Though We’re Strangers

I put up a post about a month ago at my church’s blog that I haven’t shared here yet. It contains references to Rich Mullins and oblique references to Hutchmoot, just so you know what you’re getting into.

My first year the weekend missed my expectations entirely, but was one of the best weekends of my life. I found things I didn’t even know I was looking for. Wouldn’t it be great if someone visiting our church could say that?

Soon after attending my second year, I re-encountered the song “Peace (A Communion Blessing)” by Rich Mullins and found that the lyrics came close to describing what the weekend was for me:

Though we’re strangers, still I love you
I love you more than your mask
And you know you have to trust this to be true
And I know that’s much to ask
But lay down your fears, come and join this feast
He has called us here, you and me

Mullins’ song is about a communion feast: something that happens in church. And yet many people go to church and never hear words like these: “I love you more than your mask,” “Don’t be afraid,” “Sit down; feast with us.”

This Is My Story

“In biblical Hebrew, there is no word for ‘history.’ Instead of ‘history,’ the word ‘memory’ is used. The idea is that history is someone else’s story, but memory is your own.”
–Heidi Johnston

The Settles Connection at Hutchmoot 2015, Photo by Mark Geil.

The Settles Connection at Hutchmoot 2015, Photo by Mark Geil.

Story, story, story. The word echoed through my weekend, shaped by various tongues. Once or twice it might have come out as “narrative,” a slight variant on the form, but the same essence.

“We tell stories from the image we hold in our hearts,” Jonathan Rogers said as he spoke of honoring our place—our hometown or family. We tell stories to support the thesis we have of “home.” We love our hometowns and our families, he reminded us, not because they are great, but because they are ours. “Remembering this lends the story to universality. Every human place has mythic experience.”

“Baseball is such a multi-purpose narrative tool,” said Russ Ramsey.

“The best way to tell someone you love them is to listen to them,” Michael Card said.

“This is not forever,” Heidi Johnston said. “We are just living in a day of a story that spans all of time.” She challenged us to be so immersed in the Bible that what we write tells the story of Scripture. If we speak only from our imagination without being anchored in truth, she said, we are only giving empty hope.

“Stories name our hopes we’ve hidden away and didn’t know we had,” said Doug McKelvey. “A song or a painting or a story can play on the imagination of the reader or the listener or the viewer almost in the same way a pianist can play on the piano keys.” Telling your story is throwing out a line and hoping that it connects with someone, he said. You’re inviting that person in as a third part of the creative process when they grip the line you’ve thrown out.

“Story is an invitation into a house that becomes a cosmos,” said Walt Wangerin. “What makes the story present and grants us the opportunity to be in the story at this present time is the telling.”

He reminded us of Deuteronomy 5, when Moses tells the story of Sinai to those about to enter the land. The generation who were there at Sinai are all dead, but Moses spoke to the generation before him as if the story were their own. His words echoed Heidi Johnston’s from earlier in the day, “History is someone else’s story; memory is your own.”

“Beware the man who makes himself the hero of his own story,” said Russ Ramsey in his sermon on Sunday morning. He combined the warning with this, “May we try to be brave, believing that trying to be brave is being brave because the author of life controls the narrative, and we are in his hands.”

On Saturday night, as the Settles Connection sang “Blessed Assurance” they invited us to sing along.

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.


This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long;
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.

“This is my story…” My story.

My story is that of a bride adorned for her bridegroom.

My story is that of a people whose God chased after their wayward hearts like a lover.

My story is that of a hard-headed disciple who betrayed his best friend and his Lord, only to be restored over a coal fire on the beach.

My story is that of a servant, entrusted by his master with five talents and turning them into ten.

My story is that of a king who took what he lusted after and killed to keep his sin hidden.

My story is that of a man who took his son to the mountain to sacrifice him, only to learn that the God he served would never ask such a thing like the gods of his past did.

My story is the story of a group of people who came together to discover the strangers they’d met were already their friends.

My story is the tale of a people made in the image of God who once turned away from him, but found him a gracious God with mercies new each morning, who shows steadfast love thousands of those who love him and keep his commandments.

These stories are my own, so deeply pressed into my soul they’ve left a mark. That mark, when watered, will become the seed of new stories. And I can throw out those stories into the world like a line, awaiting a hand to catch them and tie them to the hand’s own stories. And the line will go out again and again, so that strand after strand after strand all lead back to the truest story of all: that of a God who loved his creation so much he lay down his own life to save it from its brokenness.

Post-Moot

We are post-Hutchmoot again, and I am certain I will have many things to say in the next few days, but I’ll begin with a few quotes:

“A song or a painting or a story can play on the imagination of the reader or the listener or the viewer almost in the same way a pianist can play on the piano keys.” -Doug McKelvey

“This is not forever, we are just living in a day of a story that spans all of time.” -Heidi Johnston

Hutchmoot 2015“What makes story present and grants us the opportunity to be in the story at this present time is the telling.” -Walter Wangerin, Jr.

“Beware of the man who makes himself the hero of his own story.” -Russ Ramsey

(and for a bit of fun, please imagine the following in a Northern Ireland accent)
“Have you ever been at a conference with so many references to Deuteronomy?!” -Heidi Johnston

Three New Twitter Followers

You know it’s a big week when you get three new followers on Twitter. Fine, sure, I know that some people get follows in mass quantities regularly. I’m not that cool.

But this week I must have been brought to the attention of some fine folks and they managed to find me in the Twittersphere and therefore I now have my ego stroked enough to last me for a couple of weeks, I’m sure.

Why did I come to people’s attention?

Well, it may have been this recent blog post at the Church at Charlotte blog, “When Everything is Broken, Remember”:

There is something wrong with this world.

We know it, deep in our souls. When we see a 24-year-old young woman on hospice care, we know it. When we hear of refugee children drowning in the Mediterranean Sea as they try to find a safe home, we know it. When a marriage falls apart, when a child dies, when a man is beaten on the street—something inside us says, “This isn’t how it is supposed to be.”

Everything is broken.

Or it might have been this story up at Story Warren this week, “A Man Named John Smith”:

A snippet of Jamin Still’s amazing illustration for my story.

Once upon a time there was a man named John Smith. When Mr. Smith was little, he was very concerned that with such a plain name, he would be lost to history, forever forgotten in a sea of John Smiths down through the ages. If you make it to the end of this harrowing tale, you shall discover that young John’s worst fears were realized. Do not worry, though, I haven’t given the whole thing away—there’s still a surprise or two waiting for you just down the page.

When Mr. Smith was a little boy—(How little, you say? Well, littler than me. And probably littler that the eldest among you, but certainly older than the littlest ones.)—Anyway, when John was a boy, he lived on a farm—(Where was the farm? Indiana. But that really doesn’t have any bearing on this story at all. Now hold your questions to the end or we shall never get through this.)

Or maybe it was the exciting news that I get to present this year at The Rabbit Room’s Hutchmoot 2015. I’ve written about Hutchmoot before, and The Rabbit Room has certainly been formative in my life for the past few years, so I’m utterly honored and grateful to be speaking this time around. And getting to do so with Russ Ramsey on the topic of baseball? Yeah…so cool. I’ll let you know how it goes later!

(See what I did in this post? I turned a “catching up” post into a real one. Tricksy. I may just attain the level of coolness my Twitter followers expect of me someday.)

Perception and Grace

dressI seem to have fallen off the wagon here again with the writing thing…but once in a while I write elsewhere, so here’s a glimpse of what’s in my head. I’ve got a new post up at the Church at Charlotte blog, in which I address “The Dress” and talk about Andy Gullahorn. So it can’t be all bad.

(P.S. Though this post vauguely indicates otherwise, I actually do see the dress as blue-and-black.)

On Thursday evening, I got home late and before going to bed I hopped onto Facebook to see what had happened in the world in my absence. My newsfeed was filled with debate and discussion about the color of a dress in a photo that seemed to take over the internet with surprising rapidity.

Because of the lighting in the photograph, and the way the human brain perceives color from visual cues, some people see a blue and black dress and others see a white and gold one. It’s a bizarre little phenomenon and probably no more than a two-day’s wonder.

What I found so fascinating, though, was the passion behind the arguments put forth by everyone from Joe-on-the-street to celebrities and politicians. Those who saw the dress at blue-and-black thought the white-and-gold folks were crazy—and vice versa—until they spent some time looking at it. Then, more than one of my Facebook acquaintances changed their position. “I originally just saw white and gold… But now I can see both. So weird,” one of my friends wrote.

I was reminded of a song by Andy Gullahorn, “Line in the Sand,” in which he begins by saying how offended he was as a child when his father would mix up his name with his brother’s—he thought that if his dad really loved them equally, he wouldn’t mix up names. But now, with three kids of his own, Andy says, he “loves them and confuses them just the same.”

Read more.

Julie’s Porch

I sat in Julie’s living room this evening. I walked in, looked at the sofa, and turned to look back at her.

“I’ve never sat down in this room before,” I said.

She raised one eyebrow and cocked her head a little. “How is that?”

I gestured to the darkened screen porch out the back door. “I’ve spent many hours on your porch.”

It will be a strange thing this winter, learning the living room at Julie’s house. I’ve gotten to know the kitchen quite well and there’s a bedroom upstairs that’s been mine for nights in a row. But the porch. That’s my spot.

I first came to Julie’s at the very end of May in 2013. I was tired. I was worn. I was hurt.

A quiet breakfast on @juliesilander’s porch with good books and a delightful mug. @therabbitroom

A photo posted by Carolyn Givens (@carolyncgivens) on

And she offered me coffee, books, and a spot on the porch. And I took it. And I drank in the cool days, the quiet yard, the trees, the birds.

And for the better part of two days, she didn’t bother me much. She’d come out, sit on the other wicker loveseat, and read her own things. From time to time we’d read out a passage to one another, or stop to talk for a few minutes. And in quiet mornings a cup of coffee and a good book was healing for my soul.

On the last night of my visit—my birthday—the whole family joined me on the porch and fed me cake and asked me questions, a household birthday tradition.

I came back in late March this year. It was warm enough again to be on the porch, and I dragged my laptop out and counted dragons in the final battle of Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga as I copyedited The Warden and the Wolf King.

Then, in April I returned again. I didn’t need the room upstairs, but the porch was still there for me. And on it we gathered other friends, some new to me, who shared their hearts and their words.

Tonight we moved our words indoors and feted them with hot apple cider. It’s grown chilly for the screen porch, but next spring—next spring I’ll be back there again.

Lean In

I was nearly a coward last evening.

I told myself I didn’t want to go because I was tired, because I hadn’t unpacked yet, because I needed to write.

But really, I didn’t want to lean in.

***

I attended Hutchmoot this past weekend. In past years I’ve drunk from the fire hose of wisdom, laughter, and delight and found healing for my soul. I’ve brought others so that they could experience the overflow, the abundance that is the gathering. But this year—this year was another experience all together.

My first 24 hours are a bit of a blur. I remember moments of delight when my favorite songs were played at the Local Show Special Edition Concert. I remember good food. I remember lots and lots and lots and lots of conversations—but I barely recall what any of them were about.

I felt scattered, worn, squeezed out.

***

Friday afternoon I sat down with my friend Jason to catch up on where the currents of his life were flowing. And for the first time all weekend, I settled into a conversation. We sat on two chairs at the side of the living room. I know, vaguely, there were other people in the room. I even think we were interrupted once, but all I remember is the conversation. I was there.

From that point forward, I began to find myself able to sink in to conversations.

***

Luci Shaw, in her book Breath for the Bones, talks of the importance of seeing, of paying attention, for the artist: “For us to participate in the drama of creation presupposes our need to pay attention. (The word pay is significant—time and awareness, love, concentration and penetration are the price of seeing.)”

She goes on: “The word attention is derived from the Latin ad-tendere—‘to stretch toward’” (p. 116).

Pay attention. Lean in.

***

I awoke Saturday morning and prayed that God would help me to ask more questions than I talked. And He put me to the test on it.

In line for lunch I talked with Charly, who was processing his first Hutchmoot experience and doing his best to figure out what it meant for his family, his life, his ministry back home. And I asked questions, and he talked. And it was one of the most delightful conversations of my weekend.

At dinner God sat me beside Jeremiah, who seemed to answer every initial question with a slightly vague answer—the kind of answer that you could take at face value, or you could ask further questions to find out what story was behind it. I asked questions, and discovered a person with all kinds of fascinating experiences.

Pay attention. Lean in.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the theme had been resonating throughout my Friday as well; I’d just been too scattered to note it.

Jonathan Rogers spoke about Reepicheep, saying that though he was the smallest character in all of Narnia, he had this huge soul. And what made his soul so big was his longing, his stretching toward the Utter East and Aslan’s country. Jonathan said, “In Aslan’s Country, all selves will be free—and their freedom will be freedom from the self.” If that’s not leaning in, I don’t know what is.

When someone in the group asked how we take our inherent longing, our sehnsucht, and make it tactile, one suggestion in response was to slow down and see, paying attention. Jonathan mentioned a video of two kangaroos fighting in a suburban neighborhood that he’d seen online. “What a world this is!” he marveled. “We live in a world where that happens!”

***

Pay attention. Lean in.

Jill Phillips sang her new songs on Friday night, and throughout the lyrics this idea of paying attention and leaning in to relationships is vividly portrayed.

You run so you’ll never be the last one left alone
You hide from the very ones who care for you the most
You’re hanging by a thread, Feeling left for dead
But I’ll bear with you, I’ll bear with you instead
There’s no way around it, you have to walk through
Let me go, let me go with you

And

You are not alone
You are not the only one to walk this road
You are not alone
Even when you fight and run you are not alone

And

Higher ground is harder to believe in
When you’re drowning in a river of your tears
But the river always runs down to the valley
And when it does, I’ll meet you there

***

Jason noted in the debrief time at the end of the weekend that he’d never before had any desire to be mouse-like, but—after seeing Reepicheep anew through Jonathan’s eyes—he wanted a mouse-sized soul. The outward-focused soul grows bigger.

DinnerConversation

Photo by Africa Schaumann

I want to lean in. To stretch toward. To grow.

I met Andrew in line for dinner the first night of the weekend. Afterward, he wrote a poem in which he described Hutchmoot as the “rehearsal dinner of the Lamb.” There’s a photo of Andrew and I at dinner that first night, both leaning forward to listen to Bailey, who was sitting at the far end of the table. It looks as if there is no one between us (though there were), and we’re stretching out to be part of what she had to say.

At the marriage supper of the Lamb, that will be our posture: we will be leaning in—to the person next to us, to the heroes of our faith, to Christ.

***

I nearly was a coward last night. I blamed not wanting to go to the small group portion of our Bible Study on the fact that I still have bags on my floor or that I hadn’t done my homework.

But really, I didn’t want to lean in. I’ve struggled to find resonance in that group and having come from a weekend with people who speak my language, I didn’t want to expend the energy it would take to pay attention.

I even told someone I wouldn’t go.

And then, I sat at my desk and Jill’s words ran through my head again: “I’ll bear with you, I’ll bear with you instead.”

Bearing with one another is hard work. Leaning in. Stretching toward. Paying attention.

But it’s worth it. As Jill sings,

There’s gold in them hills
There’s gold in them hills
So don’t lose heart
Give the day a chance to start

 

Moments

I tried to keep my eyes open for something today, something that would trigger a long-past memory. Instead, at every turn, the memories brought to the fore were all recent, remnants of full days with good friends. So, a few glimpses:

***

photoThe voices singing a hymn this morning from the opening of Bible study at church reminded me of Jenny & Tyler’s performance last Thursday evening.

Andrew Peterson announced them and they stood, and I—surprised—turned to my friend Leah with delight. “Jenny and Tyler are here!” I said. “They have this one song…there’s no way they’d play it, but it’s one of my favorite songs in the world.”

And they reached the stage and began to sing an old hymn, their first of two songs. And then, from all their repertoire, they pulled out their second song: “Skyline Hill.” My song.

Of all the bands with all the songs in all the world—Jenny and Tyler sang my favorite to me last week.

***

I ran my fingers over the cover of The World of Narnia this morning as I ate breakfast. I like the texture of the stock.

When I handed Jonathan Rogers a stack of my books to sign, he asked if I’d met his son Lawrence. I had not, so I turned to him and struck up conversation (in part so as not to awkwardly watch JR signing, trying to read his messages upside down).

“Lawrence, hello!” I said. “Where are you in life? What’s your story?”
Lawrence took a breath. “Well, it’s really a coming-of-age tale.”
“Yes?” I was already delighted at the direction this conversation was taking. “What genre would you say? Drama? Horror? Comedy?”
“Comedy, I think. Maybe even a Romantic Comedy,” Lawrence said.
Jonathan was distracted for a moment from his signing. He looked up. “Romantic Comedy!? What don’t I know about?”
I ignored the anxious father. “Ah, I see.” I said to Lawrence. “And the soundtrack? What style? Bluegrass? Pop? Southern Rock?”
Lawrence shook his head. “K-Pop,” he stated. “Definitely K-Pop.”

***

imageI took off my shoes when I arrived for a visit at the Kellers’ house this evening, and I recalled the moment I sat down on the floor at the front of the room where Nate Wilson was showing “The Hound of Heaven.” He sat in a chair, talking about the film, and I sat at his feet—and he had purple-ish shoes that matched the carpet perfectly. And that made the moment even better.

***

My wine at dinner tonight at David and Kelly’s house made me smile, remembering Jason and Jeremiah at dinner on Saturday night.

Taking a sip, savoring the flavor, Jason said, “This is the first alcohol I’ve had in a few days.”

Jeremiah held up his glass, looking into the inky red liquid. When he opened his mouth he spoke with as much relish as Jason. “It’s my first since midnight last night.”

***

I finished a story draft today, the seed of it sown in the phrases of two songwriters:

Arthur Alligood stood to play and strummed a chord on his guitar. “I wrote this song a couple of years ago,” he said. “I actually wrote it on Andy Osenga’s guitar. He let me borrow his guitar and I stole a song from it and gave it back.”

Just a few moments later, Andy Gullahorn followed with this: “There’s a lot of times I just show up with a color or a feeling and see what the guitar gives me, ‘cause I feel like it’s so much smarter than me.”

***

Andrew Peterson challenged us to fill our lives with liturgies that train us to love rightly. May these momentary memories be just that—daily reminders of what is good and beautiful and full of laughter.

Kneading

I spent an hour or so this afternoon crushing graham crackers. If you’ve never done it, crushing graham crackers is harder than it looks. I will blame the shortness of this post on my tired hands that don’t want to type, rather than on the fact that I’m plumb tuckered out.

graham crackersThere was no rolling pin and only flimsy plastic bags that broke when cracker corners went through them, so the work of crushing had to be done by hand—my hands, working the crackers in the bag, punching, gripping and spindling, kneading.

I thought of my mom’s hands, kneading the bread dough on the kitchen counter at least one afternoon a week when I was growing up. I’d get home from school, get a snack, and as I sat on one side of the counter eating it, she stood at the other, kneading the bread dough, pushing, balling, working it with the heel of her palm.

There was a rhythm, a force, a regular tempo she followed, keeping the conversation going all along, listening as I talked about my day.

When I was in college, my sisters and I helped Mom out at a Mother-Daughter retreat where she was speaking. We did a Q&A for the final session and someone asked for wisdom on spending quality time with her daughter.

My mom said, “Well I always tried to be doing work in the kitchen when you got home from school so you could debrief your day. I arranged my days so the afternoon was in the kitchen.”

My sisters and I blinked at one another. “That was on purpose?” we asked.

Mom often said that kneading bread is all the therapy she needs—she got out her aggression and worked through the tension and stress of the day. And as I worked to knead the graham crackers, I let myself get lost in the rhythm, the crushing, the turning of my knuckles. And thoughts I’d been swirling around settled themselves into pleasant places and rolled on to the tempo of the work.

Backdrop

RedeemerI’ve spent a significant portion of the past two days sitting in a sanctuary at a church in Nashville which I can only describe as “warm.” It is a building which seems to stretch its arms out in welcome. The older parts of it are made of wood that holds the patina of the years. In the sanctuary itself, a newer section, a deep crimson wall, inset with a large leaded glass window and an unadorned wooden cross has formed the backdrop for words and music that have shaped me in the past two years.

It’s the place where I first heard N. D. Wilson describe the Fall as the man failing to fight the dragon and save the woman, and the Second Adam as the one who rescued His bride by sacrificing Himself in her place.

It’s the place where I saw Eric Peters as a noisy Chewbacca and Jonathan Rogers as a properly electronic R2-D2 in a Shakespearean rendition of Star Wars.

It’s where Ron Block sang the words, “Let there be beauty for beauty is free.” Where Andrew Osenga shouted, “Space!” Where Pete Peterson has wept and Andrew Peterson has geeked out over Rich Mullins.

It’s a place I heard words of healing as Andy Gullahorn sang, “The story isn’t over yet.” And I’ve heard words of challenge from Father Thomas McKenzie. I’ve heard words of encouragement in art, faith, love, community, hope.

And in the past two days it has been the backdrop for moments like Son of Laughter singing “The Meal We Could Not Make” and Jenny and Tyler singing “Skyline Hill.” It has stood behind Rebecca Reynolds talking of the Blue Flower and Russ Ramsey holding up a Vermeer print and Andrew Peterson plugging in his phone to play Marc Cohn’sWalking in Memphis.”

It is a backdrop full of memory for me—and I’ve only visited on yearly occasions. For those who come weekly, it is the backdrop for the breaking of the bread, the drinking of the wine of the new covenant, the truth of the gospel taught, of prayers covering and lifting pain and sorrow to the ear of heaven’s throne.

Rebecca Reynolds said this morning, “Any old church is a familiar friend.” Arms open, they invite us toward the altar of worship.