To Retreat or Not to Retreat

No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

With apologies to John Donne, I’ve always enjoyed my time alone. There’s something uniquely comforting about being totally isolated with only your own thoughts, feelings, and actions to guide you. I actively seek out those precious moments in my life when I AM an island. Given the choice between a good book or dinner with the neighbors, I’ll choose the good book any day of the week. In fact, I’ll probably choose a bad book over any sort of idle chitchat with people I don’t know all that well. I like going to movies by myself and vacationing with my dog. It’s not that I’m anti-social. It’s just that sometimes, as the Southwest Airlines commercial says, you “wanna get away.”

So with that introduction in mind, I’ve decided to attend the annual Centenary Church Men’s Retreat. In the interest of full disclosure, this won’t be my first rodeo. I’ve been to these before—even led a couple of recent sessions. I’ve also been to other similar Promise Keeper type of events with tens of thousands of men in attendance. Just so you know, a stadium packed full of strangers singing, hugging, crying, and washing each other’s feet isn’t necessarily my cup of tea. I prefer a more low key personal approach, like that of the Trappist monks in the Gethsemane Abbey near Bardstown, living out their vows of silence. I’m hoping the Centenary retreat will be more like that experience. Some quiet spiritual renewal without too much interpersonal contact or hugging.

The event basically consists of a couple of days of being sequestered together with guys—some you know and some you don’t. You spend much of your time in worship together, learning about and discussing various spiritual topics supposedly relevant to men. The food during the retreat is pretty good—provided you’re not worried about cholesterol or A1c levels. The sleeping arrangements are four to a room in bunk beds for most of the participants. There’s the ubiquitous snoring, grunting, and rhythmic wheezing of the occasional CPAP machine to keep even the most hardened sleeper awake throughout the night. I guess I’ve become a creature of comfort in my old age. I don’t relish being greeted by strange bedfellows or random toilet seats upon waking in the morning.

There’s just something about the experience, however, that keeps me returning year after year. The retreat this year is held out at Aldersgate Camp near Ravenna in Estill County. Those of you familiar with the area know that it’s pretty isolated. There’s no phone service, no internet, and no GPS guidance. Like many other rural areas in the commonwealth, you may not be able to get there from here.

This year there are around 40 men, ranging in age from 18-82, from all different occupations, backgrounds, and stages in our spiritual journey. As radical evangelicals, however, the one thing we all have in common is how we all cling to our guns and our religion. Upon arrival the first evening, we decide to forego our religion and go straight for the guns. We divide into teams and engage in fierce competition—shooting BB guns at aerosol cans, hitting flaming tennis balls with golf clubs, and smashing ceramic tiles with rocks. As the competition winds down, my spectacular, Willie Mays, over-the-shoulder dive and attempted catch (and crash and burn) of the projectile fired out of the homemade air bazooka heroically vaults our Team Foxtrot out of last place. With my bruised shoulder and ego barely intact, shivering in 20-degree temperature, I start wondering if this is how Jesus and his disciples initially bonded together.

After a rejuvenating run and breakfast the next morning, we’re ready to get back to our religion. The lesson this weekend is from the “33 series”—appropriately named for Jesus’ 33 years before his death and resurrection. During that time, he roamed the earth–sharing his ministry and leaving a legacy that would shape the history of mankind for the next couple of millennia. He forged relationships with 12 other men that would forever model life in community. Sure, he occasionally retreated into solitude as one of his necessary spiritual disciplines, but I remind myself constantly that he was no Ted Kaczynski, living alone in the Montana wilderness.

As we’re sitting in one of our breakout sessions, it dawns on me why I keep returning year after year. God created human beings to live in community. As much as I want to deny it, this truth keeps surfacing throughout my own life story. I can give you a thousand examples of how being “in touch” saved me from imminent self-destruction. It’s through my relationship with my nurturing biological family, my supportive church family, my intimate men’s small group, my teachers and mentors, my professional colleagues, my dear friends and neighbors—and yes, with my new acquaintances at a men’s retreat– that my earthly life takes on meaning.

Just as I wallow in my own self-pity, I draw inspiration from someone else who has been down that same path of suffering. Just as I learn to overcome my own shortcomings, I develop the necessary compassion to comfort others who are hurting. Just as I feel a need to boast about my own accomplishments, I’m humbled by the generosity exhibited by the two dudes sitting next to me.

Through my interaction with my Christian brothers, I realize that we all struggle with the same temptations, fears, hardships, and persecution that life throws our way. We’re all easily susceptible to the idolatry of control, recognition, and comfort that often plagues us as men. Life isn’t about accumulating things, or gathering awards, or visiting exotic places. Rather it’s all about storing up treasures for heaven through the relationships developed here on earth. We can’t do that through dinner and a movie with ourselves, or long walks through the woods with our dog, or even a loving marriage with our spouse. No, our issues as Christian men—as spiritual leaders and as high-priests of our families—can only be unpacked through genuine relationships and fellowship with other like-minded Christian men.

As we closed out the retreat in communion together, I realized that John Donne had it right after all. No man is an island, entire of itself. We’re all a part of something much bigger than our individual selves. In Romans 12:5, the Apostle Paul put it another way— “so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” To all my other body parts—see you at next year’s retreat.

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