I don’t know if I’ve ever had an ecstatic religious experience before. Certainly those experiences aren’t readily had in my branch of white Protestant Christianity. I could probably point to moments throughout my years at evangelical summer camps, youth group, college Bible studies, and church services where I have been transported, transfixed, and moved by experiences. But I don’t know if anything will ever compare to the Indigo Girls show on Saturday night of the 2013 Wild Goose Festival.
I realize that this is the ultimate in insider experience. Only certain kinds of people know about the Indigo Girls, and even then, those certain kind of people have to be of a certain age to know the band. They’re not everybody’s cup of tea. But they are my cup of tea. If I could only ever have one cup of tea for the rest of my life, they would be it, and so I went into the Saturday night festival headliner show by them with high hopes. But I wasn’t prepared for the potent admixture of familiarity (I know all the lyrics to all their songs), community (a couple thousand of like-minded people), and context (the woods, by a river, at night, after a hard rain, at the pinnacle of a powerful festival of faith, music, and ideas). After their show, I turned to my wife and said, “That was the best thing that ever happened.” I meant it. And she agreed.
The Indigo Girls show wasn’t the only amazing thing that happened at the Wild Goose Festival today. But it had a way of tying it all together, for me, at least. In that spirit, I’ll reproduce a line or two of lyrics (to the best of my memory) from songs they sang at the festival tonight, and then recount which aspect of the rest of the day’s happenings was running through my head at that moment.
Are you my ally or my enemy? Do you have self-loathing or empathy? Could you keep me in your prayers, sister? Could you keep me in there somewhere?
These lines from Second Time Around reminded me of the “elders” conversation this morning, in which Krista Tippett facilitated a conversation with Vincent Harding and Phyllis Tickle. In it, there transpired a frank conversation about race in America, and how race and slavery represent an unresolved clause in the American social contract. As we ask what kind of church comes next in American Christianity, Harding reminded us, we have to ask how the emerging Christianity meshes with the emerging America, which is less and less white. Until and unless we can treat each other as allies and not enemies, the emerging church (which is significantly a white phenomenon) will not gain traction with the emerging America (which is less and less so).
How long ‘til my soul gets it right?
This line from Indigo Girls standard Galileo reminded me of many conversations and talks I’ve heard at the Wild Goose, but especially of a line from Harding I heard this morning. “Who will deliver us from this body of death?,” he asked. The body of death is the moribund status quo of American culture, which privileges white over color, male over female, straight over gay, and orthodoxy over questions.
Raise your hands, raise your hands high. Don’t take a seat, don’t stand aside. Don’t assume anything. Just go, go, go.
These lines speak of an urgency that cannot wait for expediency. This afternoon Brian McLaren, one of the leading voices of modern American Christendom and a prophet to both the Christian left and the Christian right, said something that made me sit up straight and take notice: “It’s very dangerous for one’s soul to be a part of a religion that’s socially acceptable.” He said this in the context of a conversation about the Constantinian turn in early Christianity, when the faith went from a persecuted minority to a state-sanctioned religion in a matter of a generation or two. But he also meant it for our ears. How can Christianity maintain its integrity when it is “in bed” with empire? Can it?
Ushering in a new revolution…How can we help it, when we’re fighting for the love of our lives?
These lines reminded me of something else McLaren said in his conversation with Krista Tippett: whatever the ancient equivalent was of the New York Times did not trumpet on its front page “Benedict Writes Rule.” It wasn’t news that day. But a thousand years later, he said, it helped to save civilization. We don’t always know whether and how our acts will be revolutionary, especially in the time when they are done. But we have to trust, in the words of Wendell Berry, that those two inches of humus will build on the forest floor every thousand years, and that life will be enriched by the faithful work we do.
If I have a care in the world I have a gift to bring…gotta get out of bed and get a hammer and a nail.
I was stuck in a tent during another torrential downpour this afternoon, and I found myself speaking with a man named Ray. Ray is a United Methodist from the Raleigh area—a festival attendee and not a featured speaker like many of the people I’ve highlighted—and he said something about his own work that stopped me in my tracks and left me unsure of what to say next. “Everybody has to get their last drink of water from someone,” he said. The implication was clear: why should they not get it from us? Why not do that service to the world? What better place to be God in the world than the place where someone needs her last drink of water? I still don’t know what to say to this.
A lot of what I heard today focused on the question of empire, and what the Christian response to it ought to be. These lyrics are from the Indigo Girls’ song Shame On You, which is, among other things, a critique of xenophobia in the United States. As these lyrics remind us, our ethics ought to extend beyond our immediate selfish concerns because, as scripture reminds us, we too were once aliens in the land, and justice is bigger than we are. As I listened to these words, I thought of something McLaren had said earlier in the day: “When you look around and see that your religion has become a chaplaincy for the imperial product,” it’s time to rethink your religion.
I’m trying to tell you something ‘bout my life.
This line is the opening line from the Indigo Girls’ most famous song, Closer to Fine. It’s a song about self-discovery and telling your story, not the story you think others want to hear. I thought of yet another thing McLaren said: “We’re probably at our worst when we present our faith as a system and not as a story.” If the Wild Goose Festival is good at anything, it’s good at highlighting how diverse our stories are, and how inadequate any systemic accounting is likely to be. Christianity is much larger, much more complicated, and much more beautiful than the structures we invent to describe ourselves.
I could go crazy on a night like tonight. The summer’s beginning to give up her fight. Every thought’s a possibility….
These lines and the ones that follow don’t relate to a particular moment to the day, so much as they relate to the Wild Goose Festival generally. The Wild Goose is a place where everything is indeed a possibility, and everything is fair game. This is why it is compelling, and this is why it is an essential institution (“institution:” a word which the Festival, if the Festival were an it with a consciousness, would probably hate).
We’re equal partners in a mystery.
The Wild Goose Festival is about throwing everything on the table. It’s about hearing every voice, and gathering and gleaning from every field. It thrives on diversity, and it will need to become still more diverse—theologically, racially, economically—to thrive in the future.
The closer I’m bound in love to you, the closer I am to free.
This kind of communitarian ethic is essential to the Wild Goose. And not to be too dramatic about it, but this is also the kind of communitarian ethic that was essential to the church in Acts chapter 2, and the radical Reformation, and the American Civil Rights movement, and the origins of the monastic movement back in the African deserts. Recognizing that we are bound to each other is the essential task of Christianity, and it is one that the Wild Goose calls us back to relentlessly. It’s hard not to recognize your essential interconnectedness when you’re four deep in a line for a bathroom at 1:00 a.m.
We’ve advanced way beyond kum ba yah.
This isn’t an Indigo Girls lyric, but instead something Amy Ray said on stage about the experience of singing at a Christian festival. I’ll let the comment stand on its own.
Even my sweat smells clean.
This line is about living right, being pure, and feeling good. The 2013 Wild Goose Festival has been a sweaty place, and while “clean” isn’t the word I’d use to describe how most of us smell, there is a certain purity about it. Hot Springs was an inspired choice for a location.
This isn’t a lyric either, but instead it’s the iconic statement that Ray and her bandmate Emily Saliers utter after most of their songs. Gratitude permeates their performances, and this one was no different. Gratitude is also the bedrock of the Wild Goose Festival, and of the life of faith generally. The only proper response to life—especially for those of us who lived privileged, blessed lives—is gratitude, and the determination to do good in turn. This is the life to which we are called—gratitude for the gifts we are given, and in turn responsibility for the gifts we are called to give others.
Call us infidels or whores. Either way we’re still your neighbors. So let it ring.
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.