Vitality of Spiritual Retreat for Those Who Minister

by Marla Campbell

The study of rest and Sabbath necessitates not only research for validation, but more importantly, a qualitative approach steeped in experiential learning and practice.

The concept of Sabbatical is as old as the Pentateuch wherein the Levitical Law describes God’s purpose in establishing it (Lev. 23-25). The study of rest and Sabbath necessitates not only research for validation, but more importantly, a qualitative approach steeped in experiential learning and practice.

As I approached what truly became the “gift” of Sabbatical, I realized that this would not be something I would enter into lightly. To gain the fullness of God’s design, one must study, plan, and prepare. In fact, as the time grew closer, my interest grew deeper. I realized that embarking on Sabbatical contains a scriptural mandate to “be still and know that [He] is God” (Ps. 46:10).

A Scriptural Mandate
From Leviticus through Gethsemane, from the desert Fathers and the Celtic monastics to this current era, solitude and silence contain the essence of intimacy with God. Scholars, ministers, and everyday workers alike thirst for centering in Christ which brings peace and calm amid the tumult.  

Our contemporary society—with its frenetic pace and constant communication, connections, and cacophonies—assault our desire for stillness to the point of quenching it. Surprisingly, men of old similarly found stillness difficult to obtain, though the reasons for these may have been different. Regardless of then or now, our mandate to be still before God and listen to his call remains the same. It’s never been a matter of having enough time, but rather of making the time to meet with God and making that appointment a priority.

In the beginning, God modeled rest within his created design.

“In the beginning God created…” (Gen. 1)
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made.” (John 1:1-3)

Both the Old and New Testaments establish and punctuate the creative nature of God the Father and Jesus his Son. Together with the Holy Spirit, the Trinity created the heavens and the earth and all that inhabits them, and declared it was good. (Gen. 1:25)

• On the sixth day God chose to create a being in his own image. This imago Dei creature contained a soul and the capacity to commune with the Maker of the universe. God bestowed on humans the governance of the lesser creatures and of the land. He did so to bless them in their every need. And God said it was good. (Gen. 1:26-27)

• Then, God, the Creator of the Universe, rested. It was the seventh day. (Gen. 2:2-3)

•  When God took the rib of man to make woman, he caused the man to fall into a deep sleep so that his creativity in and for the man could be accomplished. Adam rested. (Gen. 2:21)

And so it was from the beginning that within God’s design he chose to mandate rest for all living beings. He included himself in that modeling rest upon the completion of his “task” in creation. He rested. He caused Adam to rest.  As the Holy Spirit inspired forty-four authors to pen God’s divine word, he instructed them to include the rest to which he called the greatest ministers, missionaries, prophets, and teachers of all time.

So Why Is Rest so Challenging?
Rest has been an integral part of life for the entire planet from day one through the present. This begs the question, “Why is it so hard to stop and rest? Why is it so difficult to come away for Sabbath, Sabbatical, retreat?” Even “daily devotion” seems a catch phrase among Christians, but rarely a reality. Henri Nouwen explains that,

The contrast between the great support for the idea of prayer and the lack of support for the practice of it is so blatantly visible that it becomes quite easy to believe the ruses of the evil one . . .[which] makes us think of prayer primarily as an activity of the mind . . . [This] prejudice reduces prayer to speaking with God or thinking about God. (1977, 68)

The Bible & Rest
Scripture gives compelling evidence of the benefit of rest throughout both Testaments. Although the expressed modeling came “in the beginning,” God saw fit to place in the Levitical Laws’ rules for rest. It was mandatory in order to be in harmony with his design and fulfill his plan.

Leviticus 23:3 speaks of a Sabbath day for rest: “There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work wherever you live; it is a Sabbath to the Lord.” Further along in 25:3-7, the Sabbath year for rest is explained:

For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a Sabbath of rest, a Sabbath to the Lord.  Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the Sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your manservant and maidservant, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.

In both cases, the Lord establishes exactly how and when rest is to occur. To be clear, he never condones slothfulness, laziness, and the like, but instead sets up a plan for productivity. He encourages work, even emphasizing the fruits of one’s labor. But he calls for rest because his design in creation requires a time of renewal, replenishing, and restoration. His design also requires a coming apart or coming out of the daily grind to a separation with God. Within this temporary isolation, prayer, contemplation, and space for listening lead us to his “still, small voice.”

Even in the case of planting the fields, one can only work to produce crops for six years. On the seventh year the land is to lay fallow so that it can be replenished, restored, and renewed. The following year, the ground will be exponentially richer for the new crop than if the field had been depleted one more time by one more crop draining the nutrients from it.

The story of Elijah in 1 Kings 17 is another intriguing example of God calling someone to rest. In the beginning of the chapter, Elijah is called to retreat in obedience to God’s directive. Although Elijah did not know why or for how long, God knew and Elijah was obedient to that call. Then, in verse 7, supplies (the brook bringing water and the raven bringing food) stopped coming and Elijah was instructed to visit a widow and her son who were near the point of starvation. What happened there was a miracle. Elijah multiplied the meager provisions. There was plenty for Elijah, the widow, and her family from that day on. Surprisingly for them all, the boy died. But again miraculously, Elijah brought him back to life.

What if Elijah had not walked in obedience to the Lord? What if he had not retreated? It’s easy to project his possible dialogue with God:

God, there’s a drought and people are starving! I can’t just go sit by the brook and let the brook and raven feed me! What will the others think? They won’t respect me as a godly man, much less a prophet. They won’t believe in you either if we just let them sit and die.  

God’s omniscience had it in control. Elijah was revived at the brook. God filled him not only with physical nourishment, but with his presence, voice, nurturing, and direction. Because of this infilling, Elijah was equipped to produce two miracles, including the boy’s resurrection.

Jesus also retreated. Although not always what might be considered a restful retreat, he superbly modeled being alone with God the Father, even at the darkest hour of history (Luke 22:39-46).  For forty days in Luke 4, only Jesus was in the wilderness while Satan tested and tempted him.  He went through this dismal time knowing that the voice of God would carry him.

Another example of Jesus prioritizing time with the Father was when Mary and Martha desperately beckoned him to come as their brother was dying (John 11). They believed Jesus could heal Lazarus. Interestingly, Jesus continued where he was, seemingly awaiting the Father’s direction. When Jesus finally came, Lazarus had died. But because of his obedience to not be moved by panic, the miracle was greater. God the Father knew the rest that Jesus needed to prepare him to go. He not only healed a man, but raised him from the dead.  

Scripture is replete with examples of patriarchs and leaders heeding God’s design for rest, Sabbath, Sabbatical, and retreat. All instances present the benefit of being alone with God, hearing his voice, and being spiritually invigorated. There is in each of us a need to pull away from the daily grind and be restored in order for daily life to be enhanced. Christian leaders find their ministry deepened when they take regular, uninterrupted time to be with God.

A Time to Work, a Time to Rest
Often overlooked is the reality that God put a rhythm into life. There are times in a day. The sun rises and sets. The tides ebb and flow. The calendar year moves through seasons. There are seasons to a person’s life.

Even ancient Celtic pagans knew this. Although they did not attribute it to God, they were attuned to the cycles and rhythms of nature. When Christianity reached the Celts, the truth of God’s holy ordination of life’s rhythms was retrieved from their practices and brought into Celtic Christianity. This is partially why the monastics (such as St. Benedict) of the first few centuries established rules and orders. They sought to follow God’s natural flow of a day. Rest was seen as necessity as people grasped the vitality of it in original creation. The practices included communion with God and in appropriate measure with his created universe. These believers understood the blessing of God’s natural providence both for sustenance and to point the believer to God himself.

In Celtic Way of Prayer (1997), Esther DeWaal revisits a time when Celtic Christians were engaged in this holistic worship. Following the Church depicted in Acts, Christianity spread throughout Europe. There was a greater sense, especially with the Celts, of the need for contemplation and communion with God. DeWaal gives examples of prayers that punctuate not only solitude, but a reality of oneness with the Creator and worshipping him in all that he created.

Many first millennium saints successfully spread the gospel across the continent because they first sought solitude with God. St. Patrick arguably proved most successful in this vein. It is said that he planted as many as seven hundred churches with over one thousand converts to his credit (Hunter 2000, 23).

DeWaal cites a Celtic saying, “To go to Rome, is of much trouble; little profit. The King whom thou seekest there, unless thou bring Him with thee, thou wilt not find (DeWaal 1997, 3). The emphasis is on relational intimacy with Christ first prior to the task. DeWall explains it this way: “I shall not find Christ at the end of the journey unless He accompanies me along the way” (1997).

Unfortunately, contemporary Christian leaders not only omit the teaching of this critical truth, but neither do they embrace it in their own lives. Programs and productivity supplant the cyclical concept, which includes rest along with labor. Quantifiable results overshadow quality of life. Millions of dollars are spent to restore fallen pastors and reverse missionary attrition statistics.  But little attention is paid to soul care. Repeatedly, leaders bemoan, “I would if I only had the time.” It’s like tithing; no one can afford to not tithe. No one can afford to be too busy to not stop and rest.  

And Definitely a Time to Spend with God
Nouwen poses this scenario of a pastor who regularly schedules time with God:

We ministers may have become so available that there is too much presence and too little absence, too much staying with people and too little leaving them, too much of us and too little of God and His spirit. It is clear that much of this is connected with a certain illusion of indispensability. This illusion needs to be unmasked.

From all I have said about the minister as a sustaining reminder, it becomes clear that certain unavailability is essential for the spiritual life of the minister. I would like to make a plea for prayer as the creative way of being unavailable.

How would it sound when the question, “Can I speak to the minister?” is not answered by “I am sorry he has someone in his office,” but “I am sorry, he is praying.” When someone says, “The minister is unavailable because this is his desert day,” could that not be a consoling ministry? What it says is that the minister is unavailable to me, not because he is more available to others, but because he is with God, and God alone—the god who is our God.
When our absence from people means a special presence to God, then that absence becomes a sustaining absence.

Jesus continuously left his apostles to enter into prayer with the Father.  

It is in the intimacy with God that we develop a greater intimacy with people and it is in the silence and solitude of prayer that we indeed can touch the heart of the human suffering to which we want to minister. (1977, 48-51)

God never intended to develop hermits; rather, he meant for us to be strong leaders who would periodically sit at his feet, get our instructions and march into battle fully equipped by the indwelling Holy Spirit. God desires for us to be so frequent in our meeting with him that his still, small voice is recognizable throughout the daily routine.

A classic example of this lies in the life and small book of Brother Lawrence. A seventeenth-century French monk, Brother Lawrence desired to be alone with God, but also be in and aware of his presence in all things. He records his process in The Practice of the Presence of God, in which he speaks of intimacy with Jesus birthed in prayer and alone times but then expresses the continual presence through daily and mundane routines. Chores become additional communion with God:

I made this my business as much all the day long as at the appointed minute, even in the height of my business, I drove away from my mind everything that was capable of interrupting my thought of God….and though I have done it very imperfectly, yet I have found great advantages by it…they become habitual and the presence of god rendered as it were natural to us….One way to recollect the mind easily in the time of prayer, and preserve it more tranquility, is not to let it wander too far at other times. (1976, 50-51)

As commentators have noted, when the appointed times of prayer had concluded, Lawrence experienced 1 Thessalonians 5:17. There he found no difference, because he “prayed without ceasing.” He continued on with God, “praising and blessing him with all his might.”

Having experienced much of the same degree of rest and retreat, able to deeply and pointedly hear the voice of God, Julian of Norwich is renowned for the simple conclusion that, “All will be well, all will be well, all manner of things will be well.”

For these biblical and ancient examples, we may be convinced that all could be well, but do not experience that all will be well. The Psalmist gently resonates: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Ps. 37:1-7). “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in his Word I put my hope.  My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning (Ps. 130:5)  

Intentionality for Rest
The soul may resonate with Psalm 42’s opening: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” Nonetheless, this does not simply happen. One must be intentional about a plan much like God’s intentionality in creative design, life’s rhythm, and the ordering of the day. The monastics met at particular intervals engaging in the offices of each day. If there is not a plan and no time in stillness, there will be little intimacy or growth. Lawrence summed it up well:

We must know before we can love. In order to know God, we must often think of Him; and when we come to love Him, we shall also think of Him often, for our heart will be with our treasure….this is the glorious employment of a Christian. In a word, this is our profession; if we do not know it, we must learn it. (1997, 51, 53)

Brother Lawrence. 1976. The Practice of the Presence of God. Old Tappan, N.J.:  Spire Books.

DeWaal, Esther. 1997.  The Celtic Way of Prayer. New York: Image Books, Doubleday Publishing.

Hunter, George. 2000.  The Celtic Way of Evangelism. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press.

Nouwen, Henri. 1977.  The Living Reminder. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

Dr. Marla Campbell teaches at the School of Intercultural Studies at Biola University. Prior to this, she served as Dean of Students at Bethany College and as a missionary in the Balkans of Eastern Europe, then later with Asia-Pacific Education working with Bible colleges. During her fourteen years of teaching in Christian high schools, Marla had a vision for taking drama ministry teams nationally and internationally with the development of parable drama. Her mission opportunities have taken her to over sixty countries.

EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 134-135. Copyright  © 2013 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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