Friday, May 2, 2008
A Tale of Two Retreats
As tempting as it is to begin with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, “ I will forego the temptation, largely because the times were mostly good. They were, however, unique, which I probably felt a bit more this year because they happened back to back.
The first was our annual church retreat at Pine Springs Ranch where a large segment of our church family gathers for a weekend which is noted for being stuffed full of speakers, music, and things to do together. Full is the operative word here. Not one featured speaker, but at least two. Many guest musicians. And that is just the main adult programing. There are also separate things going on for Youth and Children, and of course, child care. Lots of things to experience and think about. Lots of conversations between events in lodge hallways, or over meals in a cafeteria bursting at the seams, or over ice cream on Saturday night. Some might even skip a meeting here and there to spend a little more time in conversation or go for a walk.
All this I know mostly by hearsay, because the entirety of my weekend is spent immersed in the children’s program, where we spend the weekend exploring the world and issues of the Bible and its people from Creation in year one of the cycle to the Acts of the Apostles in year 7. (This year we were getting acquainted with the people of the exile, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, Ezra, Daniel, and others as we discovered that when going through tough times, “the Joy of the LORD is my strength.”). Here too the weekend is busy – children re-enacting stories, working on projects, learning and singing songs, playing games, and decorating bags in which they carry with them the things they acquire along the way. All of this taking place with the help of a number of adults who understand that the weekend is not about creating a successful event, but helping kids catch a glimpse of an incredibly gracious God Who loves them.
It is a fun weekend that moves along at a brisk pace. Lot’s of good things to experience, opportunities to connect with people in a beautiful setting, to gain some insights, be challenged, be inspired, to laugh, and just enjoy being together. It is a good example of what Joseph Myers describes in his book Organic Community, as people interact in what he calls public and social space (with a few moments here and there, for some, who may interact in what he calls more personal and intimate space). All of which is, by the way, a normal and a good thing.
But then, just a few hours after the last suitcase and piece of sound equipment is loaded into their respective vehicles to make their way down the hill and back to the life that was momentarily left behind, another group begins to arrive, and a very different kind of retreat begins.
This group is smaller, and the feeling tones less busy and rushed. There are no invited musicians, but there is music and singing. There is no featured speaker to help bolster attendance. In fact most of the people leading out are the same ones who have doing so for many years – trusted, valued mentors . . . or else those among the group themselves who have gathered. This group meets not annually, but three times a year in retreat (some for 15 years or more now), and many in smaller groups from time to time in between retreats.
How does one describe what this retreat looks like? Perhaps you might begin by saying it is less about seeing how much good stuff can be pushed into the available time and space, and more about creating time and space so good stuff can happen.
It begins with an evening of gathering to worship by singing, reflecting on a passage of scripture together, praying, but mostly just being together. In fact, most of the evening is spent in conversation in smaller sub groups as people listen to each other’s stories, catch up on what has been happening in their lives since the last retreat time, and where the growing edges are now.
The next day begins with gathering again for worship and reflection, followed by an extended time, usually 3-5 hours, spent in silence and alone with God. Some find places next to a quiet lake, along a mountain trail, or simply in the quiet of a lodge room. But wherever it is, it is an opportunity to lay other agendas aside and simply be attentive to what God’s agenda might be. Late in the afternoon, and often over dinner, people have the opportunity to talk together in smaller groups about what may have surfaced for them during that time. Later in the evening, people gather again to sing, reflect on scripture, share communion, or simply to pray for each other. Sometimes there is prepared “content” that is shared, other times simply participating together is enough for the evening.
The next day provides an opportunity for continued reflection, more focused study together on an agreed area of interest or focus that helps us think more carefully about how God’s agenda can be implemented in our lives, opportunities for spiritual direction, additional study, or for us to pursue some of our own concerns in the afternoon. The closing evening meeting provides time for further reflection, closure, and considering what the next steps are in my life that I will be taking in response to what has been surfacing over the past couple days. This second retreat takes place in what Myers would describe, not so much as public space, but in more social, personal and intimate spaces. While there are shared similarities with the first kind of retreat mentioned, this way of retreating is different, and is also a healthy and good thing. For many of us, it is also much more rare.
I share these contrasting experiential textures from my week, not for the purpose of arguing for one over the other. In fact, I would not want to give up either (even if there are adjustments that could be made here and there). Both, in some significant ways, represent something important that we would not want to let slip away from us. But there are, I think, some things that emerge in the contrasts that, I at least, find intriguing.
The ministry of Jesus models a rhythm that involves being immersed in both. To use the categories Myers suggests, there were public gatherings at times. Perhaps more often, there were meals shared in social settings, for which He was sometimes criticized (eating with publicans and sinners). But there was also much intentional, personal interaction with people (and especially His disciples), as well as intimate time, which characterized not only how He lived and interacted with people, but which was also the place from which He took His cues and set the agenda for what would happen in those more personal, social and public settings. (You'll have to get Myer's book and read it to catch the full import of those terms)
The first retreat, like the feeding of the 5.000, was exciting, meaningful and memorable. The second, perhaps like the time spent immediately after the feeding of the 5,000, was more reflective, refreshing and transformative.
In the first I found myself stepping up my pace, and walking away feeling good about what we had experienced together. In the second, I found myself slowing and changing my pace, and walking away rested and renewed. (Interestingly, something else I noticed . . . on my way home, I even found myself driving a bit more slowly . . . and attentively . . . with the radio off, and not missed for a moment.)
In the first, I never really break my stride. In the second, I come back, and at least for awhile, find myself walking differently, seeing differently, being different.
I am not suggesting that we give up either, I don't think we should, but I do have a sense of what I am more and more drawn toward.