Solitude: The Furnace of Transformation

Busy—adjective \ˈbi-zē\

:Full of activity or work—

 

I used to keep a calendar on the wall of my office. It was one of those big dry-erase calendars that had every month of the year on it so I could see my entire annual schedule. You might have something similar, especially if you’re a youth worker. I kept everything color-coded so I knew which events belonged to which program and what type of programs they were. Sometimes, maybe just after adding something to the schedule, I’d step back and look on my ink covered wall with a sense of pride.

 

“Look how busy I am…” I’d think to myself, “…I’m really earning my keep… I must be a good youth worker…. we must have a good youth ministry.”

 

Space—noun \ˈspās\ 

:An area that is used or available for a specific purpose—

I looked at empty space on the calendar as space that needed to be filled with something. And I thought that was part of ministry. I fell for the lie that there’s a correlation between being really busy and being a good minister. The fact is, the opposite it true. Ministry does not come from filling our calendars with many things. Ministry comes from the space we leave empty, where our value and our success are not subject to the completion of tasks or the fulfillment of expectations (even our own). Ministry comes from solitude.

Paradox—noun \ˈper-ə-ˌdäks\

:Something that is made up of two opposite things and that seems impossible but is actually true or possible—

This may sound counterintuitive. Ministry is relational, isn’t it? Ministry is about serving others, loving others, comforting and having compassion on others, right? Ministry is about seeing God at work in people’s lives and participating in that work, right? How can that come from solitude? How can getting away from people have anything to do with ministry?

The fact is, solitude is not really about getting away from people. Henri Nouwen, one of the great pastoral theologians of the 20th century, called solitude “the furnace of transformation” (The Way of the Heart, 15).You see, as long as we’re driven by what Nouwen calls, “the compulsions of the world,” we cannot be free to love our neighbor and to see God working in people’s lives. All we’ll see is the calendar, the next event, the next task to be performed… and even our relationships will become tasks—means to an end, things we do until the next thing to do. Unless our ministry flows from our own encounter with God in solitude—away from all the compulsions and the busyness—we can’t minister. If our ministry is all about doing more and more things, completing more and more tasks, then it isn’t ministry. In solitude we are moved from our doing to our being, we are forced from the safety of comparing ourselves to others, and we are transformed. Instead of being impressed with how much we can accomplish and how effective and relevant we are (or, perhaps more likely, being disappointed in how little we accomplish and how ineffective we seem to be) we’ll be free from the expectations, free to minister in love and compassion out of having been encountered by God in our solitude. As Nouwen put it, “…in order to be of service to others…we have to give up measuring our meaning and value with the yardstick of others” (25). In solitude we are faced with ourselves and we are exposed to God so that we will be shaped not by what we can or can’t do but by the God to whom all ministry belongs.

When was the last time you stopped doing stuff long enough to wonder if any of it was worth doing? When was the last time you got away from people (even while you were alone) long enough to truly be exposed to yourself and encountered by God? Perhaps during this Lent season, as you follow Christ to Gethsemane and to the cross, you might consider taking some time in solitude, in the furnace of transformation, to be encountered by God and exposed to yourself in your own Gethsemane, on your own cross, so that you can experience resurrection.

For further reading:

The Way of the Heart by Henri J. M. Nouwen

Presence-Centered Youth Ministry by Mike King

Contemplative Youth Ministry by Mark Yaconelli

Ellis 2Wes Ellis is a Member in Discernment in the United Church of Christ and an M.Div. student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has served in youth ministry and adult Christian education in UCC, UMC, and PCUSA settings, as well as evangelical ministry settings. He is passionate about theology and youth ministry and is convinced that the two belong to each other.

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