6:54 pm, Monday night, La Quinta Inn
I walked into the hotel lobby looking for a familiar face. Then I saw my friend Mark. He had invited me to come to support and celebrate his return from a men’s recovery weekend. Scattered throughout the crowded room were men (including Mark) who were wearing crosses around their necks and black t-shirts with a logo of a shield crest on the left pocket. We hugged and talked briefly but I quickly felt out of place. Mark saw another man with a black shirt on and he offered a knowing ‘Hi’ with a warm embrace. It was clear that although they had known each other for less than 72 hours, they shared a deep bond. I stepped away from them in deference to the intimacy between these two brothers.
After about fifteen minutes of awkward standing around, the men in the black shirts went into a side room while I followed other family and friends shuffling down the hall toward a conference room. I found a seat in the far right back row, close to the white clothed table where the water pitchers and cups were set out, giving myself a twelve-row buffer zone from the front of the room. For the next three hours, one by one, each man shared how the weekend had impacted him. When he was done, anybody – wives, friends, pastors, the other men – could go up in the front and say whatever they wanted to him.
“Welcome to the Desert of the Real.”
Although they would not share any specifics about the mechanisms of the retreat, I saw the imprint the retreat had left. They spoke a slightly different language – understandable but unusual, using words like honor. Who talks like that? Yet, I kept hearing: “I want to honor you, Mike.” “Jim, I want to give you honor.” Insider phrases or slogans were prominent like “living from my dreams, not my fear” and “love always works.” (I may not be getting the phrase exactly right. Like I said, I was an outsider, back-row observing a different culture.) They were physically affectionate with one another – embracing each other with hugs, gripping one another’s forearms, and making direct eye contact. Sometimes the men would just look deeply at one another in silence for about five seconds (it seemed like minutes!) with an expression of deep acceptance. The weakest were seen as the strongest. The vulnerable were venerated. The oldest had initiated the younger into the mutual commitments of the community. And they were not afraid to say what mattered the most to them. They seemed to think that their words were powerful gifts that were meant for so much more than skimming the skin-deep surface. Words, to them, were sacramental – wine and bread feasting for the soul.
This celebration was inviting and unsettling at the same time. These men had been through Hell, lost it all, and by God’s grace had come out the other side. What else could sin, death, and the devil do to them? They had already died, so the fear of death could no longer blackmail them back into fear and false worship. Now they could risk extravagant love and deeds. Those who have lived at rock bottom have nothing to lose.
Honestly, being in the presence of these men over whom fear has no control and God’s love is all consuming, was irritating. Their freedom had a way of exposing my own inner deadness. It was picking at my heart scabs that protected me from self-examination and feeling my feelings.
“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting… At this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each of them heard them speaking in the native language of each… all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” – Acts 2:2, 6, 12-13
I was bewildered and amazed. I did not see tongues of fire but certainly a glimmer of Pentecost fire in their eyes, their smiles, their words, and their love.
Another man in a black shirt and cross stood up and declared, “How amazing would it be if the church was like this?” Yes, indeed. It seems we have outsourced Holy Spirit to hotel conference rooms in order to make Sunday mornings seem safer and the gospel less demanding.
A haunting question of a wild dreamer set free:
“What if the church was like this?”