SHIFT: from loneliness to solitude

SHIFT: from loneliness to solitude August 27, 2014

2014.08.24 Shift 01.001

This is the sermon I preached last week at Redemption Church. If you are a pastor, feel free to copy and steal anything that helps you with your sermon. Thanks goes out to Isaac Anderson who allowed me to steal some of his exegesis and commentary on 1 Kings 19. 


2014.08.24 – SHIFT
1 Kings 19: From Loneliness to Solitude.

In the book of Genesis, after Adam & Eve ate the fruit, God explains to them that the consequences of their actions will be a fracturing of every relationship they have. The way they relate to God is damaged—hiding. The way they relate to themselves is damage—shame. The way they relate to each other is damaged—blaming. The way they relate to the earth is damaged—toil / resist.

According to our scriptures, ever since that time God has been attempting to repair those fractured relationships. What God was doing through the patriarchs, Israel, the judges, the kings, the prophets, the priests & finally thru JS is attempting to mend the broken ways in which we now relate to God, ourselves, other people, and the world around us.

So for the next 4 weeks we’re going to talk about Redemption as it impacts all four of these relationships in our own lives. And as we do this I’m relying somewhat on a book called: Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen because I think his underlying premise is quite helpful. It has to do with polarity. You may remember studying this in high school. It’s a description of the physical alignment of atoms along a continuum. Often designated with a diagram like the one below, showing negative and positive poles.


Nouwen uses this as a metaphor for how our relationships work. The way we relate to God, ourselves, other people and cosmos can be described as a continuum organized with a polarity of positive and negative properties.

So, for example, if we think about the way the self relates to the self, there are 2 poles: loneliness & solitude; loneliness (-) being a disintegrated way to relate to the self, and solitude (+) being a more integrated way to relate to the self. They exist on the same continuum, but cannot exist in the same place. Nouwen says that understanding how to map where we are on that continuum will help us know how we need to SHIFT in our spiritual life.

He describes 3 polarities. (I had to develop a 4th to fit our nomenclature).

  • self to SELF: poles of loneliness >> solitude
  • self to OTHERS: poles of hostility >> hospitality
  • self to GOD: poles of illusion >> prayer
  • self to COSMOS: poles of exploitation >> stewardship

Nouwen says that the SPIRITUAL LIFE is about learning to recognize & to be constantly aware of where you are on these, & how to SHIFT… (hence the series title). So we’re going to take a week with each of these essential relationships, talking about how to shift toward the healthy pole—starting today with the way we relate to ourselves.

In 1899 a popular author named Orison Swett Marden wrote a book called Character: The Grandest Thing in the World. In it he told great stories; like the one about a man who was playing a fiddle for spare change on a busy, city street when a well-dressed man stopped to watch him play. The man asked to borrow the fiddle & began to play. He was a virtuoso. A crowd started to gather, one of whom recognized him as famous violinist. Marden’s point is: this is character; not that the man can sell out concert halls, but that he takes time to help the poor.

Another story was about a poor shop girl on her way home from work. She saw a blind man selling pencils on the street and dropped ten cents in his hat & walked on. Her conscience is aroused—it wasn’t wasn’t enough. She went back to give the man her week’s pay, and rushes off before anyone sees what she’s done. Again, Marden’s point is: this is character.

These stories are indicative of the culture of the day (1899). The basis of the society & the person was CHARACTER. A person’s character was their most prized attribute & they spent years cultivating it.

People would take huge personal losses, expend precious resources & invest time, energy, & money to cultivate & develop their own character. That’s part of why, even at the turn of the century dueling (pistols, swords) was still fairly common. You fought a duel to restore your honor, demonstrating that you’d rather die than have your character impugned. That’s how serious this was.

At the time, most people in our society lived in small towns. In a small everyone in the community knew one another, probably going back several generations. The town knew the character of its members, who paid their debts, worked hard, could be trusted, and who fooled around, was violent, lazy, or dishonest. And because you lived with these people day in and day out for years, nobody could fake their character.

Around the turn of the century, people migrated from towns to cities, & they found themselves in close proximity w/people they hardly knew. People came & went & moved a lot. Character takes time to discern, but all of the sudden people didn’t have that kind of time. So the emphasis switched from inner virtue to outer charm.

This signaled a change from a culture of CHARACTER, to a culture of PERSONALITY, which inaugurated a massive migration of values. What mattered most was how other people perceived you. People began to think carefully about how to present themselves. Instead of thinking about genuine character, people thought about charm, charisma, energy, confidence, & most of all eloquence.

Before this change, being naturally quiet was seen as a positive trait—a sign of wisdom. After this change, being naturally quiet was seen as a pathology that could cost you jobs and even friendships. Interestingly the word personality didn’t even exist in English until the 18th Century, and one wouldn’t really talk about cultivating a “good personality” until the 20th Century.

This radical cultural shift still impacts us today. Remember Orison Swett Marden the author who wrote the book on Character: The Grandest Thing in the World in 1899? In 1921 he wrote a huge bestseller called The Masterful Personality. Barely 22 years had passed, but the from character to personality was pervasive. Character was no longer a person’s most prized personal attribute, personality was.

Dale Carnagie (Belton, MO) came of age during this era. Born in 1988 he was perfectly poised to write his famous book, How to Win Friends & Influence People.

People started thinking carefully about first impressions. Outgoing people came to be considered successful. Presenting yourself w/confidence became more important than actually being confident. Charm was more important than empathy. Being witty was more important than being kind. You didn’t have to be intelligent, as long as you could sound intelligent.

People everywhere began to curate their personality, instead of building their character.

Fast forward to today w/advent of social media, & rules are changing again. Our children already know that it is an essential skill to be able to curate their own personal online identity. Not just your in-person personality, but your online identity as well.

Last spring I was at a school event with my kids. I was observing a group of middle school kids together. Every so often one would take a picture and post it online via phone. Later they would check back, and I hear them talking. If a picture didn’t get 30-40 “likes,” they’d take the picture down. Less than 40 “likes” would be considered a drag on your online personality… a whole new reality. Virtual personality has inserted another level of personality that is even farther removed from character.

Over time we become so invested in a projection of ourselves, that we can begin to suspect that nobody really knows us. All others have access to is a carefully edited version of myself that I have created for public consumption. The real me? Nobody knows that. I’m not even sure I do. The net effect of this is that people begin to live with a profound send of loneliness.

If you were to define this kind of loneliness it’d be a sense of inner emptiness; the kind that causes real emotional pain. All of us will fell this at some point. This kind of loneliness is a truly universal experience.

Nouwen says that the beginning of all human spirituality is dealing with our own loneliness & learning to move from loneliness to solitude. He says, “The movement from loneliness to solitude… is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.” P.35

The beginning of the spiritual life is learning to SHIFT from loneliness to solitude. Loneliness is a sense of inner emptiness. Solitude is a sense of inner fulfillment. And Nouwen says this movement begins for us in SILENCE.

In 1 Kings 19, we have a story about the power of silence:

1 When Ahab told Jezebel everything that Elijah had done, [Ahab is the king of Israel, Jezebel is his pagan wife. She has married Ahab for power & has him financing the pagan cult of Baal & Asherah] and how he had put all the prophets to the sword, 2 Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, ‘May the gods bring unnamable ills on me and worse ills too, [I don’t know what could be worse than unnamable ills—apparently there’s something] if by this time tomorrow I have not made your life like one of theirs!’ 3 He was afraid and fled for his life.

Quick pause to have you think about something. Where do you go when you are afraid? When you feel like you’re running for your life, do you have some place you like to go? Do you take a walk? Exercise? Read a book or watch a movie? Anyone sleep? Just a quick poll, how many of you—when faced with a situation that makes you want to run away—will want to be alone? How many would rather be with friends? How many of you like a good distraction, like shopping, food, golf, or tv? Just keep that in mind as we continue

“He came to Beersheba, a town of Judah, where he left his servant. [never leave your servant behind… if this was a horror movie, you know Elijah’s about to get it, right?] 4 He himself went on into the desert, a day’s journey, and sitting under a broom tree wished he were dead. ‘Yahweh,’ he said, ‘I have had enough. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’ 5 Then he lay down and went to sleep. Then all of a sudden an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat. 6 He looked round, and there at his head was a scone baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. 7 But the angel of Yahweh came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, or the journey will be too long for you.’ 8 So he got up and ate and drank, and strengthened by that food he walked for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, God’s mountain. 9 There he went into a cave and spent the night there.

So, we all have these places we run to when life is overwhelming us & we are hanging on by a thread & we know: “If one more thing happens I’m done.” We head for whatever place we go when life gets that way, and the biblical image for that is the CAVE.

The CAVE is a recurring theme in scripture. When folks are overwhelmed, disillusioned, tired, scared, angry, or hanging by thread, the often find themselves in caves. After Sodom & Gomorrah are destroyed, Lot hides with his family in a cave. When Saul’s army is running from the Philistines, they hide “in holes, behind rocks, in cisterns, tombs, & in caves.” When Saul’s trying to kill David, he hides in a cave. When Jezebel is after the prophets of God, Obadiah the priest hides the prophets in 2 caves, 50 prophets to a cave. When Elijah is on the run, he finds himself in a cave.

Often in the New Testament, the cave is symbolic, like the upper room where the disciples were hiding after the crucifixion, or Peter’s fishing trip… both were like caves. This is where Elijah finds himself… hiding in a cave.

“Then the word of Yahweh came to him saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ 10 He replied, ‘I am full of jealous zeal for Yahweh, because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, have torn down your altars and put your prophets to the sword. I am the only one left, and now they want to kill me.’”

Don’t know if you caught it, but the way this story is told is actually very similar to the story of Moses when he goes to meet w/God at Mt. Sinai. There are many parallels. Elijah is woken by angels & fed “heavenly food.” Does that remind you of anything? He travels 40 days/nights—and we think of of Israel’s 40 year trek through the wilderness. Elijah goes to Mt. Horeb… anybody know its other name? Mt. Sinai… Elijah has come to the very same place God has often met with his people at the precise moment when they are in crisis.

If you remember, the 1st time Moses came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant with him, he finds his people worshipping a golden calf… remember this? He gets so angry he throws down the tablets & breaks them. And God gets really angry, too. Most of us have watched the Charleton Heston movie so many times that we forget what God actually says to the people something like, “Go from here; leave this place & go toward the promised land; I’ll still let you have it, it’ll be rich & fertile… but I’m not going w/you. Why? Because you are an obstinate people & I would destroy you… you are so difficult that if I go with you, at some point, I’ll end up wiping you out. My friend Isaac says this is God’s “It’s not you, Israel, it’s me,” moment.

Moses pleads w/God—if you don’t go with us we’re lost—and God relents & says, okay I’ll stay with you. Then God brings Moses back up on the mountain, and Moses asks to see God. Which, by the way, is often what we say to God in crisis. “I just need you to show up here… show me you’re real.” And God does show himself, but has to hide Moses in a cave. (some rabbis teach that the cave where Moses was hidden by God, is the exact same cave he brought Elijah to here on Mt. Horeb, centuries later).

And this time God says, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah says:

“The Israelites have abandoned your covenant, have torn down your altars and put your prophets to the sword. I am the only one left, and now they want to kill me.’

It’s not easy to be a prophet when nobody in Israel cares about you & the no longer fear YHWH. Elijah is confessing a deep loneliness. “I’m the only one left & Jezebel has vowed to kill me. So I have to keep moving; I even left my servant behind. And I feel so incredibly alone here in this cave.”

My guess is that most of us don’t have to try very hard to identify with Elijah in this story, because we all know this kind of loneliness. Whether it’s an event, a relationship, or an inner struggle, we’ve all come to that really lonely place where we head for our cave & start asking questions. “God, aren’t you going to do something about this?”

I really think this is deep down to what it means to be a Christian: this sense that we can cry out to God & God will hear & come to us personally. We don’t have to go through a priest. We don’t have to go through ritual washings. This is a basic core conviction of our faith. When everything turns to rubbish, we can cry out to God & God will hear us, and come to us.

And really the question is how will God come to us, and how can we prepare ourselves to discern God’s presence, God’s voice.

“11 Then he was told, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before Yahweh.’ For at that moment Yahweh was going by. [again very similar to what happened with Moses on this very mountain] A mighty hurricane split the mountains and shattered the rocks before Yahweh. But Yahweh was not in the hurricane. And after the hurricane, an earthquake. But Yahweh was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake, fire. But Yahweh was not in the fire. And after the fire, a light murmuring sound.”

The Hebrew phrase translated here as a “light murmuring sound” is notoriously difficult to translate. It could mean a low whisper or a gentle breeze or a still small voice. Most scholars will say we don’t really know what it means, but the Hebrew has a connotation of negation… no sound. In the NRSV it’s translated “The sound of sheer silence.” Not bad… Eugene Peterson (nto a bad linguist himself), calls it the sound of God breathing.

In John Irving’s A Widow for One Year, the main character writes a children’s book in which a little boy wakes up in the night to an unusual sound. When his father asks what it sounded like, he gives some options: “It was like a monster with no arms and no legs,” or “It was like a dog trying to open a door,” or “a ghost dropping stolen peanuts.”
But then comes the line—the brilliant line… he says: “It was a sound like someone trying not to make a sound.”


“It was a sound like someone trying not to make a sound.” – John Irving, A Widow For One Year


I think that might be what Elijah heard: It was the sound of someone trying not to make a sound,” that Elijah immediately recognized as the voice of God.

Somewhere in the midst of Elijah’s loneliness & frankly a bit of a pity-party, he begins to SHIFT, he gets the sense maybe God wants to speak to him. And the question the text poses at this point is what will it sound like? Will the voice of God be devastating like a hurricane, or an earthquake or a fire? Or will it be the sound of someone trying not to make a sound? …the sheer silence, in which Elijah finally stops talking, sits quietly, listening to the God who was always there.

Elijah was in torment until he got used to the silence.

When we head into our caves we think we are looking for answers to our questions, and solutions for our problems. But maybe what we’re really looking for is much simpler. Maybe what we’re really looking for is a place where we can stand & be ourselves, in the presence of God. Elijah found that place, that “being place” in silence. That’s where the voice of God became clear.

Silence has a power that is recognized and revered by every, and I really mean every wise person I’ve ever met, read, or heard about. We think of silence as a lack of sound, lack of noise.
But when wise people teach about silence, they say that silence is not merely the space between the sounds. Silence is a phenomenon in and of itself… silence is substantial.

A writer named Ian Cron once said: “Noise or sounds are like gnats on the back of a Rhino. Silence is the Rhino.” Silence has weight… it has a life of its own, power of its own.

The mystics say that silence is what preceded creation. When the breath of God was hovering over the face of the deep, silence was the breath of God that brought forth life. So when we’re silent, we tap into God’s infinite creative potential. Silence is where we are healed of our loneliness. Silence is where we come to ourselves.

And yet we live in this world that is so intent on cultivating a personality, that we can hardly find 2 square inches of silence anywhere.

Have you heard of the word logorrhea? (Latin) It shares the same ending as diarrhea. Logorrhea is an uncontrollable running of the mouth. Our society suffers from logorrhea… all of us do… me too. There’s another Latin term that describes this: ad nauseam… It means talking about something to the point that you want to throw up.

In our culture of personality, there is so much sound, and noise, and talking… logorrhea ad nauseum. And it could be that we are at risk of losing the fundamental capacity to hear the voice of God.

Thomas Merton once said, “Silence is the 1st language of God; all else is a poor translation.” How great is that? Merton is trying to point out that: if God really is our salvation, and God’s first language is silence, then our constant talking isn’t helping. In fact, it’s probably just making us more confused & lonely.

If we want to hear God speak, we need silence… In the silence we’ll find that God’s presence needs no explanation, it needs no interpretation. God’s presence doesn’t even need words, it just is. It cannot be controlled or captured, it can only be surrendered to and experienced in the moment, in the midst of absolute silence.

The problem is that if we can actually find the mouth of the cave, and if we have the courage to stop talking & be silent in that place, then we will immediately be faced w/the pain of loneliness. As soon as it happens most people run.

I was trying some silence this week, sat down at my desk. A few seconds in I noticed a whole shelf of my books were crooked. So I got up to straighten them & sat back down to be silent. I knew what was happening. I was avoiding the silence. I noticed my window had a bunch of writing on it (I use them like dry erase boards). This would be easier if I could see out. So I erased the window, laughing at how bad I was at this. I started to think I was losing my mind. What was that ticking noise? Where’s that sound coming from? …an antique looking clock whose battery I spent several minutes removing. I knew what was happening, and couldn’t help running from the pain of being alone in the silence.

We instinctively run from our loneliness. But if we have the courage to stick it out, then what we’ll find is an acute and powerful sense that we are weak & fragile to the core; that no matter how carefully we construct our boat, at some point it will spring a leak; that no matter how strong we build our armor, life will always find the chinks. In the mouth of the cave will be confronted w/our own loneliness & our suspicions that we do not know ourselves well enough, …and we’ll become painfully aware that we’re utterly vulnerable.

And our awareness of this is not a bad thing.

When Moses was in a cave, God passed by & breathed new life into his faithless people. When Jesus was in the tomb, (which was a cave really), the breath of God gave life to the lifeless. When the disciples were in the upper room, their cave, JS came and breathed on them the spirit of God & they came alive. When Elijah stood in the mouth of the cave the breath of God, a still small voice… told him who he was & what he should do.

But I don’t feel like Moses, Elijah, disciples, or Jesus. In silence I always begin to feel fear… like I’m afraid of what I will find there. What if I meet myself there & I don’t like what I see? What if I discover I’ve become embroiled in a culture of personality & my character has taken a hit?

And this is hard. The shift from LONELINESS to SOLITUDE only happens in silence & it nearly always involves pain… facing our own inner emptiness & learning to be present to ourselves, first, and then to God.

If loneliness is an inner emptiness, an inner anxiety, then solitude is an inner fulfillment, a peace in God’s presence. In loneliness we are avoiding our true selves. But in silence, God can bring us to a deep understanding of who we are… who God made us to be.This is the movement from loneliness to solitude: over time, as we face our demons, we begin to be okay w/being alone.

Nouwen makes a few practical suggestions for how we can start:

  1. Practice Little solitudes: moments before waking, sleeping, your morning coffee, the drive to work, stay 10 minutes late at the office & stare out the window in silence.
  2. Find a place. Set up a space for silence, a chair by a window. Find a garden, a trail, a park, a retreat center, a library, a coffee shop, a church… find a place you can go to practice solitude.
  3. When you get there do nothing… just wait to see what happens next… it takes much longer than you think.
  4. Visit it consistently… routine.
  5. Practice yearly big silences (retreat)

The more silence you find in your life, the more substantial your soul becomes… loneliness will fade away & you’ll find solitude in mouth of cave.

After Elijah heard the sound of God in the silence it says, 13…he covered his face with his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice came to him, which said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ 14 He replied, ‘I am full of jealous zeal for Yahweh… because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, have torn down your altars and put your prophets to the sword. I am the only one left and now they want to kill me.’ 15 ‘Go,’ Yahweh said, ‘go back by the same way that you came.”

Elijah repeats same complaint. His situation hasn’t changed. And this is a key understanding. Silence & solitude isn’t a way to escape your life’s problems. They will not disappear. You have to go back the way you came. Your situation may not change, but you will be different… not as a personality, but as a person.

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