In November our church put together a two day Men’s retreat. This is the second year for this event. Last year I was unable to attend because I was in Cincinnati, Ohio working. This year I had every intention of participating, unfortunately, as the close of registration drew near I found myself in an unusual situation. Somehow I had managed to commit myself to attend three different events this particular weekend. When our associate pastor heard I would not be attending, he expressed genuine sadness and disappointment. This expression of love overwhelmed me. Two days before the retreat, after scrambling desperately to rearrange my schedule, plans fell into place. As it turned out I was even able to carpool with four other guys to the retreat. The retreat was held the weekend of Nov. 14 – 16th, at a working ranch approximately 2 hours east of Dallas. The ranch is located not too far from the Louisiana border.
We bunked in a large log cabin with three different sleeping quarters, two downstairs and one upstairs. The restroom and shower facilities were located inside between the sleeping quarters. Inside running water in rural Texas? I was dumbfounded! There was a large open area inside the cabin. The mess hall was in another building located fairly close to the cabin.
About eighty guys from church attended. The first night after dinner we gathered around a bonfire for some fellowship. The bonfire pit was located on a small hill 100 yards behind our cabin. The peaceful tranquility of the moonlit night, with the stars glistening upon us, with the night air filled with sounds of wood crackling from the fire, and the joyous sounds of country living went unappreciated due to the fridge temperature. The weekend before the temperature hovered around 75 degrees, now winter was rearing its ugly head with a bone chilling 35 degree temperature. The wind decided to dance among us and through us further enhancing our misery. Please do not get me wrong. I am not complaining. With three layers of clothing and a warm coat I was far from totally frozen. This being a church activity, no one thought to bring a bottle of brandy to warm our insides. What a shame! Well it would not have done me any good anyway, I stopped drinking last April.
How I forced my semi-frozen limbs to carry me back to the cabin, I will never know. At last warmth! The reprieve only lasted temporarily. My bunk was situated next to a window. I had planned on bringing my warm sleeping bag, but at the last moment decided all I needed were a couple of sheets. After all, we were sleeping inside. I figured, surely the cabin was heated to 70 -75 degrees. Wrong. Either the thermostat was broken or they purposely set it at 55 degree. (At least that is what it felt like). I awoke after a fitful night, sleeping in my coat, to a desperate need for several hot cups of coffee.
Breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, sausage, and hot coffee. I was in heaven. When breakfast was finished, we all gathered back in the cabin for some worship time and a message from our pastor. After lunch we had our choice of different activities. Horseback riding, hiking, a rope obstacle course, fishing, or swimming were on the menu. Although the weather was gracious enough to warm up to around 50 degrees with no wind whistling about, swimming was not on anyone’s agenda.
I skipped lunch and took a nap. When I awoke the guys were starting to go off to the different activity areas. I decided to take a long solitary walk. I would use this time to reflect upon different areas of my life. Fifty yards past the cabin’s front door my time of reflection ceased. One of the guys (Daniel) whom I had meant the previous night was also out walking. He was waiting for the horseback riding to begin in 45 minutes. After some discussion we decided to walk together, the ¼ mile, to the horse corral and then hang out till he rode off on his horseback riding adventure. I had not signed up for this activity and all the available slots were full. Anyway I am not an avid horseman. In my 51 one years of life, only twice prior have I been on a horse. I know this is hard to believe. I live in Texas and do not own a pair of cowboy boots nor ride horses. What kind of Texan am I?
As we were conversing (guys don’t gab, they converse) another guy showed up to wait for the horseback riding to begin. A few minutes later he asked me if I wanted to take his place riding, because he wanted to try out the rope obstacle course. Well, I said “why not“? Thinking I could somehow control a beast that is much larger than myself. The joy of foolish ignorance.
Our pack leader finished his instructions with saying, “just sit back and enjoy the ride.” Then the moment of truth arrived. It was time to pick our horses. I forgot to mention the funny little helmet we were required to wear. I was not worried about falling and hitting my head, I was fearful of falling and breaking a leg or an arm. The horse I picked appeared calm and gentle. I looked deep into his eyes, summoning all the powers of the “Jedi “ mind trick I learned from Star Wars, while trying to hypnotize this beast into submission, all the while fervently praying I would survive this encounter. Now, time to mount up.
Left foot in stirrup, and then propel your right leg up and over the horse. Easier said then done. With my left foot locked three feet in the air, firmly secured in the stirrup and my body crying out “You don’t bend this way”, my right foot refused to move higher than one foot off the ground. Three strikes and your out! Right? Not in this case. On my fourth attempt I was assisted up onto the horse (in other words, someone lifted me). If horses could laugh, mine would have keeled over. I hope this was not a prelude to what was in store.
High oh silver! Off we went, 15 horses single file, majestically strolling calmly out the corral gate and down a well worn path. I can handle 30 minutes of this, I thought. Slowly, the well marked path started to disappear until only a faint outline existed. I realized our guide was not kidding when, during his instructions he said, “I like to change up the trail”. Up a small hill we went, under low hanging tree branches, through tall grass, till we reached the summit. Then the fun began. My horse instantaneously transformed it’s self into a demon. No more gentle walking for this horse, now we were going to gallop quickly down the hill. Holding on for dear life and crying “whoa horse” while pulling back on the reins was my futile effort to slow this horse. Apparently this procedure had the opposite effect on this creature, he galloped faster. Fifty yards later (seemed like miles), when we reached a small valley, the horse finally slowed back to a normal walk. I swear this horse snickered at me.
Three, four, five minutes passed as we continued our leisurely pace, following the other riders single file over the unseen trail. Down into a small ravine, through a nearly empty creek, my horse behaved superbly. Then as I was starting to relax, once again a demon possessed this beast. Galloping up the creek’s embankment, under even lower hanging tree branches, off this horse rode. Bouncing up and down in the saddle, thinking each time I rose up, surely this time I was going to fall off and be trampled by the riders behind me. Eventually, we reached a cattle pasture where the horse casually slowed back to a nice calm walk. Praising God for keeping me upright, my heart rate began to return to a somewhat normal rhythm. The possibility of having a heart attack did cross my mind.
Walk awhile then gallop some, walk awhile then gallop some, this frightening pattern continued throughout the remainder of the ride. Someone forgot to tell me this horse had a Dr. Jeckell/ Mr. Hyde complex. Mercifully, I arrived back at the corral in one piece. Amazingly still upright in the saddle also. Maneuvering next to the metal fence which surrounded the corral, I used the fence to help with me dismount off the horse. The dismount procedure went a lot smoother then the earlier mounting fiasco.
Gingerly walking away, the idea light bulb went off inside my head. Horseback riding can definitely be used as a birth control method for guys. Bouncing in the saddle creates a major “discomfort“. The creative wheels began to grind. How can I profitably market this profound revelation?
Several fellow riders mentioned they thought I was going to bite the dust during the ride. “No worries,“ I replied, mustering the final reserves of my manly dignity. Laughing, trying desperately to hide my bruised and battered ego, I told them, “I was only demonstrating the finer points of horsemanship“. Next time I am demanding a horse with a built-in shoulder harness seatbelt (like the racecar drivers use). Or better yet maybe I should stick to riding motorcycles. I know I can control them.
After our wonderful horseback riding experience, Brian and I decided to venture over to the rope obstacle area. Thirty feet up, among the tree branches several rope challenges were set up. One, where you walked across a rope, stretched between the trees, approximately 50 in length, your body dangling in mid-air, while you clutched (for dear life) the rope above you. Hand over hand, shuffling your feet, inch by inch until you reached the safety of the tree platform. Boy did this look like fun! Another event was where an attendant strapped you into a harness, and then attached the harness to a rope which was suspended between two trees. The other tree about 300 yards away. You were then launched off the tree platform, to zip along the rope high above the ground, hanging on for dear life, as you proceeded to fly through the air for 300 yards. This glorious contraption is called a Zip Line. Various other courage testing events, similar to these, were available.
With my feet securely planted on the ground, I watched, amazed as my brethren attacked these activities demonstrating a degree of zeal and faith unsurpassed by even the most professional daredevil. Where their faith came from, to perform these death defying feats, I haven’t a clue. Their faith was it grounded in their own abilities, or placed in the harness that secured them to the ropes, or did they all just trust God to keep them from falling out of the trees?
Considering my aversion to heights and combined with the horseback riding experience I had just endured, the burning desire to join these brave men, up in the trees, was nowhere within me. Yes, I had come to the retreat to draw closer to God, but I reasoned God would understand if I remained physically and securely on the ground.
Walking back to the cabin I reflected on how my life has dramatically and completely changed. Not too many years ago. if I were to attend a retreat, with a group of guys, there would have been a party atmosphere. A party overflowing with booze, raucous behavior, swapping lies, guys boasting about conquests with women, playing cards, and hopefully shooting pool. A strong Bloody Mary, with two aspirin, to minimize the hangover would be our breakfast of choice. Lunch would consist of plenty of beer with maybe some food. Dinner the time to break open the good strong liquor. Junk food would have been the preferred cuisine.
This retreat was about building strong relationships with other men who share a common faith and who are genuinely concerned for each other’s well being. Coming together as a group we can share testimonies, confessions, worries, concerns, and fears while encouraging, supporting, lifting up, and praying for one another. Trust, honesty, and love are the cornerstones of this gathering.
Dinner that night found us back at the fire pit. We grilled hamburgers and hotdogs as the darkness descended. Soon, ten feet from the fire darkness fully engulfed us. Stumbling blindly between the picnic tables we attempted to fill our plates with condiments. A flashlight balanced in one hand, your plate precariously balanced in the other, we all somehow managed to load up our plates with food. Thank God the temperature had risen from the previous night. Now, we were only cold, not frozen. At least the wind was gracious enough to leave us alone tonight. By mutual consent we all returned to the warmth of the cabin after we finished eating. No standing around the fire till midnight tonight.
After diner we gathered in the cabin for an enjoyable, spirit filled, time of worship and fellowship. During this time (Brian) the guy that drove four of us to the retreat, said he needed to leave that night instead of in the morning, as originally planned. He was apologetic about his change in plans. There were several people who stepped up and volunteered to have us carpool back to Dallas with them. This is a example of what I mean about the guys caring about one another.
Returning home Saturday night with Brian was actually a blessing. This would allow Kathy and me to attend church on Sunday morning and then spend the rest of the day together. The original plan had me returning in the middle of the afternoon Sunday. This was ok, except Sunday was our wedding anniversary and I felt spending the day together was preferred. Especially considering last year, on our anniversary, my plane did not arrive in Dallas till 8:00PM. I had been gone from home working in Ohio and Kentucky for 6 weeks.
With no cell phone signal out at the ranch I was not able to reach to notify Kathy of the change in plans. That’s ok I thought I will surprise her. She will be overjoyed when I come through the door. It was close to midnight when we arrived back in Dallas. When Brian drop me off in front of my house I realized my house key was setting on top of my dresser inside the house. No problem, I will knock on the door. When Kathy answered the door she was more frightened by my sudden appearance than overjoyed to see me. Her words, “You scared the s… out of me,” greeted me at the doorway. Apparently, surprising her was not one of my smartest moves.
The weekend of the Men’s retreat was a unique experience. Not one soon forgotten. New friendships were forged, current relationships were strengthened, and beautiful memories created. These were but a few of the remarkable benefits I received from this weekend.
The excitement, adventure, and memories that next year’s retreat will bring I can hardly wait to see.