I recall when I was a wee little sprout, in kindergarten or some daily event at church, having a time when everyone was required to lie down and remain still for a time. I suspect I fell asleep on occasion, but I don't remember doing so. What I do remember is how difficult it was to cease whatever I was doing and to remain motionless for ten or fifteen minutes. I guess this was a routine for those students who simply needed the break in order to maintain the social engagement of school. It was probably a good way for the teacher to take a quick breather too. Periodic breaks are a valuable endeavor for all of us, even the extroverts.
The Gospels record that occasionally Jesus withdrew from the crowds, even his disciples. He withdrew to the wilderness or to a garden. During these times he was deep in prayer and communion with God. Its not that he didn't pray and wasn't in communion with God at all times, but that he withdrew into solitude indicates that there's s difference between the two and a necessity for both.
The first occasion he did so was after his baptism. We are told that he was in the wilderness for 40 days, which scholars tell us is code for "long enough". During this retreat we are told about the temptations he faced. Other times that tell of him retreating are in the midst of ministry and mission--healings, feedings, teachings, revelations, challenges, disputes, arguments, and the general substance of life.
As a pastor of more than 30 years, I have made my share of mistakes and I've had my share of folk who are keen to point those out. Likewise, I can be my own harshest critic over minor issues. Oddly, however, if I've had one stellar failure, it has been my lack of practicing retreat, spiritual withdrawal for the purpose of unimpaired prayer and communion with God. Strangely, though this is true, it is one thing for which I've never been criticized or held accountable. Admittedly, it isn't something I've ever carried any personal guilt for either.
It's not that there aren't those who declare the importance of such retreat, or even gentle (albeit universal) encouragement (as compared to specifically being told to practice retreat). It's just that I have never ever been pressed by anyone--personnel committee, elders, denominational staff, no one--to take the time to do so. Perhaps it is one of those things that people simply assume you know to do, but I think there's more to it than that.
I once had a retired clergy tell me that pastors who don't continue in their academic studies through educational events ought to be sued for malpractice. In essence, if you're not continuing to pursue truth through studies then you are not living up to your professional standards. There's merit to this, but I think that perhaps the greater malfeasance is the neglect of retreat for the purpose of prayer and communion with God.
There's no clear indication that Jesus retreated in some organized or scheduled way, like setting aside a week every year. There's something to be said for such regularity and routine. However, praying, especially earnest prayer and communion with God is not the easiest thing to schedule. It often occurs when I least expect it. It would be nice to be able to drop everything and clear one's calendar and retreat when the Spirit (literally) moves you. It's another to feel justification to do so. Oddly, we do so when we're struck with the flu or there's some sort of emergency, but when God sends a bug to infect the spirit, we usually ignore it or shrug it off.
One way or another--either scheduled or serendipitous--retreating, I have to admit, is better than not doing so for whatever reason. It is extremely arrogant to act as if one doesn't need to do so when Jesus clearly did. Besides this, I cannot understand refusing the sweet well water of God's presence that is received in such retreats. It is madness to refuse do so, but that's the peculiar dark magic of madness: we accept the incantation of foolishness despite its ill effect upon us.
If taking ten or fifteen minutes of inactivity and silent stillness for kindergarteners is healthy, I am inclined to believe--especially after neglecting to do so for so long--that practicing retreat for the sole purpose of soul-full prayer and intimate communion with God is healthy in more ways than we can imagine.
© 2016 Stephen Carl
Wednesday, January 27, 2016
When I was very young, barely old enough to have memories of this sort, I recall being at the grocery store with my mom. Presumably my younger sister was there too, but she would have been in the shopping cart. I remember getting separated from my mom as she shopped. Perhaps I wandered off, or perhaps I stopped to look at something and didn't keep up with her as she moved on. I admit that I would often become enticed by the options presented on the breakfast cereal aisle, in particular the boxes that promised a decoder ring or magnifying glass or plastic race car. Whatever was the reason for separation, I remember becoming aware of my situation. It didn't register that I had no way home except for my mom. Nothing registered in my brain except that I was separated from her. I didn't think "oh my goodness, the one who takes care of me, feeds me, comforts me, provides for me, puts up with me has disappeared and I am all alone!" No such thoughts raced through my mind. What I remember, however, is what I felt: panic.
Panic is a function of the brain, albeit a rudimentary function. It arises from a part often referred to as "reptilian," indicating that it is not as evolved as other areas of our gelatinous neural network. Though it isn't as highly evolved it still serves a function. It causes immediate reaction to the perceived stimulus of threat. Such immediate reaction is necessary when there is danger. If we are faced with certain peril, say we are being stalked by a lion, then you're better off responding to the part of your brain that provides the freaked out voice screaming "run" than to wait for your higher functioning neo-cortex to act like a committee which considers all possible scenarios. There's a reason you don't see committee meetings on the African savanna.
But I digress. Suffice it to say that when the situation I faced at the grocery store took place, my cognitive development was in its earlier stages. The reaction of panic to the absence of my mother was acceptable. Despite this, however, I recall doing something that did exhibit the presence and function of my neo-cortex: I devised a plan to locate my mother. Rather than scream, which would have undoubtedly produced several mothers, as well as store staff, and rather than run up and down every aisle, I figured that if I walked the width of the store while looking down every aisle, then I would find my mother fairly quickly.
As someone who leans in the direction of faith and a belief in God, in particular a belief in God who loves each of us more than even our earthly parents do, I am aware that there are times when I feel separated from God. I will abstain from speculating how such a separation may occur, or even whether God is genuinely not present. It is enough to know that I experience a separation from God. Such an acknowledgment is a huge admission and is the initial step to reconnection between the aberrant heart and God. Like prodigals our hearts are prone to become enamored with what we perceive as the most exciting or most likely fulfilling experience or event or even product--like a sugar laden cereal with a cool prize contained in the box.
The first thing that makes sense to do is to reconnect. And some sort of plan is the best approach. Since it is unlikely that we can simply walk the width of a store while spying down each aisle to find the deity we've lost, some other approach merits attention.
I won't go so far as to prescribe a plan. I think that though there are some aspects of the spiritual life that are generalized, each of us must design our own unique plan for reconnecting with God when we feel separated.
I trust, however, that though the world is far larger than a grocery store and therefore a greater challenge to navigate in search of God, God is still God and will not abandon us, no matter whether our experience is of being lost, overlooked, forgotten, neglected, or left behind.
Here are the ways I search the aisles for God: Prayer, Worship, Connecting with other sojourners, Reading scripture, Studying the lives of spiritual leaders and emulating them, Service (which always has the effect of humbling me), and Listening (as in paying attention to the signs of God rather than the cereal boxes).
I don't know whether the feeling of being separated from God is a function of my brain and if so, what part, but I know what it feels like and I'm grateful it triggers a desire to pursue the One who knows just where I am, even when I don't.
© 2016 Stephen Carl