It’s 7:15 a.m. on a Saturday morning as 44 Johnson students and alumni quietly gather on the porch of a retreat center in the Smoky Mountains. They have been in silence since the prayer service the night before. The rhythm of rocking chairs on the wooden deck blends with the chorus of birds and chatter of squirrels welcoming the morning. Clouds roll down the valley as the morning sun tries to pierce the haze and reveal a glimpse of the mountains beyond. Students and alumni sit in silence, watching as God unfolds His magnificent creation. Finally after one last pregnant pause, the leader of Morning Prayer breaks the silence, "Oh God, open our lips." The group sings in reply, "And we shall declare your praise." Thus begins day two of the annual Spiritual Formation Retreat I host for students and alumni of my course, Christian Spiritual Formation.
After prayers and songs of praise, the participants bring the morning service to a close with hugs and the blessing, "May the peace of Christ be with you." Conversations begin, seasoned by the night of silence with God. Awe and joy and rich fellowship enfold the retreat center. Across the way a bell rings announcing that breakfast is ready. Fourteen hours earlier alumni and current students had never met, but now, after times of rich worship and prayer, a bond is forming. Cynthia Jones ('12) and Elizabeth (Kelly '09) Martiniuk (granddaughter of Bob and Mary Lou Martin), veterans of all five retreats, share breakfast with new participants and welcome them into the koinonia. Some, like Michal Ruth Penwell ('04), are home from the mission field, ready to be poured into after pouring out for so long. Others like Claire Dore ('11) will soon depart to serve overseas. Matt Zingraf ('12), Kyle Taft ('09), and Adam Bloch ('09) have the weekend to renew and recharge before returning to ministry in their local congregations. Current students mingle with alumni over breakfast and begin to sense they are part of a special gathering.
A group of students help clean the dining hall as the rest wander toward the lodge for a time of study. There, the students are given a rare gift – a short story by Tolstoy and an hour and a half to read and reflect on the piece. Eager to learn and hungry to grow, the alumni and students savor the gift of time to simply sit with words in the Presence of the Word. Some find a quiet spot near the fireplace. Some venture outside to the rocking chairs and hammocks. In no time they are immersed in a story of Christian pilgrimage that pushes them to consider their own walk with Christ.
The 90 minutes pass quickly; then comes something they did not expect. A special guest arrives to help unpack the short story. Most of the alumni studied under Professor Ron Wheeler, and they are thrilled to sit at his feet once again. It feels right and good, like putting on a well-worn hat that after years of use just fits well. The discussion is deep and rich as participants contemplate the meaning of the incarnation for their walk with Christ.
The dinner bell rings again, and conversations continue over lunch. After lunch it is once again time to worship and pray. The brief service of prayers, a Psalm, and some silence calls them back to an awareness of God’s Presence.
Free time follows, and normally some hike to Look Rock to take in the panoramic view of the Smoky Mountains. But this day the rain has set in, slowing the pace of the weekend even more. Some gather in groups to renew old friendships or form new ones. Some disappear to take a long overdue nap (a gift from God). Some set off with their Bibles to read and pray. Soon it is time for the afternoon workshop.
We gather to explore the theme of "incarnation" in Scripture. An hour of study leads to an hour of silence for reflection. Then something remarkable happens. The group reassembles after spending time with God, and slowly but surely individuals begin to share what they have learned from God during the quiet time. Someone recites a poem he composed while looking out over the expanse of mountains; another shares a song that sprang from the depths of his heart. Still another reads part of a journal entry inspired by her reading in Scripture. The group sharing always impacts us profoundly. All know that God will speak if we still our hearts and minds long enough, yet to experience it and share it with others seems rather like a glimpse of heaven.
A brief break allows the group to catch our breath and prepare for the afternoon worship service. Here God does some of his best work. While the alumni and students lead worship, the retreat counselors slip to the back of the room to prepare for a time of intercessory prayer. While the group sings, those seeking prayer make their way to a retreat team member. Sometimes they share their grief; sometimes they confess a sin; and sometimes they just need the listening ear of a friend who will lift them up before God's throne. This time of God's gracious healing, restoration, and encouragement leads everyone to the Table where we meet Jesus in the Bread and Wine.
There is no silence on the second night of the retreat. The encounter with God’s grace compels us to celebrate. So the bonfire is lit, s’mores are made, stories are told, and laughter abounds. The conversations and fellowship in the Spirit go long into the night, and none can escape the feeling that God must have intended something like this for His people.
Over 70 different students have now participated in this spiritual retreat during the past five years. My hope is that over time God will use this retreat to conform both student and teacher to the image of His Son. To God be the glory and may the peace of Christ be with you.
Dr. Jody L. Owens is a graduate of Johnson and serves as professor of Bible while also teaching in the area of Congregational Ministry. He also serves the body of Christ through preaching, leading retreats, and speaking at conventions. For his work in the area of discipleship and spiritual formation, Dr. Owens received the Calvin Phillips Award for Outstanding Doctor of Ministry Project in 2003.