I'm not big on women's retreats. First off, I'm an introvert who finds small talk stressful. By the time I have had a half dozen getting-to-know-you conversations I can't for the life of me remember which was the woman who had been on a short term missions trip to someplace I know and which has a daughter who went to the same college as mine, much less come up with their names. Multiply this by a couple days and disperse the conversations over several churches full of people I will probably never see again, and I am ready to pull a blanket over my head and turn invisible.
It doesn't help that I'm a missionary. Lots of people know my face and name while I am struggling to match theirs. Besides, missionaries are supposed to be outgoing (we go out to the ends of the earth, right?), so I'm not "allowed" (by my own inner parent) to sit quietly with a book in public.
My other complaint about women's conferences is that in their attempt to draw in new people and attract the unchurched, they often have about as much meat as whipped Jello with Cool Whip and baby marshmallows. The speaker is often evangelistic even when most participants have known the Lord for years. Sorry. I don't have time for it.
Last weekend I made an exception. My church held a women's retreat at a lodge about an hour away. Even an introvert like me longs for real, on-going relationships. These thirty women were ones I see week after week (even if I still have trouble matching faces, names, children and husbands) so every conversation was worth the energy invested.
A few months ago when they announced the speaker, I knew immediately that I wanted to go. Martha Anderson is our elementary school principal with a heart for evangelism at the county jail. She is a woman of God who thinks in Scripture passages memorized over the years. She knows chapter and verse, and the ancient words well up from her heart like sweet water from an artesian spring.
Our theme was Hebrews 13:9b: "It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace."
"Grace is not a single point in the past when we were saved," Martha reminded us. God's grace touches us at many points throughout our lives. She compared the Holy Spirit to a rototiller that prepares the soil of our hearts for the things God wants to do in us. Apples are not nailed onto trees. Fruit comes from within. "Focus on Jesus," she reminded us. "Rest in the Lord."
Martha grew up in a non-Christian home. Two ladies came regularly to hold Vacation Bible School. By memorizing Scripture Martha could earn her way to camp, so for two weeks per year little Martha reveled in Christian fellowship, and the rest of the year her heart fed on the verses she learned. This morning when I read a prayer letter from Child Evangelism in the Caribbean, I found myself praying that the missionary ladies in Antigua and St. Kitts would find the "Marthas" waiting to be nurtured who would bear fruit for years to come.
The adult Martha sent us off to map the key events of our lives and mark the grace points where God stepped in and touched us. Then we came together in small groups and shared. Some people say, "What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger," but it can make you bitter, Martha reminded us. "You have to choose to give it over to God."
As we shared in our small group, our stories were as diverse as they could be, from sheltered Christian homes, to divorce, abuse, drugs and jail. But there was not a story that did not include tears, because each of us is broken in some way, each of us has been touched by God's grace. In the evening we shared "cardboard testimonies" where we wrote on one side a few words describing what we once were, and on the other, what we now are in Christ. We gathered our cards to put in a binder in the library as a memorial to what God has done in our lives.
"I wish we could share like that all the time," someone said in the car going home. I'm not sure the crowded church corridor with children and strangers passing is the right place for this level of sharing, but in our retreat we created a safe atmosphere where walls came down, and we felt free to be honest. It won't be the same next Sunday morning, but we don't have to pretend. We have been touched by God's grace and by our sisters.
Have you been to a women's retreat that was especially meaningful to you? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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