Itchy Intentions for a Messy World: A Tale of Two Festivals

A dozen bug bites and one gold intention bracelet.

My arm, currently adorned with both, has become a living totem pole of sorts this week, a reminder of two different spiritual communities I entered into, and was gifted by, within a week of each other. From the hot, humid and muddy campground of the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina (the bug bites) to the serene, flower-filled air-conditioned rooms of the Wake Up Festival in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado (the intention bracelet), my arm tells a hopeful story of myself and others being bit, infected, and sent back into the world with the sacred intention to love.

The Wild Goose and the Wake Up. Two very different festivals to look at them from the outside. The Wild Goose (a Celtic metaphor for the Holy Spirit) is produced by and geared toward progressive and disaffected Christians, featuring talks by renowned Christian authors, activists, and theologians (think Phyllis Tickle, Brian McLaren, Vincent Harding and Nadia Bolz-Weber) amidst hundreds of tents and pop-up campers in the dense woods of the Smoky Mountains.

The Wake Up, sponsored by the publisher Sounds True, summons the “spiritual but not religious” crowd  - yoginis, meditation practitioners, healers, seekers, poets, philosophers, and a few Christians too – to a spacious YMCA camp/retreat center at 7,522 feet high in the Rocky Mountains. Both festivals only a few years old. Both drawing thousands of attendees. Different crowds and intentions yes, and yet…

Anne Lamott, arguably the funniest Christian author writing today, remarked on the last night of the Wake Up Fest, “We’re all really about the same thing — we’re all just trying to learn how to love better.”

Doh! We’re all just trying to learn how to love better. Of all the wise and beautiful words I’d heard over the past two weeks – and there were countless – Lamott’s spoke the deepest truth for me. (Sometimes, less is much more for me.) Christian, Buddhist, Jew, “None” … are we not all just trying to learn how to love better? It dawned on me  – that’s why I go to church. I’m trying to learn how to love better, and my faith community helps me to do that. I think it’s also a fantastic and clear description for the progressive Christian movement – trying to learn how to love better … learning to love as Jesus loved. And not the sappy Christian sentimental, Thomas Kincade painting kind of love, the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber reminded us at the Goose, but the messy, joining in the suffering and serving your neighbors and strangers kind of love. Now that’s a shared spirituality I can get behind.

A few other noticings of a shared spirit from these two awakening communities:

Generosity

I experienced an even deeper sense of generosity at the Wild Goose Festival this year than last. Everywhere you turned it seemed, someone was offering you a piece of chocolate, or a cold drink, or inviting you to share dinner with them. At a standing-room-only talk I attended at a local pub where I was leaning up against the railing, the couple on the inside of the railing offered me part of their lunch and then bought me a beer. (The talk, by the way, between Progressive Muslim Ani Zonneveld and Progressive Christian Brian McLaren gave me goosebumps). My friend Todd Wynward, a Goose devotee and passionate activist and his Mennonite friend, made green chile cornbread for a small group one night, and then again for the Festival’s closing communion (praying all the while that the miracle of the loaves and the fishes would be true for them, too!). People are coming to the Goose not just to receive, but with a desire to share as well.

At the Wake Up Festival, I passed the peace with strangers, I blessed the sacred intentions of strangers, I received healing from energy medicine practitioners and wise yoginis.  I sat at table with fellow pilgrims: a lesbian couple from Toronto; an elderly man from Japan; two young women both navigating divorces — all of whom shared their stories with me (and some chocolate) over a meal. Church, no?

Holy Spirit Dance Party

Saturday night at the Goose found me and a thousand other ecstatic Christians dancing and singing to the Indigo Girls in a muddy field under the stars. Many later described it as a religious experience they had never had before. And while I opted out of the late night Disco parties hosted by Homebrewed Christianity’s one-and-only Tripp Fuller, many others stayed and danced the night away.

The first night of the Wake Up Festival found me in a roomful of pulsating bodies joined in a free-form dance prayer as part of the rave-like Cosmic Mass led by the radical Catholic theologian Matthew Fox. Each of us dancing our own unique expression of gratitude, but in community and with a common prayerful purpose. In both experiences, I was reminded again that we are embodied creatures with a deep desire and need to express our gratitude, grief, joy and pain through our bodies. Dancing is a powerful release, an organic expression of our very human being-ness, and … c’mon, it’s just fun! No-holds-barred embodied prayer should be a regular part of a life of faith.

In Service Of…

The spirituality world often gets criticized for being self-absorbed “navel-gazers.” The teachers and presenters from the Wake Up Festival reinforced just how wrong that perception is. Kelly McGonigal, a brilliant neuroscience researcher from Stanford — who also happens to be a yoga teacher — presented research on the brain proving that meditation actually makes us more willing to engage the world, more willing to be with people in suffering. Stilling the mind and heart was shown to activate the left frontal cortex of the brain, the one that basically says “Yes, I’ll do it, even though it’s hard.”

Community

In a final presentation at the Wake Up, Jewish Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, author of After the Ecstasy, The Laundry, delivered some solid advice on being an awakened person of service in the world:  1) Find a community (you can’t do this alone); 2) Develop a regular practice that quiets the mind, steadies the heart and reminds you of who you are; and 3) Accept the messiness of life (what he calls “Glorious Imperfection), and do your work anyway. The point is not to perfect your life, but to perfect your love. Not bad advice for us Christian folk, eh?

The Wild Goose community has been from the beginning, clear in its intention to be radically inclusive. Straight, gay, young, old, tattooed, evangelical, progressive, atheist, muslim, white, black. It’s become a safe place to come as you are, with your questions, and your quirks, discuss the taboo, challenge the Christian status-quo and celebrate the gifts of diversity. It’s community that is trying to learn how to love better…

Music and Art

Every session at the Wake Up Festival began with music. From a soulful Cello player, to a Celtic vocal trio, to an African dancer, the arts were integral to the learning. These folks get that poetry, music and dance are gateways to the Divine and so important in our overly verbal world. The Wild Goose, similarly, honked throughout the woods with music from morning to night. There were local bands and famous bands (Speech from Arrested Development), live theatre performances, sessions called Beer and Hymns, and a spirited impromptu group sing of Amazing Grace when a local train rumbled past the stage making it impossible to hear the speaker anymore. Music and art were just not an option at the Wild Goose. They were the sacred backdrop for everything else that happened those four days.

Church historians such as Diana Butler Bass, Phyllis Tickle and others, have called this time in history another Great Awakening. After my pilgrimage to the Wild Goose and the Wake Up Festivals this month, I’m happily convinced that this new awakening is indeed under foot — not to mention, highly contagious. If you’ve felt or heard similar stirrings in your own life or community, I encourage you to claim the awakening for yourself — well, for the world really, and join the exuberant and imperfect dance party.

Bug bites and an intention bracelet. Messy me — and messy you — moving out into a suffering and beautiful world with the sacred desire to serve Love.

Amen. Namaste. May It Be So. 

About Deborah Arca

Deborah Arca is the Director of Content at Patheos.


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