I recently drove 1,000 miles through a biblical rainstorm just to hear someone say my name.
See, unlike Brad Pitt, when I show up to most places they usually don’t know who I am. I know I am not alone in this cloak of anonymity. In primary school there was a roll call, and we waited anxiously for the teacher to mispronounce our names (I’m sorry Isadore Buttress, sixth grade boys can be terrible). Of course, after a few weeks the teacher finally had your alias handled in all of its fascinating conjugations. (I have been known to go by Ben Richards, Benjamin Richard, and Richard Benjamin, all within the same school year.) It can be terribly disappointing to be misidentified. My beautiful bride has it the worst. With the name of Joleah, you can see the fear walk across the bystander’s face as we try to courteously explain, “It’s like JOE and LEAH put together. JOE-LEAH.” To which the newly-introduced attempts, albeit failing, their finest reproduction. They usually over-articulate some hyper-emphasized version of, “Oh, Júúú-liÁ!” Names are important. There is an intimacy in knowing someone’s name, correctly pronounced.
We all know the situation doesn’t magically improve with age. Unless you live in Tinsel Town and your name is written in lights (I see you, Señor Pitt), our names are often like white noise. Take me, for example. I work for the Federal Government. Me and roughly 1.8 million other civil servants. I have an employee ID number to distinguish me from my 1,799,999 other comrades. When I travel, I am given a resource order. When I check in, I am asked for my aforementioned employee ID. I am given a unit number and a division letter. But I am not called by name. I have become so accustomed to this treatment that when I went on a retreat in rural North Carolina, I expected a similar clipboard-wielding, faceless, roll-calling type of introduction. Before I get too far into this, though, let me provide some background leading up to the event.
About a month before the retreat I got COVID (COVID? Is that still a thing? Yes, and leave it to me to get it after almost two years of miraculously avoiding the virus). I got sick, and it sucked. In fact, all six members of my household got COVID. My two oldest sons got it a few days apart from each other, and were sick for about five days each. My third son then picked it up after son one and son two were mostly recovered. He was ill for roughly a week. My wife then developed symptoms while caring for son three, and the baby joined the party a few days after that. Upon their mend, despite my best efforts, the chills came over me. For a solid 14 days. All told, we had some iteration of COVID in our house for essentially the entire month of February.
Then, later in March, I had to put out fires. Literally. A forest fire broke out in one of our areas and we had to frantically contain it over the course of several days. The thing about fires is that they don’t politely ask the rest of my workload to simmer while it decides to boil over. Needless to say, things stacked up. I had to rush and cram and scramble to get things to a point where I could walk away for a few days of seclusion.
Finally, though, I did break away and hit cruise control toward North Carolina. My wife (“JOE-LEE-UH”), in her boundless wisdom, suggested I drive instead of fly. She somehow knew I would need the time to decompress and process. This meant adding extra days away from family, but she graciously insisted. And she was right, I needed that time. However, what no one could predict was that a massive wind and rainstorm would settle nicely on the I-20/I-85 corridor moving at approximately the exact speed and time I would be driving. For basically two days and over a thousand miles of driving, I had 50 MPH wind gusts and driving rain to contend with. Clearly, a force was against my attending the retreat. And now I understand why.
There is an intimacy in knowing someone’s name, correctly pronounced.
Up to this point my retreat experiences had ranged from life-changing (Wild at Heart Boot Camp) to terrifically dull (I won’t even say its name), with a smattering of episodes landing somewhere in between. This one, though, was different. To understand, you must know that I come from a faith expression that is not very charismatic. At all. As in, we’ll offer a hearty handshake, but let’s leave the hugs for Hollywood, amirite? And don’t even think about expressive worship, fella, this ain’t your YMCA zumba class. So when I signed up for a nondenominational charismatic retreat, I knew I was jumping into the proverbial deep-end without any floaties.
I was definitely stretched. Prior to this, I had not dabbled much in the world of worship. People praising God with hands raised and eyes closed while singing loudly has made me, frankly, uncomfortable. Remember how I said hugs seem a little handsy? Physical worship just isn’t in my Christian DNA. Still, I joined along the very best I could. Stiff-legged and awkward, mind you, like an eighth-grader doing the Macarena. I wasn’t going to win a Latin Grammy, but at least I was trying.
On the third night of worship, right around when my self-consciousness finally began to fade, something incredible happened. The Holy Spirit arrived. Now I don’t say this lightly, like when skaters say something was “epic”. No, I mean this in its strictest sense. The Holy Spirit became apparent and manifested in the form of music and movement. Now allow me a brief disclaimer. There are times when writers try to illustrate an extraordinary moment, but in the very act of doing so realize their words are shamefully inadequate. This is one of those times. A mural or movie would have been better, a song better yet. But as a writer I only have a page for a canvas and words for a brush. Inadequate as language may be, I will do my best to paint the scene.
The first hour of worship had already been beautiful. Then suddenly the leader was overtaken in spontaneity, and led the quintet into uncharted territory. The music slowed to a near-waltz, moderate and rhythmic. Filled with the Spirit, the leader called on the men to start marching in a circle. Men like me who had fought so hard simply to be there. Men who for decades had suffered under shame and sorrow. Men who for three days had battled fiercely for healing and recovery of our hearts. Without hesitation all 50 men began a tempoed circling while the band played in the middle. The Spirit rejoiced, and all Heaven broke loose. The speed of everything increased, and the march crescendoed into a near-frenzied state. Near-frenzied, yet somehow never crazed. Both the men and the melody broke into a run. The veil between the natural and the eternal tore. Diverging realities, once-divorced, careened into coexistence. Words became irrelevant, or at least unimportant, and were replaced with a harmony of shouting, laughter, and crying. It was wild, but not feral. Holy, but not religious. It was high-charged yet never shocking. It was a million contradictions in one unconstrained act of worship. We were David dancing before the Covenant. We were Joshua at Jericho. We had encountered God.
There is a scene in CS Lewis’ Prince Caspian, where Aslan finally appears to the long-forgotten High Kings and Queens of Narnia in their most desperate hour. Aslan, the Christ-figure, sends Peter and Edmund away on a mission while Susan and Lucy remain. Aslan roars, and the very souls of the trees awaken. Beeches and birch-girls, willow-women and oak-men, all begin to sway and dance, giving bodily homage to their Creator. The boisterous Bromios and Bassareus arrive, joining the other nymphs and dryads in a worshipful march around Aslan. It is a wild and disruptive episode, ebbing and flowing like waves of a stormy sea. And through it all it remains unnervingly sacred, its powder-keg intensity only adding to the holiness. Later, Susan and Lucy reflect on their brush with Eternity. Susan, somewhat unsettled from the evening, tells Lucy, “I wouldn’t have felt safe…without Aslan”. Lewis may as well have been writing about that third night of worship in rural North Carolina.
Oh, back to my story about arriving at the retreat center. As I pulled down the drive I noticed a slender fellow holding a–you guessed it– clipboard. I rolled down my window, still dripping from 1,000 miles of rain and stress, expecting the traditional impersonal reception. Not this time. Instead, I was greeted with a warm smile and in an unhurried Carolina drawl he said, “You must be Ben Richardson. It is so good to have you.” Instantly, I was ready for the deep-end, no floaties needed. I was ready to sway like a Narnian oak-man, or sing like David before the Covenant. I was ready to march like Joshua around Jericho, and worship our Living God. All because I was greeted as a person, and not as a number. I wasn’t asked for my employee ID or resource order. I wasn’t assigned to a unit. I wasn’t one face among 1.8 million others. No, I was known. I was known by name.