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A weekend of "hot sex and evangelism"

With a title like that, who could resist?

(These events took place the weekend after the election.)

It was the church retreat this weekend in middle-of-nowhere West Virginia, known for its "healing" spring water and people zooming by me on winding highways in the dark across the broken yellow line. I gave a lift to two guys, one of whom argued with me about the evenhandedness of the media coverage in this election (wasn't any, I vigorously asserted) while the other regularly tossed off the exclamation "Jesus" without any apparent reflection on the Third Commandment.

We started with a square dance the first night as people were trickling in, led by a Hee-Haw expat whose calling wasn't interrupted by the flow of prancers leaving the hall. My group lost a guy so, heeding the gospel call to look after widows and orphans, we provided Mr. Feckless's partner with a male on varying spins around the square. I'm not sure I got one dance move right the entire night. "Oh, you're supposed to switch partners every time?"

I wasn't really digging Friday night - the 250 people listed for this retreat are about 235 too many for me, so I shut down socially. The Wi-Fi connection in the meeting house is pretty spotty, so all I can muster in 30 minutes is several failed (and one successful) attempts at updating Facebook and saying hi to my IM list. I do a double-take walking back to the lodge when I pass a guy playing "The Sign" by Ace of Base on his guitar for his girlfriend. (At lunch on Sunday I recognize the guy and ask him to confirm what he was playing. He doubles over laughing and says people love to hear him play it.)

I return to my room, shared with two other guys, to hear them arguing counterterrorism policy in the past two administrations - both are defense consultants and one took a university class by CIA director George Tenet - in the dark, in bed. Twenty minutes later, they're still going at it - political ramifications in the mid-90s of capturing bin Laden? - and I'm wondering when to tell them to shut the hell up or take it downstairs. I have a terrible night sleeping in our sweltering room - the cold weather didn't show up Friday night and my two-foot-wide cot doesn't allow the kind of sprawling that would cool a guy down.

Breakfast conversation with strangers means cooing over the spread. But seriously, it was the most rockin' bacon I think I've ever had, and it was flowing like a chocolate fountain at a Hollywood AIDS fundraiser. And also gossiping about what other people are eating: Can you believe that girl put honey on her grapefruit? Gross!

Humiliation in various sports forms is the Saturday afternoon theme. Just like last year, I hit the (free) links for a round of golf with people who brought their own clubs, as I scavenge the clubhouse for a few irons that won't make me look ridiculous. Rules are Best Ball, and I'm paired with a pretty competent golfer, the John C. Reilly-looking bassist for our worship, albeit one whose sudden and frenetic swing takes its cues from Happy Gilmore. His ball often curves to the right on the animal-dropping-littered course, while mine often curves about an eighth of an inch off the ground and stops 50 feet later. (He helpfully tells me on my second swing: "You're not supposed to use a tee after the first shot.") But my short play - all those years of mini-golf - comes in handy on a few greens, where I tap in. And unlike our talented but hapless competitors, we didn't lose a single ball. We're one stroke ahead going into the last hole, but throw the game when Reilly and I both miss our putts. And thus ends my foray into golf for exactly one more year.

My claims to have Forrest Gump status in ping pong collapse like a retarded Tom Hanks' vocabulary when my carmate takes me on in the ping pong clubhouse, whose videogamish, pastel bricks actually turn out to be textured wood. Quickly seeing that I stray far to the right, he goes for the left every time, making me flip an awkward backhand like I was telling a homophobic man "oh, be nice!" Three games later, I've been royally pwned. Later that weekend I take on a good-natured, beefy bald guy with a hot wife - just like my friend John in Seattle - who's studying photojournalism at the Corcoran and working at the Post. The native St. Louisians have never been to the beer church, to my disappointment. Same pwning ensues. (For those unfamiliar with this slang, see here.)

One guy loves Chick-Fil-A so much that he makes Cornhole boards with handpainted Chick-Fil-A logos on them and brings them to the retreat every year, to play on the shuffleboard courts. Who knows how this affects its popularity, but the game is played almost nonstop during free time the whole weekend. Particularly enthralled with the game is a girl in my ad-hoc discussion group for the weekend, a self-professed searcher who is considering converting to Christianity (and whose nonchalant use of "fuck" when discussing her feelings in the group sort of gives her away, although less so these days in evangelical circles). The Serena van der Woodsen-but-brunette looking girl proves to be very popular this weekend, as much because she's fun as because everyone wants to make her fledgling faith stick. The guy playing Cornhole with her apparently taught her to say "Let go, let God" as instructive for how to release the bag when she tosses it. It works for her toss, so mazel tov!

My poor golf performance got me depressed enough to leave the springs in my car, in search of a downtown, anywhere, or at least cell reception. No dice on either, just more cars whizzing by. But I enjoyed one treat: All Things Considered Weekend on NPR, making me feel a little more at home. At dinner the glum continued when I sat down with a table full of happy couples. S has been in school in Seattle for two months,and I'm starting to feel very much the third wheel around couples. I munched the food in silence as they made sickeningly cute chirps around me.

But after our second session with the speaker (see below) I was feeling more hopeful, and enjoying conversation around the bonfire with people I knew a little. I chattered contentedly at the cider container as the staff guy trucked it off for a refill, explaining its brief absence to panicked slurpers who needed more of their apple-y fix. With booze officially discouraged for the weekend, the grown-up kids substituted sugar highs - baked goods, cider, hot chocolate, sicky-sweet lemonade and anything else with 4 calories per gram of pure energy.

Getting a nickname in Mandarin was one of the more interesting conversations over the weekend. I met several people who were either fluent, passable or learning Mandarin - our church is full of Asian girls, suh-weet - and one of them playing with Mandarin flash cards told me my name should be something like "gu gu," or Big Brother. Whether she meant it in a familial or voyeuristic sense, I wasn't sure. Her name, Erin, means "lover" when transliterated. Sexy, we all agreed.

And thus ends my notes. Yes, I took notes to blog later. Is that a blog sin?

The following recounts the discussion theme of our weekend - no wacky hijinx.

Our speaker, a Tennessee pastor who I later learn is pretty hot on the hipster-evangelical circuit, narrates a life with so much anguish and redemption - and using so much wit and verve - that you want to option it for a film. (Jeremiah, always a practical Hollywood type, suggested that.) The narrative starts with our hero, about to turn 50, strolling into the church office and blurting out to his fellow pastors, "I haven't visited my mom's grave in 39 years," followed by much mutual weeping. You see, his mother died in a car crash when he was 11, and his father handled the tragedy by emotionally sealing up for the next several years. Our hero became part of a popular "beach music" band (in the South, this means R&B/funk, he says) in high school, hit the bottle to cope with Mom's death and converted before college. Once's he's off to campus, his girlfriend dies in a car crash, and he screams at God, Why again? But he continues the path to clergyhood.

He meets a girl so pure that she questions marrying him because she's worried she would love him more than God. She's the one! he realizes, and they get hitched after 3 months. Given the popularity of Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth in evangelical circles around this time, they think the world will end in 1975, so looks like the next few years will be nothing but "hot sex and evangelism" for the happy couple, he said. Well, the world doesn't end, and our hero uses his busyness to shut out his wife emotionally. The best way to avoid God is to get busy with church, he says. Our hero, in his 40s, loses his spiritual mentor and again falls apart, but covers up the pain with work.

Visiting Mom's grave starts the process of healing, dealing with his own painful emotions, learning how to open up to his wife for the first time in 30 years of marriage (they're still in regular counseling 7 years later), and reaching out to Dad, trying to get him to finally talk about Mom, whose name was never uttered in the house growing up. Their estrangement finally ends as they flip through pics of Mom at a McDonald's and his dad describes Mom's death: "the day the life went out of us all." (Top that off with our hero's coming to grips with being sexually abused by a neighbor soon after Mom's death.) Father and son, finally reconciled, lose their relationship a few years later when Dad's Alzheimer's hits hard.

It was a gut-wrenching three sessions, as our hero told us, with humor and a quick wit rivaling my own (!), to let ourselves feel pain, to be vulnerable, to pay attention when tragedy strikes us, because it's only then that we'll learn to rely wholly on God and give up our idols - anything we put ahead of Him. It gave me, a person with many beloved idols and a lot of pent-up emotional wreckage, hope for the future.

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