It’s Thankful Thursday…actually it’s slow-down Sunday. 😉 There’s always so much to be thankful for… including the job, family, bible study, and busyness that demanded my time and attention on Thursday; so I’m taking the time today to be thankful and to reflect on a retreat I attended a few weeks ago.
I don’t usually like women’s retreats. They can feel heavy, weighted, sad… Rehearsed or complicated. I’m not sure why, but I imagine drama, complaining, comparison, and superficial conversation. I expect everyone to smile and say they’re fine. I project answers assuring that their faith is strong, their walks are straight, their thoughts are pure, their pasts are blameless, and their kids don’t talk back.
But what happens when the masks come off, the pretense falls away, and the reality of struggle and pain and loss and abuse and addiction and lack of faith surge to the surface to gasp a drowning breath of air and hope?
“…we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged.” Heb 6:18
The evening started with anonymous hand-written words, two words, to describe the condition of our hearts as we pried ourselves away from routine, repetition, and responsibility to participate in a group that had the potential to be threatening and exposing, or accepting and healing. Some words were expected and encouraging: hopeful, excited, needs refreshing. Others were raw and revealing: sad, guarded, uncertain, unknown, vulnerable, needy, weary.
“Weary” seemed to be the condition of most hearts. What an unexpected, yet eye-opening introduction to the weekend and to dozens of women I had never met. The honesty and admission of brokenness and need seemed to “level the playing field” and put us all on the same team. The theme of the weekend was hope: hope in the struggle and brokenness, hope in the shattered dreams and unmet expectations.
We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. Heb 6:19
As the weekend unfolded, there were cleansing tears, joyous laughter, and reverent quiet; but also the realization and revelation of unmet expectations, hidden pain, and unresolved grief. There were testimonies of loneliness, sickness, struggle, and darkness, but ultimate victory and healing…at least the promise of ultimate victory and healing. There was hope, like an anchor…not preventing raging storms or rushing waters, but holding firm, steady, and secure in the midst of struggle, shattered dreams, grief, and unmet needs.
So why the title? What do swords, shields, and stretchers have to do with hope? A sword is a tool, a weapon…a symbol of power, justice, and authority. The sword of the Spirit is the word of God. The Truth. Is it possible to cling to hope in the midst of tragedy, brokenness, and unfulfilled longing if your life and beliefs are built on untruths and unknowns? Or do we construct a house of cards or a wobbly shack on shifting sands and live in fear of strong winds, unforeseen storms, and uncertainty? A question was offered to weary hearts late that evening: “Where does hope begin?” Two suggested answers:
- Knowing we are loved and pursued
- Confessing, coming before God in humility and naming what is true
“The truest thing about you is not your pain or your disappointment. The truest thing about you is who you are in relationship with Christ.” Beth Wayland
Ultimately truth was proclaimed, eyes and ears were opened, and light was shed on who we are in Christ and in relation to one another. Honesty and transparency were modeled and encouraged. Walking and sharing and struggling together in community were presented as healthy and expected privileges and responsibilities of Christian life and sisterhood.
“In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” Eph 6:16
Not sure how many times I heard the phrase “lock shields with one another.” It painted a picture of unity, of protection, of warfare, of standing side by side and fighting our battles together. Stories of deep roots, strong bonds, and unconditional love and support made me painfully aware of gaping holes in my self-built defenses and weak spots in relationships where I had failed to unite, to stand side by side, and to know and be known. I knew there was something missing and it left me recognizably hurt and grieving.
“Find people willing to walk in the darkness with you. Choose community. Break your independent spirit and make your needs known. Find people to lock shields and walk with you.” Jenny Rone
When you intentionally seek to know and are willingly, freely known, you make yourself available to both give and to receive love, care, assistance, and presence. In the story from Luke 5, the paralytic was unable to stand, to walk, to get to Jesus. His companions lifted him and bore his stretcher, his load, his weight, and brought him, weak and helpless, to Jesus. He may have had good intentions. He may have had great self-discipline and solid determination, but in his own power he was simply unable to bear his own weight, make his own path, see above the crowd and confusion, and find his healing.
Again, what do swords, shields, and stretchers have to do with hope? What exactly is hope? Is it simply a feeling? Is it crossing fingers and wishing for the best? Or is it more? Could it be steadfast confidence that is anchored in the Truth of God’s word, his character, and his promises? Might it also be a refuge, a place of calm security, knowledge, and peace that is fostered, encouraged, and protected in a community of warriors that will not only stand and fight, but will also kneel in quiet strength and humility in the midst of sickness, helplessness, or pain.
As the retreat drew to a close, I recalled a question the speaker had asked earlier in the weekend: “Will you turn your chair to another?”
It wasn’t a question of position or convenience. It was a picture of a willful, voluntary choice to see and be seen, to hear and be heard, to know and be known. It represented a meeting of souls: “an intentional intersection of who I am with who someone else is…at the level of the soul.” (Beth Wayland) While I can’t honestly say that I’m comfortable with the idea of complete transparency and vulnerability, I did walk away with questions, longings, empty places, a new awareness of needs and vulnerabilities, and, more importantly, a recognition and desire to fill the empty spaces.
I continue to see images of swords and battles, of standing together, of linking shields and bearing stretchers. I can even imagine myself on a stretcher, being humble and receptive to being lifted or lowered. I also walked away realizing that maybe I do like women’s retreats…even with the uncomfortable closeness and the inevitable messiness. Next time I wont imagine, expect, or project anything. Next time I will just hope…and maybe even turn my chair to face another.