The Long Road Home

Almost 20 years ago, while I was at university, my parents decided to move back to the seaside village in Northern Ireland where I had spent the first 12 years of my life. We relocated several times during my teens and, for me, this latest move felt like a step backwards. I visited for their first Christmas “back home” with no intention of joining them on any permanent basis. On Christmas day a guy with ginger hair and a smile that was contagious gave the children’s talk in their new church. The response to his self-deprecating humour was evidence that he was not only well known but also well loved. Long story short, I ended up staying. Two years later we were married.

I went into marriage believing that there were some things I could fix about Glenn. One was what I considered to be a slightly infantile obsession with the town that would now be my home. I shared my plans with him regularly. I wanted to move somewhere that was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. I wanted to find a place where we could have a ministry together, fully exercising our gifts in a way that suited us exactly.

Again and again he agreed that it all sounded great, assured me that we would think about it and then carried on doing exactly what he always did: working in the same schools, being part of the same church, spending time with the same people. Day after day. Week after week. Year after year.  

This Christmas it will be 20 years since I first sat in the congregation and watched Glenn captivate the children in the front rows. Lots of those kids are married now and I’ve lost count of the number who asked him to perform their wedding ceremonies. I’ve begun to notice something over the last couple of years. When my husband is asked to speak at weddings or funerals, he rarely has to ask the families for stories to tell. He already knows them. Like the characters in Wendell Berry’s Port William stories, their lives have intersected and merged with his so many times over the past 4 decades that it’s hard to tell where his story ends and theirs begin.

To be untethered by roots or commitment is seen as a great achievement in our upside down world. Undoubtedly, there are particular callings and seasons in life that require us to set out, even temporarily, in search of new things. The world is full of rich stories and unexpected wonder and there is something irreplaceable about the adventure of meeting new people and discovering new places. I suspect that part of me will always be straining to see what is just beyond the next horizon. Having said that, I wonder how often my longing for something new has simply been an attempt to validate a pattern of dissatisfaction that no new church or town or community will fix. What if, sometimes, cutting your lines and setting sail just means you are adrift?

When Cain murdered Abel, his punishment was that he would forever be a vagrant and a wanderer. From that time on he would have no home and no permanent community.  Genesis 4 v 13 tells us that Cain considered the punishment too much to bear.

When God called the nation of Israel to live as his people, he placed them in a specific piece of land. Its location was genius, making it a through route for much of the world’s trade traffic but one of the main weapons in the Israelite arsenal was their community life. By witnessing the way God’s people continued to live in relationship with each other, living intentionally according to the pattern God had given them, those looking on would see the heart of God.

My natural instinct is still to run away when things get hard or monotonous or overly ordinary but I’m learning that community at its best is a long-term plan.

I’m learning that deep community may be so slow to grow that we only get to do it once or twice in a lifetime. I’m learning that it’s a choice to be present in a certain space and time with a certain group of people, whatever that costs.  

It means continuing to bring yourself and your gifts to the table and offering them up for the sake of people who may not always understand what you are doing or why you are there. When others say or do the painful things, committing to community means choosing to stay and forgive when the voices in your head are screaming, “Pack up and move on.” If, like me, you have a tendency to say and do stupid things, sooner or later you are going to have to walk back into the room, look people in the eye and take responsibility for your own brokenness.

A friend of mine came to see me few months ago, after a difficult season in her personal life caused her to withdraw for a while from many of the people she knew. Truthfully, I was surprised to see her. Many of my memories of our conversations end with me kicking myself on the way home for the stupid things I said or the wise things I didn’t say. When I asked, she told me she came to me because I had been there for her for 20 years. The reality is that I had done very little to shape her life in any intentional or significant way.  When she said I had been there, she meant that I had literally, physically been present in her life for 20 years. It may be an obvious point but it struck me for the first time that to be in someone’s life for 20 years takes 20 years.

It turned out that while Glenn had been intentionally building community, I had been doing it almost by accident. While I was trying to fix Glenn’s devotion to the people he has spent his life with, that same community had been slowly teaching me how rare and beautiful it can be to commit your life to one particular patch of earth and the people who share it with you.

With the passing of two decades I have found myself living within the rhythms Glenn chose for us, unaware of the way the framework of my life has been shifting. In my own introverted, bumbling way I have become part of something richer than I have ever experienced before. I have no doubt that greater intentionality on my part could have made the experience richer still. I don’t have Glenn’s openness with people and my impact on our town doesn’t compare to his. Our church faces the same struggles with personality, politics, misunderstanding and brokenness that are common wherever you go. Left to my own devices, there have been many times when I would have given up in frustration. Honestly, it’s not uncommon for me to look around the place where my story has taken root and be overwhelmed in the same moment by a deep sense of belonging and an overwhelming desire to be somewhere else. However, with the passage of time and to my great surprise, I have found myself in a place where I know and am known. Where I least expected to find it, because love would not let me leave, I have fallen clumsily into a place I’m learning to call home.

 (This post was previously published on the Rabbit Room blog.)

The Sheer Face of Story (Why writers need an anchor)

(This article was originally posted at www.rabbitroom.com

Two years ago at Hutchmoot, Doug McKelvey and I did a session on the importance of both anchors and grappling hooks in the life of a writer. For me, the topic was born out of a growing desire to understand why certain stories, music or art have impacted me more deeply than others, in many cases fundamentally shaping my own view of the world and my place within it.

To some degree at least, this conscious questioning was sparked by a fascinating moment in C. S. Lewis’,  “Till We Have Faces”, his retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Psyche has told her sister Orual that she has become the wife of a god and, convinced that the gods are a sham and Psyche has been duped, Orual attempts to find her sister and convince her that the things she believes to be true are simply in her imagination. As she searches, Orual pauses and kneels at a river to drink, looking across at the empty space where Psyche claims there is a palace. Suddenly, through the mist, Orual can see it.

This is how Lewis puts it;

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“When I lifted my head and looked once more into the mist across the water, I saw that which brought my heart into my throat. There stood the palace, grey - as all things are grey in that hour and place – but solid and motionless, wall within wall, pillar and arch and architrave, acres of it, a labyrinthine beauty. As she had said, it was like no house ever seen in our land or age. Pinnacles and buttresses leaped up – no memories, you would think, could help me to imagine them – unbelievably tall and slender, pointed and prickly as if stone were shooting out into branch and flower……… Then as I rose (for all this time I was still kneeling where I had drunk), almost before I stood on my feet, the whole thing was vanished. There was a tiny space of time in which I thought I could see how some swirlings of the mist had looked, for the moment, like towers and walls. But very soon, no likeness at all. I was staring simply into fog, and my eyes smarting with it.”

For just a moment, Orual is given a glimpse into a world that has previously been hidden from her. A curtain has been pulled back and, for an instant, she can see things as they really are. While this unveiling is temporary it is enough to shake her understanding of the world and slowly begin the process of unravelling her unbelief.

As a writer, my longing is that the things I write would be used by God to create moments like this in others. That, even for a fleeting moment, a reader would catch a glimpse of something that begins to shake the foundations of their fear or doubt or unbelief. I know I am not alone in this. So much of the art and conversation around the Rabbit Room is charged with this desire to bring the true stories of the Kingdom to life, awakening or fanning into flame the longing that reminds us of our true home. The question is: how can we do that?

I think certain stories take hold of us because they contain within them glimpses of truth that resonates in the deepest parts of our soul. If this is the case, then surely to write them we must be intentionally in pursuit of and saturated in truth ourselves. In these weeks when so much attention has been focused on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it is perhaps timely to suggest that the anchor we need above anything else is the anchor of Scripture.

When I think of moments when heaven is unveiled and people are tasked with sharing the things they have seen, two occasions spring to mind. The first is in the book of Exodus, when God commissions the building of the Tabernacle. Gathering the people together, God charges them with creating the place he will inhabit. A place where God Most High can dwell amongst the bruised and broken pilgrims he has called his own. In Exodus 36 v 1 he gives them this charge; So Bezalel, Oholiab and every skilled person to whom the LORD has given skill and ability to know how to carry out all the work of constructing the sanctuary are to do the work just as the LORD has commanded.” 

To construct and maintain the Tabernacle would take a wide variety of skills, including some highly specific artistry. It is interesting that the Israelites were not told to create something and then bring it to the Tabernacle so that a place could be found for it. They weren’t asked to get together and decide what they thought a fitting house for God would look like. Instead, their task was to collectively use their gifts and talents to create a picture of something that already existed, allowing others to catch a glimpse of a world that was beyond their understanding. In order to do so they had to know and follow the pattern God laid down for them.

The second incident is in the book of Revelation. John, in exile for his faith on the island of Patmos, is given a glimpse of things so incredible he falls down as though dead. In Rev 1 v 19 God gives John this instruction, “Therefore, write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things.”

I’m not suggesting that our writings are comparable to John’s vision in Revelation, however his commission is an incredibly helpful template. As he begins to share what God has unveiled to him, John is asked to write 3 things: 

1.     What he has seen

2.     What is now

3.     What will take place later

1. What he has seen.

Whether it was the artists in the Tabernacle, John in Revelation or the countless others in between, the truth God’s people were called to share never originated with them. The diversity of gifts, personalities and art forms meant they told the story in a thousand different ways, yet their job was always to write, reflect or recreate the things that God had shown them. Similarly, if our desire is to write something that is real, we can only write out of the overflow of what God has revealed to us. If we haven’t seen it, we can’t share it, no matter how creatively gifted we are.

2. What is now.

What does it mean to write about what is now? It seems, on the face of it, to be a simple task. From Orual’s initial perspective ‘what is now’ was a misty space on a desolate piece of land beside a river. It turned out, however, that the reality was so much more. Her understanding of what was true was hemmed in by her limited vantage point.

In “Three Philosophies of Life”, Peter Kreeft argues that the best starting point for the gospel in our modern world is the book of Ecclesiastes. A work of literary genius, it explores what the world is like if what we can see in front of us, the world “under the sun”, is all there is. If only the tangible is true then, no matter how much it shimmers or how beautiful it appears, in the end it is all ultimately meaningless. However, when the curtain is drawn back and we see “beyond the sun”, even momentarily, it changes our perspective entirely.

If life under the sun is Orual kneeling at the cold river and seeing only empty mist on the other side, then to look beyond the sun is to catch a glimpse of the castle in all its towering glory, realising that what we understood to be real may not be real at all. Our vision is expanded and we are welcomed into the real story.

Jeremiah 33 v 3 says, “Call to me and I will teach you great and unsearchable things you do not know”. If the Bible is God’s call to see with new eyes then his invitation goes something like this;  “Come to me and immerse yourself in who I am. Allow me to captivate you as I reveal my heart through the stories of my people. Journey with me through the brokenness and longing of the prophets and poets. Walk with me as I take on flesh and teach you what this age-old story looks like in the light of the cross. Sit with me and I will draw back the curtain and show you things you wouldn’t dare to imagine. Let me show you what is really true.”

When we are saturated in Scripture, and the Story that is at the heart of it, we begin to understand that we are part of something bigger than what is happening around us on any given day. As the themes and plotlines of Scripture become part of who we are it changes the way we think.

3. What will take place later.

We are part of a Story that is moving towards a crescendo and, in a sense, the role of the artist is the role of the prophet, pointing forward with hope. However, the hope we hold out must be real.

I have written before about the experiences our family has had over the last few years, particularly with our daughter’s Type 1 Diabetes. I remember when she was first diagnosed, people would say things like, “It’s all going to be ok.” I knew they meant well and I appreciated their concern so I smiled and thanked them but what I really wanted to do was scream, “How is it going to be ok? Is it ok that my daughter has to deal with this every moment of every day? Is it ok that she faces a future filled with all kinds of frightening possibilities? Is it ok that I have to watch this and I can’t fix it, no matter how much I want to? NO! It’s not going to be ok!” Well meaning as they were, the hope they offered was a platitude, rooted simply in their desire to ease our pain.

I think the most helpful thing anyone said to me in those early days was a simple comment by Sam Smith at the end of a Rabbit Room article. He said, “May every stab of joy and every shroud of evil sharpen our longing for the True New World.” That is a different kind of comfort. Hope that is not afraid to acknowledge pain, yet has the capacity to look beyond it. It makes a difference to know that the things we face now are not forever. To lift our eyes and remember that what we see now is not all there is. To quote Sam again, “It is what it is but it is not what it shall be.”

I don’t think it is a coincidence that C. S. Lewis’ profound skill as a storyteller was mirrored by a deep commitment to Scripture. Throughout the Chronicles of Narnia there is a constant sense of the sweep of history. I will never forget the first time I read the stunning climax at the end of The Last Battle, sobbing aloud as the things that had always been true were finally revealed and began to bleed backwards into the story I thought I knew. While stories like this are, in a sense, fantasy, at their heart they are profoundly true. Perhaps, rather than being an escape from reality, they are in fact an escape into reality.

If the things we write or create are to offer hope and meaning then they must be rooted in truth. We need the anchor of Scripture, not only to bring meaning to what we create, but also to stop us losing sight of the tale we are telling. In the words of Lewis, “Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling." When we speak purely out of our own imaginations our words do little to penetrate the darkness, however hopeful they may seem. Only when we are anchored in what is true can we find the freedom to wrestle with life’s big questions without becoming despondent, to explore beauty without becoming hedonists and to enjoy the privilege of intimacy with God without losing sight of who He truly is.