[I wrote this yesterday but had no time to post it… so, better late than never.]

In the courtyard outside my window, the leaves of the trees are ablaze. 

It’s inspiring. The trees aren’t trying to get attention. They’re not striking poses. They’re alive with color and individuality that is rooted — literally — in the stuff all around them.

The Japanese Maple’s delicate colors are doing what they should.

I’m siting here at my day-job desk working on materials for Seattle Pacific University‘s new school year. Students are parading past the window, buzzing, excited, figuring out how to navigate this beautiful campus, and looking forward to finding their way around Seattle’s collision of unique neighborhoods. I envy them. I remember those years.

So much of the work I’m doing today is the fruition of ideas discovered during my time as an SPU student, when I was a sapling rooted in this ground. One of my first adventures here was an independent study on faith and imagination, and my mentor was Dr. Michael MacDonald (who has an op-ed in The Seattle Times today on this, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall). That independent study led me to wonderful texts that probably influenced the writing of Through a Screen Darkly and Auralia’s Colors.

I’ve never tired of that subject.

And so I’ve just returned from an amazing weekend organized by Steven Purcell and Marcus Goodyear at Laity Lodge, where conversations about faith and imagination were humming for three inspiring days.

I thoroughly enjoyed the writers who signed up for my fiction workshop. Two sessions of 2 1/2 hours felt too short, because we were having good discussions and just getting to know each other. But it was a rewarding time. We wrote introductions for ourselves, but from the point of view of inanimate objects in our homes. We wrote the beginnings of short stories. We studied great first pages. We took apart a poem and put it back together. We reconsidered familiar parables. We got to know one another… a little. And we meditated on the importance of particularity.

Special thanks to Tim the Chef, who mixed up an amazing Guinness pie (complete with blackbird) for our final dinner… and then turned around and mixed the sound for a thrilling Over the Rhine concert. It doesn’t get much better than an Over the Rhine show full of new material, with guest appearances by Ashley Cleveland and Kenny Greenberg, for an audience of (get this!) about 70 people.

I suspect Laity Lodge will throw a bigger, better party next year, now that their first foray into writers’ conferences has been such a success. I wouldn’t want to miss it.

My head is full of inspiration from the speakers and other workshop leaders, including Lauren Winner and Scott Cairns. It was a privilege to spend time with Steven Lawhead, whose novels inspired me to keep writing when I was in high school and college. And I met a lot of new friends. (Hi, Jeff and Melissa Johnson, and Robert Treskillard!)

As I looked around at the room full of fascinating, inspiring people, something occurred to me:

These people are not cool. They’re a mess.

And so am I.

As a new Over the Rhine song goes, “All my favorite people are broken / Believe me / My heart should know.”

And yet, the experience of this assembly, focused on cultivating our gifts, pursuing excellence, and beholding beauty… that is beyond cool. That is the kind of thing we were all designed to enjoy. I suspect it’s very like what we will enjoy when “this mutilated world” (another phrase from an Over the Rhine song, borrowed from a poem by Adam Zagajewski) is redeemed.

What made them such wonderful company was that they seemed utterly uninterested in cool. Do they wear a wild array of styles? Yeah. They’re playful people, drunk on details. Lauren Winner, in her horn-rimmed glasses and bright green alligator boots, looks like a character from an Amelie-like romance. My friend Deidre’s wearing enormous sunglasses. Linford’s got a beard going, but he’s wearing that red shirt that he loves to sport onstage. Ashley’s outfit seems like the natural wardrobe of a Joplin-esque rocker. I’m wearing a t-shirt of The Dude from The Big Lebowski.

Kee is wearing a white dress shirt, but he has an agate in his shirt pocket that he’s been carrying for 40 years… an agate from the road where he experienced something life-changing.

I love that he’s carried a rock in his pocket all those years. It’s part of his story. It’s picked up from the road of his life. And you know what? So is this apparently “hip” t-shirt of The Dude. I’m wearing that because a friend bought it for me from a street vendor in Vietnam; because the movie means something to me; and because the image is from the book cover of a volume written by a friend.

I love it. These people like color and surprise and texture. They’re creative. They can be spontaneous. They can be absurd, for the fun of it. They can be self-effacing in everything from their wardrobe to their creative writing. They’re smart enough to take every detail seriously, but wise enough to know that they should have a sense of humor about everything too… especially themselves. And when we lose that sense of play, we die a little.

But even more impressive than these “costumes” are the details that their imaginations absorb like sponges, and that bring their work to life. (In our fiction workshop, a woman named Claire composed a scene that startled me, because it described more sound and texture than appearance.)  These folks aren’t overly concerned with appearances — no, their appearances are an outward extension of the creative whirlwinds inside them. Their conversation, their writing, their passions… they’re all full of play, surprise, and idiosyncrasy.

This crowd rekindled my own love of play with their inclination toward imagination, and their obvious love of beauty and art. And they represented twelve — twelve! — different branches of Christian tradition. You can’t look at this group and find any kind of label that fits them, nor can you diagnose them as any kind of trend or “emerging” phenomenon. What some people might sum up as “a rebellion against” church tradition is, in my eyes, something much more positive: human beings surrendering to the gravity of God’s glory. They’re following a still small voice that draws them away from the dehumanizing influence of cattle-call culture; away from the disappointment of superficial preoccupations; away from the crippling climate of political division. They came to this place for a deeper engagement with mystery, beauty, and the joy of knowing they are loved in spite of all of their failures and fears.

They, like me, were thirsty, and they sensed that this would be the kind of place where they could drink deep.

They were right.

I need these experiences. That’s why I participated in the Laity Lodge Writers’ Retreat. That’s why I’m already signed up for one of the 2011 Glen Workshops that Image puts on. (Registration is now open!)  That’s why I work at Seattle Pacific University.

Sure, I encounter the occasional poser. It’s not hard to tell when somebody’s trying hard to be cool. They don’t usually voice opinions of their own. They think somebody else has got it together, which is their first mistake. And then they try to look like, sound like, and buy like that false ideal. They mistake style for substance. They think their accessorize will give them identity. They’re more worried about what others think of them and their stuff; thus they cannot lose themselves in a book or a poem or a conversation, nor can they let down their guard and become vulnerable to communion and grace. Their shields are up.

But contrary to some things I’ve read recently, I think posers are the exceptions. I visit a lot of churches, Christian schools, and conferences on faith and art. And I’m encouraged by the people I meet. Just in the last year, I’ve met hundreds of people at conferences, readings, concerts, art shows, bookstores, and online. Our conversations usually showed me their enthusiasm for art and imagination was driven by a desire to experience “the good stuff.” Beauty. Mystery. Excellence. Integrity. Art. Insight.

As Karin Bergquist sings on The Trumpet Child, “When it comes to wanting what’s real / there’s no such thing as greed.”

I see a lot of destructive labeling going on by those who are eager to diagnose a generation. I want no part of that. The last thing we need to do is draw new lines and categorize new camps of people. I prefer events like this one, which served to help reconcile a wide variety of curious, imaginative people, bringing them together in conversation. They don’t need a sermon or a prescription. They’re thirsty for beauty. They’re moved by mystery. They want to live in the questions.

Call me idealistic, but I am increasingly excited about this flourishing culture of imaginative believers who are seeking the ongoing revelation of Christ through scriptures, nature, culture, and art. They may often go unnoticed, for they do their work quietly and sincerely, without shouting the rash claims or judgmental proclamations that tend to put a Christian in the headlines. But they’re out there.

Their roots are reaching down into the soil. And they are coming alive with colors all their own.

And now, with the weekend’s inspiration still burning like a fever, I’ve got to get back to those long, quiet, solitary hours of writing and editing. It isn’t the cool thing to do. But it’s the necessary discipline of discovery.