From Befuddlement to Mystery during the Carnival de Resistance

I had two spiritually profound experiences two weeks ago that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. This is about one of them. I was part of the Carnival de Resistance residency in Minneapolis (many fond memories!), beginning a new seminary class and feeling lots of feelings. I was there for 10 days of a 30 person, 30 day eco village experiment and arts carnival – easily find pics on the Facebook page. I had been sitting for a few days with some difficult questions that had arisen during my seminary work. During one of our performances my befuddlement had moved into embracing mystery in a way where felt connected, and embraced back by God. I felt the Holy Spirit in my body as I drummed and choked through the lyrics to the anthem’s line “I’m gonna stay on the battlefield till I die…” You may want to listen to Sweet Honey in the Rock’s version while you read.

The Mexican muralistas walked behind our dancers (Jenna, Helen, Belle, and Tevyn – inspiring Circle of Hope partners!) with this banner (above) and raised their fists – both in defiance of tyranny and together with those defending water against the extraction industry with their private military. Everyone under the big top (besides people playing drums with both hands, I guess) raised a fist. It was the climactic moment of the show, the second time we performed it. It was more than an exhilaration from performance. It was more than just having strong and complicated emotions. I know what the presence of God feels like. God is there when I feel most alive, when I’m distressed – and still surprises me sometimes.

Experiences or activities that help us connect with God

I’m glad that I learned how to worship God at a young age – especially in the context of when the church gathers. Worshipping together has been a central discipline to my whole adult life. I use it as a time to be formed by bringing our hopes, worries, and everything else to God through mutual expression, often through art and music – while including others. Each of our meetings on Sunday night feel like an inclusive family dinner to me.

I’ve love how this meme can help us think about spaces of personal God time. They bring up a common problem – so many people unsuccessfully try to cram that experience into a church building and don’t acknowledge that a close encounter with God’s Spirit often happens when we’re doing what we love. I’ve heard people this year talk about developing intimacy with God when they run 5 miles, work on their garden, write a song, go hiking, sit in the woods and listen to birds, read and ponder the words of mystics, march against injustice, practice photography, consider the wonders of the universe, meditate on Scripture, dance, making a friend on purpose, paint, clean the house…I could go on.

These encounters don’t need a priestly figure performing the ceremonial rites ahead of time. Jesus made all times sacred, we just need to enter in. Everyone participating might not have the same intention and interpretation of the event. We do have unity of purpose at our Sunday meetings and cell meetings – we call it “setting the sacred space.” What practices or habits help you experience God’s presence? The two meetings of the church each week probably aren’t enough to sustain you longterm – part of following Jesus is growing your capacity to experience the Holy Spirit all the time.

We resist what we don’t already understand

Susan Boyle illustrated the classic aphorism

Susan Boyle illustrated the classic aphorism “don’t judge a book by its cover” on Britain’s got talent. *swoon

I heard one of our pastors, Gwen, say at Doing Theology last week that we are naturally suspicious of things we think are different than what we already know. I know I can be like that. When I don’t understand something or when an idea doesn’t reinforce something I already think/believe/feel – it takes some intentional work to not go with my instinct to close off, resist, or withdraw. It’s a risk because sometimes it’s healthy and others we miss something that the Spirit might be bubbling up.

If you’re still reading and ready for another relevant song, the First Nations DJ trio A Tribe Called Red dropped a new album recently that’s been on repeat for me. Here’s the first single featuring Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), “R.E.D.” 

I only have two classes left to complete for my Masters in Intercultural Studies degree through my seminary, NAIITS. My current class of ten people is Ethics in an Intercultural Context. Since it’s the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies, we often consider implications of mission in Native contexts (historically, currently, and the future) and give special attention to Native experiences. My professor was not afraid to start our class off with some rather antagonistic writings by Vine Deloria – a hugely important Native scholar.

The assigned article and excerpts were hard for me to get through. I was taking a break from Carnival community life, trying to study before sending in my reflections for our weekly class Google hangout. I felt a little mentally blown out to sea. I was struggling to know what I felt or thought about questions raised in my readings, like:  Do Liberation Theologies really just reinforce white supremacy, perpetuating the same myths & systems that keep us from creating new ways of thinking and relating? Can Christians become spatial (connected to place) as well as temporal (going along time) in order to become more than colonizing to her non-members? I wanted to understand other perspectives and only had a few hours of dialogue. I was in that headspace for a few days, feeling befuddled while trying not to resist, withdraw, or close myself off to the new ideas.

As a group we, local pastor Jim Bear Jacobs (Mohican) showed us the documentary Dakota 38 and led a talking circle. The US had forced Dakota elders (mostly women) into a deadly internment camp, a final straw for the nation. They fought back. The day after the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln ordered the largest mass execution in US history – to hang 38 of the leaders of the uprising. I highly recommend the documentary Dakota 38.

The Reality that doesn’t quite exist yet

As we work to realize together what “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven” means, we are not just biding our time. Don’t we actually experience pockets and moments of Christ’s Reality. Thinks click. They make sense in our heads, our hearts, together, and give us courage to live a demonstration of it. A little taste of heaven! Rather than thinking heaven only exists in some other strange planet or dimension, why not live into the new reality Jesus initiated and invites us into right here in our own planet, time, community, geography, and body? We can live into it together and make more pockets and moments where Jesus is the foundation of all – and harmony returns to earth.

Back to the climax of the CDR’s water show “Burning River” : Tevyn just gave a moving closing monologue that tied together elements of the show. Water is a gift from God and is necessary for life, health, and healing – in both the figurative (living water) and literal (rivers, etc) sense. Working for the health of the water is deeply connected to how we view creation – as a commodity or a gift from our Creator and we’re invited to baptism even in the polluted water. We’re singing, dancing, raising fists (see first paragraph). It all connected for me. We were in one of those sweet spots. Our discourse and ideas merged with saying yes and being part of the Spirit’s movement. It connected us to the struggle against evil and greed, and with those forming an alternative that was ready to act.

Don’t let your befuddlement keep you from engaging with God and the befuddled others (aka the church). We may feel how it’s working before we understand it completely. That’s the kind of life I get to be part of every day as part of Circle of Hope. We’re embodying an alternative to what people generally think is reality. Generating justice and hope and our neighborhood (not just someone else’s neighborhood) is at the heart of us. I’m pretty excited for what we’re going to do this week about it.  

 

 

 

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Carnival de Resistance

Expressing alternatives as a spiritual discipline

I’m joining an expression of alternativity today as part of the Carnival de Resistance for part of the month-long Minneapolis residency. Belle Alvarez has begun early stages of forming a mission team to help our church relate to a possible Kensington 2017 residency, and she, along with Tevyn and Jay, Jenna, Helen, Stephen, Joby, and Rachel, have been training with about 20 other Carnivalistas for two weeks. One carnival member just got back from Sacred Stone Camp, ground zero of the water defense movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), and others are traveling up from Mexico and Honduras to join in creating playful space to allow prophetic Scripture speak to our current ecological crises. We’ve been partnering with some amazing people in the Harrison neighborhood of North Minneapolis, including our host Redeemer Lutheran. With a large Native population, some of our most important connections have been with indigenous leaders like Rev Bob Two Bulls, a talented artist and liturgist whom we’ve known for a few years. Black Lives Matter has been quite active in the face of fierce police response, and as of a month ago the officer who killed Philando Castile 30min away is back on the street.

You can read about my experience last year or ask me about the other times I’ve been involved personally with the project. I look forward to not just repping our church community and city while on vacation over the next 10 days, but practicing creative thinking so I can be a more mature, grounded, and flexible leader. For me, the Carnival helps me not be so uptight in my thinking when processing all the above hyperlinks (and other oppressions). God uses the playful space to help meYou can follow daily updates with photos and videos on Facebook if you like the Carnival’s page

Our teams help us get out there

One of Circle of Hope’s strengths flashes when our simple structure (cells and Sunday meetings) bears fruit and gets us out touching our communities together with a common purpose. Our Compassion teams and Mission teams run on the steam of those who form them, with support from our leaders and partners. Many of the teams help us do things together like service, expressing Christ’s compassion and ours. Others take us into new territory and help us think and act differently, even through doing something like playing table top games or holding space for a playgroup with different intention.

Feeling jammed up?

I’ve had a lot of conversations with people this year about feeling the pressure to be this or that, how not being something is important, and how being right/correct seems really important. Some are part of the church and struggle in various ways: calling themselves a Christian, making prayer or reading the Bible important spiritual disciplines, following our basic agreements for leaders (like attend monthly trainings), or living out basic applications of our covenant like regularly sharing in our common fund. If any of this touches on your experience lately, I feel for you.

Our spiritual discourse this year brought the concept of alternativity front and center. Rather than feeling beat down by a series of bad A or B choices like Coke/Pepsi, Red State/Blue State etc, we focus on birthing new possibilities and investigating new ways of thinking. Our problems and responsibilities grow more complex. Our responses grew more creative. It’s lovely. Exploring our own alternativity means enjoying our uniqueness as a church in the Philadelphia region. Our region, while enjoying some of the best of many traditions, has also become a hotbed of young NeoCalvinist church upstarts and dying Baby Boomer-dominated odes to yesteryear. I get their slick flyers in my mailslot. I hear from them a focus on their technified Sunday morning buildings, individual salvation through their specific doctrine (see my post about taking the Mormon Temple tour), and repression of women leaders. Rather than feeling daunted by Christians mainly not working together for holistic (or even holy!) transformation, I feel revved up to do something with our five congregations and other networks we are connected closely to. 

Jesus leads us not just to think different, but to embody our ideas

I’m glad we are doing something else—not merely in spite of other Christians, but out of inspiration from our Creator Jesus. I’m glad there is room for some bold expressions against rather bold structural forces of oppression. While embodying alternatives is what we’re all about, we also arouse expressions meant to pique curiosities and suggest wonder to those yet to join. I was talking with Shane Claiborne the other day about the strong possibility of The Simple Way being the primary host for a 2017 Philadelphia residency in Kensington. That would be something special! If you are part of Circle of Hope, thank you for allowing me the privilege of being away for something so energizing for me. I’ll miss worshipping with you on Sunday night and being with the Leadership Team on Monday, but you’re in my heart and on my mind.

My Carnival de Resistance highlights from NC last week

The Carnival crew and key organizers from Area 15

I’m really grateful for the opportunity to spend last week in North Carolina with the Carnival de Resistance. My dear friends Tevyn & Jay have been developing the ideas and expressions for a while, and I’ve been able to be part at different levels over the past three years. This year I got to take part in the training and formation as well as the performances. I am framing it all according to my own participation as an answer to “what I’ve been up to” so this will be less comprehensive than other debriefs. Thanks to the whole crew, the folks at Area 15 in Charlotte, and especially to Tim Nafziger for your photographs (used throughout this piece).

View from the pond house

We met up at a remote house on this wonderful pond for some group formation, training, and practice. Several of our carnivalistas were new so we focused on developing our midway characters as well as Bible study, worship, and fun games. We needed to insert playfulness into many aspects of the training as getting beyond our normal headspace is critical to our group dynamic and  theological performances.Some of the formation process for the group included discussions on ecotheology and carnival theology.

Major portions of our training included a few hours of an introduction to anti-racism analysis by a vocational trainer (Kara of Crossroads, which was the basis for Damascus Road & Roots of Justice) and team. We also held a panel discussion on cultural appropriation. We are trying to understand the systems that shape our cultural context right now and members have studied cross-culturally in ways of art (circus, music), education (college, seminary, informal relationship settings) as well as church life. From my experience, being white and being trained in cultural arts and theology/praxis by many people of color can makes me seem to some like a bad white person, a poser, or a race traitor. Playing certain instruments or singing in certain languages can be powerful expressions of unity & solidarity or accessorization and theft. We need to do our homework, both relationally and study – so that we give it the care it needs to be able to express what God’s given us as well as long for the captives to be set free.

One piece looked like a water slide, filled with empty water bottles and plastic fish – showing the irony of our love/hate relationship with our water

We also spent an afternoon and evening with DeWayne Barton at the Burton Street Community Peace Gardens in Asheville. DeWayne led us to process water devastation, mass incarceration, drone warfare, the need for immigration reform, police brutality, faith, and bringing an end to violence in a neighborhood that is now threatened by gentrification. His vision and hard work with kids locally especially inspired me.

 

Sarah playing capoeira to the song Paranaue

 

The ceremonial theater pieces, while only a part of the Carnival vision, require the most preparation. There are four pieces, each connecting prophetic Scripture to current ecological crises: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. We prepared the Earth Piece “Blood on the Cedars” as well as the Water Show aka “Wading Through Deep Water.” I mostly played electric guitar, with occasional roles on the dununs (three West African bass drums) and electric bass.

Larrin Granderson, the producer and engineer at Soule Jukebox helping setup and later he ran sound. http://www.soulejukebox.com/

After our training and formation stages, we travelled to Charlotte to our host site – Area 15. Carlos Espin and friends bought this enormous industrial complex over a decade ago and continue to form a diverse small business incubator and parachurch organization. The Carnival is usually hosted by a church. Some of the businesses: a Free Store, a bike recycler/teaching bike shop, tattoo parlor, fitness center, a recording studio and a moonshine distillery. The people that hang out there come from many walks of life, and I could relate to being on the edge of post-industrial poverty facing encroaching gentrification. The setup for the tents, games, stage, bike-powered sound system, and fossil fuel-free kitchen took all day to setup.

Everybody wins at “Help Jesus chase the money-changers out of the Temple”

By the time the Midway began on Friday, we were warmed up and excited. My friend Kara and I ran three games, I mostly focused on two. The first was the easiest game to win – help Jesus chase the money-changers out of the temple. I focused on the materialism in our worship and how profitization shouldn’t keep people from praying. I also ran the frisbee toss, trying to throw a camel (frisbee with a camel on it) through the eye of a needle (painted needles with frisbee sized holes in them). This was the most difficult game in the park and usually took at least 5min of theological play as people threw four frisbees. Through the process, they got to acknowledge how wealth did not help you enter the kingdom, and by choosing various ways of community, mission, and redistribution you could move closer to the target. If the person would give me their wallet (all but one actually did!), you could push the frisbee through. I spent almost five hours in these conversations with strangers – very stimulating for me.

Readings, litanies, songs, and movement pieces prepared us for the Earth show “Blood on the Cedars.”

The opening acts  included a local capoeira group, an organizer involved with getting Bree Newsome up the flagpole, a local musician, and a local spoken word poet. Both Earth and Water shows highlight theological poetry of Jim Perkinson performed by various characters played by Tevyn and Jay. The loudest call came at the end of the Water Show when the character John the Baptizer told people they must be baptized in the dirty water, because all of our water has been made dirty. The final morning we led a worship time that included a foot washing before sharing a meal and breaking down.

There is so much more to say but I’ll end with another thanks – for the space to go and participate. I think that people change by practicing doing – and these opportunities gave chances for it. The playful nature of the games and artistic expressions help re-frame Scriptures that might not be as well-known as John 3:16 a chance to further deepen & expand our praxis of the gospel as well as to enter into a conversation about and with Jesus with some fresh ears & eyes.