In April of this year, I had lunch with my friend and brother Bruce Binkley who serves as one of our shepherds at the Broken Arrow church.  He had recently returned from a Board of Trustees meeting at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, where he had engaged in some conversations about the benefit of ministers taking an annual, week-long sabbatical for the purpose of spiritual renewal.  Bruce inquired about my level of interest in the idea and asked whether I felt that this would be a worthwhile endeavor.  My immediate response was that my interest level was off the charts and I believed that it would be immensely beneficial.  The sabbatical would not be considered additional vacation time or an opportunity for a family trip of some sort, but a week to refill and refresh one’s heart, mind, and soul with the things of the Spirit.  It could take a variety of forms: a week spent at a conference or lectureship, a short-course at a seminary or graduate school of theology, or a personal spiritual retreat.  It was the latter of these that immediately captivated my interest and anticipation.  After a subsequent discussion of the concept with the entire eldership and ministry staff, it was decided that each of the ministers would be encouraged to take an annual sabbatical, the details of which were to be worked out each year by the minister and his shepherding group.

I knew immediately where I wanted to go for my inaugural sabbatical.  My first step was to have a conversation with Kim and make sure that it would not be a hardship on her for me to be away for a week in September (it was May at the time).  I always have concerns about leaving her to care for Coleman alone, given that his circumstances can go from “zero to crisis” in a very short time.  True to her nature and spirit, she loved the idea, immediately saw the value and benefit of a sabbatical, and enthusiastically encouraged me to begin making plans.  After getting a green light on my proposal from the elders who work most closely in overseeing my ministry, I contacted the Retreat Center at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky, and inquired about the availability of accommodations for a weekday retreat in mid-September.  Within 5 minutes, I received a very cordial email reply and had a reservation for September 17-21.

The Abbey of Gethsemani is a Cistercian (Trappist) monastery, founded on December 21, 1848, and nestled in the rolling hills of Nelson County, Kentucky, about 50 miles south of Louisville.  For 27 years it was the home of noted Catholic author and Trappist monk Thomas Merton.  In keeping with the Benedictine Rule, hospitality and the receiving of guests remain a vital part of the life of this monastic community.  People from all over the world and all backgrounds of faith are welcomed to the Abbey for personal, spiritual retreats that are “silent, unstructured, and undirected.”  In other words, you “do your own thing,” follow your own schedule, and pursue your own goals and interests for being there.  All that is asked of you is that you respectfully observe silence throughout the Retreat Center, the grounds and gardens, and the surrounding 2,000 acres of woodlands and trails where you are free to roam and reflect.  Meals are served in the dining room at set hours, and retreatants are welcome in the guest chapel (attendance entirely optional) during any of the seven liturgical hours of prayer that are observed daily by the resident monks.

What drew me to the Abbey of Gethsemani for my sabbatical was my desire to unplug for five days (no cell phone, laptop, Internet, newspaper, TV, radio) in a setting of solitude, serenity, and silence in which I could pray, read and meditate on Scripture, think, reflect, assess, confess, decompress, and recommit.  The distraction-free environment would allow me long blocks of uninterrupted time to focus on spiritual sustenance from the Word, supplication to the Father, and a sabbath for my body and my soul.

So, after teaching my Bible class and preaching in Broken Arrow on Sunday morning, September 16, enjoying lunch with my family and our Life Group, and leading the small group Bible study in our home in the early afternoon, I boarded a plane for Louisville.  I overnighted in the River City where I lived for three years as a child, then hit the road on Monday morning, taking the scenic route down U.S. Highway 31-E through Bardstown.  I took the turn on Highway 247 toward the monastery and pulled into the Retreat Center at 11:00 for check-in.

My materials for the week were my Bible and some blank legal pads.  My only agenda was a heart in need of respite, refreshment, and renewal.

In the posts that follow over the days ahead, I will share some selected insights, impressions, and journal entries from my sabbatical.  It was an incredible week on many different levels, and I hope that visitors to this blog will be encouraged by reading and reliving the experience with me.