Some time ago, while I was still testing the waters of my belief in Christ, I decided to attend a men's beach retreat with my church.
As someone whose greatest spiritual step had been flipping pancakes for the church supper, I felt this was a landmark occasion. I steeled myself for the rigors of being around older, wiser men of faith.
Arriving early, I canvassed the two spacious condos the church had set aside for us. Someone had set up a communal dining hall.
Off to the side was a long table, groaning under the weight of beer, wine, liquor and the fixings for mixed drinks. I was quickly handed a drink and informed that we would eat as soon as 12 men returned from a round of golf.
In a corner, an Austin Powers video murmured polite obscenities. On the deck, several men smoked cigars and exchanged off-color jokes.
The golfers returned and, heads bowed, we prayed over dinner. Everyone was warm and friendly, solicitous about each others' families and health.
The good feelings continued as, drinks in hand, we dispersed to play poker, rewind Austin Powers, smoke more cigars or head out to nearby taverns for more fellowship.
I went to bed around 10 p.m., embracing the sleep only sea air can bring.
The next morning, I learned that at least one of our brethren had gotten so drunk he had thrown up on himself in bed and had to be thrown into the ocean to clean up -- and sober up. Many others groaned under the burden of hangovers.
The weather was beautiful. Those who were able trotted off for more golf, others for deep-sea fishing. On Sunday, we had a nice worship service in which we administered the sacraments to each other.
We went home as we had arrived, more or less.
For various reasons, my wife and I moved on to other churches in the years that followed. We gradually grew into servants of God -- not holy or righteous, but occasionally walking the walk.
With some trepidations, I signed up for a beach trip with the men at our newest church.
This time, the men packed a large dining hall for session after session about being spiritual leaders in our homes. We sang worship songs, prayed with each other, addressed issues like sexual purity, temptation and anger. We drank water and coffee.
The weather was awful, or awesome -- a wind like the spirit of God blew through the camp and took no prisoners.
Many of us went home completely changed by the experience.
One of the men from that first beach weekend died last week after a battle with cancer.
At his funeral, the pastor described how he had met John at that beach retreat and had gotten to know him playing golf. He shared how important golf was to John.
The reception afterwards, in good Irish tradition, featured beer, spiked punch, spiked fruit and a Celtic band. I noticed nearly every man who had attended that beach retreat was still going to that church, was still hoisting a glass in John's honor.
It made me feel like someone who goes back to his 20-year high school reunion, and finds he was the only one to ever leave town.
It also made me think of Paul's description in the Bible of his shipwreck. (Acts 27:39-41 NIV)
"When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf."
How often do we mistake a sandbar for a beach? They look the same until the tide comes in. Then our paths of retreat are blocked and we may become stranded, only to be beaten up by life.
Come to think of it, maybe there are no beaches in God's kingdom -- only a succession of sandbars, each more glorious than the last.
Only if we keep our eyes on God will we know when it is time to paddle onward.