As I write this, Taya and I are on our flight home from Hutchmoot 2010, set to arrive just in time for our twin boy’s birthday party. The Hutchmoot was delightful!
We feel so privileged and grateful to have been a part of it and for all the people who came from all over the country to participate in the weekend. Our only regret is our exhaustion that made it difficult for us to be as present as we would like to have been (this weekend was the last stretch of a marathon summer schedule, and Taya and I remarked that we can’t remember a time when we felt more exhausted than this week). I wish I could have given more of myself, and for all of those I wish I could have been more present for, I do apologize. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. (Taya just said to me, “I’m afraid I may have disappointed just about everyone at the Hutchmoot. I was just too tired to have a conversation with anybody.”)
But in spite of that we met some wonderful people and enjoyed our conversations, though too brief.
In preparation for the Hutchmoot, I kept trying to think of what we were aiming for. What were we gathering around? The Rabbit Room is such a varied place it was hard to say–were we gathering around the arts? Books? Music? Storytelling? Cultural commentary? Jesus? Yes on all counts, I’m sure, but as we gathered to pray for the weekend on Friday, the larger answer began to emerge for me. I think for all of our talk about music, stories, and whatever else it is that Rabbit Roomers are inclined to talk about, we were gathering around Christ centered, story focused community.
Maybe that was clear to everyone else all along, but I’m often late to the party on these kinds of things. During the song-writing session, when someone asked about how to replicate the kind of community that they perceived we on the panel shared, it was nearly all I could do to swallow the lump in my throat. I recognized the longing in that question, the longing to belong, to have friendships that bring you life, that remind you of who you are, of who God created you to be, that invite you to set aside your masks and be known.
I had given up on this long ago, having failed to find it time and time again, experiencing disappointment and often hurt every time I entrusted myself to another person in my continuing misadventures in seeking community. And yet here I was.
It occurred to me to think of how the bond we shared as the people on that panel looks different to me now on the inside than it used to on the outside. Less the romantic idealization I might have made of it at one time, and yet all the richer for that, I think. At one time I sat on the outside looking at these very people I was now on stage with, wishing I could have what it seemed like they had. And then somehow, over time, without hoping or asking for it, one day I found myself there on the stage with them, talking about our shared passions at a thing called a Hutchmoot: Randall Goodgame seated on my right, singing his new Christmas camel song in my ear moments before the panel started because it was bursting to come out of him and he just couldn’t keep it to himself; Andy Gullahorn seated on my left, conspiring with me to whisper sophomoric color commentary to each other while other panel members addressed the audience; my good friend Andrew Peterson at the end of the table asking me to share a story of a moment we shared together in an art museum. He cried when he greeted Taya and me upon our arrival on Friday, which was perhaps the greatest gift of the weekend for me.
“What am I doing up here?” I’m thinking to myself, counting my lucky stars. “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places,” the psalmist says. Yes, yes. Amen.
How did I get there? I’m certainly convinced that it’s not because of my credentials. I have to resist the fear of being discovered as an imposter most of the time when I’m with these people. I’m delighted to discover that most (if not all) of them feel the same way. It’s good to feel lucky, to feel blessed.
Russ Ramsey, one of the rabbit room community members of the pastoral variety (I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d like to see a preach-off between him and Thomas McKenzie, followed by a one-minute review assessment of how it went) invited us to his church that Sunday morning, and he shared a sermon about community, with communion that we the congregants served each other afterwards.
It was Taya who called my attention to the personal significance of this moment. We were seated with friends from the Hutchmoot that consisted of Elsa, a friend from Minnesota who has known our family for 13 years; Breann, who we met on tour a couple years ago and has become a friend; and Evie and Whit, friends who represent the artistic community we have in Nashville. The different communities of our home, our ministry, and our passion all converged as we walked to the front, knelt down, and shared the body and blood of Christ, broken for us.
What does it mean? I’m tempted to try and extract some applicable take-away from the moment, but am grateful to find that I’m unable to reduce it that way. It is blessedly enough to say the moment was pregnant with ineffable meaning. It was a grace.
The text Russ preached on was the closing verses of Colossians, a passage dealing with greetings and personal instructions for the community of believers in Colossi. A seemingly irrelevant portion of scripture came alive that morning as Russ helped us see the beauty of it, which of course is the fact that it reveals that theirs wasn’t a romantic idealization of community, but instead a messy, organic, community rich with conflict and humanity.
One by one Russ went through the names Paul lists at the closing of this epistle: Tychicus, Epaphrus, Demas, Mark, Luke…names that remind us that the holy scriptures were human documents first, letters lovingly written to friends, not unlike the way I write to you now. By asking us to pay attention to these names Russ showed us how they help us see what it means to be in community with others.
What Paul writes at the end of Colossians 4 reminds us that these letters were written to real people with names like we have names, histories like we have histories, and who loved each other as much as they failed each other. There’s Philemon whose house is where the fledgling church gathered to meet, Russ told us. Some time before, his slave Onesimus had stolen from him and hightailed it to the big city. While on the lam, Onesimus ran into Paul, became a follower of Christ, and now Paul has sent him back to his master with two letters in hand: one for the church, and one especially for Philemon himself, appealing to him to forgive Onesimus, “who has become like a son to me,” Paul says, and to receive him no longer as a slave, but as a brother in the Lord.
Russ imagined for us the awkward moment: the knock on the door of the church at Colossi, the door of Philemon’s house, and who would have answered the door but perhaps Philemon himself (with no one else to answer the door since his servant ran off, Taya suggests)? And who is standing there with two letters in his hands but the wayward Onesimus? And all of a sudden this brief book of the Holy Bible becomes earthy, taking on flesh, becoming part of the larger story of the human drama of betrayal and forgiveness. As my friend Eric Peters said in our session together, this human context takes the text “off the mantel and brings it down to earth.”
And then there are the names that represent their relationship to Paul–messy relationships that tell the tale of the joys and heartbreak of entrusting your heart to others in community. As much as I am tempted right now to recite the major insights of Russ’s sermon for you so you might partake of the richness of the image of community that he painted for us, I know this post is too long as it is. Perhaps we could entice Russ himself to share these thoughts with us in the form of a post? Russ, what do you say? Are you out there?
The point, to me anyway, is that community is messy and wrought with human drama: betrayal, joy, disappointment, and forgiveness. Real community will never be the romantic idealization that I’d like to make of it. In other words, it’s not for sissies. Few could blame you for saying to hell with the whole affair and holing up in a shack in Montana. It’s all too risky, with too much potential for pain and disappointment.
And yet we long for it, all of us, because we were created for it: a place to belong, a people to belong to, a chance to be named at the end of somebody’s epistle, for good or ill.
And that’s why we gathered at the Hutchmoot, I think. Sure, it’s fun to talk books, music, and listen to the brothers Peterson make nerdy Tolkien references every chance they can. But I suspect that it’s for the longing of a place to belong that we all gathered, myself included.
To the question that the man asked the song panel regarding finding community, I never felt like we offered a, well, satisfying answer. But Andy Osenga came closest I think when he said that it was all about keeping our hearts open to the kind of community that might present itself to us. Maybe it’s people in our church or down our street–we just have to try to hang out with them and see what happens. It’s an ambiguous and unsatisfying answer, but the truth often feels that way. At least at first blush.
Keeping your heart open to the community that presents itself to you. Maybe that means that beggars can’t be choosy, and who among us doesn’t feel like a poor beggar in this regard? Maybe part of it means that we need to do the hard work of valuing those currently around us that the Lord has already presented instead of wishing for more “suitable” candidates. Maybe it means making the best of a messy, less than ideal situation. You know, like Paul had to, and Philemon, and even Jesus.
“On the night he was betrayed,” Russ began as he introduced communion–those familiar words from the holy text–“Jesus took the bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’”
And then all of a sudden, there they were: the lump in the throat, the tears gathering at the corners of my eyes–those blessed signposts that alert me to pay attention, because something holy is asking to be recognized.
And then I saw him, Jesus, there in the upper room giving to his disciples, and to all disciples ever after, the communion table–the greatest symbol of community in all of human history–a place to come, gather, and share in common our need for the body and blood broken and given for us. Not just for me, but for us, the community–ourselves broken and bloodied, if by nothing else than by the hands of others in the community who have betrayed us or broken our hearts.
And when did Jesus do this? On the night he was betrayed. There he is, knowing full well Judas was soon to betray him to a grisly execution and that within hours these his friends would all abandon him. Yet he holds nothing back in self preservation, giving his feckless friends then and since the grace of community–the means to come, gather, and share our humanity in common: the gift of a meal together. Come. Take. Eat. Drink. It is at once the holiest and most human of moments.
It is an act of superhuman generosity on Jesus’ part. I couldn’t have, wouldn’t have done it. Jaded, bitter, hurt, I would have withheld community, passive aggressively punishing them for how I knew they were going to break my heart. I know this because this is what I always do. This is my broken way of circling the wagons and protecting myself. But to keep my heart open to the community that presents itself–imperfect and messy as that might be–is at least part of what it means to have community, isn’t it.
“His body broken for you” we said to each other as we knelt and served communion to each other. But it must have been His heart that was broken first. And so it was with a broken heart that Jesus showed us how to make community with each other.
I think now of all my failed attempts at community, the loneliness over the years of feeling misunderstood by those around me, how it made me circumspect and inward, how at times I even rejected the community that presented itself to me for fear of being rejected.
I wrote a chorus recently that challenges me to “bring my heart / to every day / and run the risk of loving completely without running away…”
I think this is what community–wherever we may find it–requires of us. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said as he presented himself to the community that was present to him.
Understanding that this is part of the daunting task of being in community makes the ease by which we all gathered together and enjoyed each other’s company at the Hutchmoot an even richer delight, don’t you think?
Hutchmoot 2011 anyone?
Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".