Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.
Here we read the call of Jesus to His disciples at a particular moment in time. Several other times in the Gospels we read things like “he would withdraw to desolate places and pray” or “rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place.” Once, He “led them up a high mountain by themselves.” It seems Jesus was no stranger to the lonely places.
These temporary times of withdrawing, these retreats, even seem to come at the hectic, productive times in Jesus’ ministry. During one retreat, people went out searching for Him. Finally finding Him, they told Him, “Everyone is looking for you!” Another retreat was at a time so busy for the disciples that it is recorded “many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat.” Why would Jesus sometimes withdraw Himself to a desolate place when people were looking for Him? Didn’t people need Him? Couldn’t He have waited for a more convenient time, or maybe have gone somewhere nearby and not so remote? Still, He went.
The Imago Retreat offers one annual opportunity for a set-apart time; distinct from normal life. One of the defining characteristics of the Imago retreat has been its distance from everyday life. It is an interruption of the usual routines, a disruption of some of the normal comforts and conveniences. While on the retreat each man has an opportunity, if he desires, to temporarily seek solitude, pray, think, and seek God alone in the “desolate place,” as our Lord did. What will happen there?
Yet, we also remember a lyric from a song: “When you run, make sure you run to something and not away from.” I wonder if this “desolate place” idea is something like that. Distance alone is not the objective. No, the essential quality of the Imago retreat is not merely separation from things; as if it were a hundred men on individual solo retreats. The retreat is about presence too: the presence of the Lord, and the presence of brothers in each other’s lives. The true and best work of the retreat can only be done by the movement of God in the hearts of men as they hear from and respond to the Word of God. It’s not about the schedule or the plan; it has to be about God actually working in our hearts. The Apostle Paul said that we
… beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:18
We behold him, we are transformed, and this is his doing.
A peculiar thing about life in Christ is that God often works on men’s hearts through other men. The men’s retreat is one focused opportunity for that kind of work to be done. Brothers draw near to one another for encouragement, burden-bearing, admonishment, comfort, and challenge. That quiet thought – that thought whispered in your mind while you’re alone praying in the desolate place – may later get fleshed out in discussion around a campfire, and then shouted from the mountaintops during corporate worship. Or, that unsettled sense of conviction I’ve felt ever since my brother said some hard words one night, and given some time to brew in the desolate place, might start to grow up into heart change; repentance; a new direction. And so, let us consider the real possibility that the Lord might use the words of our brothers to speak to us. Let us also consider that God might very well use our own words to help another man.
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.
1 Thessalonians 5:14
None of this is really about the retreat after all, is it? The retreat itself ends in a couple days, just when we feel it’s finally getting started. No, the real purpose of the Men’s Retreat has much more to do with our return home: life after the retreat. The great hope is that men would grow in the knowledge and love of Jesus, desiring to return home to live lives transformed by the gospel. Likewise, as brothers grow in love for one another on the retreat, they return home to live out this new love in the church and in the world. As Jesus said,
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Will people look at our love and know that we are His? Will we behold Him and be transformed? Only by His grace.
Come join us each year as we seek to put distance between us and our everyday lives, move towards God and each other, so we can return home ready to serve as men are called to.