I spent the weekend in the Maryland mountains, at a retreat with the women from Revolution Church in Annapolis. I never knew that Maryland had mountains (turns out they’re beautiful) or that a group of women staging a revolution would be so much fun to hang out with.
I was the speaker for the retreat, which is always a mix of wonderful and terrifying. It’s wonderful because I get to ask God, “What are you sending me to say to these women? What will encourage them?” As an outsider, I can say things folks on the inside can’t, because I’m not distracted by concerns like, “How will so-and-so take this?” or “Will person X think I’m talking about her specifically I mention xyz?” I don’t know anyone’s story yet, so there’s freedom to go in and speak as God prompts me, trusting Him with how it lands. But these are the same things that make it a little bit terrifying: I have no relational equity with these women. My freedom to speak means they are equally free to say, “Who brought HER?” and pelt me with water bottles and granola bars.
Thankfully, that did not happen :) So I thought I’d tell you a bit about what did. Because one of the things I discovered over lunch on Saturday was that the word “retreat” is loaded with baggage. This was news to me. Those of us in the writing world all but salivate over the idea of a retreat: a chance to escape from the frenzy of life to order our thoughts and wrestle them out onto the page without interruption. But for others, it represents (I think) hokey weekends filled with schmaltzy activities, feigned niceness tinged with guilt, round-robin judgement, and a casserole recipe swap. Perhaps some light Jazzercize to mid-tempo Amy Grant songs from the 80s. Smile, smile, smile ladies!
THIS was not THAT.
The retreat site, River Valley Ranch, is an oasis hidden between some mountains about an hour from BWI airport. I walked around thinking, Where AM I? because it felt like I’d been transported to another universe. Granted, my understanding of Maryland geography is limited, but this felt unusually “away from it all” even so. We drove around a bend in the road, were dropped down over a hill as steep as a snowboarding ramp, and suddenly, we were in a different world. A rustic world where there are BUFFALO HEADS on the wall, and suddenly your city-appropriate shoes feel somewhat ridiculous. In a good way. A way that makes you wonder what else about your life is somewhat ridiculous, or extraneous, or unnecessary. These are good things to have the chance to think about.
This world also had the kindest, most helpful staff I’ve encountered, and the best food I’ve had at a retreat center. To be honest, retreat food typically inspires me to fast. It’s a holy-sounding survival skill that lets one avoid those scary sausage links and crusty lasagna squares sizzling in grease over Stern-O for 4+ hours. But we had steak. And crepes. And this Mexican soup I didn’t even understand but couldn’t stop eating.
All to say, if you’re planning a retreat, consider River Valley Ranch. Say hello to LaDessa & Sara: these girls will be your best friends, because they can do ANYTHING. They build bonfires, drive a John Deere Gator, figure out glitches in the sound system, and even replaced a clock on a 19 foot wall…without anyone noticing. They have mad skills, and they’re funny and helpful and somehow combine the lifting of heavy objects with talking about what God is doing in their lives.
I should also say that RVR has a zip line. And a ropes course. And horses. And that I will be eternally grateful to the retreat organizer Holly (Total fail that I didn’t get a picture of Holly) for not making me get on these things, or dangle from the heights for Jesus. I prefer to hang out in the room where the buffalo (heads) roam, talking about God.
And we did. We talked about friendships: how they develop in unexpected ways, how people surprise us. How they sometimes fall apart and break our hearts. And how God introduces new possibilities in places and situations just as we’re certain all hope is lost. And in between all those deep and hopeful thoughts, we laughed. My favorite exercise of the weekend was when one of the Revolution leaders asked, “Would you rather eat poop-flavored chocolate, or chocolate flavored poop?” There were a bunch of similar questions in this ice-breaker, but I think this one was particularly interesting in terms of what it tells you about someone’s approach to life :)
As the weekend went on, I got to shift back and forth between being a new member of the group getting to know people, and being the observant outsider, watching this community come together. A lot of these women didn’t know each other when they arrived on Friday night. I was struck by their honesty as they shared reservations about coming, about not knowing what would happen or if they’d meet anyone. And as the weekend unfolded, I saw people walking in different groups as they connected, reaching out to include one another. It makes me wonder what God will do with these friendships: Which of these ladies will help rescue a friend she met this weekend, the way my college friend Kristen helped rescue me when I left my first marriage? Who will form bonds over weekly girls’ nights out the way Gwen and I have over the past few years? Who will inspire long distance creative perseverance, the way the Ryanhood guys have pushed me along with encouragement?
At the end of the retreat, two of the participants were baptized under bright sunshine in a very cold stream.
It was SUCH a celebration, a perfect representation of how the end of one thing can be the beginning of another if we’re willing to let go. As the Apostle Paul told the Jesus-ey people of Corinth, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone. The new has come.” That promise never gets old for me.
On the opening session of the retreat, I shared a quote from this book by musician Michael Gungor: “Art is the ordering of creation toward the intention of the Creator.” I suggested that friendship is art, something God creates where only pieces were before. And then we got to watch art happen, as God brought His intended order to our fragmented world.
Rock on, Revolution ladies. Rock on River Valley Ranch. Thanks for letting me spend the weekend in your world and behold the work of God :)