It has been less than 12 hours since I left the Alabama Heartsong Retreat 2009, but I feel like I have to write about a scandal that happened at this year’s retreat. It happened on the second night of the retreat, but one needs to know the setting first.
Fifty or so people gathered at this year’s spiritual retreat at Camp McDowell, an Episcopal camp in Northwest AL. There were heterosexuals, homosexuals (gay and lesbian), bi-sexuals, black people, white people, and even a person with a Cherokee Indian background among the participants. They were young and old. Some were Pentecostal, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterians, Catholic, AME, CME, and more.
One was a fugitive running from the law in another state. Others had been in prison for drug abuse, and some were still fighting the drug demons. Several were alcoholics. A few had been abused, while others were, or had been, in an abusive relationship. I think a few people there had never said the sacred traditional word, “IacceptJesusChristasmypersonalLordandSavior,” that I had been taught as a child.
Let’s be honest, everybody there was plain and simple “a sinner,” to use religious language. I’m talking about the kinds of sinners whose sins are high on the “sin grading scale” that most religious people use, as if there was such a scale. The ragtag group embodied the “disenfranchised or outsiders” that you read about in the Bible. I read the story aloud of the woman who was a sinner and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears.
Our retreat theme, “Getting in the Game of Life,” was at the center of the spiritual discussion in the large group as we sat in one unbroken circle. We talked about what it meant to be “blessed” by other people. Not a blessing prior to a meal or someone saying, “God bless you.” Rather, the kind of blessedness or blessing that happens when one is emotionally and spiritually dying to hear a word of encouragement, or affirmation, or love, or hope in one’s life. We named some of those people by name, both the living and dead. These were the people who had been there for us. I heard myself call out my father”s name, “Lewis Marler,” as his name lodged in my throat. We lit a candle in the circle’s center as a reminder. Some people didn’t name anybody.
And then the scandal happened.
“Choose a partner and sit knee to knee,” I began. “Study the features of your partner’s face, and look into his or her eyes. I mean really look until it is a bit uncomfortable,” I directed, and people giggled.
And then I asked one of the partners to say to the other very slowly, “You are a child of God.” I asked for silence to let it sink in. Then the receiver of the blessing responded with, “I receive your blessing.” We changed it around. “You are a child of God,” they said, with silence allowed to soak up the words like a sponge . . . then together the blessed ones said, “I receive your blessing.”
I suggested that each one of us in that room were called in life to be that blessing–that thread of hope to others on a daily basis. We were to give this blessing, especially to the people we didn’t like. The ones who irritate us, the ones who are the opposite of the kind of folks we like to hang around. This is what it means to “get in the game of life,” to pay attention to the person in front of you. He or she are no longer sidelined, no longer benched. To look into the face of every person and know that he or she is a child of God.
Grace was scattered to everyone there without discrimination. Actually, the grace was already there, we just acknowledged its presence. From drag queens to the ordained. Grace poured. Tears flowed. Others were trying to figure out what just happened. We all knew something happened. Powerfully so.
Whatever you want to call it, it was scandalous for sure. Sinners being called children of God. And the kingdom of heaven, for just a moment, was not in the distant future of a life in the hereafter. It was and is a life of the here and the now.
NOTE: Much of this entire scandalous exercise was my colleague’s, Joe Elmore, idea. It seems like all he talks about as a retired Methodist minister is grace these days. Thank you Joe.