Solitude and God

August 24, 2014

Seven years ago, this month, we moved here. We moved here eager and ready for a new thing. We moved here hopeful and excited about possibility. We moved here scared and anxious for God to use us in whatever way he wanted. This place was not our first place we wanted to live. It wasn’t even on the list, to be honest. But looking back over the way God called us out here for the millionth time, I know beyond a doubt that we were supposed to be here.

I just don’t know the why. Why we had to be here.

Had I known 7 years ago that we were moving out to eventually be thrust into a spiritual wasteland, I’m pretty sure I would have stayed with my congregation in Illinois, living in their beautiful parsonage, preaching each Sunday and worrying about the budget and the souls belonging to the beautiful faces that I saw each week. If I had known, I would have never said yes. I suppose it’s a good thing I didn’t know then, isn’t it?

But as I said, looking back, no matter how many times I’ve questioned it, it is clear that God moved us here. He wanted us here.

I don’t pretend to understand God. Ask anyone who knows me well. I don’t pretend to get him and quite frankly, sometimes I find his mysterious nature downright annoying! I have no problems telling him that regularly. I imagine he just throws his cosmic hands in the air (does God have cosmic hands?) and laughs warmly at me and says, “Oh, Karen, what will I do with you?” Good thing he loves us so much, right? A woman at a church I preach at regularly said to me last Sunday, “We love you because you aren’t afraid to show us your warts when it comes to your relationship with God.” I said, “Those aren’t warts, those are real conversations!”

But one thing this wilderness of these 7 years has done is taught that even though I can’t understand God in the way I may want to, I can know some things.

I was recently discussing this with one of my clients, a pastor whom I coach. You see, this pastor is in one of those seasons of wilderness. In some way all of my clients are. It doesn’t look like mine, or maybe yours, because it belongs to this pastor. But it is just as lonely and restless and desolate as any one else’s wilderness.

We arrive at these seasons for various reasons. Sometimes it’s something we have done, but often it is not. I have always been struck by the gospel account of Jesus’ in the wilderness because the scripture says that after Jesus had been baptized in the Jordan River, the Spirit drove him out into the desert. The Spirit drove him out. This was no wilderness experience of Jesus’ making. It was all designed for him. And I think that can happen to us too.

But regardless of how we arrive there, it’s not terribly fun. It’s dry. It’s blisteringly hot. It’s painful. And it’s lonely. You long for company. You long from friends to come visit but they can’t. It’s not their desert, you see.

A man I deeply respect surprised me once. I was struggling in a mini-wilderness years ago- nothing like what I’ve lived now. I was crying to him about being alone, about loneliness, about never quite belonging anywhere. And he said to me, “Of course you don’t belong. That’s how you are made. Learn to turn your loneliness into solitude with God.” This was years ago and last year we reconnected, and I mentioned that memory to him. He told me that in that conversation, he knew. He knew who I was. He knew that my heart would always be restless. He knew that I would always long for something deeper, something more. And he knew just what I needed to do. Turn my loneliness into solitude with God.

I tried not to follow that advice for a long time. We moved out here shortly after that conversation and even then, I tried to ignore that advice. Even when I would feel crippling aloneness in the midst of a congregation I was trying to figure out. Even when I would escape to the quiet of my home or office. Even when I would spend each Monday morning picking myself apart for what I thought I didn’t do right the Sunday before. Even when I found myself more and more and more distant and confused by the people who were surrounding me because I was growing differently than they were and it caused such dissonance. I tried to ignore this wonderfully wise man’s advice. Turn loneliness into solitude with God.

And it worked to ignore it.

Until it didn’t work.

It worked until I had no choice, but to be driven out into the wilderness. And it didn’t happen instantly. But over time, over a long time, over the hot dry blisters of the wild wilderness, it did happen. When you are forced to be alone with God, and only God, eventually you have to give in. Especially if it’s the only way you’ll ever get out of the wilderness. When God wants to do business with you, he will not be stopped. He may be delayed, but he will not be stopped. When he loves you so much to draw you away with him, it may not feel like love at first, but it is. He is calling you to aloneness with him. And with that comes a closeness… over time. Not right away.

I’ve wondered often about the “disciple that Jesus loved.” We know that his name was John and he was a writer and he wrote some books and letters that are now in the Bible. But I’m caught sometimes by the way he describes what he is doing when Jesus and his buddies sit down for their very last dinner together before the Cross. The disciple that Jesus loved, John, is leaning on Jesus’ chest. This seems a little strange to many of us. But it’s such closeness. Such trust. I would stare at the many paintings of the Last Supper- these artistic renditions of what the creator saw in the scripture- and be jealous of that closeness. But I wondered what he heard as he leaned in close to Jesus, as his ear rested on that divine chest.

In the wilderness, I learned what he heard. I too learned- anew- what it was like to listen to the heart of God. And in hearing, I learned that I had it all wrong before.

The late saint, Henri Nouwen, writes about a passage from Luke where Jesus goes away to pray. He spends the night talking with the Father, and then he comes down, finds disciples and from there we emerge into Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Plain. Nouwen writes this:

“This is a beautiful story that moves from night to morning to afternoon. Jesus spent the night in solitude with God. In the morning, he gathered his apostles around him and formed community. In the afternoon, with his apostles, he went out and preached the Word and healed the sick.

Notice the order–from solitude to community to ministry. The night is for solitude; the morning for community; the afternoon for ministry.

So often in ministry, I have wanted to do it by myself. If it didn’t work, I went to others and said, “Please!” searching for a community to help me. If that didn’t work, maybe I’d start praying.

But the order that Jesus teaches us is the reverse. It begins by being with God in solitude; then it creates a fellowship, a community of people with whom the mission is being lived; and finally this community goes out together to heal and to proclaim good news.” (A Spirituality of Living)

It seems to me that the wildernesses of our lives are exactly that. We are led there to learn to be with God. To listen to his heart in a way we may never have heard it before. From there we learn how to create and trust community- one that is healthy and whole and pleasing and meaningful. And from there we find our purpose, our calling, the reason we live. We are led outside what we know to learn these things, to experience loneliness that turns into solitude with God.

It doesn’t mean that it’s not lonely. It doesn’t mean that at times you long for the people and things you once knew and once had. It doesn’t mean that everything feels OK, because it isn’t OK. But it does mean that you start to know God’s goodness. You may not understand God’s goodness, but you know it. And you can trust it.

For many of us, we need to learn this. We need to experience this. And it is not an easy thing I wish upon you. But the wilderness in your life is about transforming. It’s about becoming something you are not now, but can and will be. It’s about learning to rest your head upon his chest and hear the rhythm of his grace and love for you. And it’s about learning to truly, truly be with God. Loneliness and all turned into solitude with the One closest to your soul.

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