By Nathanael Blessington T.
“Everything is big in TX”, I overheard this from a group of three friends who commented as they boarded the shuttle that was taking me to the rental car center, where I would be picked up for the CAIRN Clergy Retreat 2023 at Sister Grove Farm. I had been to Texas before, Dallas Love Field in June 2018, DFW in Jan 2019, and to Corpus Christi in Dec 2022. Having seen the big buildings, big boots, buckles, and hats, I felt it is all about the big-ness of the Texans/Texas. However, as I was headed to the tiny place called Van Alstyne, I began experiencing the real big-ness of TX. Stephanie was kind enough not only to do an airport run, but she treated us with a Whataburger. My first impression of this Whataburger was breathtaking. The spicy chicken meal came with a big drink. I think this was the biggest cup of drink I ever had in my life. Then as I enjoyed the meal and sprite, I gazed from the window at the beautiful sky. It seemed larger, and as I kept watching the sky seemed bigger than I could comprehend. Stephanie drove from the airport into the city, into the suburbs, and to the single lane roads. Finally, we arrived at the small place that had a big farm, called the Sister Grove Farm which covered about 150 acres. We were welcomed by Rodney and Sarah with big hospitable hearts. The guest rooms were spacious, and the beds were big too. That evening as we gathered around the big bonfire, the space was filled with warmth on a cold winter night. Later the wind started blowing big, at times fiercely with a whirl as sparks from the flames flew onto the faces and eyes of those gathered.
The next morning we had a big breakfast and a long day filled with brave spaces for the rending, healing spaces for the binding, and safe spaces for the nesting. Each moment unfolded organically as the spiritual director Kyndall with a ‘y’, empowered each of us to be who we are. As clergy it is hard to find such safe spaces in the ministry setting, because the role of a minister and clergy is to minister to a variety of people in our own respective ministry settings.
Our spirits were kindled and our souls ignited over the three days as clergy joined from all over the US from East Coast to the West Coast and also encompassing the big state of Texas. Clergy professional settings ranged from one who preached the first sermon at a new appointment the Sunday before the retreat, to those who have been serving for several years in their positions, some looking at professional transitions, and others at personal life transitions. The Spirit-led community of clergy were led spiritually and kindled by Kyndall at the CAIRN 2023 retreat.
Sarah and Rodney gave me an opportunity to feed organic grass to the grass-fed cattle, and spend a while as I watched them graze. It was a blessing to not only enjoy the realness of everything, but also to be in nature, and to feel the wind across the landscape. Morning the final day at the CAIRN 2023 retreat was the pinnacle of all the time together. This was a time to plant, connect with mother nature and with each other. As I walked into the farm with the poem in my back-pocket titled, When I am Among The Trees by Mary Oliver each word, every verse, and the whole poem came to life when I was among the trees.
When I was among the trees,
especially…the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness…
the light flowed through their branches…
Around me the trees stir in their leaves,
and call out, “stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come into the world to do this,
to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.”
The lectio divina made a deeper connection with the life of the pine tree, and with other trees around, and reminded me of the pine trees in my grandfather’s backyard in India, and a spiritual connection with the trees namely the Meru oak trees found only in Kenya on the east coast of Africa. The connection with nature and more specifically with the trees was experienced as the branches moved with the gentle and chilly breeze. This moving experience made way for sunlight to flow through the branches and right into my eyes. I was filled with the warmth of the sunlight as it shined forth the divine light. Then as I began to walk away, the tree(s) kept calling “stay awhile.” I paused a while before it was time to get back with my peer clergy.
Before we departed, Stephanie led us through a unique worship and communion service as we communed with nature and with each other. The center of the labyrinth was the topos (Gk. place) for communion. The holistic nature of the communion was experienced as the birds chirped, the trees whispered, the grass swayed, the pneuma (the wind, breath, air, aka the Spirit) moved, the cattle moo-ed. the bread broken, and the wine poured out. We centered ourselves as we walked to the center and received the holy communion, only to pass it on to the next person behind. The clergy were ignited to continue to bear witness to the true Light.
The plaited sweetgrass was handed over by Rodney to each clergy as a momento. This was the Canadian sweetgrass aka vanilla grass, manna grass, and holy grass. To the Anishinaabe First Nation, it is believed to be the sacred hair of Mother Earth, and is often braided; the three sections representing mind, body, and soul. The spiritual retreat signified the plaiting of the mind, body, and soul holistically as we shared the gift of togetherness. We found cairns in each one of us as we witnessed each other’s presence through the rending, binding, nesting, and planting. The spiritual retreat gave us an opportunity to be living witnesses as we experienced life together in the new year at the clergy retreat.
As I conclude my reflection from CAIRN 2023, I would like to say that the Alliance was formed as one of the foremost alliances of the Baptists that were called-out and led by God to be the ambassadors of Christ in the world. Yes, in this generation CAIRN was formed in 2017 to support clergy for their unique role in the world. However, we need to remember that our forefathers and foremothers have taken these steps already, which have enabled us to be in this spiritual journey. Those who have gone before have left these cairns on our way. They might be called JegarSahadutha as referred by Laban in Aramaic; or Galeed as called by Jacob in Hebrew, both meant the heap of witness. This piling of the heap of stones started in the Ancient Near East as early as the creation of human beings. When it comes to the context of CAIRN, our foremothers and forefathers have laid the cairns on this land as early as to be one of the earliest Alliance to be born organically out of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. They might not have known what was in store, but they took their bold next most faithful steps to leave behind the cairns for this generation and for those to come. Grateful to Kyndall for coaching us, Stephanie for making this possible, Sarah and Rodney for the philoxenia (hospitality), and to everyone for bringing their presence. Thanks be to God for empowering us as we plan to join God at work in implementing these next most faithful steps in our generation!
CAIRN is a network of Alliance-affiliated clergy who believe that together,
in a Spirit-led community, we have everything we need
to become and remain healthy, resilient, and prophetic leaders.
Reverend Nathanael Blessington is a fifth generation to The Thadikonda’s; a Baptist missionary family which worked closely with American Baptist Missionaries in the late 1800’s on the south-east coast of India. He is called by God to one of the first seminaries formed by the Alliance of Baptists, the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (BTSR). He is a polyglot, poet, certified Christian coach, master-certified Christian Educator. He has widely traveled across the globe and is closely connected with more than a dozen countries. These international experiences are built into the DNA of who he is and how he experiences the love of God through those divine encounters. He believes that each person is created as Imago-Dei. These lenses help him to provide holistic and personalized pastoral care.