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Intersecting Lines

I imagined something once as a kid, and have pondered it every so often since. What I first imagined was a map on which all the travels I ever made in my life would be recorded. On the same map, all the movements of everyone I knew, had known, or ever would know, would also be recorded.

This mystic map must also have some way of delineating time, such that one could see in those shifting paths of life how near one had sometimes unwittingly been to others—even decades before meeting them, even decades after the last goodbye.

I was fascinated, for instance, with the notion that my Jr. High friend Chip Parker and I could one day as adults drive past one another on an L.A. street, decades after he had moved away from Longview, Texas and out of my life, and that we might even make eye contact for a moment from our passing cars, but without recognition. How many near misses, how many proximate moments, I would wonder, have we been unwitting to in our lifetimes?

Part of why this idea of unknown, intersecting lines fascinated me was because I believed that there must be an unseen weave to those threads of our lives. Some bigger picture. Some inscrutable purpose. That if only one could see it “all at once” then real patterns, intentional and sublime, would emerge. If there was a divine hand at work, then the warp and woof of our hours and our movements would build up to something brilliant and complex.

While I can no longer vouch for the nebulous theological underpinnings of my pre-adolescent worldview, I do believe now more than ever that history is divine poetry, and that when at last we experience it with the fixed vantage of time removed we will be slack-jawed and driven to worship by the overwhelming and inexhaustible intricacy and beauty of the revealed design. There will be an aesthetic to it that will likely require more senses than five and more dimensions than four to apprehend. My childhood fancies of merely charting geographic proximities will pale in comparison. Of that I’m convinced. Because the splendor of that vision won’t be solely about—or even primarily about—geography.

And yet, sometimes even this side of life—and even in that more obvious intersection of time and space—I believe we might be privileged with glimpses that God is at work, intentionally weaving lives together for his (often inscrutable but also sometimes partially revealed) purposes.

Consider my own personal history with one Ned Bustard, who a year-and-a-half ago so artfully illustrated Every Moment Holy. The first interaction I’m aware of having with Ned was mid-2017 when Pete Peterson and I were up against a deadline wall to finish writing and editing the manuscript and get it to the printer, but we still needed an illustrator for the project. That was the first time my life intersected Ned’s life.

Or was it?

Could there have already been some backstory built into that “new” friendship, long before we remember meeting?

In 1990 I was two years out of college, working in the reference department of Tulsa’s main library downtown, and still thinking I was going to somehow have a career as a guitarist in a band (despite having no discernible sense of rhythm). I made the trek to the Cornerstone music festival in Illinois in early July of that year, tagging along with my roommate and the church youth group he led.

There were a few artists present at the festival that I was a big fan of, and I would sporadically haunt their tables in the merch tent, hoping to interact with them or with folks in their bands. One such artist was Charlie Peacock.

My history with Charlie would be another whole essay about intersecting lines, but in 1990 I was just a fan. I didn’t know him yet.

But Ned did. So I’ll now briefly pass the storyteller’s baton to Ned Bustard.

In 1990 I was at the Cornerstone music festival. My wife and I had just been married and Charlie Peacock had sung during the vows and the recessional.

How that all happened is another one of the Big Miracles of my life, but that story is for another day. Suffice to say, I had made a big banner for the reception hall that featured a collage of CP album art and Charlie used that as the backdrop for his festival booth and allowed my wife Leslie and I to channel our obsession with his music into generating sales at the merch table. During the festival we talked to many people who passed by.

Neither Ned nor I have any specific memory of meeting that summer at Charlie’s merch table. But it’s almost certain that we did. We would have briefly interacted, exchanged a few awkward (on my part at least) comments about our mutual appreciation for Charlie’s music, and all the while I probably would have been trying hard to maintain a consciously aloof personae as I scrutinized the backs of CD’s I already owned copies of, squinting as if I were a little too cool for this “fan” stuff, as if I weren’t actually the sort of fellow who was just hanging out on the outskirts because I was secretly wishing I could be more on the inside—more like Ned who, by virtue of the fact that he was manning Charlie’s table, had obviously cracked the code. This likely scenario is, of course, all pieced together retroactively from logical deduction. If Ned spent much time at all at that table, we would have interacted that summer. We just don’t remember it.

I do believe now more than ever that history is divine poetry, and that when at last we experience it with the fixed vantage of time removed we will be slack-jawed and driven to worship by the overwhelming and inexhaustible intricacy and beauty of the revealed design. There will be an aesthetic to it that will likely require more senses than five and more dimensions than four to apprehend. Doug McKelvey

A few months later I was visiting friends in Albuquerque. My hazy plan was to assemble some sort of portfolio to use when applying to a creative writing graduate program. While my friends were away at work I sat in a sunny spot in their apartment and wrote a poem. It was almost a found poem, assembled from lines and fragments I had previously written that were scattered through various notebooks. I pulled it all together into a cohesive “storyline” about a husband and wife who have been married many years and weathered a lot and find themselves in a part of their journey where they’re just drifting at sea with no winds to carry them along. I seamed the piece together with newly written lines. And then I set it aside. And went on with my life and my journeys.

I never made it to grad school. I never even applied. I was sidetracked by the fact that my future-wife Lise and I started dating when my journeys took me through Austin, Texas, and then by the fact that—for reasons that still defy logical explanation—in early 1991 Charlie Peacock actually invited my college roommate and I to move to Nashville and work with the Art House Foundation that he and his wife Andi were launching. Of course we accepted, and within months had relocated to middle Tennessee.

Lise and I volunteered at Charlie’s Cornerstone merch table that summer of ‘91. So did Ned and Leslie Bustard. Even if we hadn’t met the previous year, we certainly would have met in July of 1991. We would have had a conversation about the Art House as Ned and Leslie were considering moving to Nashville to be a part of that as well. But I’m not a person who remembers much, and I have no memory of meeting Ned even then. Any memory he has of meeting me is likewise fuzzy and at least partially reconstructed, though he kind of thinks he remembers Lise and me from that summer.

Almost certainly the lines of our lives intersected there in that sweltering merch tent on the 4th of July, but not in a way that either of us suspected we should take any note of. And yet, there you have those threads of lives beginning to be interlaced, decades before we would ever work together.

Fast forward three years. I’m now co-writing songs with Charlie. In 1994 he starts writing for a new Charlie Peacock record. He asks if I have lyrics. I’m scouring all my old notebooks because, you know, pitching something you’ve already written is always easier than writing something new and if I have the choice of not working, I’m likely to exercise that option. (It has something to do with the Law of Conservation of Energy, I think.)

I came across that poem I had written years earlier in Albuquerque and I included it with the lyrics I handed off to Charlie. He liked it, set it to music, and recorded it. We called it “William & Maggie.” The song was released on Charlie’s Everything That’s On My Mind project.

“William & Maggie” remains a personal favorite, one of the artistic standouts from my time in the trenches as a lyricist. But the song wasn’t a single and the album wasn’t a bestseller. So the song was one that came and went according to the short shelf life of an LP in the music industry during those days. Within a couple years, the song wasn’t much played or remembered. Fans had moved on to the new stuff. Well, most of them anyway. Ned..?

Doug and I met up again, in a sort of way, in 1995 when Charlie’s fantastic record came out, Everything That’s On My Mind. Leslie and I loved the whole album, of course, but one song really resonated with us—”William and Maggie.” Between ’90 and ’95 we had had a horrible experience with a parachurch organization. But then, who hasn’t? We had dumped our hopes, dreams, prayers, and finances into it and were badly burned—emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. Then we heard those lyrics penned by Doug:

“It seems we’ve suffered one too many dreams of things that weren’t so bad, it’s just they were never things that we could trust.” 

As with all good art, we were so amazed at how the song had captured in lyrics our deep hurt. And the song had another line in it, one that became a life line of hope for us:

“Sometimes you’ve got to open up the windows and let the wind blow through.” 

When I met Ned Bustard for the first time that I actually remember—via a Skype conference to discuss art for Every Moment Holy—one of the first things he brought up was the song “William & Maggie” and the 22-year significance it held for him and Leslie. His mention of it might have been the first time I had even thought of the song in several years.

It’s funny how you can write something, send it into the world, and then forget it’s out there traveling its own mysterious paths, interacting with people you don’t even know. But occasionally some account like Ned’s filters back, and actually brings with it a more subjective perspective and the capacity for a deeper appreciation of something you created, because you’re catching a glimpse of the song seen through someone else’s eyes and filtered through their experience. Words you wrote decades earlier come back to pay you a brief visit as it were, and you see them for what they are more than for what you might have thought they were when you wrote them. Ned and Leslie’s long appreciation for the song was in itself a sort of gift; an affirmation that while the pebbles we toss into the lake might have sunk to the bottom long ago, the ripples sometimes continue to undulate outwards.

More recently, as Ned, Leslie, Lise and I were helping with the teardown of the visual art area at the end of Hutchmoot 2018, Ned rummaged through his pile of art prints and offered me a beautiful linocut print of an open window with wind coursing through. He explained that the image had been inspired by the line from my old “William & Maggie” lyric.

For years Leslie and I had tried to come up with ways that we could emblazon those words on our walls in some way that we could see it everyday and remember to open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet it was only this past year that those words were transformed into visual art when I created a small linocut about Pentecost. It consisted of one simple window, open, with wind blowing through it.

I knew Doug better by that time, as God had woven our lives together through the crazy production schedule and fires of co-creation that would eventually birth Every Moment Holy. So it was a special joy to be able to give Doug that little print as a gift to a friend, and as token of thanks for giving my wife and I a song to sing over two decades as we sought to hope in God.

Now that image from Ned hangs framed in the room where I do most of my writing. There, it’s an ongoing reminder to be less invested in the outcomes of my efforts, but to allow room for the Spirit of God to breathe life into my feeble efforts and even into my failures. A reminder to to open those windows of the soul, and of the broken parts of my life, and to let that divine wind blow through.

But the framed image is also a reminder of friendship, of the delightful mystery of the patterns of lives divinely woven into community, into one body, into mutual encouragement and service and pilgrimage and co-laborings; into a tapestry and a weave that stretches around the globe and across all of history. The fact that this print exists with so much history behind it reminds me that God has always been at work, and that he must be at work even now, blending and braiding billions of stories into one great and glorious story, drawing his people together into relationships, into friendships, into community, that we might together complete the good and redemptive works he has prepared for us to do.

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