A couple years ago, as I was preparing for my sabbatical, I applied for a Clergy Renewal Grant from the Lilly Foundation. These grants are awarded to clergy going on sabbatical to help them truly experience a time of rest and renewal. I centered my grant proposal on the theme of “Going to the Mountaintop.” I proposed spending some time in the Smoky Mountains, taking a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, and ending with an excursion to Denali National Park in Alaska. I thought it was a great proposal. Apparently, the folks at Lilly were less enthused by it. I didn’t get the grant.
Fast-forward to this summer at General Assembly in Nashville (I know, there are no mountains there; bear with me). I was previously a part of a group called the Bethany Fellowships, which brought together young clergy right out of seminary to help them make the transition into full-time ministry (our Minister of Growth, Robyn Fickes, is part of this group). In Nashville, I learned that there was going to be a Bethany Fellows Alumni Retreat this fall in – are you ready for this? – Rocky Mountain National Park! I couldn’t sign up fast enough.
Last week was the retreat. I flew into Denver Monday evening and we drove up to the St. Malo Retreat Center near Estes Park. It was an incredible experience to go from the rolling hills of Lexington to the mountainous terrain of Colorado. From my room, I had a gorgeous view of Mt. Meeker, a 14-thousand-foot peak.
There were four others on the retreat and we spent some time getting to know each other and sharing in worship on Monday evening. Tuesday morning, I woke up before sunrise (being two hours ahead made that a little easier) and watched the sun come up over the foothills. Later that morning, we drove into the park and did some hiking around the Bear Lake area. Thankfully, we didn’t see any bears! We also hiked to Nymph Lake and Dream Lake, where the wind was blowing so hard that it was snowing horizontally.
That afternoon, the group shared together some of our best practices for ministry and our hopes and dreams for our congregations. It was wonderful to hear the innovative ministries my colleagues are doing and to share some of the great things about Crestwood. We all came from very different ministry settings and yet there we learned a lot from each other.
That evening brought the part of the retreat I was dreading – SILENCE! We went into silence after dinner. As I’ve told you, I’m not really good at this, so it took me a long time to settle my body and spirit. Since I was in charge of the worship service coming out of silence, I was thankful to have “something to do” during that time.
The next morning, I committed myself to really being silent. For the first time in forever, I didn’t turn on my computer when I woke up. I ate breakfast in silence (hard to do since a group of 8th grade boys were also staying at the retreat center) and then suited up for a hike up the mountain behind the retreat center. The trail was fairly easy to navigate and ended at a beautiful waterfall about a third of the way up the mountain. I found a rocky outcrop that I climbed which gave me a better view of the sights around me. After about 1/2 hour, I reluctantly hiked back to the retreat center.
So how did I do with the silence? Amazingly well. In fact, this silence experience was truly transformative for me. First of all, I realized well into the hike that I didn’t bring my headphones with me, which is very unusual. For me, one of the first things I do when I have a walk or run ahead of me is put on some music. To not even remember my headphones tells me I was actually looking forward to having the natural soundtrack on my hike.
And what a soundtrack! Chirping birds, gusting winds through the pine trees, a babbling brook alongside the path – even if I hadn’t been in a time of silence, I would have been struck dumb by the awesomeness of the experience. Next week I’ll write about what is was like for me to actually climb a mountain, which we did that afternoon. I know and am thankful that God is everywhere, but last week, I felt God in a new, powerful way.