The scenery turned from concrete to cornfields as I reluctantly made my way to a retreat center 30 miles from home. Is this really going to be worth it? I questioned the value of taking a day of personal retreat when my calendar boasted little breathing room and my desk resembled the haystacks I was passing on these lonely country roads.
I was working at a church on the outskirts of Chicago. The senior pastor had recently mandated a series of monthly personal retreats for all staff members. My hungry heart eyed the potential of a few quiet hours. I was acutely aware of the gaps forming in my own spiritual growth, but I was strangely anxious, fearful of my inability to attend to the quiet things of God for that length of time. I let out a fair share of frustrated sighs as I overloaded other days to carve out this day of rest.
Pastor Ficken shared three words of encouragement with me on the morning of my departure.
Twelve years later I cannot recall what specifically happened that day of retreat—except that I wanted to return. And I did, again and again. Nourished from these face-to-face encounters with the Almighty, I have been able to weather the challenges of a growing ministry, the loss of two children, the birth of a child with Spina Bifida, and the long goodbye to my mom, who died of Alzheimer's.
Over time I noticed two specific gifts that regularly emerged from my private encounters with the Lord: stillness and rest. Together, these two gifts can replenish our souls, restore a sense of God's holiness and sovereignty, and strengthen our resolve to serve Him.
The importance of stillness
Stillness offers me the distinct beauty of hearing God whisper my name, as only He can do it. The words quiet, alone, and undistracted do not describe the vast majority of my waking hours. It is in this mixture, however, that God often makes Himself known. God shouts to us through the glories of His creation, but when calling our name, He speaks with a quiet voice.
Living in a world of iPods, cell phones, and CNN, it's hard to turn down the volume. But going away to a quiet place is a routine 21st-century Christians would do well to cultivate. God treasures these intimate hours with us. Alone, Moses heard the Lord call his name through a burning bush. Alone, the young boy Samuel responded to the voice of God. Alone, Mary said yes to the most world-shattering announcement of all time.
While away on a personal retreat I have not experienced dramatic career-changing encounters like that of Moses or Mary. I have, however, been inspired to pursue new ministry adventures—leading a small group Bible study, embracing a season of foster parenting, and mentoring college students—all while meeting with God in the stillness of an unhurried afternoon.
Jesus' words echo in my ear, "Come with Me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest" (Mark 6:31).
As His disciples, do we respond to Jesus' invitation? Do we long to hear His voice—to hear Christ call us to Himself? If our answer is yes, then we need to remind ourselves that it begins with being still and knowing that He is God (Ps. 46:10).
The importance of rest
Rest is something we try defiantly to live without in our daily lives, and our empty hearts and threadbare joy offers testimony to this glaring disparity. Rest is a gift that refuels, renews, refreshes.
Everyday life batters our souls. Weighty responsibilities at work. Frazzled relationships. Looming deadlines. Today's modern pace of life does not orient us to the things of God. The missing ingredient is, simply and profoundly, rest.
A rested soul alters your attitude about everything—from purpose and pleasure to pressures and problems. Because of this, I attempt to carve out regular extended getaways to be alone with the heavenly Father. Sometimes I get away for a full day. Occasionally it's an overnight adventure. I no longer work at a church, and taking a full day is even more challenging now with my responsibilities at home. But I have discovered that two to three hours alone on a Sunday afternoon is enough time for me to meet the Lord, face to face, in a way that centers my soul and redirects my gaze—off me and onto Him.
These are precious hours for me. I do not have to do anything. I do not have to accomplish anything. I do not have to produce, poke, prod, or provide anything for anyone. I can just be. I listen. I rest. I read. I journal. I hike. I go into each hour with no expectations. I follow no agenda, yet each time God tenderly and passionately renews my mind and refreshes my soul. Sometimes God offers an explosion of insight, other times His presence is like a gentle breeze. Each time away is unique.
But we resist! We wait for a quieter season to arrive, a season that will never transpire. We drag our feet, forfeiting this gift and making it a burden—another item to add to our overloaded to-do list. There is hope, however. We do not need to be paralyzed by our fears.
Over the years I've made three discoveries about extended time alone with God. These discoveries have removed many self-imposed roadblocks—for me and for others.
Removing the roadblocks
1. You don't have to go it alone. A getaway with God does not have to be a solo experience. A personal retreat can take place in tandem with another believer who also desires to experience time away with the Lord. Traveling to a retreat center, city park, or quiet corner with a spouse or friend is an equally valid way to "take a break" with your Creator. Fellowship around a meal is a refreshing way to enhance what God is doing in our hearts during the time we spend alone. When combined with a few hours of solitude, a personal retreat taken with a friend offers the best of both worlds.
2. Relax, there's freedom in Christ. I've had to remind myself that there is no single, right way to meet with God. Some believers meet best with God when traipsing through a grassy meadow. Others recognize the Father's voice through liturgical prayers and predetermined Bible readings. Some sing and feast. Others are nourished through fasting and complete solitude. Celebrating this freedom allows me to recognize the creative genius of God's handiwork when He fashioned my soul, and the unique pathway He travels to meet with me, His beloved. Personal retreats are not about me and what I'm going to do to experience God. Personal retreats are about the Lord and what He wants to do in me when I'm willing to slow down and listen.
3. Personal retreats are for everyone. Personal retreats are not a luxury for the elite, but a necessity for all. Technological advances rob us of rest, allowing believers to fall victim to a hurried lifestyle. Nurturing the gifts of stillness and rest fan into flame the abundant life Christ offers all believers. Even those of us who have obligations that might, on the surface, "disqualify" us from doing a retreat (e.g., financial limitations, lack of child care, etc.) can find ways to spend time alone with God (see "How to Get Away with God," page 56, for some helpful tips).
Whether once a month or once a year, I encourage you—I challenge you—set a date, find a place, and go—go away to be alone with the One who knows and loves you best.
Brenda Jank, a freelance writer and Christain camping professional based in Albion, Indiana, has been leading retreats for over 20 years.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian magazine.
Click here for reprint information.