Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Wild Goose Festival: A Recap

I've never been to Greenbelt, the famed nearly-forty-year-old British festival of faith, justice and creativity. I've heard countless friends tell me how awesome it is, strongly suggesting I go, but I've never gone. So it's existed to date only in my imagination. But last week, after ten years of talking and planning and organizing, Greenbelt came to the United States in the form of the Wild Goose Festival. I went to that. Here are my reflections on the experience.

It was awesome.

I attended Wild Goose Festival in an official capacity, as a representative of my employer, InterVarsity Press. Several of our authors (many of whom I worked with as their editor) were presenting or otherwise attending; some of them were even part of the planning committee. We had a book release party for my friend Mark Scandrette to celebrate the release of Practicing the Way of Jesus, and we hosted a dinner attended by Mark and his son Isaiah, and about twenty-four other authors, author-spouses and otherwise friends of the Press. Beyond those two events, I was schmoozing, attempting to acquire book projects, indulging would-be writers as they talked about their book ideas, and generally enjoying myself.

I did enjoy myself, quite a bit, despite the oppressive heat and humidity. For starters, the authors whom I've worked with and who attended the festival are some of my favorite people in the world--in the world. They're geniuses, intellectually and morally, and they live lives worth emulating. I've recently been encouraged to not write about God and only write about music, but I find it difficult to do so when I meet people like these folks who love God and are so worth writing about. My apologies if that offends you.

Anyway, having as many businessy conversations as I did, I only hit a handful of planned presentations, all of which were awesome. The aforementioned Mark Scandrette was part of the opening and closing ceremonies, and he spoke a few times about his book, and he participated in a revival of a roadshow he did with friends Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt a few years ago, in which they each expressed their unique, emergent theological perspectives in the form of a 1911 big tent revival, complete with singalong music led by the Tom Waitesy Vince Anderson. That was all kinds of brilliant--a fun and semi-ironic entree into an ultimately profound and heartfelt celebration of the gospel. I didn't know they were going to do that, but I'm so glad they did.

My friend Sean Gladding and his wife, Rebecca, presented a chapter from their immersive Bible study The Story of God, the Story of Us, in which Rebecca played the narrator, Sean played a Hebrew priest in Babylonian exile, and Troy Bronsink played an angry psalmist. Troy's rendition of Psalm 137 ("By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept") was stunning, and the whole moment was a breathtaking experience of Scripture retold. If you have Sean's book, grab some friends and try reading it out loud to each other; it's the way Sean and Rebecca intended it, and it really, really works.

I also got to see living legends Tony Campolo and Richard Rohr. Rohr was particularly meaningful to me, given that he's talking about the lifespan and arc of spiritual formation, and since according to his model I'm roughly at the apex of the arc. Time for me to put away childish things and let myself go in grace, or something like that. It was the sort of thing you feel rather than recite. I got to listen to Rohr with Tamara Park, author of the delightful Sacred Conversations from Rome to Jerusalem, and Tabitha Pluedemann and Anthony Smith, all three of whom have been friends for a while now, all three of whom are particularly good listening partners when someone like Rohr is doing the talking.

Beyond the talks there was, of course, the music. I haven't listened to or even thought of Michelle Shocked for about twenty years, but there she was, teaching us songs like "Memories of East Texas" and the mantralike "Let It Go," reminding me how important her talkin' blues "Graffiti Limbo" was to my nascent sense of justice back in the day. She doesn't like being videotaped, for the record. Also on hand was David Wilcox, who wrote the beautiful "Missing You" made popular in the 1980s by John Waite. He has this crystal-clear voice and a smooth storyteller's style; if you like Jack Johnson you should probably thank David Wilcox. And then there was Jennifer Knapp, who went off the radar for a while and whom everyone at the festival was missing, and who came back in style. I heard her from a distance, since we were hosting a book release party during her set. I also heard Beth Nielson Chapman and the Psalters from a distance, both of which sounded haunting and powerful from far off for entirely different reasons. But the musical highlight for me was Over the Rhine, whom I might consider traveling to North Carolina to see all by themselves. So groovy, so artful, so jammin'. They're great songwriters and brilliant musicians, so every song just takes its time, just like the banter and storytelling between songs.

My favorite moments of natural comedy:

* Andy Marin, author of Love Is an Orientation, calling me desperately late at night to ask about hotel options, then rolling with jokes at his expense (e.g., "The Marin Witch Project") throughout the rest of the week.

* My friend and coworker Nick Liao observing that he saw about five "markers of white progressive culture" from the parking lot, among them a drum circle and a "COEXIST" bumper sticker.

* A five-foot snake that slithered up just as Sean and Rebecca were talking about God creating the man and the woman in the image of God. Sean's ad lib: "He also created snakes."

* The inordinate, nigh-on countless number of u-turns we made in our daily commute from Chapel Hill to the festival.

* The litany of menu items at the breakfast deli we visited daily that were out of stock, alternately because not enough or too many people ordered them.

* The "Waterfowl Impoundment Center" within spitting distance of the Wild Goose Festival. I still don't even know what such an impoundment center does.

I'm leaving lots unsaid. In short, it was great, and I'm eager for Wild Goose Festival 2012. You should come too; it'll be good for your soul.


From left: Peter Rollins, Jay Bakker, Gareth Higgins, Tony Jones

Every time I saw event organizer Gareth Higgins at Wild Goose, I begged him to book Billy Bragg for WGF12. (He's at this year's Greenbelt, along with the legendary Mavis Staples.) I'm willing to be so brazen with him on your behalf as well, so here's your chance. What speakers and singers and other artists should be on the bill for next year's Wild Goose?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pentecost and What Comes Next

Of all the passages of Scripture I've been pointed to over the years, Acts 2 must be among the most frequently pointed-to. I've interacted regularly with people who have longed to rediscover the "Acts 2" church--that church described in verses 42-47, who pooled all their resources and curried the favor of all the people.

Those folks (and I with them) always skipped past what makes up the bulk of Acts 2: the apostle Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost, when the earliest followers of Jesus were rained on by tongues of fire, the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and let loose with a cacophony of exhortation to turn to God as personified in Jesus. Peter made sense of the madness, and "there were added that day about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:41).

Today is Pentecost Sunday; next week in the church's calendar begins Ordinary Time, which will characterize the life of the church until Advent--half a year from now. "Ordinary time" is nowhere near as sexy as "Pentecost," but the two go together nevertheless, like Acts 2:1-41 and Acts 2:42-47. Two years ago I reflected on all that happens in Acts 2--all that is being said there about what it means to be the church--in a post on my other blog, Strangely Dim. I repost it here as a way of honoring the day and not losing sight of what comes next.


It seems presumptuous and even a bit preachy to pre-empt our summer of escapist fantasy by appealing to the church calendar, but as I thought about this writing experiment my mind kept going back to Kimberlee Conway Ireton's second chapter on Ordinary Time in The Circle of Seasons. Turns out she takes on pretty bold-facedly the longing for what lies beyond our immediate grasp:

When I was a girl, I longed to experience what Emily Starr, the heroine of L. M. Montgomery's Emily trilogy, called "the flash." . . . I wanted to experience that glimpse of the transcendent, to be thrilled with the momentary parting of the veil between heaven and earth.

What I have since realized is that I do have these glimpses of the glory beyond and that they are a mixed blessing. The parting of the veil fills me with awe and delights my soul, but it also opens in me a yearning, a deep and almost painful desire. . . . In the past, I have grasped at whatever ushered me into the enchanted realm beyond the veil--the sleeve of my husband's crisply striped shirt, the roses fresh-cut from my rosebushes and sitting in a bowl on the counter, the crescendo of the organ as we sing the name of Jesus in church--in an attempt to replicate the experience and so quench my desire to live in moments of mystery. This never works.

Summer may be the time when our escape impulse is most intense; it may even be the time when escape seems most sensible and achievable. This is summer, after all, where everything flourishes and even blazes with life. But for the church, summer means Ordinary Time.

Starting a mere week after Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the miraculous anointing of the church, and lasting till Advent, when our longing for the return of God becomes so acute that we can no longer ignore it--Ordinary Time is the longest season in the church calendar. Ordinary Time is so ordinary that according to many traditions it happens twice each year: from barely summer to nearly winter, and between Epiphany and Lent.

It strikes me that the Scriptures prepare the church for this prolonged ordinariness. Pentecost is marked in the early verses of Acts 2 with a big bang--fire and wind and dynamic preaching and mass conversion and all that stuff. But it very quickly gives way to the later verses of Acts 2, which are profound in their plainness. Here the Scriptures describe teaching and eating and praying (oh my). Even miracles are described in the passive voice. If you want to get your church all riled up, read them Acts 2:1-41. If you're brushing up on your bureaucracy, read 42-47.

Of course, there's awfully cool stuff happening in the ordinary days of the Church of Latter Acts 2. Passive or not, wonders and miraculous signs were done. Meals were shared. Property was redistributed according to need. The people's favor was enjoyed. And daily, the chapter ends by observing, people were being saved.

Kimberlee notes that the veil separating us from a more wondrous view of God is not really ours to pull back.

No one can look on God and live. It is not simply because we are sinful and God is holy. No, it is because God is real, and our finite minds cannot comprehend nor our frail bodies bear the eternity and majesty--the utter realness--of God.

Instead, when we embrace Ordinary Time as part of whole gift of our existence, we sometimes find ourselves pleasantly surprised by how thin the space we occupy actually is. The veil itself drops long enough to give us a sideways glance behind it at ultimate reality. We're reminded that even the most ordinary time is undergirded by something extraordinary.

We live the bulk of our lives in the daily, doing the same tasks again and again--preparing food, showering, dressing, checking voicemail or email, doing dishes or laundry, commuting to work--and it can come to feel like a grind, pointless and redundant. But it is precisely because these tasks are daily that they have such transformative potential. . . .

In sharpening our physical senses to be more aware of this world, we are also quickening our spirits, opening them to the earthly beauty that surrounds us so that we will be more ready to receive visions of the unearthly beauty that lies just beyond our senses on the other side of the veil. As with any grace, we cannot force or demand such a vision. We can only wait for it, attentively and hopefully, as we engage in the relationships and work that constitute our lives.

The most extraordinary moments, it seems, come not when we run away from the ordinary but when we walk by faith right through it.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Life Moves Pretty Fast: A Tribute to Ferris Bueller

Twenty-five years ago today, my life changed forever. That was the day that Ferris Bueller's Day Off was released in theaters.

I almost certainly didn't see it that day. I'm usually behind the curve on film releases. But lots of people did see it, including most likely the woman who sat in front of me in the theater the first time I saw it. The credits were rolling; Principal Rooney had already flicked the warm and soft Gummy Bear generously offered by his schoolbus seatmate into the head of the kid in front of him; the bus had driven off into the distance as the screen faded to black. All that was left of the credits were gaffers and key grips and craft table supervisors. I and several people around me were gathering our things and standing up to go when the woman who sat in front of me turned around and yelled a near-desperate command: "Don't leave yet!"

I do what I'm told. So I sat down and suffered through the remainder of the credits, my patience only slightly buttressed by the catchy song "Oh Yeah" playing through the end. Then, silence and black screen. Then, out of nowhere, a hallway scene from the Bueller house. Around the corner comes Ferris: "You're still here? It's over! Go home! Go!" I do what I'm told, so I left with Ferris's permission, as well as his benediction which has stuck with me for a quarter of a century now: "Life moves pretty fast. You don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

My high school friends and I watched Ferris Bueller's Day Off whenever possible. We memorized it and tested each other's acuity by it by quoting random scenes entirely out of context. We fantasized about recreating it ourselves: I would play the part of Ferris (I was honored when a few years later a random New Orleans girl would tell a friend of mine I looked just like Matthew Broderick); my friend Pat would play Cameron; and whichever girl we were obsessed with at the moment and thought would be open to the idea would play the part of Sloane Peterson. The city of Chicago would be played by Des Moines, Iowa, and the Ferrari would be played by Pat's yellow Plymouth Horizon. I believe Pat was willing to let the car be destroyed in the end.

I still watch Ferris on a fairly regular basis. I still quote it too. It's still, in my opinion, the best thing Charlie Sheen's ever done (although Men at Work was pretty entertaining.) Sometimes I do something adorable just in the hopes that my wife will say, "How'd you get to be so cute?" only so I can say, "Years of practice." I've written about Ferris more than once, sometimes even critically (although Burnside Writers Collective has attributed it to Jordan Green--what's up with that?!?).

If Ferrisism were a religion, part of its liturgy would include a confession: "We have not stopped and looked around once in a while. We have missed life." For twenty-five years now, that nagging thought has been tucked away in my brain. Sometimes I've looked around in response; more often, I suspect, I've ignored its admittedly benign instruction and kept either powering through or glazing over. I'm reminded of Frederick Buechner's definition of "sloth":

A slothful man . . . may be a very busy man. He is a man who goes through the motions, who flies on automatic pilot. Like a man with a bad head cold, he has mostly lost his sense of taste and smell. He knows something is wrong with him, but not wrong enough to do anything about. Other people come and go, but through glazed eyes he hardly notices them. He is letting things run their course. He is getting through his life.

Good point there. After all, he was a Pulitzer Prize nominee. I could be a Pulitzer Prize nominee, and I'd still have to bum rides off people.

Anyway, here's to Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Thanks for the memories, and thanks for all future 103 minutes of joy you'll bring me in the years to come. And here's a thought: Who's up for "Frederick Buechner's Day Off"? Anyone? Anyone? Buechner? Buechner?

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Leave Wayne Alone

Last night Wayne, a homeless guy in the Western Suburbs of Chicago, was once again tried and found guilty of being annoying and weird. And so, as punishment, someone took all his stuff and threw it in a dumpster.

I have a good idea who did it, but I have no idea what to do about it. For whatever reason, the guy I suspect--who's among the friendlier folks at the shelter, and who has had my back more than once when things got a little weird--has it in for Wayne. He delights in frustrating Wayne; he takes unprovoked pot shots at Wayne, he looks for opportunities to make Wayne's life a little more miserable.

I'm sure there's a backstory I'm not aware of. Maybe Wayne did something accidental but nevertheless unforgivable somewhere along the way. Maybe Wayne's more nefarious than I give him credit for; maybe he's provoking the other guy during the 166 hours a week I don't see either of them. Maybe Wayne is a master of playing the victim when there are proto-authority figures around, but outside the shelter all bets are off.

I'm also sure that Wayne is weird; some of what he fished out of the dumpster could reasonably be assumed to be trash, and yet he stopped me when I made a move to throw it back in. Every week he asks me and anyone else close at hand, "Is today Wednesday?" over and over and over again. He's pretty unkempt and I've not observed him practicing any personal grooming in all the time I've known him. He wore a leg brace for more than fifty-two weeks straight.

I can also imagine how annoying Wayne could get, given more than two hours a week together. I've played the victim myself every now and then, and I've seen how annoyed my friends get; imagine being my poor brother as I systematically complained to my parents about him without merit, to gain sympathy or strategic advantage. Victims--especially people who relish their victimhood--are annoying. Sometimes you want to punish them for it.

There was another victim this morning. His cell phone went missing, and he went on a rant that for a while there made me fear for my safety. I tried to help him; so did several of the other volunteers. But he didn't want to be helped; he wanted to rant and rage. The guy who I think is torturing Wayne noticed that I was a little freaked out by this other guy and got in his face for me. I'm grateful for that. But neither ranting and raging, nor getting in his face, nor trying to play peacemaker, nor throwing Wayne's stuff in the trash, nor even fishing his stuff out of the trash--none of that made anything better. This morning, frankly, sucked.

Here are my new house rules for the two hours a week I allow myself to be in the company of the homeless:

* Don't steal people's stuff. There's never been a civilization in the history of the world where this was OK, and the shelter is no exception.

* Don't lash out at people who are trying to help. It's OK to be frustrated, but it's not OK to take it out on the innocent.

* Don't cuss or make threats of physical harm in front of kids. I don't care that we're in a church basement, honestly. I've been in plenty of church basements that have made me want to cuss. But kids who don't have a bed of their own don't need to wake up to something additional that's awful.

* Leave Wayne alone. I know he's weird, and I imagine he gets annoying. But so do I, and so do you. Grow up, for God's sake.