Solitude not Isolation

The past 7 months have been rather full and engaging. I have been working at my school as a Special Education Teaching Assistant, recruiting for Northeastern Seminary as we expand to Syracuse, and leading Church of the Common Table all while being a husband and father to my wife and children. It has been a great time, but it has begun to take its toll.

Recently, our community of Common Table took time to reflect on our individual and communal practices. We firmly believe that Jesus held in tension the three “loves” God calls us to: love of Godself, love of our own family centered on Jesus, and love of our neighbor. (On a side note, it’s interesting how these three things are the core of what we’re called to as Jesus’ disciples, and yet we’ve made it increasingly complex and muddled as to what “Christian life” looks like; perhaps so much so that now there is a common attitude that only the “professional” Christian [read: pastor, missionary] can live like Jesus.) And since this is the life rhythm of Jesus, it should be ours as well, both individually and communally.

By stepping back to actually reflect upon our calendars, it became increasingly clear as to how we actually use our time, not how we think we use our time. As best we could, we reflected upon both the quality and quantity of time we spend loving God (Up), loving our own family (In), and loving others (Out). These don’t necessarily have to be balanced – as in if I spend 3 hours doing Out, I have to do 3 hours doing In – but rather need to be held in harmonious tension. A big difference.

One of the glaringly obvious realities for me was my need to spend more time in solitude. I spend a lot of time with others over coffee, in meetings, eating dinner, and just hanging out. My extroverted nature usually dominates my time. As a result, I have often been overtired and overscheduled to the detriment of my family, friends, and neighbors.

Yet, notice I didn’t say isolation, because like balance and harmony, solitude and isolation are not synonymous. Isolation is being relationally cut off or separated from others for reasons generally only pertaining to oneself. Solitude is intentionally getting away for the sake of returning to and reinvigorating our church and neighbors.

Ruth Haley Barton takes what we call Up, In, Out and describes it as Solitude, Community, Ministry in her book Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation. She beautifully articulates the need for solitude with God as we follow and learn to live life with and like Jesus. In our overly busy, overly fragmented, overly distracted, and overly frenetic culture and lives, we need to look again at the human-in-tune-with-and-filled-with-the-Spirit found in Jesus. He is not just our Savior, but also our Teacher and as such we quickly realize that his way of life is the way of life. 

Jesus frequently went off by himself to pray and anchor himself in his Father. It was what he taught and is still teaching his disciples. Barton says,

When I reengage my life in community with others and live from that place of union with God, there is indeed a peace that passes understanding and transcends the longing.

We can’t expect to always be running despite what our culture tells us. Perpetual busyness does not equal fruitfulness. Rather what we need to develop are restful habits of listening to God and seeing what it is he would have for us in regards to our other loves: our faith community and our neighbors. Jesus says his sheep know his voice, but how we will hear him if we don’t slow ourselves down to actually listen for him? Ironically, Barton continues

Constant noise, interruption, and drivenness to be more productive cut us off from or at least interrupt the direct experience of God and other human beings, and this is more isolating than we realize. Because we are experiencing less meaningful human and divine connection, we are emptier relationally, and we try harder and harder to fill that loneliness with even more noise and stimulation. In so doing we lose touch with the quieter and more subtle experiences of God within.

Most of us are more tired than we know at the soul level.

Many times our communal lives and our ministerial lives suffer because we think more time and energy  focused on those areas equates to more fruitfulness. Yet the reality is that our fruitfulness only comes by resting in and listening to our Father. This was the rhythmic life pattern of Jesus and as his disciples/apprentices/learners we should be doing the same. In many cases, this is the huge difference between us building for the kingdom and Jesus’: he took time to enter into prayerful solitude and we do not.

So the question isn’t if I am resting, listening, and finding solitude, but when and where am I resting, listening, and finding solitude. It is essential to this abundant life in and through Jesus.

What about you? Does this resonate?


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