I awoke Thursday and went through my daily morning routine with a sense of excitement and, perhaps, a touch of nervousness. Today was a day I had been mulling over for a couple of years at least.
It started with some brainstorming about how the camp could be even more fully used to bless and challenge God’s people. In summer, the place is crawling with activity, happy camper noise, worship songs streaming out of meeting rooms to fill the pine-pierced skies. Winter weekends also provide time for intimate fellowship as campers escape the pressures and challenges of daily life to meet together in the mountains for a couple of days of spiritual insights and refreshing. But that still leaves a lot of days where the camp sits empty. School and job schedules don’t really allow for weekday use apart from the summer season. Of course, there is the long-established policy that allows pastors and their families to come up for unscheduled events. No food service. No program. Just a time away in the off-season life of Camp Maranatha. Could we offer something similar to individual lay people?
As I was considering this idea, I came across a book by Chuck Swindoll. Intimacy with the Almighty, an eighty-page mini-book, focuses on the four principles of simplicity, silence, solitude and surrender. Swindoll makes the case that these four are sadly neglected in our busy, busy world. They are certainly neglected in mine! As he described each of these and the decisions necessary to practice the disciplines, I longed for a quiet place, pared down to the simplest version of my own solitary needs. A place to be still and listen and wait. A place to let God examine and reveal the pockets of unsurrendered life in me. Am I alone in this longing, I wondered? Certainly not! But how and where in this busy, scheduled world is such a thing possible?
That wondering led some staff members to consider a small corner of Camp Maranatha called Cedar Oaks. Then, last Service Camp, volunteers furnished one of those cabins for this very purpose. So we have one cabin ready. A small desk, a cozy chair, a book shelf with a few carefully selected devotion books, Bibles and study tools and of course, a couple of camp bunks. All we needed was a plan, some ideas for how to execute the plan and a willing guinea pig. Which brings us to the aforementioned Thursday morning.
By experiencing a solo overnight in the personal retreat cabin myself, I hoped to discover important details we might not otherwise consider. What kind of balance should we strike between an austere monk-like experience and a luxurious, self-focused spa-like experience?
Remembering simplicity as one of the key elements, I tried to pack and prepare as simply as I could, but I’m in a season where my health dictates some complex needs (neither fasting nor eating out are good options for me, right now). And I really did need to pack a few books to support the plans I had for this time away in solitude.
So, ninety minutes later than I had intended, I left my car in Camp Maranatha’s newly-paved parking lot (stuffed with an ice chest of food, a bedroll, a suitcase of books and other necessities), and headed to the office. Our wonderful Pam greeted me as if I were a treasured friend (and not at all tardy) and quickly gave me a welcome packet with room key enclosed. After receiving a few verbal instructions to further prepare me for my stay, I slipped away from human contact, prepared for twenty-four hours alone in the woods with God--really alone. I even left my cellphone at home.
I’ve loved the Cedar Oaks cabins from childhood. Placed as they are at the far edge of camp, they have always seemed a little wilder than the rest, brushing more closely against the isolation of forest. But a child’s romantic ideas of wildness and isolation don’t always align with an adult’s view of some of the realities. Pam’s verbal instructions had included the unwelcome news that a mouse had taken up residence in my forest-edge cabin and had thus resisted all attempts at eviction. She had also cautioned me to keep an eye out for various larger critters, which sited only rarely at the camp, were potentially dangerous to the unwary. As I hauled in two loads of my belongings, I was glad I had not, in my quest for simplicity, neglected to pack a flashlight.
I have much to write about all I experienced in the twenty-four hours that followed. Too much for the limited space in this post. For now, I’ll share these few highlights.
Simplicity - The perceived needs of this one 21st century, North American, diet-restricted, female, middle-aged human being are far more complex than I would like to admit. I pared down as much as I thought prudent, but next time I hope to bring far less. Part of my quest was to discover what we, as a staff, could do to enable our personal retreat guests to simplify their packing lists. By providing Bibles, study and devotion books, paper and writing utensils and making other items available on request such as a coffee maker, microwave and small refrigerator, we hope to help clear the clutter in your mind without cluttering the simple environment of the cabin.
Silence - Be forewarned, the mountains are not a place of silence. The absence of human conversation and other civilized noises, somehow magnifies the small forest sounds. Birds and squirrels, distant traffic, even the forest-muffled hammering, sawing and drilling of industrious home-improvers punctuates the passing moments and hours. I twice hiked up to the cross at the top of The Path, much to the chagrin of a family of crows who protested loudly and discussed ideas for ridding themselves of this flightless intruder. How amazing to expect silence only to discover sound all around--even the whooshing sound of wings pushing air. Who knew?
Solitude - Did I mention my small rodent roommate? And Chuck Swindoll, St. Paul and various other friends tucked between the pages of books packed in my suitcase? I was certainly not lacking companionship for this day and night “alone”. But none of these required anything of me. I didn’t have to worry about being understood or making the right impression. I had no one to feed or care for in any other way (the mouse contentedly chewed on his own store of provisions and thoughtfully confined himself to the side of the room opposite my sleeping quarters). Although, I know my God is always with me, the absence of other human bodies, gives way to a greater awareness of that Eternal Presence. In this companionable solitude, I grow still before my God and listen and wait.
Surrender - Surrender is, for me at least, a life-long journey. As much as I like the idea of getting alone with God, I do come with some reluctance, some small fear that He will ask something of me, that he will show me something I need to surrender. Some of these things have been painful to release, deep-rooted as they were. Surrendering even to His good, gentle, weed-pulling hand, meant a season of tearing pain. Other times, He just brings a quiet awareness of burdens I don’t need to carry. This time I was asked to surrender my “right” to fuss, worry, complain, ignore, be noisy, be served, be stingy or self-centered.
I came to this personal retreat, as I hope you will come, with the desire to encounter God more clearly and more deeply. And He asked me to surrender. He gave me four simple rules for this brief time alone with Him. Rules I hope to surrender to even on complicated, noisy, people-filled ordinary days. Rules I hope will help you do the same : )
Come with the attitude of a servant and steward, not a customer. "Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms." I Peter 4:10
(Trash on The Path? I can take care of it! It would be nice if a flashlight were provided. I can donate one! The bathroom steps need sweeping. Ah, ha! A broom for me to use!)
No fussing. Instead, be grateful. "Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus." I Thes. 5:16-18
(Squeaky, hard to open door? Praise God for this place so well-used, so long in His service. Squeaky mouse? Thank God for all the creatures He has made. Long, dark walk to the bathroom? Be grateful to the Light of the world for eyes to see, legs that walk and a light to guide the way.)
Take Notice. "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim His craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make Him known." Psalm 19:1-2
(The chatter of the birds and squirrels. Light and shadows dancing on the forest floor. Chipmunks dashing for cover. The deep, cold scent of the night sky. The rumble of wheels on the highway above. The rough pine bark against my back. Scaly, lizard zipping across my wrists as I write!)
And, best of all...
Be still and know that you are deeply loved by a wild, demanding, generous God. (Paraphrase of Genesis 1:1 through Revelation 22:21)