Looking up friends in New Zealand, I found myself last Saturday invited to the opening of the Whakata Country Retreat, a beautifully appointed house with massive gardens, set in the heart of rolling hills near Coatesville, a little place north of Auckland. When I arrived a saxophonist was playing, drinks and canapes were being served, and people were milling around, enjoying one another’s company. Suddenly my host came up to me and asked if in a few minutes’ time I would lead in prayer and seek God’s blessing on this new venture. I agreed to the request – after all it was an honour and a privilege; and then immediately wondered how I might pray. At that point two Scripture passages flashed through my mind.
In the first instance my mind went to Exodus 31.17, where we read: “In six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed” (NRSV). Literally the Hebrew word translated here “rested” means “God took a deep breath”. The context of this verse is keeping the Sabbath: the implication is that if God needed to take a deep breath after all his hard work in creation, then surely all the more we need to do the same and balance work with rest. However, in the context of the opening of the Whakata Country Retreat, this Scripture was all the more appropriate, because I had just been told that ‘Whakata’ is a Maori word for ‘catching one’s breath’.
Then my mind went to the so-called ‘Great Invitation’ of Jesus in Matthew 11.28, where Jesus says: “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (NRSV); or in the version used by the 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, read at every communion service as one of the ‘comfortable words’: “Come unto me all that travail and are heavy-laden, and I will refresh you”. Again, I thought this was an appropriate Scripture, and perhaps all the more so because almost certainly Jesus was talking in the first place to those who had been worn out by religion. So Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase The Message has Jesus say: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life”.
Of course, strain and stress are not peculiar to the church. Some time ago the American news magazine Time ran an essay entitled, ‘The Burnout of just about Everybody’. The thrust of the article was: it doesn’t matter what your job is, stress is the name of the game. But nonetheless churches all too often can become places of almost intolerable pressure and strain for their leaders. As a result church leaders need to find places where they can escape and be refreshed, so that they can then go back to their churches with renewed vigour and energy. Whakata will surely be one of those places.
In England I am patron of the Society of Mary and Martha, based at the Sheldon Centre just outside Exeter, on the edge of the Dartmoor National Park. Like Whakata, it is a beautiful place of retreat. There on a number of occasions I have had an opportunity to stand back from the pressures of ministry and as a result gain a new perspective on how God would have me live my life. They have been times of rest and refreshment, of reconnecting and renewal, of re-evaluation and resolution, of re-imagining and re-envisioning. In each room at the Sheldon centre there is a welcome card for guests, which would be just as applicable to the Whakata Country Retreat:
Here may you lay aside burdens borne for self and others. May this place be for you a vessel of love, where from you may draw rest, silence, healing and vision. And may the Creator’s love warmly glow from all that you see.