The Beauty behind

Thus says Yahweh: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. — Jeremiah 6:16a

When I went to Tennessee I was tired. Worn out, soul-weary tired. We have such a vast, such a broken, bleeding world. Heart change, radical life transformation from the inside out, is the only thing that will ultimately bring the peace and justice, mercy and love so many of us are craving, whether we recognize where that craving comes from or not. But so many people also don’t seem to want to hear and taste and see and know the Truth that will set them free. It’s hard to love people sometimes and keep on loving them when they only want to set their own definitions and boundaries of love. And it’s hard to keep trying to speak the truth (in love) … maybe especially when you know what the ultimate Truth is, but aren’t quite sure where the point of starkly clear truth is on issue after issue after issue our country and world wrestle with.

When I went to Tennessee I was also reading Jeremiah. I read the verse above one of the mornings I was there, and it came up again a day or two later during morning devotions at Hutchmoot. One of the things I had been praying leading up to Hutchmoot, and one of the things I prayed while I sat in a rocking chair on the balcony of my charming bed and breakfast, reading scripture and journaling and just being, was “Help me see the Beauty behind.” This idea of the Beauty behind all things, the Reality that exists underneath everything we see and perceive, is one that has rolled around in my mind probably since the first time I read N.D. Wilson’s Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, but it’s been especially strong this year as I’ve often struggled to see beauty in the circumstances in which I find myself. “Now we see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face.” Oh God, help me see! It’s hard sometimes, isn’t it, when all we can see are the shadows of things, and through a mysterious process that is confusing and often painful to us, we are being made into the image of Christ — in a very real sense we both are and are not yet complete.

and the Beauty behind is what you can’t see
like the wind in the branches that talks for the tree
or the Word that split the shore from the sea

I went to Hutchmoot knowing I would probably cry a lot. Not because I expected to be sad, but because tears just come when I encounter beauty … when, I think, I internally see His Beauty, when I hear echoes of the past and the future. The first time I nearly started crying was when my friends and I were looking around the church hosting Hutchmoot and saw a sign for the session rooms. They were named things like Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, Buechner, Berry. “Even the room signs make me want to cry,” I joked to Hannah. “I know!” she replied.

And I probably just kept crying most of the time from there. I cried when John Cal, our master chef for the weekend, introduced each meal. Tears rolled down my face during Rabbit Room Live when Jennifer Trafton spoke and pretty much proved she knew the inside of my soul (or at least my mind, maybe) though she had no idea who I was and all I knew about her was that she wrote Henry and the Chalk Dragon (which I have not yet read). I cried during A Liturgy for the Planting of Flowers. I cried from doubled-over laughter when Jonathan Rogers talked about childhood poetry, writing, and fake vampire blood. I cried when Andrew Peterson talked about pushing on the Wailing Wall like he was Lucy at the back of the wardrobe, longing to get into Narnia again. Oh, you too, I thought.

I cried in the session Sleuths and Spaceships when Jen Yokel talked about sci-fi space stories and Wall-E and lots of other heart-rendingly beautiful truths that I’d have to consult my notes about in order to recount. And I probably cried in the same talk when Carrie Givens said her cats were named Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane and that her favorite Sayers novel was Gaudy Night. Huzzah! I thought. Twenty-three years’ worth of reading mystery stories has not been in vain after all! 

But it wasn’t all tears (albeit happy tears). One feature of Hutchmoot that I (surprisingly) found myself loving was the fact that, because meals were taken at long rows of feasting tables, you never really knew who you would end up sitting next to during dinner. But it was marvelous, because everyone was so nice. And both interesting themselves and interested in you. We three ladies from Kansas City and Chicago probably told the sweetly bizarre story of how we all happened to be there together 20 or so times, and I’m sure everyone else told the story of how they got to Hutchmoot multiple times as well, but it never seemed to get tiresome to anybody. Maybe we were all just introverts who finally felt safe together. Or maybe, because we all loved a good God Who imagined into existence such things as good food and good stories, it was one big constant What, you too? I thought I was the only one! moment of instant friendship.

Somebody somewhere — probably multiple people in multiple times and places — said, in essence, that the skill with which you create is not the most important thing. Whether you get published or get commissions or make an album or do anything that gets you public recognition for your work is not the most important thing. What’s important is that you create — that you express the truths God has placed it on your heart to tell, through the medium He has given you, with the skill you have, to and for the people in community with you. I’ve had some minor disappointments this year of rejections for poems or stories I’ve submitted various places. I’ve been tempted to think I need to change my style or subject matter in order to be acceptable to the main stream of poetic persons, to the popular idea of what poetry should be about and how it should be written. It was affirming, therefore, to be reminded that God has given me truth to tell, and a way in which to tell it, and I don’t need to water it down or angst it up for anyone.

On Friday afternoon during a time when there were workshops or the freedom to roam around and do whatever you wanted, I wandered out into a little gardenish spot where there were benches and trees, shade and sunlight, and a subtly burbling fountainish thing. At first I sat on the ground, looked around, enjoyed the sun and prepared to review my notes from the morning’s talks. But then I noticed the woodchips and leaves were starting to cling to my bright orange tights, so I moved up to a bench occupied on one end by a petite woman with curly blonde hair. We shared a few comments, then my attention was arrested by the men with pipes in their hands who were starting to congregate in the little garden. Out from the church came a man carrying a metal case, which he set carefully down on the wall of the fountainish thing and opened, revealing pipe after beautiful pipe. I had inadvertantly wandered into Pipemoot.

Well, I couldn’t not go over and look. “Do you want to try one?” somebody asked. I demurred shyly, remembering the disastrous results of my first (and thusly last, I thought) attempt at pipe smoking. “C’mon, I think they need some women in this thing!” my vivacious bench companion said. So we both went back over to the case of pipes, and their owner and maker guided us through selecting a pipe, selecting a tobacco, filling the pipe, tamping the tobacco down, lighting it and drawing to keep it lit. Learning how to draw correctly without actually inhaling was rather tricky. “Don’t inhale or you’ll turn green!” Art Peterson said, with a twinkle in his eye and a pipe clamped in his teeth. Somehow, despite the awkwardness of not being good at pipe smoking and trying to keep it lit and asking if it’d gone out and all the minutiae of what to do, I felt more at home there with that bunch of bearded men (and my bench friend and the other women who wandered through) than with the idea of the inaugural Teamoot, which I could see being enacted on the other side of the courtyard’s doors.

The blonde woman from the bench — whose name I have sadly and completely forgotten — and I talked for a while together of this and that, of her family’s journey from California to Nashville that summer on faith and prayer; of my journey as a single woman arriven at 30 and wondering what to do with myself. In the initial stages of our conversation she asked what I liked to do, creatively speaking, and I said, a little squirmingly, well, I like to write poetry, for fun. I gave her one of the little Christmas books I’d made of poems, pictures and stories, and she exclaimed over it with enthusiasm. Later, when our suddenly deep and heartfelt conversation was wrapping up, she said, “And next time someone asks what you do, tell them you’re a poet, and say it with conviction — because you are.”

Yes, I have absolutely forgotten that woman’s name, which is a little embarrassing. But I remember her story and the hope and faith in God’s guidance and provision that it demonstrated. And I remember the care and affirmation she showed me, though we had been complete strangers to each other half an hour before. I don’t believe in coincidence, so I believe it was God who guided my feet to wander out into that little courtyard into the midst of the love and kindness of strangers. Here, surrounded by people who loved God and longed to see the Beauty behind perhaps even more than I did, I felt, even in the midst of excitement and the slow busyness of a conference, rest for my soul.

Here endeth the second lesson.