This past Saturday night as the moon rose over Newfound Lake at Camp Berea's Women's Retreat in Hebron, NH, I entered the gym for a time of worship, teaching and reflection. My mind was spinning a little from trying to absorb information from the four talks I had already listened to that day, and my voice was a little sore from singing alone in the A-frame chapel for over an hour -- an unattended piano, how could I resist?
The day had started with a warm sunrise, though my roommate and I found the wind a little brisk out on the water after we partnered up to slide kayaks into the lake. Our three new Portuguese-speaking friends followed us in but kept their boats close to shore while my roommate and I allowed ourselves to drift to the middle of lake.
“Thanks for getting me out here,” I told her. “I haven’t been in a kayak in probably twenty years.”
She smiled and proceeded to ask me questions and share her thoughts about the talk the night before, American traditions, tenets of faith and struggles in motherhood. I learned that she was a recent Chinese immigrant, a young mother and a new Christian just baptized last year. I prayed silently that I would have the wisdom to answer her questions. In her eyes I was wealthy, educated, practically living a life of leisure now that all of my kids attended school during the day. She also expected I was seasoned in my faith, having been a Christian most of my life.
“You became a Christian at age six?”
“Yes, I think so. I remember sitting in a pew at church reading a booklet on how to ask Jesus to live in my heart.”
“You could read already?”
“I think so. My memories are fuzzy though. I should probably ask my mother,” I tried to joke. “But it was sometime around then.”
“My daughter -- she’s four -- she has no interest in reading or letters or anything,” my friend shared, her slumped shoulders clearly discouraged.
I thought about my daughter who could read at age four and a half. I thought of my five year old son who was still learning his letters.
“There’s definitely a range of when kids learn,” I offered.
That thread ended there, as most of our threads finished before we got too specific. We didn’t talk about the struggles in detail, like sharing about times we lost our tempers or times we felt like failures, but those details were implied. We weren’t going to be shoulders for each other to cry on, although I knew she had been up for hours the night before, having left the cabin to cry it out by herself. We were going to bolster each other though, and be mirrors of encouragement to each other as we used the weekend to give our spiritual lives a check up.
After about 45 minutes we realized we could make it to morning devotions if we booked it back to shore. My friend’s boat glided easily towards the little beach. I, on the other hand, felt like I had to fight the tiny waves with all of my strength to try to keep up. We finally both made it, stored our kayaks, paddles and life vests, ran to grab our Bibles and headed to the Lodge for devotions (a short lesson on a passage from Scripture).
Following that, the day continued at a brisk pace for me as I sought to pack in as much teaching as possible. Breakfast, shower, worship, teaching, seminar, lunch, two more seminars, singing break in the A-frame, dinner, worship, teaching, ice cream break, and songs and stories by the campfire. At the end of all of that, the staff suggested that we get together in small groups and reflect on the day’s teaching, but right then I needed sleep. There was too much, too much to grasp. I needed to let it rest overnight.
I woke in the morning in a rush to get to the road for a quick run, but the scene over the lake stopped me short. The sun was just cresting over the mountains in the distance, and a wispy blanket of mist rose gently from the water, like newly spun cotton candy trying to take flight. The chilly scene encouraged me that perhaps I too would sort out the threads of teaching and find the takeaway points to carry me into this new year and new season in my life.
“September is such a wash,” I suggested to a friend the night before. Full of the post-summer crash, gearing up for school and after-school activities, reuniting with friends and small groups and setting goals for the year ahead. My friend suggested we would hit our stride in mid-October.
I had been anticipating September for about a year now, hoping that having all of my children in school would give me space to clear my head, recharge and discover a new vocation. But due to rolling start days, it was September 10th before they were all at school. That week my phone was turned up to full volume as I anticipated a phone call from the school saying that there had been a mistake, that my three and a half year old twin boys weren’t ready, weren’t toilet-trained enough, would for some reason have to stay at home for awhile.
I turned the ringer down to a reasonable level sometime in the second week as my boys proved they were trying, and as the teachers showed they are full of grace. But my mind remained cluttered. What projects should I finish now? How can my house be organized better? How much time should I really devote to housework? How often should I get together with friends? How much time should I devote to serving in church? And how do I approach a writing project that has no deadline?
As busy as I kept myself during the retreat -- I didn’t even participate in the crafts and other outdoor activities like the high ropes course or giant swing or archery tag -- it was restful in the sense that I had the chance to step away from home and regular responsibilities. Meals were cooked for me. Dishes were washed for me. Children were taken care of for me -- thank you to my husband and mother-in-law and sister and sister-in-law and the Sunday school teachers and piano teacher and swimming instructors and friends who kept them going this weekend!
But I didn’t come here just to rest. I also came to learn and to revisit timeless truths, starting with remembering who God is and what he has done for me.
The theme of the weekend was “Within Reach: Connecting with the things that matter”. In this culture of being able to have anything you want on your doorstep in two days or less, why do we feel sometimes that God is far away? Crystal Kirgiss, author, speaker and teacher from Purdue University, spoke on four stories from the New Testament and explained how they show that Jesus is always within reach.
Like Zaccheus, if we take the time to reach out to Jesus, we will be changed too. Like for the woman who had bled for twelve years and sought healing, Jesus stops to listen to us as well. He heals us and gives us our identity as daughters in Christ. Like the prodigal son, we have been on the wrong path at times. We need only tell Jesus that we want to come home, and he forgives us and welcomes us. Like the prodigal son’s older brother, we have been prideful and self-seeking, and Jesus reminds us to be grateful that we are already home and to cultivate a heart of service. Like Peter, we want to be called to do amazing things like walking on water, but Jesus reminds us to keep our eyes on him, that we are called to be humble and obedient to him.
In another seminar, Crystal Kirgiss gave suggestions for “creative ways to read the Bible”. She pointed out that when we read the Bible, often our first question is, “how can I apply this passage to my life?” but she urged us instead to look for who God is in each passage. I had to chuckle to myself because when I teach my kids about the Bible I explain that it is God’s story. I have tried to drive home that point with them, but I normally forget it for myself. How many times have I scoured the text looking for ways to apply it to my personal life before first dwelling on God himself? For sure, the Bible is also the handbook for Christian living, but it is first and always God’s story.
Still, meshing the two goals, Crystal gave us an opportunity to practice looking for God in the form of personalizing the text, meaning, as she phrased it, “take a passage and amplify it to apply to your specific context, life, situation.” She directed our attention to Psalm 23 and pointed out that while we don’t have shepherds in our life the way David could relate to shepherds, we could describe God in our personal context. She asked us to copy the following rubric and fill it in:
“The Lord is my ____________. I lack nothing. He:
After a few minutes she asked a few women to read their responses aloud. There were a couple of tentative volunteers at first, but after one woman became emotional and had trouble reading hers aloud, we heard the power in this exercise as women were humbled and grateful for the ways they had seen God in their lives. Hands went up all over the room to share their God in metaphor.
My roommate who was sitting next to me volunteered to read, and she choked out her words as she described God as the lighthouse that brings her home and gives her connection.
I glanced down at my own attempt and immediately wanted to edit and revise. That is the writer in me, I suppose. This is what I wrote:
The Lord is my library. I lack nothing. He gives me material to learn from, stories to delight in, and community to share in. He gives me a safe quiet place to rest.
At another seminar staff member Susan Cabana spoke on “Identity Amnesia” in a seminar, carrying forward the idea of remembering your identity in Christ. Words like “loved”, “created with purpose”, “known”, “chosen” are words used in the Bible to describe me.
I was grateful for these ladies’ teaching that reminded me I am a changed, forgiven, humbled and grateful daughter of God.
And of course, the mother in me then wondered, how can I teach this to my children? How can I show them what God looks like?
Always the eager student, I made sure to attend the seminar on “parenting with grace” given by Karen Brits, a soft spoken native of South Africa whose powerful words were a beautiful reminder that just as God’s mercies for us are new every morning, we should practice forgiving ourselves, apologizing to our kids when we mess up, and then go and discipline them with grace. She left us with incredible reminders like that from Phillip Yancey:
“Grace says, “there is nothing you can do to make God love you more and there is nothing you can do to make God love you less.”
From Everyday Prayers: 365 Days to a Gospel-Centered Faith by Scotty Smith, she highlighted the lines:
“Oh, the arrogant pride of thinking that by my “good parenting” I can take credit for what you alone have graciously done in the lives of my children. Oh, the arrogant unbelief of assuming that by my “bad parenting” I’ve forever limited what you will accomplish in the future.”
How can we remember that God is bigger than our fears? How can we have the confidence to believe that what God says is true?
As I reflected on what I wanted for my children, for their growth and for our relationships, I delighted in the realization that I missed them. I did! Absence really does make the heart grow fonder! Being away from crying and demanding really helps, and I could spend time celebrating who each one of them is.
When I first took trips away from my children I made sure to tell every stranger on every bus and airplane that I was a mother of four. Sometimes I wanted them to cheer with me that I had time to myself. Sometimes I wanted them to worry about my kids with me and reassure me that all logistics would work out and that it was okay for me to step away. Over the years I have stopped forcing my story on people, but the feelings remain, the weighty feeling that my full identity including my mom-self is packed up in my luggage along with my reading material and toiletries.
Last weekend I attended a baby shower for a friend in Denver. As the plane touched down in sunny, hot Colorado I decided I felt like Elastigirl from the Incredibles. Not in the superhero way. Far from that. But in the sense that I knew some part of me would remain with my children no matter how far away I traveled. And somehow, even though Elastigirl’s feats and tricks look frighteningly painful as she stops runaway trains or transforms herself into a parachute, I know the only pain of being stretched by travel is the beautiful heartache that comes from knowing I have other parts of me out in the world. This connection to my kids will remain, despite being stretched by any distance.
Like I mentioned: so much to process.
Following a brief run, shower and session of devotions on that last morning, we entered the gym for the final session of worship and teaching, this time to be followed by communion. We were also asked to fill out an evaluation of the program. The paper form included this question: What did God do in your life this weekend? During worship that morning we were asked to “distill it down to one word” and call it out. Women called out praise, hope, fellowship, be still, trust, redemption, and other words that reflected the important lessons and reminders from the messages and experiences we shared.
And me? I was reminded of who God is, how to find him, who he says I am, and tools for how to live the life he wants me to live. Or, putting it this way: I was reminded to praise God, to be grateful for all of the blessings in my life, and to have courage to take next steps as I follow where he is leading me.
Incidentally, our main speaker Crystal Kirgiss is a huge Tolkien fan, and as the retreat coincided with Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ birthdays, she bid us a “Happy Hobbit Day” during one of her talks. And in a way, the weekend did feel like a rebirth as I said goodbye to new friends and hopped into my rental car, having been there and now heading home. With each mile covered I could feel my stretched self relax until there was no space between me and my children who hugged me in turn and welcomed me back home again.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.