Late last night, Sherri and I arrived home after a weekend in Nashville at The Rabbit Room‘s annual Hutchmoot conference. I can’t begin to describe how much this weekend means to me without dropping clichés, but maybe they’re cliché because they’re true. I can try. I woke up early Monday and started writing this, trying to sort out my thoughts. Semi-coherent as they are, I hope this will at least give a glimpse into the spirit of the event.

Photo by Chris Yokel

Last morning in Nashville, third floor, Baymont Inn. Our room must face east, because every morning the sun practically forces its way through the darkening shades, able to fill the room with light if we just pull back the darkness enough to let it. I’m sitting at the desk for the first time this weekend, letting a sliver of sun be my writing light.

And my heart overflows.

As I heard many say over and over, this place is an “embarrassment of riches.” How do I began to talk about this weekend without saying everything I said last year, everything everyone said before? I can’t. But this year, things were somehow different.

Last year, I came with a fuzzy notion of what to expect, and barely knowing only two people. I’d had some conversations with Jason Gray here and there, and I’d at least met Andrew Peterson a few times. Otherwise, there was no real world interaction with any of the people from this blog I’d been following for several years, a terrifying idea for someone like me. I picked up my name tag and folder, chatting with Shauna long enough to figure out she was one of the Petersons, then ducked into the shelves of used books and pretended to shop for 30 minutes. It wasn’t until I met Ashley and Ryan, two other first timers, we mutually appreciated her superhero shirt and my plaid Chucks, and we founded our “New Kids” table at dinner that I could feel my heart at ease.

I left Hutchmoot 2011 with a small group of new friends, even feeling a kinship with people I was still meeting after the end. But this year, it was like coming home or a family reunion. Even those I met for the first time felt like people I’d known forever, through their words and art and conversation in the Facebook group. Maybe the best part was carpooling back and forth between the hotel and the church, cultivating meaningful friendships along the way.

And I am reminded these things matter. Everything matters.

Recently, Kristin Tennant wrote about online communities before she headed off to her own weekend gathering at STORY Chicago. She wrote about the paradoxical benefits and traps of online friendships, but ultimately concluded they do matter, that they are not somehow lesser things.

It’s no stretch to say I love the people of The Rabbit Room. I find their rhythm and their hope infiltrating the way I see the world. I find their kindness and depth and humor and beauty in their creations. Time and again, I’ve been encouraged by their words. Even if we can’t be a part of each others lives physically and daily, I would never discredit the power of their friendship, because it’s real, because they are real, not just names and avatars.

Still, when you can hug someone you’d only seen in pictures, hear the voice behind words on a screen that have given you hope, or feel the warmth of a living, breathing person next to you, sharing food and laughter and, yes, a few tears, some kind of longing wakes up.

If it’s true God will resurrect and remake the universe and us, and we won’t be unrecognizable wisps of smoke, but who we are, just more fully, and if it’s true there is something more real than what we see now, that Jesus was able to walk through doors because he was more real than the door, and we are ghosts upon the earth, groaning under the curse and waiting for the day of redemption, then for me this was a taste of the hope to come. We walked through the walls of our geography and keyboards and lifted our very real voices to sing the Doxology together.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow. How beautiful to think that we will one day share in this forever.

This year, more people came than before and space was tight, so the church set up a massive striped tent for an outdoor dining hall, strung with lights and nestled in the green warmth of the backyard. If I had to settle on a favorite place of the weekend, this might be it. We raised our glasses and ate and laughed. At one meal, friends at my table called it Thanksgiving.

On Saturday night, sharing our final meal in the cooling evening air, I watched twilight descend and dim and thought, “I sure hope there’s a tent in heaven. And Chef Lewis’ apple crisp.”

“And we dream in the night of a Feast and a Wedding…”