Two weeks ago Ruth Haley Barton (no relation) spoke to our district pastors at Cannon Beach on solitude and silence. She talked about our (speaking to pastors) addiction to noise, words, people, and performance-oriented activity and our need for solitude and silence in order to give God our undivided attention. A number of her statements grabbed my attention, especially this one - "Truly the best thing any of us bring to leadership is the transformation of our own soul." God's work in others, she repeated, begins first in us.
Ruth Haley Barton helped me to see more clearly what God taught me in Prague and Paris last November - I am too busy, my life is too full, and I have neglected to spend quality time paying attention to the stirrings of my own soul. Numerous times Barton mentioned how the invasion of technology - in the form of email, the Internet, cell phones, and texting - adds to the challenge of slowing down long enough to hear the voice of God. Technology makes my life more complicated not simpler.
In solitude we pull away from absorption in human relationships in order to give God our undivided attention. Silence, according to Barton, deepens the experience of solitude, "In silence we not only withdraw from the demands of life in the company of others but also allow the noise of our own thoughts, strivings and compulsions to settle down so we can hear a truer and more reliable Voice." Solitude removes us from people and silence removes us from noise. Together they create space and time for intimacy with God and for the necessary work of transformation that only he can do.
In her book, Invitation To Solitude And Silence, Barton establishes the importance of a sacred space, that is, space set apart for God and God alone. First, physical space. This is a physical spot that is designated for time alone with God - a corner of the living room or a favorite chair in the family or bedroom or a special place outdoors. Second, sacred space is also a place in time set apart to give God our undivided attention. This is a time for resting in God, enjoying his company and allowing intimacy to deepen without any utilitarian purpose.
Since returning from the coast I have attempted to observe a consistent time of solitude and silence. Early morning works best for me. My daily rhythm is to come to my office around 6am. I read Scripture, pray, journal, and read. Into this long established practice I inserted 10 minutes of solitude and silence. I sit in a comfortable chair in my office, turn out the lights, and try to turn off all outer and inner distractions. I chose a simple prayer based upon Psalm 62 - "rest in God" - to help me focus my heart and attention. I dwell on the words as a way of seeking to draw closer to God. I try to calm down and shut off all my inner voices. I attempt to train the ears of my heart to listen for God's still, small voice. And I make it my aim to sink into God who surrounds me on every side, without and within.
Learning to sit still for 10 minutes in God's presence is difficult. I want to get up and do something to legitimize my existence. My mind races with the day's "to do" list. I feel like taking a nap. I want a drink of my coffee. I just thought of a "killer" idea for a sermon. I remember a phone call I forgot to make yesterday. And on it goes. But I stay at it, "rest in God, rest in God, rest in God." My goal, no matter what, is to stay faithful to the practice.