Annual Event Theme reflection by John Bell

I am constantly bemused by the word retreat because it has two distinct meanings which are predicated on the preposition which follows it.

We can either retreat from or retreat for.

In the course of a year, I work at a number of retreat houses and conference centres, and different ones will emphasise either of the prepositions. Some will smother retreatants with sanctimonious jargon which confirms their worst notions of the “real world”, bathe their ears with soothing music and spiritual pleasantries, and stuff them with as much comfort food as they can hold.

Others believe that a retreat should not be respite care, but a time of discovery—of potentials the participants never knew they had, of insights into work which has become tiring or worrying, of experiences and conversations which disregard the parameters of fond comfort zones. I prefer a bit of both.

Little as we know about Jesus’ personal/spiritual disciplines we do see that sometimes he deliberately put a distance between himself and the demands which constantly besieged him, but sometimes his quiet time energised him for new encounters. This is recorded in his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well who, incidentally, was his first evangelist in bringing a whole village to him. Jesus enjoyed himself so much he decided to stay an extra two days in a township whose inhabitants were despised by his own people.

That encounter with the Samaritan villagers was not so much a mission as a reconnoitring experience which so convinced him of the injustice of the discrimination and hatred shown to them that on a future occasion, when the disciples suggested they might call down fire on a less hospitable Samaritan settlement, Jesus said, “No.” He had sensed the pain of the Samaritans and it had broadened his compassion.

When we look at the encounters Jesus has with people who are not of his race or gender (and there at least twenty such encounters), we discover that his missionary tactic is as much about receiving from as giving to. There is a kindly reciprocity in Jesus which allows him to see in a haemorrhaging woman, a Roman centurion, a Samaritan leper, and a poor widow faith, generosity and gratitude, and he affirms that in them. This is a very different missional tactic than the more macho practice of trying to win over people by adversarial debate, skilful oratory or populist seduction.

Several years ago, I was leading a retreat on the island of Iona. To it came four Lutheran priests from Minneapolis. One evening I asked them what they wished for  their churches. After pondering for a while, one of them spoke for all when he said how he wished that their churches were places where people spoke about what makes for the common good.

When I asked him to elabourate a little, he said that in many churches the art of conversation had gone, and the habit of adversarial debate had taken its place. He   said that even in a simple matter like deciding what colour to paint the restrooms, there could be unnecessary animosity as people argued over the issue. The more he had studied such controversies, the more he saw that they were actually proxy verbal wars between people of different political persuasions.

Our media fuel that. In the UK most discussions on television are not discussions. No one is ever changed, few concede that the other’s point of view holds validity; instead a sequence of set-piece sound bites sally forth from the mouths of those who become ever more hostile to each other.

And Calvinism, with its tendency to prefer a right answer to a more nuanced response, is not the most reconciliatory of creeds. This is born out by the plethora of splits in the reformed churches over the centuries on either side of the Atlantic.

I feel, I think, I hope, I pray that in what might be seen in retrospect as an epoch of adversity, we may be moving towards an appreciation that no system, no party, no expert, no church, no theology holds all the truth. But rather, that if truth is deep, it will be resonant and not tinny, and that if we encounter the “other” as Jesus did, we might find that our coveted opinions are neither endorsed nor displaced by what the other has to offer; but rather we might discover new perspectives, nuances, insights which enable us to retreat from our fond certainties and discover God’s deeper, multi-layered truth.

Every time now that I go on or lead a retreat, I approach it with the expectation that I will receive a gift—of insight, encouragement, spiritual nourishment or challenge from some I do not know and who might not seem a likely mentor. But that can only happen if I am prepared to risk being reciprocal.

On the island of Iona, where my Community has its residential centres, we constantly discover that people who come there for a few days leave joyfully disappointed. They came knowing what they wanted, and discovered in the miracle of dialogue with the unusual ‘others’ with whom they mixed that God gave them what they needed.

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John Bell

John Lamberton Bell (born 1949) is an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland and a member of the Iona Community, where he develops resources in the areas of music and worship with the Wild Goose Resource Group. He works throughout the world, lecturing in theological colleges in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, but is primarily concerned with the renewal of congregational worship at the grass roots level.