Brett Foster and David Hooker
In the Neighborhood of Comfort and Utopia
If lately you have found yourself in need of a retreat, or perhaps the thought has never crossed your mind, but now, upon reflection, it sounds like a good idea, then let us tell you that there is no better spot for such an experience than Laity Lodge, a place of repose and reflection—and yet intellectual and social stimulation, too—nestled in the Texas Hill Country. Forty retreat weekends are happening there this year, and we, fortunate to be invited to be artists in residence at Laity Lodge for a few weeks, were there for two exciting ones—a conversation between pastors and artists led by James K. A. Smith and David Taylor, and, two weeks later, Seattle Pacific University's David Nienhuis' study on the Letter of James, a weekend that also featured music by Sandra McCracken and Derek Webb. We organized poetry and art workshops on those Saturday afternoons, but otherwise learned in the sessions, enjoyed the concerts, and pursued some art and writing projects of our own. Upcoming retreats will include speakers such as David Lyle Jeffrey and J. I. Packer.
The goal of all of this? Time for rest and thought, which makes possible the transformation of daily life, work, and the world. Who's it for? Regular people in the church—hence the name Laity Lodge. Eugene Peterson describes it as a place to overcome the "disabling" connotations of "laity" and "layperson" in today's church. It's a place to restore the word laos (Greek for "people") to what Peterson calls "its Gospel vigor." We recommend it highly, not only for the programming but also for the setting, which becomes a very present member of the retreat, drawing out visitors and shaping their experiences.
Laity Lodge is located in the center a group of family camps, all of which reside on 1,900 acres of the H. E. Butt Foundation Camp property. The site is two hours northwest of San Antonio, about an hour beyond Kerrville, and twelve miles north of Leakey (pronounced Lay-key.) The spring-fed Frio River runs through the canyon there. As its source and name suggest, it is invigoratingly cold! Its water is startling in its clearness when seen from close up, but a bright green for those viewing it from the deck of the lodge or atop the limestone canyon walls.
DAVID: The drive in to Laity Lodge is the first clue that you are in for a unique retreat experience. Your cell phone will cut out long before you get there (mine stopped working just past Kerrville, which is an hour away). Miles and miles of ranches follow. The only respite before you reach the camp is the Garven Store, which claims both to be the oldest convenience store in Texas and the purveyors of the finest beef, buffalo, and deer jerky in the world. When you reach the camp entrance, you begin to descend a gravel road down into the canyon. This road ends at the Frio River. Well, "ends" isn't really the right word, as the sign next to the river tells you: "Yes! You Drive In The River." I think that was really our "We're-not-in-Illinois-anymore" moment. Something about driving on a river makes you very aware of the present.
I have to confess I am often weary of retreats and conferences, particularly ones at Christian institutions. In my experience, they tend to become so overly scheduled that they feel neither restful nor spiritual. Laity Lodge bucks that trend. You can leave your watch in your room. You won't need it. No one is given a copy of the schedule. One is posted in a central location, but the fact that you do not carry a copy on you keeps it from dominating your thoughts. A bell is used to announce transitions from activity to activity. "Every other time you hear the bell, you'll eat," announced Tim Blanks, Director of Operations and uber-host, at the beginning of the first retreat.
Official conference meetings are held in "the Great Hall," a large room with plenty of comfortable seats (sofas!) and a fantastic view of the canyon and the river below. Each time we met for a conference talk, we began with worship, singing a few hymns selected and led by a musician serving as worship leader. Musicians and visual artists are part of every retreat and are seen as integral to their mission. Concerts, exhibitions, and hands-on workshops are hosted in the Cody Center, built to serve a variety of visual and performing arts. The arts are offered to guests as an avenue for creativity, contemplation, and community. "Offering" is really a key word in the way Laity Lodge operates. They have developed a remarkable way of offering space, not just place. Even at a conference, there is a sense that you have space to breathe, to let go, to "be."