In the letter I wrote about our recent retreat, I opened with something Heather had noticed:
I remember T, the biggest man of the group, a tall, broad-shouldered, strong man, who gave off that calmness we associate with strong men; and who seemed to me to be one of the strongest spiritually as well. He had been hoping, out here in the country, for a clear night to see the stars; and when he got one, on Saturday night after the campfire, a couple of us were with him. He was on a search for a way back to his first love, the relationship with God he had had as a teenager; the stars made him feel God, he said.
I remember standing in that dark meadow, looking at the rising golden moon as he stood with his head back, looking at the still, white, immensely distant stars, and hearing him whisper, “I—I worship God.” Hearing how he said it from the depths of himself, an old awe returning to take him over again; a strong man knowing strength when he sees it, knowing true power, that which is immensely bigger than himself. The fear of the Lord.
When our retreat guests arrived Friday afternoon and climbed out of the car, one of them wondered, “So where's the welcoming committee?” Just then Heather stepped out our front door and threw her arms wide. “Welcome!” she said, beaming.
We were ready for our guests, though just barely. Friends had given us a dining room table and chairs just the day before. And only a few days before that we had finished painting the third guest room; we were still short two mattresses, two bedsprings, and a nightstand. Two families here at Plow Creek farm loaned us mattresses for the weekend. So we decided to just put the mattresses on the floor, and set up a temporary nightstand; the two staff people with the group could sleep in that room. God had provided what we needed just in time. God also provided fresh blueberries, green beans, potatoes, and lettuce from our garden, and several kinds of bread from the bakery here.
Saturday, after Taizé prayer and breakfast, we spent the morning listening to each other. Everyone spoke about what was on their hearts and why they were here. Emmaus Ministries works with guys that have been involved with male prostitution, usually as a result of addictions or homelessness. So all the guys had rough things to share, most are still struggling to recover from their difficult past, and some are still on the edge of homelessness. We were impressed with their openness and honesty. Though we came from very different backgrounds, through very different life experiences, by the end of the morning there seemed to be a spirit of trust and intimacy among us.
After lunch, Heather began our study of Mark 5:1-20, the story of the man from whom Jesus cast out a legion of demons. She introduced the passage with a story she had written. One of the points in her story was that the man may have clung to his demons, because they made him strong and they made people fear him. Often we would rather be feared than despised. Several of the guys identified with this. “I think that's why I lash out at people,” said one guy, who admitted that he has sometimes told people he is a “son of Satan.” “I think I've found my answer.”
There were several hours of free time Saturday afternoon. All our guests napped. They said they slept more here since it was quieter, a more peaceful place than where they lived. When everyone awoke, Heather and a friend who lives here led the guys on a bike ride along the nearby canal, while I made pizza for dinner. Our guests really liked the food. One guy teased Heather because it seemed like I was doing all the cooking. I told him he would be eating his words on Sunday, when Heather made us a chicken dinner. No chicken and gravy for him to eat, just his words.
That evening we looked at the story of the demoniac again. We talked about the things that hold us in bondage, things that we cling to even when they become self-destructive. And I ended the session by recalling Jesus' question to the man, “What is your name?” I asked each of us to think about how we would answer that question, being honest about who we think we are.
Afterwards, we enjoyed a campfire together, with some kids who live near here roasting marshmallows with us. A few of us stayed out to enjoy the night sky glittering with stars, and watch the full moon slowly rise though the silhouette of trees. Some of the guys played cards together after that (and pulled out the leftover pizza). Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.
After breakfast Sunday we joined the other families here at Plow Creek for worship. Then we had our final bible session together. We discussed why the townspeople wanted to send Jesus away, while the man freed from his demons was willing to follow Jesus anywhere. Someone observed, “They don't want Jesus, they want their pigs.” Their security and hope had been in their property, their income, their established lives. The man, on the other hand, had nothing to lose but his demons. Jesus became his security and hope. So Jesus chose that man to send out as his witness, to “tell what God has done for you.” I pointed out that, again and again, Jesus chose the poor, the lowly, outcasts—those who had nothing to lose—to communicate God's message to the world.
“So... God is picky?” one of the guys asked. I said that Jesus chose the poor and lowly, and became one of them himself, because those were the ones who were open to his good news. Those were the ones who depended on God completely because they had nothing else to depend on, who gave God all the glory because they obviously had nothing to boast about themselves. We read Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 1:
...Consider your call, brothers and sisters; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.God chose to reveal himself through people just like the guys who were on retreat with us, and he still does. I closed our discussion by asking again, “Who are you—in God's eyes?”
After our chicken dinner and ice cream with blueberries, we prayed together one last time and shared communion, a sign of our unity no matter where God might lead us from here. The guys prayed for us. That God would continue to meet our needs and bring many more people to this quiet place to listen to God's voice. They were encouraging and thankful and hoped to come again. We hope for that as well.
(retreat pictures available here)