Post Retreat Reflections (No. I’ve Lost Count)
Retreats don’t make a lot of sense. It feels unnecessarily analog in a digital age. When you do the calculus of the short weekend, it makes you wonder why you do it in the first place. Oh yeah, and COVID. It will be the perpetual asterisk that punctuates this moment in history.
And yet, I am sitting here, putting proverbial pen to pad, writing yet another post-retreat reflection because my cup is full to the brim with blessings. Though I am more pessimistic than ever before, at least when it comes to a programmatic approach to manufacture and market ministry momentum, this weekend melted this frozen heart of mine. I swear I felt a few palpitations and unintentionally started to feel feelings.
I wonder if “retreat” is a misnomer for what it really is. Retreating conjures up images of fearful soldiers who concede defeat. It is pregnant with connotations of timidity and trepidation. At best, retreating is essentially digging our heads in the sand, hoping that if we don’t see it, it must not exist.
Color me cynical, but I am not the biggest fan of retreats. I have lost count of how many times I have been a victim of those emotional weekends, offering up grandiose resolutions only to fall deeper into the abyss of my hypocrisy. Retreats felt, at best, like a temporary Band-Aid to the footlong gash in my soul, and at worst, like a manipulative mirage.
The retreat game is different when you are a pastor; I cannot simply impute my personal thoughts to my students. For a lack of a better analogy, I have to learn to contain the radioactive cynicism to just within my ship and not let it seep out anywhere else. I guess it’s ironic that I am so forthright about it all, then.
But the point of this post is not to simply vomit my vapid thoughts and let you connect the dots. I don’t even want to be an iconoclast, of sorts, with regards to such an institution as retreats. I am writing this loquacious letter to myself, and to God, as a confession that even after all these years, that I need to retreat. We all do.
I am guilty of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I am such a purist in that way; if there’s even a smudge or blemish, I’d rather just throw the garment away and buy a new, pristine one. But I am quick to forget that growth is gradual and purification is a process. And even though I am supposed to be this erudite pastor and even though my calling is to be that of a mother bird who chews up Scripture to nourish those under my care, I can’t help but feel like a fraud. They say that generals shouldn’t show their fear because it might rattle the soldiers. I feel that in my core. I don’t want to roll up my sleeves and reveal my deep, existential eczema for I fear it might stumble my flock.
Well, let me show you one of my scars: I am a results oriented person. I find my worth in successes. And if those moments become more seldom, then my harsh, ruthless inner voice takes over. It not only offers unsolicited crushing commentary on everything, but becomes the very reality of my existence.
“Not that many people showed up. You’re not that great.”
“You preached for too long and the points weren’t even coherent.”
“You didn’t reach out to enough people this week. Get it together.”
I’ve been reading a lot of Henri Nouwen these days, and he writes a lot about solitude. He is the master of perfecting the interplay of pastor and prophet and he diagnoses my heart so well:
When we start being too impressed by the results of our work, we slowly come to the erroneous conviction that life is one large scoreboard where someone is listing the points to measure our worth. And before we are fully aware of it, we have sold our soul to the many grade-givers. That means we are not only in the world, but also of the world. Then we become what the world makes us. We are intelligent because someone gives us a high grade. We are helpful because someone says thanks. We are likable because someone likes us. And we are important because someone considers us indispensable. In short, we are worthwhile because we have successes. And the more we allow our accomplishments — the results of our actions — to become the criteria of our self-esteem, the more we are going to walk on our mental and spiritual toes, never sure if we will be able to live up to the expectations which we created by our last successes. In many people’s lives, there is a nearly diabolic chain in which their anxieties grow according to their successes. This dark power has driven many of the greatest artists into self-destruction. (Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life)
It is this psyche, my sinful false humility, that I needed to retreat from. I needed to get away from the cacophony of my cynicism.
Now, simply going to a remote retreat center in the woods with terrible phone service and even worse food didn’t solve my problem. It would be awfully naive to even think that I am now suddenly relieved of this cumbersome cross of cruel self-critique. But what this weekend did offer me was a momentary break in the clouds; it was a providential reprieve of my psychosis and to just be and not do.
Nouwen later writes: “It is in this solitude that we discover that being is more important than having, and that we are worth more than the result of our efforts.”
There was one clear moment when this realization came over me: I was standing off, admiring the college students take their group photos. I wasn’t aware of it, but one of my discussion group leaders had said my name several times to get my attention. As she came up and tapped me on my shoulder, I violently broke out of my trance, and she said, “Jason, you look so happy right now! It’s weird!”
Backhanded comment aside, I think in that moment I experienced the joy and freedom of being. Though I don’t have any children, I was looking at my students as if they were my own. And there was a deep sense of pride. This pride was not the pride stemming from self-engineered success. This pride was of the culmination of hard work that I put in. This burgeoning pride within me was a pride rooted in God’s gracious call for me to be their pastor. Though I am feeble and finicky, they let me be their pastor. They even kind of like me.
I will probably fall from this cloud eventually. In reality, it’ll happen by the end of this week. Though this soliloquy started out as a confession, it’s starting to feel more like thanksgiving. As I construct this monument of God’s loving grace, I want retreat more often so that I can sit and stay for just a little while longer.
Here are some photos of me at my very last college retreat, this very day in 2009: