I keep reading posts from people who are unhappy with their churches, or have given up on church altogether. Some of them have real horror stories about abusive treatment in churches or organizations they grew up in. Many are still searching for a place to belong, where brokenness can be acknowledged and wounds can be healed. I wish I could bring them all to Ashram. Well, I should clarify that this is a United Christian Ashram, lest people start thinking of gurus and drugs and who knows what images people attach to the word.
Ashram was a formative influence on my life. It is a sort of Family Camp/retreat that we started attending in the mid 1960s, because my brother liked the youth leader. We went and we were hooked. I went for over a decade until the need to work summers interfered during college. Of course, I thought it was all just fun and games, as a kid. I mean, we did arts and crafts, took hikes, swam in the pool, ate ice cream from the snack bar. When I got seriously into Jesus and my bible in high school, it was something of a reinforcement for what I was already learning at my home church. But after many years away, I returned and began learning, to my great surprise, some of the ways I was formed by it.
A word of explanation is in order. Ashram means away from work or to work. Both of those meanings come into play here. It was started by a man called E. Stanley Jones, who was a missionary to India around a hundred years ago. He took the basic concept of a retreat centered around a guru, and wondered how it would be if Christ were the guru. The farther he went in his Christian walk, the more he was focused on the Kingdom of God and how we need to be living it out in the here and now. Having spent some 30 years dealing with the caste system in India, he built into it features that were made to break down barriers. So this retreat was open to all, with the caveat that once there, all titles are dropped for the duration. This is really helpful to the pastors, who can for once simply participate, without being expected to be founts of theological wisdom or “go to” people for problems. It also makes it a safe place for any minorities in attendance, though we seem to have fewer than we did in the 60s.
We begin by having a time of sharing, about why we have come, what we need and what we would like God to do for us. That’s a tall order, especially for newcomers, but it is totally voluntary. I find often that I have been so busy trying to get us there, that I haven’t figured out what to say to those questions, but that’s okay too. God seems to meet each of us where we are. After that, the prayer vigil begins, so we are covered with prayer until we have another sharing time at the end. We all get to sign up to cover one hour slots, which is a challenge for many, but also a blessing.
We keep a grand silence from 11:00 until devotions in the morning. Then begins a rhythm that starts after breakfast with a work hour. That’s where the to-work part comes in. It seems that when people work together, side by side, often at menial tasks, that the barriers really come down and bonds of friendship are fostered. Then we have times of worship, study, recreation and prayer groups. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have a small group of people praying for you? Here you can experience it. Much healing takes place in those prayer groups. Generally the evening services build toward an understanding that the Lord wants to heal us and softening our hearts so we can be in tune with Him by the last night when we have a healing service. It is still completely voluntary, but any who wish it can be anointed with oil and prayed for by teams gifted in healing prayer. Then on the final day, we have communion and later gather for another sharing time, this one rejoicing in what the Lord has done for us.
Perhaps you are beginning to understand why I wish I could bring those people to an Ashram. They have been wounded, and they need healing. I just happen to know one place where it happens. I really didn’t understand how the Lord heals at all until I came back as an adult. But I think I always had a tendency to believe He could heal, partly because of attending those prayer services. And for those who are concerned about excess, I don’t recall ever seeing any holy roller types of activities. We have fed our minds and our bodies as well as our spirits here. God seems very near, yet people with very different needs are met in different ways.
I recall, as a child, once hearing a retired minister admit that until he came to Ashram, he never really knew Jesus. Many find it an invaluable support for raising their children in faith. One couple I know had a child who had been exposed to alcohol and drugs in the womb, and he had many challenges. Through a series of healings, he grew up into a wonderful Christian man. His mom encourages others with similar challenges to bring their kids up for healing prayer. We never know exactly what God will do, but He either brings healing or enables the parents to cope better in those situations, often both. Sometimes a person needs direction, and they testify to how God has given them the faith to take the next step needed. Others speak of healings in their relationships. Perhaps for the first time they find themselves able to forgive someone who hurt them.
All in all, I have found Ashram to be a place where it is safe. My children at a young age would run off to the playground and I knew they were safe with whoever was watching. One year someone’s child fell and needed medical attention. Our nurse was amazed that before she even arrived on the scene, the nearest adults were taking charge and keeping everyone calm. And it is certainly safe to admit your brokenness, because we are all broken and we know that God works through our brokenness. Some of that attitude comes home with us and creates little spaces of love and understanding in our home churches. That’s why I wish I could bring these people to Ashram with me.