Settling in to the four day men’s retreat at Mt Hermon, life is about the sessions taught by John Eldredge and his small team from Ransomed Heart ministries in Colorado. The men range in age and background: a Vietnam war pilot, a young married man, a burned out LA pastor, a wealth of experience, diversity and life. The sessions are illustrated with movie clips, a device the retreat hangs much of its material on: Braveheart, Gladiator, October Sky, LotMohicans, etc. anything that illustrates the spiritual truths in modern idiom. And there are many. John’s point, the epic spiritual/physical adventure he is talking about is mirrored in all the fairy tales modern film presents us: good vs bad, hero battles evil, wins girl, disaster, comeback, redemption. Almost all movies parallel the biblical story of mankind. The Matrix is real.
But for me, an equally deep mine is the conversations I have with a wide diversity of men over the meals (a dining hall of 550 men). My first, Geoff (not his real name) has an amazing back story. He was wounded early in life, he hid and posed in the heavy biker scene: blond goatee, dirty dog sunnies, a Harley, packing sidearms (a 9 millimeter and a 45). Of Greek extraction, no one messed with Geoff. Drugs, drinking, crime. At 22 his girlfriend convinced him to get an irreversible vasectomy as an “act of love.” She later ran off and slept with his best friend and had a baby, then later abandoned Geoff and the baby altogether. What was he to do? By now a Christian, he felt God calling him to accept this baby girl and raise her (the adulterous offspring of his wife and best friend!) Now that is character. The wife bounces in and out of the relationship, until finally divorcing him. He raises the wee girl as a solo Dad. Now married, with two kids of her own, her biker Christian ‘Dad’ enjoys the harvest of a daughter and two wonderful grandkids from God, despite a vasectomy. God can do anything. I’m reminded of Romans 8:28, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
I’m moved and impressed by Geoff’s depth. He emits love. Now in a third marriage, he has been running a small home group in his garage for 17 years for older men. Some have died, others are now in their 80s. He is a giving supporting hero and late in life, 61, has recently lost his business and home. But he’s still on top despite these troubles.
David (not his real name) is Jewish, and was abused young, first by his older brother, and later by his father. He is deeply wounded. Then his first wife left him for another woman. He feels shame, disgust, and is marred by the lie that he is to blame, he is unworthy, and the cause because “he’s not up to it as a man” a refrain we hear over and over this weekend. We correct this with advice and prayer and help this man move past this blockage in his adult life. Everyone has tears in their eyes as we sit around outside, huge sequoias soaring in the heavens above us. This is what being human is really all about.
Bob (not his real name) and I meet on a Sequoia wilderness trail behind the sprawling retreat center. He’s a fireman from San Diego, and wrestles with the posing macho culture – running down wives and girlfriends, pornography, over drinking. We reach deep into our own marriages and he shares treasures from the struggles and victories he and his own wife have reached, and the benefits of that to his two children.
I meet Matthew (not his real name) from Texas. He works in gas and oil and is young, yet has two divorces under his belt already. As a christian, he’s bound up with churchy laws and rules about marriage; his stomach knotted with anxiety and loneliness. He wants to be happy again. His first wife left him and reunited with her first husband, those two have two kids. That hurts. Rejection. So over dinner we unpackage 1 Corinthians 7 and Romans 7 to reveal Christ who is free and loving and opposed to religiosity, laws binding people, and a much better way which has to do with peace, love, spirit and following our heart as a ‘law’ to life. We talk about how identical acts can be right and wrong depending on context and the attitude of the heart. Rules are blunt instruments. I recall a favourite old Jewish adage, “Rules are for the guidance of the wise and the absolute obedience of fools.” (This is proven true by thinking about seat belts, over drinking, smoking, unsafe sex). His heart lifts and he is effusive in his sense of relief and hope for the future.
Late one night at “Common Grounds” a communal coffee house, we sit around a fire in armchairs. I get chatting to two Northern Irishmen. They’ve been trying for ten years to get men’s ministry going there in dead churches of a few old ladies and a system that has politicized church. They are blocked. A few of us share the stories of our nations, and encourage them to step out from under their church ‘coverings;’ to be free, and just do what God has been telling them for years, to be unafraid. If the church is a hinderance, then work around it, without bagging what church is; not to be oppressed or bound by clergymen who are jealous, fearful or wanting to control. All the great Evangelists (Wesley, Finney et al) ran up against this kind of direct church opposition. Jesus is the obvious example. People are His sheep; He is the Good Shepherd, not the church, that leads to still waters and good pasture. It’s a tough nut to crack, but these men see through the fog of their cultural constraints to the glimmer of a better dawn. A day where their neighbors and compatriots can be free, their marriages in better health, their children living in a more godly, free and male-supportive world. We promise to keep in touch to strengthen and encourage these men; like a platoon setting down covering fire.
And so it goes, meal after meal, session after session, day after day, a steady flow of rich, deep-dealing, male heart to male heart despite age, culture, experience or background.