Thursday, May 26, 2016

Prayer and Study Retreats

For extroverts, like me, solitude is like slow, painful torture. We know it is an important spiritual discipline, but we find it very difficult to do. For years I have endeavored to set aside one day per month for quiet, reading, contemplation, long-term planning, and envisioning ministry. I usually get it done, but it is mostly awkward. For years I have also set aside a weekend for a prayer and study retreat. I would drive a few miles out of town to a friend’s home on a lake with no distractions, no Internet access, and almost no cellular phone access. I’d take along some music, some projects on which to work, and I’d rest, think, write, and plan.

The best of these sessions were productive, but never seemed to produce the joy and fulfillment I heard expressed by my more solitude-friendly peers. I have read in John Stott’s writing, in a couple of different books, about the value of study retreats and chose to pursue them as a matter of discipline.

Most recently, I have decided to try doing these study retreats with another person or three along. This last weekend, my son and I retreated to his in-laws’ lake home in eastern Missouri for a 24 hour study retreat. Given the busy lives we both lead, we saw this as brief but important. We left his home at 4:00 pm on Saturday, drove 90 minutes up the road and had dinner together along with lots of conversation and slowing down. Once we arrived at the lake, we loaded our gear into the house, and began our first quiet period. I laid out the tasks I had to accomplish, fired up my iPod and headphones, and chose one for the starting place. After a couple of hours and knocking out three of the agenda items, it was dark and he had already started a fire in the pit down by the lake. I joined him for another 90 minutes of conversation in processing our thoughts on our respective reading, our family, our careers, and many other matters. We hadn’t had time like this, alone together, for several years. We watched the moon steadily rise above the tree line, enjoyed the stillness of the evening, the crackling fire, and the warm fellowship. At about 10:30 I went to bed and slept very well.

I was up early, but not as early as normal (rest is good), to prepare a pot of coffee and to begin my day with devotional reading and prayer. After a couple of hours of reading, prayer, and thought, we loaded up for breakfast at a local coffee shop. We had a great time of conversation and processing over breakfast, and then returned to the lake house for quiet session 2. During this session I composed a talk and a PowerPoint presentation for an upcoming event, listened to more music, and began reading one of the five new books I brought along. After a couple of hours of this work, I heard him firing up the lawn mower, and I joined him in doing some cleanup work on the beach and the dock. This allowed me to continue processing all that I had been reading and other matters I was pondering in my soul.

After the yard work was done, we decided to skip lunch and to press into quiet period 3. This session was entirely reading for me as I finished the first book and entirely read another. We processed via conversation for about thirty minutes after this session and began to load up for the trip home. We hit the road, alternately talking and enjoying each other’s silent company until we stopped for a quick dinner on the road. Upon our arrival at his home, we were greeted by his wife and two daughters. We chatted, pushed swinging granddaughters, and kissed some cheeks before I made the final 75 minute drive to my home.

Here’s the bottom line. Even if you find solitude terribly difficult, even if you need human interaction to feel normal, even if you are an off the chart extrovert, study and prayer retreats can be both effective and nurturing to your soul. I was able to accomplish far more with my son along than I could have being totally alone. Having him with me allowed me to process ideas out loud, to hear his thoughts, to experience the joy of his companionship, and the pride that comes with being the father of a godly, loving, Christian man, husband, and father. Find a person or two, or three, schedule a time and place to get away. Take some music, books, writing materials, whatever makes your soul soar, and get away. For a day, a weekend, a week, or six weeks, find a way to renew your spirit with solitude and fellowship. The Lord will surely meet you there.

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