Taking a Quiet Time with God: The Necessity of Spiritual Retreat for Spiritual Leaders

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One thing that can be said for certain about a life of pastoral ministry is that it is a busy one. It seems nowadays that those of us in ministry – particularly pastors – are facing greater demands for our time. There is more and more to do and less time in which to do it. Those who shepherd are caught up in a frantic pace of preaching and teaching, visitation and counseling, committee meetings and administrative duties, and a hundred other important tasks that call for our attention.

With all that ministry requires from spiritual leaders, it is often difficult for us to take time for rest and renewal. This fast-paced, media-driven society in which we live has created a false sense of urgency that drives those with a gift for shepherding to feel as though any period of idleness means time lost in ministry. But taking time away from our ministry to spend with the Lord is not idleness. It is actually a vital part of our ministry; and frankly, without it, the underlying power and spirit behind that ministry will diminish and even become counterproductive. Understanding the importance of taking a quiet time for rest, reflection and renewal is crucial if ministry leaders are to remain strong shepherds of those under their care.

Perhaps the biggest reason for taking a quiet time with God is found in the following verse:

“Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:11a)

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This is not some nice thought; it is actually a command. Our Father wants us to come away from the distractions of the world and spend time with Him so that we may take ourselves off the throne of our lives and put Him on it. When we are full of the noise of our own self-importance, we cannot know God in the truest sense. If we place the quotation from the psalm within its context, we see that when the world around us is erupting in chaos and confusion, God commands us to still our souls so that we may see that He is forever sovereign in power and loving in how He unfolds His plans. He desires that we know Him and His will for our lives; and that can never take place until we know what it means to “be still.”

Jesus understood the need to retreat from the world to regroup and enter into deep communication with the Father. He even commanded this of His disciples:

He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. (Mark 6:31)

The reason so many in ministry struggle with taking time for God is that they have forgotten the real importance of this experience. In order to come to a better understanding of the purposes and benefits of a personal, contemplative time, we have no better example than the Lord Himself. Let us look at the reasons why He took time away from the crowds and the results of those holy encounters with God, to find application for our own lives and ministries.

One of the first such inner retreats Jesus experienced occurred immediately after His baptism in the Jordan by John. In Matthew we read:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

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The passage tells us that Jesus was led into the desert, driven by the Spirit to face the Tempter. According to the story, Jesus prepared for His encounter with Satan by a 40-day period of fasting and prayer. The enemy offered Jesus three temptations: to use His power to circumvent God’s will, to put His Father to the test, and to trade His mission of suffering and death for the power and prestige of earthly kingdoms. Each time, Jesus answered Satan with words from Deuteronomy (8:3, 6:13, 6:16). This is significant because it demonstrates Jesus’ faithfulness to the Law and His understanding that He was the fulfillment of that Law. He did not simply pull a few verses out of context to use at the right moment; those Scriptures were His food and drink. Though He was physically hungry, He had a feast of God’s word ever before Him. And this is the first point:

1) A quiet time is a satisfying feast with God.

Like sitting in front of the fire with a cup of tea, a snack and a good book, our quiet time should be a delightful period of indulgence where we take in God’s Word, bask in His care and reflect on the pleasure and power we receive when we get in touch with our Maker. Each morsel of this daily bread should fill us up until there is an abundance left over to share with the world. We are hungry people in the wilderness of this earthly pilgrimage, and we need to be nourished with God’s heavenly manna as we travel toward eternity.

Jesus also spent extended time alone just before making crucial decisions. Luke tells us about this:

In those days he departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. When day came, he called his disciples to himself, and from them he chose Twelve, whom he also named apostles: (Luke 6:12-13)

We can imagine that, rather than going over a list of applicants for positions, Our Lord, with His intimate and perfect knowledge of these men, held each disciple before the Father in prayer, knowing the confusion and fear and trials and suffering each man was to endure. In that time of solitude, Jesus connected so deeply to these men, that understanding who would be chosen and how those choices would be lived out was something that transcended time and presented itself in a moment of joy and determination.

This was the way of the Jesus, the Divine Artist. His bond to the men and mission was so complete, so intricate and so deep, that He could see the colors and shades of the unfolding reality before Him and know just how each man was to fit into God’s holy and eternal plan. And this is our second point:

2) A quiet time is a creative connection to God's purposes and plans.

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Like writers and artists and sculptors who seek a muse, our contemplations connect us to the creative energy of God, allowing us to see life from a broader perspective. As we receive insight from the Word and inspiration from our intimate communication with God, we learn how to paint upon the canvas of life with more brilliant and deliberate strokes, shaping others’ lives, and drawing out what is beautiful and holy from our encounters with the world. This creative response to God’s call comes out of the depth of the intimacy we discover as we let ourselves be shaped by God’s creative Spirit. It is a wonderful experience because we know we are sharing in salvation’s plan and giving delight to our Father in heaven.

Jesus also withdrew from the crowds in moments of death and at turning points in His ministry. Take a look this passage from Matthew: 

…and he had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who took it to her mother. His disciples came and took away the corpse and buried him; and they went and told Jesus. When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. (Matthew 14:10-13)

It was a time for Jesus to grieve the death of His cousin John and reflect on the part John played in His journey to the cross. But Jesus also understood that this was a pivotal hour – a no turning back moment – in His ministry. And this is our third point:

3) A quiet time gives us the courage to surrender to God’s will.

As believers, we face many “deaths” in our walk with the Lord. In following Jesus day by day there are things we must leave behind and casualties in the battles we fight along the way. It may be a family member or friend who turns away from a moral decision we make. We may face opposition to our plans or persecution from those who find the cross a scandal. Though such times may tempt us to turn back to old ways and safe places, we know that as shepherds and ministers we need to seek solitude so that we may mourn these deaths, releasing them into the care of the One who guides the stars of the universe by His will. As we seek solace in the midst of the uncertainty of change, we can surrender to the sure and future hope that God will work all things out for the good for those whom He has called. In this act of obedience, we find the courage to move forward, hoping those we left behind will someday join us and believing that the sacrifices we make will lead to greater fulfillment and peace. Like Jesus, when we come back to the crowds, we will see them with compassionate eyes and discover ways we may extend our lives into theirs to bring healing and fulfill the plan of God.

This leads us to another time when Jesus sought solitude. Consider the following verses:

After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone. (Matthew 14:23)

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At daybreak, Jesus left and went to a deserted place. The crowds went looking for him, and when they came to him, they tried to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, “To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent.” (Luke 4:42-43) 

These passages represent a two-fold temptation that comes with ministry. One is to believe that our ministry will fall apart without us. The other is to become content with our ministry and fail in helping it grow. This is the temptation of the devil in the wilderness all over again. As Jesus grew more popular, the danger would be to become bogged down in His fame while forgetting His true mission. And this is the temptation we all face as followers of Jesus: to have our eyes fixed on the crown without considering the cross. As leaders, we can become caught up in our popularity and begin to act in our own strength, neglecting God’s greater purposes. And this is the fourth point:

4) A quiet time humbles us and allows us to let go.

It is easy to become caught up in the admiration and accolades of those to whom we minister and begin to think that all we accomplish comes from our own strength. We may also become so protective of our ministry that we fail to allow the Holy Spirit to move in the lives of others. But the reality is that God is the author of our lives and the lives we serve. We may need to allow our fellow believers to falter and fail in order for them to grow. Our tried and true methods of ministry may need a little shaking up every once in a while. Like many pastors who have preached sermons without preparing for them, we need take steps to remind ourselves that we are to rely on God’s provision and power for all that we do. Such humble submission can free us to move into new avenues of ministry, knowing God is on our side.

This kind of faithful surrender, prompted by our solitude and closeness to God, and acted out in the real world, is difficult work. Even Jesus Himself experienced this as shown by the following:

The report about him spread all the more, and great crowds assembled to listen to him and to be cured of their ailments, but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray. (Luke 5:15-16)

Ministry can be physically demanding and emotionally draining. And this is our fifth point:

5) A quiet time recharges our spiritual energies.

Caring for others is not an easy task. Even for those whose spiritual gifts are for service and hospitality, healing and counsel, the stress of shepherding can take a heavy spiritual toll. Introverted leaders are especially vulnerable to becoming burned out by constant contact with the struggles and personal issues of others. And no matter how strong we are or how much we thrive on our work, as we pour ourselves into the lives of others, we spend our spiritual store of grace in building up the Body of Christ. Eventually, we need that quiet time to reestablish our link to our divine lifeline, so that we may tap into the limitless supply of power that God provides. As we draw from the well of God’s Living Water, we find new strength for another day.

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Of course, in addition to spending quiet time alone, there may be times when we join with other ministry leaders to commune with the Father. In the company of close friends, we share our common struggles and insights so that we may come to understand them more fully. Jesus did this with His disciples on the mount of Transfiguration:

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” (Matthew 17:1-7)

Our communion with God is something that is deeply personal, but at the same time is intimately connected to other believers. This is our sixth point:

6) A quiet time spills over into communal support.

We need to take time to withdraw together with those who share in our ministry in order to see just how much we are bonded with the spirits of our brothers and sisters in leadership. Jesus took Peter, James and John, His three closest disciples, and revealed Himself in a moment of glory. It allowed the Father to affirm His Son’s mission and express His gratitude and approval for what Jesus was doing. We need this as well. There are times when our personal encounters with God spill out into communal praise and fellowship, and later, into communal action with a greater sense of purpose. Taking time away with colleagues helps us to answer crucial questions: Where are we going? What is our purpose? How will we get there? These hours of quiet time together can reconnect us to all that it means to be members of the Body of Christ and help us to affirm and support one another in our common ministry goals.

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There is one final time when Jesus withdrew to commune with His Father, just before the most significant event in His life:

Then they came to a place named Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be troubled and distressed. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch.” He advanced a little and fell to the ground and prayed that if it were possible the hour might pass by him; he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.” (Mark 14:32-36)

Here was the hour of trial for our Lord. Here was the moment where everything was on the line. But rather than focusing on Himself and His fears, Jesus brought everything to His Heavenly Father in total submission. He could have turned away from the cross; but a lifetime of communion with the Father had prepared our Lord for this. He was ready to become the sacrificial lamb and to give His life as a ransom for ours. Though this event was happening in a moment in time, all of eternity was present in the powerful prayer that Jesus lifted up to His Father. And this is our seventh and final point:

7) A quiet time gives us supernatural strength for the trials.

As Shepherds, how do we survive our own journey to the cross? How do we come to that place where we can surrender our lives to fulfill our purpose and face the trials that are sure to come? How can we approach the raging waters of hardship and cross our own Jordan River to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of God’s will? We need to embrace Gethsemane. We may close our eyes from exhaustion, we may scatter when the persecution starts, and we may even deny that we know our Lord and fall to our knees and weep bitterly for our failures; but we still need to embrace Gethsemane, for it is there that the real truth of our time with our Father is revealed. It is God who rescues us, who reveals Himself to us, and who joins His very life to ours, so that we may take in the power and purpose of the Holy Spirit and live it out to its fullest measure. 

We need our quiet time to carve out a healing space within us – a refuge of rest and a holy olive press where we can allow the pressure of the Father’s loving hand squeeze out the doubts, the fears, the sins and the falsehoods that are a part of our human condition through Original Sin. We need to sweat out the blood of adversity and draw strength from the light of heaven as we surrender to the great mystery that is ours when we give our lives to Jesus. Consider this one last verse:

Lord, my heart is not proud; nor are my eyes haughty. I do not busy myself with great matters, with things too sublime for me. Rather, I have stilled my soul. Like a weaned child to its mother, weaned is my soul. (Psalm 131:1-2)

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Our Father longs for us to be one with Him – so connected with His Spirit that we share in His glory and His purpose. Our quiet time is meant to remove us from the world so that we may be moved inwardly by God, and in turn, returned to the world ready to take on the tasks to which we have been called. We rest, we surrender, we wrestle, we give, and we receive in this blessed inner chamber of communion with our Maker. Let us cherish these times when we commune with Him in the inner palace of our hearts; and let us bring those blessings back into our ministries so that we may bless others, build the Body of Christ and draw closer to the One who has called us His own.

Words of Life for Cutting Words: One Man’s Journey into the Online World of Teen Writing

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A couple years ago I decided to up my writing game by expanding my Internet presence, signing up on a few writers’ sites and posting some of my work for public consumption. I thought it would be a good way for me to network, point others to my website and build a greater following for my writing. I looked forward to getting feedback and interacting with the other writers, but what I didn’t expect to encounter was a whole sub-culture of teen self-expression that dove deeply into the dark regions of depression and self-harm. As I became more involved in the writing sites, the youth minister in me kicked in and I found myself drawn to reach out to those young people with the love of Christ. And so what started out as a way to build my brand turned out to be a winding journey into the thick of this mysterious and intense world of words. It was a true testing of my faith and ministry skills, and I learned a great deal about how the current social media culture has shaped the way teens view and express their identity, their fears and their pain.

The Emotional World of Online Teen Writing…

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One of the first things I discovered on these sites was that, along with all the vampire stories and fan fiction and teen romance novels, there was a large percentage of poetry on depression, cutting and emotional brokenness. Here, many teens commiserated with one another over the harshness of their lives. These tender, hurting souls were posting brutally honest commentary about their circumstances, beautiful and often dark poetry describing their pain and despair, and rants that raged against the cruel world around them. I found much of it very difficult to read, not so much because of the pain it described but because of the hopelessness behind that pain. For sure, some of what I was reading was an expression of the emotional drama that all teens experience, the kind that can become overstated for effect. But in truth, much of it spoke to the sad reality that our culture has, in many ways, created a climate of loneliness, abuse, and abandonment in the hearts of young people. For the most part, there was very little hope in the words I was reading, but plenty of validation and camaraderie among these tortured teens. However, this virtual sharing of votes and comments in some sense served to perpetuate the whole cycle despondency as sympathetic replies from kindred souls prompted the teen authors to turn out additional chapters, leading to more comments, leading to further writing – and on and on it went – a catharsis with no real resolution.

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Sadder too, was the fact that so many of these teens were writing about their struggles with identity – and especially their sexual identity. I noticed that many of the culturally and politically correct terms had found their way into their posts: bi-sexual, bi-curious, pansexual, gender fluid, gender blind, transgender, and so on. Most of what I read expressed confusion or a call for validation of a particular choice made. There were those who wrote long rants about the intolerance of the rest of the world for the LGBT community, expressed in such a way as to leave any discussion on the subject closed, lest anyone with a different opinion be labeled as a bigot. In the comments on these pages, people applauded the person’s choice without ever addressing the confusion expressed in the words. I thought about how heart-rending it was that the larger issue of the identity of people’s souls was completely ignored.

Trust, not Tracks…

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In crafting my evangelistic approach, I determined to employ a gentler touch: building trust rather than passing out tracts, so to speak. Instead of launching into some sort of calculated discourse on biblical principles and Christian virtues, I decided to read through the writing and pray to draw out the deeper meaning behind the words. I looked for the needs behind the anger and the longings behind the tears. I used as my model the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4:1-42. This woman, ostracized by her village and forced to draw water in the heat of the day, was an individual full of suffering and sorrow. Rather than chastise this adulterous woman, Jesus, the all-knowing, all-loving Savior, chose to engage her in conversation. He offered her living water, though initially, she didn’t fully comprehend the deeper meaning behind His words. But slowly, the One without a bucket or dipper was able to draw up the pain and need from the well of this daughter’s aching heart. Her dialogue went from guarded irritation to awareness of her need; and in the end, she became open to being filled by the Messiah.

As I prayed over the poetry and prose I was reading, I asked for the wisdom to see each person in the same way Christ saw this woman. Through the words, I began to understand what these hearts truly needed. In the pain of rejection, I saw the need for affirmation. In the despair of abuse and bullying I saw the need for the safety of sacrificial love. Self-loathing spoke to the desire for something to fill the emptiness inside. Self-harm served as a desperate cry for the soothing touch of a trusted hand. Each tear and tragic story tugged at my heartstrings, calling me to spill words of healing onto the reply pages of their posts. A vote was not an endorsement of their ideology, but rather a knock at the door of a wounded heart. Each reply was fashioned to speak to individuals where they were. I pointed to the cleverness of their wordplay, the relevance of each metaphor and the unique stylistic choices they had made. But in those replies I also offered a word or two of wisdom, a sliver of humor and hope, and an overture of friendship without judgment. And as each door opened, I bid the Savior to enter with me into each heart I encountered.

A Listening Ear, a Healing Word…

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Building trust was a slow process of acknowledging that I understood the pain I witnessed in the words and recognized the beauty deep down in those broken hearts. As I shared with them, first as a writer and then as someone with a gift for healing, I offered words that served as a spiritual balm to sooth the wounds that cut deeper than any razor ever could. I gave understanding rather than approval for behaviors. I never accepted beliefs contrary to my own, but spent time listening to the other person’s thoughts before expressing my own opinions in a gentle and loving way. Each day, when new writing came out, I commented in the same manner as before, but with a little more familiarity from earlier online conversations. This gentle method led to further conversation and openness.

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In my ministry work with teen girls I was very familiar with the tragic realities of suicidal depression, cutting, and eating disorders. From years spent with Christian teens I had come to a deeper understanding of the dynamic behind these self-harming behaviors. But here in this asylum of words I gained new insights into the minds of those who struggled in these ways. These young women saw their bodies as detestable canvases upon which to write the sorrowful story of their lives, and they reflected that despair in their writing. Each cut was like a horrid brush stroke on a dark painting, meant to be hidden from misunderstanding eyes. But at the same time, through the poetry, the hidden cuts were displayed in the relative safety of virtual reality. They wrote about their struggles with eating as a slow, sorrowful walk on a path towards a life wasting away with no one to notice or care. As they posted daily of their trials they clung to the words they wrote, hoping their hypnotic power might hold their lives in place for one more day, but at the same time, they saw themselves inching deliberately toward the edge of the abyss.

A Message of Hope and Healing…

 My message became simple: You are worthy. You are unique. You are loveable. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. I continued to post daily comments on new writings that came out, and spoke with gentleness and caring in short chats about nothing and everything. Eventually I decided to post my own “dark” poetry, poetry that related to the hurt I saw but presented the love of the Savior as well. I considered that, in order for people to find hope, I needed to move beyond the small circle of trust built around my life and walk with them up the hill of the Skull to the cross. Through my poetic words, I began to introduce these new writing friends to the One who could take the pain and sorrow to Calvary’s tree and free them from their bonds. One such poem that grew out of these interactions and insights was called, “Child of Sorrow.” It spoke of the One who was “cut” for them, upon whose flesh had been written all the sins of the world. Here was the God-Man, who willingly took each bloody stripe of the whip, whose head was crowned with thorns, whose very lifeblood was completely drained in payment for every sin. If anyone could relate to their pain and their struggle, it was this Man of Sorrows. In the poem, a young girl, just like them, took the depths of her despair to the cross:

 

Child of sorrow, fair of form,
Traveling through the fiercest storm,
Sees within the mirror, image dulled with deepest rage.

Sun will rise, another day,
Wears her mask, her part to play,
Walks the path of death, entrapped within a cruel cage.


No one hears her silent cry,
Now resolved to daily die,
Writes upon her battered flesh the bitter words of hate,

Used, abused, misunderstood,
Underneath a Gothic hood,
Sinks within her demon dream and feels her phantom fate.

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Can there be no one who sees,
Or no ears to hear her pleas?
Must she now forever live in silent solitude?

Feels her racing heart retreat,
Waiting for its final beat,
Draws the blade her life of empty aching to conclude.


Wand'ring streets in stinging rain,
Searching now to end the pain,
Falls upon a heavy oaken door and enters in.

Moving past the blessed bath,
Sacred pews and angel's wrath,
Now before the altar table draped in sick'ning sin.


Raises firsts to heaven's throne,
Bringing out her heart of stone,
Rages now before the God who mocks her from above.

Gazes now at tortured King,
On his brow a thorny ring,
Body beaten, sacred stripes to testify of love.


Sees the writing on His skin,
All of our forgiven sin,
Blood poured out in full to set now free our dying race.

Can there be a love so pure,
Or a payment so secure,
That His life should so completely take the sinner's place.


Drops the blade upon the floor,
Her young flesh to cut no more,
For the Savior King's cruel death now fills her weary soul.

Rises now a newborn child,
No longer to be reviled,
Weight of sin now lifted, body, mind and spirit whole.


Looks again upon the cross,
Contemplates Messiah's loss,
All so she could gain a place at heaven's open door.

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Tears of joy now freely flow,
To her knees and bending low,
Grateful broken heart now free, her blood to flow no more.


Seeking out the sacred page,
For her mind now to engage,
Deep inside the words of hope, a purpose now to find.

Leaves the sanctuary filled,
Voices silenced, pain now stilled,
Now refreshed, renewed, reborn in body, soul and mind.


Child of sorrow, fair of form,
Having now survived the storm,
Sees within the mirror now the face of love restored.

Sun has risen, new day calls
Moves outside her broken walls,
To a world of hurting souls who need her gentle Lord.

 

Hope Rewritten…

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Eventually I began to see subtle changes in the way people responded. They knew someone was listening who understood, who didn’t judge, who didn’t want to run away. Even if they didn’t quite get it, they knew they knew I was praying for them and offering something other than hollow affirmation. Their poetry began to take on a note of hope, especially in the advice they began offering their followers, reminding them to keep on trying and not to give up. They began to write less of their pain and to speak into the lives of others going through the same struggles. In their words I saw reflections of the Savior’s love, slowly piercing through the veil of their pain. They were coming to see that if another person could take the time to walk with them on their journeys, then perhaps this God he believed in might be worth a second look after all. I realized that instead of trying to be a counselor, an advisor, a fixer or a sympathizer, all I really needed to be was a channel for the grace of God. I had entered as a stranger, but without judgment or criticism. I had spoken life into their cutting words and allowed the grace of God to work in heaven’s timing rather than my own. 

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Now I would be remiss if I left you without saying that as I continue to minister through my writing, I’m not alone in my mission. I have seen other believers on these same sites, sharing the same hope with these hurting souls. Some I would say are better able to break through the barriers because they too are teens, and because they’ve gone through some of the same struggles but have come out on the other side in the arms of their Savior. They too have posted writings of hope and strength for others to read, and have talked and prayed and shared with these struggling teens, offering perhaps more than I ever could. It has been a joy to see how much the grace of God can shine when His children use their gifts and venture out into new worlds, even the virtual kind.

I can only hope that more and more Christians with a gift for words will choose to share their writings with those who are calling out with their broken words for something more. In this age where it’s so easy to connect online, I hope there are more empathetic souls willing to bring the light of Christ’s love into the dark online worlds of these young people and spread the Gospel message of healing and redemption to those who are lost and looking for a refuge of hope!