To those who have sorrow I will give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes. I will give them the oil of joy instead of sorrow, and a spirit of praise instead of a spirit of no hope. Then they will be called oaks of righteousness, planted by the Lord, that He may be honored. – Isaiah 61:3
I’ve been searching for some useful words and phrases to describe this recent speaking trip to Ohio. It was the smallest retreat I have ever worked with, yet the weekend left me deeply satisfied.
The communication dynamic changes with the number involved. I’ve given keynote talks to more than 300 people, I’ve anchored conferences where pastors and other church leaders purchased my books after they heard me speak, and I’ve literally traveled coast to coast to encourage men in their daily walk with Jesus… But this time, at a beautiful retreat center in Ohio, just eight men from a mid-sized Presbyterian congregation gathered to listen to an enthusiastic writer from North Carolina. We had the entire space to ourselves.
There are essential elements – variables – in any retreat. There is the speaker (authenticity, passion, content, presentation style etc), there is how participants respond, there is the physical environment, and there is the space between the words, the time where God works on the soul.
Sometimes the spaces between the words are so powerful I wonder if I should really speak at all!
My purpose in giving lectures, offering meditations, facilitating self-examination, and asking great questions, is to sow seeds that I pray will take root. The men who get the most out of my leadership are the ones who fill the spaces between the words with prayer, contemplation, meditation, and reflection.
To that end, we left several hours unscheduled Saturday afternoon, and a few of us made our way to Mohican State Park, drinking in the natural beauty as we hiked what turned out to be a fairly challenging trail, ending up on the low side of a significant dam.
The beauty of the park – rock faces etched from granite hills, steep escarpments dropping hundreds of feet, and the picturesque river meandering through deep woods – is the result of tens of thousands of years of weathering. There is little interest, beauty, or depth of character absent the constant impact of weathering, upheaval, storms, ice, rain, and more storms.
So I looked at the men hiking with me, and I thought about some of the stories they had already shared. The character and the faith they owned had not come their way via smooth sailing but through upheaval, storm, and challenge.
And the strong trees clinging to the steep trails had not survived as loners, but through interconnected root systems, and canopies, and standing together against the winds and the upheavals. And where one tree had started to fall, others often hold it in place while its roots regain traction, in the places where good soil had been washed away in the torrents or a landslide.
Like the topography, I thought, we are beautiful because we are well worn! And like the trees, I have to conclude, we can only continue to thrive if we stand together.
So we have a small group of men with the opportunity to become the beating heart of a new spiritual purposefulness for men in their home church. We all understand we must stand for something; maybe these men are being called to stand as something: “oaks of righteousness, planted by the Lord that he may be honored.”