Rest for the Weary
My hands gripped the steering wheel as my minivan cut through the ranch-strewn cut through the ranch-strewn countryside of eastern Oregon. I was escaping to a retreat center for missionaries, in desperate need of rest and restoration. It had been nine months since we packed up our lives in East Asia and returned to the U.S. After 18 years of Asian life, our move back to the States was not a return "home," but a painful uprooting for our family.
As I drove my mind raced with doubts and guilt, "I don't really need to do this. What kind of mother leaves her family for a week with an empty refrigerator? I should have brought them along; they need it too."
But as the miles passed, the rural landscape and the quietness began to work magic. I already felt calmer - and hope was building in me that God might use this time away to restore me.
Heading home five days later, my mind was still busy, but with thoughts of a different type. As I thought about my husband and children, I was able to pray for them in a deeper, more trusting way than I had for a long time. My heart for ministry, which had been numb, was waking up. I dreamed of taking a group from our church back to our adopted land on a short-term missions trip. I broke the nine-month musical silence and sang praise songs in my van. All at once as I maneuvered curving mountain roads, I realized that I was refreshed. Creativity and energy and praise were returning - and hope had been restored.
The Road To Recovery
My five days at a retreat center were just what I needed. But how did I even know that I needed to get away? And in all my numbness and weariness, how did I ever manage the energy and commitment it takes for a mother of three to escape?
I'd love to say that it was my wisdom that made me schedule my three recent personal retreats. The truth is that I was weary to my core and unable to take any action to help myself. Caring brothers and sisters saw my condition and made a diagnosis: emotional exhaustion and possible burnout because of the trauma of our transition back to life in the U.S. Beyond a diagnosis, God was gracious to give them a care plan to restore me back to emotional health.
Our home church and sending organization do a fantastic job of caring for their overseas staff - and in my need I was the recipient of this care. Our home church sent us to Colorado to attend a week of debriefing and renewal for missionaries in transition. Through this time, I began to understand how very tired I was. I left China tired, and then, as moms do, I set aside my need for rest to attend to the huge task of settling my children - grades 6, 8, and 12 - into their new lives in their passport country. Our sending organization very gently but persistently suggested the value of taking a sabbatical after 18 years of serving overseas. My husband was able to take a manner of one, but I found myself unable to even sit and read anything for more than five minutes.
My care counselor Shirley Wilson asked me about taking a sabbatical. My question, in a choked voice, was how could I when I faced the task of guiding my children through their transition. I can't just take off three months from life, I said.
"Why don't you take mini-sabbaticals?" Shirley asked. With some well-placed questions, she guided me to discover what would best refresh me. My deepest longing, she helped me see, was to get away by myself, in places with heavy doses of mountains and pine trees and quietness, where I could rest, explore, hike, bike, read, and pray.
Rest For My Soul
My first foray into solitude came seven weeks later. I wanted to quiet myself enough to hear God's voice. I took my Bible down to the creek-side bench at the Inn. My weariness was so deep that all I could do was open it up to the Psalms. I remember how I read a few verses, only to have my eyes blur over with tears. During my three days there, I did my part by showing up on that swing with God's Word in my lap, asking Him to restore me. And He did! One of the greatest burdens I carried with me on that first retreat was the deep disappointment for my daughter Claire and her college admissions process that year. A top student, Claire nonetheless was finding one door after another closing to her, leaving just one door open at the local university. My quiet time on that swing allowed me the chance to pour out my frustrations to God. Later, as I dozed next to the stream, His gentle voice spoke to me - "Claire needs roots." I was able to walk away from that three-day retreat with thankfulness for the scholarships to the local university - and feel a huge burden lifted.
A Mirror For Reflection
On my Oregon "mini-sabbatical," God revealed to me that the root reason for my weariness came mainly from the accumulation of the sacrifices of 18 years of living and reaching out cross-culturally.
One day I sat in the sunshine on my private deck, meditating on Psalm 20:1-3: "May the Lord answer you when you are in distress; may the name of the God of Jacob protect you. May he send you help from the sanctuary and grant you support from Zion. May he remember all your sacrifices and accept your burnt offerings."
I began by asking God to do these things for me. I could see how He had been doing them all along! He remembered my sacrifices even before I did - and I began recounting in my journal a long list of ways He had answered, protected, helped, and supported me.
Nurture From Nature
Significant as these spiritual moments were for me, it would be dishonest to make it sound like I spent entire days in monk-like meditation. In truth, these deeper moments punctuated days full of walks, bike rides, hikes, meals out, and a good novel.
On my first trip, my walks were leisurely - mostly on the way to the small-town diner where I ate comfort food three times a day. But the springtime greenness and brilliant blue skies helped me rediscover both the beauty of my home state Idaho and the value of quietness. I cruised my van slowly down the country roads, marveling at the landscape carved out by the Snake River. On one drive down in the canyon, a bird burst into song just as I drove past; the beauty of it and a sense of God's love brought tears to my eyes.
This was physical restoration, after almost two decades of urban life - where instead of mountains, construction cranes rose above the horizon at every turn, and instead of the serenade of songbirds, the blare of taxi horns and yells of teeming life assaulted my senses.
The healing power of nature was just as important in my second and third retreats, but I felt more energetic and was able to be much more active, riding more than 50 miles of bike paths.
Calling All Women!
Shirley's prescription for personal retreats was just what I needed to renew my body, mind, and soul. What has startled me is the reaction I get from other women when I tell them about my mini-sabbatical events. I have read in their eyes everything from longing to outright jealousy. Women today are in desperate need of time away from their ministry and family responsibilities. The women's ministry pastor at my church said she feels guilty taking time away when there's so much to do. But just hearing my story has encouraged her to place a higher value on renewal - because, after all, it strengthens her for the tasks at hand.
Resolved To Rest
As I climbed into the small back-country plane to leave my last retreat - feeling energetic, rested, and hopeful - I resolved not to wait until my weariness calls for emergency measures. I am determined to make this a lifelong habit - to take time out to seek solitude, rest, and renewal. To come to Him and let Him give me rest. Matthew 11:28-29 says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." You will find rest for your souls.
Tips on Taking Your Own Personal Retreat
Admit your need for rest.
Put it on the calendar.
Get the support of your family and friends.
Resist taking someone else.
Don't feel guilty.
Customize your retreat.
Include the nature element.
Take advantage of resources.
Address the whole person.
Take a well-stocked tool chest.
Have great expectations.
~ Denele Ivins