Like one from a few weeks ago when Meg and I had dinner on Orcas Island, one of the San Juan Islands of the beautiful Pacific Northwest. We were there for the Kindlingsfest, a wonderful hope that has become incarnate over eight years, celebrating imagination, intellect, and faith among a remarkably diverse group of people from all over the U.S. and Canada.
Yes, there were poets and painters, singers and songwriters, novelists and playwrights, but there were teachers, psychologists, lawyers and physicians, and many from the marketplaces in cities small and large. In their own different ways they all came because of a longing for something more.
In a way that is uncommon for most of us, the fews days together were embedded within the central corridor of honest and historic faith, the “mere Christianity” of Richard Baxter and C.S. Lewis, where true belief passed on over the centuries through cultures and civilizations still has resonance— in fact is still compelling, for a kind of person whose longings are for something richer and older, deeper and truer, something ancient formed by our longest liturgies, and yet at the same time remarkably alive to the most contemporary questions of the church in the world of the 21st-century.
Because I have long lived in this corridor, choosing to indwell its beliefs and practices as best as I can through the glass darkly that is my life, this little community of faith, hope and love was a gift, coming together as we did for a few days in the surprisingly small world of an island set between Seattle and Vancouver— and I loved what I saw and heard.
The poets abounded that week, all day long. Our dinner was with one whose work we have treasured for many years, Luci Shaw, and her husband John Hoyte. I first met them in Oxford about 25 years ago. Newly married, they both had lost spouses to the heartache of cancer, and together had found a surprisingly new love. Now in their mid-80s, they are still eagerly learning and living, always yearning to know more fully, to love more completely, to live more truthfully. Still at her labor of love, through the week she presented poems for all of us. And being with John was a gift to me, running back across the years of my life. His entrepreneurial imagination at work in the Palo Alto of the 1960s made him one of those who laid the foundation for the “Silicon Valley” of the next generation. In my year of living in a commune there in the early 1970s I remember hearing of him, though we never met, and the stories were of a man of unusual integrity, always thoughtful, always visionary, caring about the most important things.
And joining us was a new friend, Leah Yin, whom we had met in Vancouver, BC, the previous weekend, and on a whim had said to her, “Why don’t you come with us to the Kindlingsfest? We think it is for you too.” And so she did.
As I listened in that evening around our table, as beautiful as it was in every visible way, I thought back on the harsh realities of history— with their grievous social, political, economic and cultural consequences —especially as they have played out in China over the past century. Luci’s grandfather was a physician serving in China in the last days of the Emperor, and she grew up hearing the stories of her grandparents’ life there, being formed in indelible ways by the history of their commitments, so far away from the world in which she grew up in the middle of America. A generation later, John was born in China to parents who were both physicians, and who were sent off to serve a hospital in a city far, far from their children. When the Japanese invaded China during World War II, John and his siblings were sent to the Shantung Compound, made famous a generation later in the remarkable book by Langdon Gilkey— and for those particularly attentive to the stories of this world, also the place where Eric Liddell died, the Olympic athlete whose story was told in “Chariots of Fire.” John spent his boyhood in this prison camp, living amidst an historic adventure as a boy can and will, and yet full of heartache too, missing his parents as a boy must and should. During the war years his family was broken apart by the geo-politics which raged across China, and his mother died; he never saw her again, the war’s end adding another tragic hurt to his young heart.
And Leah? She was born in China, living there through her early childhood before moving to North America with her parents, a story that is more than I can tell here. A very thoughtful woman, beautiful in every way that matters most, she spoke tenderly of the wounds of her life brought about by the utopian fantasies of the 20th-century made incarnate through the politically malignant imagination of Mao. That ideas have legs is always true; in the China of the last century that has been true with terrible consequences for the people and the polis. Listening to dear Leah, I heard no bitterness coursing through her heart, though I could not not hear the pain and sorrow.
Luci’s grandparents, and her always their granddaughter. John’s parents, and his own losses that are still losses 80 years later. Leah’s life, with the wounds of the world that have scarred her soul. And then my own stories of China became part of our evening too. Conversations with the leaders of the Tiananmen Square protest have made me a different person, hearing the stories of hope and sorrow from men and women who had suffered deeply, wondering what I thought, wondering if I had an answer to their questions. I see the world in ways that I wouldn’t, had those evenings and the subsequent trips to China not happened.
In our unique ways we have all lived within the history of one place and one people over 100 years. And strangely even if wonderfully, in our gathering around a table to break bread, we were keenly aware that the wrongs of this world, historically embodied as they are, are not the final story. Fate is not the last word. There is something more than karma.
Something more? In that we hope, simply said— and that was the heart of the raison d’être for the Kindlingsfest. For our days together we wrestled with this, everyone of us. In the face of horrific heartache, can we find honest joy? Can it be? What is the “something more” if not born of our longings, windows as they are into our deepest selves, our most foundational beliefs about anything and everything. What is it that we care most about? What is is that we want, more than anything else? And finally, is there any meaningful basis for that hope, for that longing? These were the questions of the Tiananmen leaders, and their moral seriousness profoundly affected me.
For the five of us at table that evening, with the painful wounds that have left their marks, we found in each other an honest joy born of our beliefs about God and the meaning of history, shared over an ordinary supper in an ordinary place. Not a grand moment, but a good moment; the best gifts are like that, always. Together we lingered over the joy of these ordinary graces, honest and true as they are in the face of so much that is wrong, so much that grieves God and those of us who try to see and hear as he does.
At the end of the day that is just about the best that it can be for any of us, longing for something more as we do, as we must.
This post was originally published on the Commons Blog from The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture.