Trying to raise my kids the best I can

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The best summer retreat ever

I know, I know. It's fall. But I wanted to tell you about the best summer retreat ever...

Every August we pack our bags, load up the truck and head to New Hampshire for the annual church retreat. It is particularly special for me because growing up we never took vacations so I relish it even more than other people do.

The tradition begins a week or so before, when I write endless lists of things to pack, snacks and flashlights batteries to buy. The countdown gets closer and I get more excited. Finally Wednesday has come. We spend the morning leisurely loading the truck, giving friends last minute instructions on how to care for the pets, and finally we’re off. The first couple of years we went we got lost. But I’m an old pro now and I know the way quite well. It’s a two hour trip. We end up deep in the mountains. If it’s nightfall when we arrive the roads can be creepy; no lighting, just endless miles of trees.

Our church friends greet us warmly. It’s actually my parent’s church, but I grew up with nearly everyone. They serve us a bite to eat. We anxiously await the announcement of our cabin. Some of them are quite rustic, but because we usually have one of the youngest babies we often get one of the nicer ones with bathroom and electric lighting. After unpacking we head to bed. The best part of this vacation is being able to forget the troubles of modern life for a little while. This first night, however, our head is still swarming with “modern life” thoughts. We all lay in our beds, listening to the strange sounds of nature, sleep eluding us for a little while.

In the morning the camp bell loudly calls us to wake up. We’re not morning people so this is never a pleasant thing. But the excitement of what the day holds for us gets me out of bed. We quickly dress and make our way to the dining hall where breakfast has been made. Meals are my favorite time. We get to sit with church friends, often people we’ve never met before, and eat delicious food and have deep conversations.

After breakfast we have some time to ourselves. I usually head back to the cabin to get ready for the day or (shh don’t tell) take a nap. When the bell rings again we all meet for a time of worship and a mini-sermon. This is like church how it was meant to be. Sometimes I am disillusioned with church. The worship is always so rehearsed, like a performance. The Sermon is so long and tiresome for the children. Here at the retreat every morning starts with the ideal church service, in my mind. The worship songs are picked spontaneously. The sermon is short and entertaining and applicable to adults and children. Family pet dogs sit contentedly with children enjoying the music. When the service concludes the activities for the day are announced. Usually there are choices of hikes and maybe an adult-only canoe trip.

We always do at least one hike as a family during the retreat. We pack our lunch, put the baby in the hiking back-pack and join the group. As we trod up the mountain talking to people about everything from philosophy to catching up on who just got married or had a baby. The boys are excited to be walking with the dogs and all their new friends. The baby starts to nod off to sleep from the gentle bouncing. When we reach the top of the mountain we enjoy a feeling that sometimes comes only once a year. It’s the feeling of pride at an accomplishment worthy of pride. On top of that, God presents a beautiful landscape that is the backdrop to our lunch.

The afternoon always brings a trip to the lake. All the families gather for a swim. There is diving off the docks, sliding down the water slide, canoeing, perhaps a game involving a beach ball or a football, and more conversations in the sand. I love the water. I love to dive off the docks and even swim the mile across the lake and back again. This is where community really shows. I can ask anyone, “Will you watch the baby? I’m going for a swim”. Even people I don’t know will gladly say “yes”. It’s the kind of community you can’t find any more. To me, that’s what real Christianity is all about, serving one another like Jesus instructed, not fake charity, real giving of yourself. Whenever I go to the church retreat I think “why don’t we live our life like this year round?” Then I remember that others (like the Alcott’s of literary fame) have already tried it unsuccessfully. I also remind myself that this piece of heaven couldn’t really be maintained because we can’t go on forever without doing laundry or money –earning work.

Everyone takes a turn either serving a meal or cleaning up afterwards. Last year I ended up washing dishes for a couple of hours with an elderly man who appeared to have nothing in common with me. I couldn't have been more wrong. We talked excitedly the whole time. He said he had campaigned to get the Armenian Holocaust onto the MCAS test. "NO WAY!" I said. "I saw a PBS special about your campaign. I even blogged about it!!" I got to know him well. That was a perfect example of how everyone at camp gets along, regardless of age or class or race. For a little while none of that matters.

Evenings are spent playing board games, more worship, flashlight tag, roasting marshmallows. There’s no curfew as long as you can drag yourself out of bed in the morning. (If not they will bang pots and pans to wake you). When Friday comes the last of the church members arrive. This group usually includes my parents. My kids warmly greet their grandparents and gorge themselves on the snacks they packed.

Saturday nights is the highlight of the weekend - the talent show. There are entertaining performances ranging from comic skits to songs and poetry. I like how this night encourages the development of talent in the community.

By the end of the retreat there are no “strangers”. I know nearly everyone, having spent several days serving and loving one another other, like the Bible calls us to do. Sunday wraps up with a special church service at the lake where some people choose to get baptized. This ceremony represents the public acknowledgement that you accept Christ as your savior. It is a perfect way to end a heavenly retreat.

Then we pack up the truck and leave. We were only there 4 ½ days but it was plenty enough to last until next year. For now we are slightly sleep deprived, the kids cranky, the hard bed and mosquitoes becoming annoying, the wet clothes in need of a wash, and a bunny and cat at home who miss us.

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