How is this for a retreat: Pay $50 for a couple to attend and then discover a $100 dollar bill in one of your notebooks.  I am not making this up.  I had never heard of these retreats when the mailing came.  It was pretty much too good to be true.  When I got the letter, I did not know about the $100 bill that would be in the notebook I received that first evening, but the rest of what was described in the letter was already too good to be true.  It actually was true, it was as good as it was too good to be — even better!

The location for the retreat was Big Cedar Lodge owned by the Bass Pro Shops.  It is located on Table Rock Lake, south of Branson, Missouri.  It is advertised as a Luxurious vacation spot.  They are not lying!   Remember the $50 registration fee?  The retreat was five nights and six days long, April 7-12, 2002.  When we finally drove in, we couldn’t believe our eyes.  Rolling hills spread out in front of us for hundreds of acres at the edge of the lake where all sorts of rustic buildings surrounded by gardens nestled among the trees and carefully arranged landscaping greeted us.  We registered and got our keys.  It took us a long time to find our room — ROOM? – it was a free standing cabin.  Inside was a large living area (with a large fire place), dining area (a large basket of fruit and packaged foods greeted us), full kitchen, king-sized bed, a bath area the size of the living room in our current townhome (of course with a huge jacuzzi tube).  The cabin had a deck area with chairs and a gas grill for outdoor cooking (not that we would have to do any).  The little card on the back of the door listed the room rate as $350 per night.  Clearly, there had been a much better rate negotiated.   

The retreats are called Grace Place Retreats.  They were begun by Dr. John Eckrich (M.D.).  He had been treating Lutheran Professional Church Workers in his practice for many years.  It struck him how stressed so many were.  He had a concern for the health of the church and realized that healthy church workers would be important for the church to remain healthy.  He decided to do something about it.  When the Lutheran Deaconness Hospital was sold some years before that, the proceeds became a benevolent fund that could be approached with grant proposals.  The front of the brochure we received in 2002 describes the Grace Place Retreats as: “A Retreat and Lifestyle Program Offering Integrated Health Skills to Lutheran Pastors and Spouses.”  It has expanded since then to all flavors of church workers.  Almost all of the costs of the retreat were underwritten by the Grant and donations to the Grace Place Program.

Then there was the food!  Big Cedar had five restaurants.  Our meals were catered in the area where our sessions were held.  There was not an ordinary meal to be eaten.  We were never disappointed, always impressed with the quality of the fare.  When we opened our notebooks and discovered the $100 bill, we were instructed to use it while we were there to treat ourselves.  Who are we not to follow instructions?  Mary Ann got a spa treatment of some sort and I got a massage.  Mary Ann was using a wheelchair at the time, and was always accommodated by the staff and the other participants on the retreat.  It was a good experience for her. 

Each morning there was a prayer, meditation, exercise time before the sessions started.  It was called Lutherans in Movement and Meditation.  After breakfast we always practiced Lectio Divina as a group.  That discipline involves reading the same Scripture passage two or three times listening differently each time with silence afterward to let the message settle in and take hold.  One of the days we held a juice fast, followed by breaking the fast with a light meal of bread and fruit.  Evenings included Faith Exploration activities.   One evening we went to a local church for Evening Prayer. 

Sessions focused on a variety of topics aimed at promoting good physical and mental health.  Some were on dealing with stress, looking at our various roles in life.  There was a very pointed session that addressed our marital health and habits.  The four themes addressed were: the priority of marriage, the permanence of marriage, the oneness of marriage, and the openness of marriage.  We were paired with another couple for the retreat so that we could have small group discussions on the various topics.  There was one afternoon that we were to take a sheet of instructions and spend the entire time in silent meditation.  That was the day of the juice fast.  One of the sessions had a leader from our national church body who talked about money management and planning for the future. 

One evening included heading into Branson to see the Jim Stafford show.  We both enjoyed the show (to our surprise).  One afternoon we had a tour of Dogwood Canyon.  It is a sort of private wildlife preserve that was very impressive.  We rode a wagon along a creek filled with visible trout (it was crystal clear) and through an area where buffalo and elk were out in the open.  In a sense, they were the observers and we were the mammals inside a protected area (the wagon).  Some of them came over very close to check us out.  They were huge!   On the afternoon for recreational activities, a few of us rented a pontoon boat and toured the lake on our own. 

Then there was the last evening’s reception and banquet.  We were treated like royalty to a multi-course meal in a banquet room that had the look of an Elizabethan castle banquet room.  There were gourmet appetizers, a lavish meal, each course accompanied by the appropriate libations. 

Dr. John accomplished the goal of giving us a refreshing moment of being affirmed and appreciated for who we were and what we were doing.  We felt valued.  The sessions brought attention to our self-care, physically and spiritually, and sent us away with tools for incorporating better habits into our patterns of living.  Mary Ann and I certainly gained from it.  Our life together was challenging with the Parkinson’s taking its toll on us.  That week lifted our spirits and brought a wonderful respite from the press of daily struggles.  I am very grateful to Dr. John and the Grace Place Retreats for caring enough to commit time an energy and resources to such a nurturing ministry.  It has provided a memory worth keeping.   

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