“God did not outsource mercy; God said ‘I’ll come myself!'” — Rev. William Barber
“The question isn’t ‘What Would Jesus Do?’, but rather ‘What is Jesus doing now?'” — Joerg Rieger
The blessed Wild Goose Festival reminds me year after year, thank God, of what it really means to be a Christian. I’ve just come “down from Goose mountain,” so to speak — enormously grateful once again for the messy, muddy, and drenched wake-up call, Holy Spirit-infusion that is the Wild Goose, in the exotic (this ain’t Colorado, y’all) and gorgeous rural woods of the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina.
This was my fourth year at the Wild Goose Festival, an annual spirituality/arts/music gathering for progressive Christians (although honestly, I’d rather “label” us a rainbow-colored, Pentecost-drunken community of Christians who care about Jesus’ radical call to love and serve the other, whether we be mainline protestant, emergent, evangelical, pentecostal, ‘none’, agnostic, or otherwise.). When you’re in the muddy woods without internet or a real shower for four days together, hanging out with preachers, teachers, healers, theologians, families, singles, drag queens, folk singers, fireflies, children splashing in mud puddles, rockstars, and everyday awesome folk who care about the future of the planet and all who inhabit it … well, it’s pretty much a little taste of Heaven if you ask me. Add several hours of steady rain each day, soaking everyone and everything (including our tent, inside and out, top to bottom, save for our floating air cushions and sleeping bags, praise the Lord), and it’s a bit like being dunked into a swampy Christian mosh pit and re-emerging freshly baptized, renewed and fired up for real Kingdom work.
Every year the festival is hard, physically, for me. Every year I say it might be my last. It’s a long jaunt (and not exactly cheap) from Colorado on a plane and rental car, it’s way more hot and humid than I’m used to, camping stretches my comfort level — especially in this climate, the festival schedule always overwhelms me, there are too many people to see and hear and meet and catch up with, my stomach gets tied up in knots from eating southern food, and I always come home sore, sunburned, tired and with lots of bug bites (although no tics this year, thankfully). Yet while my body takes a beating, my soul gets a serious feeding. And thankfully I remember, about 12 hours in, after a fair amount of complaining, that all of this is part of the lived Christian journey: moving out of my comfort zone, feeling uncomfortable, getting dirty, tired, sick to my stomach sometimes … and yet also feeling beloved, joyful, free, IN relationship with nature and all creation, blessed by a river, and rain, and laughter, and prophetic speakers, and friendly strangers, and hope-filled people. It’s all of a piece.
The Festival’s theme this year was Living Liberation! and it was abundantly clear that some intentional shifts had been made in the leadership team to make it more racially diverse and inclusive. This added such beauty and richness to the festival for me. Aside from the festival’s cultural diversity, other highlights for me this year included a conversation on living out the Gospels right where we are by the SoulEmergence folks (Anthony Smith, Teresa Pasquale, new friend Peter Matthews, and singer/songwriter Troy Bronsink); the always smart and fresh Doug Pagitt radio show featuring authors Chris Smith of Slow Church and Tim Soerens of The New Parish talking about new expressions of church, Native American folk singer Mama D singing from the bottom of her soul about ‘the Man,’ and FaithMarks‘ spiritual tattoo curator Anna Golladay on how tattoos are entrees to sharing sacred stories; taking my dirty flip flops off and wading into the cool French Broad River; the food at the Sugar Shack — especially the “veggie thing,” a festival favorite of a fried tortilla filled to overflowing with sautéed broccoli and mixed greens and melted cheese; powerful and convicting mainstage talks by author Sara Miles (“Abide with Me,” emphasis on the WITH), Jay Johson (Food, Sex, and God) and Jim Wallis (Racism is America’s Original Sin); and dancing to the Jars of Clay concert in the rain with my friend Lauren.
But it was the final main stage speaker, the Rev. Wiliam Barber of the North Carolina Moral Monday “Forward Together” movement, who “brought the word,” as my friend Eric Smith said, and made the whole weekend worth it for me. From his very first “Graaay-shusss Gawd,” it was church, he was preaching the gospel, and bringing us to our feet and forward en masse to the stage for a full-on modern day altar call. My friends and I wept during Rev. Barber’s powerful final ten minutes, in which he left no question about what the purpose of being a Christian was. “Psalm 72 is not a liberal political agenda; it’s the agenda of God!” the Rev. Barber bellowed. “Power is not measured by your title but by your testimony. On the last day, you will be asked ‘What did you do with the power you had?'” I was convicted like never before. Our job is to serve, and especially serve the poor and oppressed. The Rev. William Barber is our day’s Martin Luther King, Jr., and I was humbled and honored to be in his presence for that grand hour and a half. It was an epic ending to an epic weekend, topped off only by the fact that I got to share it all with my First Plymouth Congregational Church friends, the Rev. Eric Smith and Lauren Ries, who proved to be spirited festival companions, generous and fun traveling partners, and resilient soggy tentmates.
But perhaps the most joyful hour for me was breaking out of the crowd of several thousand to visit with my smaller Patheos community. About a dozen of our bloggers joined me at the beer tent for a meet-up during one of the hardest downpours of the weekend. Dry refuge has never tasted so good! I don’t get to see our bloggers face to face very often and they are remarkable and courageous folk. I met for the first time one of my favorite bloggers David Henson, Catholic blogger Billy Kangas and brand new popular bloggers Reba Riley and Mark Sandlin. And I got to catch up with “old” friends and favorites, too: Kimberly Knight, Christian Piatt (and wife Amy), Phil Fox Rose, Todd Wynward and Chris Smith. Along the dusty road I also ran into other Patheos contributors: Frank Schaeffer, Brian McLaren, Steve Knight, Brandan Robertson, Romal Tune, and Joerg Rieger, to name a few.
There’s really so much to say about the Wild Goose, you’d never exhaust it. The festival is an extraordinary gathering, unlike any other experience of Christian community I’ve experienced. Four years and counting … and I fear the goosey Holy Spirit isn’t done with me yet. I hope not, anyway.