Shaping a Fellowship

Exceptional experiences are powerful. But what do you do afterward?

A number of years ago, my husband and I attended a conference in Nashville. It was the first-ever in-the-flesh gathering of an online fellowship which had been formed to foster the ideal of artistic excellence—both created and celebrated—within the context of Christian community. We were accompanied by some of our best friends, a couple whom Philip and I not only love to travel with, but regard among our most trusted companions. Early in our marriage, we identified a cluster of people that we wanted, God-willing, to walk through life with; we called them our “always yes” friends, deciding ahead of time our default response to their needs, requests or invitations. In short, if they asked, the answer was “yes”, if it were at all humanly possible. And Luke and Laura were at the top of that list.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the weekend was life-altering. For three days we enjoyed excellent music, gourmet food, and penetrating conversation. We attended lectures on George MacDonald, Annie Dillard and Flannery O’Connor. We met some of our heroes, and we heard Walt Wangerin deliver a breathtaking address on the real work of an artist in a heartbroken and homesick world:

“We are shapers,” he told us, taken literally from the Old English word for artist. “We come upon the mess and apart from our own wisdom we make order of it.”

That concept was so luminous it lit a fire in my heart. I longed to make that kind of art, to create a world out of the raw materials I had at hand and invite others in to help make sense of their own worlds.

“Artists weave the world around those who have no world or personhood or name,” Walt told us, and, in a way, that’s what this weekend had done for me. In discovering this community, I’d found my people at last; putting solid faces and personalities and friendships behind words on a screen had altered not only my inner landscape, but my outer one, as well. My ambitions had received a thoroughly good scrubbing and my reading list had increased ten-fold. I was brimming with a desire to create, not merely words on paper, but a physical context within which all the holy ideals we’d been talking about could flourish, bloom, bear fruit.

In short, a great conversation had begun, and I didn’t want it end.

We actually didn’t see much of Luke and Laura over the weekend, each of us making a point to reach out to people we wouldn’t have met otherwise. However, as soon as we were back home Monday morning, Laura fired off one of her characteristically to-the-point emails.

“What do we do now?” she wanted to know.

It was the question I had been asking myself all morning, in the doldrums of post-trip laundry and letdown. I was already wistful over the lively fellowship we had left behind in Nashville, and the multitude of “what, you, too?” moments the weekend had entailed. I wish we had something like that in Atlanta, I thought, for the hundredth time, as I sorted and folded, making order of a house that had not seen my touch in four days.

But Laura would not be satisfied with wistfulness. As far as she was concerned, this experience demanded a response. And she wasn’t going to let me get off with a mere blog post or journal entry.

“Let’s have lunch,” she went on. “This week.”

Which was interpreted to mean she had an idea. That’s just Laura’s way—she’s not going to give up the goods in an email or phone call if she can help it. She wants you sitting across from her, preferably on a vine-shaded terrace or at a window table with a great view, where she can look you in the eye, assess the subtleties of your expression, think out loud.

My instincts proved accurate, for scarcely had we been seated at one of our favorite little French places, than she leaned forward and smiled a smile of the inspired.

“I think that we should start a couples’ book club,” she said. “To start discussing all of these things we talked about this weekend.”

It was a brilliant idea, almost a done deal the moment it was out of her mouth. Of course—what better way to carry forward the encouragement and inspiration we had received than to nourish it in our own sphere? What better way to enflesh the ideals we had been celebrating and the authors who articulated them, than to develop these ideals within the varying perspectives of trusted friends?

We spent the remainder of our lunch discussing logistics and outlining a basic infrastructure, but on the whole, our plan was quite simple. It needed to be regular (survival depended on this, first and foremost), and it had to be intimate enough for honest conversation. We wanted men and women with whom we agreed on the essentials of our shared faith, but whom we trusted enough to enter the fray over non-essentials. In short, we wanted to be challenged, sharpened. Refined.

Membership was capped at twelve, not out of exclusivity but pure practicality. There are plenty of opportunities in life for a come-one-come-all approach, but of necessity this was not one of them. In theory, each member could select a book for each month; in reality we’ve yet to read twelve books in a year. But there was an even greater incentive for limitation: Laura and I agreed unequivocally that we all had to fit around one table. Sharing a meal was requisite for the kind of community we were seeking to nurture, and if we got too big for one conversation, we were too big. (Few people, we realized, actually have a dining table larger enough for twelve, but anyone can tack on a card table “extender” and piano bench seating. And when a room is ringed with loved, candlelit faces, no one notices the furniture.)

Invitations were extended and warmly accepted, and the following month we held our inaugural meeting. It was a playfully uproarious meal to which each couple contributed; my house smelled so good and was so full of laughter and candlelight that one friend said it felt like Christmas. And when the club name was submitted for approval it was met with a general shout of enthusiasm: “The Notions” we called ourselves, as a nod to the Oxford Inklings, and its unfinished fictional counterpart by J.R.R. Tolkien. (It was also at that meeting, I think, that I received my club sobriquet, “Chuck”, for my very Charles Williams-ish tendencies towards the refilling of wine glasses and the steady supply of ale.)

When we retired to the den for coffee and formal discussion, I opened with some thoughts about the vision for this club and the motivation behind Laura’s idea. I told about Nashville and how inspired we were by all these artists and their works (as well as our own charge to create in the image of a Creator) but how the biggest takeaway was that we were not meant to do this alone. We were designed to take this artistic journey of life and faith and discovery in company of others.

From its very inception, The Notions had put me in mind of the book of Nehemiah, wherein the builders labored among the rubble of Jerusalem, rebuilding a wall with tools in one hand and weapons in the other. It was hard work, isolating work, and a good metaphor for the task of keeping and shaping culture in a world of decaying standards and crumbling absolutes.

“The work is extensive and spread out,” Nehemiah told his companions, “and we are widely separated from each other along the wall.”

So what did he do? He instituted a trumpet call that would summon everyone together, for refreshment, instructions, encouragement.

“That’s kind of what this is,” I said. “A monthly ‘sounding of the trumpet’ where we can get together and remind each other who we are, and what kinds of lives we want to lead.”

Appropriately enough, we had chosen T.S. Eliot’s “Choruses from ‘The Rock’” for our first reading, and the discussion went even better than Laura or I could have hoped. Everyone contributed stimulating thoughts, and there was even enough healthy disagreement to make things truly lively and real. Philip got up quietly and made more coffee and people stole in and out serving themselves, unwilling to disturb the conversation or to miss any of it themselves. We talked about what it really means to ‘build the Church:’ what impedes and what spurs us along. What our ‘small lights’ look like and why our art matters. There was never a lull, never a comment or a question that fell flat, but many a reading from the text, cross-references, and scrutiny against the standard of Scripture. The ultimate success of the evening can be summed up in the fact that it was well-past midnight before anyone dreamed it possible.

In the years since we’ve read dozens of books, poems, essays. We’ve gone en masse to local shows of artists we admire, and we’ve plotted weekend getaways for twelve. At Christmas we make our meeting a black tie affair, but all the rest of the year it’s easy and casual. Hospitality (as opposed to “entertaining”) is a guiding principle, and while table settings are created with the utmost care (and often subtly themed) dinner is potluck to make things light on the hostess. From the beginning soup has been our mainstay: with diets ranging from vegetarian to gluten-free to hardcore Paleo, soup is the most accommodating dish, lending itself to endless variety. But with a couple of soups, a big salad, bread, dessert, a few bottles of wine, and a regular date on the calendar, we’ve developed a no-fail recipe for intentional community.

Throw in a little Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Gerard Manly Hopkins or C.S. Lewis, and you’ve got yourself a feast. Not to mention a Fellowship.


Photo of Lanier Ivester by Lancia E. Smith, Used with permission.

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