Reflections on the Recent Imago Houston Retreat

This past weekend, I was the speaker for Imago Houston‘s first arts retreat, held at Hunt Retreat Center in Houston’s farm country. This was my first trip to Houston, but I only saw downtown from a distance. Due to my schedule, I flew in just time for a great meal and then headed on to kick of the retreat. I had to leave immediately following the retreat to be back in Seattle Sunday evening, so I saw very little of Houston, or the friends I know there, unfortunately.

I love retreats. I started participating as a leader in retreats over ten years ago, when Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan hired me to be their worship leader for a Fourth of July retreat in Vermont. I had been leading worship for an arts group that met in Manhattan, which one of the pastors of the church attended, and that’s how I booked that “gig.” But I realized after that how much I love the unique opportunity retreats provide for spiritual formation, and when they are centered on a shared quality – i.e. “women’s retreat” or “arts retreat” – even better.

In the past decade, I have led worship for more women’s retreats than I can presently recount, and around three years ago, I began speaking at retreats as well. If I recall correctly, my first full, four-message women’s retreat was for a Lutheran church near Albany. They were having their first women’s retreat, and their leader Googled “women’s retreat New York” and found me. They took a chance, I did a lot of homework, and, by all accounts, it was a good weekend, and since then, I have spoken at retreats on missions, Bible study, the arts, and spiritual formation.

As I was traveling back to Seattle on Sunday afternoon, basking in the afterglow of another truly beautiful weekend, I was thinking about the qualities that make a retreat truly special. Here are some of the things that I noted about Imago Houston’s retreat, and I would propose that they are the marks of a good retreat anywhere.

1) Hospitality. The leaders of Imago Houston, Eric and John, treated me and everyone who came with tremendous hospitality. They were welcoming and encouraging and gracious to each person who showed up. As the only outsider of the weekend, I was touched by their desire to give me a “genuine Houston experience,” taking me out for some of the best barbecue I have ever tasted. Their enthusiasm for their city was contagious, and by the time I left to come back home, Houston held a very special place in my heart.

2) Multi-generational. I loved that the participants in the IMAGO Houston retreat ranged in age from ten to over sixty. The ten-year-olds did not participate in every aspect of the retreat – sometimes they were off exploring the grounds of the retreat center during my talks – but it was so valuable for them to be there, and to participate as was appropriate for them. Their presence (and this could be because they are both remarkable individuals) added value to the weekend for me, as their innocence and exuberance for life were examples for the rest of us to follow.

3) A loose schedule. At larger retreats I’ve been part of, it is hard to have a loosey-goosey schedule, but I loved the fact that, at IMAGO Houston’s retreat, we had a schedule, but we held loosely to it. If people were engaged in their art-making or in conversation, the leaders didn’t stress out about starting on time. Schedules are great, but when cool things are happening, a retreat, of all places, should be a time to loosen the grip on our agendas and be open to the rhythm of the people there.

4) Time for interaction. I had four scheduled talks – one in the morning, one in the afternoon, one in the evening, and one the following morning. But there was also an entire evening that was devoted to giving each artist who wanted it a chance to talk about a piece of their artwork and have it critiqued. This time of engagement was extremely valuable, as it provided the iron-sharpening-iron time that so many artists lack, especially those who create in the vacuum of a studio, alone. The meal times and art-making times also gave us lots of time to sit around tables together and share stories and experiences. I learned about a man who, with his wife, is currently foster-parenting four children under the age of three, whom they hope to adopt. I learned about a woman whose second-grade teacher told her she couldn’t draw, and turned her off drawing for two years (which was a shame, because the woman is tremendously gifted). I got to hear stories of people I would otherwise never have met, and I was enriched because of it.

5) Good food. I’m not gonna lie to ya: part of why I loved this retreat so much was because the woman who did the cooking for us, Jenny, went above and beyond to serve really good food. Homemade lasagna made with fresh veggies… salad… a breakfast casserole… fresh fruit… a sandwich bar… and some great desserts and beverage selections. And good food, served with a smile, is a non-negotiable for practicing hospitality.

I remember another retreat I spoke at a couple of years ago, on the Jersey Shore. At that retreat, the women involved were trading off cooking, and it became somewhat of a friendly competition – who would serve the most delicious feast? We had steak, shrimp, and some of the best pasta sauce I have ever had. I love that kind of competition!

6) Singalongs. Most retreats I lead have several “worship times,” but since this weekend’s retreat was more focused on the pragmatic aspects of art criticism, we didn’t have a singalong until Sunday morning. But what a singalong it was! I had planned for us to sing a couple of well-known worship songs, then they had asked me to do a short concert of my own songs, which I did. But before that, someone mentioned a song he hadn’t heard since childhood – “Lord of the Dance” – and I started playing it on my guitar. Several people with smart phones googled the lyrics, and next thing we knew, we were singing in beautiful harmony! That made me wish we had set apart more time during the retreat for singalongs! Something beautiful happens when people who normally don’t sing together, well, sing together. It is a divine thing. A heavenly language.

There are plenty of other things that could go on this list… the beautiful setting of the retreat center, with a gorgeous view, in spite of the current drought… the rustic charm of the building we were in… the inside jokes I became privy to… the art lessons I received. But these are the things that stick with me as I reflect.

I commented to some, and I’ll reiterated here, that retreats are rich soil for relationships. There were people on this retreat who knew of each other, but didn’t know each other; now they are friends. I went in barely knowing two people, and not knowing most of them at all. I left knowing many by name, with hopes of future connecting. We prayed together, we ate together, we made art together, we sang together – and some even cried together. It was a beautiful time.

On Saturday morning, I sat outside (briefly – it was hot as blazes in Houston!) and journaled some of my thoughts. The main thing I wrote about was how grateful I am for the gift of retreats – both as a speaker/worship leader, and as “just” a participant. The time to step out of a busy life, to be totally focused on the people in the room (as opposed to the people on Facebook or Twitter) was refreshing to my spirit. I came home physically tired (I had, after all, just given four talks in two days!) but spiritually and emotionally refreshed and encouraged.

If this sounds good to you, and you’re wondering where to start, may I suggest you check out Laity Lodge in Texas? They have year-round retreats with all sorts of themes, from technology to the arts to women to theology. Otherwise, ask around in your community and see where churches nearby might be holding retreats. Then, sign up. Perhaps get a friend to go with you.

Get out of town for a couple of days, unplug from the world, plant yourself in some good soil… and see what happens!

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