My Quest to Nashville: An Advent Reflection

If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ll know that my appreciation of Andrew Peterson—a singer-songwriter and author—goes back many years. His music encouraged me through my gap year, I once described his book Adorning the Dark as a writing retreat in book form, and I’m a fan of his Wingfeather Saga, which I reread this summer. Speaking of Adorning the Dark, in that book, Andrew talks about his dream of performing at the Ryman Auditorium, one of Nashville’s historic theaters known as the “Mother Church of Country Music,” a dream which he eventually fulfilled. Since reading his story, I’ve wanted to see him perform live at the Ryman. So, when my friends decided to go to Nashville this December for his annual Christmas concert, I jumped on the bandwagon—or, rather, band-ten-passenger-van.

I wrote in my outline for this post that we had an uneventful drive there. But now that I’m writing this, I realize that wasn’t entirely true. Our early-morning trek started with us nearly driving west instead of east (saved only by the fact that two passengers were still awake to point out the error to our coffee-deprived driver). At lunch, I attempted to order a burger without a bun to a very puzzled fast food worker (gluten-free necessities, unfortunately) and received a patty the size of a silver dollar with a sprinkling of shredded lettuce on top, the comical portion-size making all of us laugh. In between escapades and jokes with my friends, I also read The God of the Garden, Andrew Peterson’s newest book, in one sitting during our Sunday drive, which was very fitting considering the purpose of our quest was to attend his concert. Plus, reading books in one go is something I aspire to have the time to do. And—wow. What a way to start my brief voyage away from home. The God of the Garden might be my all-time favorite nonfiction book. Andrew Peterson really is a master at writing creative nonfiction/memoir in a way that moves me to worship God and appreciate His gifts, and Andrew’s own struggles of loneliness, depression, and mourning the loss of innocence all resonate very strongly with me. Reading his nonfiction books is like talking to an older, wiser friend.

Shopping for books at McKay’s!

Sunday was peaceful; Monday, our day of sightseeing and concert-going, was joyful. The day was CRAMMED with fun and friendship as we hit the town: breaking fast at Ladybird Taco (a restaurant owned by one of the artists playing in the concert with Andrew that night), exploring McKay’s, the most gigantic used bookstore I’ve ever laid feet in, and wandering around Broadway in downtown Nashville. We even braved a scoop of ice cream at Jeni’s, per my coworker’s insistence, in the midst of 40 degree weather. We said “Hi!” to the Nashville Predators in honor of my hockey-loving brother, and peeked into the lobby of the Country Music Hall of Fame. And, of course, we scoped out the Ryman in anticipation of the concert to come.

The concert, by the way, was Andrew Peterson’s annual Behold the Lamb of God, which he’s organized and performed for twenty-plus years. It’s truly a unique event, as Andrew invites other artists to join him (many of whom are staples of the show, and others who serve as special guests for the year’s tour). The first act is a performance in the round, as each artist takes the stage to perform a couple of their own songs. During the second act, Andrew and his fellow artists perform through his Behold the Lamb of God album, which tells the story of Scripture from the beginning through the birth of Christ. I first saw the show (and heard the album) back in 2011, ten years ago (a fact I realized halfway through this year’s concert at the Ryman), and saw it for a second time a couple years after. We livestreamed last year’s show, a feature introduced during COVID. I anticipated this year’s show in particular because the special guest artists are The Arcadian Wild, my current favorite band—and, spoiler alert, they did not disappoint.  

When we came back to the Ryman after the sun went down, my friends and I made our way up to the balcony, then parted ways. Since I delayed joining in the trip back when plans were first made (I had some concerns about taking vacation from work), I had to settle for a random ticket a section away from my friends. I was a little concerned about watching the concert “in isolation” (i.e. away from my pals), but I was pleasantly surprised to find solace and preparation through the prior day’s reading of The God of the Garden. One of the chapters of the book features Andrew’s story of his unexpected solo journey through the UK and how he laid to rest feelings of abandonment and embraced the presence of God. I, too, felt the presence of the Lord sitting beside me the whole time, and, in some ways, being apart from my friends for those brief hours helped me focus on worshipping God and mediating on the Christmas story that night.

And oh, and what an incredible night it was. There were some humorous moments; the funniest for me was Andy Gullahorn including gluten-free people who can turn down donuts point blank in his song about “Weird People.” One of the sweetest moments was Andrew Peterson leading the whole crowd in Christmas hymns that echoed in that hallowed auditorium. The Arcadian Wild stole the show with their performances, as they are so entertaining to watch and performed the best rendition of “Deliver Us” (one of the Behold the Lamb of God songs) I’ve ever heard. And, at the heart of it all, the show was primarily a night of worship of the King, the Lamb, the Son of God who came down to earth to save His lost people—us. I felt the longing, I felt the anticipation, I felt the hope for the Savior, who first came 2,000 years ago, and who will come again.  

The Ryman

And then, all too soon, the concert was over. Done. The whole purpose for the trip, wrapped up in a blink of an eye. I wandered out to join my friends and shuffle out into the cold, our hearts light and thoughts filled with gratitude as we reminisced and shared our favorite parts of the show.

Was it worth it, trekking ten hours from our hometown to the Ryman? I think so. It wasn’t life-changing or anything unrealistic of that sort, but I’d take the pilgrimage again. There’s something special about artists performing in their hometown that makes the show extra-meaningful. Road trips are great memories and bonding experiences with friends, too.

But the concert isn’t the end of this story. We anticipated an easy trip home, but I suppose I should stop being so surprised when life doesn’t go as planned. We made it outside of Tennessee (after another breakfast at Ladybird Tacos), only to get shut down in middle-of-nowhere Arkansas. It took a grueling four and a half hours to make it past two miles of shut-down freeway. Though a horribly long amount of time to spend at a dead stop by the highway, we made the most of it, filling the waiting with even more laughs and memories. (Thankfully, a ten-passenger van with only half of the seats occupied means plenty of standing room and ability to move around.) To add to the comedy of the moment, when we did finally escape the standstill of semis and other unfortunate travelers to a rocky, winding country road, we nearly got stopped by another semi, stuck for several minutes in a turn we also needed to make. All we could do at the extra stop was laugh some more and wait a little longer as a semi tow truck saved the shipment from dumping all over the trees and fields. We didn’t plan to stop for lunch until Little Rock, so after an afternoon of snacking on popcorn and Swedish Fish, we stopped for a late 5pm “linner” at a gas station Wendy’s, and found a rock larger than my friends’ hamburgers sitting at the bottom of the van windshield. What a miracle that the stone didn’t shatter the glass!

It was a late night. It was a little taxing on my body. Yet I add this little sidebar about our four and a half hour delay because that afternoon of waiting in traffic, after watching a Christmas show, in the midst of a few days’ break from the endless hustle and bustle of work—all combined to remind me of the point of Advent: waiting and longing with expectation.

I’ll be honest—I’ve felt overwhelmed by the busy-ness of this season. Why is it that December, Advent, feels like the busiest time? I confess I feel scattered jumping from place to place, activity to activity. And though a vacation from the norm, even my trip to Nashville for Behold the Lamb of God felt rushed as we tried to cram all of our sightseeing into a single day. I feel impatient for what’s next in life, and maybe that impatience is because I have yet to really slow down and reflect. Waiting is so hard for me right now. I feel very restless this Advent season, especially as worldly glitter and emotional smog distracts me from longing for the coming King.

So, despite the trudging trek home and long hours in the car, I reentered (albeit reluctantly) into my normal world filled with peace—only to get slammed by all that I’d missed at work, all that I had to prepare for this weekend and next week, and even by the exhausting question of “What am I doing with my life?” within twelve hours of returning. But my reflection from the concert, from the trip, from the random stretch of sitting in the car for four hours made me mindful of this war for my attention. Would I choose peace and rest in Christ in those turbulent moments? Would I remember to slow down in the midst of the season? Or would I get caught up in the sweeping river of chaos again?

I confess, I feel myself bobbing on rushing waters. There’s a lot going on personally right now. There’s a lot Christ is teaching me and testing me in.

But that’s part of the reason for writing this little story about my Quest to Nashville. It’s provided me a moment to pause, to reflect, to think back on what this reprieve meant to me and helped me remember in this Advent season. It’s made me mindful in this Christmas season to keep longing, to keep expecting, to keep waiting for the coming Christ, and to remain at peace in the moment He’s placed me in, no matter how stormy it gets. May our eyes remain fixed on Jesus, Light of the World, this Christmas season.