Sermon illustrations


Am I Fighting the Right Battle?

In her book Invitation to Retreat, Ruth Haley Barton shares some of the many insights she has had since she began intentionally taking inattentional retreats to re-connect with God and her own desires. In this passage she describes an encounter with a pastor:

I will never forget one pastor’s comment after taking some time to reflect on the military aspects of the invitation to retreat. After emerging from solitude he commented ruefully, “In the silence, I realized that I’m not even sure I’m fighting the right battle. I just want to know I’m fighting the right battle.”

Taken from Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God by Ruth Haley Barton Copyright (c) 2018 by Ruth Haley Barton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Any Worse Company

The story is often told of a man who made an appointment with the famous psychologist Carl Jung to get help for chronic depression. Jung told him to reduce his fourteen-hour workday to eight, go directly home, and spend the evenings in his study, quiet and all alone. The depressed man went to his study each night, shut the door, read a little Hermann Hesse or Thomas Mann, played a few Chopin études or some Mozart.

After weeks of this, he returned to Jung, complaining that he could see no improvement. On learning how the man had spent his time, Jung said, “But you didn’t understand. I didn’t want you to be with Hesse or Mann or Chopin or Mozart. I wanted you to be completely alone.” The man looked terrified and exclaimed, “I can’t think of any worse company.” Jung replied, “Yet this is the self you inflict on other people fourteen hours a day” (and, Jung might have added, the self you inflict on yourself).

Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging, The Navigators.

A Call Towards Solitude

In this short excerpt from a journal entry by the late priest Henri Nouwen, the author describes the need to make a significant change to his life during a very difficult period in his ministry. Nouwen senses the need to have a wilderness experience, free from the daily routines and busyness of modern life:

You are living through an unusual time. You see that you are called to go toward solitude, prayer, hiddenness, and great simplicity. You see that, for the time being, you have to be limited in your movements, sparing with phone calls, and careful in letter writing….The thought that you may have to live away from friends, busy work, newspapers, and exciting books no longer scares you….It is clear that something in you is dying and something is being born. You must remain attentive, calm, and obedient to your best intuitions.

Taken from Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom, HarperOne, 1999.

Ceaseless Motion and a Sense of Achievement

Thomas Merton describes those who never experience the gift of a contemplative life. His explanation for why some people never experience this can be found in his book, New Seeds of Contemplation:

[These people] are attached to activities and enterprises that seem to be important. Blinded by their desire for ceaseless motion, for a constant sense of achievement, famished with a crude hunger for results, for visible and tangible success, they work themselves into a state in which they cannot believe that they are pleasing God unless they are busy with a dozen jobs at the same time.

Sometimes they fill the air with lamentations and complain that they no longer have any time for prayer, but they have become such experts in deceiving themselves that they do not realize how insincere their lamentations are. They not only allow themselves to be involved in more and more work, they actually go looking for new jobs.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New Directions.

Crash Landing

My entry into solitude often feels like the hard landing of an aircraft that this flight attendant humorously describes: “Ladies and gentlemen, please remain in your seats until Captain Crash and the crew have brought the aircraft to a screeching halt against the gate. And once the tire smoke has cleared and the warning bells are silenced, we’ll open the door and you can pick your way through the wreckage to the terminal.” When life is as noisy and fast-paced as mine, it feels as if my approach to solitude involves slamming to a screeching halt.

The smoke of clutter and distraction billows around me, and warning bells sound, telling me that I have been in a bit of danger and it’s a good thing I’m on the ground. Picking my way through the wreckage of external distractions, I stumble off the plane into the presence of the One who has been waiting for me to arrive, the One who loves me no matter what kind of disheveled shape I am in and is so glad I’ve made it home.

Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence, The Transforming Center Set.

The Most Radical Discipline

Solitude is the most radical of the disciplines for life in the spirit.  In penal institutions, solitary confinement is used to break the strongest of wills.  It is capable of this because it excludes interactions with others upon which fallen human personality completely depends.  The life alienated from God collapses when deprived of its support from the sin-laden world.  But the life in tune with God is actually nurtured by time spent alone.

John the Baptist, like many of his forerunners in the prophetic line, was much alone in the deserted places of his land.  Jesus constantly sought solitude from the time of his baptism up to the Garden of Gethsemane, when he even went apart from those he took here to watch with him (Matt. 26:38-42).  It is solitude and solitude alone that opens the possibility of a radical relationship to God that can withstand all external events up to and beyond death.

Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (New York: HarperCollins, 1988). 

The Pressures of Modern Life (Written Almost a Century Ago)

The problem we face today needs very little time for its statement. Our lives in a modern city grow too complex and overcrowded. Even the necessary obligations which we feel we must meet grow overnight, like Jack’s beanstalk, and before we know it we are bowed down with burdens, crushed under committees, strained, breathless, and hurried, panting through never-ending program of appointments. We are too busy to be good wives to our husbands, good homemakers, good companions of our children, good friends to our friends, and with no time at all to be friends to the friendless.

But if we withdraw from public engagements and interests, in order to spend quiet hours with the family, the guilty calls of citizenship whisper disquieting claims in our ears. Our children’s schools should receive our interest, the civic problems of our community need our attention, the wirier issues of the nation and of the world are heavy upon us.

Our professional status, our social obligations, our membership in this or that very important organization, put claims upon us. And in frantic fidelity we try to meet at least the necessary minimum of calls upon us.

But were weary and breathless. And we know and regret that our life is slipping away, with our having tasted so little of the peace and joy and serenity we are persuaded it should yield to a soul of wide caliber. The times for the deeps of the silences of the heart seem so few. And in guilty regret we must postpone till next week that deeper life of unshaken composure in the holy Presence, where we sincerely know our true home is, for this week is much too full.

Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, Harper & Bros., 1941.

Solitude has a Learning Curve

In his excellent book, Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted WorldMike Cosper explains the value in persevering through the difficult realities of practicing solitude.

Solitude has a learning curve. It’s a practice we embody, and like anything worth doing, our first efforts will be pained. The “terror of silence” (as David Foster Wallace called it) will tempt us away from the quiet.

We will long for email, to-do lists, a sink full of dishes, the unread messages on our phone—anything that can turn our attention away from that quietly simmering something that makes solitude so troubling. So we practice solitude like a beginning violinist; we practice poorly. But poor practice—marked by a wandering and restless mind—isn’t bad practice.

Done with some regularity, it can become rich. We can discover a space in our hearts and in our world where the Lord meets us. As we’ll see, it’s the beginning of the end of our religious efforts, a chance to face both the reality of our spiritual poverty and the wealth of God’s spiritual blessings.

Taken from Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World by Mike Cosper. Copyright (c) 2017, p.79. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Riding the Monsters

When we first enter into a period of solitude, there is a contending that must happen with our own demons, our own motivations, be they good or bad. In this beautiful short excerpt, Annie Dillard shares the value of entering the wilderness of our own introspection:

In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us…But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other.

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions & Encounters, Harper Perennial, 2013, p.19-20.

True Relating is Born of Solitude

I sit in a bright-lit June meadow at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. It is early afternoon, and I have been here since morning in what can only be described as an uneasy solitude. Time is measured here in the chant of crickets and frogs, in the syncopated litany of songbirds, in the silence of tattered wildflowers.

Even though I yearn for this acre of solitude, some other part of me hungers for the larger world of “relevance,” as if my solitude were a rarefied form of loitering. By most standards, X am not being productive, efficient, or the slightest bit useful. And I can’t help feeling … what? Extraneous? Indolent?

It seems I should be writing something, cleaning something, fixing something. And I still have this tiny but stubborn repository of conditioning inside that tells me I should focus only on others, that sitting around in a monastic meadow is withdrawn. Navel-gazing self-indulgence.

Shouldn’t I be back home working in a soup kitchen or something?…

Being alone in order to find the world again sounds ridiculously paradoxical. It seems so even now that I’m here. But somewhere along my spiritual journey, I’d stumbled upon a difficult and enigmatic truth: True relating is born in solitude.

Sue Monk Kidd, Firstlight, Guidepost Books.

Who Means the Most to Us

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.

Henri Nouwen, Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life, Ave Maria Press.

Withdrawing to a Lonely Place 

In the midst of an exceedingly busy ministry Jesus made a habit of withdrawing to “a lonely place apart” (Matt. 14:13; see also Matt. 4:1-11, Luke 6:12, Matt. 14:23, Mark 1:35, Mark 6:31, Luke 5:16, Matt. 17:1-9, and Matt. 26:36-46). He did this not just to be away from people, but so he could be with God.

What did Jesus do time after time in those deserted hills? He sought out his heavenly Father; he listened to him, he communed with him. And he beckons us to do the same.

Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 3rd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1998, pp.16-17).

See Also Illustrations on CommunicationConversation, Loneliness, Sabbath, Silence, Speech, Spiritual Disciplines, Words

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Solitude. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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