Piece of the Puzzle

random musings on whatever…

Reflections on the messages of the Goose

Part 2 — To read part 1 go here.

I’ve already tried to describe a little of what going to the Wild Goose Festival is like in Part 1: What is the Wild Goose Festival and what is it like? Now I want to take just a couple more paragraphs to reflect on the messages of the Goose. I’m so impressed by the big names that come and speak at this festival every year. I can’t say enough about how inspiring and energizing the experience was but I’ll mention a few of my favorite things from this year’s (2019) festival, in no particular order.

The opening night speaker was Otis Moss III. His talk was energizing but to be honest I don’t remember much of what he said. I don’t think that is his fault. He spoke on opening night and so much happened since then it just got pushed out of my brain. I’ve heard him speak before and I’ve always come way impressed.

I also love hearing Barbara Brown Taylor speak. She was interviewed about her new book, “Holy Envy.” I tried to buy a copy the next day in the festival bookstore but it was already sold out. I’ll be buying a copy now that I’m home. She wrote the book as a tribute to students she’s taught as a world religions professor. She writes of their experiences learning about other religions as well as how we can learn from each others’ faiths. Again, I don’t really remember a lot of the details but I was left with the feeling that this is a book I definitely need to read.

William Barber, a Disciples of Christ Minister and found of the Poor People’s Campaign, is also always inspiring. He made a passionate call for a “moral Pentecost” – right here and right now! It’s something we should all be concerned about and consider getting involved with: https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/.

One of the musical groups was the Nine Beats Collective, a world-wide ranging group who gathered to do music inspired by the Beatitudes. Check them out: https://9beats.org/.

In a smaller workshop I attended one of the speakers talked about forgiveness not only being about the “sinner” but also about the victim of the “sin” and the pain of those sinned against. We can’t claim innocence but need to deal with our complicity in others’ pain. That seemed like a point worth hanging onto for further reflection.

Christy Berghoef, Brian McLaren, and John Pavlovitz had a panel discussion on civil discourse vs. prophetic voice. I found it engaging because this is a tension I’ve felt as a minister. I would paraphrase the conundrum like this: Do we work on building relationships with those we disagree with, which might involve holding our tongue or moderating what we say and how we say it? Or do we bluntly tell the truth as we understand it and let the chips fall where they may, even if it may break relationships instead of building them? Berghoef was new to me and I’ve always admired McLaren’s work. I knew of Pavlovitz before this talk but he’s always seemed too confrontational to me. I came away impressed by him. I’m a fan now. One thing he talked about is while he uses his prophetic voice in social media and comes across as a jerk to many, he also tries to engage in dialog with those he angers. So maybe there’s a line here where we can be truth-tellers and still be relationship-builders. I hope so.

Another person who was new to me was Stan Mitchell. While many of the messages I heard over the weekend were energizing and inspiring, his really touched my heart. The weird thing is, I’m not really sure why because what he was saying was pretty much what I’ve tried to preach myself but perhaps presented in a little different (better?) way. Or maybe it just had to do with where I was spiritually and emotionally in the moment. Anyway, what he was talking about was coming from a church where he was taught of his supposed inherent evil and separation from God as a fallen human being. He gave interpretations of the Garden of Eden story and of the Parable of the Prodigal Son to make the point that we are not inherently evil but we are inherently beautiful, good, and beloved by God. Some points to ponder: it’s not sin that separates us from God but shame. When Eve covered up her nakedness in the Garden, it wasn’t because she was bad and she had to be covered before God would come near her but she needed to cover up so *she* would be comfortable in God’s presence. It wasn’t about sin, but about shame. God doesn’t separate from us, but we separate from God. Further, he didn’t like the word separation but preferred estrangement from God because estrangement implies that in our natural state we belong with God. Separation is space between two (potentially unrelated) things. Estrangement is space between two things that belong together. Mitchell didn’t state it, but I think the estrangement terminology comes from the theologian Paul Tillich. Also, talking about the Prodigal Son, Mitchell pointed out that the father in the parable never goes looking for the son who squandered his wealth. But he does go looking for the son that had stayed home but doesn’t come to the feast. That is, the lost one in the parable is really the elder son. There was more to it, but I think it is a point worth reflection. I wish I had a video of this sermon. It really made me think about shame and what shame I might carry with me that estranges me from the Holy.

So, perhaps the big question is that now I’m home, how do I carry this experience into my every day life. With current events, the plight of children housed in concentration camps by my own government is on my heart… one of many important, emotionally deflating, and often inter-related issues (for example, what’s happening to those children is directly related to racism and the white nationalism espoused by our president). Can I do something about it? How can I use my prophetic voice and my circles of influence to create justice in the world?

My post festival to-do list: 1) find my niche in justice seeking and 2) make time for my spiritual practices that I might get in touch with my inner shame and draw closer to the Holy. Will I do these things? Only God knows for sure what the future holds, but here’s a prayer that the Wild Goose (i.e. the Holy Spirit) will fly before me, leading me (and all of us) into the Way of God’s kin-dom of love and justice.

What is the Wild Goose Festival and what is it like?

This past weekend I was in Hot Springs, North Carolina, attending the Wild Goose Festival. This was the 9th year of the festival and my second time there (I previously went in 2017 while I was on sabbatical). The name of the festival, as the lore is told, comes from the wild goose as a Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit. This is the Holy Spirit not as the demure dove we normally think of but as wild, untamed, and unpredictable. Now, as I’ve been home less than 24 hours, I want to tell everyone about this wonderfully inspiring experience. I’m going to divide this into two parts. Part one will be about the atmosphere of the Goose (as they shorten it for those in the know) and part two will be some short reflections on some of the messages I heard.

Part 1 – To skip to Part 2 go here. You might also be interested in this article on the Religion News Service site.

The festival is part Progressive Christianity conference and part music festival, all held in a Woodstock-like way. It was created, so we’re told, as an American version of the Greenbelt festival in Great Britain. Since I know nothing about Greenbelt, I’ll just take their word for it. What I do know is that the Wild Goose Festival is a truly energizing and inspiring collection of speakers, talented musicians, and dedicated, progressive Christians and activists. Some folks are well-known names and many aren’t.

The festival runs from a Thursday evening until noon-ish on Sunday. As Hot Springs, North Carolina, is about a ten hour drive from my home in Southwest Michigan, I took two days to get there, driving seven hours, staying in a hotel and then making the final three hour drive on the day the festival opens. The festival is held at a campground so if you want to get the full experience you’ll want to camp with 3000 or so of your new friends. I don’t actually know how many people were there but the number I’ve heard thrown around is three to four thousand. Both times I’ve went, I rented a tent and air mattress from a very friendly lady who does all the set up and tear down and also has a bonfire every night for her campers who want to get away from the big crowds and just sit and chat. Not having to worry about the tent and air mattress, I was able to go with minimal equipment. If you go, don’t forget to take, besides clothes, a water bottle, flashlight, rain gear, and a camp chair (or you can also rent a camp chair from the same lady if you go that route). I ate out of the half-dozen food trucks that were there so no need to lug along a camp stove and food unless you want to. Of course, you may also want to bring a notebook, pen and maybe reading material for the downtime you probably won’t have 🙂 The other thing about camping… there aren’t nearly enough showers or regular toilets for so many people so plan on getting a little ripe and doing nature’s business in a porta-john. That’s part of the camping experience, though. But you will look forward to the Sunday evening hotel stay and a real shower. Also, no vehicles are allowed on site from 4 pm Thursday until after closing services on Sunday. Everyone parks in a huge field across the street from the campground. Cell service is also sketchy on site, we were told. I don’t know because I chose to leave my cell phone turned off and locked in my car all weekend. There is a charging station setup for those who just can’t leave their electronics behind. You can also walk a short distance into town for wifi if you need to.

Most of the folks seemed to be either “main-line” protestants or evangelicals who’ve grown away from conservative theology. It’s a great mix of old and young, queer and straight. I’m encouraged that so many (the majority?) of the folks seem to be from the South. Living in the Midwest, I think we get a skewed view of our brothers and sisters in the South and start to think they’re all conservative fundamentalists. That’s just fake news 🙂 Loving, welcoming Christians are everywhere! Of course, you’ll also find people at the festival from the East and Midwest and all over, really. The festival could use a little more diversity, though, in that it was mostly white folks. People of color were well represented on the main stage as far as speakers and musicians, but the audience, although there were people of color too, was mostly white.

The festival begins on Thursday evening with some music and an opening speaker. This year the opening speaker was the very dynamic Rev. Otis Moss III from Trinity UCC in Chicago. After he spoke, a band did a set. Each night after the evening band(s), there was also Beer & Hymns. Not so much my thing, but for many Beer & Hymns is one of their favorite events. It’s just what it says: you get a beer from the beer tent (or not), walk 20 feet over to another tent and sing your favorite hymns with a bunch of other people.

Mornings at the Goose begin with a key-note speaker and more music. Friday this year, the speaker was Diana Butler Bass and Saturday it was Rev. William Barber. Barber in particular is one of my favorites. After the key-note, there are more well-known speakers on the main stage until noon but there are also other seminars and workshops going all day. One tent, the Cafe, is setup for musicians to play all day long from 10 am to 6 pm so that’s about 16 different acts over two days in an intimate setting. I really enjoyed just popping in a couple of times over the weekend to soak up some music from people who I never heard of before but who were really talented. There are also 7-8 or more other tents where workshops are run in one hour blocks during that same 10 to 6 time frame as well as another tent they were calling the Convo Hall where folks were gathered in smaller, more conversational meetings. So, basically, if you do the math, there is so much more going on than a person can possibly participate in. You have to pick and choose and just give up your schedule to the Spirit (or the Goose?). The workshops and talks are led by a wonderful mix of people who you might consider famous as well as dedicated and passionate people you’ll be hearing of for the first time. There’s also a book store tent that sells books from all the different speakers and presenters. Musicians also usually have merchandise at the bookstore or at their performance(s).

Some of the talks I heard:

“A Bold New Religion Called Love. Period.” – Jacqui Lewis

“Holy Envy” – Barbara Brown Taylor being interviewed by Sojourner CEO Rob Wilson about her new book

“Doing (Responsible) Theology in the Age of Trump”

“Reverend Sex and the Gospel of the Erotic”

“Why Would Anyone Still Be a Christian?”

“The 701 Club with Helen Holy” – satirical comedian

“Best Practices for New Writers” – Barbara Brown Taylor and Brian Allain

There were dozens of other things going on that I missed because not only are things happening at the same time but I also made time for eating, napping, book shopping and taking in some of the music.

Friday and Saturday evenings were all about music. The main stage takes a break starting at 2 pm as they work on mic checks and getting things ready for the evening. Beginning at 6 pm and going until 11 pm, different music acts are featured. Someone performs a set on the main stage and when they’re done someone else performs on a side stage while they get the main stage setup for the next act. This way, you pretty much get constant music for those 5 hours. The big headliner on Saturday this year was Beth Nielsen Chapman, who was about the only music act I had heard of before (but they were all great). And, while all the musicians were within the ethos of Progressive Christianity, some were overtly religious acts and many weren’t. The only bummer about the music was that both Friday and Saturday they had to shut the main stage down for a while as thunder storms rolled through. It caused only a delay on Friday but it cut Chapman’s set short on Saturday.

Sunday morning happens all on the main stage as the festival wraps up. It began with a panel discussion with Brian McLaren, Christy Berghoef, and John Pavlovitz about “Prophetic Voice or Civil Discourse,” followed by a message by Stan Mitchell (who was unknown to me but now I’m a fan) which I found particularly moving, and ending with a message by Yvette Flunder – all with a little music thrown in here and there. I actually left before Rev. Flunder was done speaking. Her message was great, but at noon she was still going and I was ready to hit the road. I did miss closing communion by leaving early. If you bring enough camping gear that you need to bring your car to your camping site to load up, then you’re kind of stuck and can’t leave early (but maybe that’s a good thing). They don’t let cars on site until after the final service is finished. And, although I left early, I left fully energized and looking forward to next year. Yes, I’ve already bought my tickets for 2020!

Fostering Life

It is hard these days not to think about the political situation in our nation and world. Every day conversations seem to drift toward our nation’s difficulties even when we’d really rather not go there. Perhaps worse, it often feels to me as if the ability to have rational, grown-up discussions about our feelings, beliefs, and values is disappearing. Every day, the American culture becomes more and more close-minded and polarized. We stake out our positions, often attributing them to our religion and declaring God is on our side. We regularly create an us vs. them atmosphere instead of acting on the truth that we are all in this together – that we really, truly need each other.

Now, many folks think religion should stay out of politics. This view, however, assumes religion is only about getting into heaven after we die. In fact, religion and politics, at their core, are both about how we get along and live with each other as communities in the here and now. Personally, I believe religious institutions should never wield political power but are better suited to the role of prophet, a critic of morals and ethics. Our spiritual views do and must inform our political opinions. We will, of course, still disagree on many things but for Christians who truly try to follow Christ and his teachings, it provides us an ethical basis of love.

In the eleventh chapter of Acts, the apostle Peter tells of his vision about the splits in the early Christian community. In essence, Peter is told in his vision to get out of God’s way, to stop making rules that keep people from a relationship with the Divine. He’s told to stop trying to put God in a nice neat box that conforms to his personal opinions and to stop imposing those views on others and demonizing them. Peter comes to understand that following Christ is to know that God is forever still speaking, that following Christ is to be open-minded. It means opening our hearts with love and compassion to those who are different than us. It’s about building relationships and not walls. The “us” vs “them” attitude goes against the very nature of who God calls us to be as Christians.

Jesus teaches that we will be known as one of his disciples by our love. If love is not the first thing the world thinks of when the word “Christian” is mentioned, then it’s time to ask ourselves if we have strayed from the path. Too often, people hear “Christian” and think “hypocrite.” For all that we preach about love, we so often fail to actually love each other. Instead, we get caught up in whether everyone is behaving as we think they should. We create ways to test and judge each other.

Christian hypocrisy often shows up in our political views. Lately, abortion has been in the news. It is an emotional subject for everyone but, whatever our position, as Christians we need to ask if it is based in love and compassion. I believe it is completely reasonable and rational to be both “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” However, the real point I want to make is that if we proclaim as Christians we are pro-life (and I think caring about the preciousness of each and every life is a very Jesus-like thing to do), then in addition to the potential life of that unborn child are we also concerned with the life of the mother, an already realized, actual life?

Are we concerned about the abuse of guns and our culture of violence?

Are we concerned about making sure healthcare is available to everyone?

Are we concerned about refugee children forcibly separated from their families?

Are we concerned about paying workers livable wages?

Are we concerned about educating our young folks?

Are we concerned about climate change and the abuse of our planet?

Because these are all pro-life issues too!

When we put conditions on our love, when we only love those who think and act like we do, we are putting God in a box of our making and God will not be put in a box. God is a God of the unexpected, putting the last first. God is a God of love without conditions – what we do to the least of these, we do to God. Everyone is worthy of being loved. If we are to be followers of Jesus then we too are asked to get out of God’s way and let God lead. If we are to be followers of Jesus we are to be known by our love. We are to love the whole world whether it be a friend, someone in need, or an enemy. We are called to love as Jesus loved: to embrace the poor and oppressed, to heal those in distress, and to forgive those who have wronged us. It all starts with us: are we tuned into what God is doing in the world, are we following God? Or are we trying to put God in a box, trying to get God to follow us? Each of us is loved by God! Without condition! So let us get out of God’s way, that that Divine love may flow through us and into the world.

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This reflection first appeared in my church’s newsletter on May 31, 2019. the church website can be found at: http://www.phoenixchurch.org.

Gay AND Christian

On June 2, 2019 I had the honor of sharing a few words at an Interfaith Pride Service in Kalamazoo, MI. Here is what I shared:

I have known many people who have struggled with reconciling their religious faith with their sexuality and gender identity. Too often religious institutions have tried to tell us who identify as queer in some way, who find ourselves in the rainbow of LGBTQA, that we should be who we are not. Because of this, many have been driven away from their religion or even abandoned their faith journey altogether.

My story, however, is a little bit different. I grew up going to a sort-of conservative Christian protestant church in northern Michigan. But when I went to college, my religion fell by the wayside. Much of the teaching and doctrine just didn’t ring true anymore and it no longer held a lot of meaning for me. And it really had nothing to do with my sexual orientation.

It was actually finally dealing with my own inability to accept myself as gay, coming out at the age of 30, that I found myself back on a spiritual path. I heard of this group called Phoenix Community Church that had a lot of gay people and some allies and I thought hey, that sounds like a safe way to meet people.

The church was started in 1988 by a group of 18 or so folks after one of the founding pastors was fired from his previous church a year earlier because of his sexual orientation. And those brave folks decided that they needed a safe and welcoming place to explore their spirituality, where they could be true to themselves, and they gave birth to Phoenix Community Church.

These many years later I find myself the pastor of that church but that is a whole ‘nother story. When I encountered the church for the first time back in 1996, I found what I was looking for. I’ve met many absolutely wonderful people there through the years. But I also found what I was not looking for. I found God again.

I found a place that accepted me and supported me.

I found a place that taught the truth that God loves me unconditionally, that I didn’t need to change.

A place that encouraged questions and didn’t claim to have all the answers.

A place that even acknowledged, celebrated, and learned from spiritual paths other than Christianity while still maintaining a Christian foundation.

And in the journey that brought me to this church, that brought me back into relationship with the Divine, I found a couple of things that really stand out for me in this intersection where our spirituality and our sexual and gender identities meet.

First, being queer and Christian forces us to question the status quo. To think for ourselves. We can’t just accept whatever traditional doctrine that we’re told to believe.

This questioning and challenging is a gift that queer people give to the church and all religious institutions. It’s how we can learn and grow in our spirituality and in all aspects of life. From a Christian perspective it’s also very Jesus-like. Jesus was always challenging the status quo and trying to make people think.

Second, I learned I have a right to my spiritual identity as much as I have a right to my sexual identity. Queer people are the loved children of the Divine and our inherent, God-given worthiness is not up for debate. If we cannot find a spiritual community where we feel welcome than we do what queer people have been doing for a long time – we create our own. Luckily for us here in Kalamazoo, we already have options.

But, no matter what, no matter what others say, no matter which religious framework we put around our spiritual journey, no matter our sexual orientation or gender identity, let us celebrate the fabulous people we were created to be by this Divine, loving energy we sometimes call God. Thank you for hearing my story.

Follow me on Instagram

Ok, started a new account on Instagram and have been playing around on there… check it out if you want: https://www.instagram.com/kennethwarthur/

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