Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Re-Wilding the Goose

Beer and hymns can be a rowdy time. Correction: beer and hymns should be a rowdy time. My first experience of beer and hymns was at the Wild Goose Festival in 2012. A handwritten note simply stating “Beer and Hymns, 5:00” was scrawled on a napkin and hung on the post of the beer tent. Intrigued (how could I not be?), I showed up at the appointed time to find a large crowd, a long line for beer, and a musical ensemble clearly cobbled together from instruments on hand: keyboards, guitar, trumpet, and if I recall correctly an accordion (but that may be a hop-influenced memory). I remember singing old chestnuts with a gusto that never rears its head in my mainline traditional worship and even was different from the charismatic worship I had experienced during college. People called out hymns and we sang the verses we could remember, or someone would line out the verse as we went. It was rogue, it was raw, it was edgy and even a bit outlaw.

Fast forward to Wild Goose 2015; beer and hymns is now not only a staple, with regularly scheduled times in the schedule but there are bound hymnals and emerging rituals. On Saturday night I had missed the memo that the impromptu guided meditation being led by my friend Kimberly Knight at her campsite had been moved to another site, so with time on my hands I wandered into Beer and Hymns. The crowd was larger than the one I experienced three years earlier and it was continuing to grow, so I was glad to find a “comfortable back pew.” I started out rogue by going BYOB, pouring a cup from the growler I had brought with me. Then I joined in the outlaw fun starting up by my neighbors who were joking that when they forget words to a hymn they simply sing like the Swedish Chef from the Muppets. Since none of us had picked up a hymnal, we enjoyed our best impersonations, one person coming in as Beaker and even a feeble attempt at Animal. Smiles and laughter opened the door to running commentary during the following hymns. After expressing my need for more beer to fully appreciate the thinly veiled substitutionary atonement theology of the next hymn, I was glad to hear the strains of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” start up. I mentioned that this seems to have become the theme song of Beer and Hymns. My fellow shenanigators agreed and on cue with the rest of the crowd raised their cups when the verse began “here I raise my Ebeneezer.” And why not raise your beer, since who really knows what an Ebeneezer is? Well, it is a rock, or a pile of them as it were. So I couldn't resist commenting that perhaps the beer raised needs to be Rolling Rock (which would keep me from ever raising an Ebeneezer I'm sorry to say). At this point, a latecomer now seated in the back pew tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to see him make that palm down that gesture that cops use to tell you slow down. I couldn't believe it, I had become the fidgety kid kicking the pew and I had successfully upset the status quo. The status quo at the WILD Goose?!?!?! Anger kept me from an appropriate engagement so I packed my things and left to ruminate.

How could the Wild Goose Festival at the tender age of five already have become so pinched up and buttoned down that singing hymns “like you've never done it before” has been replaced by the seven last words of the church: “we've never done it that way before”? OK Ian, breathe. (Funny how breath both calms and is also the very thing used to represent the Holy Agitator.) Yes, this was one person, expressing one opinion, I get that. It is the symptom to contain the uncontainable that worries me. I am not unaware of the irony that I am an ordained minister who is authorized by a mainline institution, which by definition is resistant to change, particularly the sort of change that may lead to the demise of the institution. But let's face facts, the Convergence that we are seeing at events like the Wild Goose is what most of us would agree is what we think the resurrection of the church is looking like. If we are truly to be believers in resurrection then we must fully embrace the one prerequisite, death. We have to let go of the expectation that our old ways are sufficient to carry us into the new paths before us. And heaven help us if our imagination is so limited that all we can create to replace old institutions are new ones.

But I am far from being without hope. In fact, this shoulder-tapping incident was little more than a road sign urging caution on the Wild Goose chase of the Holy Spirit leading me into places where we may not go on our own. It was a reminder that wild truly equals wild, there can be no taming in the name of God. It was a reminder that if you find God in a box that you can rest assured that you put God there. While my mellow was indeed harshed in that moment, there were far too many other moments that stirred my goose spirit.

  • There was the upside-downing of Communion in the Midnight Moonshine Mass with the hint of the outlaw, unsafe feel that the first Jesus followers experienced having to hide to worship and feel the fire burn in their bellies. The “lucky” few who got a tug of the second jar of moonshine can attest to fire of the spirit(s).
  • There was the call from Brother John to help him raise an Ebeneezer in the river. Wanting to build an arch from the river stones, he required a partner. We learned to lean, we learned to listen to the stones, we learned to fail...and finally we bridged the gap and enjoyed that special, though fleeting cairn that stood for just a day, hopefully to be resurrected in our Wild Goose spirits.
  • There was the Lectio Hoedown that drew me in as I walked down the dusty road. I didn't have a destination that I recall, though it could have been Damascus or Emaus. Regardless, the destination the Goose had in mind was behind a guitar sharing an unnamed melody I have noodled with for a long time that now, apparently is called Psalm 77.

  • And there was the parting gift of failure when one Gooser took a turn a tad too wide, perching her car on a rock in a ditch. While a good number of us responded right away with good intentions to help, the one who brought the gift that mattered was the guy who assured us all that in years of off-roading he had put many a car in similarly difficult positions. It was the gift he gained from those failures that birthed the wisdom to solve this problem.

And there were far, far more moments that soothed or stirred my spirit in those four festival days. I pray that they are eggs that will hatch many wild goslings for me in the days to come. Most of all, since the Way is through the wild places, I pray that I won't seek to tame, nor accept when others tame, the Way. We must all accept that in the re-wilding that is required we may get goosed along the way!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Sacred Cows, Slippery Slopes and Corneliuses

Somewhere deep in the bowels of Boston on an inbound Green Line train over two decades ago l slaughtered a sacred cow. At the time I was a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological seminary but I was returning from a class at Boston College taught by the noted feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether. Obviously, I was exploring beyond the prescribed boundaries of Evangelicalism. I had already been questioning the connection between conservative theology and conservative politics. Now I was staring down the sacred cow of inerrancy. I knew that the belief that the Bible is the inspired word of God, free from error was a foundational tenet of Evangelicalism. My doubts had been sending the sacred cow out to pasture but now was the time to cut the ties. I understood that my Evangelical beliefs had painted me into a corner. Believing that the Bible accurately recorded God's instructions to kill innocent women and children during the conquest of the Promised Land pushed me to an irreconcilable moral dilemma, forcing me to choose between a divine book and divine love. Accepting the idea that the Bible is a book of human rather than divine origin allowed me to continue in relationship with a loving God while accepting that the victors write the history, soetimes using the excuse "God made me do it."

For many Evangelicals today, the trigger issue that threatens to undo their view of scripture is homosexuality. There are wonderful resources providing scholarly interpretation of the handful of verses that touch on the topic, so I won’t cover that ground here. Rather, I want to reach out to Evangelicals worried that a change in their stance on homosexuality will necessarily mean a wholesale change in their understanding of scripture. For those who fear that the only option is the  slippery slope slide away from rock solid doctrine that I took  I have two things to say. One, it is definitely possible to hold the belief that homosexuality is not a sin while simultaneously believing that the Bible is inerrant. Two, the journey down the slippery slope is filled not only with fear but also with freedom. I’ll take the issues in reverse order. 

I understand that to question one part is to question the whole. While I found liberation in embracing the path of questioning, I get it that every answer provides only temporary comfort since it also leads to new questions. Thus freedom from constrictive answers is also a loss of assurance. Those of us swimming in the deep end of free exploration find it easy to call out, "come on in, the water's fine," but what those standing on the shore really want to hear from us is that we are trained in lifesaving. Or more likely, they want their own personal lifesaver. For isn't that one of the best gifts from that branch of Christianity-"blessed assurance, Jesus is mine"? But what I want you on the shore to hear is that one gift from the deep end is the blessed assurance that we can never swim beyond the reach of the lifesaver because the power resides inside us. And when we feel weak thank God the power resides also in the other swimmers. 

Those others are a big part of why I believe that it is possible to remain Evangelical while accepting and affirming the LGBT community. The recent revelation by Tony Campolo that he now believes that homosexuality is not a sin is living proof of this possibility. And I think I can tap into my own Evangelical roots well enough to make the case that the story of the vision that Peter has in Acts 10 supports that position. Peter is struggling with the idea of sharing the gospel with an “unclean” Gentile when he has the vision of being offered unclean animals to eat. He is naturally offended at the very thought of it but eventually understands that God’s word to him is that no animal made by God is unclean. Peter then draws the obvious conclusion that neither is any human unclean. Christians of all stripes have no problem understanding this story as part of a justification for no longer keeping kosher laws, so why should we not also understand that it means that homosexuality should no longer be considered an abomination? Granted, Peter meeting Cornelius pushed him out of his comfort zone. He had to abandon the assurance of old laws that Christ had fulfilled and/or abolished. It is normal to want to be surrounded by people who think (and even look) like you. Homogeneous culture does not have to lead to rejection of those who are different, but sadly it does regularly entail just that for the sake of maintaining the status quo. So if you are going to start walking the talk that the good news of salvation is meant for every person, you may need to take some initiative in finding your Cornelius. My advice to my Evangelical sisters and brothers is to take the risk of building accepting relationships with LGBT folks. You don’t need to be affirming from the start, though trust that God can show you the way there. Many people are already at this halfway point, stuck in a “love the sinner, hate the sin” dilemma. Keep listening, both to the quiet voice of God in you and the way that God speaks through this other beloved child. It will be uncomfortable to be sure. But if we are going to learn how to live as the one grand united yet amazingly diverse Body of Christ, we are going to have to spend a lot of time getting to know the Corneliuses who may be nothing like anyone we have ever met before. And thank God for that.