Seven years ago, I bought a dozen 8-inch rubber chickens online. It was an impulsive purchase I’ve often questioned. Every once in a while I pull one out to use for a retreat game, but basically, they have never been as big a hit as I had thought they’d be.
This past weekend we had our first in-person retreat in over two years. Young people arrived hesitant and restrained. I could feel their anxiety and hesitations like those weighted lead aprons that hygienists put on you when you are getting dental x-rays. Would this weekend work? Would they connect? Would joy happen?
We had an opening circle, ate lunch, and headed out to play games. With some combination of hope and dogged determination, I rummaged in the bottom of my Next Retreat tub for one of those chickens that I knew was still there. I tucked it into my jacket pocket thinking, “You never know …” I didn’t use it then, but I was absent-mindedly fiddling with it while waiting for everyone to circle up for grace a few hours later when the teen next to me said, “Gretchen, what IS that?” I told him the story.
But I was wrong. The whole story was yet to come … because, along with the Big Song Books, the JYM Ball, and a lot of prayers and love, the chicken ended up being the most essential thing I packed for the retreat.
When he asked to see it, I handed it to him. He instantly started fiddling with it. Soon, in and around small groups, quiet hour, dinner, a starry night, and a lot of singing, he and another teen invented a "hacky-chicken" game. They taught it to others, including a couple of staffers. The circle got bigger. By Sunday, the chicken was being used for a different new game—with almost no rules—that almost everyone was involved in. We sang, shared worship, talked about the future, and cleaned up. The chicken was the continual thread. When it inevitably stretched too far and broke, there was a loud, ridiculous chanting protest to get all of the pieces back, then a silly, very elaborate funeral. The laughter and sight of almost all of the JH’ers bunched together creating the story was a glorious JHYM version of the Balm of Gilead.
Years from now, if some of them meet up somewhere and someone mentions the chicken, I believe they will be flooded with that balm, remembering, not the story, but a miraculous, grace-covered feeling of happiness, of laughing with their peeps in a place where they felt accepted, where they felt they ‘belonged” after such a long time apart.
For me, the real story, at least as of today, is that silliness and spaciousness in a safe, Spirit-rooted community, especially on an early spring weekend at Woolman Hill, can be healing and rejuvenating. Our group of young people and adults showed up deeply yearning for time, connection, singing, friendship, and comfort food, in a place where they could bring their whole selves. For some, it was almost bittersweet to experience all that they knew had been missing. They could say with sadness, “THIS. I have needed THIS.” But spiritual community isn’t just about receiving—it’s about creating and nurturing—and most of them jumped in whole-heartedly to get back to the holy business of building it yet again.
The story is that we don’t know the whole story.
There is so much our young people and families need right now—we are learning more and more as we emerge from the isolation and disconnection of the past two-plus years. There is no quick fix and no “going back.” We have a lot of pastoral care and healing ahead of us. But, the Good News, dear Friends, is that the story can go on. With love and Light, grounded listening, time, nourishment and deep care for bodies and hearts—and, yes, silliness—the story will go on. Our job is to hold that hope and trust, and to continue rummaging around in our hearts, our skill-sets, our tubs, our community, and the Light, for whatever else might be healing and life-giving.
With so much love,