In the Beginning: Reflections from Our Second New Year’s Retreat

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The second annual New Year’s retreat is in the books! I was delighted to join 10 other companions in a cozy lodge nestled in Hocking Hills for a time of rest, reflection, and refreshment. I trust that everyone left a bit more rested and ready to engage another year, finding renewal through times of group worship and reflection, free time to play and pray, hot tub, hiking, conversations of consequence, spiritual practices, and good food. Folks from Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan, Oregon, and Tennessee gathered for the weekend to start the year with renewal.

So often the new year is simply a new number, a new calendar, another verse same as the first. The picture that came to mind was of a runner who is finishing their race–finally, breathlessly–only to immediately start a new one. It’s harmful, unsustainable, and will inevitably lead to injury and breakdown. We worked hard in 2018. It was full of beauty and truth, pain and success. But we made it. We finished that race. The retreat was an invitation to rest from the previous race, reflect back across the way, and reset for what’s next.

The Apostle Paul encouraged the young church in Corinth to “run in such a way that you may win the prize.” Often we interpret this to mean we should run with intensity, passion, and self-denial. While those are qualities needed to win a race, there is another, often overlooked quality required to actually finish the race: pace. If we want to make it through another year and live the length of our years fully, we must learn to set the right pace, to live within the right rhythms. This involves intention and planning.

The teachers and prophets across scripture and church history remind us that spiritual formation is more of a marathon than a sprint. We enter into Jesus’ rhythms of grace and learn to train rather than just try. One reason that resolutions fail and we grow discouraged with our own development is that we think willpower and trying real hard will get us where we want to go. When we inevitably fall or misstep, we give up. As a way of inviting folks to set the pace and train for abundant life, I encourage everyone who comes to the retreat to do two things (after a time of deep rest): choose one word for 2019 and create a rule of life. These two things help us focus our energies, protect our priorities, and run our particular race with a sustainable endurance. There are so many people and powers that seek to run our lives and tell us how to use our time and energies. Choosing a word and creating a rule of life are ways of taking back our agency and seeking the divine wisdom on how to order our days.

img_0973The words chosen by this year’s guests were:

  • Gracious
  • Courage
  • Laughter
  • Purpose
  • Embrace
  • Movement
  • Priority
  • Gentleness
  • Deepening
  • Delight
  • Sanctuary

It helps to set the pace and reset our rhythms at the beginning of a new year, as artificial or stereotypical as it may sound. We pause and rest at the threshold and prepare for what’s ahead; we take our position at the starting line, if you will. Beginnings are sacred times. They are full of feelings of excitement and anticipation as well as anxiety and fear. They are pregnant with opportunities for growth and formation because the Creative Spirit of God is moving over the chaos and preparing to do a new thing.

It’s critical to return to those first four words of the Bible: “In the beginning, God…” The Divine Presence is with us in those new beginnings. The retreat was a space for turning our attention to that Presence to seek renewal and guidance. During our retreat, our sessions explored those themes of beginning found in the first chapter of Genesis:

  • In the beginning was chaos
  • In the beginning was Sabbath
  • In the beginning was the Word
  • In the beginning was breath
  • In the beginning was goodness
  • In the beginning was blessing

All of those themes have continued to guide me through this first month of the year but one in particular has stood out. I have been thinking a lot about the Word that comes “in the beginning.” Maybe it’s because I have been leading workshops for folks to choose a word for the year. Whether it’s a “Word of/from God” or not, choosing one word for the year creates a space in which the word can work on us throughout the year, grounding, guiding, and shaping us in various ways across 12 months. This is often how God’s Word works. While there can be a sense of God speaking something into being or speaking a transforming message that immediately has an impact, it often works differently. The prophet Isaiah describes how God’s Word works like rain or snow. They come down, soak and nourish the Earth, do their secret work underground, and in time bring about fruit and flourishing. This requires time and cultivation. The recent snow in central Ohio has kept this passage close to my heart and mind and I think it can be a great reminder and blessing for all of us as we set out from the beginning into whatever this year may bring.

As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
You will go out in joy
    and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
    will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
    will clap their hands.

-Isaiah 55:10-12-

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