We spent the first evening after our return from Hutchmoot UK trying to revive our garden. In the busyness of life, with daughters going in one direction and Glenn and I going another, we forgot to arrange for someone to take care of our plants. The hot, dry weather had done its work and the results were obvious the second we looked out the kitchen window.
The apple tree was brown, the flowers on the hydrangeas had lost their colour, the leaves on the cherry blossom were limp, the hanging basket was a tangled mass of ivy, and the sunflower we had nurtured as part of a youth group competition was slumped over in abject despair. We spent a few hours feeding, soaking and watering and went to bed frustrated and without a great deal of optimism. By the following afternoon the faded brown and yellow was already giving way to vibrant pinks and greens and our prize sunflower was quietly regaining its confidence. There was work still to do but I was glad of the reminder that life and beauty don’t give up as easily as I feared.
As a writer, the last couple of years have been less than productive and I headed to Oxford this year with limited enthusiasm and a considerable dose of insecurity.
We opened with Anne Porter’s poem “Music”, unapologetically stolen from Andrew Peterson’s welcome in Nashville several years ago. It talks about the power of music to open within us a homesickness for a half-forgotten country, drawing us ultimately to the one who “will always wait for us” and “wanders where we wander”. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that, for me, the rest of Hutchmoot was a progressive soaking in that sweet homesickness, gradually reviving things that had quietly wilted and begun to lose their colour.
Hutchmoot was a progressive soaking in that sweet homesickness, gradually reviving things that had quietly wilted and begun to lose their colour.Heidi Johnston
To be honest, it probably should have been a disaster. The last time we gathered in person was the summer before the pandemic and since then all our planning has been on zoom. The tension between preserving the beauty of Hutchmoot in Nashville and yet allowing this UK gathering to have its own accent can feel like walking a tightrope. Illness and travel problems meant we lost several volunteers at short notice. Then there was the moment on day one when unavoidable circumstances stripped us of our chef, only hours before the first meal.
Almost as soon as I walked into St. Andrew’s Church the familiar sense of hopeful anticipation settled around me like a favourite blanket I had mislaid for a while. Logistically I couldn’t be at as many sessions as I had hoped but it didn’t matter, in fact it served as a reminder that Hutchmoot is often about the people. Despite all that came their way, Mark Meynell’s incessant optimism and Jo Tinker’s unflappable, calm determination were something to behold. The way the team from Nashville integrated immediately with everyone from the UK felt like an incarnation of the heart of the Rabbit Room. As I stood outside the church and watched people arrive, many of whom had heroically come on their own, I heard so many stories that resonated with my own. On the first night I spent half an hour with a new friend getting progressively more excited about the beauty of the book of Deuteronomy. At Hutchmoot you never know where the conversation is going to take you next. In the wake of the last couple of years it felt so good to repeatedly have those “what, you too?” moments.
Sometimes the Rabbit Room shakes me out of my comfort zone and forces me to happily embrace something I may not naturally have been drawn to. That was true on Friday night. My background and personality type mean that, despite his obvious talent, Joshua Luke Smith’s music is not a genre I expected to gravitate towards. However, his authenticity and faith filled passion won me over. If there was anyone who wasn’t moved, I didn’t meet them. In a contrast that felt right at home at Hutchmoot, his gritty, honest storytelling was followed by British tenor, Joshua Ellicott, singing “When I survey the Wondrous Cross” in tones so rich and deep that they seemed to fill every crevice in the ornate roof and then seep back into the room like warm oil, soothing the very wounds Joshua Luke Smith had been gently prodding.
This year, more than I ever remember, there has been an undercurrent of grief and loss running through the lives of so many people I love. It’s not surprising that these themes also kept emerging at Hutchmoot. From the honesty of Michael Tinker and others at In the Round, to the showcase on Friday morning, to Andrew Roycroft’s wonderful session on poetry, there was no attempt to pretend that our hope is not punctuated with struggle and loss. I appreciated that. Beauty is not really beauty if it is not also true.
He gives us space and creativity to turn our own struggles into portals of light and hope for others.Heidi Johnston
The God who “wanders where we wander” knows the reality of pain and, in his boundless grace, he gives us space and creativity to turn our own struggles into portals of light and hope for others. I witnessed that so many times over the course of the weekend. Through all of it – the music, the fellowship, the art, the food, the laughter, and the friendship – there was “shining at the heart of it” a palpable sense of the presence of the God who is both the giver of all these good gifts and the one who sustains us when we find ourselves walking in the shadows.
It would be easy to expect a weekend at Hutchmoot to make you unsettled as you head back home. For me, that has never been the case. It is no secret that the people who are drawn to the work of the Rabbit Room are often those whose faith is both expressed and enriched by their interest in creativity and the arts, and that this can sometimes create a certain feeling of disconnectedness in our church communities. I have been part of my home church for over two decades. These are people who have walked with us as we raised our girls, sat with us in grief and laughed with us at our kitchen table. I love them deeply and yet, like so many I have spoken to at Hutchmoot, there is a part of me that I can’t express in my own church as fully as I would like.
The beauty of the Rabbit Room is that it provides a place where that deep longing is shared and fed, freeing me to embrace my home community without resentment, even finding new ways to creatively enhance the life of a church that doesn’t always realise how much it needs the arts. In Andrew Peterson’s keynote on Saturday night, he said something that struck me deeply; “The waves of the new creation sometimes lap up on the shores of this one. When that happens, tell about it.” I commented later that Hutchmoot UK felt like a tsunami. In the wake of all this goodness, the challenge now is to use the unique voice God has given me, in the community where he has placed me, trusting that it will water the dry ground and awaken in someone else a longing for our true “half-forgotten country.”
Heidi Johnston is the author of Life in the Big Story and Choosing Love in a Broken World. She studied law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and now lives back home in Northern Ireland with her husband and two daughters. Heidi is passionate about getting people to engage with the Bible for themselves and has a fascination with the book of Deuteronomy.