About 20 years ago, I was introduced to the Franciscan retreat center, Pacem in Terris. It was founded and developed to provide Christ-followers a place to retreat in silence and solitude. Located near the community which I served as a Young Life Area Director, I couldn’t wait to “try it out.” After my first experience, scheduling a couple 2-day retreats per year at Pacem in Terris became a staple of the last 20 years of my ministry.
I am a fan and a proponent of the concept of blocking out regular times for silence and solitude, times for pondering scripture and encountering God, times for discovering what he is up to in my life, ministry, and the world at large. Though not a guided silent retreat, we were directed by Pacem in Terris staff to arrive with only our Bible and journal, allowing God to speak directly into our life by encountering him in scripture.
Something Jesus modeled (and I assume wanted his followers to emulate) was the practice of solitude. A couple well-known examples are found in the Gospel of Luke: Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God (Luke 6:12-13) and Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (Luke 5:16). When we read passages like this, we tend to agree with the concept, agree that we should do likewise, and THEN DON’T! Guilt sets in so we steer clear of similar passages.
Several years ago, while mentoring a Young Life staff trainee, he and I discovered that an expectation of a staff person was to schedule one day a month for solitude – a withdrawal from normal stuff to be with God. I gave the trainee the assignment of interviewing a couple senior staff persons to discover how they took advantage of their monthly day of solitude. He couldn’t find anyone who regularly scheduled times of solitude with God. Why was that? Jesus modeled it, then strongly suggested we follow suit (“In the same way the Father sent Me, I am now sending you” – John 20:21). Why do we not do it? Over the years, I have discovered a variety of reasons we give for not emulating Jesus’ example:
- We think we are too busy to take chunks of time for solitude and reflection. People in ministry are as bad at this as anyone, if not worse. I often wonder how much of this is connected to an exaggerated view of one’s importance.
- Fear seems to be a powerful justification for not spending time alone with God. “What if I ‘hear’ him speak into my life and I don’t like it?” I have heard this more than once from people reasoning why they shy away from solitude.
- Many people speak of not knowing what to do or how to spend time alone with God. This is the brilliance of Pacem in Terris’ suggestion – simply reading scripture and reflecting. The late Howard Hendricks suggested reading for a 20-30 minutes, then reflecting for 20-30 minutes. And if I fall asleep? Then I fall asleep reflecting on scripture and God. How can that be a bad thing?
- A common justification of us “doers” for not engaging in solitude: “I can’t shut my brain off.” Then don’t. Let your brain loose to reflect and ponder the scripture you are engaged with.
This is where the late Dallas Willard’s description of prayer is helpful – talking to God about what we are doing together, pondering together what’s going on my life. Picture Jesus’ times with God as exactly that. Picture Jesus pondering, “I really like Peter, though I know he’s a hothead. I wonder if he is someone I should develop as a follower?” (Or, more likely, “Peter? Seriously, Father? One of the Twelve?”) I can picture Jesus pondering with God, looking for ways to help his followers understand the reversal of the kingdom he was inaugurating. Maybe it was through times of pondering and talking with God about what they were doing together that he landed on the idea of passing through Samaria instead of around it as they traveled from Jerusalem to Galilee (see John 4).
Out of my experiences of solitude and pondering, plus a desire to make the experience less mystical for others, I coined the term pondertude. It describes the reality of my times with God – alone with him (solitude), pondering what we are doing together. Pondering what we are doing together in all my roles in His kingdom – as a husband, a dad, a grandpa, an engineer, a supervisor, a ministry leader, a math tutor, etc. Though I love Pacem in Terris, pondertude is a frame of mind more than a place. It’s a choice to regularly be with the One who knows us better than we know ourselves, who has our best interests in mind. Why wouldn’t we want to block out times for pondertude?