When “Worship Service” looks like a Festival

Worship Service: Synonym for church service.

Welcome: We leave for the Festival of Faith and Writing at five in the morning, coffee, coffee, coffee as we slip through pre-rush-hour Chicago and into Michigan farmland and sunrise. We talk the whole way there, even when it’s much too early for that.

The last time I came to this conference was 2006. I was fresh from that year in China, taking my first MFA class, wading back into my own writer’s soul. Since then, I have accumulated: two babies, a deep wrinkle between my eyebrows, a diploma, this blog, stretch marks, and a sheaf of papers that I call a manuscript.

When we pull up to campus, everything looks exactly as I remember it: sun-dappled and lovely, tulips tall in the soil. The girls in the green Festival t-shirts look young to me as they hand me my name tag and the thick conference schedule. Welcome, they say in their sweet, college-girl voices, and it begins.

Call to Worship: It’s okay, here, if your way to God involves a pen, paper, poetry. If someone is sitting in a sunbeam with her notebook, she is left graciously alone.

The language, the poetry, the tables of books, the quiet writers filing off toward various sessions: it’s a holy landscape, God-soaked ground. We leave each other alone to take our shoes off, to kneel, to write.

Greet Your Neighbor: I begin to see them everywhere: my people. The ones who write in this pocket of the internet about their own faith in ways that speak to my soul.

First: Ed and Steph sitting on the edge of the fireplace; then, one by one, the others. Kristin and Suzannah. Dave at the Antler booth, who is tall and excited and looks like Seth Rogan. Micha, who shows up unexpectedly in the women’s bathroom: an awkward place for that first can’t-believe-I-get-to-meet-you hug.

They look like I imagined them, and also not like I imagined them. Height, for example, cannot be communicated through Twitter avatars, and neither can the beautiful complexity of a face. You can capture many things in a picture, but not recognition. Not love. Slowly online friendships are incarnated: face-to-face, hand-to-hand.

Sermon: The list of speakers is compelling, each session written in a way that makes you feel it might be essential for your soul. You make impossible choices between good and good and great.

They are speaking about a number of things, but at the heart of it, they are all speaking about that deep, mysterious place where faith and writing intersection. They are throwing the whole complex writing process into the stark relief of God’s beauty, and we are bent over our notebooks, scribbling it down as fast as they can say it.

Their voices are distinct and wonderful. The poet farmer with the bestselling book. The old skinny guy with the long, silver ponytail. That social justice spokesman with his homemade clothing and his waist-length dreadlocks. Poets and memoirists and everyone in between, and there is a place at the table for all of us.

And the women! They are beautiful, smart. They say things like, Good News requires a new language. (Ann Voskamp) They say things like, Learn to hear the call of the moment. (Marilyn McEntyre) No one questions their right to speak, to teach men and women together. We are instead at the edge of our seats, waiting, pens poised for what they’ll say next.

Communion: There are tables at restaurants all overGrand Rapids, and we sit around them. Over wine and root chips, I get to know my blogging friends. They ask, “What are you working on?” They ask, “How can we support you?”

I talk with strangers about art and excellence in the loud upstairs of a noisy bar; there’s a quiet morning cup of coffee with a beautiful new friend in a coffee shop. They are my people, my tribe. I speak my heart aloud, and they understand.

We are passing the flatbread pizza from one to another. The fireplace throws warmth and light over us, and outside the rain falls, and I am happy down to the very bottom of my soul.

Response: The man at the literary magazine booth has a poem—a song—both…he can’t decide, but he knows it’s from God. He fingers the glossy covers of the books as he says it.

I am wandering this room also because of my book, my manuscript. I am trying to be brave, handing out business cards, trying to say with confidence the things I don’t truly believe about myself.

We are a thousand different writers. We hear the voice of God and we respond to it on a million pieces of paper. It is its own kind of worship to create your very best thing and then throw it out in faith again and again. It shatters, you remake it. You are rejected, you get up again.

And in all this breaking and breaking and breaking, hopefully you come away with something like beauty, art, offering.

Benediction: We leave the Festival at three in the afternoon so that she can catch her flight. We talk. We are silent. We talk. We are silent. We are processing, full to the brim.

The quiet fields disappear into city, and we merge quietly into life.

42 thoughts on “When “Worship Service” looks like a Festival

  1. Thanks for sharing this! I love the structure of framing the festival as a time of worship – it certainly fulfilled that purpose for me as well.

    1. Thanks, Renee! Yes, some of the most compelling worship experiences for me are the ones that I didn’t see coming.

    1. Festival 2014, friend! BE THERE. 🙂 (Seriously though, I would have loved to have had you there. There are so many other brilliant and beautiful people that write out here that I would have loved to meet in person, and you are, of course, one of them.)

  2. Thanks for sharing this sacred recounting of time together. It was such a joy to meet you. I’m working on my recounting, but it may take a little time.

    Driving home, I just sat in the care for about 3 hours in complete silence. My brain really needed that time just to process, to pray, and to say thank you.

    1. So great to meet you too, Ed. I am still trying to piece together enough silence to process everything. That jump back to “real life” was a tough one this time around…so much noisier with those sweet little ones of mine.

    1. Thank you, Micha. So grateful to have had a chance to have had a real-life cup of coffee with you.

  3. Oh, dear. I have had a no-good, awful, crummy day; your post gave me hope. I didn’t think it was possible. Sounds melodramatic (and likely is, a bit — just ma nature) – but your pleasant scenes left me feeling more grounded.

    Love the concept of returning to one’s roots…mostly, this is why I tear up during worship at church. Like: “Oh, so GLAD you STILL love me.” Thank you for sharing.

  4. Love love love this. I think you captured it perfectly. FFW filled me in a way I didn’t even know I needed filling–the way a good sermon does. Glad to experiece that in community, at once familiar but also new.

    1. Agreed. Thanks for doing the whole thing with me. So glad I got to do it with you!

  5. “We lift our hearts to the Lord.” Sometimes other people lift them for us. Thanks friend.

  6. This is gorgeous, Addie. Incarnational is exactly the term I was (and may) use to describe the experience…a whole group of people coming together who love words and love to see the most beautiful ones made flesh? What better place to be.

    Loved meeting you and treasure what you’re doing here.

    1. Thanks John. Yes, anyone can attend the conference, but the rotten thing is it only happens every two years. So the next one will be in 2014. Here’s the website: http://festival.calvin.edu/

      What I love about this particular conference is the openness of it. Those of other faiths are invited to come as well and speak about how they integrate their own spirituality into their work. It’s an open and beautiful forum for real dialogue and a wonderful place to connect with people who value art and hold the tension of beauty and Truth. I will go back as often as I can!

  7. What a wonderful recap. I am still trying to process the weekend, which is even harder once you’ve returned full-force into real life. This year’s was my first festival, and what a blessing it was!

    1. Thanks, Ashley. I agree about the processing part–I’m still working through it in tiny little pieces when the kids allow. So glad you had the chance to be there too. 🙂

  8. AND it’s in Grand Rapids, which absolutely enchanted me when I visited a few years ago. Thanks for the info, Addie. I just signed up for the newsletter.

  9. I have FINALLY caught up enough to read this perfect post. Yes, perfect. It paints a picture of what happened, but also what is *happening,* on both the concrete and abstract levels. I’m so glad we were able to worship together in this beautiful, life-giving way.

    1. Thanks Kristin! “Perfect.” Wow. That is quite the word. 🙂 So glad that I got the chance to spend some real-life time with you there.

  10. A week later [only a week later? it feels like a month….], I loved reading your reflections. They resonated perfectly with my experience of FFW. It was so wonderful to join with other people who shared quirks and gestures and behaviors. Just walking to sessions, I felt understood. Thanks for putting this into words and sharing it!

  11. FINALLY getting caught up on posts and loved reading this. Loved meeting you, too, over the wine and root chips 🙂

  12. Addie, you’re an amazing writer!! You’ve inspired me to dive into my own writing. I have a blog that I rarely keep up with and two NaNoWriMo novels that are first drafts collecting digital dust on my hard drive. I think it’s time to start editing one of those… editing to the glory of God. I never thought of my own writing as something that could be inspired of God and something that touches hearts the way your writing has touched mine.

    1. Thanks so much for this unbelievably kind comment, Aaron. I’m so glad that you’re feeling inspired. Yes! Keep writing!

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