When David and I were training for ordination in England, one week we were all sent out to do parish missions. The group that David and I were with was sent to a small town near Bath, where we met with the vicar of the parish and were then sent out two by two to visit parishioners. And in England that means virtually everyone. So we were going door to door, knocking, introducing ourselves, asking if we could come in for a conversation, and then inviting them to a big celebration service at the end of the week.
It was my first experience doing anything like that, and it was daunting. I was very relieved that David and I were assigned to go together, but even so, my heart would pound every time I walked up to another door, wondering what kind of reception we’d get.
And we got all sorts. Some people didn’t want to talk, or were too busy, or weren’t at home. One elderly man invited us in and then wept for the whole visit, because his wife had died the week before. Another person talked about all the reasons she no longer believed in God and had stopped going to church. Often all we could do was listen, and feel fairly useless.
Perhaps the most surprisingly pleasant visit was to a couple of seniors, sisters I think, who invited us in for lunch and then said, “Would you like to have a nap?” Well, there was nothing we wanted more! The visits were exhausting. So instead of talking about the mission and the celebration service, we just lay down on their guest bed and slept for an hour.
The gospel reading for today opens just after the twelve disciples have come back from their two-by-two mission. They’re excited to tell Jesus all about it, but he sees that they’re exhausted, too. So he says, “Why don’t we go off by ourselves for a while, and you can rest.” And off they go in a boat, away from the hustle and bustle of the people coming to find Jesus.
But there’s no escape: the people see where they’re heading, and crowds soon show up there, clamouring and jostling in their neediness. And Jesus has compassion, because they’re like sheep without a shepherd. It’s the same when the disciples row back: the people crowd around again, bringing their sick, asking Jesus to heal them, or just reaching out to touch his clothing.
I think we can empathize with the disciples’ fatigue, and the sense that there is just too much need in the world. We all have a lot on our collective plates these days, whether we’re experiencing it personally or following it through news media: the climate crisis with the brutal extremes of weather; the awakening to the truth Indigenous peoples have been speaking for generations about the children who died at residential schools. Add to that the three waves of the pandemic that we’ve been through, the closing of our churches, plus the massive renovation project we’re currently halfway through here. We haven’t had our traditional sacred space to gather in and find spiritual refreshment and community.
So perhaps Jesus is saying to us, as those two sisters did to David and me, “Take a break and have a rest.” We have all been shouldering a lot. And as Christians we all share in the ministry of Jesus: if he’s the good shepherd, we’re all junior shepherds, wanting to know Christ and to make him known to others; wanting to share in Christ’s work of bringing healing and good news to this world.
This is vacation time, but I also want to suggest it might be time for a retreat - for you to set aside a day (or more if you can) by yourself, away from your normal surroundings if possible, where you and God can have some time together. Clergy are expected to go on retreat annually, and that’s what I’ll be doing this upcoming week. But it’s good for all of us to take a retreat, especially in the midst of spiritually and emotionally hard work.
You don’t have to go to a fancy retreat centre or sign up for an expensive program. I once knew a couple who took turns spending a day a month on retreat in the tool shed at the bottom of their garden. They had it set up with a comfy chair and a table, and each would take a little food, maybe their Bible and some reading, to have a day of quiet and prayer. When David and I were busy with full-time ministry and three small children, we converted a tiny closet in the basement into a prayer place, with just enough room for a shelf with a candle, and a prayer stool in front of it. It was my great escape! And I recall some profound times of meeting God there, and being blessed.
Over the years I’ve planned less and less content for my retreats, because I’ve recognized that primarily I need to make space and to have silence and stillness and solitude (all the ‘s’ words that feed our souls) in order to draw closer to God. I need nature, too, to draw me out of my head with its jumbling, tumbling thoughts which are like those pesky crowds always turning up around Jesus and the disciples. Being quietly and attentively in nature helps the buzzing thoughts settle down, and a little space deep inside can open up to hear the murmur of the Holy Spirit.
You don’t have to go into the wilderness or check into a retreat centre. A walk on the beach with a contemplative sit on a bench can start your retreat. You could be adventurous and take a ferry over to the island and find a quiet spot there. Or go to one of the city parks. You might set up a corner at home as your quiet place where you don’t watch TV or use your phone, but you just have a candle, your Bible and a journal.
Let me invite you to take a day sometime this summer for a private retreat. Don’t over-plan it, just create space, silence, stillness, solitude. You will probably feel restless, even bored, some of the time. You will almost certainly need a nap during it, and that’s OK. But give the day to God, ask for the blessing you need, then let God do the rest in the space you create. You probably won’t have a spectacular mountain-top, life-changing experience that day, but perhaps a small spark will be kindled, a new sense of peace, a gentle healing.
Listen for the murmuring of the Spirit.
Notice things you haven’t paid attention to before.
Know that you are beloved, and God is with you.
Treasure it all with thanksgiving, then return to the work that is your life with the peace of Christ to sustain and guide you. Amen.