This past summer I finished an incredible experience with my Leaders Collective cohort. We had just spent nine months focusing on the theme of resilient ministry and planting healthy churches.
I’ll never forget our last full day as a cohort. The day started off with me honestly not being very excited. Throughout all of our travels with this group we had eaten incredibly well. Leaders Collective values hospitality. It was always a delight to break bread with my brothers. But this was going to be a day we intentionally we’re not going to eat. It was a day of prayer and fasting.
We arrived at a retreat center in Durham and jumped right into what became for me, a formative experience. For as long as I can remember I’ve dreaded fasting. Sure, I’d do it. But it felt like I was starving myself for a piety award. I knew my theology for feeling this way was bad, yet I couldn’t seem to shake my disdain for it.
On top of this, I’m an extrovert. Those who know me are not surprised by this. I love people. So a day without food is bad, but a day without people? That’s torment.
But this day we sat with Bliss Spillar. A pastor who has been through the wars of ministry. He shared his church planting burn out experience and how he had learned to value the day alone.
Listening to Bliss’ story was like sitting with a picture of my future self. I can often be driven to accomplish tasks. I can do ministry with my head down. I can get caught up in doing and get in my own way of the joy offered to me in knowing Christ.
Since that day in May a few things have shifted for me. The first is that I intentionally take time to go slow each morning. There are so many tasks when leading a young church plant. But I refuse to forfeit my soul for the sake of ministry.
The second thing is I monthly take a day to be alone and fast. I no longer dread it, but rather look forward to it eagerly as chance to have my soul refreshed.
I want to share a few helps that I think can transform the way you take a day alone. Silence and solitude are friends not foes. These helps are not mine. I learned them from Leaders Collective, they in turn learned them from others. I will do my best to give credit where it is due.
Ok you’ve read this far so you’re ready to do this. You are gonna take a day to be with Jesus. Great! Now what? If you’re like me you take a Bible and a journal and kinda wing it. I think this is where I made my first mistake.
Look, I get it. We should be able to be completely content with our thoughts and the Bible. The problem is that you and I are easily distracted. We have to remember we have wandering minds and a real enemy. Going in without a plan is setting ourselves up for disappointment.
Something evangelicalism has unintentionally done has been the removal of tradition. Many of the things I am getting ready to share with you are not new. So don’t be weirded out by latin or encouragements from old dead dudes. Rather let them be your teacher in how to quiet your mind and hear.
1. Prayer of Examen
The Prayer of Examen is a daily spiritual exercise typically credited to St. Ignatius of Loyola [1491-1556], who encouraged fellow followers to engage in the practice for developing a deeper level of spiritual sensitivity and for recognizing and receiving the assistance of the Holy Spirit. At the heart of the practice is increasingly becoming aware of God’s presence and the Holy Spirit’s movement throughout your day.
This Prayer of Examen is primarily an exercise in remembering. One is invited, through five portions [gratitude, consolation, desolation, repentance, and grace], to concentrate on experiences and encounters from the past 24 hours.
The beauty of the practice is its simplicity; it is more a guide than a prescription. If some portion feels especially important on a given day, feel the freedom to spend all or most of your time in that portion. The purpose is to increase awareness and sensitivity, not to finish or accomplish a task.
For this practice:
A comfortable and relatively quiet location is likely most conducive for reflecting.
The experience doesn’t need to be a certain length—as little as ten minutes could be sufficient, and you could spend more time on certain portions compared to others.
It might be helpful to journal your thoughts and recollections or to write out what you notice during your times of prayer.
Consider sharing your experiences: allow encouragement and insight from others to influence you and cheer you on, and when appropriate give the same, together striving to be an ever-faithful “community of solitudes” (Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness).
Follow these five portions as a guide through your prayer.
What do you have in the last 24 hours to be thankful for? Thank God for those things.
Say them out loud. Write them down.
Where did you see God’s grace in the last 24 hours?
Where was did kind invasion of God towards you show up?
Say them out loud. Write them down.
Ask yourself and the Lord, “Where did I move away from God and the good life in the last 24 hours?”
This is not necessarily outright sin though it certainly can be that.
Repent and as you do be attentive to patterns that lead to sin.
This cannot be rushed. Take your time.
Ask for more of the kind invasion of God into your life (Titus 2:11-14)
2. Lectio Devina
Lectio Divina is an ancient spiritual practice from the Christian monastic tradition. It is the practice of “divine reading” or praying Scripture. It involves a balance of silence and God’s word, seeking to encounter God as he speaks directly and personally through his word. It involves listening to a short passage, setting aside understanding and analysis, to open oneself to receive God’s word “expectantly and passively” (Ref. Sacred Companions by David G. Benner)
Pick a passage of scripture. Read the passage four times, paying attention to different aspects of the passage as it is read.
First and Second Reading:
Read the passage aloud, twice, attentively listening for words or phrases that stick out. The purpose of this reading is to hear the text and listen for a word or phrase or idea that captures your attention.
Focus your attention on that word, phrase or idea, repeating it to yourself silently as the passage is read aloud a third time. After the third reading and a time of silent reflection, write down what sticks out to you.
Listen during the fourth reading on what God is inviting you to do or become. After the reading and a time of silent reflection, write down what God is saying to you.
3. Silence and Solitude
While the other practices are ones you can implement any where this is a specific exercise requires a specific location and intentional experience.
Silence and solitude are not things that come automatically. We need to intentionally seek them out.
Read through the explanations of these disciplines below.
After you’ve read through the explanations, find a graveyard and spend 30 minutes there in silence and solitude.
After you’ve spent the 30 minutes in silence and solitude, reflect on your time as you journal then share the experience with your community. (Ref. Spiritual Disicplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun (pages 107—113)
Desire To free myself from the addiction to and distraction of noise so I can be totally present to the Lord; to open myself to God in the place beyond words
Definition Silence is a regenerative practice of attending and listening to God in quiet, without interruption and noise. Silence provides freedom from speaking as well as from listening to words or music. (Reading is also listening to words.)
It is difficult to find silence in a an age of technology and information. Silence challenges our cultural addition to amusement, words, music, advertising, noise, alarms and voices. Silence asks for patience and waiting. And both silence and waiting make us uncomfortable. They seem so unproductive. We can’t tell if we are doing anything in them. So when we come upon silence, we fill it. We cram it with something else we can learn or do or achieve.
We break the silence of travel with an iPhone, the silence of the evening hours with the TV or computer, the silence of sleep with an alarm clock. Every part of our life is inundated with words—urgent words, random words, trivial words, hurtful words, managing words, religious words and on and on. In the midst of so many words it becomes difficult to know which messages are really important and which ones we need to remember. To get through the flood of words we develop skills like skimming and scanning. We look for bullet points and bold print. We ask for summaries. We urge people to be brief and cut to the chase. And when we think they aren’t saying anything significant, we simply block out their words to attend to our own internal flood of words.
This habit of glancing at words and people extends to our relationship with God. We want pithy, memorable sermons. We want more religious words to chew on. The trouble is there are so many other things we are trying to remember that the sermon evaporates by the time we reach the parking lot. Could it be that what we need is time alone with God and a lot fewer words? Do we need to put on the “Do Not Disturb” button and learn what it is to be available to God alone?
We need to realize that the world can go on without us for an hour or a day or even longer. We don’t need to respond to every word and request that comes our way. The discipline of silence invites us to leave behind the competing demands of our outer world for time alone with Jesus. Silence offers a way of paying attention to the Spirit of God and what he brings to the surface of our souls.
In quietness we often notice things we would rather not notice or feel. Pockets of sadness or anger or loneliness or impatience begin to surface. Our own outer agenda looms larger than our desire to be with God in silence. And as the silence settles in and nothing seems to be happening, we often struggle with the feeling that we are wasting time. Everything we notice in this struggle can become an invitation to prayer. Like a can opener the silence opens up the contents of our heart, allowing us deeper access to God than we experience at other times. As we remain in the silence, the inner noise and chaos will begin to settle. Our capacity to open up wider and wider to God grows. The holy One has access to places we don’t even know exist in the midst of the hubbub.
Jesus told his disciples, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear” (John 16:12). It is Holy Spirit’s job to keep the inner process of revelation underway. But in order for the Spirit to do his job, we need to cooperate and put ourselves in a place to deeply and reflectively listen. Be alone with God in the silence. Offer your body and your attention to God as a prayer
As you quietly offer your body you can hone your listening reflexes. There is nothing you need to do here. This is not a time to come up with strategies for fixing your life. Silence is a time to rest in God. Lean into God, trusting that being with him in silence will loosen your rootedness in the world and plant you by streams f living water. It can form your life even if it doesn’t solve your life. The anonymous author of The Way of the Pilgrim wrote, “I need peace and silence to give free play to this quickening flame of prayer.” Let the silence lead you to prayer.
Desire To leave people behind and enter into alone time with God
Definition The practice of solitude involves scheduling enough uninterrupted time in a distraction-free environment that you experience isolation and are alone with God. Solitude is a “container discipline” for the practice of other spiritual disciplines.
Though we may be unfamiliar with the discipline of solitude, most of us recognize it as something we wanted when we were first in love. It didn’t matter if the time spent together accomplished anything very useful or important to the world at large. It was simply the way we let our beloved know that he or she mattered. In order to show love, we sought time alone together.
… Jesus began his ministry with forty formative days of solitude. No doubt Jesus intended to commune with God alone, but he also encountered the tempter in that desert place. Mark writes, “At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:12). Solitude is a formative place because it gives God’s Spirit time and space to do deep work. When no one is there to watch, judge and interpret what we say, the Spirit often brings us face to face with hidden motives and compulsions. The world of recognition, achievement and applause disappears, and we stand squarely before God without props. In solitude Jesus did battle wit hthe intoxicating possibilities of achieving his kingdom and identity in the power of the self. He faced down the self Satan offered and instead chose his true identity as the beloved Son. Throughout his three years of ministry Jesus returned again and again to solitude, where the rush of attention and the accolades of the crowds could be put into their proper perspective. Solitude with God was a way Jesus remained in touch with his true identity in God.
Most of us can identify with the intoxicating feeling that comes when we are the center of attention. Solitude is a discipline that gets behind those feelings to who we are when we feel invisible and unrecognized. Who are we when productivity and recognition fall away and God is the only one watching us? Some of us simply seem to lose our sense of self when there is no one to mirror back who we are. Without the oxygen of doing and the mirror of approval, our feelings of being real and important evaporate. Hollow places open up in our heart, and our soul feels empty and bare. We can feel agitated, scattered and distracted. These disconcerting feelings do two things for us. They reveal how much our identity is embedded in a false sense of self. And they show us how easy it is to avoid solitude because we dislike being unproductive and unapplauded.
But we need solitude if we intend to unmask the false self and its important-looking image. Alone, without distractions, we put ourselves in a place where God can reveal things to us that we might not notice in the normal preoccupations of life. Solitude opens a space where we can bring our empty and compulsive selves to God. And no matter how well we “do” silence, God is there to accept, receive and love us. God longs for us to be our true self in Christ. He wants us to be who we are meant to be. In solitude we see how little we embrace our true identity in Christ. And we find the truth of who we are in Christ. We are the beloved, and God is pleased with us. This identity is given; it is not earned. Many other voices pull at us, seeking to own and name us, but in solitude we learn what it is to distinguish between the voice of God and the voices of the world. (This is sometimes called the “discernment of spirits” [1 John 4:1].) Times of solitude can be sweet times, but they can also be dark times when God seems to remain withdrawn and silent. We seek the Lord, but he doesn’t seem to show up. These times of testing, or the “dark nights, like Jesus had in the wilderness, are well documented in the lives of the saints. Don’t be afraid of the darkness or the solitude. Stay with God. The light will eventually dawn.
As you conclude your time reflect on these questions:
Silence Reflection Questions
1. How do you avoid or resist silence?
2. Do you like to fill silences with sound or learning—tapes, talk shows, news and so forth? What does this mean?
3. Where do you have silence with God in your life?
4. How much time each day do you give to silence (i.e., no words, printed or audible)?
5. Do you think God values time with you in silence? Explain.
Solitude Reflection Questions
1. How and when do you resist or avoid being alone?
2. What tends to pop into your mind when you are alone?
3. What do you resort to doing when alone?
4. What troubles you or makes you antsy about being alone?
5. When have you felt most comfortable being alone? Most uncomfortable?
6. What sense of God do you have when you are alone?
These are books that have been helpful in my journey to a more fervent and fruitful walk:
Field Guide For Daily Prayer – Winfield Bevins: A helpful introduction to the practice of the daily prayers or daily office.
Recapturing The Wonder – Mike Cosper: A helpful book of rediscovering the value in Christian Disciplines
Spiritual Disciplines – Donald Whitney: A classic work on what the spiritual disciplines of a Christian are.
Liturgy of the Ordinary – Tish Harrison Warren: Framed around one ordinary day, this book explores daily life through the lens of liturgy, small practices, and habits that form us
The Valley Of Vision: A collection of Puritan prayers and devotionals. This little book has often given words when I had none.
A Gospel Primer for Christians – Milton Vincent: An invaluable tool to preach the gospel to yourself daily to strengthen your faith and define what you believe and why. Buy yourself a copy and then buy one for all your friends