Saturday, January 30, 2016

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

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