A Matter of Life and Death

by Andrew Peterson


When I was a freshman in high school I got a Yamaha scooter for my birthday. Actually I bought it for a few hundred bucks earned from my job at the grocery store. The birthday present was my dad’s acquiescence to a year’s worth of begging and badgering for permission to buy the nerdy little thing.

It was a funny looking machine, not much more substantial than a bicycle, but it topped out at a mind-blowing 35 mph, which to my delight was fast enough to get hurt. I drove it to school and was immediately the object of much ridicule—internal ridicule, that is, because I have no memory of anyone ever actually ridiculing me. But memories of self-consciousness abound and I’m sure I projected all sorts of judgmental stares and mutterings from my friends, many of whom drove 4×4 trucks and had ATVs at their disposal. But that little scooter might as well have been a magic portal for all the escape it provided.

After I puttered home from school and dropped off my book bag I would ride that thing like a cowboy on his trusty steed all over the back roads of Lake Butler. And in a little town like that, back roads were easy to find. Because I was (and still am) a very private person, I usually struck out for the least populated parts of town, far away from the stares of the townsfolk. Most often, I drove north to the lake, turned right, and headed a few miles into the country along the east side of the lake, where at the Arnold farm I took a left onto a sandy road that led into the pines of the Wildlife Management Area. Those roads crisscrossed and wound and rambled for miles, and eventually connected to the highway on the opposite side of the lake, several miles away. It was easy to get lost, but if you drove for long enough you’d eventually spot the swampy lake shore or a familiar crossroads and make your way either back to where you started or at least to a highway that would lead you safely home.

One afternoon I brought a blue folder that held several pages of blank notebook paper. I had a Bic pen in my back pocket. It was cold—cold for Florida, anyway—and by the time I found my way back to the hard road near the Arnold farm the sun was setting. On the north side of the road there’s a wide field bordered by a dark wall of pine trees, and at this time of year there was soybean growing in bright green rows. Over that field and beyond the veil of pines I caught sight of a blazing sky and stopped the scooter in the middle of the road, tingling with some awareness of holiness, of rare and unlooked-for beauty. I steered the scooter off the road and through the gate, then drove carefully between the planted rows till I found a suitable spot, aware of how conspicuous the scooter’s head- light must have been from the distant farmhouse. I turned the key and silenced the pleasant purr of the engine, then removed my helmet and flipped down the kickstand, easing it into the dark soil. I sat down between two rows and pulled the pen out of the back pocket of my Levi’s as I opened the blue notebook. I looked up at the sunset, which was already changing colors. I was wonderfully alone, and yet the air was charged with a strange light that suggested anything but aloneness. I tried to write down what I saw, and what I felt, and what the holy presence that was bringing about the evolution of color might have been telling me. Every time I looked up from the words on the paper, the sky looked different, and I tried to get it all down—all the changes, all the beauty, all the life suggested by the fading day and the brightening of the clouds. The colors were azure and lavender, not just blue and purple. The clouds were feathery and flaming, not just soft and yellow. In a way that I had never experienced before, the loveliness of the light demanded new adjectives. In a way that I had never experienced before, I felt God’s presence as a pleasant fire that called for obedience and energy and expression.

You have to understand: I was at the time enraptured with comic books and fantasy novels. I had never read Annie Dillard or Frederick Buechner or (other than Narnia) C. S. Lewis. I had no context for the kind of writing that attempted to capture in words either the burning beauty of a Florida sunset or the God who had lit the fire. But I filled a page with words, with weak and overwrought sentences; like a juggler who kept fumbling I scratched out words and wrote what I thought were better ones, aiming at something excellent even as I was aware of how pathetically short I fell. It didn’t matter that I would probably never show anyone what I had written, though I admit I harbored a wild hope that this page of words was important somehow, even if it would only ever be important to me. I saw something beautiful, felt something profound, and was compelled to express it on paper. I spoke aloud to the presence that designed this frame, the God of the Bible that first imagined pigment itself, sheepishly at first, then with increasing boldness as I became convinced that no human was eavesdropping. The loneliness of the dark field was a prerequisite for the company I felt. These words were between you, Master, and me. (I am aware even now on this wintry afternoon in Nashville of that same presence reading over my shoulder, and am obliged to acknowledge his patient and peaceful attention.)

When the sunset had played itself out and the first stars of evening shone, I closed the notebook, slipped the pen back into my pocket, and straddled the scooter. I listened to the silence framed by cricket song, then with regret that the moment was over, kickstarted the Yamaha. I bounced out of the field and onto the smooth tarmac, then sped home only realizing by my sniffles that tears had come to my eyes.

A few days later, my parents found the notebook and read my words. I was intensely embarrassed, and though I don’t remember telling them so, it felt as though someone had seen me naked. They didn’t make fun. They probably encouraged my writing. But I still felt violated. The words weren’t for them—they were intended to be for myself and my God and so I vowed to be even more guarded with my deepest thoughts. This was something precious and private, and the next time I wrote something like this I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone, sometime, would read the words and pass some sort of judgment on them, or on me.

And yet, here I am, telling you about it.

I’ve spent the last twenty years arranging words, not just with the awareness that someone might read them over my shoulder, but with the intention of having them read. Now, when I write my prayers, when I spot an intense beauty burning at the roadside and am moved to write about it, I obey the compulsion but promptly delete the file. I could fill a book with those deleted files.

If I write something to be sung or read, it’s with a different mind-set altogether, a constantly edited voice, with the eyes of my little town watching the strange boy with the strange scooter and wondering what strange thing he’s up to. I’m more likely to follow the rules—their rules—and I seldom abandon myself to the work at hand with that same childlike effusion of praise.

Has this made me a better writer, or a worse one?

Sometimes I long to escape to the woods again. To be who I was that night in the field, fumbling the ball and still fighting to express back to God the wonder of human praise, to limn some reflection of the gift of light he gave, to speak without fear of ridicule. To sit in the dusk and feel that same lonesome freedom of intimacy with the One who knows me and is— astonishingly—well pleased. To weep without knowing it, to obey the whispered will of the spirit: Look out over the field to your right. Leave the well-traveled road. Quiet the engine. Sit in the fertile dirt and listen. Watch how time changes the light, how steadily the firmament burns. Know that I am with you always, and let that knowledge find life in the best words you can find.

from “Adorning the Dark” by Andrew Peterson