Tag Archives: solitude

Solitude, community, and why we need both

When I was a young boy, my family lived in the town of Forestville, on the shores of the St Lawrence River in Northeastern Québec.  Although our little company town had about 3000 residents, I knew only a handful of them.  Life in Forestville in the 1950s perfectly illustrated Quebec’s Two Solitudes.  The workforce spoke French; the management spoke English.  Our family, although neither French nor English, was assigned to the English community due to my father’s role in management, so we lived on “Snob Hill” with all the other management families.  Having been raised in the Netherlands – a country where it was customary and expected that high school graduates would be competent in three languages besides their own – both my parents spoke French, and didn’t share the prejudices of the time.  However, the children of management families had few dealings with the children of the French-speaking Roman Catholic families that comprised about 95% of the town’s population.  We simply moved in different circles.  As a young boy, it never occurred to me to question this; it was just the way things were.

As a result, my social universe was very small.  We didn’t have television at our house, and my siblings and I spent a lot of time playing outdoors.  There were other children on our street, but most of them were either a few years older or a few years younger than I.  I was a shy, quiet and introspective child, and so although we played group games at times, I naturally fell into a pattern of spending a lot of time alone.  My older brother and sister already had their playmates, and by the time I reached school age I had gotten used to hours of solitary play on the wooded hills behind our house.  I spent many afternoons in a wonderful huge sandpit at the edge of the woods, building roads for my toy cars and trucks, and letting my imagination wander.  In summer I loved the beauty of the white birch trees with their lacy green leaves silhouetted against the blue sky on the hills behind our home.  I also loved walking down to the shores of the Gulf of St Lawrence – so broad that we could barely see the opposite shore, almost 30 miles away – and digging my toes in the sand on the wide beach.  In winter I loved the bracing crisp air and the mountains of white snow.  We lived in a beautiful if isolated place, and the beauty of it awakened a deep longing within me.  Although I may not have had the words to express it at the time, my hunger for beauty was in reality a hunger for the One who is supremely beautiful and who is the source of everything that is good and true and right.

All this to say that I became accustomed to solitude at an early age, and I am quite comfortable with being alone.  In fact I am not only comfortable with solitude; I crave it.  Over the years I have tended to choose solitary sports – cross country skiing, canoeing, cycling – not only because they are solitary but also (especially) because they involve time spent under God’s great blue sky.  I love hours spent in reading my Bible or worshipping Jesus with my guitar and my voice.  I frequently need to go for walks alone and sort things out with God.  When I have been with a lot of people for even a few hours, I frequently find that I need to get away for a while and collect my thoughts.

I don’t believe this is unique to me.  It is true enough that I am pretty far along on the introversion scale.  Still, I believe that even the most extroverted, socially oriented person needs times of solitude to be spiritually healthy.  Consider the example of Jesus.  Although he clearly loved people and enjoyed being with them, He also apparently craved time alone, frequently getting up before dawn and going to solitary places where he could have undisturbed fellowship with his Father.  For anyone who is serious about cultivating the knowledge of God, willingness to get alone with Him for extended periods of time is essential.

Yet at the same time I also crave companionship and relationships.  As a young child in Forestville, even though I loved being outdoors by myself, I also loved playing with my friend David.  He was the only one among our group of playmates who was my own age, and we frequently spent time together playing cowboys and Indians (apologies for the politically incorrect terminology but that’s what we called it back then) and other boyish games.  This friendship was so important to me that when David was ready for Grade One, I followed him to school every day for three months, although I was not yet old enough for school according to the rules of the day, and sat on the schoolhouse steps until the teacher eventually decided to break the rules and let me in.

My Grade One teacher soon found that I was an eager participant in her little one-room school.  I loved learning to read and do arithmetic (yes, I really did !) , but I also enjoyed having a place to fit in.  This shy, solitary boy who had a love for solitude also longed for community, acceptance and a sense of belonging.  That’s not so surprising; even the most introverted of us is not made to live on our own.  It is written that when the Lord God created the first man in the Garden of Eden, he declared It is not good for the man to be alone. We are made for community.

I believe that the need for solitude and the need for community are intertwined, like two strands of a cord of braided rope.  Times of fruitful solitude – time spent not just vegging, but going deeper with the Holy One – give depth to the times we spend with others, allowing our conversation to go deeper than the surface.

Last weekend I had the rare treat of spending Friday evening and Saturday on a men’s retreat with about forty men from my church, All Nations Ottawa, and its sister church in Peterborough.  Being still quite new to All Nations, I did not know most of the men very well.  Driving to Circle Square Ranch with Dale and Dan was a great opportunity to listen to them tell their stories.  By the time we had arrived at our destination, I felt that I had made two new friends.  Upon our arrival I soon found that I already knew one of the men from Peterborough, which was an enjoyable surprise.  The structured sessions at the retreat were very worthwhile – the worship was stirring, and the teaching was fresh, encouraging, and practical.  But what I loved most about the weekend was time spent in one-on-one conversations.  There were several of these, and each of them was an opportunity to really listen to one of my brothers, to encourage him and be encouraged by him in turn, leading to growth in love, hope and faith.

I can’t say enough about how important this is.   I will always love solitude, but I also need community.  The things that God does in my heart during my times of solitude are meant to be shared.  I find that it is deeply humbling to take time to truly listen to a brother who is seeking to live the life of a disciple of Jesus.  I need the encouragement of others to keep me from growing dull, and I also need to see the life of faith from their perspective so that I don’t get cocky or self-absorbed or locked in to my own perspective.  I almost always come away from such conversations with an increased hunger to pray for my brothers, to truly love them as Jesus does, and to see them encouraged and built up in their faith.

Lord, thank you so much for calling us into community.  Thank you for teaching us how to love our brothers as a sign and expression of your great love which is so much deeper, higher and purer than our own.  Thank you for your Kingdom that is coming, in which we will have unbroken fellowship with you and with those who love your name and your ways.



Last Sunday, our pastor’s sermon prompted Marion and me to take a five-week period (up til the end of May) as a sabbatical from all church and ministry commitments.

I am the kind of person who tends to take on a fair number of commitments. The Lord had already used circumstances to slow me down a bit by dropping an unplanned and unpaid staycation into my lap (see Life in the Hallway). Marion normally lives at a slower pace than I do, but an unexpected job offer (see God’s Sense of Humour) has increased her pace quite a bit.  So both of us are adjusting to a different routine. At the same time, many things have been changing at church, and we have been doing a lot of reflecting, pondering and praying. This past Sunday we both realized that we were being directed to take some time to step back from our usual ministry commitments and get our bearings.

It’s odd that we would find this unusual. The Sabbath principle is essential to a healthy walk of faith, whatever your convictions about the manner in which it is best lived out.  Put simply, we need to learn to rest. I find that it is not until I step back from situations and take some time away that I can see more clearly.  Jesus often took time away from situations to get alone and pray. Over the past few days, after having made the decision to take this period of time for reflection, I’ve been taking time to read through the Book of Proverbs (which was a favourite when I was a newer Christian, so it’s like returning to an old friend) as well as doing a lot of journalling, reflecting on my personal calling and on some ministry-related issues that I won’t go into here, and some key issues are becoming more clear to me.  Some of the things God has shown me have been realizations that have dawned on me as I was going about some mundane task – mowing the lawn, hanging out laundry, delivering flyers for a community cleanup day. I find this is often the way it works. I read, pray and journal, and much valuable insight does come while I am engaged in these “spiritual” tasks, but often the real nuggets of insight are dropped into my lap when I turn my attention to something else. I guess it’s partly because I have developed the habit of keeping a running dialogue with God going on in the background, no matter what else is going on – and especially when I am engaged in activities that don’t require a lot of conscious thought.

Socrates was not a follower of Christ – he was a Greek philosopher who lived five centuries before the time of Jesus – but he was a man of considerable wisdom.  At his trial for heresy he stated that the unexamined life is not worth living.  I believe this is a statement of which Jesus would approve. Solomon, in his day reputed to be the wisest man on earth, states in Proverbs 20:27

the lamp of the LORD searches the spirit of a man;
it searches out his inmost being

I want to have the mind of Christ on the situations in my life, so I need to step back periodically and let the Lord shine the light of His Word and Spirit on the contents of my heart and mind, to bring His order, clarity and peace.

We live in a fast-paced society. Our culture values leisure and recreation, but not solitude or reflection. I want to encourage each of you to make sure you take time periodically to step back, take some time away from your usual responsibilities, and get your bearings.  It could be life-changing.


Choose your friends wisely

Last night  my wife and I  spent the evening with friends.   That’s not so unusual, I guess, but the things we talked about sparked some reflection on why we need friendship.

We humans are made for relationship.   When God made the first human being he declared that it was not good for the man to be alone, so he gave Adam a wife.  From the beginning we have been social beings.   I consider myself an introvert; I have a high need for solitude and love to spend time alone with God.  But while I love to be alone, I also need time with friends.

It’s a little weird that an introvert like me is responsible for promoting small group ministry at our church!   But even introverts need relationships.  So, Marion and I encourage others to be part of a small group, and of course we are involved in home groups ourselves as well.

Last night we spent the evening with our friends in one of these home groups.   It was a bitterly cold night and with the OC Transpo strike, our days are more complicated and getting around is difficult.  On top of that we have a long to-do list at home.   So all in all,  it would have been easier to stay home.  But we decided to go to Dan’s place anyway, and I came home realizing just how much we need these relationships.

Pretty well everyone enjoys hanging out with friends.   Friendships can be a lot of fun!  But while joy and laughter are important aspects of friendship, friendships are for more than just fun.  Good friendships are also a tool for growth.   In our home groups we spend time encouraging each other, challenging each other, discussing topics that help us understand God’s plan for our lives, praying for each other, and reaching out to others.

Your friends can can drag you down or they can build you up.   Long ago a wise man said that those who spend time with wise people become wise, and those who hang out with fools pay a price.

We become like those we spend time with.   I want to spend time with people who are hungry for God, people who are looking for honest, accountable, loving relationships, people who will encourage me to be better than I am.  I want to walk in the light of God and help others find His light and walk in it, so I choose friends who are either seeking the light or already walking in it.