The scenery turned from concrete to cornfields as I reluctantly made my way to a retreat center 30 miles from home. Is this really going to be worth it? I questioned the value of taking a day of personal retreat when my calendar boasted little breathing room and my desk resembled the haystacks I was passing on these lonely country roads.
I was working at a church on the outskirts of Chicago. The senior pastor had recently mandated a series of monthly personal retreats for all staff members. My hungry heart eyed the potential of a few quiet hours. The idea of a personal retreat intrigued the adventurous side of my soul. I was acutely aware of the gaps forming in my own spiritual growth, but I was strangely anxious—fearful of my inability to attend to the quiet things of God for that length of time. I let out a fair share of frustrated sighs as I overloaded other days to carve out this day of rest. I was doubtful the benefits would outweigh the stress it added to the rest of my week.
My pastor shared three words of encouragement with me on the morning of my departure: Rest well. Listen closely. Produce nothing.
Twelve years later I cannot recall what specifically happened that day—except that I wanted to return. And I did, again and again. Nourished and refueled by these face-to-face encounters with the Almighty, I have been able to weather lengthy seasons riddled with crisis and fatigue through the challenges of a growing ministry, the loss of two children, the birth of a child with Spina Bifida, and the long goodbye to my mom who died prematurely of Alzheimer's.
Over time I began to take note of two specific gifts that emerge from private encounters with the Lord: stillness and rest. Stillness offers me the distinct beauty of hearing God whisper my name, as only he can do it. Rest is a gift we seek to defiantly live without and our empty hearts and threadbare joy bares testimony of this glaring reality.
The words quiet, alone, and undistracted do not describe the vast majority of my waking hours. It is in this mixture, however, that God often makes himself known. God shouts to us through the glories of his creation. But when calling our name, he speaks with a quiet, still voice.
Living in a world of cell phones, Pandora, and CNN, going away to a quiet place is a routine that 21st century Christians would do well to cultivate if we're committed to aligning our lives with the personalized marching orders of the One who knows our name. It has become clear to me that the Lord treasures the undistracted hours he spends alone with his children. Alone, Moses heard God call his name through a burning bush. Alone, the young boy Samuel responded to the voice of God. Alone, Mary said yes to the career-changing announcement of all time.
While away on a personal retreat, I have not experienced dramatic career changing encounters like that of Moses or Mary. I have, however, been released into new ministry adventures—leading a small-group Bible study, embracing a season of foster parenting, and mentoring college students—all while meeting with God in the stillness of an unhurried afternoon.
Our Lord makes himself known to his people at any time and through many means, but it often happens during private encounters with the Almighty. Our apparent addiction to a life of chaos and confusion causes Jesus' words from Mark 6 to echo in my ear: "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place …."