A STRANGE FORTYFOUR HOURS
"In the beginning . . ." But I can't start at the beginning. There is no way to know where or how it all began.
And yet-if-IF-you could hear just one Word-
But wait! If you do hear that ONE WORD-which is really everything I have to say rolled into one thundering, crashing sound . . . If you hear that Word, you can never hear anything else except as it comes to you through that sound . . .
Begin at the beginning . . . What is a beginning? I'll just have to tell my story . . . This is not the beginning.
One time a car load of six of us went down to Austin, Texas, to a - Conference? - No, a Seminar?-Did some one tell us it was a "Spiritual Retreat"? I wasn't at all sure I wanted to go to one more "Spiritual Retreat." You know how this kind of thing can be-and besides I'd heard what they had down there was really pretty "way out" for most folks.
"Well-are you going or not?" And I said, "Oh sure. I'll go. Maybe I'll find out something that will help the church."
You see, I take the church pretty seriously. As a matter of fact, in those days I was pretty dedicated to it. (I hate to bring this up, but I have a suspicion that the church was a god to me at that time.) Part of the beginning of all this was somewhere in the words I'd heard through the church and so I was most anxious to help strengthen the church in any way I could. (If all this sounds pretty fuzzy to you-you're right! It is. That is the way I thought in those days. Of course, I had a lot more words for all this. I was not at all short of words, and I might add that I had some pretty fancy theological terms in by vocabulary. That was part of my problem. I had so many words but so few people wanted to hear what I had to say. I could talk very charmingly . . . and when I got through everyone seemed to say. "SO WHAT? That wasn't what I asked, you know." It's a lonely world! )
And kookie, if you know what I mean. Like that kookie part that hit us all when we finally got in that car and headed toward Austin.
We looked at a map and Someone said. "It is a nine hour drive down there."
Someone Else said, "It looks to be about four hundred miles, more or less. Somewhere around that, I'd guess."
All this was so pleasant and agreeable. It was not until we were coming back that we called all this into review again and found out that somehow things had gotten all changed around so that if today you ask Any One of Us about it We can't tell you anything! We can't be sure of the mileage or the time it takes to drive or even what highway to follow. (I said this is a kookie world and before I finish you'll see what I mean.)
To get back to the facts of my story . . . We were all riding along and we got to talking and He (the One sitting next to the Driver) said, "Why did all of you come on this trip?"
WHY? Now there's a stupid question. WHY?
Well . . . that did it! Opened the door to a whole flock of questions. Out they popped . . . "Say, I've been wondering. Just what is this thing we're going to anyway?" . . . What's it supposed to do to us? . . . Who else is going to be there? . . . Suppose-we turned to be the only people there! Can you imagine how silly we'll look if we drive all the way to Austin and no one else is there? . . . And while I think about it, who are these people that run it?
As a matter of fact, who are WE? Look around. We are three men and three women-but what are We doing here together? We don't even know each other. Then-
Some One said, "This is Austin." And so it was-so it was.
There was the Laos House and people coming down the steps
and a door opening and a voice saying, "Oh, you are the people from Oklahoma." And I said, "Norman." You know, you have just to got to hang onto something like the name of your home town, when you have just made the frightening discovery that you don't know a ONE of the people you have just walked in the door with.
The moment passed . . . Things got just as normal as could be once more . . . It was like any other Conference. "Please fill in this card," and "We'll show you to your rooms." Things like that-only-"Wait," She (the One at the desk) said, "About your rooms-you say that not one of you is married to each other?". . .
There was an awkward moment if I ever saw one! I really squirmed. What if She kept pushing this point until We had to say, "We not only aren't married to each other . . . we really don't know each other!" She could have kept asking questions that would have left us exposed right there. But She was kind and the moment passed . . .
There was the "busyness" of getting all settled. I relaxed and presently began to feel I was going to like this place. There was chitchat and laughter, and the smell of food in the kitchen, and our first glimpses of that interesting old house, built in a far more elegant day than ours. We met people coming and going on the stairway and about that time I got to feeling pretty glad I'd come. (I must add, however, so you won't get the wrong impression-this was a fleeting emotion-this notion that we would probably have a "MountainTop Experience" out of all this. You see, they blast that kind of hope right out of you almost before you can get your suitcase unpacked.)
We met people coming and going on the stairs and I joined a group in the "parlor" enjoying a before dinner cup of coffee. (I knew we were still in "this world" when I saw all that coffee.)
A bell rang, the doors to the dining room were thrown open, dinner was ready . . . And from the moment we walked into that room with the polished tables, things started to get all kookie again!
Of course, I didn't notice that all at once . . . Things seemed just like any other meal. There was the blessing of the food, a bell rung by the hostess for the food to be brought from the kitchen, the food itself, so hot and delicious. ("We have a good cook here," One of Them said. All the time we were there we noticed that the food was very good, but at times it seemed a little odd, like the menu where we had a combination like steak and eggs scrambled with fresh tomatoes, for breakfast. And they kept serving cream cheese as a spread for our bread. These interesting little touches made our meals most delightful.)
The trouble with that first meal was-how could I enjoy that fine food (and by now I was really hungry) when they kept making such odd speeches? Here we all were, come together to spend the weekend and They stood behind their chairs and One of Them said, "We think of meal time here as a time when we can become selfconscious. It is a time when we remind our. selves of who and what we are." (Now, how does that sound for a welcoming speech) Didn't They realize that most of us were too self conscious already? That was part of our problem. We'd like a chance to forget ourselves - just a little while - please-) The "Welcome Address" got worse! "We begin our meals here as quietly as possible so that we can listen to the reading of the words from Our Fathers in the Faith." (Would you believe anything could be so awful? Couldn't These People realize that this place was just crawling with strangers? How [continued on page eight}
In one way you could say it was a retreat all right. We were cut off from the world . . . Only there were some things that couldn't be shut out. Like some of the things People brought in with them. The things they said-like That One who finally just leaned way over on that table and screamed at us, "I am lonely-Lonely-LONELY! There is only one person in all the world I can talk to OH ! God ! Is this going on forever ?" These aren't his exact words, but this is what He said. It was frighteningly sad-he was dying, you know, right there in the midst of all that talk about LIFE. Do you know what I did when I heard Him? I laughed right out loud at all that screaming . . . I am that kind of person, you know . .
I took notes on the lectures They gave-but I find I really have very little to tell about what They said because there was so little content to it. Most of it you have probably heard somewhere before-ONLY-it sounded different, the way They said it. AND-They kept repeating it in so many ways-acting it all out. ONLY-it wasn't acting, at all-it-was LIVING!
"Come on," They shouted at us, "You can LIVE." They shouted this at us in a lot of ways-poems, a movie, and those noisy pictures that came alive in that room and spoke to us. ("What would you say to this picture?" They asked . . .) There was that wine bottle They placed beside the fruit and grain in an artistic setting in the center area of the tables where we ate our meals. And all that serious conversation during our meals . . . All the time They were calling out the same message . . . over and over . . . "Come on-You can do it-You have Cosmic Permission to LIVE ! " But we didn't know and we didn't see.
They spoke to us of God, and sin, and Grace (the most beautiful words about Grace) and love and creation and man (and They spelled it with a little m and a big M, so much about man-Man). I kept listening and I felt that back of all that theological language there was just one word . . . ONE WORD . . . we were surrounded by it, and crushed under it, and raised up by it . . . and still we didn't hear it.
Well, Sunday afternoon came. We finished lunch and it was over. We stood in the front hall of the Laos House visiting with Them just as if we didn't have all that distance to go home. Somehow starting for home didn't seem very important. So we talked and laughed with Them. After a while we walked out the door, down those steps and started for the trip home.
I remember how good the afternoon sunlight and soft Texas air felt on my face. I took a deep breath and realized that we hadn't been out of that house for a whole weekend. The air was sweet-Life was good-and-I KNEW IT WAS SO! Every cotton picking thing They had told us was SO. LIFE . . . THE CHRIST EVENT . . . FREEDOM . . . COSMIC PERNIISSION TO LIVE . . . EVERYTHING . . . IT WAS ALL THERE . . . IT WAS THE WORD!
What word? Oh, that Word. Well, why didn't you say so? What is so wonderful about that little, old word. Haven't I heard it all my life ?
We got in the car, the wheels started to roll-and the dialogue began, all of us trying to talk at once-and it was in the midst of Us-LIFE-
Such conversation-all about "what I saw . . . and "what I know" . . . and "what do you think They . . .? (the Living Ones we now thought of as Our Fathers in the Faith) meant by . . ." Everything we said was so full of meaning because, you see, We had known each other ever since our Lives began . . .
Only our Lives were so very new . . . and birth is such a delicate, fragile thing-and violent-and personal. But good! Only the newly Alive can know how good!
How can you describe birth? Know if it is happening to you?
Could you say, "And suddenly there was a multitude of the otherwise? So, that's the way it was. The thing that may get heavenly hosts, praising God . . ." ?
Or maybe you might say, "A butterfly bursts out of his ugly, brown cocoon and the warm air begins to dry his wings-soft,
gauzy wings, much too fragile to hold the heavy load of that air-beautifully pigmented wings fluttering in the sunlight." At what moment did this butterfly come alive? Is this his birth or would you say it is a renewal of life? What is this butterfly?
What can you say about birth? Hasn't everything already been said? "A baby rips through the placenta and tears through the birth canal and lies naked and bloody and limp under a glaring artificial light . . ." This is being born . . . He gasps and cries-"a prayer is a cry . . . a groan . . ." Oh God! Can LIFE be so wonderful?
We sat at that table that night in a cafe somewhere outside Ft. Worth, Texas. We ordered a meal-and we laughed. We ate and drank and talked and laughed. And all around that table the "birthing" was happening. Oh, I tell you, you knew it was there and you were part of it!
"How did you know?" You ask. "What was it really like?" How shall I tell you ?
I sat at that table eating my food-very selfconsciously eating my food. ("Are you on some kind of steak kick?" One asked me. "We had steak for breakfast, you know." There was laughter all around me. Each of Us was so conscious of Self with that new awareness that is part of this LIFE I'm describing.)
I ate my steak and I wondered how it was going to seem to live with only THAT GOD-the jealous ONLY GOD . . . The sin of polytheism creeps so slowly into your life that you are hardly aware that it is there . . . All my little gods were falling and the ONE GOD was shouting at ME, "I AM . . . GOD!"-
That's the way it was. We sat there ministering to Each Other and witnessing to the Word. Little snatches of our conversation still come back to Me.
"How could I have lain a cripple beside that pool for so long? But He said I can LIVE. I CAN LIVE!"
Do you know who I'm like? I'm like the one in that boat. I've tried walking on that water. Can't you just hear Him say, "What's the matter? Did you lose your nerve?" . . . Maybe when there's only one of Me-I can do it!"
The banquet ended . . . and we were on our way again. We rounded a curve in the highway and the sky line of Fort Worth hit us like a look at fairyland. Every tall building was outlined in lonely, orangey lights-so breathtakingly beautiful-the night sky of Fort Worth, Texas.
We rode on into the night . . . The angels' song became louder, clearer, truer, more joyful . . . the delicate new wings of the butterfly began to unfold in the warm air . . . the freshly born One was all clean and throbbing with the newness of LIFE.
Slowly I ran my hand over that shelf where all the idols had stood and I thought, "How can I stand for it to be so bare?" . . . stripped of everything, right there at the very center of my being. But in the bareness I found there was room for the ONE WORD . . . There was room for freedom-room to LIVE!
How long was the night? How far was the journey? How did it end? I really can't say. In one way it was just an uneventful trip down to Austin. All sorts of things might have happened- we could have run out of gasoline in the middle of nowhere, or missed the highway home, or gotten completely off the road. We could have had an accident-or quarreled-or-Well, you know how a trip can be. Yet absolutely none of these things happened to us. We arrived safely home. When we asked our families at breakfast the next morning, "What's news?" they said, "Why, good heavens, how can there be so much news? You were only gone three days." And so it was . . . so it was.
How did it end? I can't say how it ended any more than I can say how it began.
Oh, sure, the angels' song faded into the night . . . The butterfly sailed away on golden wings to meet the sunrise . . . the New Born is growing tall and thin and gawky these days . . . We have not been able to hold on to any of this . . . nothing can be kept . . . not really.
But the WORD is there . . . we all know it is . . . just there . . . forever and FOREVER . . . Amen . . . AMEN!
See What You See-
Know What You Know:
(continued from page two)
did they think we'd ever get acquainted with each other if sat with our mouths shut listening to a "Word from Our Fathers ! "
Well, I won't go on with this. You get the point. Oh, or other thing-One of Them did say they took their responsibility to us very seriously. I got the feeling when he said it as if were a life or death concern with Him. As it turned out, I was right about this.
From here on, I find it hard to continue. I know you want know just what we did that weekend. As One of Them said, "You have just 44 hours here to see what you see and know what you know." How did we spend those 44 hours? Well, someone handed us our schedules (isn't it ever so?) and the rhythm began.
Lectures, discussions (that's the term They used, but you've probably never been in their kind of discussion. We listened to the lectures, put in some hours in STUDY-then They asked questions-not ordinary questions-but Those Questions. No matter how hard you tried, you simply couldn't give a "right" answer. So many questions everywhere-I still find some them sticking around me even yet.)
Well, as I was about to say . . . It went on . .
. eating snacking, drinking coffee, talking, silence, soul shattering
silences, something They called "Daily Office" (I would
have said Corporate Worship, I think. I must say-this was no monastery.
It was no monastery. Do
you know, they just skipped that Worship deal the night we talked
too late and were all tired out ? No, it was no monastery ! )
But there were bell ringing and sleep, (I know there was sleep
because I could hear that blasted bell so loud when the clock
said "6:30". There had to have been sleep or that bell
could never have sounded so loud otherwise.) So, that's the way
it was The thing that may get you-and I hesitate to say it-is
we drove clear to Austin for this kind of thing!