One of my favorite stories about two of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, tells how they both found themselves frustrated at the difficulty of finding the kinds of books they liked to read best. After commiserating a bit, they decided that if no one would write these books for them, they’d just write those books themselves!
I loved hearing Lewis scholar Diana Glyer tell this story in her book Bandersnatch. It turns out that, after deciding to create the art they longed for, Lewis and Tolkien gave each other a writing challenge: Lewis would write a story about space travel and Tolkien would write a story about time travel. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy was born from this very conversation! Tolkien toyed with an Atlantean time-travel story, but ended up weaving the themes into his expansive Middle-Earth histories.
Something about their story flipped a switch inside of me.
It was like I had been waiting all my life for someone else to make for me the things I felt called to make. I needed a kind of permission.
I needed a little kick in the pants from a couple of Oxford Dons who had, like me, discovered that maybe, just maybe, they could try their hand at bringing the kinds of stories they loved out of their imaginations and into the world.
Every time I hear that story told, it reminds me that God has given each of us a very real invitation to manifest his goodness, truth, and beauty in this world. When we pray “May your will be done, may your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” we are implicating ourselves. You can’t pray the Lord’s prayer and not get yourself all tangled up in the life of the Trinity. You can’t pray it and not get involved.
Tolkien and Lewis got involved. At first, because they were frustrated that they didn’t see some particular thing in the world that they wished was there. In hindsight, we see how these two friends helped each other discover and creatively manifest their gifts, starting from the soil of their ordinary lives and branching up into all kinds of imaginative works that bless us to this day.
Again, Diana Glyer says, “Creative inspiration has a kind of magic to it, but it’s a magic that tends to work itself out in surprisingly ordinary, everyday kinds of ways.”
Cofferstowe is a weekend to meet with the Lord.
Gradually, over the years, I’ve whittled some thoughts down to a simple, personal mission statement. It’s three parts: Make things that make room for people to meet Jesus.
We make “things” that become “places”, like little habitats, habitats that nourish the possibility of real contact between people. A “thing” could be a meal, a conversation, a poem or song, a garden, even a simple kind look in the eyes or the tone of one’s voice. It could be a book about Hobbits or a tale about Aslan.
I started writing this to tell you what a Cofferstowe is… well, it’s just a thing some friends and I are making. It’s a weekend retreat. It’s a place where I hope you will know there’s room for you to come rest among friends. And while you’re here, I hope you’ll find much much more than just more information.
Because beauty mediates something less like information and more like Presence.
And Presence doesn’t primarily inform; it transforms. When real Beauty happens to us, we know Someone Beautiful is in this story, this cosmos, with us – and everything changes. We may discover that we are being made beautiful too.
At Cofferstowe, then, I hope you’ll make real contact, that you will meet and be met by Jesus, and be surrounded by his family members too. That you will find your place in the Story God is telling. When you leave, I pray you’ll go make things that make room for people to meet Jesus. I pray you’ll know, like Tolkien and Lewis, that you have been given gifts, imagination, and calling to creatively manifest God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.” Yes, you – Lewis and Tolkien were college professors in a small town. Tolkien had four kids and a wife. These were gifted, yes, but ordinary people who got involved in the Life of an inexhaustibly extraordinary God.
It is this God who invites us, in a word Tolkien coined, to be “sub-creators”. The capital “C” Creator has made us to be joined to him and to join him in his everlasting work of ongoing creation. And there are at least as many ways to do that as there are people and gifts. And the call doesn’t begin over there or out there in someplace after we’ve achieved something impressive, as if now that we’ve climbed up the mountain we can start climbing mountains. No. As the poet Malcolm Guite says, “begin the song exactly where you are.” Tolkien began “The Hobbit” at his children’s bedside in his mid-forties.
Cofferstowe is a weekend to remember the Story.
This call to create is a call to keep hope against all hope that life matters and is worth deep affirmation, celebration, and investment where the temptation to despair is common and very real. God’s call to imagine and shape his kind of life in this world feels foolish and wasteful; it goes against the postmodern story that tells us that there really is no story.
To love, to live, working to imagine, create, and tend beautiful, good things in this world is an act of faith and obedience. It is a testimony against the apathy and exhaustion of despair. We are called to shape, alongside our Creator, in an endless array of manifestations, a Vision to capture the unconsoled imagination of our age (outside and inside the church doors).
Eugene Peterson says, “Language… reveals… we don’t know more, we become more. Our best users of language, poets and lovers and children and saints, use words to make – make intimacies, make character, make beauty, make goodness, make truth.”
What Peterson says about language could be said about every choice we make, because every choice we make is a chance to make manifest in this world God’s Reality, God’s Word. Isn’t that the heart of the Gospel? That “The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.” Each of us, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is involved in repeating that lovely refrain which always ends with Emmanuel: God and all he has made, has lost, and all he has died and risen to redeem are together again. In a world that has lost its story; that is tale worth repeating.
Cofferstowe is a weekend to rest and listen to God.
The arts naturally require stillness and attentiveness to realities beyond the harried surface of the workaday world – realities that whisper the promises of God to those who’ll hear them. When we nourish the arts, we nourish and protect a whole range of ways to remain attentive to those promises as well as creatively make them available to others. But every artist is just a reporter, who, unlike the journalist who reports on sad exceptions to the ordinary, reports on how exceptional ordinary things really are!
But in order to report, we must investigate. We must look long and patiently, which is to say bravely, at the face of God. Why bravely? Because the whole world is haunted by the ancient lie in Eden that God is not so good as we had been led to believe. So, we do everything we can to avoid meeting his gaze, so sure that the look on his face will leave us in utter despair and shame. We dream of being loved, and are sure of being rejected. So instead, we frantically, restlessly distract ourselves, looking everywhere but his face.
Yet… when we do dare turn to behold the face of God, we find ourselves to be held in love. Surprise! He has not hidden the light of his face from us! We are, in fact, his Beloved. And, as the title of Josef Pieper’s little book, “Only the Lover sings” points out – only the one who dares to look will ever discover their belovedness and thus discover they simply must sing about it! They must sing because they now know that life, even with all of its real horrors considered, is better than they ever could’ve hoped. That is the love song the Scriptures sing over us.
And that Face, naming us Beloved, is the living water that nourishes and constitutes our call as sub-creators. The command might go something like this, “Hear my love song over you and having heard it: sing! Sing with every word, movement, brush-stroke, recipe, joke, hammer-strike, broom-sweep – every visit, tender look, diaper-change, tear, sleepless prayer, and story told. Go and make touchable, smellable, seeable, hearable, and tastable the glorious life of the Holy Trinity on this earth. Go dream, imagine, proclaim, and make his mercy manifest.”
So what IS a Cofferstowe? Well, to really find out, the best thing I can say is what Jesus said to a couple of disciples when they asked to see where He was abiding… He said, “Come and see.”
The featured image is by Matthew Clark. It is of the road that leads to the Arrupe Retreat House & to Cofferstowe.
Matthew Clark is a singer, songwriter, and storyteller from Mississippi where he lives with his brother Sam, a ceramic artist. Each Fall he sets out in his homemade tiny-house-on-wheels named Vandalf the White to play concerts in churches and homes all over the country. Matthew is a lover of words, music, coffee, and conversations. Currently (and slowly) he is studying the interlacing of Theology and the Imagination at Fuller Seminary, while writing new songs for his next recording project. Matthew has several albums available at his website (www.matthewclark.net), including a Bible walk-through sequence called “Bright Came the World from His Mouth”, and a collection of songs celebrating God’s presence in the ordinary called “Beautiful Secret Life”.