Below is a modified excerpt from my book, Playdates with God: Having a Childlike Faith in a Grown-up World, copyright 2014. Used with permission from Leafwood Publishers, an imprint of Abilene Christian University Press. All rights reserved.
In mid-fall, as the goldenrod bend their heads low in the meadow behind my house—I visit the apiary.
It all started when I spoke at a ladies tea at a little country church in the valley where I live. The hostess served honey from her husband’s hives, and I was blown away. “It tastes like sweet clover,” I told her, as I sipped tea with my pinky raised. She smiled and nodded her head. This was entirely different from that syrupy stuff I buy in the bear-shaped bottle at the grocery.
Every day after that, I think about the bees. In the night, I dream of honey. When I awaken, I carry a memory of amber—a dewy sweetness on my tongue. I cannot shake the taste of it. So, I Google up local beekeepers and I talk to the state bee inspector on the phone and my father-in-law calls a friend of his who keeps bees.
“In the Bible, honey represents purity,” the Department of Agriculture’s state bee inspector tells me. “I think there must be bees in heaven,” he says. I think about that little taste of honey from the tea and it seems to me that maybe a little piece of heaven is already here.
I read all the scriptures in my Bible about honey and I look up the original Hebrew in my concordance. The word used for honey in many of the scriptures refers to the distilled version of a watery sweetness that exists naturally. It is the refined essence of the substance—the richest part.
So. After weeks of waiting, when the goldenrod bend their heads low in the meadow behind my house, I visit the apiary. “That’s how you know the goldenrod is nectaring,” the beekeeper tells me. “The tops are so heavy they fall over.”
We walk into the apiary under a shower of walnut tree leaves. They float slowly to the ground like tiny canoes, sailing the air. I breathe in deep, thinking of honey. The farm smells like woodsmoke and decaying leaves. The sky is blue marble.
I hear the steady thrum of thousands of beating wings rise into that familiar buzz while we are still within a hundred yards of the colonies. The sound thrills me but I feel my heart begin to slow with the low resonance that emanates from the hives. He aims his smoker at the bees flying about the first hive. I watch him open the tall box-like structures and use his tools to remove one frame at a time. He lifts a frame, points out the shiny honey down in each little dimple.
The bees light haphazardly on my arms and midsection and on the veil I am wearing—they seem as curious about me as I am of them. I close my eyes and let the sound of their greeting fill—that low buzz pressing down around me. I know the smoke has made them docile, triggering them to consume as much honey as they can and slowing them down with the weight of it. They are afraid we have come to steal their golden treasure, and so they hide it the best way they know: inside their bulging abdomens.
He lets me take pictures of his bees, hunts out the queen for me to see. He is a good teacher—patient and kind. After he closes up the hives, he shows me his workshop. He makes beeswax candles and sells them. His wife has won numerous awards for baking with honey and her blue ribbons hang on the wall by the door. He teaches candlemaking classes and gives talks about beekeeping.
He tells me about how the honeybees make honey—this refining into the richest essence. He tells me how, after collecting nectar, the bees return to the hive and pass it on to other worker bees. These worker bees chew the nectar for a while allowing enzymes to break down the complex sugars in the nectar into simple sugars. This makes the nectar easier to digest as well as resistant to bacteria. The nectar is then deposited throughout the honeycombs of the hive. Here, water evaporates from it, making it a thicker syrup. The bees use their wings to fan the nectar and accelerate the thickening process. Then, the honey is sealed with a plug of wax and stored until it is eaten.
By us or them.
But listen to this.
The beekeeper tells me about the dance of the honey bee. When a bee finds a particularly lush feeding ground—a place rich with pollen or nectar—they return to the hive and by way of giving the other bees directions to this Eden…they dance. The Honey Bees dance to communicate where a good food source is. The way they dance communicates direction and distance. The distance is communicated by the shape of the dance. Direction is communicated by the angle a bee will bisect her dance with, with respect to the sun. The dance is like the face of a clock, with the sun representing twelve o’clock. If the bee dances from six to twelve o’clock, this means to fly straight towards the sun; eight to one o’clock would mean fly just to the right of the sun; twelve to six o’clock, fly directly away from the sun.
And the honeybee is a brilliant mathematician. See, these little dances sometimes can take a long time. So the angle of the sun will sometimes have changed during the dancing. The bee will calculate the change in angle based on where the sun is at the time of the dance.
Scientists have been amazed at how accurately the bee dance communicates where the food is. Isn’t this remarkably beautiful? So I start thinking about this dance. How this dance is the first step in the honeymaking—in the refining process. And—in our lives—isn’t the refining the conforming? This hard work of life the way He uses to make us more like Jesus? And, isn’t this God’s desire for us too—that we dance through the refining? That our lives represent the richest essence of humanity? That as we—do our work, make our art—we would dance through this refinement?
I think about the dance and how each dance is different for each bee; depending on where that bee is, what that bee desires to communicate. I wonder if conformity, in this sense, is what we look like when we join every unique part of ourselves with Jesus? This place where we are, what we desire to communicate, our work, our art—all joined as closely as we can with Jesus. We are united with him but we still retain our own unique qualities too.
Once, I read a pastor describe this type of conformity as the way his wife will conform her body to his on cold winter nights to help stay warm. This is what it means to conform to Christ, he said. To cleave to Him in thought, deed, and desire.
When I think of conformity in this way, it’s easier to imagine that each of us—while our life will be directed by God’s will as the life of Jesus was—will express this in different ways. The ways we worship, the ways we pray, the ways we bring glory to God…all will reflect the glorious variety and diversity in creation that reflects the very image of God. It is the very best of each one of us joined supernaturally with the perfection of Christ. Because our Lord is infinite, we can all look like him and yet look different from one another.
And yet free to embrace who we are.
Now that is something to dance about.