There are no good ideas in front of me, only colorful sticky notes covered in gibberish. Pre-writing was not going well this time, but what could I expect after abandoning common sense?
I was trying to write about retreats without experiencing one for a long time. In my search for insight the Lord affirmed the wisdom of taking a retreat now, so I hefted my daypack for a morning of solitude on the coast. I headed for the front door.
Often, I start writing only to realize I need to learn a whole lot more about the subject at hand. Retreats are no exception. Perhaps like you, I try to fit too much in my life. I struggle to take satisfaction in a job well done before I launch into the next one. The energy and time I expect from myself for career, study, ministry, and being with friends and loved ones is not realistic. An entire Sabbath of being especially present to God sounds wonderful, but it is so easy to cut short for something “I really need to get done”.
Today, my hike will be a step in the right direction. I reach the front door—and there is someone standing outside.
Behind the door is a well-dressed man in his twenties. He asks for Nick, a housemate that moved out several months ago. Was this one of Nick’s slightly eccentric musician friends? In San Francisco, dressing like a musician leans heavily on plaid shirts, wool caps and occasionally some wild-west looking facial hair. His black suit probably means something else, but you never know around here. Thoughtfully, he says, “The news tells us about so much that is wrong with the world today. Do you think it will always be that way?”
Clearly he is here to talk religion and remembered Nick from last time. Living in a dense urban population one learns to glide through all sorts of situations and obstacles. While I prepare my polite but firm brush off – after all a “mandated” mini-retreat awaits – God prods me to stay in the conversation a little longer. But… Wouldn’t opening myself to even a friendly religious debate be allowing time with God to be usurped once more? Didn’t I need to get to where my mini-retreat could start? It seems God is up to something different in the present moment.
Pausing, I really look at this person on my doorstep. Answering his question the best I can before morning coffee, I explain the real value of striving to be a better person is only realized when we look outside ourselves. Getting closer to Jesus makes me more aware of brokenness in the world, especially my own brokenness, but the patient graciousness of God shines all the greater. I am committed to following Jesus, and he is changing my heart. I am arranging my entire life out of a desire to become more like him.
Considering my words, my young friend reads a passage from Revelations and poses some more questions, nurturing our conversation more than trying to prove anything to me. Then I start to see him – really see him. I commend him for caring enough about his beliefs to take action. Putting on the telltale suit of a Jehovah’s Witness and knocking on doors in this town must feel like painting a bull’s eye on your back at an archery range.
Thanking each other, I bless him in the Lord and we part ways. Then I realize my retreat had already started. My eyes are opened once more, and I see that a retreat is really about experiencing God more than doing a particular thing at a particular place; that vitality and renewal naturally result from an intent openness to His presence. Of course my solo day hike filled with prayer, meditation and scenic beauty won’t hurt.
It can easily feel like a window of opportunity will close if we take time out from getting things done in our lives. When we take a Sabbath or retreat what qualities might we be more likely to bring to those very situations of opportunity?
When you are unable go somewhere peaceful or take a day off, how might you still experience a meaningful retreat?
Jeff Burkebile lives, practices architecture, and attends Cornerstone Church in San Francisco. He is currently completing the second year of the International Renovaré Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation and volunteers as an educator at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, helping create innovations addressing the essential needs of the world’s poorest communities.