Creative Absence

Being at Legacy Retreats is a blessing.  This is the visible and tangible culmination of many months of less visible work: fundraising, event planning, family coordinating, all sorts of communications, technology, office work and supplies, big-picture visioning and strategy.

All of that work takes a lot of people, and many of them cannot be at every retreat.  In fact most of them aren’t on site at any given Legacy Retreat.  Our staff and coordinators alone now are more than 30 people, and there are more than 300 people among our board, volunteers, and group facilitators.  Plus there are thousands of donors.

To get to be at a Legacy Retreat, then, is to be at the highlight, the fun payoff of so much other vital but less visible work.  The flip side is that being away from a retreat is hard!  I can speak from very personal experience; I was not at the California retreat at the end of last summer, and that frankly was not easy for me.  I knew I was missing a great team, I knew I was missing IoH history, I knew I was missing the face-to-face impact of months of work.  Others who also missed that retreat described it like experiencing withdrawal, and that is how it felt.  It’s hard to miss this!

I tried to consider how I could serve IoH’s mission without being in the middle of the retreat action.  There proved to be many ways!  For one, the non-highlight kinds of work kept right on coming; there are simply many things that require ongoing attention for IoH’s benefit.  I also made a point to use at least some of the time to honor IoH’s mission by being intentional with my own family.  There wasn’t as much time for that as I would have liked, but we at least did a few family things.  Another way I served was by intentionally praying for the retreat, the team, and the families – not that I don’t pray when I’m at retreats!  But I was able to pray in different ways and at different times throughout the day because I wasn’t consumed with the face-to-face needs of each moment.

I happened to be reading The Inner Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen at that time, and a few lines struck a deep chord in me while I was experiencing absence.

“Your way of being present to your community may require times of absence, prayer, writing, or solitude. … Your community needs you, but maybe not as a constant presence.  Your community might need you as a presence that offers courage and spiritual food for the journey, a presence that creates the safe ground in which others can grow and develop…  But your community also needs your creative absence. … This does not mean that you are selfish, abnormal, or unfit for community life.  It means that your way of being present to your people necessitates personal nurturing of a special kind. … It is a service to those for whom you want to be a source of hope and a life-giving presence.”

That was exactly what I needed to hear in that moment, and it is full of promise for each of us personally, and for IoH as an organization, as we grow.  As absolutely awesome as it would be to have our whole team of 330+ (and growing) at every Legacy Retreat, that obviously isn’t the case.  We need to be “a source of hope and a life-giving presence” without having to be a constant presence.  We need to learn how absence can be creative absence: by offering courage, spiritual food, space for others to grow and develop, and personal nurture.

In scripture, the experience of absence while a mission is advancing calls to mind Philippians 1:12-18.  Paul is in jail, and he writes:

“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.  And most of the brothers and sisters, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.  Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.  The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.  The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.  What then?  Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”

This offers several connections.

•    Like Paul, many of our team members, including some key leaders, are not in the middle of the on-site action at times.  They may not be in jail (as far as I know!), but they’re absent.  There will be retreats when each of us, for various reasons, will be absent.

•    Paul says his imprisonment, his absence, served to advance the gospel.  He is still spreading the good news anyway, where he happens to be, and his Christian brothers and sisters gained confidence in the Lord and became bolder to share Christ.  We can advance the mission of hope while absent from a retreat, and the team present in each case steps up in new ways.

•    Interestingly Paul says that some step up from good will (lovingly desiring to fill gaps in the mission caused by his absence), but some step up from rivalry – they see Paul’s absence as a chance to assert themselves, even to afflict Paul by showing what they can do without him.  I don’t think our team has quite that broad a range of motives, but it is a strong reminder that even among fellow-Christians with a strong shared purpose, we are not immune to squirrely thoughts and mixed motives!

•    So, finally, like Paul, we should seek to summarize all our efforts as “only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”  In every way Christ is proclaimed: from warm hospitality at airport pickups to shared activities, conversation, & meals; acts of service big and small to a testimony of God’s faithfulness and being loved as God’s favorite.  Every way also means all the ways that aren’t part of these very visible retreats: fundraising, event planning, family coordinating, all sorts of communications, technology, office work and supplies, long-term visioning and strategy – in every way the mission of God’s hope advances, and in that we rejoice!

Aaron is Inheritance of Hope’s COO.  A version of this devotional was first shared with the September 2018 Colorado Legacy Retreat team.  Read more Inheritance of Hope blog posts >>