(This post was originally written by Pastor Stephen Dufresne and printed in New Horizons May 2009)
From its conception in 1998, Machen Retreat and Conference Center (MRCC) has been a place that accommodates the church of Jesus Christ in many ways. There are, however, three ways that stand out. Two of them are bound up in its name. It is a retreat center and a conference center. The third is not in the name, but it is also an important part of MRCC: it is a family vacation spot. These three things are different, but each is beneficial to individual Christians, families, and groups of believers. Among these three uses of MRCC, there is one that deserves a fresh look today, and that is its use as a retreat center. The New Century Dictionary of the English Language defines a retreat as “the act of withdrawing or retiring, as into safety or privacy; retirement or seclusion; a retirement, or a period of retirement, for religious exercises and meditation….”
We can put it this way: a retreat is a period of withdrawal from the common affairs of life, in order to draw near to the Lord. It may be done individually or as a group. A retreat differs from a conference. A conference is always public and in a group setting. There is a topic for discussion, and information is passed between parties. Therefore, less time is given to private reflection or group building. That is not to say that they can’t or don’t happen. It is just that time is not allocated with such things primarily in mind. The Bible does not have one word that conveys the whole idea of what we mean by retreat. But the Bible does offer several concepts that together provide warrant and encouragement for this practice. Two of the concepts that feed into this idea of retreat are Sabbath and wilderness.
A Voluntary Sabbath
A retreat is like a voluntary Sabbath. The Sabbath provides a biblical model for the setting aside of a day for special communion with the Lord. The Lord has provided an example of working six days and resting on the seventh, and has commanded us to do likewise. The Westminster Confession of Faith reminds us of the importance of this principle in chapter 21 on ‘Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day.’ Section 8 gives instructions on how it is to be enjoyed. A retreat is not the Lord’s Day in the sense of our Christian Sabbath, but it does involve preparation and ordering of affairs so that the individual or group can “observe an holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations.” A retreat provides similar blessings. Time is taken up with “public and private exercises of his worship.” If a retreat really is a retreat and not a vacation or recreation time (which are legitimate things in their own right), then the heart has been moved to set aside additional time beyond the Lord’s Day.
Time in the Wilderness
A retreat is spent in the wilderness. Location is an important part of the retreat—more so than for a conference. The wilderness commonly provides the environment for a retreat. It is not the literal wilderness that is required, as much as the idea of withdrawing. The Bible sees the wilderness in many different ways, but for our purposes it is a place that reflects our utter dependence upon God and provides a separation from distraction. When Israel came out of Egypt, they held on to a deep attachment to a place of dependence. Listen to their words from Exodus 16:3: “Would that we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” The Israelites were to learn dependence upon their Lord in the wilderness. The Lord would provide their bread and meat. Similarly, Jesus withdrew from the hustle and bustle of Capernaum to a place of solitude that was free from distractions. It was a way of maintaining focus in the midst of local success (Mark 1:35–39). This separation from distraction (remember the words from the dictionary: retire, seclusion, withdrawal) is a large part of a retreat. The distractions of the wilderness do not draw us to our busyness; they draw us simply and humbly to our Creator, Sustainer, and Savior.
Machen is tucked away in the mountains of Virginia. It is a place for rest and for drawing near to God. It is a place with few of the distractions of regular campgrounds or vacation spots. It has enough amenities to keep you rested and focused on spiritual things, and also has enough wilderness space to show your dependence upon God and keep you free from distraction.