More Time Alone?

Even the most introverted introvert may eventually find pandemic constraints wearisome. Nine months of disrupted activities and minimized social gathering is difficult. Last night, just to get out of the house, my wife did a web search and crafted a Christmas light tour through nearby neighborhoods. At a minimum, our spontaneous adventure required us to pry ourselves from the couch and have something different to see and talk about (who knew you could cram 50 inflatable Christmas characters onto a small front lawn?). We even got a little romantic taking a selfie inside a tastefully decorated covered bridge.

Our customized light tour was the extent of our out-of-the-house engagements this week. Like many of you, we are currently working from home and have extra time as a result of cancelled or postponed school, church, sport, or other activities. So right now, no one needs more alone time, right? Well, I propose that in our present circumstance we need some solitude–maybe more now than when our lives were “normal.”

I admit that solitude gets a bad rap. Some label it stodgy and strange. A practice that can be tolerated by only the most pious among us. In my experience, solitude doesn’t need to be any of that. While solitude does require being alone, it’s an opportunity to actively engage God through prayerful reflection. And rather than boring, Henri Nouwen suggests, “Solitude is the furnace of transformation.” (The Way of the Heart, p.25) Nouwen goes on to say solitude is “the place of the great struggle and the great encounter. Solitude is not simply a means to an end. Solitude is its own end. It is the place where Christ remodels us in his own image and frees us from the victimizing compulsions of the world.” (p.31-32)

Indeed, our world provides more than enough distraction and worry to siphon the joy, peace, patience, and gentleness from our spirit. We’re only a click, tap, or scroll away from whatever we desire. Thus the need for intentional times of being alone with God where we can enter a space designed to help us reorient, recognize, and reflect on our lives and His involvement in them.

There’s no prescription for solitude. Simply settle your spirit. Listen. Pray. Rest. Maybe laugh a little. Cry a little. Journal a thought or write a note. Listen to music or sing. Invite God into your physical and mental space with anticipation and gratitude for Him seeing, knowing, and loving you just as you are, right where you are.

In my home, this third week of Advent often coincides with a sharp increase in Christmas preparations. I can be harried with planning, purchasing, cooking, and cleaning. And while time for such things is more available this year than in previous, I still need some solitude. It’s important that I intentionally reflect on God’s kindness, asking Him for unclouded eyes and an open heart to His grace. To confess, repent, and praise. To wonder and enjoy His presence.

Join me this week by setting aside an uninterrupted hour (or more!) to be alone with Jesus. No agenda, no requirements, and no pressure. Just you and Emmanuel. Let Him quiet you with His love as you listen for the song He sings over your every moment.

A Prayer for Solitude
Voice of hope and Word of redemption,
Jesus, lover of my soul;
Shield me from the world’s compulsions
and open my soul to reflection with You.

““The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.”
(Lamentations 3:24–25, ESV)

I Hadn’t Noticed

My “behind the garage” office space

In March of this year, I became a work-from-home nomad.

For a while I claimed the living room chair. It was comfortable, with a terrific view of the front and back yard. But the chair was located near the main thoroughfare of our home, and therefore subject to many loud conversations, meal prep, and the general busyness of homelife.

So I gathered my laptop, notebook, and manilla folders and journeyed to the basement. There I discovered less noise but no outside view. I found that I could concentrate better on my work but proximity to a bathroom brought sensory challenges.

As the weather warmed, I summoned my inner nomad and trekked to a small room behind our garage. It’s a workshop of sorts, which proved convenient as I carved-out a space and assembled a workstation. In that room I regained an outdoor view, enhanced solitude, and limited distraction. It was there that I labored during the summer months of pandemic restrictions.

I can’t deny that I rather liked working in that space. It was a bit rugged, but it was mine. While there was room for an officemate, no one (not even my wife) accepted my invitation. I suspect the regular appearance of spiders, flies, a few mosquitoes and of course summertime bees was a deterrent. And early on, I had to fend-off a tenacious Red Squirrel who thought he had squatters’ rights.

In the midst of my working out there, something unexpected happened. Between Zoom meetings, phone calls, and the ever-fresh stream of email I heard something. I saw something. I was enthralled by…them.

Birds.

Lots of birds. Goldfinches, Blue Jays, House Sparrows, and Cedar Waxwings. Chickadees popping from branch to branch. Robins wrestling worms from the lawn. And on occasion, in the quiet of early morning, I’d hear the call and response from a pair of owls. It was wonderful! There were birds everywhere, all the time. I know they’ve been there all along, but I simply hadn’t noticed. Not until my nomadic wandering led me to construct a makeshift office did I see what I’d been missing. Which got me wondering: What else am I not noticing?

How are my worries and distractions obscuring my vision? Are my passions and desires consuming my imagination? Have I oriented my life around too much of me? Am I thinking too often about my disappointments, my comfort, what’s next, or what I’m missing? And if any or all of this is true, could I be missing moments to recognize and experience God?

In her book, Signs of Life, Stephanie Lobdell suggests, “However it comes to us, the knowledge that we are seen by God—and invited by God to see God as well, to know God deeply—changes us. It breaks us open, creating space for the resurrecting Spirit of God to infiltrate our minds, enlivening our dead imaginations and allowing us to see a new future.” (p.54) Might a call to notice God’s presence be instilled in a work-from-home nomad through something as normal and everyday as birds? Absolutely!

Advent is a season when we alter our routine and seek to quiet ourselves to reflect and reorient. It’s an invitation to center ourselves and recognize the presence of God. To listen for Him. To remember His care and provision. To submit ourselves to His love and embrace the truth that He is always near and will never abandon us. To thank Him for his love and mercy, acknowledging that He is our only comfort in life and death.

During this second week of Advent, join me in crafting intentional times to be still. To notice. To be prayerful, inviting the Spirit to help you recognize God in ways you may not have before—or perhaps have not in quite some time. Like the birds in my yard, God has been here all along. And while we might know that in our heads, may our hearts receive and experience afresh the beauty and wonder and love of our God who is with us!

A Prayer for Noticing
Our Heavenly King, robed in a garment of light,
Your presence pervades like the light of the sun;
Tune my ears and open my eyes
to Your everyday touches of grace.

“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
(Psalm 16:11, ESV)

A Converted Caravan

The photos shuffling on the display of my computer are of the Gros Ventre Wilderness near Jackson, Wyoming. During the summer of 2018, my youngest son and I, along with a handful of other fathers and their sons, set-out into that remote part of the American West for an 8-day adventure of vigorous hiking.

While the mountainous vistas are worth every step, such trips are not without tense moments and uncertainty. Weather, terrain, injury, illness, and mental fortitude are ever-present variables. During our 24-hour drive to the trailhead, our group pondered some important questions: Would the trail be navigable? Would there be good places to camp near a potable water source? Would the snow pack cause us to re-route and lengthen our hike or send us bushwhacking? What do we do if a bear eats our food, and did we bring the bear spray?

Our concerns were not unfounded. We encountered snow. We detoured. But there were no bears. More serious and unexpected, however, was our encounter with illness. As the days passed, one of our teammates became weak and exceptionally tired, struggling more and more with the rigor of uphill climbs. To assist, we lightened his load by dispersing items in his pack among the group. This continued until he walked packless, clutching only a small bottle of water. Still, his body wearied toward delirium and heat stroke. We stopped and rested often. Fully spent on our final day, our sweat-drenched friend groaned as he sat hunched over a scraggly Western Pine, and wept. We wept, too. And prayed. As we baked in an arid, sun-soaked valley, miles from our exit, a new dimension was demanded from our fraternity.

That hiking experience is not unlike the Christian life. The journey of faithful living is arduous, unpredictable, and shouldn’t be done alone. Yet in our current culture of rugged individualism, we might be lulled toward habits that isolate and behaviors that exacerbate a prideful disposition of, “I’ve got this!” And this individualism can seep into our spiritual practices. How? For me, I’m very content with quiet mornings of coffee, reading from Scripture and another book (or two), a bit of conversational prayer, and some writing. Just God and me and the stillness of the pre-dawn morning. While this solitary practice has merit, if I neglect to supplement my peace and quiet with face-to-face interactions, I’ll be spiritually under-developed and relationally malnourished.

Referring to the collective of professing Christians, Jamie Smith said, “Conversion is joining this caravan, not setting out alone.” (On The Road With Saint Augustine, 51) More importantly, Scripture commands us to make togetherness a priority. (Heb 10:24-25) It is in our gathering that we apply salve to wounds and reorient those who’ve strayed. We support and carry those who are weak. We encourage, edify, celebrate, and grieve — together.

In his book, Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen said: “The Church is not an institution forcing us to follow its rules. It is a community of people inviting us to still our hunger and thirst at its tables.” (88-89) From time to time, each of us will be desperate and tired, mustering our last bits of courage to take one more step. When those moments come, we need each other.

In my previous post I challenged us to consider our “doings” — our involvements, behaviors, and activities that determine who we are becoming. I’ve been meditating on my “doing” this past week as part of the Advent season. For the second week of Advent, I’m going to consider how my desire for introverted independence tugs me toward seclusion. I’ll be evaluating the balance of time alone with time in community.

How about you? Are you wandering alone? Are you regularly engaged with like-minded people of faith? Do you have friends who both challenge and support you? Do you consistently give of yourself and your resources for the good of others?

To finish the story, we made it out of the Gros Ventre. It required patience, humility, empathy, encouragement, and of course God’s kind providence. Looking back, it was a privilege to pace with our hurting friend during that intense and painful episode. He couldn’t have done it without us.

As people of faith, we’re members of a glorious caravan. We journey together. This day, let’s encourage one another to walk by faith, trusting the One who gives us hope through His birth, death, and resurrection — our traveling companion, Jesus Christ.

A Prayer Against Isolation
Friend and Brother, our Lord Jesus Christ,
Pioneer on the path to glory;
Invade my realm of detached independence,
amend my affections with desire for your people.

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
(Hebrews 10:24–25, NIV)

With or Without You?

Not A Team PlayerThe air carried a hint this morning. The trees can no longer hide it. It’s coming.

Fall. The season of football and cider is cresting the horizon. Soon, colored leaves will cover the beach sand ground into my floor mats. Windows will open as air conditioning units taper toward hibernation. And schedules will inflate with a fresh cycle of activity.

The summer months afford an opportunity to get out, get away, and refresh. To do many things, or nothing. As someone who craves solitude, I welcome times of uninterrupted quiet. No requests, no demands. Just the peaceful still of me — and only me.

In contrast to those “me only” dreams, last week I shared breakfast with a few good men. Despite a minor setback with finding carb-free options (we were at a bakery — go figure) we successfully procured some dining fare and caught-up on our summer happenings.

One man changed jobs, another sent a son to Uganda for 10-days to install clean water systems, a third made a commitment to be baptized, and the last successfully relocated a noisy rooster. Our conversation ran the spectrum from excitement to pain, from dreams to discouragement. Sipping my dark roast, I listened and wondered at the complex paths we travel. I marveled at the providential intersection of our stories. It is good to live in community.

But I still like to be alone.

We need silent spaces. Detours from the din. Yet retreats to a quiet oasis must be bounded. I’m easily lured to the out-of-the-way corner. A closed-door room. The library. Places that limit encounter. But too much “me” distorts my perspective. The world loses its color. My empathy atrophies and my grace becomes small.

I become lonely.

Henri Nouwen said, “Real loneliness comes when we have lost all sense of having things in common.”* The stories of my neighborhood friends are, in part, my story. Sure, we all live near one another. But that’s not what makes their story mine. Rather, we are bound together in our humanness. We are joined in the outworking of maleness and marriage. We fell trees, share tools, read books, and watch March Madness — together. We are communal.

So as summertime fades and fall activities filter into the calendar, I must recognize my craving for quiet. At the first hint to escape, I need to do the careful, wise work of prayer, seeking Spirit-guided help with making room for people while making room for me. To prioritize a daily refreshment of gratitude through God’s Word. To find joy in the grand adventure of life — with others, and alone.

*The Return of the Prodigal Son, p.47