LIFE: What I learned this weekend at the Church of the Highlands LIFE Retreat



That’s the acronym for a small group that is offered at Church of the Highlands, a “megachurch” located in Birmingham, Alabama.

Back in August when I was signing up for a small group, people kept telling me, “Oh, you gotta do LIFE…it’ll change you” or “You’ll never be the same again.”

That was the problem. I was pretty comfortable with my life. Like dust, I was sort of “settling in” to the man I was going to be, and I didn’t want to be changed. I didn’t want anything to disrupt my life—even it was the best thing for me.

Truthfully, there were things in my life that I didn’t want to face. Baggage, some of which I had been toting around since boyhood. When we started our LIFE group, I knew that I was going to have to face this awful thorn burrowing into my flesh. I had never been through LIFE, but I knew that the ultimate, final end was freedom—and Lord knows I wasn’t free. I was in bondage to a certain sin (which, like Paul, I will leave nameless).

The first night, there were about 15 men who met at a house in Homewood. I arrived early, as usual. As I was parking my car, a young man—whom I assumed was part of the group—was traipsing through a yard. I deduced quickly that he wasn’t the mailman, because he was dressed like an extra in the Thriller video (the hipster culture is getting big in “The Ham”).

“You here for LIFE?” I asked.

“Yep. I’m Mike,” the young man said, walking over with hand extended.


“I’m excited about what Jesus is going to do this semester!” Mike exclaimed.

I let out a crotchety, Clint-Eastwood-like grrrr (my lingering Methodist roots have always left me a bit skeptical of people who are too “Jesusy”).

(By the way, I like to use a lot of parentheses…just roll with it, mkay? Have FUN with it!)

I pointed to the other side of the street and Mike followed me in (NOTE: I later found out that Mike thought I was the leader of the group…how funny).

We were greeted by Wilson, who was hosting the event along with Jay, Michael, Jonathan, and Scott (these were the five men who shepherded us through the semester). Mike discovered (to his astonishment) that he was by far the youngest in the group. Ages ranged from 33-45(ish), and Mike was only 20 and a student at Samford (to give context, Mike thinks The Carpenters are a construction company in Hueytown). By the end of the night though, Mike was participating, getting in a few words amidst old codgers like me. So we encouraged him to stay. I thought we could learn a lot from each other, bridge the generational gap, so to speak.

So every week, we met. Every week, 15 or so men dumped out their crap in that living room. Many of us were going through trials or stuck in spiritual torpor. But we were all trying to “figure it out” (we found that we couldn’t figure it out—that’s where faith comes in) by drawing near to God. The curriculum of the group stressed relationship, operating out of the “Tree of Life”—a foreign concept to me (a Christian of twenty years).

I guess I thought it was a little hokey at first, the Tree of Life and all, a bunch of dudes talking about their feelings, singing Kumbayah and hugging it out. But after a while “Freedom” and the Tree of Life began to make more sense.

The boys and I grew closer over the semester, and as leaves began to fall, we were hugging it out and growing closer as friends. A few of us garnered nicknames, dubbed mostly by Yours Truly. Mike, who wore black-rimmed glasses and an Atlanta Braves cap one night, became known as “Wild Thing,” giving a nod to Charlie Sheen’s character (Rick Vaughn) in the movie Major League. And Louie, the quiet, unassuming fortysomething, became “Sweet Lou.”

[Let me stop right here and offer a thought. From time to time, I hear women despairingly ask, “Are there ANY good men still out there?” Well, ladies, I have good news for you! After experiencing a semester worth of discussions with these cats, I can say from my experience that there certainly are. These men truly love God.]

Now, for me, even though I was going through LIFE, that didn’t mean that my spiritual life was hitting a crescendo. No, no. In fact, November was the worst month for me spiritually that I can remember. I was numb. I began to question everything. Reading the Bible was no more exhilarating than drinking cold coffee in the lobby of Express Lube, waiting to get my oil changed. My prayer life was unemphatic, listless. There were no spiritual wellsprings in my life, only dry wastelands.

And the end-of-semester retreat was looming. It was like impending disaster. The leaders of the group had to ask me to sign up for the retreat multiple times, and in all honesty, I didn’t want to go.

I finally signed up on Thursday (the retreat was on Friday). So the afternoon of the event, I prepared myself like I was Dead Man Walking. I smoked a cigar with a buddy of mine, went home, drew a bath, dressed, had my last meal, and prepared for the reckoning. Mike even sent me a sweet text, letting me know that God was about to wreck my life.

The retreat was held at the BJCC, an older, massive, tan, Frank-Lloyd-Wright-esque complex with airy walkways betwixt concert halls and auditoriums in the new, swank “Uptown” portion of Birmingham. As I was hurrying into the complex, I was stopped and stirred with the ethereal sounds of children singing Christmas carols over a loudspeaker. I could not for the life of me figure out where these beautifully haunting voices were coming from, but it was heaven.

I walked in and was instructed that I was to get a lanyard and a paper wristband (I have never inherently trusted people with lanyards, and the only paper wristband I ever wore soon preceded a liquid night in the bowels of a dark saloon).

Before I entered the arena or whatever it’s called, I ran into a man named Eric. Eric encouraged me to raise my expectation level for the event. Not to look upon the event with dread. To just go for it. I did.

So Friday and Saturday I went. I was one of around 7,000 people in that auditorium. At first, I felt like a naïve bovine, cattle being herded to be slaughtered by Jesus. But that was satan (I don’t like to capitalize that shrew’s name) talking. I had listened to the voice of satan for nearly a month. It was time to start listening to God. It was time to start turning my life around.

At first, I didn’t feel God’s presence. While people were raising their hands and praising Him, I was asking, “God, are you still out there?”

“Have you given up on me?”
“Are we still good?”

The event is structured into several sessions, each dealing with a particular sin or issue. The first was PRIDE. After a few minutes of contemplation, reflection, and prayer, each person was asked to come forward and receive prayer from someone on the red-shirted prayer team. So one by one, they came. Some cried. Some wept. Some raised their hands. All were changed.

Before the event started, I ran into a friend’s wife. I huffed that Friday night was probably going to be my only night, and that I wouldn’t be back for the Saturday session. But by 7:45 a.m. Saturday morning, I was skinning back a banana and swigging a cup of coffee, waiting on the retreat to recommence.

I learned a lot from LIFE retreat. In reflection, it was exactly what I needed at this trying juncture in my life. I was able to lay everything at the foot of the Cross.

And I learned that there is nothing the blood of Christ cannot cover. All of that sin. All of those years of disobedience. The slime, the filth of your life. Covered. Done. Kaput.

I learned that it is never too late to get right with God. God accepts repentance from 99-year-olds just the same as he accepts it from 9-year-olds. A lie from satan is that you’ve “gone too far,” “done too much,” “fallen too far.”

“Too old.” “Too dirty.” “Too many sins.”

Total lies from the pits of Hades. God’s grace is greater than all our sin, and love keeps no record of wrongs.

I learned that adults are still walking around with childhood luggage of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, rejection, shame, rebellion, rape, molestation, harsh words, promiscuity, and exposure to pornography. We live in a frequently cruel, dissatisfied, hypercritical, unimpressed, and hateful world. That is why it is so crucial to speak love and truth into the life of a child. To have the courage to say I love you, you’re talented at what you do, I believe in you, you can do it, you can get through this, I’m proud of you, you’ve got what it takes, there is good in you, and God loves you.

I learned that amazing things happen when God’s people are led to serve. The LIFE retreat was a well-oiled machine. Prayer team, logistics team, coffee team, food team, transportation team, speakers, worshippers, actors and actresses, t-shirt people, and perhaps the best part: that outstanding Highlands hand soap in the bathroom (you know what I’m talking about)!

I learned that the “unconventional” sacraments and gifts of God have real power, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Everyone wants to believe that the church they attend is the “rightest,” so we often look at other churches and denominations with particular disdain; they are odd, peculiar, or “showy.” Some Christians even make fun of denominations (particularly those marked as “charismatic”) for things like praying and speaking in tongues, raising hands during worship, altar calls, brokenness, anointing with oil, dancing, hopping, swaying, clapping, the laying on of hands. Well, we did all of that at LIFE retreat! And if you don’t think that stuff is ok, consider Psalms 63:3 and Psalm 143:6 (raising of hands), James 5:13-14 (anointing with oil), Psalm 149:3 and Psalm 30:11 (dancing), Psalm 43:4 (altar calls), 1 Corinthians 14:39 (tongues), Hebrews 6:2 (laying on of hands), Psalm 34:18 (brokenness), Psalm 47:1 (clapping).

I learned that there are still a lot of good Christian men and women out there, even though the world might seem to be slouching to Gomorrah. I learned that a lot of people love Jesus. I learned that there is power in prayer, and that you can pray anywhere (there was a man crying out to Jesus in a bathroom stall). I learned that anyone can serve. I learned that God uses the misfits, the sinners, the drunk who lived too long in the bottle, the pornographers, the needle-pricking addicts, the dopeheads, the murderers (see Moses), the promiscuous, the girl who stole once stole costume jewelry when she was 19, the haughty and proud. Me.

I learned that the moment you feel like you don’t struggle in a particular area is the moment you should examine yourself fully, that thinking you have spiritually “arrived” is spiritual immaturity. I learned that every day, God gives us another chance to turn it all around. But mostly, I learned about freedom.

In ways, the world has begun to define freedom as being able to do whatever we want. But that is not true freedom. True freedom occurs with discipline and sacrifice. For example, Americans cannot experience freedom without the sacrifice of soldiers and others who have flung themselves in harm’s way for our country. And Christians would never be able to experience freedom without the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Freedom has a price. Freedom costs something. And freedom has limits. Socially, we are freer when we are obedient to criminal and civil laws. Spiritually, we are freer when we are obedient to Christ. We are freer when we forgive, when we extend grace and mercy, when we encourage, when we applaud and celebrate others.

The world is warping the notion of freedom; what it really wants is license. What some truly celebrate is the Gospel of Freedom instead of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Absolute freedom is not the Gospel, but the Gospel is freedom.

In our world, we are more concerned with “rights” rather than “responsibilities.” We think of entitlement as something we are owed, instead of thinking about how much we owe to each other. “Truth” is becoming a malleable term, a bounding ball that is difficult to ascertain, grab and hold.

But Jesus makes things simple for us. He does not say he knows the truth. He says “I am…the TRUTH.” (John 14:6)

And the truth will what?

Set you free.

But most importantly, during LIFE, I learned that freedom isn’t a behavior or action.

Freedom is a place. 78

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