The Cost of Retreat

Retreats are costly. Not always financially–I’m finishing up a personal retreat at The Oaks Conference Center and they have a Shepherd’s Rest cabin that is free for pastors and missionaries–but retreats are costly in other ways. By definition retreats require setting aside a large chunk of time, and that is a huge cost. Retreats usually imply going away from your usual setting of family or work or friends, which also involves a significant cost.

But retreats are not just costly for the person retreating. There is also a cost paid by those who grant the space for a retreat. I know that firsthand–allowing my wife to get away for a day or a couple nights means that a lot more responsibility is on me to cover for the things she would normally do in our home and family. And when I am away, as I have been the past couple nights, I know it adds extra work and burden on my wife. Our kids also bear some of that cost, as they have extra chores added to their plates when one of us is on retreat. Realizing how costly it is for those who love me makes me value the time away even more, and pushes me to be very intentional in how I utilize such a gracious and costly gift.

Retreats are costly. But not retreating carries an even greater cost. Endlessly plugging away at life and work without pulling aside to refocus and be refreshed in Christ leads only to burnout. Refusing to ask a spouse or friend to cover for you, or refusing to release a spouse or friend to go, may save some of that cost up front but, like an unpaid credit card, accrues a much greater cost later on.

So I’m tremendously grateful for my wife and children, who have absorbed the cost of allowing me space to retreat, not just this time, but regularly! And I’m grateful to God for the refreshment and renewed focus that He brings through a retreat like this. Retreats are costly, but they are definitely worth the cost.

The Discipline of Singing

It is not my position as a pastor that pushes me to sing in worship whether I feel like it or not. Rather, it is my increasing experience that the intentional act of singing words that are true helps my heart to turn toward God and away from self.

If Luther is right (and I believe he is) that sin prompts us to “turn in on ourselves,” then worship songs that speak of God and the Gospel are a powerful antidote. (Granted, there are plenty of worship songs that do not focus on God or the Gospel, but instead tend to assist our souls in turning inward.) And yet the songs themselves cannot serve as an antidote unless we intentionally enter in to singing them wholeheartedly.

And that is why I believe that singing can be a spiritual discipline. Certainly it doesn’t have to be a discipline, and it isn’t always a discipline, but sometimes it may be chosen as a discipline. Singing becomes a discipline when in my flesh I say “I don’t feel like singing” or “I don’t want to sing” and yet I sing anyway. In that place, I do not sing because I’m happy, but I sing to make myself happy in Christ. And in that place, I do not sing because life is comfortable and good, but I sing to remind myself that God is good even when life is not. Singing as a discipline is not a response to joyful feelings but a catalyst for them.

But the only way that intentional singing can become a catalyst for joyful feelings is when what is being sung is deeply and powerfully true. In order to pull my sin-sick eyes off of myself and onto the God who saves, and in order to straighten out my inward-curving gaze, I must be singing words that point me compellingly to the Gospel so that I become captivated by the beauty of Christ.

At the retreat I led this past weekend, I struggled to sing Keith and Kristyn Getty’s song “When Trials Come” because I felt so empty and weary, and yet those beautiful–and true!–lyrics breathed new life into my soul as I chose to sing them despite how I felt. So join in with me, and see the triumph of the cross even in the midst of your weariness.

When trials come no longer fear
For in the pain our God draws near
To fire a faith worth more than gold
And there His faithfulness is told 
And there His faithfulness is told

Within the night I know Your peace 
The breath of God brings strength to me 
And new each morning mercy flows
As treasures of the darkness grow 
As treasures of the darkness grow

I turn to Wisdom not my own
For every battle You have known
My confidence will rest in You
Your love endures Your ways are good
Your love endures Your ways are good

When I am weary with the cost
I see the triumph of the cross
So in its shadow I shall run
Till He completes the work begun
Till He completes the work begun

One day all things will be made new
I’ll see the hope You called me to
And in your kingdom paved with gold
I’ll praise your faithfulness of old
I’ll praise your faithfulness of old

 

Solitude Is Not Just for Introverts

Introverts, by definition, gain energy from time alone; in contrast to extroverts, who gain energy from being with people. Thus I have found that introverts are more naturally attracted to disciplines of solitude and retreat, and those who land more on the extroverted end of the spectrum are much less interested. But spiritual disciplines are means of grace for all temperaments–we are not meant to just pick and choose whatever feels most comfortable to our personality type.

If I, as an introvert, am entering solitude merely as a way to recharge or get away, I probably am not truly engaging in solitude as a spiritual discipline–I’m just being an introvert. Not that solitude has to be hard and uncomfortable in order to truly be a discipline, but disciplines are purposeful activities intended to create space for God. So even as an introvert who is comfortable in solitude, I need to go into it with a clear intention to meet with God and open my heart to Him, not just to unwind. But as I meet with God in solitude, He may indeed make that a time of unwinding and recharging and restfulness (though sometimes it may also be a time of wrestling or dryness or unrest).

Solitude may feel more like a discipline to an extrovert, but that does not take away from the value of it. Any athlete knows that the saying “No pain–no gain” is simply the reality of training–in order to perform at their peak and enjoy the game to the fullest, they must do the hard, painful, tiring work of training their body in practice. In the same way, we as Christians train our hearts in order to enjoy relationship with God to the fullest, and some of the heart-training (i.e. spiritual discipline) we engage in is difficult and uncomfortable, but still valuable and necessary. So an extroverted person can learn to enjoy the discipline of solitude as well, even if that is not something he would be naturally drawn toward. And the ways in which an extroverted personality engages with God in solitude might look different than an introverted experience of solitude, but that is OK because the aim is still the same, to create space for God to minister to her heart.

So if you–like me–have a more introverted temperament, learn to distinguish between your natural bent toward time alone and an intentional engagement with God in solitude, for the purpose of growth toward maturity in Christ. And if, on the other hand, you find your extroverted personality resisting even the thought of solitude, give it a try, perhaps in small doses, and experiment with ways of utilizing your strong relational skills to engage more deeply with God in that time.

Unhurried Is Not Un-Busy

Last Saturday I had the joy of leading what I call A Day with Jesus, which is simply a small group of people retreating together for half a day to enjoy solitude with God and to share in community with one another. Every time I do that, I am reminded by those who come of how valuable that intentional, extended time with God can be in the midst of much busyness and stress. And yet as valuable as a retreat can be, the reality of our stressful, busy lives makes the choice to retreat very counterintuitive. Especially in certain seasons of life, making space for retreat can feel impossible.

So I was encouraged by an email I received from Gem Fadling of Unhurried Living. This is some of what she shared…

Any of us in life stages where we find ourselves as caretakers can hear about an unhurried life and think, “Yeah, that’ll never happen. Not in this season. I’m just trying to take a shower and put on fresh sweatpants today.”

[Y]our cry is, “I have so many responsibilities. How would I possibly engage anything resembling unhurried time?”

Remember, busy is a matter of calendar. Hurry is a matter of soul.

[I have] a memory of sitting in a rocking chair in my bedroom. I was nursing one of my sons, enjoying the bonding that happens during that time. I remember very distinctly a small voice, whispering in my ear, “You know, this counts.”

I had been accustomed to following my good Christian girl to-do list fairly well. But all of that went out the window moving from one child to two. I loved being a mom, but I couldn’t figure out how to spend time with God the way I had before.

“You know, this counts” was God’s gentle way of saying, “I see you. I know what season of life you are in right now. This moment, with your son…this is how I feel about you. The care you are giving him is good and right. This counts. I am with you. You are with me.”

Every once in a while I would hear the whisper again, “You know, this counts.” It may have been a worship song that was playing in the background or a word of encouragement from a trusted friend. God was showing me that we were together and relating in far more ways than I was giving “credit” for.

My season of life made me tired, scattered and seemingly out of control of my schedule. But God wanted to show me that being with him, in the midst of my very real life, mattered and counted.

[M]y suggestion to you would be to make it a priority to get two to four hours per month in time alone with God in solitude. Not “me time” but honest to goodness solitude. What we call Unhurried Time with God.

Back in that season of young children, Alan and I would give each other that time by caring for our sons so the other could meet with God. We certainly didn’t do it perfectly, but we did our best to have a rhythm of Unhurried Time.

If you don’t have a spouse or relative that can help you, maybe you can swap with a friend. Or even pay for a babysitter or parent-sitter.

In order for the [moments of] “this counts” to have a solid foundation, these reservoir [longer] filling times must be included. I know it sounds impossible. But with a little work and creativity, you can make some time for yourself and God. Think of it as a holy invitation, not a luxury that you cannot afford.

So if you find yourself in a season of life where retreating for a few hours on a Saturday sounds wonderful but impossible, be encouraged by Gem’s realistic and hopeful challenge. And if you need some ideas or assistance in making it happen, feel free to email me and I’d love to walk with you in figuring out a plan that works for your situation.

Retreat for your life!

Taking an extended retreat in the midst of Christmas busyness feels totally counterintuitive. But here I am, in a cozy cabin set aside for pastors to retreat and rest, taking a few days to step away from the craziness and seek God’s direction for the coming year. As hard as it is to set work and family responsibilities aside in order to carve out this kind of time alone with God, I am really img_1196grateful for it.

The exclamation “Run for your life!” calls a person to frantic activity in order to save their life. (And certainly, if something dangerous is coming at you, you should run for your life!) “Retreat for your life!” is the opposite—rather than a call to frantic activity, it is the counterintuitive call to unhurried rest in God, believing that is where depth of life is found. The world around us looks for life by working harder or working longer or working faster, but activity on its own does not automatically produce life. Instead, responding to Jesus’ invitation to come to Him and learn from Him and find rest in Him is often what it takes to “recover your life” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)… and that is what a retreat is for.

So I follow Jesus’ example of regularly withdrawing to desolate places to pray (Luke 5:16). I learn from Him how to create that space in order to be filled by Him (which is what the Greek word for “withdraw” literally means). And I thank God for a family that blesses me with this time, and for a ministry like The Oaks who provides a place like this to get away.
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“Muscle Memory” for the Soul

Because my daughter Anah does not have the cognitive ability (yet) to figure things out by reason or logic, then the only way to teach her a new skill is to repeat it so often that she eventually memorizes it. And if it’s a physical skill like taking a bath or brushing her teeth, we have to put our hands over hers and make her actually do the movement that is required until her body just knows what to do. When a set of physical movements is so ingrained that she can do it almost automatically (without thinking about each step), we say it is in her “muscle memory.”

I ran across this quote in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook the other day that used the term “soul memory” to speak of something similar to muscle memory:

Spiritual discipline, then, is developing soul reflexes so that we know how to live. We discipline ourselves to develop soul memory in normal times so that we’ll be equipped for the times of high demand or deep crisis.                 [pg 135]

Muscle memory is when my daughter’s hands are so trained in the steps of washing herself in a bath that she can do it on her own even if she doesn’t logically understand what she is doing or why she is doing it. In the same way, soul memory is when my heart is so trained in the ways of loving God and loving others that they just come out of my character without me thinking about it or trying really hard. To love God and love others in the ways that He commands me to in His Word is not just difficult–it’s impossible. But as I train my soul incrementally and repetitively over a long time, God’s Spirit transforms my character in such a way that obedience to those commands becomes almost automatic and easy because it is ingrained in soul memory through all that practice.

So reading my Bible and memorizing portions of it is not just something I’m supposed to do to be a good Christian. Rather, it is one way that I train my soul to know and trust in the God who has created me. Going on solitude retreats is not just getting away from it all so that I can rest, but it is another way of training my soul to be open to whatever God may be directing my attention toward. Eliminating TV is not just to free up more time for myself, but it is a way of training my soul to be more fully present to the people around me. As I practice these disciplines (and many others) over and over, I am gradually developing soul memory–habits of the heart that are bent toward loving and trusting God, and toward loving others the way Christ has loved me.

Planning a Personal Retreat

In our noisy, busy, shallow and disconnected culture, retreats are a valuable and foundational discipline that create unhurried spaces for our hearts to go deeper with God and with one another. If the only time we retreat, though, is when we can join a formal retreat planned by someone else, our retreating will be rather infrequent–and thus less effective in our lives.

Taking a personal retreat can provide the solution. A personal retreat is just that–a retreat taken personally. It is not dependent on someone else planning it or on a group coming together for an event, rather it can fit into the regular rhythm of your life. It can be for a couple of hours or a couple of days. It can be as near as the local park or as far as a retreat center in the mountains. It can be alone or with a few friends. It can be as simple or complex as you design it to be…because it’s a personal retreat.

Fountain.JPGSo how do you go about planning a personal retreat? In general, I like to say you need a Place, a Plan, and a few People.

Finding a conducive Place can actually be a tricky thing. Home is not usually a good place, because there are too many familiar distractions and pressures. A coffee shop or restaurant can be an OK place but usually has music playing and lots of people, so it’s not very conducive to quieting your heart before God. An outside place like the beach or a park can be good, but sometimes weather or bugs or just the hardness of a picnic bench makes it difficult to stay for a longer period of time. For me, either a retreat center or a library or a campus chapel have been the best places, because you can be alone and quiet, but it’s more comfortable and has a bathroom nearby, so you don’t have to be constantly moving around or changing places.

Then you need a Plan. Ask yourself what your purpose is in going on a personal retreat. Even if you’re goal is to do nothing and just to rest or listen to God, that’s still a purpose that will dictate something of what you do or don’t do. So take some time to pray about what God wants you to focus on when you go, and then collect some ideas or materials that will help you toward that focus. A big part of the purpose of retreating is to make space for God to work in unexpected ways in you, so resist the urge to pack the day so full that there’s no breathing room. And of course hold your plan lightly—make a plan, but submit yourself to what God may have for you that’s not on your plan.

And finally you need People. Not necessarily people to go along with you, though that can work. But what I’m thinking of is more like people who will support you in this—a handful of friends who know when and where and why you’re going, and who will pray for you and hold you to it and ask you about it. This is vital so that the retreat doesn’t just stay as a “mountaintop experience” but can come back down to affect the reality of your everyday life.

For a more detailed explanation of retreat, see this post from Unhurried Living.
For a list of retreat centers by state, look at this CT article.