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I had a wonderful retreat recently at a wetlands reserve public park in a West African nation. A place of wild and tamed merged together, traversed by wide and small paths, benches and brush where there was no human in sight. It was the day before starting a four-day training and I knew it would be a refreshing time. I was due for such a recharge, and in a great context for enjoying God’s presence.
I had thought very clearly about wanting to get to the park early, before the heat came on, so I had planned to take a taxi in order to maintain control of this variable. But one of my hosts insisted he would send someone to pick me up at the guest house and take me across town to the reserve. What could I say? I insisted it was not necessary, but it was important to them, so I accepted. What difference would a little bit of time make? You see, I have enough experience that I was already expecting a delay.
At first I was told that one person would pick me up and stay there all day and then take me back whenever I wanted to return. This was okay, but internally I knew my ability to “retreat” would be challenged by concern for someone sitting and waiting for me. After a couple of hours, I got another call saying that two people would come and pick me up and then one of them would come back to get me whenever I wanted – I could set the time. This already felt better to me. So I asked him to pick me up between 8:30 and 9:00 in the morning … Looking at my cell phone, I saw that it was 9:30 when they arrived. “Not bad,” I thought, so I arrived at the park about an hour later than I anticipated. Still, it was around 10:00.
I now had full control of the schedule. I could spend my time leisurely as hoped, communing with the Lord in His amazing creation, taking photos, and praying for the upcoming seminar while getting some exercise. I even enjoyed the 104 degree temperature. Last year in the fall it had been a green, wet and cooler paradise. Now it was much browner, much drier and much hotter. I stayed on the small, lesser-traveled paths. They were shadier, quieter and full of wildlife. As I made my way across the park, talking and listening to God, here-and-there capturing video and pictures of birds and crocodiles, I found myself two-and-a-half hours later at the far end of the park. That entrance is close to a restaurant I knew and my clock and stomach were in agreement that lunch was in order.
So I left the park and got some food, relaxing, sitting in the restaurant for an hour-and-a-half to stay out of the sun. Then I made the 20-minute walk back to the park. However, in my search for another bottle of water, I had to backtrack, so it took me 30 minutes. Water is too important in this heat to not calculate consumption and by this time I had already consumed 1.5 liters, so now I had another liter-and-a-half left for the next couple of hours. Things were going really remarkably. The heat, however, was unrelenting, and though I continued to take every shady option, I knew about an hour more was all I could safely endure and still be physically fit for the morning. I noted it was now 4:00 pm. So, strategically planning for his potential delays, I called my ride and asked if he would come at 5:00 pm. He said, “No problem!” I made my way unhurriedly and still arrived at the gate a couple minutes early, proud that I only used the GPS on my phone a couple of times to navigate the many paths.
At 5:15, I called again just to assure him I had arrived at the gate. Now, my French comprehension is fairly strong, but by now it had started wilting. I could not quite make out all he said but it sounded upbeat and hopeful for his soon arrival. I began to ration myself to little sips of water so that it would last until he arrived to pick me up. Anticipating such a scenario, and not wanting the burden of carrying a heavy load all day, I had left a full bottle with my driver. So I knew water would be readily available to quench my thirst. But by this point, the heat and dust had begun to become overbearing friends, wrapping me uncomfortably in a group hug. So my communion with the Lord began shifting to petition for perseverance and supplication that my friend would arrive soon. At 5:50 the car pulled in; I was elated! Not only did he bring the water he was keeping for me, but even a second bottle plus a carton of mango nectar – I really like mangoes. I proceeded to hydrate. Hey! It was just short of an hour late, no big deal – I survived, I had a good time and the Lord did answer my prayers.
The next morning, I got up for the seminar. My host told me he would be there at 7:30 to pick me up so in due diligence, I got up early in order to be prepared. Now again, I wasn’t annoyed, just used to the fact that what we set as a time doesn’t always translate; so when it was 8:45 and he wasn’t there yet, I just took it in stride. After we got to the church where the seminar was being held, they mentioned that we were starting a little bit late, but that we would be on time the following days, starting at 8:00.
I began the seminar and looked up at the clocks on the wall; they had very nice large red LED digital clocks (the kind strategically placed, keeping pastor or missionary aware of how long he’s gone over the allotted time). I noticed that all three of these very new clocks almost perfectly agreed it was 10:00. I was a little confused because my cell phone read 11:00. I leaned over to ask my host/translator about the accuracy of the clocks and as I did, my eye caught his watch, which said it was 10:00. In the split seconds that followed, I began to realize what was happening. The part of me that sensed impending danger to the flesh and pride just wanted to keep any revelation to myself, but as for this question of really what time is it, it was too late! I had made the “lean”, a universal comitment to asking a question. No turning back without a lie, so I sheepishly asked him the time. He replied, “10:00 – see the clocks up there?”
Suddenly everything became so clear! The calculations flooded my mind: 10:00 yesterday was really 9:00, 4:00 was really 3:00. My friend must have been quite confused by my urgency for his arrival an hour earlier than my clear request! It was all I could do to not lose stride or composure. I was teaching on the outside and laughing – horrified – on the inside. The only person in the last two days who was “off” on his timing was me! Now the fruit of the retreat was about to be borne.
At the break I took a good dose of humility, sharing the situation with the one who had made all the arrangements. I began writing this account and the Holy Spirit began to show me the attitudes and assumptions He wanted to address in me. I knew I had to choose to go beyond the laughable to the vulnerable and apologize for something beyond confusion. I did my best to explain things humbly – including my own weaknesses – to my drivers, especially to the one who had given me the ride home. Because of my openness, we were able to laugh heartily together at the situation. I was glad I had chosen vulnerability. In a deeper conversation with my African host, who is well familiar with western culture, we talked of how things can and do change; I was able to repent and express my desire to let cultures evolve, not being held captive to assumptions based on past experience, yet still leaving a wide berth for the uncontrollable variables and for those who haven’t changed. In short, start by always assuming the best.
I had been correct about the context for my retreat. I consider it to have been a success. I was refreshed, well connected to God, and unsuspectingly brought to greater humility, aligned in attitude at a deep level. Guess it was about time!