"Invitation to Retreat" by Ruth Haley Barton

Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God by Ruth Haley Barton. IVP Books, 2018

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Ruth Haley Barton and her work with Transforming Center has built a strong collection of resources aimed at tending to the spiritual lives of pastors and Christian leaders. Her volume “Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership” published in 2008 with a second edition published in 2018 laid the foundation of much of her following work. Through workshops, retreats, podcasts, and further books Barton has shown that the work of Christian leadership is soul work. Her work follows a similar path to that of Richard Foster in teaching a largely evangelical audience the wisdom ancient spiritual practices have for modern busy leaders.

Her latest book explores the spiritual practice of retreat.

As every Christian book about retreat should do, she grounds her invitation to retreat in the example of Jesus and his own practice of retreating to a quiet place to pray, as well as his calling his disciples come away to a deserted place and rest a while. (Mk 6:30-31) Since that time, people in the church have recognized the importance of balancing their active life of work, with a time of retreat to give deeper attention to their relationship with God. “Retreat in the context of the spiritual life is an extended time apart for the purpose of being with God and giving God our full and undivided attention.” (P. 4)

Retreat often has two phases. The first phase is a retreat away from something. Barton uses the military phrase of strategic withdrawal from those places where we might be in danger. These dangers include distractions, trying too hard, exhaustion, poor boundaries, and feeling as if everything depends on you.

At The Hermitage, a retreat center in southwest Michigan where I am on staff, we will encourage retreatants to begin their time of retreat simply with relaxing and not doing anything. People need time to let go. Sometimes, that is all that can be, or needs to be accomplished on a retreat; simply letting go.

Once you have retreated away from something, the next phase is to retreat into something – and Barton describes that something as the rhythm of your retreat. She takes a few chapters to discuss moving into a different rhythm, one based largely on fixed-hour prayer. She sees fixed hour prayer as an important way to reset one’s mode of being. In an appendix she provides an order of prayer for praying four times a day during one’s retreat.

At the Hermitage we often talk about the rhythms of the Hermitage with daily morning prayer, including Eucharist on Wednesdays and centering prayer on Saturdays. Communal meals eaten in silence also help to live into the rhythm of daily life. These rhythms provide a structure, or a framework upon which the retreatants, and the staff, can shape and guide their day and give space to their intentions.

After the initial getting away to a retreat, Barton acknowledges that the retreatant can move into an experience of a deeper letting go and relinquishing. Letting go of control – you may have planned to read a few books, or write a paper, but on retreat you realize the Spirit is calling you to something completely different. Barton relates that retreatants may also experience a relinquishing of false-selves, and a letting go of identity.

In the next chapters Barton discusses the creative possibilities that can happen on retreat. Retreats can become productive times of discernment, recalibration, and finding spiritual freedom. It is important not to rush to these more productive experiences of retreat too quickly without giving enough time to let go and enter into the rhythm of the retreat.

Her final two chapters discuss the very important topic of returning from retreat. The retreat is not an end in itself. “The purpose of retreat is twofold: to become more deeply grounded in God as the ultimate orienting reality of our lives, and to return to the life God has given us with renewed strength, vitality, and clarity about how we are called to be in God for the world.” (p. 115) It is not uncommon for people to want to remain in the heightened experience they had on retreat – I have felt that way too – but returning from retreat is important.

On the driveway exiting the Hermitage departing retreatants see the sign “Return slowly.” This is not an indication that we don’t want to see them again, but it is a reminder that a retreat should serve the purpose of return. People returning to a time of retreat too quickly and too often may actually be escaping rather than retreating.

Barton has an easy going and approachable writing style. This short book is built on a strong foundation which Barton translates into practical suggestions and guidance. The format is especially geared to novice for whom retreat might only conjure up sleepless nights on rowdy church youth retreats or extended boring corporate meetings filled with activities nobody wants to do.

With all that Barton and Transforming Center accomplishes, it is hard to imagine when she finds the time to heed the invitation to retreat, but her book demonstrates she speaks with the wisdom of thoughtful experience.

In my work at The Hermitage, I feel fortunate that I get to extend the invitation to retreat, and provide the rhythms and structures which foster attentiveness to God.

For those who are interested in exploring spaces for retreat, some resources include Retreat Finder and Find the Divine. Your are also always welcome to pay me a visit at The Hermitage.

Farewell to Preservation

Preservation has been very, very good to me.

A week ago I tossed all my notes from my Intro to Conservation course into recycling. (I kept my very marked up copy of a Michele Cloonan article.) I’ve taught this class a few times, but will no more. It was just another step in my ongoing farewell to the world of library preservation.

Being engaged with the issues of preservation was my life for a number of years. It was a great adventure. It was a chance to explore, to learn, to experiment, and to meet and engage with people who are deeply passionate about their work.

But, my center of gravity has been shifting over the last year or so. Preservation topics just don’t enliven my spirit anymore. Some of this is due to a growing inner dissatisfaction with the current model of understanding preservation. And some of it is the shifts in inner life and perspective that can happen as one heads deeper into mid-life.

Ten years ago, as I was toying with the idea of a career change a wise person asked me “Are you done with your work?” After some reflection I realized “No, I have more I want to do with my library/preservation work.” Today, I’d answer that question with a resounding “Yes.”

In a little more than a month I officially leave my job, my library career, and the rewarding work of preservation for new adventures. I am deeply grateful for the experiences I’ve had and especially for the wonderful people I’ve learned to know along the way.

Change is constant and beneficial.

Blessings,

Kevin.

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Into the wilderness - a sermon

Mark 1:1-8; Isa. 40:1-11

 Trail to Mám Éan Pass, Connemara, Ireland

Trail to Mám Éan Pass, Connemara, Ireland

When I was a teenager, I went backpacking in the Canadian Rockies of southern Alberta. We would do some day hikes, and then a week-long trek deeper into the wilderness carrying everything we would need on our backs. I remember one day crossing a field of skree – those rough large stones that collect at the base of cliffs and mountains. There was a path, but the uneven and unsteady surface made it slow going. All of a sudden, rocks began flying in our direction from the cliff overhead. Not a lot of them, but when softball-sized stones come hurtling at you from a few hundred feet above your head – you take notice, and take action. We quickly scurried and huddled behind a large boulder as the stones came our way. One stone hit one of our group members but fortunately it hit his backpack. We stayed crouched there for a couple minutes or so until the commotion stopped and we cautiously continued on our way. You can never be quite sure what’s going to happen in the wilderness..

Our texts this morning have a lot to say about wilderness

Over the generations our North American lives have moved further and further away from the wilderness. Wilderness plays less of a role in our lives than in times past. Although, I’m glad that we have people like Randall Westfall at Camp Brethren Heights who tries to reconnect us to the wilderness. The wilderness holds some attraction for us – for the wild beauty of God – but also some danger and fear – what if I get hurt and have no cell signal or a dead phone, what if I get lost, what if there’s a bear?

Going into the wilderness means leaving the comfort, the familiarity, the protection, and the light of the place we call home. Going into the wilderness means going to a place where we are uncertain of our provisions. Will we have the food, water, and shelter to survive? What, or who, might we encounter in the wilderness. The wilderness is a place where we do not have control of our surroundings.

Going into the wilderness also means going into the dark – away from the constant noise pollution of the towns and cities. In the wilderness on a cloudless night you can see millions of stars, but on a cloudy night you cannot see your hand in front of your face. In the dark many animals come out and many things go bump in the night. In the wilderness and in the dark, we can lose our bearings. We can become disoriented.

When the European settlers arrived in North America they felt the need, and the God-given mission to conquer and subdue the wilderness – and the people who lived so comfortably with this wilderness. Forests were to be felled, and open lands to be farmed. Native Americans were to be removed or converted into farmers. Just this past week we saw our president take steps to take away some of our nation’s wilderness and sacred spaces, so it would be available for the machines of commerce and empire to conquer and tame.

We’ve also been reminded this week, of the strength and uncontrollable power of the wild as it disregards our hopes and prayers and burns ferociously through Southern California.

We read in the Mark passage that the people of the Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out into the wilderness. They were going into the wilderness as an act of hope. People without hope wouldn’t make the difficult journey. They went out into the wilderness to seek something and someone, and they might not have been certain exactly what to expect.

They were going to the wilderness to see John the Baptist. John the wild man. John the wearer of skins and the eater of bugs. John the prophet. John the truth-teller. John the shaman. They went into the wilderness to seek out a man with power. But John does not use that power to bolster up himself, but rather to speak truth, offer transformation, and point to the source of all power. The voice of a wild man with a wild message can’t be heard in the controlled environment of daily life, but requires you yourself going out into the wilderness to hear it.

John is comfortable in the wilderness. He understands the ways of his surroundings. He recognizes that he is like grass, he is like the flowers of the field, and he knows that the grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of God, the one who is to come, the one whose way he is preparing will stand forever.

So, the people come out to see John and what does he tell them to do? Prepare. John calls them to prepare the way of the Lord. They are not told to just sit around, doing nothing, and wait, but they are called to active waiting. They are called to get things ready for redemption’s arrival – for Jesus’ arrival. To prepare means you believe it is actually coming. You don’t sit immobilized by despair. You live in active hope. You don’t prepare your house for guests when you don’t think anyone is coming.

And how does John tell the people to prepare? Repent. The Greek word is metanoia which literally means turn around. John tells these people who are streaming into the wilderness looking for hope; he tells them that they need a radical disorientation and reorientation. John tells the people, and us, to recalibrate ourselves to face and move in the right direction. Towards God.

All these people from the whole Judean countryside – all the country folk – and those from Jerusalem – the city folk – they all went out to see John the Baptist. And they repented. And they confessed their sins. And they were baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. By a wild prophet. Can you imagine a people so eagerly watching and waiting for liberation and transformation? Can you imagine? Can you imagine people going into the wilderness and meeting this wild man and openly and publicly confessing their sins and turning their life around? How desperate these people must have been for change in their life, in their world.

Among all the other things John is, John is also an initiator. He is one who initiates people into a new way of being. With his wild, nature-based baptism of repentance he initiates people into a new relationship with God. He even does this for Jesus. He leads people through a ritual of cleansing, of baptizing, of being submerged into the wild river and in emerging, freeing themselves of their past misdirections, emerging with their face turned to the one who is to come.

In this Advent season we are invited to also go into the wilderness, go into the dark, into uncertainty seeking a vision to break upon us and take us to the other side. Stepping into the dark and into the deep trusting those who guide us. Waiting for the new light to dawn upon us.

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Now, I want to switch things up a little. We have looked at the Mark text seeing ourselves in the people heading out to the wilderness in hope for liberation, but that doesn’t have to be our only reading of this biblical story. We are not just people in need of liberation. We are also people who have already seen the light, who have turned our face toward God, and so we are also people who can point the way. After claiming our truth from John and after being initiated into God’s new community, we need to claim our own prophetic voice to speak truth and usher in the beloved community. We are also John the Baptist. Like John, our vocation as individuals and the church is to call people to transformation – yes, to repentance. We are to call others to live in hope and we are called to point people to the way. We are not the way, our church is not the way, the Church of the Brethren denomination is not the way – but we all signposts in the wilderness preparing the way, and pointing the way.

We cloth ourselves in the countercultural fabric of nonviolent love. We dine on the unusual nourishment of simplicity and community. We may be a curiosity to others standing out in the wilderness, or on the street corners, or in the Grand Traverse Pie Company calling individuals and nations to repent of their warring ways. Inviting others to let go of the false comforts of conspicuous consumption, of white privilege, of conquest over compassion, and head into the wilderness, giving up their control, giving up their tax breaks, giving up their sense of entitlement, and repent, turn to face God and be baptized into the way of following Jesus, peacefully, simply and together.

The one we point to is the light of the world we are all longing for. The one we point to is the peace that can still warring hearts. The one we point to is one whose sandals we are unworthy to stoop and untie, but he is also the one who will stoop and wash your feet.

The wilderness is still a scary place of vulnerability, but in this season of Advent we are called to head out into the wilderness, to go in hope, in expectant waiting, preparing the way, to be transformed, turning to face God. And what will we see? We’ll see a God who is already facing us. A God who has been waiting. God has been waiting for us. God stands ready, preparing the way for our entry into the beloved community.

Good news for the Canaanites? Reflections on Traveling the Potawatomi Trail of Death

(From a talk delivered at Lansing Church of the Brethren, Nov. 12, 2017)

Deuteronomy 20:16-18 But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.

Rescued from bondage in Egypt the Israelites wandered in the desert in hope, and in despair. After 40 years of wandering Moses finally led them to camp on the east side of the Jordan River. On the other side was the promised land. The land promised to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. The land flowing with milk and honey. For the Israelites this land symbolized a promised, settled home and divinely given liberty. This land of promise to the Israelites, however, was already the home to many other peoples. 

So, what about the Canaanites? What about the Hittites? What about the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites? The promise of liberation and land for the Israelites looked like genocide and the destruction of cultures and homes to these other peoples.

As people who claim this Exodus story of the good news God’s liberation as our own. we must ask ourselves, where is the good news for the Canaanites?

November is Native American Heritage Month. I thought this would be a good time to share with you about my participation in the Potawatomi Trail of Death Pilgrimage this past summer. And with that I want us to reflect on where this story in our nation’s past and our own faith story might intersect, and reflect on where the good news of God’s liberating love can break through and embrace us all.
 

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From Israel arriving at the River Jordan we move forward a couple thousand years to 1493 and Pope Alexander VI who issued a Papal Bull, or decree, that read in part “Any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” This is the foundation for what is known as the Doctrine of Discovery.

This ideology shaped the “conquest” of the America’s as divinely ordained. 

The “new” land was often depicted in the Exodus story terms as the promised land, gifted by God to the European settlers.

This doctrine would empower the European settlers to be a violent, colonizing force and would provide the foundation for the ideology of White Supremacy which continues with us today.

This would shape U.S. government policies, leading to such laws as Indian Removal Act of 1830
 

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One example of implementing the Indian Removal Act is that in pursuit of possessing the good farmland of Northern Indiana, the government desired to remove the local population who, among other things, were not exploiting the natural resources in an acceptable manner. In September of 1838 the head men of the Potawatomi of northern Indiana were called to a meeting at the catholic chapel. Once inside the doors were barred shut and locked. Militia then rounded up families offering little time to collect possessions and began the forced removal of the Potawatomi from northern Indiana to Kansas – or The Trail of Death. 

850 Potawatomi began the arduous trip of 660 miles. Pushed ahead at the ends of militia rifles, it was a trip of great hardship and illness, of broken promises and death.
 

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The Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary is located in Elkhart, Indiana, on what was once Potawatomi land. This past summer I participated in their course: “Trail of Death: A Pilgrimage of Remembrance, Lament, and Transformation” It was a 2-week immersive learning experience of readings, discussions, meeting with Potawatomi of different bands, and following the trail. And we went as descendants of settlers

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We had the great gift of having George Godfrey as one of our guides. He is a Citizen Nation Potawatomi whose ancestors traveled the Trail of Death and is the president of the Trail of Death Association

We are at the statue of Chief Menominee which is near the site of the church where the people were assembled. He initiated our time with a smudging ceremony.
 

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Trail is remarkably well marked with both road signs, and plaques on rocks marking the trail. This was the first plaque, done by a boy scout troop marking the spot where the first child died. The death of children becomes a common occurrence along the trail. The left in early Sept in very hot and dry conditions, and by the time they reached Kansas they were dealing with snow.

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There are markers at most of the places where they camped along the way or as close as they can get. Stone plays an important role in marking the trail and holding the story..

As we traveled we read accounts of the original trip from a military diary of each day. 

Monday, 24th Sept.
    At 9 this morning we left Pyatt’s Point (the encampment of yesterday) and proceeded down the Sangamon river fifteen miles to the place of our present Encampment, Sangamon Crossing. Physician reports “there have been two deaths since my last, and the situation of several of the sick is much worse. I would recommend that twenty-nine be left until tomorrow.” At the suggestion of Dr. Jerolaman twenty-nine persons were accordingly left behind with efficient nurses. They will join us tomorrow. We find a good deal of difficulty in procuring wagons for transportation – so many of the emigrants are ill that the teams now employed are constantly complaining of the great burdens imposed upon them in the transportation of so many sick. Subsistence and forage the same as yesterday. A child died during the evening.

 

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This plaque was in the parking lot of a gas station. 

Here we are reading a litany which we read several times each day at the places where we stopped. It was written by Katerina Friesen, who was the instructor for the class.

Litany of Remembrance
Standing where you walked,
We remember you.
Exile under gunpoint,
Loss of scared land,
We remember you.
Bruised feet and weary bodies,
Choked by dust and heat,
Sickness stalking young and old,
We remember you.

We lament this Trail of Death.
Trail of Broken Promises,
Theft of homelands for white man’s profit.
We lament this Trail of Death.
We lament that our ancestors
Did not dwell in peace.

Creator of all, we long for new vision today.
Open our eyes and give us sight
To seek the things that make for peace,
To see the Image of God in all peoples,

Especially those persecuted and oppressed.
Make a new way for us together,
Guide our fee, O Lord, on a Trail of Life.
 

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At one site we gathered at this old oak, which would have been there when the Potawatomi were making their journey.

Along the way we also read from others who helped shape the U.S approach to the Indigenous population. From a letter from President Thomas Jefferson to William Henry Harrison, Governor of the Indiana Territory, 1803

“When they withdraw themselves to the culture of a small piece of land, they will perceive how useless to them are their extensive forests, and will be willing to pare them off from time to time in exchange for necessaries for their farms and families. To promote this disposition to exchange lands, which they have to spare and we want, for necessaries, which we have to spare and they want, we shall push our trading uses, and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands.” 
 

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Each day we walked a portion of the journey. The journals of the time spoke of the hardships of lack of water and wood while crossing the prairies.

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Along the way we met and were hosted by many wonderful people who help keep the story of the Trail of Death alive and shared their own ancestral stories.

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Every night we gathered together to reflect on our experiences and thoughts for the day. Each day we responded to two questions: What disturbed you? and What surprised you?

This was a wonderful time of hearing how others are experiencing the pilgrimage and the different perspectives and experiences they brought to this experience.
 

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We reached the end of the trail in Kansas at Sugar Creek Mission. The people on the trail were promised housing and provisions when they arrived in Kansas, and they got none of that. From hardship to hardship. The mission was there for 10 years and in that time 600 Powatatomi died. Their names are inscribed on these crosses. One of our final pilgrimage activities was publicly reading the names of all who had died with responding with "Shodeh" – or "here" – after each name.

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On our final evening we were joined by Eddie Joe of the Prairie Band. Eddie Joe is deeply concerned about keeping alive traditional ways and ceremonies. He talked about his story, and his practices, and the ancestors.

We had three themes during our time on the journey: 

  • Origin stories – we considered how our various origin stories and how they shape who we are today, biblical, national, cultural, personal. 
  • Exile and Deliverance – The biblical story of Israelites being delivered into promised land is also the story of the conquest of the Canaanites.
  • Resisting, Repenting, and Repairing – Okay, so now what are we settler white folk to do. How do we move beyond lament.

 [Author’s note - I was deeply conflicted and challenged in creating a conclusion for this. I can honestly say I don’t really know what the right conclusion is - but I had to come to some kind of conclusion for my talk. I will keep reflecting and maybe new insights will be revealed.]

Just as the trauma of African American slavery is still with us, so too is the trauma of colonization of indigenous held lands, the destruction of culture, and taking of lives. These traumas have lingering damaging effects on all of us.

We as the Lansing Church of the Brethren believe God’s liberty and justice does not benefit some at the expense of others. As many of us are descendants of settlers, we need to honestly accept that some of what we see as God’s generosity has been provided at the cost of another’s culture and freedom. We need to lament the wrongs of the past, and the wrongs that are continuing today. But we also need to bear witness to, and sometimes get out of the way of God’s resurrecting and redeeming power which works in and through all.

Some of our way forward; some of our good news is found in the Psalm 25 reading.

8 Good and upright is the Lord;
   therefore God instructs sinners in the way.
9 God leads the humble in what is right,
   and teaches the humble God’s way. 
10 All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
   for those who keep God’s covenant and decrees.

In Jesus’ encounters with lepers and women and foreigners we see examples of good news for the Canaanites, and for all. Jesus listens to them. Jesus honors their humanity. Jesus restores right relationships. 

Good news for the Canaanites, good news for the Native Americans happens when we as settler descendants with honesty and humility listen and remember the stories of those who have been hurt by the policies that have benefited us. 

Good news is found in when we join together to resist efforts to harm the land and the water which has nurtured us for thousands of years. Good news is found when honor treaties and recognize the right of tribes to self-rule.

God’s good new for the Canaanites; God’s good news for the Native Americans, is God’s good news for all. It is God’s overflowing, unconditional, and liberating love which seeks justice for all – on earth, as it is in heaven.

(Thanks to David Stoeger for all the pictures.)

God of this place - a prayer

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God of winter and spring, of summer and autumn.

God of the day and the night and the beautiful in-between.

God of the north and the south, the east and the west.

God of the universe and the atom.

You are God of this place and this time.

Your presence is found in the present moment.

Help us to plant our feet in this place,

not because it is our place, but it is the place where we are.

Remind us of those who have planted their feet here before us,

who tended this place,

who lived in this place,

who encountered you in this place.

Remind us that our ancestors did not arrive to an empty land.

God of all places, we receive the gift of this place as a gift

not for some, but for all.

Amen.