I wondered what awaited us as Dr. Jim and his Annette picked us up Saturday morning, and packed us into their ample van for our drive north. The road was familiar, harkening back for me, to 45 journeys north to paddle the Boundary Waters, or veer off to Walker on our annual early December Saturday for lunch in the back room of Jimmie's Restaurant, with dear George Ross, my Ojibwe ministerial brother, and his friends.
I knew the territory but I wondered about the mission. We were headed for Kettle River where I'd never been. It was the place of our new president's first little church. He wanted to try one of his new four-hour half-day retreats--a "heart of reconciliation retreat." How would it work? What would happen?
It was a land of hardscrabble soil fit for some kinds of farming, bordered by forests of "popple" trees, birch, and scrub pine. And then, tall and straight white pine stands of windrows to protect small houses and clinging farmsteads.
And there, at the junction of a state highway crossed by a gravel road was the picturesque, plain and simple, meeting house of the Westside Church. Jim observed that a tall steeple would have looked nice, but "never mind."
Several trucks and a few cars were already parked in the wide space that was the parking lot. Just outside the doorway two or three people waited, casually and curiously, to meet us. "Come on inside," they said. Our day was to begin with lunch. Soon we were at it, with home-made stew and ham and cheese sandwiches, trying, between bites, to make awkward, if not inane conversation.
Mercifully, we moved to the worship space, where a circle of 30 chairs waited, and we soon were under way.
Looking around, there were many heavy-set, ruddy souls who must be workers in the woods, or farmers. There were men who worked outside, and women who kept gardens and canned.
Our introductions were briefer than usual. There was an air of uncertainty. But clearly, they were determined to be there. They had taken a chance, and come. As we sang and prayed, one sensed these folks were waiting for the Lord.
We explained that, in our experience, Jesus always comes. And quietly, mysteriously, He does His work.
My talk was to paint the picture of Jesus on the beach, meeting the young fishermen, James and John, Simon and Andrew, for the first time, and finally interrupting their net-making with His simple, and eternal offer: "Come, follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men!" And to remind our gathered group that "immediately, they left their nets and followed Him."
So sudden. So dramatic. The journey of a lifetime, beginning in faith. Out across Galilee and Judea, this wounded world, they went, following the stranger who spoke the truth on mountainsides, who raised little girls from death in rabbis' houses, who felt the touch of a woman sick with a blood disease for years. "If only I can touch his robe..."
Those young men saw miracles, over and over, and heard stories, and listened to eternal words, "I have a new commandment for you: Love each other." So simple. So sweet. So true. Until at last they were asking among themselves, "Who is this?" And Jesus, overhearing, said suddenly, "Who do people say that I am?" The stammering. The rumors reported. And finally Simon's blurted answer, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."
And, within minutes, there by the trail in Caesarea-Phillipi, was the call to the cross. "Anyone who wants to be mine, must take up his cross and follow me." Sacrifice waited. Death would come. And then, new life. Stunning.
Three years, till they reached the deepest place, the ultimate meaning of faith and following.
Our little retreat was at a new level. A reflective time followed. Then Mama Molly and her passionate word on repentance and forgiveness, the two keys to reconciliation. She told of Africa's horrors and miraculous answers and America's unfinished business to say sorry for slavery, and mean it.
We were at real issues. Our brother Jim drew it all together, laid out the table of Communion, and said, "Come for prayer, if you will, for your life, your need, your pain, your sin. Let Jesus know your heart."
And they did, one by one, with tears, to be anointed, and touched, and changed. Their pastor came before them, going to her knees.
It was all very real. And we saw the heart of these people -- tender, hurt, yet sweet, longing. Way up there, in Kettle River.
It wasn't Africa. They'd not seen genocide. Their families had not been killed by neighbors. But there were wounds. Sweet souls, facing the hurtful things of life, and bringing them to Jesus.
We knew He had come again. Dinner followed. Then, merciful rest. And next morning, church. Two hours of it. Singing. Praising God together. Offerings. Announcements. Molly's and my brief story of how the Pilgrim Center came to be, the call to Rwanda. The work of these 23 years - and the need of a divided world today. And Jim's persuasive preaching of God's call to stand. To not be defeated. To not give up. To stand in the power of the Spirit. Then more prayers for those who wanted to come for it. And the blessing. And then it was over.
Good-byes in the hallway. A family dinner at the Pastor's home. And soon the highway home, under blue October skies, and a golden sun that touched changing leaves, and made them iridescent with color.
We sped along, through Minnesota's autumnal beauty, talking of the retreat, the time we'd had, the wonder of it, and the future of this mysterious ministry that has come to mean so much to us all.
An outdoor, fireside Hymn Sing awaited Molly and me, and then bed, and a week of gatherings - especially the Fall Gala.
The Pilgrim Center is alive. It will go on. Another generation already leads us. What a gift. What hope it holds. May it bless all who dare to a part.
Arthur A Rouner, Jr -
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ARTHUR ROUNER MINISTRIES