did not think of it as setting the agenda, but I did fill up the time with my words and my thoughts. This is a good practice, to share my thoughts and heart with God. God has invited me to do so, but it is not the entirety of prayer. A relationship involves give and take, talking and listening. We, like Jesus, learn to be with God and lean into his warm embrace. We allow God to sustain and nourish us—to give us strength for another day of service to this world.
I have watched this relationship with God blossom throughout the university semester in the Tennessee Prison for Women as I taught a course entitled Faith and Culture. Lipscomb offers the inmates the opportunity to receive their Associates Degree by taking one class a semester. The women apply and a few are selected. They are grateful for the opportunity. The professors go out once a week to teach the class. Traditional undergraduate students sign up to take the class and so the class is comprised of “inside” and “outside” students.
The students in my class were placed in groups and throughout the semester practiced one or two of the disciplines of Jesus. Many choices were available to the students and I was pleased to see the level of engagement. As they journaled each week, I had the privilege of watching the impact these practices had on their lives. One group chose solitude as one of their disciplines. Inevitably, they stated that they liked to be alone, so thought this would be an easy choice. What they soon recognized is the qualitative difference in being alone as they focused their attention on God. They gradually awakened to the fact that this was a life-changing practice. They came to realize that they are not alone–God is with them! How wonderful to recognize that the God of the universe cares enough to focus his attention on them. They are loved! As the semester progressed, this awareness that God is with them began to spread to the rest of each day. In the challenging life of prison (and on the Lipscomb campus), they can live life knowing they are not alone.
Solitude in which we focus our attention on God is not a practice that is embraced by our culture—either in the prison, the church, or the world. Worth is assigned to those who get things done. Our Christian practices fall into this trap. Even our prayer and Bible study can become an exercise is checking the task off the list. Being still with God does not look fruitful at first glance. What is being accomplished? The answer is more than one can imagine—only God knows. Jesus knew the value of this practice. He knew that it was so important that it wasn’t an option. Spending regular time alone with his focus on God was absolutely necessary in the midst of his important ministry. I want to follow his example. I have had a small taste of the immense gain from spending time focused on God—just being still and letting God love me. It is what I need. I know that I am loved.