Why Wild Goose Matters

Photo by Nate Baker-Lutz, used by permission of InterVarsity Press

Photo via Wild Goose Festival Facebook page, Photo by Nate Baker-Lutz, used by permission of InterVarsity Press

I just got back a few days ago from a campsite outside of Asheville, N.C., the site of the third annual Wild Goose Festival. For those who are unfamiliar with the event, imagine and old-fashioned days-long outdoor revival, combined with Bonaroo and a traveling circus. For several days, authors, activists, artisans, musicians, and seekers converge to engage in spontaneous community, share ideas and to inspire one another.

It's not every day that you can walk by a makeshift tent and listen to Phyllis Tickle succinctly summarize the history of Christendom in 45 minutes, and then wander over and pick up a vegetarian pita sandwich while on your way to hear the Indigo Girls perform. Impassioned conversations emerge all on your walk about everything from child trafficking to the state of the institutional church in the 21st century. And you're only momentarily distracted by the guy on stilts, wearing a hat covered in goose feathers who wanders by for no apparent reason.

Welcome to Wild Goose.

Creating Connections by Erasing Boundaries

discpicture / Shutterstock

Paper chain surrounding the globe. discpicture / Shutterstock

NEW YORK — I sat with my gospel choir colleagues, in a pew, while the host choir at Park Avenue Synagogue rehearsed a lovely Psalm setting in Hebrew.

Some sang the Hebrew text with ease, some with difficulty — a reminder that faith generally means learning a language other than one’s own.

After the synagogue choir sang in their other-language, we joined them to sing in our other-language: swaying to the beat, getting one’s body into the praise. They responded gladly, as our combined choirs rehearsed Richard Smallwood’s epic “Total Praise,” a setting of Psalm 121, which Christians and Jews share.

When two choirs from Park Avenue Christian Church and two choirs from Park Avenue Synagogue, plus some jazz musicians, performed Sunday, at a Psalms festival, we disrupted 2,000 years of animus between Christians and Jews. In the eyes of the creator God who made us all, we said, we are more alike than different, more connected than separated, more eager for shared faith than for separate and superior faith.

Modern Hymn Writers Revive a Lost Musical Art

Hymnals at a church, Alexander A.Trofimov / Shutterstock.com

Hymnals at a church, Alexander A.Trofimov / Shutterstock.com

Most songwriters in Nashville want to get their songs on the radio. Keith and Kristyn Getty hope their songs end up in dusty old hymnbooks.

The Gettys, originally from Belfast, Ireland, hope to revive the art of hymn writing at a time when the most popular new church songs are written for rock bands rather than choirs.

They’ve had surprising success.

One of the first songs that Keith co-wrote, called “In Christ Alone,” has been among the top 20 songs sung in newer churches in the United States for the past five years, according to Christian Copyright Licensing International. It is also a favorite in more traditional venues — including the recent enthronement service for Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

Hearing that hymn sung by a boys’ choir with a brass ensemble and thousands of worshippers was a thrill for Keith Getty, a self-described classical nerd.

Reclaiming the Commons

Soho Square, London, pablo / Shutterstock.com

Soho Square, London, pablo / Shutterstock.com

The commons was the name for the public space shared by all in New England towns. It is the root of commonwealth, a nice term for an entire civic entity, like a state, in which every citizen is viewed as a stake-holder. Its values are the opposite of those decried in the lament “private wealth and public squalor.” The commons are the opposite of gated communities. 

Today, there are two crises of the commons — one on the right and one on the left. One is indifference to the commons, even starving the commons. This means the demise of “social capital” (the sum total of all social networks and human investments in a community or polity) and civic values shared by all, and their surrender to utilitarian individualism and the dominance of the market. The other is the argument over what discourse style is appropriate to the commons — what language should be spoken and what subjects allowed in public life. Hint: lucid rationality is in, religion is out.

Discipleship and Strangers: A Cup of Cold Water

Cup of cold water, Gunnar Pippel / Shutterstock.com

Cup of cold water, Gunnar Pippel / Shutterstock.com

During this time of Lent I’ve been meditating anew what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Interestingly, the only Gospel to contain the word ekklesia — church — is the Gospel of Matthew. Also in Matthew is an interesting take on the call of the disciples. Matthew 10 begins with the premise that as disciples we are all are potentially homeless in a world that has radically different values. Immediately after Jesus calls the 12 disciples, he warns them that they will be misunderstood, mistreated, and often on the road. Then Jesus gives a particular imperative for discipleship. I call it the “cup of cold water” discipleship test. Part of the discipleship marker is hospitality. A cup of cold water is a reprieve, a welcome, a new start.

A cup of cold water is the minimal requirement for what the Scripture calls hospitality or in the original language, xenophilia — love of the stranger. Jesus says that whoever gives a cup of cold water to these nomadic disciples will not fail to receive their reward. Hospitality is a Christian virtue. The writer of the book of Hebrews reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers for some have entertained angels unaware.”

Christianity Is Not a Club

Red carpet image, disfera/ Shutterstock.com

Red carpet image, disfera/ Shutterstock.com

On the road, listening to NPR's Terry Gross interview Lawrence Wright, author of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, and having recently spent two hours at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum seeing the Nazis photographed, not in the usual black and white, but in the full colors of the natural world, it occurred that the human impulse to be part of an exclusive group has deep, powerful roots in religion.

People join "true churches" for this same impulse, a motivation that could not be further from the intention of the Gospel, which, at the heart of its mission, contains the abolition of exclusivity of any kind.

Christ following is not about joining the best club, but about following where Christ leads, straight into the company of every person, no matter their situation or circumstances, in order to be a servant to them, one who lays down his or her life, like Jesus, for the life of the world.

We were made for Communion with God and our neighbor, who Jesus tells us is every person.

Scientology, National Socialism, and other cults, past or present, religious or tribal, are modern forms of Gnosticism. They say, in varying ways, "We have something (usually 'knowledge') not publicly available to everyone and you must join us, submit to us, to participate in our secret." It's important to recognize that this is also an offer of power.

Unexpected Grace in Les Miz

Movie poster for "Les Misérables" from Universal Studios, Christmas, 2012

Movie poster for "Les Misérables" from Universal Studios, Christmas, 2012

For many centuries Christmas Day worshippers have been hearing these words as their New Testament reading: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11). Grace, everyone used to know, is foundational to the Christian Gospel.

But this Christmas I’m noticing the surprising version of grace in Les Miserables, already seen by 60 million people as a musical and now as a film. Victor Hugo’s novel may be seen as a story of grace transforming in the life of the common man Jean Valjean and grace rejected in the life of the rigid functionary Javert.

As the story begins, Jean Valjean is being released from 19 winters of imprisonment for having stolen some bread to save his sister’s son from starving. But in the eyes of Javert, Valjean will always be a thief, which is his nature, because he has not learned the meaning of the law. Crushed under this ideological overlay, Valjean sees himself as a slave of the law — in a way remarkably similar to that of St. Paul, who makes grace and law antithetical. The chorus confirms it: “Look down, you will always be a slave.”

In his first job after prison, Valjean is deliberately underpaid. When he objects, the boss says: “Why should you get the same as honest men like me?” (Jesus once told a parable about laborers in a vineyard to open people’s eyes to grace.) Valjean concludes that society has closed every door to him. When he is refused lodging, the innkeeper says: “We’re law-abiding people here. Thanks be to God.” The conservative identification with the law is commonly made in alliance with God, while Victor Hugo seems to understand that the Christian vision identifies grace, not law, with God.