Months ago, I read through the transcript of a conference panel on C. S. Lewis, and ended up in a rather unusual and uncomfortable place in my thoughts.
The panel was on a topic I loved, and it was relevant to the talk I was preparing. But — perhaps because I briefly imagined taking part in the conversation in person — I realized how unlikely it was that I’d ever hold a place at that particular table. They were all pastors and theologians, for one. All men, for another.
And for a short, startling moment, I felt stifled. I held no resentment towards the speakers; it was more of a fleeting wistfulness born of the fact that I wouldn’t naturally fit in with that particular group, being completely different in profession, geographical location, age, gender, educational track, ethnicity, and probably several dozen other categories.
The same is probably true — and this one stings a fair bit more — about the Inklings. Transport me by time machine to Oxford in the 1930s, and I’d have no reason, at least at first glance, to gain entrée into those exhilarating meetings at the Eagle and Child and in C. S. Lewis’s rooms. (Though you can bet your last farthing I’d try.)
Yet — as I put down the conference transcript, the sting faded like a curl of smoke in open air as soon as I looked down at what I’ve been given in the circle of my life.
It’s both my lot and my honor to relay expressions of the beauty and the truth and the goodness of God right here: in the unexceptional comings and goings of Ithilien House, at the intersection where “true myth” and Homeward longing and joy meet, in the excavation of an American upbringing coupled with an East Asian heritage, and even in the femininity I’m learning to reclaim as I find surer footing as a woman of this home and of the Kingdom of Christ.
Oh, some days it doesn’t sound as noble as all that.
Some days the threads that make up my life feel like restraining cords.
But this summer, I’ve been waking up to the sight of our garden and thinking about a phrase from Psalm 139. “You hem me in, behind and before,” David says to the Lord. The Hebrew word for “hem” isn’t exactly a comforting one; it evokes the image of being under siege, of one who is beset on every side with no escape.
Our little house and garden are hemmed in. At times, eyes a-star with the image of woods and meadows and children with enough space to break into a run, I peruse real estate listings that lie beyond our means. But the wind whistles softly in the aspen trees afterward, and I look out into this secret garden of ours that is bordered by fence and by leafy branch so that it can’t be seen from the street.
Somehow ours is the only yard on this block to have its own verdant, dappling hedge. The trees that shield us aren’t even ours. I never even thought to wish for such a thing when we looked at houses, but lately I can’t help reflecting again and again that my Father knew. He knew I would have to learn to inhale and exhale anew in the sheltering solace of this enclosed garden, knew that someday I’d laugh softly to myself over the dramatic yarns my daughters spin as they troop between vegetables and flowers and back again. In the safety of this space, the four of us have wept and whispered prayers; we’ve laughed aloud and shushed each other with mirth in our eyes; we’ve raised glasses with friends and talked long into the gloaming hours.
He has hemmed us in, behind and before, and within these solid wood-planked boundaries I see the truth that is outlined so clearly before me: “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (Ps. 16:6). Not because of these specific material things — they are at my Lord’s disposal to move at any time — but because of what they signal about the presence and protection of the Giver.
I’m not suggesting that we ought to hold a subdued and cowed posture in our lives, resigned to the challenges of our days. But when it comes to the setting I’ve been given in which to “work out my salvation” (Phil. 2:12) under enlivening grace — my background and personal history, these present circumstances, this day before me — I am beset on all sides by the One who loves me most. No matter how small or great my bounded space may be in any given season, there is room to do what He has given me to do.
There is even room to make it beautiful.
It’s August now, and as I look through the north-facing windows at various times, there isn’t a place in the world I’d rather be than here. Royal blue salvia blossoms ripple and sway at the hungry prodding of black-chinned hummingbirds; aspen leaves flutter madly in the breeze, keeping watch over spaghetti squash inflating on their vines. This past weekend I clipped my first bouquet of sugar star phlox and snow puff cosmos to celebrate a friend’s upcoming birthday, and trimmed them over an outdoor table that has seen a blessed measure of fellowship and gathering this summer. Inside, we are surrounded by stacks of books, deeply happy to make the acquaintance of some and return to the favored havens of others.
Something seems to be happening within me as well, lately. I’ve been passing through a season of returning to the stories that have shaped me, stories “of a certain tone and air,” as J. R. R. Tolkien says, that have helped me to see my God and His world aright. My eyes fill with bright and unashamed tears when I talk with others who have sought the same air, and in the day-to-day I seem to be more alert to the hilarious and noteworthy moments of motherhood and marriage. A sense of great tenderness has me in its grasp as I come to my Lord these days… something that touches upon an adoration of Him sweeter than I’ve ever known.
I couldn’t tell you what it’s like to be an Oxford don, an abolitionist member of Parliament, or a missionary to a secluded tribe — and even my heroes had their own boundaries to bear. But I can tell you what He is doing in this life, in this heart and mind; I can try to show you how His lovingkindness and holiness and truth gleam through. Matthew Clark’s “Beautiful Secret Life” gives an exquisite image in this vein:
My sister, she never has married
But she pours out her life for the poor
She tells me the names
Of all the daughters and sons she adores
But if she hadn’t told me, I’d never have known
There is endless unseen good
Fame is a spotlight good for blinding a man
But the Lord counts each hair on each unfamous head
And He keeps them like a secret
Yes, He keeps you like a secret
Your beautiful secret life
I remember what it was like to keep each of my two babies as a secret for a little while as I waited for the right time and gift with which to tell Y. They were not secrets of dismay; they were secrets so cherished and protected that at one point I left two wonderful dinner companions mystified because I couldn’t stop smiling.
We are that kind of secret, dear friends.
The lilting, pensive notes and the grounding lyrics of “Beautiful Secret Life” have been reminding me that “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19). The Light of the World is peerless, but He is reflected in all the shining stars of this generation. They proclaim the excellencies of Him who called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. When each of them looks for and tells of His presence, they glow like nighttime lights scattered across the globe, and depict to a world locked in shadow the countless facets of His character.
You are a luminous flash, a dearly harbored secret of coming glory, an ongoing stroke-by-stroke expression of endless unseen good. Whatever the space is that He has given you to fill, however He has hemmed you in today, may it flourish in the surety of belonging. May it be our joy to unwrap the “well-hidden glories of grace” as we find them, in home and field and office and canvas and every last little site of obedience, and hang out these lanterns as we wait for the dawn.
For the day when all hidden stories will be told in full.
And so the universe keeps on expanding
‘Cause maybe that’s how much room it will take
To store all the stories
All the well-hidden glories of grace
And this song could go on forever
Endless verses the Lord only knows
The best tales begin in the quiet
Like breath kissing Galilee’s hills…
– “Beautiful Secret Life,” Matthew Clark