Unless you live under a rock, most days are lived with an undercurrent of stress and distress. When it seems the political charges and countercharges cannot get worse, we have the incident in Charlottesville and its aftermath. Surely people of faith will come together to actually love their neighbors. Yet too many refuse to acknowledge the prejudices they harbor in fear that the neighbor they claim to love might somehow be “different” and threatening.
Caught up in this daily swirl, I look for ways to balance the distress with the need for relief, gratitude and joy. The Serenity Prayer (Google it if you don’t know it) is a good starting place. But the challenge for prayer is to allow the prayers to invade everyday actions rather than being a few pious moments of good intention, too easily forgotten. For anyone not a hermit, solitary times of renewal are not enough; we need to share both sorrows and hopes with others who are on a similar pilgrimage.
This past July my wife and I joined several hundred “progressive Christians” at a campground in North Carolina to be part of the Wild Goose Festival. I have heard the event called a Christian Woodstock — not a bad description. Participants were united in their pain that large numbers of white evangelical Christians have abandoned their demand for personal morality in favor of a crude and bullying political agenda. At a deeper level, these Wild Geese were united in a desire to explore a faith that believes personal salvation and working for social justice must go hand in hand if one is to truly follow the Jewish carpenter.
We were largely strangers to one another, yet we celebrated a community of faith! We sang and danced, heard sermons and lectures to inspire and challenge us, worshiped and listened for the Spirit of God. This kind of community is more than the bland description of some group of individuals who exist near one another. What we achieved was at least a strong glimpse of the kind of community that, in the New Testament, invited the exclamation “see how they love one another!” None claimed perfection; all recognized how difficult it is to actually live out the intention to love God and to love your neighbor as oneself.
True community requires an openness of heart and mind. Many came to the event lonely or hurting. The fact of the matter is that no one escapes pain, but the typical response is to hide and deny for fear of how others might respond. In community, there is opportunity to share burdens and to find understanding and support. Sharing a problem is not seen as whining or complaining — if there is a caring listener, a strong bond of understanding may form and become a step toward healing. But not only burdens need be shared, there is also sharing of love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness. Sharing these fruits of the Spirit offers a pathway toward lifting a burden, toward resolve and growth and toward making a way for gladness in all kinds of circumstances.
Community celebrates diversity. We are not all alike! The Geese believe that God loves all those differences and that they are built into creation from the very first day. God’s people should celebrate diversity, not fear it. So at least for the three days we were together at the festival, skin color did not matter. Sexual identity did not divide. Different religious backgrounds were unimportant. Different ideas and different stages of faith were opportunities for conversation and curiosity. Millennials and retirees prayed, danced and laughed together. Flyin’ with the Wild Geese offered a great time to give our biases a shove into the background for a while. What a breath of fresh air to celebrate community, openness, and diversity with new faith friends!
My special interest lies at the intersection of religious faith and culture. I write as a Christian minister who claims a faith that cannot be honest if it ignores destructive social, political, or religious issues. I am certainly distressed by the rigidity that so often characterizes evangelicals and by the political idolatry that many have so willingly embraced. It is a faith that is far too negative. I am also deeply distressed by the increasing numbers of people, especially those who consider themselves “liberal/progressive,” who reject or simply ignore religious faith. The basic liberal ideals of inevitable human progress toward a utopia are far too naïve. The folks who fed my soul at Wild Goose avoid both these extremes of dysfunctional faith.
I can only speak for myself, but I appreciate the experiences of progressive Christianity presented at the Wild Goose Festival. Like all labels, the term offers a very general description that is open to many questions about details. In a diverse community of openness one can question as well as stand firm. In such a community, one’s faith walk may be enriched by the scholarship of a highly-educated seminary professor, by stories from a believer (or non-believer) of a different race or social class, or by the enthusiasm of simple faith lived in service to God and mankind. The Wild Goose experience is a faith not defined by fences, and not promised an easy, safe flight into the future. Yet it is a faith that flies freely into God’s big, wide world. FLY!
The Rev. Gary Batchelor is an ordained Baptist minister and active church member. He is retired after a nearly 40-year local ministry as a hospital chaplain. His particular interest lies in issues of faith and culture.