by Eric Elnes
At the opening of this year’s Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills, NC, organizer Gareth Higgins read a poem by George Wallace called “When I Was Dead,” a few lines of which go like this:
when i was dead
i danced with persians
nested with indians
bred with a laboratory duck
wore green socks
struck a blue vein
ate seventeen icicles
i gave birth to the ceramic arts
i uttered obscenities
i morphed worms
i hand-sponged a saint
i pissed springwater
& swam in sand
Thirty or so lines later (lines which include observations like “I stunk like a hurricane” and “I made love for 18 days in the month of December”), Wallace concludes:
i acted badly
i got away with it
i was not afraid
to be alive
The conclusion Gareth invited us to draw from Wallace’s poem was “to die, at least a little” in order to be unafraid of experiencing all the festival could offer. And did it ever have a lot to offer over the course of the next four days! Music, drama, presentations and conversations with some of the leading lights in Christianity today, poetry, dance, community singing, theologizing and philosophizing in late-night gatherings, prayer, play, justice-organizing, and a generous dose of merry-making, to name just a few offerings.
So I took Gareth up on his invitation and “died” at Wild Goose. Here’s what resulted:
* I skipped every presentation I “should” go to, and even events I wanted to go to, whenever an opportunity for deep conversation presented itself – especially if it was with someone whose background was very different from my own as a mainline Protestant.
* I became friends with someone whom I thought last year was self-righteous but discovered this year was just self-conscious.
* I smoked one too many cigars (for me, this means more than one)
* I drank one too few glasses of Fullsteam IPA.
* I squished a live tick between my fingers that had been crawling up my leg without feeling the slightest tinge of guilt.
* I hugged someone who didn’t seem to be the hugging type – until I hugged him.
* I was in conversation until the wee hours of the morning with a gay man who is as committed to remaining in his leadership role in the Salvation Army as the Salvation Army is to keeping him in leadership.
* I prayed the Lord’s Prayer to the accompaniment of drums and sitar.
* A lesbian Christian comedian made me laugh so hard my gut ached.
* I danced with God.
* I learned that when a fundamentalist Christian tells me, that she or he believes that the Bible is the Word of God “only in its ‘original autograph,'” sometimes this means, “The passage we’re talking about does not function as the Word of God for me either” without saying it directly.
* I had dinner with a man whose career included planting a charismatic Pentecostal church and leading a 10,000 member conservative evangelical mega-church, who is now seeking ordination in the (far more liberal) Disciples of Christ.
* I sat under the stars with a liberal minister who has always preached that the church needs to move beyond its walls and into the streets. As a result of the festival, he said he has discovered that the biggest wall he needs to move beyond is his own prejudice against Christians from more conservative traditions. He has decided to revisit his charismatic Pentecostal roots to see if he forgot to take something valuable with him when he left.
* I sang “Come O Font of Every Blessing” with over a hundred others under a big tent, nearly all of whom sang just slightly more heartily with the help of a Fulllsteam IPA, Cream Ale, or other such “liturgical lubricant.”
* I stood on stage proclaiming before over a hundred people my heart-felt love and appreciation for a man I passionately hated in the 1970s and 80s for his key involvement in building the radical Christian Right. I now hope our families can vacation together – not simply because he has changed but because I have changed.
* I felt my heart pounding while listening to the story of a pair of Moody Bible Institute students who were booted off Moody Radio after they tried to bring one too many “heretical” voices like Brian McLaren on their show. Instead of backing down, they started the “(Re)vangelical Podcast” as a way of “stirring reformation and reform within evangelical Christianity.” Listenership went from “about 4” to a thousand or more almost overnight.
* I found that what inspired me most about the (Re)vangelicals, was the fact that these 20-somethings are a fair shake more conservative than the guests they feature, but feel strongly that difference is something to invite, not shun.
* I spoke with innumerable evangelicals who experience not the slightest disconnect between praying, reading the Bible, and passionately following Jesus on the one hand, and standing with the poor, healing the earth, and working for LGBT equality on the other.
* I spoke with innumerable liberal Christians who experience not the slightest disconnect between standing with the poor, healing the earth, and working for LGBT equality on the one hand, and praying, reading the Bible, and passionately following Jesus on the other.
* I learned how to empty “gray water” from an RV.
* I’m not sure I met a single person who, if asked, didn’t at least suspect that God’s love is greater than can be contained or experienced in any single religion.
* I’m not sure if I met a single person who, even when not asked, did not adamantly state or believe that God is neither Republican or Democrat.
* I encountered so many fans of Darkwood Brew that I lost track of the number and reported to my wife back in Omaha that there were “tons and tons.”
* I experienced a way of being Christian that seems to be several steps beyond “emergence.”
* I concluded that what I experienced was a convergence between Christians who have left the baggage of their old traditions behind without setting aside their particular identity. In the wilderness Christians of all sizes, shapes, backgrounds, sexual orientations, and denominational identities and allegiances are pooling their gifts with others to create a movable tabernacle that may very well lead us to a more promising future.
* I lay in bed and cried on Saturday morning I was so happy.
* Just before leaving the festival I picked up an advance copy of Lillian Daniel’s new book, When ‘Spiritual but Not Religious is Not Enough. Even though I have high sympathies for the SBNR crowd, I found myself saying, “Amen!” By becoming “dead” at the Wild Goose this year as Gareth Higgins suggested, I was “not afraid to be alive.” Nor was I afraid or ashamed to be Christian.