Can We Begin With Solitude?

I am honored that John Teal, one of my former students at CCCB, asked me to contribute to the Common Grounds discussion. He asked me to focus on spiritual practices that could benefit the pursuit of unity. While none of us can claim to be the ultimate authority on this subject, I do believe my doctoral studies on spiritual formation at Nazarene Theological Seminary have provided me with a perspective that may help facilitate the discussion in a somewhat less common way.

The Restoration Movement began in a quest for unity. The founders wanted to move away from divisive man-made creeds to unify believers in the authority of Scripture. This was an admirable goal that we are still pursuing today. Many attempts at achieving unity have been made over the last 200 years, yet we continue to splinter. One thing many of these efforts have in common is that they begin with an effort to construct a community. Ironically, a better place to begin might be in solitude.

Community and solitude are interdependent. We speak into the community, and the community speaks into our lives. Before this happens, we need to listen for God to speak to us through the Word and His Spirit in solitude. This time of solitude is what shapes us to represent our part of God's story in community.

Solitude is never an end to itself, rather it's part of creating healthy Christ-like communities. Bonhoeffer writes, "One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuated, and despair."  While the two are deeply interdependent, the entire process truly begins with our personal time with Jesus in solitude. It is only through solitude that we have more of Jesus to share within the community of faith. How do we experience solitude in a way that will complement our efforts for community, and for unity?

The first thing we need to understand is that solitude is not the same as loneliness. Solitude is being alone with God. Loneliness is a painful, isolating experience, but solitude is the willingness to invest time in opening ourselves up to our relationship with our Creator. It is a place and time of personal and spiritual healing in the presence of our maker.

The second necessary understanding is that while solitude may bring peace and joy, it also may bring painful realizations and convictions. It is in solitude where God confronts us with areas of our lives where we have fallen short. Solitude gives Jesus the opportunity to speak into our lives about the logs in our own eyes before we address the speck in someone else’s. When we meditate on a passage of Scripture and pray over relationships, we invite God to impress upon our hearts what He wants us to do in response to the text. There is no set timetable for this process. Sometimes we may wait days, weeks, or months to hear an answer from God. But He does speak to His children through the Spirit, and He lovingly confronts our own sin and brokenness and gives us an opportunity to confess it to Him.

Third, solitude leads to an awareness of God’s presence in my life. It helps me submit to His Lordship so that He can take my failings, brokenness, and sin and reshape them through His forgiveness and His healing grace and mercy as part of the process of molding me into the likeness of Jesus. These healed areas of brokenness discovered in solitude then become tools of blessing to share with the community of believers.

Rushing into community without spending time in solitude often means we are focused on what we desire rather than on what God wants to do in and through us. Times of solitude with God need to include prayer and Scripture reading, but also simply time to listen to what God is saying to us through those means. These practices are necessary so that we have something to share about what God is doing in us before we try to address what God wants us to do.

In his posthumous book Spiritual Formation, Henri Nouwen depicts this interdependence of solitude and community as a wagon wheel. The most important part of the wagon wheel, the part that holds everything together, is the hub. The hub of our lives is Jesus. The hub is where solitude takes place. It’s where we step off the throne of our hearts and allow Jesus to take his rightful place as the king of our lives. It’s where we stop talking and begin listening. It’s where the lover of our soul speaks to us about who we are. It’s also where we learn to handle our relationships.

The spokes that connect the hub to the outer rim of the wagon wheel are all of the relationships in our lives. We pray for these relationships in solitude and we work together to build community, but we must all be connected to the hub. It’s through those relationships, the spokes, that we find ourselves doing ministry and life together. The actions and activity of ministry are the outer rim of the wheel.

Often we rush to define what we want a community to look like. We want to start with the outer rim of the wheel and define the function and activities of ministry. These things are tangible. However, if we begin there, are we merely formulating our own plans and ideas and asking God to make it his? Instead, Nouwen suggests that we begin with the hub of the wheel, rather than the outer rim. When we begin with Jesus, allowing Him to bring order to our relationships and what is to come in daily life and true ministry, we become united in community through ministering to one another through the wounds and struggles God transformed into instruments of mercy and grace

In the coming months, we will continue the conversation, moving our focus from solitude to community and ministry.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith on Community (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1954), 78.

Click to Watch the Video Expanding on the above Article

Sharing Solitude in Community (Part 2)

In my last article, we explored Henri Nouwen’s idea of a wagon wheel as a simple model of the balance of solitude and ministry. The hub of the wheel demonstrates how solitude with Jesus is the starting place for everything else in our lives. This is where we rest and breathe and experience Jesus intimately. Solitude is where we open our lives up to the Spirit and allow Him to guide us. We limit ourselves if we do not move beyond ourselves into relationships with other people.

If a wagon wheel only consists of a hub, then it cannot benefit the wagon at all. By itself, the hub cannot get the wagon off the ground. When spokes connect the hub to the outer wheel, and the wheel works in concert with the other three wheels, forward movement can take place. This is the power of working together in unity.

The spokes of the wheel represent our relationships with other people. This might be the person you run into at the gym on a regular basis or the neighbor you talk to on occasion. It might even be the person you wind up next to in an airplane, an elevator, or a hospital waiting room. While we tend to focus on the deepest relationships in our lives, these surface connections are still relationships, the spokes of our lives. We need to remember that God can use any of these.

In my own life, God most often uses my close friendships, family, and the church to speak into my life and where He provides me opportunities to speak into someone else. Please note that I use the phrases, “to speak into someone else” or “to speak Jesus into someone’s life” with great caution. I honestly have nothing worth sharing except for what Jesus has spoken to me. This is why solitude must come first. Without solitude, without a time of meditating over Scripture and contemplating its meaning, without a time of deep, listening prayer, before confessing my own heart to God and hearing Him affirm my belovedness ---- without all of this, I have nothing of eternal value to share with another person. When we hear Jesus speak to us through solitude and through the Word, it is a neverending rush of living water that bubbles up inside of us. And THIS is the place from which we can relate to one another.

True community is joining Jesus in the community and working of the Trinity. When we begin from a place of solitude and join with others out of their solitude, the presence of Jesus is almost palpable. His Spirit communicating through each of us becomes the glue that makes unity truly possible.

Without allowing the Spirit to work, I can be hurtful, indifferent, unmerciful, and judgmental. Instead of seeing Christ in my brothers and sisters, I see their flaws and their struggles. These are the times I have failed to take the log out of my own eye before reaching for the speck of dust in their eye. The truth is, that might not even be their speck of dust. It might be a splinter that came off the log. The issue is really a problem that I am struggling with, but I prefer to pin it on somebody else.

Consider for a moment what a corporate gathering would be like if everyone in the room had experienced an intimate time with God before they gathered. What if each person spent time in solitude listening to God’s voice affirm their identity as his child? If each of us received God’s affirmation of our identity, our neurotic feelings of what we fear other people may think of us are no longer a distraction. Our doubts as to whether our thoughts are worth sharing get pushed to the side because we know we have something real, intimate, and powerful to share out of a relationship with Jesus. Rather than struggling with our worth, we are longing for the right time in the lesson or the discussion to share what Jesus has shared with us.

Perhaps your solitude with Jesus was a time of deep anguish and sadness in which Jesus held your heart in His hands, making it possible for you to move forward in the midst of a difficult situation. You can share your burden with the right companion.

In our times of solitude, we can give our burdens to Jesus in exchange for a yoke that is easy and light, and is custom-made for us, although it doesn’t always feel that way. Sometimes we desperately need others to help us carry our load. When we are guided by the Holy Spirit and Jesus has already lifted some of that burden during our time of solitude, we are able to share appropriately rather than over-sharing (something which I have been known to do on occasion). When each of us has spent time in solitude with Jesus, we are able to help each other by carrying those burdens the rest of the way. The journey is traveled by reflecting the encouragement, compassion, mercy, and love we have each received from the Father.

By Brandon Bradley, September 12, 2020

Solitude Shapes Community and Mission (Part 3)

In my previous two articles, I used the analogy of a wagon wheel to illustrate our relationships with God and with other people. The hub, which is the most important part of the wheel, represents our times of solitude with Jesus, the most important part of our lives. The spokes represent our various relationships, both within the body of Christ and in the world. Today, we’re looking at the outer rim of the wheel, representing the move from solitude, into community, and our daily lives and our ministry activities.

This wagon wheel analogy comes from Henri Nouwen, who also spoke about this three-part movement in his book, With Burning Hearts. There he speaks of moving from communion with God, to community with each other, to ministry in the world. Nouwen understood that our lives are fed and inspired by our relationship with Jesus. When we seek him in solitude and allow him to be the center of our lives, our hands and feet become his hands and feet. From that center, we bring a Christ-like emphasis with us when we enter into community. The Holy Spirit leads us from our times of solitude into our engagement with the community and into mission and ministry. We frequently see this movement in Scripture.

One example of this from Jesus’ earthly ministry is found in Matthew 14. Jesus learns that his cousin John has been beheaded by Herod. Jesus withdraws by boat to a “solitary place” (vs 13) to have some time away in prayer and reflection. Unfortunately, his time of solitude is cut short by the crowds that continue to inundate him on the other side of the lake. He has compassion on them and begins to heal them. Even that brief time of solitude on the boat opens the door to showing compassion to the community, which opens the door to ministry. Jesus turns to his community, his 12 apostles, and invites them to minister to the hungry crowd with him by serving them bread and fish.

Another example can be seen during another meal of fish as described in John 21. One morning after the resurrection, as Peter is still reeling from his denial of Jesus, the disciples meet Jesus on the beach. Jesus moves from a time of solitude prior to the meal to a shared breakfast with his community of apostles. After breakfast, he takes Peter aside and gently confronts the false narratives in Peter’s mind by asking him three times, “Do you love me?” Peter affirms his love for Jesus all three times, and Jesus points him to the greater community and his mission by instructing Peter to “Feed my lambs. Care for my sheep.”

In the book of Acts, Peter stands up as a leader of Jesus’ followers after His ascension, taking on his mission of caring for Jesus’ sheep. The small community spends time in solitude and prayer where they feel the Holy Spirit leading them to invite Matthias to join their ranks as one of the apostles in leading the early church. The Spirit then leads the small community to engage in the mission of boldly preaching and leading thousands of people to follow Jesus. By the close of Acts 2, the body of Christ has grown through mission and the community is committed to prayer, to the apostles’ teaching, shared meals, and caring for one another’s needs.

In all of these narratives there is a movement from solitude to community to mission, and this pattern stays true in our lives, communities, and ministries today. Ruth Hailey Barton closes her powerful book, Life Together with Christ, with these words: “Spiritual transformation results in an increasing capacity to discern the will of God so we can actually do God's will in the world. This is how spiritual formation and mission come together and fruitful synergy for the good of all” (156).

Often the church focuses too much time on how to conduct ministry without first spending personal time in solitude with Jesus and allowing him to guide the relationships inside and outside the church community. The true mission of God is not something we can develop and strategize. Instead, it comes as a direct result of our individual and shared solitude within the community that opens the doors to spirit-led ministry and mission. These spiritual practices have always unified the church when the church commits to living them out. If we choose to follow this pattern of Spirit-led ministry, then nothing can separate us from the love of God and the love of each other, which will be evident to the world around us.

By Brandon Bradley, November 7, 2020