A couple weeks ago, I came across an exercise online that someone had shared had really shifted their thinking. The person relented that they wanted to know what their 10-year-old self, AND their self IN 10 years, would think of the way their present self […]
This past Wednesday, May 22nd, I embarked upon a journey that changed my life, and that I will never forget.
This time last year, my dear friend and pastor, Nat, came home from a mystery excursion to the Muskokas raving about his experience, and telling me it was one he really thought I should consider applying for.
The Bloom Leadership Retreat, hosted by Fluid Conference, accepts 24 applicants from across Canada to take part in a three-day, workshop-filled retreat at Muskoka Woods Camp in Ontario. Upon Nat’s recommendation and prayers for me, I applied to the retreat a few months ago, and was excited to learn that I had been accepted to attend.
My journey began early Wednesday morning, as my older sister kindly drove me to Burlington, an hour from my own home, to be picked up by a complete stranger, who was also attending the retreat.
Megan Smylie lived up to her name. She met me with a beaming smile, and, after quickly introducing ourselves, we shared authentically with each other that neither of us knew at all what to expect from the few days, but that we shared an excitement and anticipation that came from God’s affirmation.
We shared our hearts with each other over the course of the three hour trip to the camp, where we met up with the other people who we would surely become equally acquainted with. As we toured the massive grounds, which were full of eager camp kids, we relented that we felt like we had just arrived at Camp Rock. The atmosphere was exciting and infectious.
The actual journey began on the entrance side of a loooong suspension bridge, which the staff kept questioning the safety of– statements we participants couldn’t tell the sincerity of.
We stood in a circle on one side, and each one of us was invited to share what we were bringing into the experience.
Uncertainty about career, intense grief, confusion, sadness, and fear were among the answers. Some said they were bringing hope, but most were walking through a season of uncertainty.
“I have felt called to church ministry– a call outside of myself– since I was nine,” I said when it was my turn to share. “But I don’t know what God wants it to look like, or when, or where.”
Before we crossed the bridge, one of our leaders invited us to think about what it felt like to enter into a brand new setting in a treacherous way.
Crossing the swinging bridge was certainly treacherous, as Megan, one step in front of me, whispered, “I feel like I’m on the bridge in Shrek.”
As I crossed, I felt a release of worries and uncertainties as I prayed, and God’s presence enveloped me. Miraculously, I don’t think I stopped being aware of His omnipresence the rest of my time at Muskoka Woods, thanks be to God.
The Leadership Studio at Muskoka Woods that we entered after crossing the bridge was one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever been in. Every part of it, we were told, was designed with purpose. From the beautiful wooden ceilings with cracked outer edges that represented the beauty God makes of brokenness, to the open space with stunning table space and dinnerware set for kings and queens to emphasize the importance of hospitality and shared meals, the space was something out of a storybook.
The “pillow wall” you see above is where we got to cozy up for each one of our intense learning sessions, spent immersed in the Bible, in prayer, and in gifted preaching.
The room to the far left is where we gathered to worship together, strangers coming together to sing songs to the same Jesus who we’d all walked with, who was the only reason we were all there.
And the food we got to enjoy was absolutely incredible. Presented and described to us each night by the incredibly talented cooks, I teared up a few times at the incredible display of family-style hospitality, in which we all shared delicious food and ensured everyone was well fed.
The many conversations I got to take part in were absolutely beautiful. From a few spontaneous prayer sessions after heart-sharing vulnerability, once from my own heart and many times from others’, to conversations about our journeys with the Lord, to conversations simply about how good He is, I was made to be in constant, never-ending awe of my Father, and how every good gift comes from Him.
Here are the most fundamental things I learned:
- Soak yourself in the Psalms. This is the advice of John McAuley, president of Muskoka Woods. Absolutely drown yourself in them, He said. Never let yourself forget of the utter goodness, sovereignty, PERFECTION of Christ. Start with Psalms 1 & 2, he said, and always hold fast to Psalm 23. Allow the Lord to speak through His Word always– even if the reason you approach it is for academic purposes.
- Prioritize rest. There is a reason God rested on the seventh day of creation, and it was to marvel at the goodness of His work. He truly RESTED. He stopped, rested, delighted, and reflected. Have a day of the week in which you truly STOP, and have this rhythm of stopping in your daily life in some manner, too.
- What you look at, you see. Wow, so profound, right? Really, though, it is. Modern psychology reinforces it. If you’re looking every day at photos of a particular, posed body type that is presented as an ideal, that is what you will want to conform to. If your world is one of only Christians, and you’re living in a “Christian bubble,” you’ll forget the reality that there are many beautiful people in the world who don’t share the same belief, and that God is calling you to see those people, too.
- Where are you starting, and where are you going? In other words, you don’t need to know precisely where you’re going, but, to really get anywhere, you need to have an idea of God’s Truth and vision, and ask Him to help you understand His vision and purpose for your unique calling. How do we discover His vision, His overall and most important purpose for this earth? Revelation 21 is the final chapter in the Bible, which accounts what is most commonly assessed as the vision for Jesus’ return for His bride (the Church– you and I). It is summed up by “God with us.” So, our purpose as HIS people, His hands and feet, vessels of His goodness, is to live WITH Him. Not just meditating on Him, or learning about Him, but living in STEP with Him.
These are just a few little points in a massive list of learnings I had the honour of taking away from this incredible opportunity. Not to mention the chance to hike while praying and being in one of the most beautiful places in Ontario, to talk and pray with Ellen Duffield, and to come home with physical resources for growth in my walk with the Lord.
Thank-you, Lord, for changing and shaping me and reminding me of your goodness. Forgive me when I forget, and put aside Your perfection in pursuit of something– anything– else. Would this world fade, and You become all in all, so that Your Son is glorified.
I had just told myself university would not be the time for a boy.
But God knew differently.
I noticed Johnny Fulford the moment I sat down in my Tuesday afternoon “Public Faith and Theology” class. He was smilely, shy-looking, and downright handsome. When the professor asked us students to share our names, and a little bit about ourselves, I knew his name, “Johnny,” would stick in my mind.
Every Tuesday afternoon that first semester of my freshman year in university, I was encouraged and excited by what Johnny had to say on the topic of Christianity, much of which related to God’s almighty power and sufficient grace. In a place fraught with haughty opinions and lacking semblance of truth, Johnny only spoke when absolutely necessary, and without drawing attention to himself… except for, perhaps, my attention.
I also caught him nodding along with some of the points I would bring up, while I tried not to care. After all, I didn’t want to get caught up in a boy.
But God had other plans.
I always hoped Johnny might talk to me after class. Instead, when we had a field trip to Queen’s Park in Toronto, and I asked a classmate who would be driving there if we could carpool, I saw Johnny approach the same classmate to ask for a ride a few minutes after I did.
And the car ride was the beginning I’ll never forget.
Johnny and I must have spent more time getting to know each other than I realized, because, when we got to Queen’s Park, a fellow classmate who had also been in the car asked me, “So, are you and Johnny a thing?”
At Queen’s Park, we watched a political debate, and then had the opportunity to ask the politicians questions about their faith. I remember Johnny asking questions that didn’t spark my curiousity about Johnny, but drew me to prayer and to seek God’s will. I wasn’t distracted by him, but pressed forward to focus on God’s heart for these politicians, and our classmates.
It is for that reason that, when Johnny asked me if he could take me for coffee after the field trip, I didn’t say, “I’m actually not dating right now,” I said, “Yes.”
I would later learn that Johnny had also recently wondered if he was called to be single all his life. He had also recently turned down a few other potential relationships. And he had also felt drawn to the way Jesus was working in me.
The coffee date led to more dates. The couple months before Johnny asked me to be his girlfriend were spent awing in Jesus Christ and not in each other. And that is why I love Johnny second. Jesus Himself has called us to, and built up, the foundation on which our relationship stands.
Flash forward three years. Johnny and I are both almost done university… but in different provinces.
When Johnny and I met, he already knew that the school we both attended in Waterloo, ON was not his forever school. Ten months into our relationship, he transferred to Providence University in Otterburne, MB, as it is a Christian university where he could play varsity soccer in the States.
So, much of our relationship has been long distance, though we see each other four months of the summer, over Christmas, and have surprise visited each other, too.
This December 14th, 2018, Johnny returned home from Winnipeg for Christmas, and we reunited emotionally and excitably as always. Johnny’s birthday was the following day, and his sister-in-law had texted me a few days before, having bought us tickets to the Toronto Symphony, and recommending a dinner spot as a birthday gift to Johnny for both of us.
That next day, I was so focused on making Johnny’s 23rd birthday special. After giving him his birthday gift, which included 23 photos of us with 23 things I love about him, Johnny suggested we dress up fancy for the symphony.
We drove to Toronto, talking endlessly, and were so pleasantly surprised by the beautiful atmosphere of the dinner spot that Johnny’s sister-in-law recommended, Bar Reyna. We enjoyed delicious food in one of my favourite settings of all times, and each other’s company, before deciding to walk half an hour to the symphony rather than drive over.
Being pretty clueless with directions, I didn’t realize we were passing Queen’s Park until we were standing right outside it. “Wow, is this Parliament?” I asked. There wasn’t a soul around, and it was dark outside, lit only by tinselly Christmas lights adorning the trees. “Yeah,” Johnny smiled. “I’m surprised you only just noticed.”
I immediately started reminiscing on that field trip three years ago. “I knew I was drawn to you, not because of who you were, but because of who Jesus was in you,” I said. “I knew I believed in Him the same way you did. I just had never before had the vocabulary for it.”
Johnny and I were both tearing up. I was silently praising and thanking God.
And it wasn’t until he stopped me, right out front of Queen’s Park, that I had a single CLUE that he was about to ask me a very important question. “I have a confession,” he said.
My heart went into my throat in excitement, emotion, and joy.
“Sarah didn’t plan this day, I did. All to bring you here, where we first met. To have the hopes of having the best birthday gift in the world.”
The rest of what he said was a blur. I was in the midst of the greatest surprise of my life.
When he got down on one knee and said, “Cassandra Andrea Wolfe, will you be my wife?” I nodded vehemently before pulling him up and kissing him.
Finally, Johnny pointed to the bushes far off, where my sister, Krystal, was taking photos. Johnny had paid for her trip down to capture the moment.
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Does winter get anyone else down in the dumps?
I’m not trying to blame my attitude on the cold, because I know that owning my attitude is always my responsibility. But man… I really, really hate the cold.
It is one sensation I can think of that makes me truly ANGRY.
It makes every activity more difficult. Like today, thinking about leaving the house for the different things on my agenda, from a meeting at my pastors’ house with their kids, which is one my favourite parts of my week, to a coffee and study date with beautiful Mary, to shopping, all things I love and have a generally positive attitude about– the cold weather can literally be enough to almost keep me inside.
Always “almost”… it’s never actually kept me inside, that I can recall.
But the severity of my disliking toward cold weather makes me wonder why we have it in the first place.
And then it makes me reflect why we have much bigger, truly problematic situations present in the world, hardships and fighting and poverty and greed.
More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Romans 5:3-5
Now, I am a baby and out of line to liken dealing with the cold as a very privileged Western person as “suffering.” But my internal and external struggles with it reminded me of the promise of this verse in Romans. Suffering, hardships, difficult times, and struggles… they are part of the Gospel. They themselves produce endurance, which produces character, which produces hope in God’s love, NO MATTER WHAT.
So, to my friend struggling… with ANYTHING…
God knows you. Inside and out. And He hears your silent prayer. Bring it to Him, for real, and entrust it to Him. Know that He has deeper plans for every trial, and that an attitude that says, “This hardship will produce endurance, which will produce character, which will produce hope in the ONE THING that will never fail” is one God calls you to.
Don’t judge me, but I’m still gonna go into the cold with an attitude that says that God is gonna use the chill in my bones to produce endurance, character, and hope… and honestly, He does. He uses everything.
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