Let us Ramble: Solitude, Faith, and Community

A noise tickles my ears as a buzz begins at 5:59 AM. My phone buzzes and begins to flash. I wake up early to check if the paths need to be cleared of snow before the teachers and staff of the church community arrive. After a cold time clearing up the snow with my snowblower and a headlamp, a hot shower to warm up chilled bones, and a hot mug of coffee, I settle at the table with my notebook. Soon, as the eggs bake for breakfast sandwiches for my wife and children, I will find myself digging through the Revised Common Lectionary.

This day I am flicking through the story of Saul being chastised by Samuel for caring more about what his people want than what the Lord required. I write a poem about Saul’s predicament while thinking and praying about what God’s message for Saul says to me as a Christian, as a husband, as a father, and as a pastor. The words are deep this morning as my heart struggles to make sense of the story of God’s chosen one being rejected for his actions. I weigh the passage carefully with others that have been dwelling in my heart.

I find these moments of devotion while the room fills with the smells of cooking breakfast to be sacred. They are not always perfectly isolated. Sometimes I finish my poem while my kids are making cocoa across the room. Occasionally a crying baby will interrupt this time with her needs. It is a time that actually gets interrupted regularly towards the end, but it is also one of the most sacred moments of the day. Even with interruptions, the ground I walk upon in those moments is holy.

In these moments of personal devotion, I sort through my dreams and prayers from the recently passed night. In these moments of personal devotion, I find inspiration that often affects the way I live out my faith life. In these moments of personal devotion, I often find the fuel that feeds quiet prayers for the community which follow. Have I read about love? Standing in the window, cleaning up dishes, I pray with love for the people in my church and community who are in need. Have I read about sacrificing for others wellbeing? I find inspiration to pray for the bus drivers who pass by the window. The personal devotions of my morning feed my time in prayer and help me to do a better job at being a part of a vibrant church community.

Henri Nouwen, in his book “Discernment” wrote (on the tenth page of his book):

“Communion with God alone in prayer leads inevitably to community with God’s people, and then to ministry in the world. But it is good to begin this spiritual movement in solitude…When we are alone with God, the Spirit prays in us. The challenge is to develop a simple discipline of spiritual practice to embrace some empty time and empty space every day.”

For myself, the moments in my day that are emptiest and have space for the Holy Spirit are between checking the paths to see if they are clear and when my children get out of bed. The time that I spend alone with God in those quiet places strengthens my relationship with God. That strength then leads towards others.

Invariably, my time with God tends to lead towards other people. Sometimes my prayers are led towards my family, but more often than not, I find myself drawn to pray for situations around me in the community and in the church. I want to be clear about this fact. My personal devotions do more than inform my prayer. My personal devotions empower my ability to pray. If the spiritual life of a Christian is a river, my time in personal devotion is one of the springs where that spiritual life finds the living water.

When the Spirit prays in us, our lives change. If you look back at a number of the great figures of Christian history, a lot of them speak about powerful moments of connection with God. Some of the descriptions of these moments can induce a blush! These moments of intimacy with God generally did not come out of a place of constant action. If you look, most of these moments come in lives marked by time spent with God. Like any relationship, a relationship with God that is healthy requires time spent together.

So, how do you begin to discern the right time for spending time with God? The first thing I suggest to people who ask me in person is that they chart out their day in blocks. What regular patterns emerge in your daily life? I found myself needing to wake up early to take care of sidewalks for the winter. As such, for this literal season, a period between that daily chore and when the rest of the day began emerged. For some people, there is a lull in the late morning, especially if you are retired or work a second or third shift position. Each person is different and taking a look at your regular patterns can help you notice places that are empty.

Second, if a person cannot find those moments of free time I suggest that there be moments in your day that might be better used doing something else. Back when I tried to engage in evening devotions despite my tiredness, I used to spend my mornings before the girls woke up listening to the news. The news often made me anxious, led to me feeling inordinately stressed at the beginning of my day, and often served more as empty noise than something of substance. I was better served by spending that time with God than spending it listening to the news. I still check the news later in the day, but I first ground my heart and my soul in God before facing what the world will throw at me.

Third, I often suggest that you begin with a simple devotion. There are wonderful resources available through many fine publishers. A trip to a local bookstore will often provide a lot of helpful options. Our church provides copies of the Upper Room Daily Devotional and we would work with anyone who wanted to explore one of the other options available. There are also a number of reading plans available through places like Bible Gateway that can help you to explore your Bible over a set number of days. Even the United Methodist Hymnal has a pattern for daily worship and prayer in the rear of the hymnal. There are many options available.

Fourth, try new things on occasion. If you, like me, enjoy the Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, consider using the Book of Common Prayer for a season. If you enjoy using Our Daily Bread, ponder trying out the Upper Room for a time. If you are going through a dry season, it might not help if that season is supposed to be teaching you something, but if your situation is simply fatigue—a change of pace might help.

What suggestions do you have for starting a time of personal devotions? Have any practices been particularly helpful?

Let us Ramble: Holy Movement

I have been working through some books lately on spiritual formation. One of them is “Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life” by Henri Nouwen. I am finding it a rich feast of a book which is written to people of all sorts. I highly recommend it if you enjoy a good deep book!

I found myself pumping my fist to one particular passage on the ninth page. Henri Nouwen writes:

“Those who live lives worthy of their calling have been ‘reborn from above’ and are able to see with the eyes of faith and hear with spiritual ears. Their lives of discernment are characterized by single-mindedness: they have but one true desire—to know God’s heart and do God’s will in all things. In the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, they live the truth and seek to ‘come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God’ (John 3:21 NRSV). Such persons are so caught up in God’s love that everything else can only receive its meaning and purpose in the context of that love. They ask only what questions: ‘What is pleasing to the Spirit of God?’ And as soon as they have heard the sound of the Spirit in the silence and solitude of their hearts, they follow its promptings even if it upsets their friends, disrupts their environment, and confuses their admirers.

People reborn in the Holy Spirit with spiritual understanding come across as very independent, not because of psychological training or individuation but because of the fruit of the Spirit which ‘blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes’ (John 3:8). Spiritual rebirth is an evergreen openness to let the spirit of Jesus blow us where it pleases.”

At various times in my career I have been accused of being too quick to bolt out the door to situations beyond my understanding. There’s some truth to the accusation, but I have to admit that sometimes people love that I have this tendency. I will be praying and I will feel a need to call someone and I will call at just the right moment. I once felt the urge to pull into a hospital and went into the wrong entrance where I met a colleague whose wife had just been admitted in need of a prayer and a hug. The Spirit definitely blows where it pleases and I find nothing so exhilarating as coming across the Spirit at work! I have come to embrace that part of my spirit that loves hearing that quiet voice.

This sign is sitting in our church garage. I want to mount it over my desk!

Of course, this tendency to be always on the move is a very Methodist kind of tendency. Read the Book of Discipline of the UMC and you will eventually find the historic examination put before every Elder before full admittance into ministry. In ¶336 of 2016 Book of Discipline you will find the 19th examination to be in the hard-coding of ministry for United Methodist pastors. That examination asks

: “Will you observe the following instructions? Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary…do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.”

I believe Nouwen’s evergreen openness to the Spirit works very well with the historic nature of the Methodist circuit riders. When the road and the circuit used to be before you there was a world of possibility with infinite opportunities. Encouraging circuit riders to never idle away the time made sense. Again, this was not meant to be done in fear of God’s anger but instead to aid an easy conscience in the minds and souls of those called to ministry.

Nowadays, I think that these words are often lost in our culture. To believe that we should never trifle away time is something this is bucked against even within religious circles and the idea of never spending more time than necessary someplace is beyond most of us in the ministry world. Between office hours, worship slide creation, bulletins, and other things that tie us to a desk it can be easy to see why such thoughts of intentional movement are beyond most of us. We are often ensnared by the very things meant to help us accomplish ministry!

There is a part of me that misses the idea of intentionally seeking that disruptive still small voice of God. Let’s be honest—I long for that voice on a regular basis. Do you long for that voice? Do you thirst to know what pleases God and feel passionate about joining into that great ministry? If so, my friends, I invite you to listen, to seek, to discern, and then to follow.