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Off the Beaten Path

Think you don't have the time or ability to get quiet and alone? According to personal retreat director Brenda Jank, your life and faith depend on it.

Silence and solitude don't seem to fit with our busy lives as we juggle family, church, work, friends, and school responsibilities. Brenda Jank says otherwise. In fact, silence and solitude are deeply embedded in her life in the form of personal retreat. Brenda, along with her husband, Tim, run Camp Lutherhaven, a year-round outdoor ministry center in northeast Indiana that offers personal retreats. Brenda also directs Run Hard, Rest Well, a ministry dedicated to bringing personal retreat to people of all ages and stages in life. She knows the spiritual, emotional, and physical benefits of practicing silence and solitude amid her busy life as wife, mother of five, and ministry leader.

TCW: How did you first discover the importance of silence and solitude?

Brenda: I'd been working at a church in Chicago in the early 1990s when the senior pastor mandated that each staff member had to take a personal retreat day once a month for the next six months.

I was so relieved because I was exhausted and aware of how much was going out of my life and how little was coming in. But I was also panicked because I couldn't pray for more than five minutes at a time.

I figured I'd work on a youth Bible study while on my retreat, but the senior pastor saw my bulging briefcase on my way out and told me three things: rest well, listen carefully, and produce absolutely nothing. I left my briefcase behind. I had permission to get away, and God did a work in me on that quiet day.

In what way?

I drove from the concrete of Chicago to the cornfields of the country, feeling my internal revved-up engine shift into a lower gear.

When I arrived at the retreat center, I pulled a chair in front of a large window, watched the rain, and wept. I poured over the Psalms. When the rain turned to a fine mist, I ventured outside. I kept looking up to feel the gentle whisper of water on my face and it was nothing less than the tender touch of God.

That day away opened the floodgate for my hunger for God, for the peace and quiet I was trying too hard to live without.

As I drove away from my first personal retreat, one thing was clear: I wanted to return. And I did again and again and again.

What does the Bible teach us about getting away alone?

Jesus was the poster child for personal retreat. He loved silence and solitude and retreated regularly to refuel and refresh himself, so it becomes a model for our lives.

Many of the Psalms were written in times of silence and solitude as God prepared David for what would come. God met people like Hagar, Elijah, and Moses when they were alone. The most interesting retreat in the Bible is three days in the belly of a whale.

Many people seem to fear silence and solitude. Why?

They enter that time with expectations about what will happen, then ask what's wrong with them if God doesn't show up in the way they expect.

Since so much of our life is ruled by noise and activity, it can be scary to think about slowing down. Most of our faith life is nurtured by a mathematical equation of three: God + me + "something." That "something" can be a worship service, small group Bible study, a great book, music, devotional material, a service project. But how often do we go face-to-face with God alone?

They're also terrified about slowing down, thinking, and exploring the inner chambers of their life. Sometimes we just don't want to face what we may find when we're quiet and alone.

Do you think some of that fear comes from not wanting to explore deeper issues, such as facing skeletons in our closet, our personality flaws, or owning up to sin?

Definitely. But healing and change can't truly begin until we get away and allow that margin of time to process our pain.

The disciplines of silence and solitude opened a door to healing when I was working through the loss of my mom. I was deeply depleted: my five children ranged from 18 months to 8 years, my thyroid was shot, my heart was broken, and I was irritable and impatient with those I loved.

But getting away allowed God a gracious intrusion into the depths of my despair in which I came away knowing that God is enough. The picture our Lord paints in Psalm 131 is found in the power of stillness and a quieted soul resting securely in arms of love.

What are the gifts of personal retreat?

I like to divide those gifts into four areas: hope, healing, holiness, and higher calling. We gain hope that God is going to provide for our needs as we study the Bible, pray, and reflect. We heal through things like music, journaling, or reading the Bible and other Christian materials. We grow in holiness as God shows us what we need in him and brings to our attention issues of trust and obedience. And we address our higher calling by understanding where God has us at this time in life and what he is calling us to do.

What does a person actually do on a retreat?

I call retreats the pursuit of God off the beaten path. It's a spiritual discipline of mystery because there's always an element of surprise. We can plan an agenda, but God's agenda trumps ours when we allow it to. What he has planned for this intimate encounter is up to him.

Your "job," though, is threefold:

  1. To go (a giant first step!);
  2. To rest (the hard work of rest is the holy work of God);
  3. To live in the moment with the Lord who calls himself "I AM."

Your job is also to enjoy the simple joys of quiet and creation, worship and wonder; to lay aside your ability to talk about God and, instead, talk to him face to face as to a friend.

That sounds freeing.

It is. The spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude allow you to keep going through the craziness of everyday life. There's no right or wrong way to do personal retreat. I encourage people to find a place outside to watch the clouds or the sun dance in the leaves. Research shows that even five minutes in the green zone (outside) or blue zone (near water) raises your wellbeing. God's Word is clear and holds a remarkable promise for us in Psalm 46: "Be still, and know that I am God." I may not be able to see or feel God, but I have the privilege of knowing him as stillness releases the power and presence of God in the secret place within.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Ann Byle
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Listening; Retreat; Silence; Solitude; Spiritual disciplines
Today's Christian Woman, October , 2010
Posted October 1, 2010

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