Water glides peacefully downstream, smoothing the river’s edge, nibbling rocks away from their beds. No human feet have trampled the tall grasses and wildflowers along the bank; only a narrow trail created by thirsty deer and bear and other woodland animals breaks the growth undulating in the breeze. Except—to the side a man stands beside a hammock, looking expectantly toward the hill. A feast spreads sumptuously across a woven blanket; a first-aid kit, a jug of water and a book of poetry complete the ensemble. Sunlight drains from the sky; still he waits. Throughout the night, into the next day and the next, he waits.
He waits faithfully.
Finally footsteps pound on the nature trail, and he opens his arms. His face nearly breaks in half with his delight.
You rush past him. Your breath comes in gasps. You splash some water on your face, throw a smile in his direction and run back up the hill. He resumes his position. Waiting. Waiting to cover your exhaustion with the warm blanket of his love, to offer absolute rest. Waiting to soothe the hot brow, rub ointment on blistered feet, pour water for the parched throat.
How long has it been since you met the Shepherd of your soul at the water’s edge, since you took his arm and walked beside the tranquil waters, letting the beauty of his love and creation speak peace to your rattled soul? How long since you experienced more than a splash of cool water on your face, only to run off again in an endless race? More than a verse and a hurried prayer en route to the car or kids or daily commute?
King David really believed that the “Lord is my shepherd.” His psalms often begin with him crying out to God for help, deliverance, revenge; David is stiff with anger or prostrate with pain or bent double with guilt. We read on to where he takes the Shepherd at his word, following him to still waters. Between the beginning and end of many of David’s psalms is resolution. Problems aren’t solved, but God restores his heart, refocuses his vision, soothes his pain.
The author of Psalm 23 seemed rational and accepting of rest, of God taking care of him, of the importance of soul restoration. David’s present tense framing of the chapter points to his experience of life under the good Shepherd. Surely David wasn’t an armchair theologian, a spoiled rich king living in a castle, never trusting these theories. He didn’t just stroll about protected lawns and down to the stream, reclining for a bit while soldiers guarded him and women fed him grapes. Look at his life: David’s family was messed up; people were always trying to kill him, even his closest relatives and friends; he connived and manipulated and just plain sinned. As king he reigned for many years, not on a throne but leading a ragtag bunch of fighters and stone throwers through wilderness and desert, sleeping in caves, running for their lives.
This concept of rest seems pivotal for a life of faith. Either God can take care of us or he isn’t God—at least he’s not a good God or an all-powerful God. Or maybe he’s only the God of the good events and not God in the valley of the shadow, in the places that feel like death. He’s only God when we feel goodness and mercy nipping at our heels, or feel the guiding staff, or when a banquet pops up in the middle of a battle with our enemies.
Maybe God isn’t so good in a crisis, or God ducks out the back door at the first scent of trouble. Maybe we believe he’s a good-time God, that the bill of goods we bought reads “Bad things only happen to people who don’t trust God.” We really believe God is the great Magician rather than the great Physician, and we shouldn’t have “issues” once we know Jesus. We shouldn’t have problems with fatigue or depression or anger or control or abandonment. No dysfunction should ripple into our families. Our jobs should be advancing or at least stable and preparing us for retirement.
We should be bursting with love for everyone, be perfectly married or living joyfully though single. We should be living a victorious, effortless and powerful life. Our “shoulds” and their accompanying guilt exhaust us. And I don’t know a single person living like that. If I did, I wouldn’t believe their assessment of their lives. Because bad things happen. This isn’t heaven yet, as much as we’d like it to be. As much energy as we spend pretending that “it is well, it is well with my soul,” is it really?
Probably not. A personal retreat allows us room to be honest with God about how imperfect we are, how disillusioned we are about our life and our inability to live holy and wholly this side of heaven.
THE PERSONAL RETREAT
Sixteen years ago, when I first began taking personal retreats—setting aside a day or two to be alone with God—I ran to God’s arms for a day each month, fully aware of my flaws and sin. Each month I had to choose whether my problems with fatigue, emptiness, abandonment, balance, depression, anger, control, impotent Christianity and money would separate me from God and everyone I love, or lead me to God and to wholeness. As I continue to seek God in solitude, creativity and happiness, and the level of love in my relationship with God increase, so these subjects too are included.
The chapters in Resting Place allow us to unpack the baggage we haul around, using these issues as a starting point for our time with God, whether that is an overnight getaway or an afternoon alone in a quiet place. It is not necessary to read the chapters in order, but rather allow the Holy Spirit to highlight which subjects are important at this time to restore a resting heart.
A personal retreat is simply a concentrated and consecrated time with God. It is that resting place where we remove ourselves from the demands of our life and allow God to speak in an unhurried setting. Retreat centers scattered around North America work perfectly for the personal retreat, but a state park, a friend’s empty home or some other setting works well, as long as solitude is possible and distractions minimal.
I don’t run errands or check off a to-do list on a personal retreat, but I use specific tools that open my heart to God’s presence and hush my soul. However, retreats aren’t about running away from the world. They prepare us to love and serve those around us. Eventually, as God took me deeper into times of solitude, he also led me into a new ministry involving writing and speaking.