Humidity is a kind of spiritual practice. I never thought about it that way until this very day, but I am now convinced that it is true. Humidity has never bothered me much before; I was raised in the South, and where other people wither when the air is damp, I thrive. Out West where I live now, people rave about the low humidity, but my skin, conditioned to all that moisture, physically hurts on particularly dry days. I’m not scared of a little water in the air.
But this year’s Wild Goose Festival, held alongside a river in a forest in intermittent torrential downpours, is testing my allegiances. The humidity is relentless; it is with you in the morning and in the evening, and in the middle of the night. There is no escaping it (although we did spend thirty minutes “perusing” a gift shop in town, simply because they had air conditioning).
All this humidity means that you never forget about your body. Your body at the Wild Goose cannot be benign or neutral; you are always aware of it and all its parts. There is friction where there usually is not. Your shirt hangs heavy off your shoulders. Those with more hair than me seem to have given up on instilling order, and have shoved everything under a hat. It’s not possible to forget your embodiment (as we so often do) when your feet are always wet, your calves are always caked with mud, and the air you breathe comes in heavy and warm.
My Wild Goose day started with a trip to the main stage for a session with the festival’s two “elders,” Vincent Harding and Phyllis Tickle, and the day’s “honorary elder,” Speech from Arrested Development. The three engaged in conversation facilitated by the always-excellent Krista Tippett. Right away, as if sensing, the collective awareness of our assembled bodies, the discussion turned to what is perhaps the most embodied aspect of religion: music. The panel was making connections between the Civil Rights era, modern hip-hop, the music of the Protestant Reformation, and the musical habits of present-day North American Protestants. Why are we still playing organ music, Tickle asked? The music is always out in front, a harbinger of change to come, but the church in America clings to the music of the Reformation. If we are to change, she suggested, we must lead with our voices.
Taking the suggestion, Harding closed the session with a metaphor, and another incarnational suggestion. To the tune of “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” written and created by “the poorest people this nation has ever known” and its most oppressed, Harding led us as we sang new words: “We are building up a new world. We are building up a new world. We are building up a new world. Builders must be strong.” Builders must be strong.
In the afternoon I went to a premier for a new book by Mark Van Steenwyk, The Unkingdom of God, whose publisher had the wisdom to launch it with an ice cream social in an air conditioned room at a festival in August. To a packed room, Van Steenwyk read a section of his book. In it, he described his life as a teenager, living with his ailing mother and working a dreadfully boring part-time job. While his mother struggled with emphysema and the after-effects of a lung transplant, he worked fifteen hours a week at a 40,000 square foot warehouse that held only frozen McDonald’s french fries. The building was, of course, freezing, and Van Steenwyk’s job was to sweep the floors. He was required to take a break every so often, to avoid getting too cold, but he said that he usually refused the breaks, because, as he put it, “what’s the point?” The cold of the warehouse was an escape from life at home with his ailing mother, whose body ultimately lost its fight. There in that cool room, eating the only cold thing for miles, we all sat rapt at Van Steenwyk’s loving but critical story of his mother and her death, and it was not lost on us the fragility of both the human spirit and the human body.
From there I sauntered over to my second session of the day with one of the most conspicuously-bodied persons at the Wild Goose Festival, Nadia Bolz-Weber. Nadia (who has earned, in certain circles, the one-name, no-explanation-necessary moniker, like Madonna, Pele, and Rihanna) is a striking, magnificent human being, standing at over six feet tall, heavily tattooed, and, as we were reminded, with the arms of a gold medalist weight lifter. She spoke, as she often does, of her struggles and addictions, her joys and blessings, and the challenges of being a person in the world and a pastor in a church. Toward the end, Nadia addressed a question from the audience, the gist of which was this: how can we affirm that which we do not believe?
Her answer was brilliant, and it sums up at once the problem with being human and the solution that is the Church. It’s hard to believe all the things we’re “supposed” to believe, she said. Not many people can do it on their own. This is the value of a community. Imagine being in a congregation of people saying a creed, she invited the crowd. There are lines in that creed that you might not believe. But someone in the room believes it. For every line in the creed, someone is there who can affirm it. Together, we have our bases covered. This is the meaning of the Body of Christ. What we cannot bear alone, we can bear together.
The Wild Goose is an extraordinary community, in the way that all gatherings of like-minded people are. There is something comforting in knowing that the person you’re waiting in line with for the bathroom or the spinach curry booth is probably a lot like you—that she shares your convictions and concerns, that he is inspired and appalled by the same things you are. There is pleasure in knowing that you are with Your People. Folks at the Wild Goose care for each other, share food with each other, share space with each other. They all walk around together, pushing their way through the humid air, knowing that they are embodied in this extraordinary temporary community. It is church writ large, or at least a particular vision of church, writ relatively sizably.
At the end of her talk, Nadia talked about church as the cure for Western individualism run amok. “It’s not about you,” she chided. That old expression, vapid as it is common, that “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t bear?” That’s crap, and it ignores the value of an embodied community, the value of a Body of Christ. “God doesn’t give you anything a community can’t bear,” she said. No one can bear everything alone. But when you’re part of a body, anything is possible.
More rain is due tomorrow. The Body of Christ has very wet feet. But it dances at the Wild Goose all the same.
Read all of Eric’s posts from his Wild Goose journey here.
The Reverend Doctor Eric C. Smith is the Minister of Community Life at First Plymouth Congregational Church in Englewood, CO. He joined the First Plymouth staff in July 2007, after serving a church in Asheville, North Carolina, for 5 years. He holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Interpretation from the Joint PhD Program of Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver, a Master of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt Divinity School, and a Bachelor’s degree in English from Mars Hill College. He was ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 2007.