A couple of years ago, my friend Hillary and I were having one of our many conversations about Christian Women's Issues. She suggested I read Ruby Slippers by Jonalyn Fincher. Hillary's brother-in-law was (and still is) a staff writer for Soulation, the ministry Jonalyn runs with her husband Dale, and she had met her when she came to town for a speaking engagement. So I read Ruby Slippers, loved it, and started recommending it to other women. From there I got hooked on Soulation's blogs and was taken in by the ministry's honesty, depth, fresh perspective, and focus on "being fully human." I appreciated that the Finchers weren't afraid to wrestle with big, difficult questions.
Soulation holds small retreats - Gatherings - three times a year in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where Dale and Jonalyn live. Each Gathering focuses on a different topic. After my friend Esther attended the White Gathering last winter, I wanted to go too. But due to cost and personal insecurity, I didn't expect to do so anytime soon.
At the beginning of August, I got an e-mail from Soulation saying that two people had canceled for the Gold Gathering at the end of September. If they couldn't fill the spots by that Friday, they would have to cancel the whole thing. The theme was What Is The Church? Since I've spent the last few years increasingly pondering how to find my place in the Church, my antennae went right up. I texted Esther, I'm considering applying. What do you think? I talked to a few friends. I called my dad. The response was unanimous. Despite the expense, and the potential craziness of crossing the country to hang with a bunch of total strangers, everyone encouraged me to go for it. I hurriedly applied that night and was accepted by the weekend. As my mom likes to say, it was clearly a God Thing.
I wasn't sure what to expect from the Gathering. I hoped to be refreshed, feel closer to God, get some new insights, and enjoy nature. I got all of that in spades. Our group was made up of twelve people (counting the Finchers), all Christians but from different backgrounds and in different spiritual and life places. Many attendees were struggling with legitimate church-related issues a lot bigger than mine. Normally it would take days of small talk to reach deep topics with new people, but our group dove right into it. I loved that. Of course we got to know each other at a more surface level too, but it was great to feel like we had a common mission. Each day we had a presentation and at least one "official" discussion time, but there were plenty of free hours to hike, bike, explore the area, or just have down time at the gorgeous chalet where we were staying.
I'd been to Colorado twice before - once to ski when I was in high school (it wasn't as fun as it sounds), and once en route from the Denver airport to visit my ex's grandparents in southeastern Wyoming. But I'd never experienced Colorado. Just being there was invigorating for my body and soul. The changing trees, the unexpected snow, the rivers, the fresh air. To my own surprise, I pretty much fell in love with the place.
|Photo by Dale|
What most drew me to this particular Gathering was my feeling of isolation within the Church. I think other regions of the country, and other Christian groups, are more integrational (is that a word?). But in a conservative denomination in the South, as a single (divorced!), childless 30something, I'm perpetually out of place. Even though I don't believe one's marital or parental status should be the core of one's identity, the fact remains that the American Church in my neck of the woods is designed for families. There's no proactive path laid out, no mentors for someone like me. Rather than get bitter and complainy about it, I try my best to do positive things with that frustration, to blaze a trail for myself and for those who will come after me. But it's often lonely and sad.
I hoped to find some answers about that at the Gathering. If I did, they haven't fully formed yet. But I learned many valuable things that will stay with me. I was reminded that my neck of the woods is just one small section of the giant forest that is the Body of Christ. I saw the presence of God in other Christians who are different from me, and heard their stories. I felt, in the best possible way, that many of the spiritual and churchy things I worry about aren't such a big deal. That maybe I can give myself and others a break sometimes. Honestly, I think it may take months to fully process my thoughts and feelings.
I'll never forget my fellow Gatherers. We climbed mountains. Literally and figuratively.
|Photo by Rob|