My grandmother had a working song
Hummed it low all day long
Sing for the beauty that’s to be found
Setting up the pins and knocking ‘em down
– Sara Groves
Il pleut des cordes.
– French expression
My wife and my father both lost their jobs in one summer weekend. To be succinct, they’re both good workers, but circumstances were not fair. The difficulty has brought us closer as a family. At the bedrock of our faith, we all found—and are finding—the Lord to be faithful. The mother does not forget the child at her breast. How much less can the Lord forget his own? It is our firm foundation. Bedrock is never comfortable, though. Jacob had a stone for a pillow, and it kept him up half the night with holy visions.
This summer, my wife and I packed our three girls in the van and trekked from Tennessee to Wisconsin, an endeavor of arguable sanity. I was excited and honored to play Escape to the Lake, a festival on Lake Geneva. Our kids were excited for the adventure. My wife was excited for the rare gem of a family vacation. The Wisconsin we had heard of was a land of cheese. In fact, we had only heard of the cheese. People at football games wore cheese-hats. Natives ate—or could at least define—cheese curds. Also, the whole state was supposed to be made of cheese, with crème fraiche running through the aquifers. As people with taste buds, nothing sounded better to us.
The road to this mythical land played out like a good fantasy novel. Beyond Cincinnati, the sky caved in with rain. It fell in great buckets, like an ocean sloshed out of the clouds. The windshield turned an impenetrable gray, and a mad percussion beat on the van. Our smallest child screamed with fear. Then the fury subsided, and Indianapolis treated us to miles of sunset. Light poured sideways through curtains of spinning mist, and for a moment, churches, schools, banks, stores, streetlights, and all the most banal architecture knew what it was to stand in the wake of glory. Bathed in the golden glow, not even utilitarian suburbs could shake the notion that they were shadows of a mighty kingdom. Then in the dark of night, we drove through what seemed great wastes, where a thousand giant windmills blinked their red sentinel eyes as one. I could see Quixote in my mind, with his hand on his lance, swallowing the lump in his throat. The morrow saw us to Wisconsin, which, as it turns out, is made not of cheese but farmland—beautiful rolling farmland, as far as the eye can see. It even included a sign for skiing—on a mountain, no less.
Escape to the Lake was in its second year, which humbled me greatly. That someone should consider my work beautiful or edifying enough to put before people in the early stages of anything was an honor not lost on me. Kat and I donned yellow wristbands that differentiated us from staff, in green, and ticketholders, in orange. Having never strictly played a festival, I wondered how this caste system would operate. Would we have to pretend to have our act together as parents, given that I was a supposed bringer of this dubiously-titled Christian music? Would there be any crossover, all of us having been thus marked? There we all were, squished together on the spectrum between blood red and sky blue. Something interesting was bound to happen—and did.
Still they were beautiful, everyone’s beautiful,
All of us crawling on our hands and knees in need of You.
Slowly, the lines blurred. Those of us who occupied the stages did so, giving gifts to listeners. Those who peopled the audience did so, giving gifts to the players. Those who manned tables, washed dishes, cooked meals, took out trash, gave directions, played with green frog-puppets, smiled and blessed even while exhausted—they did so, giving gifts to everybody. Green, yellow, and orange blended together, moving ever closer to white light.
I found myself sitting around fires and in balconies with wonderful people I had just met, feeling more like a summer camper than a worker, and yet feeling the continued responsibility to bring beauty to others—something I hope I never lay down. I found my children and their dietary limitations known to people who cared enough to make sure we had what we needed. I found a captain who, though he could read the water like a good novel, put the tiller in my unschooled hands and gave my heart to the wind. It all felt like church, played out in color and rhymes.
Then, of course, there was music. My family had the two job losses under our belts, and my work for a venue back home was continually disheartening. With bands coming through promoting their latest records, bringing their crowds, continually relying on me and my team to make them look amazing in the weeks before the shows, I felt like I was eating a constant stream of other peoples’ success. As I struggled with money and with giving my new songs a home, I often felt bitter while watching other artists. I saw them through skewed glasses—all smooth sailing, all rum and coconuts—while I limped along in my leaky skiff. The current surroundings offered me no such rubbish.
Not only did we all mix together, with differences but without borders, we both offered and were surrounded by beauty in extravagance. I had wrestled with the idea of the function of beauty in the Kingdom, praying over it, wondering if I should continue. The bright spit of land on which we sat swam in beauty, and all at the festival gave it freely, as though they somehow believed that the God of all the universe had never made two raindrops alike—ever. Such prodigality baffles the senses, tossing Sabbaths into my blasphemous pragmatism. Here was the response—I won’t say answer—to my prayers. We have seen 1% of 1% of creation. The rest was for God’s joy alone. I don’t have some noble truth to highlight, but I do know that beauty doesn’t have to bow before the gods of practicality.
In the midst of our toil and the liminal space of our lives, we were each given both the gift and the gift of a chance to give. The title of the thing lent perspective. We had not escaped from something, but to something. We had arrived at the truth of things, not left it. My wife, who has often struggled with being social, said it best:
“We need to come back here.”
I will hold the Christ-light for you,
In the nighttime of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you,
Speak the peace you long to hear.
– The Servant Song, Richard Gillard