Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Time to Retreat

by Suzie Johnson
Have you ever been to a women’s church retreat?

I was twenty-four years old the first time I went and I’d never been to anything like it. I was in awe of the sound of three-hundred women raising their voices in songs of praise. Along with the fun, fellowship, and new friends, it was simply amazing. From that weekend on, I looked forward to each retreat. Then, after ten years of attending yearly and soaking up all everything I could learn, it came to an end. I had a full time job and had difficulty getting away.

Eleven years would pass before I could attend again. But this time, I wasn’t going for the fellowship. My motive was simply four days away from stress. Four days of writing time. I didn’t want to spend time chatting with other women. I didn’t want to attend group studies or participate in skit night. I certainly didn’t want to stay up all night laughing and planning pranks to pull on other cabins. I had reached a point in my life where I simply wanted to escape the stress. This was the perfect opportunity for me to hole up in a cabin and write.

Don’t you know God had other plans?

Almost immediately I encountered a friend I hadn’t seen in years. She’d changed churches long ago, and we both worked, and…well, you know how that goes… We made plans to eat our meals together. Yes, I wanted to write, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that Leslie was there. I seized the opportunity to spend time with her. Later, in my cabin, I couldn’t ignore the laugher, chatter, and moments of sharing that were going on right under my bunk. So I made new friends with some of the ladies from my own church – ladies I never got a chance to really know because we all worked.

But something even more incredible happened. I reconnected with God on a level I’d never experienced. Not that I thought I was disconnected, but looking back, I realize I was in a place of stagnancy in my relationship with Him, just going through the motions and letting everything get in the way of my time with Him.

At the camp, there’s a lovely wrap-around porch on the main lodge. Part of it overlooks the woods and river, and part of it overlooks a grassy meadow with the other mountains in the background. I was sitting on the porch with my friend, Lynn, talking about the issues some of our family members were having – issues we couldn’t fix that caused deep hurt to all involved.

As we talked, we noticed someone had planted a wooden cross in the meadow. Painted white, it stood about six feet tall and was surrounded by small rocks. We walked down the rock-lined path to the cross. Lynn suggested we write the names of each of our hurting family members on a rock and place them at the foot of the cross. 

Then we prayed for each of them.

In that wonderful, incredible moment, I felt God’s presence so strongly it was undeniable. Lynn did, too. We cried and hugged each other, and as we walked back to the lodge, the sun was beginning to set. It was a perfect God-healing-moment.

I went away from the retreat marveling at the way God’s plans were much, much different than my own, and how He provided just what I needed when I needed it.

I’m not saying the issues were resolved overnight. The road was long, but I had many more God-healing moments along the way. One thing that helped me through was remembering how it felt to stand at the foot of that cross and physically place the burden there – to physically turn it over to the Lord. It made me wish I could create my own rock-lined trail leading to a cross.

I wonder, though, if it would become forgotten over time. For me, I think it is better to close my eyes and meet God at the cross – the real cross where Jesus hung – to imagine physically handing over my burdens to the One who wants to carry it for me. It’s such a simple thing, so easily forgotten, and yet so powerful.

An excellent prayer series by our own Dina Sleiman, brought this all back to my mind. In Open They Eyes of My Heart, Dina talks about Visio Divina, picturing yourself in a place where you meet God as you pray. At the time, I first read this, I imagined the place I’d like to meet with God as the beach – a place where I frequently meet with Him as I walk and pray. But as I keep thinking over Dina’s prayer series, I’m reminded of my time at the cross with Lynn during the retreat, and the overwhelming closeness I felt with Him. This is where I want to meet with Him. This is where I want to imagine His face. This is my Visio Divina.

Some of the Inkies, and one of my critique partners, are at a retreat of sorts this week – the American Christian Fiction Writer’s conference where they’ll have a praise and worship service, prayer time, and fellowship. I’m praying for my critique partner and each of the Inkies, to be successful in their networking, that God puts them in the right place to make the best contacts for their careers, to make new friends, and to renew friendships. I’m also praying they go home from the conference refreshed, and ready to write the stories God gives to them.

Questions for the day: 
  • Do you ever make plans for your spiritual life, and later find they slipped away over time?
  • What do you do when God’s plans for you don’t match the ones you have for yourself?
Suzie Johnson has won several awards for her inspirational novels (writing as Susan Diane Johnson), including the Maggie, Lone Star, Heart of the West, and Beacon awards, as well as finaling in the Touched by Love, Finally A Bride, Linda Howard Award for Excellence, and Virginia's Fool For Love contests. She is a member of ACFW, RWA, and is a cancer registrar at her local hospital. The mother of a wonderful young man who makes her proud every day, she lives with her husband and little kitten on an island in the Pacific Northwest. And although the beaches are rocky instead of sandy, lined with Madronas and Evergreens instead of Palm trees, and the surf is much to cold for wading, it is still the perfect spot for writing romantic fiction. You can visit her blog, Suzie's Writing Place at


  1. Aww, glad you were blessed by the post, Suzie. You know, there is a Christian counseling method, maybe Elijah method, that always begins with going in your mind to your last God encounter and starting there.

    I'm reading a wonderful spiritual memoir by Mary DeMuth right now. She calls these, Thin Places.

  2. I find I am often disappointed in my efforts but thankfully we have a God who draws near to us. Beautiful post Suzie.

    Praying for the conference attendees and those of us who wish we were there.

  3. Lovely post, Suzie. I like the picture of leaving these concerns at the cross. I've been carrying a few family concerns like that, and I need to be constantly reminded that I can't shoulder that yoke myself.

    I imagine we all make plans for our spiritual life that slip away. I think it's part of our dual nature--the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

  4. Hi Dina! I'll have to check out the Elijah method. I'll check out Thin Places, too. Thanks!

  5. Thank you, Deb. Yes, I am so thankful God continues to draw us near.

  6. Thank you, Barb. Yes, I agree that it is part of our human nature I think understanding that goes a long way toward inspiring us to keep striving forward. You and your family are in my prayers.

  7. Lovely post, Suzie. I am not always where I want to be spiritually, no. Too often I allow space to come between me and God, but He is always faithful and waiting with open arms.

    I'm praying for our friends in St. Louis, too, as well as those of us at home!

  8. Thank you, Susie! I think we all allow other things to get in the way of our relationship with God. I think when the day comes that we think we're doing everything perfectly, is the day we're in trouble. God will always be there for us as we strive to improve our relationship. :)

    Yay, for the St Louis crowd. I hope they're enjoying themselves!

  9. Suzie, terrific post! I've noticed we ladies tend to have love/hate feelings toward women's conferences!
    One I remember in particular, I was hoping for a getaway, a time of refreshing, and ended up in a condo full of "needy" ladies. Know what I mean? What I found is that as I yielded to God's love for those ladies, He refreshed ME.
    Someday we're ALL gonna be at a conference together, and it will be awesome!

  10. Thanks, Niki! That's happened to me before, too. Wanting to be alone, then feeling unable to turn my back on the needy person, then being blessed by it myself. God sure knows what He's doing, doesn't He? :)

    And, I know I've been the needy person myself, at least a time or two.

  11. Suzie I think you deserve a quiet retreat when school's completely over!

  12. Thanks, DeAnna.

    Deb - my thoughts exactly! Yes! And I think I've shared before what my desired retreat would be: a train trip to and from Williamsburg with at least a week's stay - preferably two, but we can't have everything, can we? ;)

    I felt so connected to Williamsburg when I visited there, and I truly felt my creative energy bouncing all over the place.


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